Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

A great month for cherry-pickers--exploring sampler, catalogue, and vault, most of the records below were brought into the world by people with great ears rather than great chops. We critics like that sort of thing.


THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS: Dig Your Own Hole (Astralwerks) Their secret isn't technowizardry, formal daring, or Lord help us eclecticism. As with so many pop wunderkinds, it's spirit--generous, jubilant, unfazed by industrial doom, in love with energy and sound. Noel Gallagher only wishes he had their heart; they say more with a borrowed catch-phrase--"Who is this doin' this type of alphabetapsychedelic funkin'?"--than he can with a whole album of verse-chorus-verse. Of course it matters that they're not retro. But it matters even more that their futurism is neither exclusionary nor puritanical. A MINUS

WOODY GUTHRIE: Early Masters (Tradition) The godfather as seminal folkie on a "sonically cleansed" reissue of a 1961 compilation of a dozen mid-'40s recordings, nine or so famed for good reason. Though the credits state otherwise and the notes are sketchy, he wrote maybe half these songs, but the familiar support of Cisco Houston's harmonies and the occasional relief of Sonny Terry's harmonica compensate handily for his interpretive shortcomings. In short, a fine how-de-doo. A MINUS

WOODY GUTHRIE: This Land Is Your Land: The Asch Recordings Vol. 1 (Smithsonian Folkways) The godfather as protean wordslinger on a digitally-remastered-from-original-acetates recanonization, 27 tracks (including three songs on Early Masters) that honor his verbal genius. With his sidekick chiming in only occasionally, Woody's flat vocal affect diminishes the apparent variety of simple tunes a more inspired singer might have made seem classic; it's only after you learn to identify the voice with the lyrics that it does seem classic, and even then it wears considerable over 72 minutes. The songs, however, do not. Jeff Place and Guy Logsdon have conceived an introduction perfect enough to accommodate obscurities and surprises, as it should with a man who could lay down 55 titles in a day. So there are half a dozen public-domain touchstones for context and melodic range, two wild talking blues unreleased since 1964, two children's songs I now consider among his best of any sort, a Lindbergh dis so scathing I want to research the America First movement and find out who "Wheeler, Clark, and Nye" were, a Lincoln Brigade anthem so maudlin I hope Franco was as bad as I thought. Three additional volumes are planned. But this keeper comes first for a reason. A

COREY HARRIS: Fish Ain't Bitin' (Alligator) After a debut that established his mastery of the Delta idiom, this young black Denver native does something really hard--proves he's big enough to fool around with it. The intermittent New Orleans polyphony is as warm as the tuba of fellow National steel-bodied adept Taj Mahal. And as much as Harris's cross-rhythms and vocal panoply honor his readings of the classics, his virtuosity springs to life on originals where a catfish farm saps the Red River or Mumia and Rodney King leave him nowhere to take his trunk. A MINUS

NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN: Rapture (Music Club) Although 100 albums in 10 years may be an exaggeration, I doubt even Urdu speakers need the entire Allah-channeling oeuvre. On the other hand, I'm so sure non-Urdu speakers don't need RealWorld's polite introductions that I do hope to try one of his Pakistani cassettes someday. Meanwhile, there's this compilation, cherry-picked from his U.K. catalogue by a supersharp Brit discount label, which means that like those cassettes it's cheap. But that's not why I don't mind the rock drums and guitar on one track. It's because this cherry-picker knew where the juicy ones were. A MINUS

MORCHEEBA: Who Can You Trust? (Discovery) A brother who's into blues, a brother who's into technology, and a sister (no relation) who sings so kind and calm there's a temptation to brand her bland. Believe me, that's just her soul talking. She and her place-setters are always thoughtful, often sad, rarely neurotic, never scary. Their record listens so easy you don't want me to classify it it trip-hop, and neither do I. But that's what it is. A MINUS

POP FICTION (Quango) Thank Jason Bentley and Warren Kalodny for listening to more ambient techno and acid jazz than normal people can stand. Gleaning tracks from albums I'd already dismissed as trifles (Alex Reece, Barry Adamson, Kids) and albums that would have joined the pile if I'd heard them (Patrick Pulsinger, Manna, Strange Cargo), they lay a nice assortment of sonic profiles atop a nice assortment of dark grooves in a pomo-noir synthesis of Martin Denny, Henry Mancini, Brian Eno, and house music all night long. It's got a good beat and you can fall asleep to it. Only you might wake up feeling weird. A MINUS

FRANK SINATRA WITH THE RED NORVO QUINTET: Live in Australia, 1959 (Blue Note) With an official live corpus comprising little beyond Vegas dates, statuesque concert stuff, and an oddly insensate 1962 small-group session, this cleanly remastered version of a tape legendary among the bootleggers he's served so well belongs in a canon that's already as outsized as his FBI file. True, it does sample his sense of humor, and although the economy of crack bandleader Norvo offers relief from his usual arrangers, even the greatest vibes players do inevitably play the vibraphone. Nevertheless, there's no authorized Sinatra like this. Its light, relaxed, groove-powered phrasing may not mean as much as the endless timbral subtlety of his studio work, but it gives up the fun his patter misses, as well as the spontaneous musicality those who think him "merely" pop claim isn't there. In the ebullient "Night and Day" that tops things off, he even risks undermining the lyric. He knows no more heinous sin, and the transgression becomes him. A MINUS

SLEATER-KINNEY: Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars) One reason you know they're young is that they obviously believe they can rock and roll at this pitch forever. Whatever the verbal message of their intricate, deeply uptempo simplicity--less sexual angst, more rock-as-romance--it's overrun by their excited mastery and runaway glee. Like a new good lover the second or third time, they're so confident of their ability to please that they just can't stop. And this confidence is collective: Corin and Carrie chorus-trade like the two-headed girl, dashing and high-stepping around on Janet Weiss's shoulders. What a ride. A

SPEARHEAD: Chocolate Supa Highway (Capitol) Reinforcing my belief that Michael Franti's musical instincts signify more meaningfully than his knowledge of Frantz Fanon, the brother shrouds his funk in so much murk and smoke there are times you could mistake it for Maxinquaye or There's a Riot Goin' On. And after the impression passes, the depressive intractability of the sonics continues to add heft to the political cliches, most unforgettably on the tale of an ordinary day that begins bad and gradually goes all the way to hell. A MINUS

SALLY TIMMS: Cowboy Sally (Bloodshot) Just in time for the latest roots revival, the old Mekon and new kid-TV star returns to her stomping ground. Piecing together an EP that looks (and probably is) every bit as casual as the rest of her solo noncareer, she surveys fake authenticity at its weedlike best, from John Anderson's comeback-album title song to "Long Black Veil," which may just be the greatest phony folk song of all time--with Nashville punsters, No Depression punters, and "Tennessee Waltz" betwixt and between. Wryer than your professional country thrush. Kinder, too. A MINUS [Later]

UZ JZME DOMA: Hollywood (Skoda) Given the debts these Czechs owe the Residents and Uriah Heep, Chris Norris's New York jape has to make you giggle--Prague-rock. Thing is, Slavic bands are almost always prog one way or the other--cf. their label-of-love's Czeching In comp. Yet this is the only one whose tempo shifts and horn lines and sudden bursts of ugly are as funny as they should be, more on this '93 Europe/'96 US release than the more theatrical '91 Europe/'97 US Unloved World. And what ever happened to Pulnoc, who could make a fella like serious? A MINUS

THE WACO BROTHERS: Cowboy in Flames (Bloodshot) Buck and Ringo notwithstanding, country music doesn't come naturally--not to city slickers, or city neoprimitivists either. So of course Jon Langford grasps it more palpably now than he did in 1985. And if this can't very well make us forget Fear and Whiskey, at least now we know the W. Bros.' debut was only a run-through. "White Lightning" and "Big River" will obviously impress anyone innocent of Jones and Cash. But Langford's remakes add a desperate soul both songs put to use, and eventually, many of the originals surpass them. Leaving a radical postcountry record that begins in a "suburb of Babylon" and ends snorting the ground-up bones of "the Jones and the Ca-ashizz." A MINUS [Later]

WIRE: Behind the Curtain (EMI import) For Pink Flag as opposed to Wire cultists, and of course there's a difference. We prefer them at their punkest, fastest, and shortest, as with the many titles on this 1977-78 outtakes comp that didn't make any of their first three albums or the On Returning best-of, all 17 of which fit easily on one side of a C-60. These include the five live songs not on Roxy London WC2--"Mary Is a Dyke"! "New York City"! "After Midnight"! (Eric Clapton's!)--as well as preliminary settings for riffs that will resurface in other guises. The other 14 tracks are punker, faster, shorter, louder, and/or rougher versions of songs Wire cultists have never forgotten and never mind hearing again. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

DUNCAN SHEIK (Atlantic) Why do I suspect that only a whiner stupid enough to fall for the depressed wacko now suffocating him all over the airwaves would be stupid enough to blame it entirely on her? Because no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of guys who program the drums but consider it tasteful to hire out the strings to certified human beings, that's why. However desperate the biz may be for matinee idols, anybody who figures this neosensitive can fill Bryan Adams's shoes would have bet on Robbie Nevil back when these things mattered. C [Later]

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Live at the Social Volume 1 (Heavenly import): Chem Bros. party mix, livest when it's r&best (Meat Beat Manifesto, "Cutman"; Selectah, "Wede Man [Hoody Mix]")
  • Hukwe Zawose, Chibite (RealWorld): thumb-piano extravaganza from an appointed guardian of Tanzanian tradition ("Nyangawuya," "Munyamaye")
  • Taj Mahal, An Evening of Acoustic Music (Ruf): old dog's blues ("Satisfied 'n' Tickled Too," "Sittin' on Top of the World")
  • Zap Mama, Seven (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.): world-beat at its all too all-embracing best ("Baba Hooker," "Beigo Za´roise")
  • Bloodhound Gang, One Fierce Beer Coaster (Geffen): fighting for their right to show you their underpants ("Lift Your Head Up [And Blow Your Brains Out]," "Going Nowhere Slow")
  • Space Jam (Warner Sunset/Atlantic): black pop '97, with more tunes (Seal, "Fly Like an Eagle"; Coolio, "The Winner")
  • Jonboy Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Misery Loves Company (Scout import): "explore the dark and lonely world of Johnny Cash" with more cojones than Rick Rubin ("Cocaine Blues," "What Is Truth?")
  • City of Industry (Quango) pop noir turns soundtrack noir (Bomb the Bass Featuring Justin Warfield, "Bug Powder Dust [UK Album Version]"; Lush, "Last Night [Darkest Hour Mix]"; Massive Attack, "Three")
  • Madeleine Peyroux, Dreamland (Atlantic): channeling Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Memphis Minnie, and Jill Corey through Queen Billie herself ("Walkin' After Midnight," "Was I?," "Always a Use")
  • Christine Lavin Presents Laugh Tracks Volume 1 (Shanachie): "20 funny folk songs--I just hope they have security at Tower Records when this goes on sale" (Andy Breckman, "Andy Breckman tells us how he really feels"; Andy Breckman, "Don't Get Killed"; the Chenille Sisters, "Blowin' in the Wind--A Female Perspective"; Rob Carlson, "[These Eggs Were] Born To Run")
  • Los Van Van, Az˙car (Xenophile) coro as groove instrument ("Disco Az˙car")
Choice Cuts:
  • Randy Newman, "Heaven Is My Home"; Al Green, "Love God (And Everybody Else) (Michael, Revolution)
  • Marianne Faithfull, "Don't Forget Me" (20th Century Blues, RCA Victor)
  • Lutefisk, "Rebel Girl," "Something in It" (Burn in Hell Fuckers, Bong Load Custom)
  • Dave Van Ronk, "Garden State Stomp" (Christine Lavin Presents Laugh Tracks Volume 2, Shanachie)
  • Sneaker Pimps, "Low Place Like Home" (Becoming X, Virgin)
Duds:
  • Buick MacKane, The Pawn Shop Years (Rykodisc)
  • Dirty Three, Horse Stories (Touch and Go)
  • Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Introducing Gorky's Zygotic Mynci (Mercury)
  • Live, Secret Samadhi (Radioactive)
  • Nada Surf, High/Low (Elektra)
  • Sexpod, Goddess Blues (Slab)
  • Smog, The Doctor Came at Dawn (Drag City)
  • Alan Vega/Alex Chilton/Ben Vaughan, Cubist Blues (2 13 61)

Village Voice, Apr. 15, 1997


Mar. 11, 1997 May 27, 1997