Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

You got your world beat, you got your new wave, and you got your Neil Young, who's a little of neither.

BEAT THE RETREAT: SONGS BY RICHARD THOMPSON (Capitol) I hate tribute albums. They're patchwork by definition--even when the oeuvre is worth reprising, no way will all the contributors hit it right or the producer hear any way to segue it if they do. But this one peaks early and often, with double side-closers by balladic Britons June Tabor and Maddy Prior wiping out the creamy off-taste left by Bonnie Raitt and Shawn Colvin. The honoree's chronic inability to sing as good as he writes adds use value, and the two tours de force are vocal--the Five Blind Boys of Alabama's autumnal "Dimming of the Day" and R.E.M.'s joyous "Wall of Death." The honoree has also been known to play guitar, and Mould, Gilkyson, et al. make like it's a cutting contest. And then there's the oeuvre. A MINUS

HENRI BOWANE: Double Take--Tala Kaka (RetroAfric) By the time it reaches our tight little backwater, Afropop has generally been winnowed down to some kind of essence--famous tracks by famous artists. The rare albums that originally signified as such tend to be acknowledged masterpieces, rarely dating much earlier than 1980 and often not even recorded in Africa. By comparison, this one could be be some lost Brit obscurity--by the Move, the Soft Boys, you know. Back when Kinshasa was still Leopoldville, Bowane is said to have named Franco and invented a crucial rumba guitar move, but his hit years were over by independence, and when he cut his only album--in 1976, in Ghana, heretofore unreleased due to vinyl crisis--he was just a bizzer. If you didn't wonder briefly what a Francophone big man was doing in an Anglophone studio, perhaps you won't hear the brash yet modest cross-cultural claims of this simple yet polyrhythmic dance music--soukous guitar over highlife beats until the improvs come in. But beyond the melodies, they're what'll get you. A MINUS

CUMBIA CUMBIA 2 (World Circuit) Where the first volume was an all-subsuming best-of that ignored details of stylistic and historical development, this one focuses on the '60s, "la epoca dorada de cumbias Colombianas," and what it sacrifices in hooks it more than gives back in consistency and gestalt. Horn-dominated with plenty of accordion, far more playful and unpretentious than competing salsa or merengue, it's infectious rather than inescapable, lively rather than driving. I'd dance to it. I'd also give it to Scrooge for Christmas. A MINUS

DAMA & D'GARY: The Long Way Home (Shanachie) Dama is a classic folkie, a cosmopolitan leftist credited with inventing Malagasy nueva cancion, an elected legislator as renowned in Madagascar as Victor Jara was in Chile. D'Gary is a classic find, a prodigy-protegee from cattle country where the main road is an 11-hour walk away. Though their rainbow rhythms are formally unique and patently pleasurable, not even producer Henry Kaiser claims to apprehend them fully. The hook is D'Gary's distinctively Malagasy way with his recently acquired guitar, and even more, since that wasn't enough to put his solo album over, Dama's calm, good-humored, deeply assured vocal presence--a politician's gift from a place and time where oratory is still entertainment. Despite excellent notes, the satisfactions remain fairly general for the English speaker. But Kaiser and friends' understated filigrees remind me that said satisfactions far exceed those of similar projects--Ry Cooder's Ali Farka Toure soundtrack, say. B PLUS

FELLOW TRAVELLERS: Things and Time (OKra import) Jeb Loy Nichols is a singer of helpless, studied nasality whose reference points are country, dub, and '70s soul, none of which he deems incompatible with the Carpenters or George Gershwin. And although on his third album he leaves class war to Gregory Isaacs's "Poor and Clean," he's also a lefty. In short, he's about as commercial as a Swedenborgian schismatic on public access. And so, with nothing to lose except a few creations that might otherwise fail to survive any posterity whatsoever, he puts 16 songs on a mournful, unhurried, all too hypnotic 65-minute CD. It could use some pruning, but the guy writes better all the time, with domestic epiphany, romantic resignation, and everyday fatigue his specialties. There's a sadness here beyond self-pity, and a unique groove to match. At least your mind will wander somewhere it's never been before. A MINUS

GREEN DAY: Dookie (Reprise) For accuracy's sake, I should note that you haven't exactly heard it all before--the drums are punchier, the structures trickier. But insofar as you have, that's the point: punk lives, and these guys have the toons and sass to prove it to those who can live without. Before they start to wear down, they've done their bit for apathy, insanity, voluntary poverty, and the un-American way. A MINUS

MICHAEL HALL: Adequate Desire (DejaDisc) Far be it from me to attribute his edge to the journalism on his boho resume, but he's always been a cut or two above the dozens or hundreds of marginal or semiprofessional singing songwriters who can pull your coat for a cut (or two). In fact, he's got a best-of's worth of tunes behind him: for starters, "Sharlene," "Debi Came Back," "I Work Hard," "I'm Sorry, I Can't Rock You All Night Long," "Don't Love Me Wisely," "Let's Take Some Drugs and Drive Around." But this is the first time he's opened the door to music lovers unequipped with the aesthetic discipline or psychological serendipity cut-above music usually requires. Since cut-above artists evolve just like the ones you keep your ear on, it catches him at an unrepresentative moment--he hasn't always been so reflective, although at this late date he may be stuck with it. He's not just trying to pin the moment when love reveals its mystery--he's trying to make it last as he looks death in the eye. He's rocked harder. But you'd rather have the hooks. A MINUS [Later]

R.E.M.: Monster (Warner Bros.) Sick of dummies claiming they can't rock, the old Zepheads deliver the first power-riff album of their highly lyrical career. His sonic palette rainbow grunge--variegated dirt and distortion deployed as casual rhetoric--Peter Buck is so cranked even the slow ones seem born to be loud. As for Mr. Stipe, he's in the band, where he belongs. Message: guitars. Which after years of politics and sensitivity is well-timed. A MINUS [Later]

NICO SAQUITO: Good-bye Mr. Cat (World Circuit) Born in 1901, he was a master of canto popular rather than folk song--the acoustic but at least semiprofessional sons, guarachas, and guajiras that were entertaining Oriente province before Castro, Batista, Marti, San Juan Hill. He was 81 when he cut these eight oldies with a shifting cast of skilled revivalists, most auspiciously the Cuarteto Patria, who are nowhere near as sprightly and tuneful on their own A Una Coqueta (Corason). The reason is mostly the high-spirited Saquito, an exceptionally wry and flexible vocalist in what must have been some dotage. Spanish and English texts provided, so give it an 87--it's got a sweet beat, and you can read along to it. A MINUS

SLOAN: Twice Removed (DGC) Their popward shift doesn't change their specific gravity because they're all surface either way. Where before their noise was an intrinsically intriguing sonic signpost sweetened by their tunes, now their tunes gain savor from their noise. Talented boys, absolutely, often with something thoughtful to say about feelings the average college graduate has already thought through, and since I've got nothing against surfaces, I look forward to their romantic maturity. The smartest lyric here is cribbed from Algerian and Norwegian pen pals who should ask for points. B PLUS [Later]

NEIL YOUNG AND CRAZY HORSE: Sleeps With Angels (Reprise) Although I'd love to hear him throw something together with Dave Grohl and Chris Novoselic, the Cobain connection is a ringer--dozens of young bands could scare up a Nirvana tribute more wrenching and dynamic. Instead think Johnny Rotten revisited and Rust Never Sleeps. Although the 14-minute "Change Your Mind" is not now and never will be "Like a Hurricane," this has the breadth and confidence of a summation. It caps five years of trying with lyrical will-o'-the-wisps, weird road tales, sociological crazy mirrors, rock and roll's first great middle-age anthem, and the ecology edition of "Welfare Mothers." Now let's hope he doesn't go for Hawks and Doves. A [Later: A-]

Dud of the Month

BLACK 47: Home of the Brave (SBK) As he'll be happy to tell you if only you ask and probably even if you don't--at great length, all the gory details, plenty of asides, with bells on--Larry Kirwan has been around. The Major Thinkers, Turner & Kirwan of Wexford, God knows and I've forgotten what and who else--failure after failure, always with Kirwan struggling against the injustice of his continued obscurity. And though he's finally landed a major-label contract and three pounds of clippings, he's still struggling, for in truth now, Black 47 hasn't exactly eaten SoundScan for breakfast. Kirwan has plenty of brains and the gift of gab, but he's always overdone it, and these 16 songs last 70 minutes, the better to undergird their hefty arrangements--guitar-bass-drums, pipes and whistles, horn section, arena-jig beat, colleens, gad. Worst of all are Kirwan's vocals, soul-as-melodrama rockism with a brogue. The Irish immigrant underground is a great subject, and Kirwan knows its stories even if he overdoes those too. Maybe some laconic guy with an acoustic guitar will cover a few when the smoke clears. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Songs From Chippy (Hollywood): generics implanted in the history that produced them (Wayne Hancock, "Thunderstorms and Neon Signs"; Joe Ely and Jo Harvey Allen, "Cup of Tea"; Robert Earl Keen and Butch Hancock, "Morning Goodness")
  • Boyz II Men, II (Motown): watch out America--well-mannered four-part harmonizers are coming to fuck your daughters ("U Know," "I'll Make Love to You")
  • The Gravediggaz, 6 Feet Down (Gee Street): turning the nightmare up a notch to find out if the world has gone completely bonkers ("Graveyard Chamber," "6 Feet Deep")
  • David S. Ware, Flight of i (DIW/Columbia): eso blowing sessions and pop beatdowns from the grandest, breathiest sax ever to come out of a loft ("Aquarian Sound," "There Will Never Be Another You," "Infi-Rhythms 1")
  • Van Morrison, A Night in San Francisco (Polydor): having fun with Van, John Lee, Junior, 'Spoon, Shana (Morrison), and Georgie Fame on stage ("Jumping With Symphony Sid," "Good Morning Little School Girl")
  • Alex Chilton, Clichés (Ardent): recorded performance art--rock hipster misprises classic pop as acoustic folk ("My Baby Just Cares for Me," "Time After Time")
  • Fenton Robinson, Special Road (Evidence): his pain flows like whiskey, and he just wants to moan about it ("Love Is Just a Gamble," "Crying the Blues")
  • Randy Travis, This Is Me (Warner Bros.): give him decent material and let the poor guy be ("Small Y'All," "Gonna Walk That Line")
  • Liz Phair, Whip-Smart (Matador): "I made sure it wasn't shitty, but didn't worry about whether it was, like, A+"--L. Phair, Billboard, 8/6/94 ("Whip-Smart," "Shane")
  • Zap Mama, Sabsylma (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.): splitting the difference between sound effects and multilingualism ("De la Vie à la Mort," "Mr. Brown")
  • John Prine, A John Prine Christmas (Oh Boy): you know he's a cornball at heart, and you know some of these songs, but if you're as Yule-friendly as he is you won't care ("Silent Night All Day Long")
  • Ray Kane, Punahele (Dancing Cat): a commercial for paradise, if that turns you on ("Pauoa Liko Ka Lehua," "Punahele")
Choice Cuts:
  • Ass Ponys, "Not Since Superman Died," "High Heaven" (Grim, Safe House) [Later: **]
  • The Setters, "Let's Take Some Drugs and Drive Around," "Hook in My Lip," "Don't Love Me Wisely" (The Setters, Watermelon)
  • C.C. Adcock, "Done Most Everything," "Do Right Lil' Lady" (C.C. Adcock, Island)
  • Anita Baker, Rhythm of Love (Elektra)
  • Buckshot Le Fonque (Columbia)
  • Loreena McKennitt, The Mask and the Mirror (Warner Bros.)
  • No Prima Donna: The Songs of Van Morrison (Polydor)

Village Voice, Oct. 18, 1994

Sept. 13, 1994 Nov. 29, 1994