Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Crammed in those Amerindies and look what came out on top. I'm trying, but scenes do wane--and wax, too.


BEST OF HOUSE MUSIC (Profile) Rough and unmediated house may be, more fun than Euro-abstraction for sure, but (in this version, anyway) it's for-dancers-only with a vengeance--formally, the shit is almost as exclusionary as hardcore. Thoughtfully sorted onto diva, sleaze, jack-your-body, and jack-of-all-nations sides, these cuts earn a permanent spot in my reference collection rather than my heart or my somatic memory. Even Marshall Jefferson's "Rock Your Body" and Moonfou's "Shut Up" disintegrate into breaks designed exclusively for the communal intoxication of the steamy floor. I don't get out enough, but I know what jacks my body when I do. B [Later]

BIG BLACK: Songs About Fucking (Touch and Go) Anybody who thinks rock and roll is alive and well in the infinite variety of its garage-boy permutations had better figure out how these Hitler Youth rejects could crush the competition and quit simultaneously. No matter what well-meaning rockers think of Steve Albini's supremacist lies, they lie themselves if they dismiss what he does with electric guitars--that killdozer sound culminates if not finishes off whole generations of punk and metal. In this farewell version it gains just enough clarity and momentum to make its inhumanity ineluctable, and the absence of lyrics that betray Albini's roots in yellow journalism reinforces an illusion of depth--these are hateful and sometimes hackneyed, sure, but never sucker fare like "Jordan, Minnesota." A MINUS

MARY COUGHLAN: Tired and Emotional (Green Linnet/Mystery) Irish blues, or should I say more Irish blues? These are cabaret-style, murmured and crooned in a smoky hillbilly brogue by a Galway folkie who took it from the bathtub to the stage five years ago. Thank producer Erik Visser for suggesting the move. Ask him to keep his songs to himself. B PLUS [Later]

THE COVER GIRLS: Show Me (Fever) Determined to pull a marketable girl group out of a Latin hip hop concept, their svengalis channel the mix toward wall-of-sound, fuzzing beats and harmonies with a nostalgic soupcon of Spectorian grandeur. The damage is minor but, for me, decisive--I prefer Exposť's hooks to these (superior) songs, can't get with Angel Sabater even though she makes Lisa Lisa sound like a hussy. It's a game of inches out there. B [Later]

THE DEL-LORDS: Based on a True Story (Enigma) Their populist Americana expressed rather than subsumed by Neil Geraldo's hard-rock production, they can come on like the old Lower East Siders they are without sounding irrelevant. The most convincing songs show the populi the "beatnik world" of "The Cool and the Crazy"; the prettiest one allows as how they still dream of "Cheyenne" while they sit and watch TV. Last time the love songs were tough and the political statements soggy; this time the fast ones are tough-and-a-half and the slow ones soggy. Which adds up to progress, right? B PLUS

EXPOS…: Exposure (Arista) This left room for the Cover Girls' knockoff by painting its frontwomen a blank beige. The stars are the electrobeats, mixed so high and clear that they delivered three dancey hits and set up the platinum-plated schlockaballad "Seasons Change." Smart shoppers will note that the "Seasons Change" 12-inch features a 10-minute megamix of said hits, then learn that the megamix isn't quite long enough--the thrill of a great electrobeat is having it ravish you again after you thought you'd had your fill. Damn bizzers nail you coming and going. B MINUS [Later]

GILBERTO GIL: Soy Loco Por Ti America Braziloid) Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso are aesthetes like, to be kind, Joni Mitchell; Gil is a pop adept like Stevie Wonder, which I'd probably think was kind to Stevie if I understood Gil's lyrics. A warm-voiced natural melodist at home with Afro-American rhythms of every latitude, he's tried to break here with tours and Anglophone flops and reggae albums. Only Brazil fans have taken much notice--Nascimento and Veloso get much snazzier institutional support--and this effortlessly funky tour de force, the finest Gil album I know, probably won't do the trick either, but go for it. I find most Brazilian music genteel myself. Gil ain't, and this definitely ain't. A MINUS

THE HEARTBEAT OF SOWETO (Shanachie) Earthworks having cast in with Virgin, Shanachie goes to the well and tests Zulu hegemony with its own mbaqanga compilation. There are big advantages to the wider range of tribal melodies and beats--in Western pop terms, sharper hooks and a less monolithic groove. Seven artists divide up the 12 tracks, and while the hottest stuff is still Zulu--Usuthu's eternally recurrent tunelet, Amaswazi Emvelo's supertipico forward grind--this album has its urban heart in the bush. From the simple Tsonga drumbeats of Thomas Chauke's opener to the Shangaan family chorale of M.D. Shiranda's closer, unprofessionalism in no way diminishes the music's skill or complexity. Folkies may well prefer it to Indestructible. Rock and rollers with ears won't settle for one or the other. A

HEARTBEAT SOUKOUS (Earthworks/Virgin) Think of this Zaire-goes-to-Paris sampler as a best-of from a faceless disco supersession like Change or Kleeer, with interlocking musical directorates and a not all that different voice heading every track. The sectional structures--from femme chorus to synth cheese to unison horns, say--recall late disco as well. There are also distinctions, natch, especially in the beats, which interlock with an intricacy undreamed of in Giorgio Moroder's philosophy, and the sweet guitar figures that underlie every weave. The one on "Zouke-Zouke" is some kind of spiritual experience. A MINUS

HOUSECOAT PROJECT: Wide Eye Doo Dat (Subterranean) Played this because I liked the band's name, played it some more because I liked the singer, played it a lot more because I'm in the market for bohos to believe in. Meri St. Mary may not be the cross between Lou and Patti her label claims, but she's at least a female Bob Pfeifer, with nice sharp words--"Wild wimmin don't die/They just dye their hair/And get on out of town," or "Doesn't he know that we'd still like him/Even if he was one of the Rolling Stones?"--to go with the nice sharp Lou/Patti arrangements. And why anybody but Bay Area barflies should care I couldn't tell you. B

HURRICANE ZOUK (Earthworks/Virgin) Slickly high-tech like no other African or Caribbean style, Antillean zouk is Afro-Caribbean plus vive-la-France. On these prize cuts the singers--most strikingly Francky Vincent, a/k/a Dr. Porn--are jokey, sly, lascivious. There's something comic and triumphant about the eclecticism of old Kassav hand G. H. Guamaguy, who favors horn and fiddle frills, and new champion Servais Liso, who goes for glitzier electronic effects. Name me another 20th-century pop that's thrived so exuberantly under the depredations of Gallic wit. [Original grade: A] A MINUS

INXS: Kick (Atlantic) That these silly middlebrow hacks should hang in long enough to become stars is the usual biz fable. That they should do so with danceable rock and roll that sounds smart in the background is one more sign that the world is coming to an end. [Original grade: B minus] B

JUST DESSERTS: Sentimental War (Earhorn) Seventeen songs, hopefully airplay-ID'd "blues-rock," "country-soul," "ballad," "nightclub," "eclectic," performed (and composed, you bet) by two virtually indistinguishable blues-country-soul-rock-nightclub groaners whose dolor seems as much fated as principled. Pretty uninviting, yet the best of the writing--notably a detox diptych and an acrid call to arms and alms--kept me listening for the sprawling masterpiece I had somehow missed. It wasn't there. But I never got tired of the good stuff. B

BILL LASWELL: Hear No Evil (Venture) Only such a cold bastard could conceive new age so undisgusting. Some hear Another Green World in the thing, and there's that. Also r&b readymades and George Harrison's Wonderwall and packages of free noodles. I swear I can hear him laughing; sometimes I laugh myself. I swear he thinks it's good of its kind, too. So do I. B PLUS

NICK LOWE: Pinker and Prouder Than Previous (Columbia) Another small victory in his longstanding battle against the irony that made him famous, and he sure ain't the only one--as they get older, guys who were smart enough to keep their distance as callow authenticity fans can't resist playing their hard-earned experience straight. I mean, even Mick Jagger wants to be soulful these days. At least Nick is smart enough to take himself seriously with a smile. B PLUS

ZIGGY MARLEY AND THE MELODY MAKERS: Conscious Party (Virgin) Neither his arty producers nor his Ethiopian band force the kind of cheer that wimped out his earlier crossovers, and his sharp, gritty singing replicates his old man's lower half even if the spiritual-romantic flights are beyond him. He's gotten less platitudinous, too, though as a prophet's scion he never invests Rasta doctrine with the authority of ideas struggled for--a black Jamaican cosmopolitan enough to voice sympathy for a "white guy in love with black beauty" sounds as priggish as any other puritan when he goes on about alcohol and processed foods. B PLUS

NEGATIVLAND: Escape From Noise (SST) Like so many performance artists of the computerized tape recorder, they would have been called comedians or just wise guys in prepostmodern times, so it's nice that they know something about both music and funny. Rather than elucidating the title theme, I'll name favorite bits: real estate ad atop handgun ad, J5 cartoon, four-year-old singing "Over the Rainbow," lecture on the Autonomous Commie Republic, orgasm on the Playboy Channel. And mention that I listen with interest/pleasure to every one. B PLUS [Later]

OBED NGOBENI: My Wife Bought a Taxi (Shanachie) Unable to contain his pride in his wife's nursing diploma or his homeland's bus service, Ngobeni shouts roughly and excitedly at the three Kurhula Sisters, who shout boisterously and joyously right back at him, with the "social commentary" promised in the notes limited to the usual warnings against gossips and ne'er-do-wells. As so often with South African pop, I wonder how much good (and bad) such lyrics can do. But I have no doubts about Ngobeni's Shangaan beat, which lopes through the grass and pounds along with its nose in the dust simultaneously, and I love the way the synthesizer evokes now a mbira, now an accordion, now a Farfisa, now a Hammond B-3. A MINUS

TALKING HEADS: Naked (Sire) Where Paul Simon appropriated African musicians, David Byrne just hires them, for better and worse--this is T. Heads funk heavy on the horns, which aren't fussy or obtrusive because Byrne knew where to get fresh ones. What's African about it from an American perspective is that the words don't matter--it signifies sonically. The big exception is the glorious "(Nothing But) Flowers," a gibe at ecology fetishism that's very reassuring in this context. [Original grade: A minus] B PLUS

BARRENCE WHITFIELD AND THE SAVAGES: Ow! Ow! Ow! (Rounder) Whitfield has yet to take a composition credit on three albums whose best originals are indistinguishable from the obscure old backbeat grooves and frantic novelties that are his trademark, but he's the auteur for damn sure--just replaced his entire band, with no trace of shift or slippage beyond the two overextended blues-soul showcases that lift him over the 30-minute mark. These are merely generic because the boss has no special gift for expressive sincerity--not on the order of his gift for backbeat grooves and frantic novelties, here written mostly by his new helpers, and I dare you to pick out the "real" one without reading the label. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Since Shanachie jumped the gun by releasing my favorite record of 1988 in 1985, I can't exactly give it the current product treatment, but with people asking me what it is over the telephone, I'd be a cur not to mention it. Individually, Franco and Rochereau are the two great stars of Zairean "rumba" and all that's followed: very roughly (and I mean very), James Brown and Frank Sinatra. They've probably released 100 LPs between them, but fine as the half dozen I've heard are, not one comes close to their 1984 Paris collaboration Omona Wapi. What can I say? This is one of the few African records in which the singing outshines the rhythms. The rhythms are gorgeous.

Village Voice, Apr. 26, 1988


Apr. 12, 1988 May 24, 1988