Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Sorry about reviewing a Christmas album in January, just when it blows nobody good, but I have trouble getting into the proper spirit until I buy a tree, and who has time to buy a tree with a December Consumer Guide deadline staring him in the face. Seems to be background music month in other ways as well as I start my annual Pazz & Jop catchup--which yields mixed results so far. Believe it or not, I always thought I should take the time to give the Cocteau Twins a shake.

BANGLES: Everything (Columbia) No no no, last time wasn't serious, that was just PR--you didn't buy that Rubber Soul malarkey, did you? This time, though--this time they're serious. They wrote all the songs themselves. Got two about suicide, one about a complicated girl, a historical thing about glitter, and eight, well, love songs. But serious--"Lately I dream that I'm in your arms," "I'll do anything you want me to," "All I ever really want is you." Really. B MINUS

BILLY BRAGG: Workers Playtime (Elektra) He's an exceptionally well-meaning lad who's got a way with a tune and even some money. So maybe it's time to wonder why he has such big problems. Why are women always rejecting him? And why are the people always rejecting him? Not completely, of course--he's a modest success. But in both arenas he falls far short of his putative expectations, and I smell a reason in the barely concealed sob he can't get rid of. From unjust justice all the way to hopeless love, the catch in the throat is kind of seductive--until it starts to stink. This is the voice of a man who expects defeat--not only does he feel born to lose, but he doesn't have what it takes to throw a good wake. So why should the working class follow him to the crossroads? Why should Mary? B [Later]

BOBBY BROWN: Don't Be Cruel (MCA) It's the eternal fast one/slow one problem--when he states his prerogatives and tries to make the world dance he's irresistible, when he masks his motives and tries to make the tenderoni moan he's an obvious con. But he earns his prerogatives: the internal rhymes and voice-electrobeat patterning of the title track are so tricky they're hooky. And since I've never been much of an expert on tenderoni, I'm willing to suspend judgment on the half that leaves me unmoved. B PLUS

HAROLD BUDD: The White Arcades (Opal) Long before Brian Eno hyped ambient, there was the less pretentious term background music, and you can be sure our brave new age will goop up the margin between the two. At his most austere, Eno's old buddy Budd is hyperromantic, and this isn't exactly austere--with the proper inducements (hypnosis, or a large bribe), he might even call it a sellout. Weak-mindedness passing itself off as spirituality--it's what I've never been able to stand about classical music. Of course, it's also what new agers find comforting about classical music. That's how he gets to sell out with it. C PLUS [Later]

COCTEAU TWINS: Blue Bell Knoll (Capitol) Harold Budd records in their studio. The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir records on their label. I understand that they're more foolish than either (not naive, not after six years), and that they've been known to milk momentary momentum out of electric guitars, but the affinities are there--these faeries are in the aura business. So what are they doing on the alternative rock charts? Ever hear the one about being so open-minded that when you lay down to sleep your brains fall out? C PLUS

BOOTSY COLLINS: What's Bootsy Doin'? (Columbia) I always suspected he was hemmed in by his P-Funk kiddie show, and after six years of figuring shit out he proves it. The old mob is on hand, but the most Clintonish turn this vaudeville takes, "Shock-It-to-Me"'s superimposition of electrocuties and Alabama gals, was produced by Bill Laswell, and elsewhere Bootzilla working alone constructs a sweet persona a grownup can love. Still a loyal brother of the P, he may not want to hear that "(I Wannabee) Kissin' You" and "Yo Moma Loves You" are prime Steve Arrington, but I intend a compliment. And though it's a little wishful to claim we're all winners because our sperm got to the egg first, it's sure nice of him to see it that way. A MINUS

THE DEAD MILKMEN: Beelzebubba (Enigma) For a while there I thought they'd scored a comedy album worthy of their IQs--its forward motion makes them sound like kids again. But they're such shallow little doofuses that the jokes only stick when they're aimed at the right targets, always a subjective call. My special favorites blast punk rock and PBS--in a clever, whiney little way. B PLUS

THE GO-BETWEENS: 16 Lovers Lane (Capitol) The title may portend the worst kind of major-label move, but their worst is pretty good. On the straightest and catchiest bunch of love songs they've ever produced, the likes of "Quiet Heart" and "Love Is a Sign" admittedly cry out for a little tension. But so does "Streets of Your Town" until you notice the battered wives and butcher knives. To put it simply: they ain't the Smithereens. They're smarter, they're nicer, they're tougher. And they're still the romantic poets good popsters ought to be. A MINUS

THE GO GO POSSE (I Hear Ya) Three-four years after not becoming the next big thing, the groove is as indomitable as ever--a groove more steeped in black history, in swing and jump blues and Afro-Cuban, than any dance rhythm of the past three decades. But the optimism has lost a lot of its spritz--what passes for crazee on this multi-artist compilation is an anticrack rap with D.C. Scorpio as Captain Kirk and a reminder that D.C. doesn't stand for Dodge City. Not becoming the next big thing can take its toll. So can black history. B PLUS

JON HASSELL: The Surgeon of the Nightsky Restores Dead Things by the Power of Sound (Intuition/Capitol) Minimalist trumpeter discovers keyboard textures while abandoning quasi-traditionalist surface, just like Miles Davis before him. But though it's also true that both men have done their schlockiest work while tickling the microchips, Hassell's impulses are so esoteric that a little schlock becomes them. I doubt he'll ever equal his first Eno project, and Power Spot is tougher. But if you're looking for ambient music that eschews new age sweetener, this'll calm your nerves real nice. A MINUS [Later: B+]

JOHN HIATT: Slow Turning (A&M) Cut with his road band rather than a select cast of studio heavies, which probably took some pressure off a perpetual comer who turns the juice up too high when he gets nervous. Anyway, the high-grade country fodder--"Is Anybody There?" to a woman who loves him, "Georgia Rae" to a newborn daughter, and so forth--goes down easier. And the mean stuff he's always been best at--a roving couple who shoot up an automatic teller for laundromat change, a roving couple who steal one of Elvis's Cadillacs, a guy who cheats the world just like his daddy did--has a properly rowdy edge. B PLUS

INCORPORATED THANG BAND: Lifestyles of the Roach and Famous (Warner Bros.) After laying low for a couple of years, George Clinton enlists a new bunch of unsuspecting young people into P-Funk Mark VIII (Plus or Minus III), so say ho. His mid-'80s electrowhomp is in place, and the catchy lounge-rocker wasn't stolen from the Main Ingredient or somebody. But with "jack" the keyword and "chiropracter" and "androgynous" the polysyllables, he never comes up with the catchphrase that reestablishes his street connection--not even a "Do fries go with that shake?" Which may be why the electrowhomp shows its technics. B

LEON REDBONE: Christmas Island (August) Beyond sacred schlock-by-association and rock and roll gifts, Christmas is a pop holiday that plays best in the background, which suits Redbone's forgettable old-timey lassitude. Who needs a major stylist interpreting "White Christmas" and "Frosty the Snowman"? Both material and occasion call for a pleasantly anonymous medium, and if he sticks in a pleasantly distinctive obscurity like the hula-tinged title tune, don't look it in the chord changes. B PLUS

SCHOOL DAZE (EMI-Manhattan) Any filmmaker who hopes his soundtrack "encompasses the many different idioms of Black music" had better forget da movies and go into record production full time. Even if he can get soundtrack-plus out of E.U. and Stevie Wonder. Even if his daddy can concoct amazing simulations of torch and revue and spiritual at reasonable rates. B

STEEL PULSE: State of Emergency (MCA) Imperialism, harassment, dead-end economy--haven't they ululated about these things firsthand within living memory? Damn right. You know their roots are shot when they aim their most heartfelt protests at disco bouncers and the perils of air travel. Inspirational Verse: "Hijacking I need some fun/You got me on the run." C PLUS

GARY STEWART: Brand New (Hightone) Hard living deepens great voices, but it's hell on the smaller ones, and so naturally Stewart compensates by oversinging, burying the songs in a mannered misery and wild-ass desperation that for all you can tell he may actually be feeling. Wordplay's half there at best: "I was born the life of the party/And honey I'm dyin' tryin' to get one started," which is terrific, is preceded by "I was born the son of a honky tonk woman/My daddy was a natural-born gamblin' man," which is terrible. And which provides the song's title. B

TELEX: Looney Tunes (Atlantic) These disco-mad Belgian technopoppers take off like a computer run amuck. By the time they're through with the lovable "I Don't Like Music" and the ducky "Temporary Chicken," they could be the Art of Noise doing a comedy album, or Tom Tom Club on a roll--they've earned the right to call one "Spike Jones." But despite the "Frere Jacques" and "Jingle Bells" rips to follow, "Spike Jones" is as crazy as side one gets. And despite "I Want Your Brain," side two is technodisco. B

UB40 (A&M) This is such an uncommonly steadfast band--the same eight musicians pursuing the same reggae-protest since 1980--that I'm willing to believe the love songs signify a break not in dedication but in "macho bravado," as they claim. And as usual, everything hooks in after a long eventually. But what'll get you to eventually is a neoclassic instrumental, a Chrissie Hynde oldie duet, and one of the protest numbers. B PLUS

WAS (NOT WAS): What Up, Dog? (Chrysalis) Smooth has never been their forte--in fact, they've never given a shit about it. So this comes on as scattered as the literary art-funk you dimly remember. It's not, though--they relax a little, write real tunes, groove the overelaborate rhythmic attack, and add lyrical reach and purpose without softpedaling their ruefully cynical leftwing misanthropy. Which is their message to the world whether we (and they) like it or not. Since a little goes a long way, it's encouraging that two of the grotesque one-night stands have happy endings. As for the prodigal malcontent who tells his dad he wants to stay in jail and the good old goon who uses his pit bull as a credit card, they're just misanthropic fun. A MINUS

ZIMBABWE FRONTLINE (Virgin) Hot Thomas Mapfumo, hooked Four Brothers. Fervent call for unity in a non-Zimbabwean tongue, husky cry of independence from a natural feminist. Mbaqanga rumba with West Nkosi in the control booth. Tart pop sweetmeats from Devera Ngwena, who outsell the Bhundus in Harare. A generic or two. Except maybe for Mapfumo's Ndangariro, which gets over on groove rather than songs, mbira guitar's most convincing showcase. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Two of the above-reviewed LPs have accompanying EPs. Billy Bragg's Help Save the Youth of America: Live and Dubious (Elektra) is part-live, part-studio, part-Washington, part-Moscow, and though I admire Bragg's stage presence, it isn't the songs that carry his performance. The only significant patter here is doubled in length by its Russian translation. It's got a great union song on it, but you've already paid your dues. Go Go Live at the Capitol Centre (I Hear Ya) is a lot more convincing, even vivid, than the much longer accompanying video. And the only thing that makes it less desirable than The Go Go Posse is that it isn't long enough.

Village Voice, Jan. 24, 1989

Dec. 27, 1988 Mar. 14, 1989