Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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In a more poetic world, I'd be heaping obloquy on Sheryl Crow and Tony Bennett. But in fact Sheryl is actually more Unforgettable than Natalie Cole, Tony better Unplugged than Eric Clapton. Their Grammies are regrettable. But their records have long been filed in the limbo I call Neither.


THE BOTTLE ROCKETS: The Brooklyn Side (ESD) More raucous and pointed than such fellow Midwestern alternacountry-rockers as the Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo, and Blood Oranges, these citizens of Festus, Missouri will hit you where you live when they lay out other people's pains and foibles--the welfare mom on Saturday night, the Sunday sports abuser, the constable with his radar gun, the local Dinosaur Jr. fan. They also speak plain truth when they criticize their car. And if they seem to relive cliches when they confess their many romantic errors, how do you think cliches get that way? (Including this one.) A MINUS

DANCE HITS U.K. (Moonshine Music) Only a hard-core club kid with connections could tell you what kind of "hits" these were, if any. I don't care because strung together they pass the sole test of a hedonistic disposable, which is personal--they do it for me. I surmise that continuous mixer DJ Tall Paul Newman splits the difference between house and jungle, favoring strong, postmechanical grooves with avant breaks and Snappy pseudorap like Tin Tin's "The Feeling" and his own "Rock Da House." Toward the end mere grooves take over; towards the end I stop shouting out hooks from my living room. A MINUS

ELASTICA (DGC) Punk-pop as self-consciously noncanonical market ploy, wound tight as a methedrine high. The Buzzcocks weren't deep, Wire wasn't deep, but these sassy London girls are shallow on principle, accentuating the desperation of a fun they refuse to grant any emotional resonance. I love their bright, tough veneer and hectic sexuality. I'll happily get juiced on their quick charge. And I can imagine myself discarding them without a second thought. After all, they're asking for it. A MINUS

AL GREEN: Don't Look Back (BMG import) This hard-to-find, slightly long-winded return to Mammon isn't what it should be, might be, or in theory will be, once MCA finalizes a promised revamp with its Hall of Fame inductee (hey guys, there's an angle--and there it goes, receding into the distance). Since eight of 13 titles feature the word "love" (OK, once it's "lovin'," and in parentheses), the pruning will presumably start somewhere in there, although as with so much great minor Green not one of those performances lacks vocal frisson. Executive mastermind Arthur Baker finds a use for Curtis Stigers on the title tune and cedes Al a nice Charles & Eddie song, but the primary hands-on guys are Fine Young Cannibals David Steele and Andy Cox. On their "One Love," which strikes my impractical ear as the sure shot MCA craves, Green negotiates a thoroughly modern electrobeat so effortlessly you gotta believe he can live the rest of his life without God or Hi Rhythm. A MINUS

PJ HARVEY: To Bring You My Love (Island) Four albums in three years, each sonically distinct, each adding a thematic facet to a coherent sensibility. Pretty good for an alleged up-and-comer, eh? In fact, major, and I'll reserve the G-word if you will. Bored with raunchy details, she's going for universals: salvation, rapture, fulfillment, escape. Putting aside her rough lead guitar as unequal to this quest, she's applied herself instead to opera lessons that in no way prettify vocals that were pretty amazing even before they assumed all this range, modulation, and command, and traded in Steve Albini for Flood to help her get at some postsexual imperatives. The fuller sound they arrive at is far from slick--her buzzy keybs are as ominous as her guitar, her register shifts weirder than ever, and the mix can get disconcertingly murky. So watch out for pigeonholes. To fixate on blues or sex is to sell short religious yearnings, avant-garde affinities, and pop potential that are all intensified on an album whose generalization level only magnifies its impact. And to figure she's hellbent on the big time is not to think at all. A

LORD MELODY: Precious Melodies (Ice) Although he doesn't have the voice to ape Cassius Clay or picong-wrestle with Sparrow, he does have the lyrics. A good half of these songs abound in calypso's outrageously observed hyperbole, and his failures with women are a relief from the usual BS even if they're hyperbole too. As for "Crazy Love" and "My Baby Is All Right," well, they don't merely justify his sobriquet--they make you think maybe this plug-ugly cared more for women than his better-endowed rivals. I still covet his gibberish-German Hitler farewell, not to mention the original of Harry Belafonte's "Mama Look at Boo Boo." But the compilation he deserves might as well be this one. A MINUS

LYLE LOVETT: I Love Everybody (Curb/MCA) What his claque cheered as wit, wisdom, and soul I suspected of meanness, pretension, and bald (ha ha) expropriation, but now that he's gone Hollywood, I enjoy his smarts and sound. Right, there is the character who killed his grandma for her gold tooth la-dee-dah. But whether he's flattering penguins, flirting fruitlessly with waitresses and record ladies, getting Dr. King's picture out of South Carolina, or nailing the limits of somebody else's soulful sincerity, he keeps it sprightly. This is pop, where clever gets you further than wise. B PLUS

KIRSTY MACCOLL: Galore (I.R.S.) Be they folk, pop, or country--or hybrid, like this second-generation folkie come of age in postpunk Thatcherland--purebred song hounds have lower standards than we who demand more of music than a catchy lyric. Which makes compilations just the place to catch up. In a decade and a half she's written 'em and picked 'em, adapting to spare guitars and big keybs, Latin and rap, Shane McGowan and Johnny Marr. She has a political mind and a personal life, high times and second thoughts. Music hounds will enjoy making her acquaintance. A MINUS

MIGHTY SPARROW: Volume Four (Ice) He's always urbane, good-humored, devilishly at ease, and like most professional hitmakers, he isn't averse to coasting--"Sailor Man," "Dear Sparrow," "Trinidad Carnival." But as a born word man he usually gets something going even when he doesn't come up with a horn part or choral hook, and even when his lyrics are predictable, his music is usually a pleasure. If there are no works of world-historic genius hidden away on his fourth semirandom best-of, the logocentric really ought to hear "Well Spoken Moppers" anyway. A MINUS

TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS: Greatest Hits (MCA) In the wake of the torpid Wildflowers--that Rick Rubin, what a laid-back guy--it's hard to remember what a breath of fresh air the gap-spanning MTV figurehead was in 1976. So revisit this automatic multiplatinum, a treasury of power pop that doesn't know its name--snappy songs! Southern beats! gee! Like Billy Joel, say, or the Police, his secret isn't that he's a natural singles artist--it's that he's too shallow to merit full concentration except when he gets it all right, and maybe not then. Petty is the formalist of the ordinary guy, taking his musical pleasure in roots, branches, commerce, art, whatever gets him going without demanding anything too fancy of his brain or his rear end. Footloose by habit and not what you'd call a ladies' man, he often feels confused or put upon, and though he wishes the world were a better place, try to take what he thinks is his and he won't back down. He has one great virtue--his total immersion in rock and roll. A MINUS

JOHN PRINE: Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings (Oh Boy) Although ex-Heartbreaker Howie Epstein gets more hooks out of his acoustic warrior than his old boss is tossing off, his idea of radio-ready does leave one waiting for the guitarist to shut up already. But usually that's because you're impatient for the next line, and usually it's a winner--if anything, Prine's waggish pathos and lip-smacking Americanese have been whetted by the divorce that keeps nosing in where it's not wanted. Homely thematic/metaphorical leaps are a common structural device--first the TV is hollering at him, then his wife ("They already think my name is where in the hell you been"), then the voice in his head that won't leave him alone. Alone is where he seems to end up most of the time, though. You'd think the demonstrably compassionate author of several soupy love songs wouldn't having so much trouble going "All the Way With You." Or is it that he's never really learned how to bring his home truths home? A [Later]

Dud of the Month

HOOTIE & THE BLOWFISH: Cracked Rear View (Atlantic) As a black man who takes his vocal cues from what Gregg Allman made of blues and soul, and as a black man embraced as eagerly as Carl McCall by white people loath to think of themselves as racist, Darius Rucker is historically significant. Not unprecedented, however--both patterns can be traced to late minstrelsy, which means the beginning of American pop. Both have structured crucial music, too. But this ain't it. A cornball is a cornball is a cornball. And I wouldn't discount a possible Richie Havens influence. C PLUS [Later: B]

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • The Mavericks, What a Crying Shame (MCA): the best Cuban American Texas music Nashville can capitalize ("All That Heaven Will Allow," "There Goes My Heart," "I Should Have Been True")
  • Coolio, It Takes a Thief (Tommy Boy): the confessions of everygangsta swallow the boasts ("County Line," "Mama I'm in Love With a Gangsta," "In Da Closet")
  • The Modern Lovers, Precise Modern Lovers Order (Rounder): live Harvard '71 and Berkeley '73, back when Jonathan thought cute was pretending he couldn't spell "girlfriend" ("A Plea for Tenderness," "The Mixer (Men and Women Together)," "I'm Straight")
  • Willie Nelson, Moonlight Becomes You (Justice): Stardust for swinging lovers ("Moonlight Becomes You," "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone")
  • Lisa Germano, Geek the Girl (4AD): sonics lean, drama thin ("My Secret Reason," "Cancer of Everything," "Stars")
  • URBMix Vol. 1: Flammable Liquid (Planet Earth): L.A. DJ Doc Martin's steady bass roll (Paperclip People, "Throw"; Freaky Chakra, "Transcendental Funk Bump")
  • Mose Fan Fan, Se Belle Epoque (RetroAfric): 1970-1982--Somo Somo's headman gets his feet wet in Kinshasa, his shit together in Dar Es Salaam, and his rocks off in Nairobi ("Pele Odidja," "Molema")
  • Portishead, Dummy (Go Discs/London): Sade for androids ("Sour Times," "Wandering Star")
  • Oumou Sangare, Ko Sira (World Circuit): established now, she stretches out, which does her more good than it does us ("Kayini Wura") [Later: B+]
  • Willie Nelson, Healing Hands of Time (Liberty): 10 standards--six Nelson, four ASCAP--meet more orchestral instruments than you can shake a stick at ("Night Life," "There Are Worse Things Than Being Alone")
  • Common Sense, Resurrection (Relativity): hip hop of the everyday--a rare yet too ordinary thing ("I Used to Love H.E.R.," "Pop's Rap," "Resurrection")
  • MTV Party to Go Volume 6 (Tommy Boy): remedial dance-pop for a retrograde age (A Tribe Called Quest, "Award Tour"; Aaliyah, "Back and Forth")
  • Bad Religion, Stranger Than Fiction (Atlantic): keeping the bad faith ("Incomplete," "Hooray for Me")
  • The Fireman, Strawberries Oceans Ships Forests (Capitol): Riff and Variations, or, Techno for Seniors ("Transcrystaline," "Celtic Stomp")
  • Giant Sand, Glum (Imago): the wisdom of younguns and old folks rises from the half-formed void ("Bird Song," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry")
Choice Cuts:
  • 20 Toes, "Short Dick Man"; 2 in a Room, "El Trago"; Sagat, "Why Is It?" (Max Mix U.S.A., Max)
  • Aphrohead, "In the Dark We Live"; the Believers, "Who Dares to Believe" (Journeys by DJ: DJ Duke, Moonshine Music)
  • TLC, "Creep" (CrazySexyCool, LaFace) [Later: B+]
  • Achanak, "Nukhe Chakhee Javana"; Johnny Zee, "Yaar Nach La" (What Is Bhangra?, I.R.S.)
  • Kraze, "The Party" (Start the Party! Volume 1, Big Beat)
Duds:
  • Giant Sand, Purge and Slouch (Restless)
  • Kam, Made in America (EastWest)
  • Lords of Acid, Voodoo-U (American)
  • John Michael Montgomery, Kickin' It Up (Atlantic)
  • Pet Shop Boys, Disco 2 (EMI)
  • Pink Floyd, The Division Bell (Columbia)

Village Voice, Apr. 11, 1995


Feb. 21, 1995 June 6, 1995