Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

The paucity of A's probably reflects a month in Europe with 90 or so preselected tapes and no chance to respond to new glimmers. Usually my 20 records reflect a much wider field.

JOHN ANDERSON: 10 (MCA) The noncommital title says a lot--about professionalism, about product. Not so much compromised as off his game, he kicks in with two winners and finishes off with a triumphant trope: "There's a light at the end of the tunnel/And for once it ain't a fast moving train." In between he goes all mushy about God, love, little children, born-to-losers, and the working man. B MINUS

STEVE COLEMAN AND FIVE ELEMENTS: Sine Die (Pangaea) Between their groove-busting tempo shifts and putative profundities, Coleman's two earlier records were enough to make you wonder whether smart fusion was any better than the dumb kind. This is definitely an improvement--at its best, it combines the modern tonalities of schooled bebop with the snap and kick of professional funk. Not the bump and thump, though. And while Cassandra Wilson sings more and intones less, you should hear her (no you shouldn't) on the likes of "As joy is to sorrow/Major is to minor/So is the darkness to the night." B PLUS [Later: B]

ETHEL AND THE SHAMELESS HUSSIES: Born To Burn (MCA) The music is standard-issue neohonkytonk, but at least this red hot mama who smokes in bed writes her own lines. Good for a change and sometimes a hoot, and more progressive than Janie Fricke for damn sure. B

THE FEELIES: Only Life (A&M) With rock and roll--music--as mystico-cerebral as the Feelies', analysis takes you only so far. In the end, you get it or you don't. Me, I find album three their most accomplished and least effective, and suspect that both its accomplishment and its (relative) ineffectiveness reflect the same crisis of growth. After all, this is rock and roll, not music; rock and roll has always had trouble with the mature perspective signalled by a couplet like "Got a ways to go/So much to know." Just because the perpetual nervousness of Crazy Rhythms and the pastoral lyricism of The Good Earth are callower, they fit the musical concept better. Either that or the concept is fading for me. Or for them. B PLUS

FOLKWAYS: A VISION SHARED--A TRIBUTE TO WOODY GUTHRIE AND LEADBELLY (Columbia) Half a century after the fact, Popular Front song achieves the industrial credibility of Popular Front flick. It isn't just Uncle Pete and Li'l Arlo and Taj Mahal and Sweet Honey in the Rock pitching in on these Woody and Huddie covers, proceeds earmarked to help purchase the leftwing Folkways catalogue for the august Smithsonian Institution. It's magnates like Bruce and Mellencamp and U2, legends like Little Richard and Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan, even Willie and Emmylou defying country's rightwing line. And wherever they come from they put out. Dylan hasn't sung this fresh or Taj this tough in years, Arlo picks a lethal obscurity from his father's vast book, Mellencamp's folky pretensions seem natural, Springsteen escapes momentarily from his slough of significance, and Sweet Honey earn their leadoff spot. Every example I've cited threatens to surpass its model. Elsewhere, the material holds up. A MINUS

ETTA JAMES: Seven Year Itch (Island) Unbeknownst to white people, she was Soul Sister Number Two--more and better top-20 r&b back when than Dionne Warwick, Martha Reeves, Tina Turner, Carla Thomas, Irma Thomas, any black woman besides Soul Sister Number One and Diana Ross, who belongs to pop. She's been a cult heroine since around the time she kicked heroin in 1974--albums with Wexler and Toussaint, tour with the Stones, etc. But her many post-'60s recordings have disappointed: often out of touch with herself (didn't kick alcohol till much later), she could coast on savvy and a fabulously down-and-dirty voice. So I expected not much from what turns out to be her best album since she met Barry Beckett at the Tell Mama sessions in 1968. Part of the difference is Beckett, the producer who's constructed the solidest bottom and sharpest top of her career, but mostly it's the something extra she invests in these half-remembered Memphis-type standards. Not all the way there--all the way there is hard after 35 years in the biz. But not cult-only either. B PLUS

ETTA JAMES/EDDIE "CLEANHEAD" VINSON The Late Show (Fantasy) Volume One: The Early Show showcased Cleanhead well past his prime and Etta at her most dispensable, mixing lax remakes of signature tunes with blues standards resistant to revitalization. This one's just fun, as Etta diddles blues tradition with stock refrains and off-color jokes. Plus a nice "Teach Me Tonight" duet. Too bad about "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." B PLUS

BIG DADDY KANE: Long Live the Kane (Cold Chillin') Faking a stutter or crooning a chorus or rat-a-tat-tatting a salvo of "ill" rhymes, he can rap that rap, and he's so prolific he spins off lyrics for labelmates in his spare time. But too often Marley Marl lets all this facility carry the music instead of adding the right sample, and when Biz Markie comes on the set you suddenly realize what vocal presence means. Of course, Markie's clown can wear as thin as Big Daddy's big man. What a duo they'd make. B

KASSAV': Vini Pou (Columbia) Hook density isn't why you should make this the first Kassav' you buy--it's no more filler-proof than any other disco album. Neither is production--deeper and richer it may be, but zouk didn't develop its studio rep because the brothers Decimus laid off the special effects. Quite simply, this major-label debut is the latest, the longest, and the easiest to find LP from the guys who invented world dance music. Probably the cheapest, too, but if you run across Celluloid's Kassav' #5 at a discount, go for it. B PLUS [Later: B]

MZWAKHE: Change Is Pain (Rounder) Child of a Zulu father, a Xhosa mother, and the Soweto uprising, he lives on the run, reciting his poetry unannounced and unaccompanied at weddings, funerals, union meetings: an authentic art hero, and as committed a revolutionary as ever cut an album. Which doesn't mean he can be comprehended out of context. So what's amazing about his first stab at music isn't the incompleteness of the translation, but the power. Before he utters a word there's some halting guitar that could make you weep, and despite the disorderly percussion favored by Black Consciousness bands he powers a South African dub poetry--with intimations of an apocalypse that's lived every day and agape so hard-earned only a Boersymp would doubt it. B PLUS

K.T. OSLIN: This Woman (RCA) The songwriting may never kick in full time, though it sure has its moments--when a girl with a new used car invites a cute young thing out for a spin, or a single begins her status report with a quiet "I'm overworked and I'm overweight." But there are other reasons to root for this full-timbred New York-based outsider--not only does she challenge Nashville's hidebound gender roles, but she doesn't cotton to neotraditionalist canons. In fact, her music hints at pop, and if you think that has to mean schlock or rock, don't tell the guitarists. B

POISON: Open Up and Say . . . Ahh! (Enigma/Capitol) Hard rock trash as radio readymades, these cheerful young phonies earn their Gene Simmons cover art. A residue of metal principle spoiled the top 40 on their debut, but here they sell out like they know this stuff is only good when it's really shitty. "Nothing but a Good Time" and "Back to the Rocking Horse" are clubby arena anthems, "Look but You Can't Touch" mocks cock-rock with a self-deprecating gesture, and the Loggins & Messina remake has been waiting to happen for 15 years. B PLUS

SLAYER: South of Heaven (Def Jam) The slower tempos will please their target audience and diminish their joke appeal for outsiders. The lyric sheet will please their target audience and make outsiders laugh at them. (Two consecutive lines: "Impulsive habitat./Bastard sons begat your cunting daughters.") For guitarniks, anti-abortionists, and target audience only. B MINUS

SOUL ASYLUM: Hang Time (A&M) Somewhere in here they warn of "a mountain made of sand," which gets at their problems neatly--their shared sense of sisyphean impotence and their big music no one can get a grip on. B MINUS

STAY AWAKE (A&M) Packed the tape but forgot the notes, which after three bewildered plays had me wondering whether Hal Willner's Disney tribute featured not the usual smart rocksters but lounge-jazz singers Whitney Balliett himself wouldn't profile. Then Willner acting alone would have perpetrated the feckless equation of fantasy and whimsy that wrecks this pastiche. Instead, his accomplices include Los Lobos, the Replacements, the Roches, NRBQ, Nilsson, Garth Hudson, and Ringo Starr. The arty, the miniature, and the atmospheric give way to "straight" interpretations that provide relief only until you realize how slight the song is. For me, the big exceptions are Sun Ra's jolly "Pink Elephants" and Aaron Neville's supernal "Mickey Mouse Theme," the small ones Buster Poindexter's villainous "Castle in Spain" and, yup, James Taylor's sleepy "Second Star to the Right." In none of them are the personal and the literal mutually exclusive--none of them goes flat or makes high-flown excuses for itself. Each takes pleasure in Disney's reality without hypostasizing it. Isn't that the idea? C PLUS

RICHARD THOMPSON: Amnesia (Capitol) Often impressed and rarely interested by his solo years, I sat up for "Don't Tempt Me," which opens side two in a persona-fied outburst of uproarious jealousy: "That's not a dance, that's S-E-X/Ban that couple, certificate X!" Followed by "Yankee Go Home," summing up 43 years of Anglo-American relations in one mixed historical metaphor. Whereupon I could contemplate subtler innovations--lead cut with a hook, political lyric with a point. Plus the usual twisted love songs and shitload of guitar. A MINUS

TOOTS: Toots in Memphis (Mango) From Sam or Dave or Wilson Pickett these oldies would be the latest nostalgia move, but Otis's greatest student has always been shy of the soul songbook: for him, a new batch of reggae is the past he can't escape and Stax-Hi the chance of a lifetime. Like all aging soul men, he can no longer flush out the gravel at will, but the vocalese is incorrigibly exuberant, the material ranges within the concept, and Sly & Robbie synthesize the unimaginable groove you'd expect. B PLUS

TRANSVISION VAMP: Pop Art (Uni) By Sigue Sigue Sputnik out of Blondie and T. Rex, and some suspect them of being--oh, the shame of it--posers; G. Cosloy claims they are as McDonald's is to a home-cooked meal. Which is what they get for wearing their inauthenticity on their sleeves in a rock and roll nation riven by identity crisis. My complaint is their inadequate command of trash--better riffs are available for hijacking. As things stand, their Holly and the Italians cover cuts not only "Revolution Baby" but "Andy Warhol's Dead." B

RANDY TRAVIS: Old 8 X 10 (Warner Bros.) As one of the two duds says, "There's at least a million love songs/That people love to sing/Everyone is different/And everyone's the same." Leaving us with at least a million and eight. This being country, he means love as in relationship--only "Honky Tonk Moon" is flushed with romance. Sometimes he's steadfast, usually he fucks up, always he sings like the neotrad master he's content to be. B PLUS

DWIGHT YOAKAM: Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room (Reprise) With the clout to take chances, Yoakam is out to prove that he's one mean cocksucker. On side one, hopeless jealousy metastasizes into a killing rage, and for damn sure he's more interesting that way--those who think Jerry Lee is the ultimate may even get hard. Side two's lament for a boozer dad and Buck Owens cameo convince me the revamped persona is for the better. The inspirational number he wrote for his mom convinces me of nothing. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Actually, my favorite album of the month is none of the above--it's a French sampler available only as cassette or CD. African Connection, Vol. 1: Zaire Choc! (Celluloid) is the soukous compilation this great dance music has cried out for, hotter and sweeter and higher than Earthworks's Heartbeat Soukous or Mango's Sound d'Afrique II. Sam Mangwana, 4 Etoiles, and Papa Wemba are some of the famous hard-to-finds featured, but the secret's in the picking and the flow--bet the compiler was a part-time DJ.

Etta James's Tell Mama is available from MCA as a Chess reissue, though I'd wait for the early-November Peaches best-of, which I hope isn't recompiled too much, since it's classic as was. Cleanhead and Cannonball (Landmark) catches Vinson in stronger voice, back around '61-'62.

Village Voice, Nov. 8, 1988

Sept. 27, 1988 Nov. 22, 1988