Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Right--two Afropicks. People who think it all sounds the same have every right to care about what they care about. But 1991 has been a richer year for U.S.-released African music than this fan would ever have predicted. You want I should lie to you?


CHARLIE FEATHERS (Elektra Nonesuch) Like most of the losers who claim they taught Elvis his tricks, this 59-year-old Memphis crackpot has his claque--fools who think his stray cuts for Sun, King, and lesser, later indies put him on a par with Carl Perkins if not Jerry Lee. But though "One Hand Loose" and "Tongue-Tied Jill" are pretty great, only nuts need Kay Records' generically rockacountry Jungle Fever comp. So this is a shock. Although "Mean Woman Blues" rocks out like Robert Gordon and Billy Hancock wish, Feathers refuses to insult anyone's intelligence pretending he's horny as a teenager, putting his past behind him in the forlorn collection of old song titles "We Can't Seem To Remember To Forget." His resonant bullfrog undertone and hiccuping upper register evoking a less cocky George Jones, he explores rockabilly as a musical form--the white man's blues he's always saying it is. Funny, emotional, completely personal. Play at medium volume, late in the dark night. A MINUS

JIMMIE DALE GILMORE: "After Awhile" (Elektra Nonesuch) Gilmore being something of a mystic, I expect transcendence of him, and on his two previous records Butch Hancock gave it to me: "When the Nights Are Cold" on Jimmie Dale Gilmore, "See the Way" on The Flatlanders. This basically self-composed major-label whozis is solider than either, solid like the quality country album it ain't--Gilmore may not be writing so metaphysical any more, though "Go To Sleep Alone" is pretty deep, but he still sings like a space cadet. Still, some kind of quality album it is. The nearest it comes to a peak is a Butch Hancock song. A MINUS

GUITAR PARADISE OF EAST AFRICA (Earthworks) Though at least three of the artists came up in Zaire, this classic compilation comprises six four- or five-minute Kenyan dance hits and five eight- or nine-minute Kenyan dance hits. So I guess it's benga, a beat/genre/label even more all-embracing than the soukous it cheerfully lifts from. Though at times the guitaristics billow like Kinshasa, they're gentler, quirkier, more rural--and they're not definitive, because this is a song album. Nasally conversational or breathily musical, the voices get catchy to impossibly fetching melodies, and though only one band can afford horns, that band comes up with a great chart--a great cheesy chart. Intensely pleasurable up till cut seven, Orchestre Super Mazembe's atypically dark, typically gorgeous "Shauri Yako." After that, five consecutive tunes make you sit up and exclaim, "Oh boy, that one." Destructible, I suppose--persuasion, not power, is the idea. But if this is one world, undeniable. A PLUS

KID CREOLE AND THE COCONUTS: You Shoulda Told Me You Were . . . (Columbia) Although now, oh no, he claims he's set "to leave his beloved Isle of York once and for all," Manhattan revitalized the Kid's political shtick. The Cory Daye feature "Consequently," which starts with Columbus sailing the ocean blue, is as cold-eyed as the Mekons' Sally Timms feature "Brutal," and "Oh Marie" and "Madison Avenue" address crime in the streets and crisis in the schools more realistically than most rap or any Lou Reed. As for the love songs, they're fine when love has nothing to do with it--when he's hot for a party girl, or insisting a sex object meet his plastic surgeon. A MINUS [Later]

KING MISSILE: The Way to Salvation (Atlantic) John S. Hall wants you to believe he'll be cracking wise when the world ends, an event he once projected for 1992 or 1993, although now that he's on a major he's trying to push the date back. About time, I say--the major, I mean. Hall is completely word-dependent--when his imagination flags second half, so does the album. But it isn't just the consistency of the sarcasm that distinguishes this one from Mystical Shit (or the raggedy-ass Kramer collaboration Real Men). It's the way he's putting his hard-rock comedy, shaggy dog fables, and sophistical shit across. Rarely has a performance artist made a more forceful adjustment to guitar-bass-and-drums, or a college-radio band a tuffer adjustment to clean-yet-heavy. Credit indie engineer Lou Giordano for his postindie production, and Atlantic for its venture capital. A MINUS [Later]

LOKETO: Extra Ball (Shanachie) They've subdivided now--Aurlus Mabele keeps the logo, Diblo Dibala takes the John Hancock. But your last chance at a great band is also your best. Mabele's warm, rich, relaxed baritone is merely foremost among several engaging voices, and the guitar dominates, as it should. Endlessly, effortlessly fluent, Dibala pours his most gorgeous effects into a hornless format that varies and repeats like prime James Brown. I just hope he meshes with bassist Miguel Yamba in real life. They should be together. A

LOVE CHILD: Okay? (Homestead) Too bad these punk-going-no-wave neotraditionalists didn't study their Ramones harder--instead of crowding 21 songs into 45 minutes, they might have grouped the 14 snappiest into a dandy 27-minute shot in the dark. Of course, that would have consigned most of conceptualist Alan Licht's to the cutting-room floor. Here's hoping Licht gets bored like the arty dilettante he is. Then liberated girl Rebecca Odes could join punk-going-pop Will Baum in a band of their own. B PLUS

SYRAN M'BENZA: Symbiose (Hysa import) M'Benza promises "the best of Paris" for his state-of-the-tech Les Quatre Etoiles moonlight. Organ-synth, string-synth, drum-synth, supervoices, balafon, accordion--we get 'em all. And when the sweet male chorus inserts gruff commands, or M'Benza makes his soukous guitar hop mbira-style or sway like pedal steel, I'm willing to ignore the horns, which I swear come off some old Kassav' album. B PLUS

G.W. MCLENNAN: Watershed (Beggars Banquet) The Go-Between with the weakness for wilderness was Robert Forster, a smart fella given to rambling through the melodic underbrush. McLennan was the hooky one, and though at first I found his solo music irritatingly prefab, his techno tendencies have grown on me like a good Go-Betweens tune--the synthy guitar and hot drum programming put welcome glitz and steel into his romantic verse. In "Haven't I Been a Fool?" he's scrambling to cement the relationship he undermined. In "Just Get That Straight" he's trying to make the break final. In between he gets out of himself a lot. A MINUS

SIMON SHAHEEN: The Music of Mohamed Abdel Wahab (Axiom) I couldn't tell you how "profound, prolonged, and widespread" Wahab's influence on Middle Eastern music has been, though as a singer and film star as well as Om Kalsoum's arranger, he clearly played a huge role in the secularization and Europeanization of the Koranic repertoire. This great-sounding tribute by a Palestinian Christian oud/violin virtuoso, scholar, and orchestra leader has the apposite high-middlebrow tone. But unlike so many brainy projects, it pushes my pleasure buttons as well as my duty buttons. Some people get off on Ennio Morricone. I like my soundtracks more exotic. A MINUS

SLICK RICK: The Ruler's Back (Def Jam/Columbia) Cut in a hurry on bail, this widely reviled record will go nowhere, but I hear it as a work of mad avant-garde genius. I'm not kidding--nothing has ever sounded like this. Bass and drums tumbling forward atop submerged hook effects in a trademark groove that never stops, every track checks in fast. And though Rick's bad dreams are almost as full of niggers and bitches as N.W.A's kiddie porn, his quick, preoccupied singsong drawl makes it gratifyingly impossible to pin down the details. In short, it's genuinely surreal, as befits the product of a sick mind. A MINUS

CHRIS SMITHER: Another Way to Find You (Flying Fish) The second release this recovering alcoholic and stagefright victim has managed since 1972--just him, his blue guitar, and a studio full of fans--redoes most of his two early-'70s albums, both out of print since the early '70s were over, and leaves 1985's It Ain't Easy alone. A Cambridge folkie from New Orleans, Smither is an easy taste to acquire: he strums as if to the second line born, sings in a lazy, roughly luxuriant baritone, writes when he's got something to say, and understands o.p.'s from the inside out. I know Randy Newman's "Have You Seen My Baby" so well I was sorry he'd covered it, only to be struck like never before by its final lines: "She say I'll talk to strangers if I want to/I'm a stranger too." Next day I found out what he called his first album: I'm a Stranger Too. A MINUS [Later]

RICHARD THOMPSON: Rumor and Sigh (Capitol) From his vintage bike to his veiled belief that Salman Rushdie had it coming, the innate conservatism of this policeman's son is manifest, and at times his prejudices about artistic substance produce meaningful threnodies of no immediate artistic interest. But even the boring stuff ain't stupid, and nobody throws a meaner party. His tales of sex education and old 78s are so cranked up and cranky you wonder how you ever could have thought fun would be easy, and he gets almost as much mileage out of not understanding women as George Jones. Wonder whether George could get through the changes of "I Misunderstood." Or add a little zing to "You Dream Too Much." B PLUS [Later]

KEITH WHITLEY: Greatest Hits (RCA) His best came last, and only those who already love the ingrained sorrow and liquored-up ease of I Wonder Do You Think of Me, which provides the four finest performances on this record, should invest in the glimmers it compiles: the way his brave front breaks through such Nashville formula as the cute longing of "Miami, My Amy," the lust at first sight of "Ten Feet Away," the terse lovewords of "When You Say Nothing at All." And in "Tell Lorrie I Love Her," recorded in his living room two years before he died, a voice from beyond the grave tells us he could have sung his best any time the smart boys were ready to package him that way. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Pere Ubu, Worlds in Collision (Fontana): wotta art-rock band ("I Hear They Smoke the Barbecue," "Worlds in Collision")
  • Romantics, What I Like About You (And Other Romantic Hits) (Epic/Associated): sweets from our Sweet ("Talking in Your Sleep," "What I Like About You")
  • Keith Whitley, Kentucky Bluebird (RCA): postproduced (which is good) outtakes (which isn't) ("Backbone Job," "I Never Go Around Mirrors")
  • Dave Ray and Tony Glover, Ashes in My Whiskey (Rough Trade): rueful moans in the quiet night ("Uncertain Blues," "HIV Blues")
  • Saffire--The Uppity Blues Women, Hot Flash (Alligator): talking dirty and saying something ("Two in the Bush Is Better Than One in the Hand," "(Mr. Insurance Man) Take Out That Thing for Me")
  • Heavy D. & the Boyz, Peaceful Journey (Uptown/MCA): groovemaster, fast talker, all-around nice guy ("I Can Make You Go Oooh")
  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Into the Great Wide Open (MCA): hooky sumbitch ("Into the Great Wide Open," "Two Gunslingers")
  • Aurlus Mabele and Loketo, King of Soukous (Sound Wave): attempted singer's record ("Embargo")
  • Gang of Four, Mall (Polydor): and in the mall, there's a disco . . . ("Motel," "F.M.U.S.A.")
  • Color Me Badd, C.M.B. (Giant): "We just stick to what you want to hear" ("I Wanna Sex You Up," "All 4 Love")
  • Ambitious Lovers, Lust (Elektra): normal don't suit him ("Tuck It In," "Umbabarauma")
Choice Cuts:
  • Londonbeat, "I've Been Thinking About You" (In the Blood, Radioactive)
  • Living Colour, "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing" (Biscuits, Epic)
  • Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey, "I Want To Break Your Heart," "She Was the One" (Mavericks, DNA)
  • The Gear Daddies, "Boys Will Be Boys" (Let's Go Scare Al, Polydor)
  • Phranc, "'64 Ford" (Positively Phranc, Island)
  • Culture, "Peace and Love" (Culture in Culture, Heartbeat)
  • Jack Frost, "Thought That I Was Over You," "Didn't Know Where I Was" (Jack Frost, Arista)
  • Crowded House, "Chocolate Cake" (Woodface, Capitol)
Duds:
  • Anthrax, Attack of the Killer B's (Island)
  • Aretha Franklin, What You See Is What You Sweat (Arista)
  • Johnnie Johnson, Johnnie B. Bad (Elektra Nonesuch)
  • Graham Parker, Struck by Lightning (RCA)
  • Seal (Sire/Reprise) [Later: Choice Cuts]
  • Soul Asylum, And the Horse They Rode In On (A&M)
  • 3rd Bass, Derelicts of Dialect (Def Jam/Columbia)

Village Voice, Oct. 1, 1991


July 30, 1991 Nov. 5, 1991