Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

I've actually heard at least two Amerindie albums I deem good enough to A-list: Blake Babies and Fugazi. In fact, I've heard them many times--the style now requires so much specialized knowledge that I couldn't squeeze them into my busy Pazz & Jop schedule. Poll next week.

ABED AZRIÉ: Aromates (Elektra Nonesuch) A Paris-based Syrian sets poems to Arab psaltery, Arab flute, Arab percussion, and Arab-style synthesizer. They'll stop you short the minute they come on, but translations or no they background better than they foreground: at its grandest, the music's world-exotic aura is not without faint echoes of Vangelis. Because it's text-driven, however, it never accrues the emotional mass of true schlock. With a culture being devastated, heightened emotion seems not only permissible but just. A MINUS

BRAND NUBIAN: One for All (Elektra) Constricted by rage, sanctimony, and defensive rationalization from Movement Ex to King Sun, most black-supremacist rap sags under the burden of its belief system just like any other ideological music. This Five Percenter daisy-age is warm, good-humored, intricately interactive--popping rhymes every sixth or eighth syllable, softening the male chauvinism and devil-made-me-do-it with soulful grooves and jokes fit for a couch potato. They sound so kind and confident and fun-filled you almost believe that someday they'll throw away their crutches. But just because they were feeling irie when they made their record, don't bet they'll have the good sense or fortune to grab the chance. A MINUS

CUBAN DANCE PARTY: ROUTES OF RHYTHM VOLUME 2 (Rounder) Though the companion A Carnival of Cuban Music is half field recording, Rounder's folkloric bias finally does a pop compilation some good. Most of the seven bands on this live tour of vintage Cuban dance rhythms date to before Fidel; one features an 82-year-old trumpeter, another a 92-year-old bongo player (who takes a solo). And all of them--including the post-Fidel Irakere and Los Van Van, whose signature "Muevete" is the longest and strongest of the three versions I know--thrive on the loose-limbed ethos of the dance-concert contexts. There's space in this music, odd touches--it feels freer than modern dance hits from Trinidad or the Dominican or Cuba itself. Freest of all is the old mambo "Here Come the Millionaires," which is what one group of pre-Fidel dockworkers decided to call themselves when they got jobs. A MINUS

SONA DIABATÉ: Girls of Guinea (Shanachie) Rather than romanticizing a righteous African sister, take her for a griot who's good at her job. In a nation where preserving musical treasure has been a point of socialist pride, her adept, folky elaborations avoid the appearance of self-consciousness--the closely related guitar figures underlying these songs are graceful, welcome, inevitable. But she's a trifle too dutiful to put much passion into her righteousness. And when we call music righteous, passionate is usually what we mean. B PLUS

DRAMARAMA: Live at the China Club (Chameleon EP) This bargain exploitation includes: three selections from the unblemished Cinema Verite and Box Office Bomb, the two finest songs from the spotty Stuck in Wonderamaland, and a non-LP B-side exhibiting an abandon appropriate to both a Dolls cover and a proper postpunk performance philosophy. I know, it's only a live holding action, and let's hope the writing returns to form. But it'll sure show everybody who began with Wonderamaland how much form they have to return to. B PLUS

FELA: Black Man's Cry (Eurobond import) Maybe I know only one of these six '73-'77 titles--"Lady," who's uppity, unlike a real "African woman"--because the others shun pidgin and sometimes lyrics. As total statements I prefer "Shuffering and Shmiling" or "Zombie." But this is his fusion in its world-beating prime, back when his bitterness was still sweet to him. A MINUS

GUY: The Future (MCA) As is only natural, I have as much trouble relating personally to Aaron Hall's woo-pitching Wonderisms as to, I don't know, Keith Sweat's tender Teddyisms. But I do appreciate them, and if forced to a choice I'd definitely rather suck him off than Dr. Dre. At long last male soft-core--moved, appreciative, desperate for more. Elsewhere it's the present of the funk--Prince here, Imagination there, both as new as jack can be. Plus a kissoff to Gene Griffin doubling as a get-yours-from-the-man cheer. A MINUS

WANDA JACKSON: Rockin' in the Country The Best of Wanda Jackson (Rhino) Although she wasn't quite Nick Tosches' "greatest menstruating rock 'n' roll singer the world has ever known"--check the Chantels, or the redundant originals and unoriginal covers on Wanda's Charly 32-track--she did leave more than nine hormonal epiphanies. Why no "Who Shot Sam," no "I Gotta Know," no (pthhh, wah, neeny-neeny-ni) "Tongue Tied"? To give country purists their due, I guess: her evolution through rockaballads toward the spunky c&w morality of "My Big Iron Skillet" and "A Girl Don't Have To Drink To Have Fun" is archetypal. And her Betty Hutton rip makes "You Don't Own Me" sound stingy. Hot dog, she made him mad. A MINUS

MACKA-B: Buppie Culture (Ariwa) Rapid rhymes, crisp enunciation, common-sense politics, and pop-weird dub give this English toaster the most auspicious U.S. debut of 1990--the 25 songs on his three simultaneously released albums could be boiled down into a meliorist Fear of a Black Planet or a socially responsible Mama Said Knock You Out. High points on the least consistent of the three include "Coconut"'s African Methodist accent and a climactic third-world threefer. But the title tune isn't what it could have been. And though I bet the man could write a passable lyric called "We Love the Children," he didn't. B PLUS [Later]

MACKA-B: Looks Are Deceiving (Ariwa) Seven songs instead of eight or nine, with room for dub codas that wore thinner for me than they will for the dancehall-friendly. But the songs themselves don't quit--the disses drop science, "Unemployment Blues" gets down to business, "Proud To Be Black" sticks to the proud facts of that overburdened theme. And "Drink Too Much" fulfills the wondrous promise of its brief, eloquent spoken intro: "Now you have some people feel dem idea of a good night out is to go to the pub, drink 15 pints of lager, and then vomit." A MINUS

MACKA-B: Natural Suntan (Ariwa) Sane, funny, angry, empathetic, beatwise, dubwise, this is the kind of record you feel privileged to share a planet with. Though racial pride is his whole shtick, he's too big to talk revenge, not unlike his hero Nelson Mandela--even when he's boosting melanin, he thinks it's a shame his oppressors turn the color of watermelon out in the sun. There are a lot of rhymes here because he has a lot to say, and just in case you think the truth is always neat, a lot of the rhymes are charged with dissonant synth splats. The motormouth insults of "Get Rid of Maggie" are fit company for "Stand Down Margaret" or "Madame Medusa" or "Tramp the Dirt Down." When the nearest thing to a low point is a sweet Mandela tribute that steals a chorus from Curtis Mayfield, you're up there. A MINUS [Later]

KOFFI OLOMIDE: Tcha Tcho (Stern's Africa) Floating airy synthesizers on the quietest of Paris-Kinshasa grooves, this Papa Wemba grad is class pop right down to his haircut. A balladeer by soukous standards, he's a rhythm king nevertheless, a cafe au lait Bing Crosby with the stuff to shoot from the hips. But for all its gentle carnality, his seductive one-on-one lacks emotional detail if you don't understand the words. Fluent Francophones will swoon--especially fluent female Francophones. B PLUS

K.T. OSLIN: Love in a Small Town (RCA Victor) She's rooting around in her catalogue for material, and except for the incorrigibly infatuated "Cornell Crawford" ("the first song I ever wrote," and it could keep you going), the old stuff lacks the CMA-sweeping experience of "'80s Ladies" or "Didn't Expect It to Go Down This Way." But the 1990 copyrights come close, the old stuff beats most folks', the covers are perfect, and she sings like Dusty Springfield. With a drawl. Her own. A MINUS

PAVEMENT: (Slay Tracks: 1933-1969) (Treble Kicker EP) These San Franciscans really don't like CDs--where a rap sample scratches a little, their pissed-off speedtoons jangle through the cracked pickup of an old GE portable. Though this mannerism is irritating at first, the toons themselves are so punky (and toonful) that it endears in the end. What ever happened to Camper Van Beethoven? "Box Elder." And they go on from there. A MINUS

THE POOH STICKS: Formula One Generation (Sympathy for the Record Industry) A shambling goof-turned-tribute reminiscent in conceptual/critical complexity of Actually or Kangaroo?, and if you have no idea what I'm talking about you won't get it. The lead cut, about falling in love with a New Kid, begins with a dim sample from the Raspberries' "Overnight Sensation" and steals the melody of Duran Duran's "Rio." The tune after that was supposedly lifted from GG Allin. Very catchy, guys and gal. As a rock critic, I love the shit out of it. A MINUS [Later]

YALLA: HITLIST EGYPT (Mango) One reason rock and rollers don't get Cairo pop is that it's pop in the pre-Warhol, pre-Elvis sense: a middle-class music hemmed in by classical and liturgical conservativism and half-acknowledged Europe envy. Both working-class shaabi and student-class al jeel rebel against these strictures--they're faster, snazzier, and (when they can get away with it) ruder than the ughnijah competition. The ear-catching arrangements and fuck-you spirit of the signature cuts transcend bothersome details of language and mode--their audacity is in the grooves, and you won't want to resist. Delving deeper takes more time, but eventually the rock glitz and Bedouin grit on the al jeel side sound both inventive and inevitable. The shaabi side just sounds gritty and glitzy. A MINUS

TOM ZÉ: Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.) These '73-75 songs catch a poor Brazilian (albeit a Brazilian who says his dad won the lottery) on his way from pop Tropicalismo to leftist jingles and instruments constructed from household appliances, only unlike his buddy Caetano Veloso, he puts the rebellion and satire out there in the music for benighted English speakers to hear. Zé delivers his portion of lulling lyricism, but it's his jarring rhythm-guitar hooks that you've never heard before--and will notice so fast you'll make sure you get to notice them again. The overtly pop-avant moves would have garnered desperate if imprecise Beefheart comparisons in their time, and the Arto Lindsay translations have the makings of international legend. Paul Simon should be so smart. Not to mention postmodern. A MINUS [Later: A+]

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • ˇSabroso! (Virgin): slicked back (Orquesta Chepin, "El Son de Nicaragua"; Grupo Irakere, "Rucu Rucu a Santa Clara")
  • Robin Holcomb (Elektra Musician): New Yorker poetry, downhome quaver, uptown chords ("Hand Me Down All Stories," "Deliver Me," "The American Rhine")
  • Pavement, Demolition Plot J-7 (Drag City EP): buzzsaw industrial ("Fork Lift")
  • Joe Ely, Live at Liberty Lunch (MCA): not country, not rock and roll--rock ("Me and Billy the Kid")
  • Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, O D O O (Shanachie): ragged and unbowed
  • Kasse Mady, Fode (Stern's Africa): Malian Kutché ("Laban Djoro") [Later: *]
  • Railroad Jerk (Matador): steam-powered industrial ("In My Face")
Choice Cuts:
  • Freddy McKay, "Keep Your Mouth Shut"; Errol Bailey, "People Get Ready" (Holy Ground: Alvin Ranglin's GG Records, Heartbeat)
  • 21st Century Dub, "Beggars Suite Pt. I, II, III" (Towering Dub Inferno, Rykodisc)
  • Fishbone, "New and Improved Bonin'" (Bonin' in the Boneyard, Epic)
  • Victoria Williams, "Summer of Drugs" (Swing the Statue!, Rough Trade)
  • Yo La Tengo, "Barnaby, Hardly Waiting," "The Summer" (Fakebook, Restless/Bar/None)
  • Amina, Yalil (Mango)
  • The Del-Lords, Lovers Who Wander (Enigma)
  • Najma, Atish (Shanachie)

Village Voice, Feb. 26, 1991

Jan. 29, 1991 May 7, 1991