Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Acceding to popular demand (with formal advice from Eric Weisbard), Consumer Guide adds a new feature: Dud of the Month, enabling me to cast aspersions and crack wise--about misunderstood disappointments as well as arrant turkeys--between Thanksgivings. Help me stay in shape for the big push.

BIKINI KILL (Kill Rock Stars) As usual when a punk band does the trick, the secret isn't just magic. It's ideas, like the way Kathleen Hanna slips into the cockney "roights" on "Double Dare Ya," or the weary "Fine fine Fine fine Fine fine Fine fine" that ends "Suck My Left One," which I'd say is about learning to make something of sexual victimization and then learning that it's still no fun, but I could be wrong, which is why we need this band even if we don't believe racism and eating meat are, and I quote, "the same thing." Poly Styrene discovers ideology. Ideology discovers Poly Styrene. A MINUS

LEONARD COHEN: The Future (Columbia) Sometime between ages 54 and 58, Cohen appears to have lost his voice. Where once his whisper was the essence of intimacy, now he's singing loud and saying less for longer. Which ends up not mattering because the music is his best since John Lissauer split in 1979. Even the instrumental is satisfying minor Cohen, kind of like the sexy stuff. The political stuff--the horror-stricken "The Future," the hope-stricken "Democracy"--is major. And the eight-minute sendup of Irving Berlin's 10-line "Always" is a pomo triumph: the hoarsely pitchless singing, the soul-on-demand of the backup girls, and the thudding beat are all a travesty, all an act of love. At first you think, Sure, Lenny--"Always." Endless love, just your style. But as the minutes wear on you begin to think he may mean it, and then you begin to worry. Holy shit--is this old drunk going to be on my case for the rest of his unnatural life? Would he settle for a lost weekend? A MINUS

JOE ELY: Love and Danger (MCA) As these things are now measured, he's finally a country artist--a good one. You can tell by the way Tony Brown stops him from oversinging. By the way he lays into the similes on "Sleepless in Love" and the rhymes on "She Collected." By the way he writes nothing but love songs, including two stinkers. By the way Robert Earl Keen furnishes mythos and memories without filling Butch Hancock's shoes. A MINUS [Later: B+]

FOAMOLA: May I Take a Bath? (Foamola cassette) There's too much art project in these five songs, but fanzines hype slighter, dumber, more received stuff as if it were their holy mission, so why shouldn't I express myself? A married couple blow (flute, ocarina) and beat (chopsticks, coffee spoon, plastic fork). A buddy lays down some organ. The encomium to John Quincy Adams and the comparison of Texas and Tennessee are equally fanciful and equally educational. "Waiting for the Catfood To Come" is an East Village "Afternoon Delight." The weather report gets boring. And now I hear a one-year-old has joined the act. B PLUS [Later]

THE GOATS: Tricks of the Shade (Ruffhouse/Columbia) The password invoked to keep the wrong element out of the hip hop club is "beats." Shazzy, Sister Souljah, the Disposable Heroes, the Beastie Boys, all are accused of lacking beats, and no doubt these three rappers and five musicians will get the same treatment. So unless you're a joiner, home in on a fusion deeper than the Chili Peppers' and call them alternative rock. Right, it so happens that this pointedly integrated group is also pointedly leftist. But while I enjoy the numerous skits partly because I approve of their messages, Columbus and flag-burning and Leonard Peltier don't push my buttons even if abortion and class and pleasure do. I listen to this record because I love the way the rap vocals add muscle and edge to the hard-rock guitar and classic-rock bass. As for the beats per se, they're solid. Even slammin. A

GEORGE JONES: Walls Can Fall (MCA) The cassette-bound are advised to fast-forward to side two, CD investers to program, oh, 6-4-7-8-9-10-1; there's no true filler here, but "Wrong's What I Do Best" is far more thematic than "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair," in which 10 suburban cowpeople sing the praises of 61-year-old youth, and which I conceive as a coda. George has been hitched and on the wagon since well before he cut his late-'80s dreck, but he can still sing the likes of "Drive Me To Drink" (if she can't be his wife she can be his chauffeur) and "There's the Door" (if she can walk out of the house maybe he can walk out of the bar) as if he does a lot of listening at 12-step meetings. His problem wasn't authenticity--it was Billy Sherrill. A MINUS

MADONNA: Erotica (Maverick/Sire) OK, everybody, let's use our imaginations, shall we? It may be a little hard at first, but if we try we can have lots of fun. To start, let's pretend that we have nothing against dance music--that instead of fixating on impersonal and mechanical and all those obvious things we can just enjoy it for what it is, as innocently as babes. Come on now, really try. Got it? Good. Because now I'm going to suggest something even harder--that we pretend we've never heard of Madonna. I know that's like asking you not to think of a purple polar bear, so just pretend to pretend, if you know what I mean, which as good postmodernist children you do. Now, put the record on. Hear those bass and synth beats? Sinuous and subtle and sexy, aren't they? How 'bout the faux-Arab electro on "Words"? And aren't the techno effects all nice and cheesy-futuristic? The singer doesn't have great pipes, but because she's too hip to stoop to schlock-circuit belting, she doesn't need them. She's in control, all understated presence and impersonal personality except when she's flashing some pink. Also, not counting that "Love your sister, love your brother" thing, the lyrics are not stupid. I love the rap where the boast turns out to be a lie. And whoever thought of recording the breakup song through the phone hookup was pretty smart, wasn't he or she? She, I bet. A find. A [Later]

NIRVANA: Incesticide (DGC) A lot of these rags and bones and demos and B-sides are so on that I figured maybe I'd underrated Bleach until I played it again. But though memorable albums have been recorded for $600, they haven't usually been memorable rock albums--electric music doesn't travel without quality controls. In any case, the trademark interactions are more emphatic on the tracks Bleach's Jack Endino didn't record. Which speaking of learning your trade generally means the recent ones. Not a great song band yet. Just a great, um, alternative band, which is rare enough. A MINUS [Later]

ORCHESTRA MARRABENTA STAR DE MOÇAMBIQUE: Independance (Piranha) Said to double-time the traditional Mozambican majika, the marrabenta rhythm no doubt adds crucial subliminal novelty to Afrodance stomps like "Tsiketa Kuni Barassara," but won't signify beyond its cultural boundaries. Neither will the indigenous sources of what sounds from here like a fairly bizarre but not unexpected Afro-European-Asian-Caribbean melange. The hook is the slack horn arrangements announced on "Elisa Gomara Saia," which evoke the nutty jazz of Indonesian gambang kromong though I doubt that's where they come from. The jewel is the preacherly melody of the supposedly unfinished "Nwahulwana." A MINUS

TELEVISION (Capitol) I prefer the more rocking, songful old Television, but it's a tribute to Tom Verlaine's conceptual restlessness and force of personality that in a world where alternative guitar means making noise or mixing and matching from the used bins, these four veterans have regrouped with a distinct new sonic identity. Droll, warm-hearted, sophisticated, cryptic, jazzy yet unjazzlike, they sound like nothing else--except, just a little, old Television, mainly because Verlaine has ignored the Lloyd Cole jokes and refused to alter his voiceprint. B PLUS

RANDY TRAVIS: Greatest Hits Volume Two (Warner Bros.) One sign of how seriously Travis took his commercially chancy separate-disc best-of ploy is that he didn't stint with the bait cuts. Rather than bringing the collection down the way they usually do, four of the five previously unreleased songs on the two records are as classic and made-to-order as his style itself. Note, however, that on this less consistent volume the new ones are highlights. And that new title number five is the Travis-penned greeting card that brings the package to a close--and down. A MINUS

TOM ZÉ: Brazil 5: The Return of Tom Zé: The Hips of Tradition (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.) Zé is the kind of artist you think could be your leader if only he worked in English--your Dylan, your Weill, your David Byrne, some failed or dead hero like that. But if he'd been brought up Anglophone his lyrics would reach for the sky and never get out of the library, and his atonal songcraft wouldn't be so staccato yet grooveful, so acrid yet sweet--in just the right proportions for us, but maybe not for Brazil, where it took none other than David Byrne to rescue him from avant-obscurity. I couldn't swear that the fractured synthesis of sentiment and sarcasm these mementos of his down time convey in translation is any more viable, here or there, than the triumphant fusions of his U.S. debut. But they radiate hope and hilarity nevertheless. A MINUS [Later: A]

Dud of the Month:

SINÉAD O'CONNOR: Am I Not Your Girl? (Chrysalis/Ensign) Over and above Irish-American backlash and papal maledictions from the depths of the catacombs, this muddled project stiffed because no one understood it, possibly including the artiste. At least half the titles aren't "standards." I mean, Rice & Webber? Early Loretta Lynn? "Scarlet Ribbons"? An anticlericalist sermon? A putative Marilyn Monroe song that made a bigger splash when Helen Kane did it in 1928? A samba? Doris Day's "Secret Love" (which as it happens was the first record I ever bought, though I came to prefer the B side, "The Deadwood Stage")? All they share (except for the sermon) is that they are not rock (and also, conceivably, that O'Connor grew up with them, as she claims). But unlike La Ronstadt, O'Connor has no not-rock audience, and little not-rock savvy. Instead of hiring some reasonable substitute for Nelson Riddle--Billy May, or her Red Hot + Blue crew--she relies on high-grade hacks like Torrie Zito and Rob Mounsey. The weird thing is that even through their blare she sounds so defiant, so vulnerable, so sexual that at times she could be the greatest natural singer since Aretha. So up till the last three cuts, she almost gets away with it. But she doesn't. B [Later]

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • MTV Party To Go Volume 2 (Tommy Boy): great singles from good albums for the harried host, casual fan, and amateur cultural historian (the KLF: "3 AM Eternal (Live at the SSL Extended Mix)," Heavy D. & the Boyz: "Now That We've Found Love (Club Version)")
  • The Vulgar Boatmen, Please Panic (Safe House/Caroline): as if one of those shapeless arguments where you just can't concentrate on your partner's complaint were love, sweet love ("You're the One," "You Don't Love Me Yet")
  • Dan Baird, Love Songs for the Hearing Impaired (Def American): macho token of the year ("I Love You Period," "Dixie Beauxderaunt")
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik (Warner Bros.): they've grown up, they've learned to write, they've got a right to be sex mystiks ("Give It Away," "Breaking the Girl")
  • Luke, I Got S--t on My Mind (Luke/Atlantic): equal-opportunity doo-doo brown from the nicest guy in the Crew ("Fakin' Like Gangsters," "Head Head and More Head")
  • Iris DeMent, Infamous Angel (Philo): growing smart folk music from simple country goodness ("Let the Mystery Be," "Our Town") [Later: B+]
  • Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Alone and Acoustic (Alligator): no--together and acoustic ("High Heel Sneakers," "Give Me My Coat and Shoes")
  • J., We Are the Majority (A&M): Marky Mark the Red ("The Beast No One Ever Tamed (Gestapo)," "Born on the Wrong Side of Town") [Later: Neither]
Choice Cuts:
  • Ice Cube, "It Was a Good Day," (The Predator, Priority)
  • The Blue Chieftains, "Punk Rockin' Honky Tonk Girl," Courtney & Western, "Go to Blazes," (Rig Rock Jukebox: A Collection of Diesel Only Records, First Warning)
  • Skatenigs, "Chemical Imbalance" (Stupid People Shouldn't Breed, Megaforce)
  • Trotsky Icepick, "Venus de Milo" (The Ultraviolet Catastrophe, SST)
  • Mary J. Blige, What's the 411? (MCA/Uptown) [Later: *]
  • Brian Eno, Nerve Net (Opal/Warner Bros.)
  • Angelique Kidjo, Logozo (Mango) [Later: Choice Cuts]

Village Voice, Jan. 26, 1993

Dec. 29, 1992 Mar. 9, 1993