Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Personally, I find million-selling ciphers fascinating, but since you've already made up your minds about Paula if her name has ever crossed your mind, I thought it would be more efficient to indulge in double positivity. These bands deserve each other.


PAULA ABDUL: Forever Your Girl (Virgin) If Debbie Gibson already has platinum imitators, there's more to the world than is dreamt of in Madonna's philosophy. This unthreateningly dusky disco-dolly-next-door plays the field romantic-metaphorwise, with a weakness for can't-help-myself. She's less imitator than imitation, short on tokens of self-creation--her only writing credit is also the only time she threatens to play around. C

ELVIN BISHOP: Big Fun (Alligator) Where his pint-sized labelmates give themselves hernias rocking the house, the bluesman-turned-hayseed tells some jokes and takes it easy. Nor is he relaxing on his royalties--if you don't believe not getting riled is a spiritual thing with him, just mind his guitar. B PLUS

CULTURE: Cumbolo (Shanachie) A decade after it was revealed to Jah's chosen, this one takes a while to connect. It's less archetypal than Two Sevens Clash--more general in folk hymns like "Poor Jah People" and "Natty Never Get Weary," more specific in conversational complaints like "Pay Day" and "Innocent Blood" ("One year after slavery/The people were all suffering/From smallpox"). Once you have ears to hear, though, you got roots rockers paradise, all strictures sundered by studio musicians who angle into the formula more or less at will--chattering underneath "Poor Jah People," or adding the trombone glissando that sometimes hooks the chorus of "Natty Dread Naw Run" and sometimes doesn't. A MINUS

DR. JOHN: In a Sentimental Mood (Warner Bros.) What a great gift idea--Stardust for r&b weirdos who find Willie Nelson prosaic. Anything but straight, the ivory-tickling second-liner raids the pop songbook for hipper material than the richer outlaw, and has such a great time with Rickie Lee Jones you're sorry she has to leave--especially since his vocal poetry does wander on its own. B PLUS

THE FALL: I Am Kurious Oranj (Beggars Banquet) Drones, vamps, laid-back forcebeats, and a steady stream of allusive satire add up to the enjoyable postpunk pattern of countless other Fall albums. Yet from the opening nag--"Check the record, check the record, check the guy's track [later 'rock'] record"--small strokes keep me turning this one up. First side's got the nag and Brix's drolly tinny AOR "overture" and William Blake. Second's more patternlike, though who could resist the OMD-Stooges combo? Besides radio, I mean. A MINUS

GIPSY KINGS (Elektra) If they hadn't covered "My Way," maybe the one-worlder in me would adjust his horizons to embrace flamenco guitar and let the rest pass. But they did, and don't riposte indignantly that "My Way" is a French song--that's the point. Their florid Andalusian emotionalism is Europop's cornball showbiz alternative to soul. I'll take Al Jolson, who invented something. B MINUS [Later]

GREEN ON RED: Here Come the Snakes (Restless) Just when you thought he'd wandered off into dipsomania, Dan Stuart reemerges on Jim Dickinson's shoulder as Neil Young and Mick Jagger fried into one bar singer. With Chuck Prophet playing the blues and Dan wailing about careless what-have-you, this is the Crazy Horse album Neil hasn't had the jam to toss off since before he discovered the contras. B PLUS [Later]

HALF JAPANESE: Charmed Life (50 Kazillion Watts) How can you not love a band who label the cassette version: "Added Bonus!--10 Extra Songs Not Found on the LP"? Even if four of them are alternate takes and two or three others concern wrestling. Even if "Madonna Nude" (its coda a wrestling-style challenge to Sean Penn) really belongs on a 21-song vinyl version devoted to the love fantasies of a geek with glasses. B PLUS

MADONNA: Like a Prayer (Sire) Three times I've mistaken her polymorphic promo and gross ambition for standard-issue lowest-common-denominator pandering, and three times her audience has disabused me in the months and years that followed. But though I swear I won't get fooled again, it's hard to hear an icon in the privacy of your own home, especially if you don't believe in her, and I won't sink that low or fly that high--I can't. So say the kiddie psychedelia is ick, the side-closers are over when they're over, and everything else sports some little touch to remember it by, Prince or musique concrète or broken quote from the Association. The cocksucker's prayer is anybody's classic, but coming from, I don't know, Suzanne Vega, the declaration of filial independence and the recommendation of romantic independence would be uncharacteristically catchy cliches. Coming from an icon they're challenging, thrilling--and they'll get more thrilling. B PLUS

MOTORHEAD: No Sleep at All (Enigma/GWR) Ten hunks of meat tossed to a horde of ravening Finns, and if six of them surfaced all too recently on Nuevo Motorhead's two studio albums, that doesn't stop me from scarfing down this live one the way Old Motorhead's cult devoured No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith. No remorse, and no excuses, except to remark that Nuevo Motorhead has songwriting down. Further evidence: the very underground smash "Killed by Death" (if you want one, Lemmy says he has 10,000 of them in his house) and the never-before-recorded "Just Because You Got the Power," which rages against the moneyheads without kidding anybody about capitalist hegemony. A MINUS

BOB MOULD: Workbook (Virgin) Mould-Maimone-Fier are some kind of supersession, but they're no band, and between the cello and the acoustic guitar and the moderato and the lyric sheet that ought to have a little typeface note like at the end of a Borzoi book, I find myself disliking their record intensely. Until the raving finale, it's so respectable, so cautious, as if honest thought were a suitable substitute for wisdom, sarcasm, a good joke, or a suicide run for the next intro. C PLUS

ROY ORBISON: Mystery Girl (Virgin) If you're guessing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity squandered by the assembled bigshots, guess again. They've done their man's tradition proud. Problem's the tradition--just listen to the latest Rhino retrospective, which celebrates its inevitable schlockification at MGM, and you'll know why Orbison's comeback was made for this corporate era. When he gets a great tune produced just right--Wilbury-penned lead hit, Bono-Edge title ballad, Waylon's "In Dreams" sequel--his unassuming seriousness can make you think twice about opera. But with his mythic voice no longer distinguishing surely between tenderness and sentimentality, "A Love So Beautiful" and "Windsurfer" are bathos. And when Elvis C. leaves him stranded atop a ferris wheel and he just sits there contemplating his tragedy in song, the only thing mythic is the scale of the self-parody. B

ROYAL CRESCENT MOB: Spin the World (Sire) Bridging the modest distance between Ohio Players fans and Aerosmith-for-the-fun-of-it, they lock into their groove and don't give a single song away. Even the hardcore tribute "Stock Car Race" shows off their somehow unsurprising new command of the everyday detail: home for supper, love at a red light, five more minutes with a face you'd had enough of. One protagonist wants to design men's clothes and is on his way to Paris with E.U. in the Walkman. Another hates doing overtime and eagerly awaits the corporate apocalypse: "I'm on the bottom and I'm not afraid." A MINUS

TEN CITY: Foundation (Atlantic) The Sylvester homages of house-circuit fame are attractively soulful if a mite specialized--slower than us old-timers like our dance music, especially when we're not dancing. But from the first scrapes of its pseudosynth violin vamp, "That's the Way Love Is" shouts H-I-T--a classic pain-of-love cliche, all hooks and harmonies and going to the bridge. That it never broke pop is why old-timers get mad at Paula Abdul. The followup is a touch slower. I'm rooting for it anyway. B PLUS

THAT PETROL EMOTION: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues (Virgin) So what happened to these guys? I know, they depunkified, but just because they seem to think funk has something to do with Tower of Power is no reason to take them off the guest list. Read the lyric sheet--if anything, they've grown in wisdom. Although if you didn't read the lyric sheet you'd never notice. That's what happened. B

TOM TOM CLUB: Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom (Sire) This spinoff seemed like a good idea at the time because a good idea was all it was. As a career alternative that lets them feel useful when David goes off on a tangent, it's product. The Arthur Baker-coproduced late-'88 stuff is arch, subfunctional dance music that transmutes "Wild Wild West" into "Wa Wa Dance" without the writing credit Sugarhill ceded "Genius of Love" way back when. The late-'87 is minimalist Europop, and in that it's not charmless. C PLUS

MOE TUCKER: Life in Exile After Abdication (50 Kazillion Watts) The illusion of commercial potential that induced the Velvets to tighten up without squelching their experimental impulses can't be sustained by any Moe smart enough to have come this far, and so, encouraged by her loony Half Japanese bandmates, she wastes valuable minutes fucking around. Songs meander, her third "Bo Diddley" in three albums still doesn't get it, the endless instrumental is Sonic Youth in runny jam mode. Except for the jam, it's all nice enough--Tucker's modest middle-aged housewife is an innovation in much the way her drumming once was. But "Work," "Spam Again," and "Hey Mersh!" are Amerindie knockouts, lived postpunk takes on the grind and release of lower-middle class adulthood, a subject rock and rollers usually leave to Nashville company men. Somebody try and make a hit out of this woman. B PLUS

TWO NICE GIRLS: 2 Nice Girls (Rough Trade) With Nice Girl number three helping them do the Roches, their hook is "Sweet Jane" with a Joan Armatrading tag, tart and pretty enough to show up the C. Junkies' suicidal tendencies. Ex-Meat Joy Gretchen Phillips's salty attitude permeates the discreetly physical lesbian love song "Goons" and the regretfully rowdy lesbian love anthem "I Spent My Last $10.00 (On Birth Control and Beer)." Laurie Freelove counts Cat Stevens among her influences. B

BUNNY WAILER: Liberation (Shanachie) He's studied his history, and the politics of his major statement are pretty smart. But ordinarily, only earnest organizer types who distribute lyrics at rallies ("To the tune of `Down by the Riverside'") think they can get a rousing song out of a line like "The OAU and the United Nations must stop all hypocritical sanctions." Bunny should know better than to hire studio musicians to do what they're told. B

CHABA ZAHOUANIA: Nights Without Sleeping (Mango) Dominated by singers for native speakers, rai is a producer's export. On the A Rachid and Fethi electrify conventional Algerian arrangements, and for all her lowdown Zahouania remains a travelogue novelty. Second side they go to town--the pulse and timbre and timing and juxtapositions of the indelibly Middle Eastern elements are all arrogantly eclectic in the great rock-disco tradition, only this time these priceless cultural resources are misused, and transfigured, by insiders. B PLUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

As I would have known if I'd checked Ronnie Graham's essential (hint, hint) Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music as well as the jacket, Alpha Blondy's Cocody Rock was originally released in 1984, not 1988. So it's not B minus complacent--it's B minus premature.

The X Los Angeles-Wild Gift CD is everything I'd hoped for--insofar as the remix favors the drums (not much), it propels, and while the clarity of the guitar can be disorienting, clarity isn't cleanliness, and I doubt Billy Zoom minds. Holds up for its hour-plus, too--which isn't to say it isn't better digested in smaller doses, or that the lags aren't more perilous.

For the first time since the series began Mr. Magic's Rap Attack Volume 4 (Profile) corrals the most undeniable singles of the year, in this case 1988--"It Takes Two," "Don't Believe the Hype," "Strictly Business," "Wild Wild West," "Push It." Only Marley Marl's Cold Chillin' posse decline the honor. Except for "It Takes Two," every aforementioned title is on an album worthy of the name, but shit, this is the cream--even the filler's high-grade. Dilettantes start here.

Village Voice, June 6, 1989


Apr. 25, 1989 June 27, 1989