Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

My Pazz & Jop delvings were low on picks and peeves. Besides the trio of just barelys down in Honorable Mention, its only contributions to this month's discourse are Sublime, which I had given up on, and our Grammy-nominated Dud of the Month, which I foolishly hoped had sunk into the anonymity it cultivates so tastefully.

DAN BERN (Work) Messiah one song and king of the world the next, this absurdist upstart isn't above flat-out imitating the young Dylan, although he'll settle for a more general resemblance. Whether he's strumming to beat the band, flattening guitar-bass-drums into deep background, joking around with throat singing, or stealing the spoken melody of "Brownsville Girl," his metier is folk music of the culturally retrograde antihoot variety. If he didn't make me laugh where his fellow wannabees make me wince (while trying to make me laugh), I might even figure him for one of those losers who claims Beck got his best shit from Paleface. So right, he's not an innovator--just drunk on words, like the young Dylan. And the young Beck. Deny yourself this pleasure if you think that makes you an aesthete. I enjoy it because I think it makes me an egg cream. A MINUS

BIS: This Is Teen-C Power! (Grand Royal) Teensy power, they mean--six teensy songs on a teensy 15-minute CD. But if lines like "We all want the system to fall" seem wishful, "Kill Yr Boyfriend" and "This Is Fake D.I.Y." are minusculely magnificent. In a world full of rote bands who thought riot grrrl would be easy, these boys-and-girl perpetuate the illusion. B PLUS

ETOILE DE DAKAR: Volume 3: Lay Suma Lay (Stern's Africa) On the final installment of their collected works, Youssou N'Dour's first band embellish their self-taught Afrocentric charanga with horn lines whose intricately percussive Islamic tune families recall no Latin record I've ever noticed. Cut into still gaudier ribbons by the hectoring tenor of the soon-departed El Hadji Faye, it's wilder and weirder than any mbalax or fusion the nonpareil vocalist has put his name on since. A MINUS

GHOSTFACE KILLAH: Ironman (Razor Sharp/Epic Street) Irritated, awed, and confounded by the impenetrable rhymes and five-dimensional soundscapes of Wu-Tang, I spent months trying to figure this record out before deciding that its secrets were on the surface. Ghostface is the most street of the clan--not comic like Ol' Dirty Bastard or mack like Method Man, not deep like Raekwon or Genius either. In a word, gangsta--East Coast-style, reflective and observant, only he doesn't vow to go straight all the time. By his own account, he's done a lot of bad things, and within five minutes he's spewing some of the vilest woman-hate in the sorry history of the subgenre. But the detail is so vivid and complex that for once we get the gripping blaxploitation flick gangsta promises rather than the dull or murky one it delivers. True crime tales like the vengeful "Motherless Child" and the unstoppable "260" are gritty and action-packed, and even the spew plays out as exactly what a long-dicked knucklehead would want to say to the young thing who done him wrong. Then there are magic moments like "Camay," in which social-climbing crew members move on legal secretaries and assistant managers at Paragon, and the social-realist family reminiscence "All I Got Is You." Most decisive of all, RZA's music is every bit as literal as Ghostface's rhymes and rap, giving up tunes, even hooks. As soulful as Tony Toni Toné--maybe more. A MINUS [Later: A]

MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT: Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings (Columbia/Legacy) Although Hurt was beloved in his time--from his first Northern gigs in 1963 at age 69 until his death at 73--his story isn't the stuff of blues legend. A lifelong sharecropper who raised 14 kids with one woman, he was the least dangerous-looking of the '60s rediscoveries, which is one reason folkies found him so irresistible. But however suspect hardboiled postmoderns may find his rep, his music is damn near unique. The school of John Fahey proceeded from his finger-picking, and while he's not the only quietly conversational singer in the modern folk tradition, no one else has talked the blues with such delicacy or restraint. Since his approach didn't sap his adrenaline or testosterone and his skills matured with the years, the many albums he cut in his seventies (try Rounder's casual Worried Blues 1963, or Vanguard's sweetly eerie Last Sessions) betray none of the diminishment of late Son House or Bukka White. Yet these crisp, detailed digital remasters from half a lifetime before pack an added authority: they establish that the gentleness of his music in no way reflects the frailty of a defenseless old age. Emanating from vocal cords that have plenty spring in them at 35, his equanimity seems chosen and vigorous, as befits a major 20th-century artist. A MINUS

JAZZ PASSENGERS FEATURING DEBORAH HARRY: Individually Twisted (32) A friend of Roy Nathanson since long before this band began a decade ago, I've loved the Passengers on stage, where the saxophonist kept the interactions grooving like the comic actor he also is, and found their records arty. Here the artiest track is Elvis Costello's (and bassist Brad Jones's) long-lined "Aubergine," the runner-up "Imitation of a Kiss," originally the pick to click on In Love, counted the Passengers' pop move in 1994 because it had lyrics. From Nathanson and Harry's slantwise opener to Blondie's loopy closer, from David Cale's mock-'40s exotica to Nathanson's jump blues homage, its pleasures are various and manifest, and if they're over the head of the average Costello completist, that's because this pop move isn't aimed at any kind of average. Starting with the girl singer, it's real musicians tweaking real sophistication into the fake jazz loungecore isn't smart or real enough for. A MINUS [Later]

FREEDY JOHNSTON: Never Home (Elektra) When Billboard wondered whether Freedy could fill one of those solo-male chart niches left inexplicably vacant by Rod Stewart and Bryan Adams, the object of their affections had the artistic integrity to keep a straight face about it. He's a cardplayer--so committed to the mystery of the ordinary that you have to poke a stick beneath his flat, bland catchiness to glimpse the empathy and compulsion it conceals. With '70s perfectionist Danny Kortchmar replacing the mismatched Butch Vig behind the board, Johnston not only regains his grace but spells it out--most of these lyrics tell a story suitable for paraphrasing. But he'll never be accessible to consumers who can only read a heart when it's bloodying a sleeve. Our blessing, his curse. A MINUS [Later]

L7: The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum (Slash/Reprise) Divested of Jennifer Finch's liberal conscience, bad girls Donita Sparks and Suzy Gardner are she-cats with a bitch's vocabulary, yowling and whining the basics: "Me, Myself and I," "I Need," "Must Have More." Brazenly revving their punk toward metal, they work their claim to "the urban din" till it yields the slag and shiny things they won't do without. A MINUS

OUMOU SANGARE: Worotan (World Circuit) Traditional? Folkloric? Malian? "World"? Fusion? Pop? Ignoring such petty distinctions, this sexy sister and radical queen is all these things and none. Its interlock Malian, its forward motion as imbued with possibility as the message it carries, her music has never been more confident or distinct. She's proud to be a griot, a political force, an earth mother, a modern woman, a star. She exploits possibilities she finds in Europe and America, and she gives new possibilities back. A MINUS [Later]

SUBLIME (Gasoline Alley/MCA) If you've resisted, I understand. They're surf punks and ska boys and heroin addicts, each a reasonable ground for summary dismissal. Not only that, one of them is dead. The prognosis is so dismal that it takes time to hear that this ska is evolving toward sinuous skank rather than reverting to zit-popping thrash, to ascertain that the tunes are simple rather than pro forma, to believe that Brad Nowell writes like he's got a life even if he ended up wasting it. Junkies who retain enough soul to create music at all are generally driven to put their brilliance and stupidity in your face. Nowell is altogether more loving, unassuming, good-humored, and down-to-earth--or so he pretends, which when you're good is all it takes. A MINUS [Later]

WILCO: Being There (Reprise) Is a two-CD package that could fit onto one conning consumers, taking on airs, or wallowing in nostalgia for a lost time when songs were songs and double albums were double albums? All three. Yet there's no point denying Jeff Tweedy's achievement as long as you recognize its insularity. His simple melodies, felt vocals, and easy stylistic sweep all evoke a past when roots music came naturally, from bluegrass to the Rolling Stones--a past he preserves by removing it to the privacy of his head and your sound system. There's no dynamism to his music--the rockers are slackers, the hooks essentially atmospheric. Yet as objects of contemplation both have their power and charm. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

GILLIAN WELCH: Revival (Almo Sounds) Who cares if her polka-dot dress is a costume rather than a heritage? She's got as much right to be a folkie as 10,000 mediocrities and a few dozen geniuses before her. Iris DeMent is a custodian's daughter, Lucinda Williams a poet's daughter, Bonnie Raitt a musical comedy star's daughter, yet from their differing authenticities each has said something unique about the rural South and everyday people. Welch is a songwriting team's daughter who, as is more common, hasn't--not yet, probably not ever. She just doesn't have the voice, eye, or way with words to bring her simulation off. Unless you're highly susceptible to good intentions, a malady some refer to as folkie's disease, that should be that. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Fountains of Wayne (Atlantic/Tag Recordings): revenge of the schnooks ("Sick Day," "Joe Rey")
  • They Might Be Giants, Factory Showroom (Elektra): there ain't half been some clever bastards ("How Can I Sing Like a Girl?," "I Can Hear You," "James K. Polk," "XTC Vs. Adam Ant")
  • Divas of Mali (Shanachie): voices of authority (Sali Sidibe, "Yacouba Sylla"; Kandia Kouyate, "Jakha")
  • BR5-49 (Arista): not Hank or Gram, not Jeff Tweedy either--vintage Asleep at the Wheel? ("Little Ramona [Gone Hillbilly Nuts]," "Even If It's Wrong")
  • Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation (Columbia): with Vic Chesnutt down they should do one for Butch Hancock, who I hope is healthy as a horse (Garbage, "Kick My Ass"; Joe Henry and Madonna, "Guilty by Association")
  • Cake, Fashion Nugget (Capricorn): the ridiculous pathos of everyday life ("I Will Survive," "Frank Sinatra")
  • Diblo Dibala, My Love (Atoll Music import): the kind of genre move you miss when the well runs dry ("Radi," "Reconnaissance")
  • Space Surfers, Pretty Damn Cool (Fridge): Italian girlpunk with two boys, mucho irony, and a drum machine ("Magilla Godzilla," "Cadillac and Dinosaurs")
  • Bob Mould, Egoverride (Rykodisc): sole great song-sound off latest go-it-alone plus three crisply creditable outtakes equals one decent EP ("Egoverride")
  • Ice-T, Return of the Real (Rhyme Syndicate): but then again, what is reality? ("I Must Stand," "Rap Game's Hijacked," "The 5th")
  • Martin Phillipps & the Chills, Sunburnt (Flying Nun): fading tunefully to wan ("Lost in Future Ruins," "Surrounded")
  • Sheryl Crow (A&M): thank not just Alanis but Tchad ("The Book," "Home")
  • Johnny Cash, Unchained (American): "If I can't make these songs my own, they don't belong," say the notes, which always belong ("Mean Eyed Cat," "I Never Picked Cotton")
  • New Kingdom, Paradise Don't Come Cheap (Gee Street): like taking a bath in the Gowanus Canal ("Paradise Don't Come Cheap," "Kickin' Like Bruce Lee")
  • Erykah Badu, Baduizm (Universal): for one thing, Billie didn't write her own material ("Rimshot," "Afro")
  • Screaming Trees, Dust (Epic): a good old-fashioned cry ("Dying Days," "Traveler")
Choice Cuts:
  • Aaliyah, "Got To Give It Up" (One in a Million, Blackground/Atlantic)
  • They Might Be Giants, "I Should Be Allowed To Think," "Meet James Ensor" (John Henry, Elektra)
  • Vic Chesnutt, "Little Vacation" (About to Choke, Capitol)
  • Geto Boys, "The World Is a Ghetto" (The Resurrection, Rap-a-Lot)
  • Pat Boone, "Smoke on the Water" (In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, Hip-O)
  • Eels, Beautiful Freak (DreamWorks)
  • Lach's Antihoot: Live From the Fort at Sidewalk Cafe (Shanachie)
  • Maxwell, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite (Columbia)
  • Roger McGuinn, Live From Mars (Hollywood)
  • Nerf Herder (Arista)
  • Scud Mountain Boys, Massachusetts (Sub Pop)

Village Voice, Mar. 11, 1997

Jan. 28, 1997 Apr. 15, 1997