Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Two Pick Hits because both Van Halen and Rick James got raspberries last time out. Anyway, I'm afraid my two favorites are in for backlash, and while neither is a career album, both deserve better. I mean, Patti's is her best in over a decade.


ALI & TAM'S AVEC L'ORCHESTRE MALO (Planisphere import) In which two Kinshasa professors folkify and jazzify Zairean pop, thus defeating soukous's relentless professionalism--textures more acoustic, solos more personal, rhythms more relaxed. Contemporary and traditional, catchy and sweet--tries to improve on modernity rather than escape from it. B PLUS

T-BONE BURNETT: The Talking Animals (Columbia) I hate to let the cat out of the bag, but this guy is pretentious. He's not dumb, not incapable, not even charmless (incredible shaggy dog story at the close). And country change-of-pace aside, his parables and exhortations have gotten more pointless with every record. Help him, Jesus. B MINUS

THE ROBERT CRAY BAND: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (Mercury) Yeah, I could live without David Sanborn myself, but if you leave it at that you're refusing to hear a major artist who bends blues tradition to his own artistic ends as surely as Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page, a suave cool motherfucker obsessed with the male sex roles blues defined for rock and roll. No shit--his determination to bring his tradition into the pop present equals his determination to escape the cultural residue and/or primal urge that compels him to pitch woo, talk murder, and make obscene phone calls. Because this life-project can never end, a continuing tension stretches and strengthens his music. The songs here aren't as consistently amazing as Strong Persuader's, but all that means is that Cray and his writers are mortal. Summing up is Bruce Bromberg's "Night Patrol," in which a laid-off streetstalker, tortured quote unquote by his bad habits quote unquote, joins the homeless legions whose ways he knows so well. A MINUS

DIVINYLS: Temperamental (Chrysalis) This is the genderfucked Sweet that Mike Chapman should have gotten out of Christina Amphlett last time, before Vic Maile and Girlschool beat them to it, but as with straight Sweet, the tunes pound by a little too evenly to change the world. "Dirty Love" will never besmirch CHR, and unless she gets lucky with "Hey Little Boy," a genderfucked cover the world's been waiting for since 1966, it could be three-strikes-she's-out for a dirt-eater who deserves better. B

D.J. JAZZY JEFF & THE FRESH PRINCE: He's the D.J., I'm the Rapper (Jive) From Fabian and Chubby Checker to Cosby and this crew, Philadelphia has always produced too many unthreatening teen dreams--it's enough to make you stop worrying and love Schoolly-D. Though I grant the Fresh Prince's acting ability and find myself touched when he tells the crowd he's 17, he makes the mistake of coming on smug in a genre whose staple is confidence. In life, maybe the wheedle is more socially advanced than the demand; in art, it's a turnoff. B MINUS

EPMD: Strictly Business (Fresh) Out of nowhere to the top of the charts, these frosty freezers are one more proof of the supposedly subliterate-to-subcriminal rap audience's exacting prerogatives--what's snapped up as freshest often is. The beats are disco hooks sampled full effect, two or three to the track; the attack is traditionalist, formalist, minimalist. Rapping almost exclusively about rap, E Double EE and Pee MD don't emote or pander or yuk it up. In their one sex boast, the skeezer gets the last word. A MINUS

FIREHOSE: If'n (SST) They sound more like a regular rock band and also more like the Minutemen, which isn't a contradiction because the Minutemen were evolving into a regular rock band when D. Boon died--one that resembled this fluidly funky outfit a lot more than the weird and wimpy hippies of the debut. This time Ed Crawford provides enough garage hooks to get by, meaning Mike Watt doesn't disappear amid his mannerisms--I only wish his Central American mention held like his Richard Hell mention and his Michael Stipe tribute. B

FOOL PROOF: No Friction (Gramavision) "Jazzmen Play the Blues," says the cover sticker. Such claims have excited me unreasonably ever since I witnessed Henry Threadgill and friends back Left-Hand Frank lo these many year ago, and what could live up to that? Not this, if only because no real bluesmam (as opposed to rocker) anchors it. After progressing from Delta to New Orleans to bebop to lounge-organ, it settles into jazzmen's r&b, with Pheeroan akLaff staying in Al Jackson's pocket on "Love and Happiness" but favoring a more swinging groove. Ronnie Drayton and Bernie Worrell make some lounge act, and "August Wilson's Urban Blue Blues" is what a young Ornette Coleman might have come up with if he'd tried to write a "Now's the Time"--bent bebop, blues mostly by association. B PLUS

NANCI GRIFFITH: Little Love Affairs (MCA) For Griffith, the notion that the past was better than the present isn't just a bias, it's a worldview--consider "I Knew Love" ("when it was more than just a word") or "Love Wore a Halo Back Before the War" (WWII, she means). And with Tony Brown pushing her ever more firmly toward such marketable cliches as the raunchy growl and the pedal-steel whine, she's one neotraditionalist with a future. If you can forgive "I Knew Love"'s purism, first side doesn't quit--the regrets of "Anybody Can Be Somebody's Fool" and "So Long Ago" are as permanent as they come. Second side's got John Stewart as Waylon Jennings and real country songs by the auteur. B PLUS

RICK JAMES: Wonderful (Reprise) Free at last from Mr. Gordy's plantation, James gives up that begged, borrowed, or stolen funk. "Loosey's Rap" casts Roxanne Shante as skeezer and proud (kudos in the Special Thanks list but not the credits to Big Daddy Kane and Marley Marl); "So Tight" is expert Larry Blackmon (ditto to "Cameo for inspiration"); James himself could have sired "Judy" and "Wonderful" and "Love's Fire." But he still can't resist ballads, a big mistake for a man who spells l-u-v like c-u-m. Docked a notch for first peeping as "the girls go down," then suggesting that a devil lesbian get straight by dropping to her knees and fishing his dick out. C PLUS

RAYMOND KANE: Master of the Slack Key Guitar (Rounder) Never having heard a Gabby Pahinui record, I'm obliged to enjoy this relaxed, talky music-doc soundtrack as exotica. Couldn't tell you whether Kane's strange gutturals reflect his tradition or his emphysema. Can tell you that his story of how Hawaiian guitar came over with the vaqueros and then got changed utterly is a trip as both music and musicology. B PLUS

KINGDOM COME (Polydor) Lenny Wolf's brainchildren share a selling point with the guys they rip so shamelessly: shamelessness. I'm not curious enough to ascertain which Zep songs provide which hook riffs, but that doesn't mean I can't lay back and enjoy a musical force as musical form--a humongous abstraction perfect for flattening the medulla oblongata. B

JIMMY PAGE: Outrider (Geffen) With the heretofore useless John Miles doing Plant (you barely notice when the man himself sneaks in for a song) and the heretofore unproven Jason Bonham doing Daddy (assuming Page isn't sampling Boom-Boom like everybody else, flesh and blood being no substitute for the real simulacrum in today's studio), side one is easily the best Zep rip ever recorded. Zep blooze, not Zep mythopoiea, with titles like "Wasting My Time" and "Wanna Make Love"; Page's riffs are classic, which isn't to say anybody has or hasn't played them before, and the momentum is fierce and enormous. On side two the mostly ridiculous Chris Farlowe takes over, his unlistenable "Hummingbird" inspiring fond thoughts of Leon Russell. Jimmy and Jason should form a band, invite Plant as a courtesy, and hope he turns them down. If Miles won't do what he's told, Lenny Wolf will be happy to step in. B PLUS

ASTOR PIAZZOLLA: The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night (American Clave) Suddenly hot in Dollarland at age 67, Piazzolla is flooding the bins, with his earlier American Clave albums reissued by Pangaea (structure and sustained intensity make Tango: Zero Hour an unusually unsoporific CD), a Montreux concert with Gary Burton available from Atlantic Jazz, and a collaboration with Lalo Schifrin out on Nonesuch. Piazzolla has even less to do with jazz than Gary Burton; he's closer to Bartok the composer than to Ellington the orchestrator, and tends to limit improvisatory space. But the symphonic accompaniment of Schifrin, an Argentinian who straddles pop and classical himself, rarely obtrudes and sometimes even amplifies, so those who prefer their exotica with cushions should opt for Concerto para Bandoneon/Tres Tangos. Me, I don't find Piazzolla's music so alien that it can't be absorbed full force, in the acerbically melodramatic compositions he creates for his quintet. Conceived for a theatre piece, this collection is episodic even given the composer's penchant for abrupt mood shifts. But its historical overview, beginning with the "primitive" tango that shook a younger pop world, is just the thing to provide the hint of roots rock and rollers prefer in their exotica. Oh those crazy urban folk. A MINUS

ROBERT PLANT: Now and Zen (Es Paranza) Plant's two earlier solo albums were striking and forgettable--bankable self-indulgences that turned a profit on brand loyalty alone. Because they had the virtue of existing, they inspired loose talk about who "really" led his former band, probably from people who secretly believed pomp made the band artistic. This time he looks to solidify his future by imitating his past--even sampling it, an idea he says he got from Rick Rubin (what a card), or hiring his former band's guitarist for a solo. At its best, it's far from forgettable. Overall effect is a cross between his former band and the Cars. B

PATTI SMITH: Dream of Life (Arista) At first I took this for that most painful of embarrassments, a failed sellout. Was she unwilling to waste her hard-won politics on weirdos? Proving herself a fit mother by going AOR, only she hadn't heard any AOR in about five years? Sad, sad. But soon I was humming, then I was paying attention, and now I think of this as the latest Patti Smith record. If she doesn't sound as unhinged as last time, she probably isn't, but as matrons go she's still out there. Her prophetic rhetoric is biblical just like always, with a personal feel for the mother tongue I wish more metal jeremiahs knew to envy. The music is a little old-fashioned and quite simple, controlled but not machined, and the guitars sing. Her Double Fantasy, suggests a Detroit Smith named RJ. Only we don't formalize our equality by doling out turns, adds a Detroit Smith named Fred Sonic. A MINUS

VAN HALEN: OU812 (Warner Bros.) Not that they give a shit, but trading Dave for Sammy sure wrecked their shot at Led Zep of the '80s--master guitarist, signature vocalist, underrated rhythm section. They wouldn't have made it anyway, of course. Eddie's obsessed with technique, Roth's contemptuous of technique, rhythm section's got enough technique and no klutz genius. But Sammy . . . like wow. If I can't claim the new boy owns them (property rights they protect), you can't deny he defines them. Not that they give a shit. C

MAURICE JOHN VAUGHN: Generic Blue Album (Alligator) "Don't you play the name game/`Cause the quality is the same" is just one of "Generic Blues"'s many zingers, and he almost gets away with the conceit. I don't know, though--lacks identity somehow. B

STEVE WINWOOD: Roll with It (Virgin) Wish I could claim the music's sapped by whatever moves him to submit material to his beer company before his record company even hears it, but that happened long ago. If anything, this is an improvement--his contempo soul has gained not only bite but speed, so you have less time to think about it. Give most of these meaningless songs to some open-throated journeyman white people have never heard of--Bert Robinson, say, any big-voiced belter who doesn't conflate strain and feeling--and they might even sound like Saturday night. B MINUS

WIRE: A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck (Enigma) Waiting for my annoyance to articulate itself, I found appropriate contexts--subways, elevators, etc.--and stuck this into my personal portable. Where to my shock it proved fun fun fun. Maybe they are about to jump to Windham Hill, but only because Windham Hill wants to escape its suburban demographic. Mellifluous, deceitful background rock--but ugly, and with a kick. B PLUS

Village Voice, Aug. 30, 1988


July 26, 1988 Sept. 27, 1988