Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Pazz & Jop alerted me to more pleasures than I'd figured, not least by compelling me to reimmerse in the subtleties of Timbaland Associates. But this is no retrospective--you'll find three 1998 records below, with more on their way. Or so I trust.

ALI: Crucial (Island Black Music) That's short for Alistair, he's English--all right, Jamaican English, with a flair for the pan-African and a feeling for the African American. Not only has he mastered a vocal style half Al Green and a quarter each Ronnie Isley and Luther Vandross, he writes songs worthy of his musicality even if that means throwing some publishing to a collaborator. Untouched by reggae, funk, hip hop, or the spindrift impressionism of the postmodern love man, this kind of blindered formal command can only be learned from records--from aural data free of inhibiting social complications. After years of overrated Seals and Caron Wheelers, I wish I could be certain he'll be rewarded for it. A MINUS

BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: If You're Feeling Sinister (The Enclave) Sly guys, subtler gals. Straight out my stereo, they didn't have enough oomph to open my clip drawer--they go for dim where corporate pop favors hot, their lo-fi more Exile on Main Street than Sebadoh. So I assumed they were two or three twee public-school snobs just smart enough to mock their own privilege, with stray art-buddies chipping in. In fact it appears (although they are coy about it) that they comprise seven popwise Scots in the same general record-collector tradition as Orange Juice, Teenage Fanclub, and Bis, none of whom sound like Belle and Sebastian or each other. And while younger folks debate the intellectual content of Stuart Murdoch's mild-mannered cynicism, for me his clever affect is there to test the strenth of his third-power catchiness. You don't just recognize these tunes. You don't just hum snatches in tranquility. You sing along, irresistibly, sometimes with verse and chorus both. Just be glad Murdoch is into bemused sex rather than the glories of E, or attacks on the culture industry. A MINUS

MISSY "MISDEMEANOR" ELLIOTT: Supa Dupa Fly (The Gold Mind., Inc./EastWest) Like a lot of young black pop artists, Missy deals in aural aura rather than song, which means that even after you connect--as I did with "Izzy Izzy Ahh" well before "The Rain" hit MTV--she can take awhile to absorb. Innovative though it is, the video obscures the musical originality of "The Rain," its spacing and layering simultaneously sparer and busier than anything ordinarily allowed on the radio, and without Ann Peebles hooking you in, the rest of the album poses the same kind of congenial challenge. And sooner or later its pleasantness reveals itself as erotic--explicitly sexual enough to establish an atmosphere in which pleasure is something that happens simply and spontaneously between friendly free agents. There's no sense of conquest or surrender, humiliation or ecstasy or sin. It's summertime, and the living is easy. A MINUS

EVERCLEAR: So Much for the Afterglow (Capitol) Art Alexakis knows he got lucky and figures the surest way to maximize his success is to maximize his music, showing the strengths and weaknesses of someone you sincerely hope has found the investment counselor of his dreams. With his big riffs and self-aggrandizing evocations of a credible life, he's at his best working the timeworn audience-as-beloved trope. The title tune says everything he needs to say about follow-ups in the age of the one-shot. B PLUS

GRATEFUL DEAD: Dozin' at the Knick (Grateful Dead) For years I've sought concrete proof that two decades of Deadheads weren't the marshmallow-ears the world believed, but after several concert tapes failed to get over I decided I had more pressing business than finding the good nights that were probably still there. Now, finally, after several half stabs (Hundred Year Hall, Fallout From the Phil Zone), comes this four-hour three-CD document from historic Albany, New York. Solid new Bob Weir opener, coupla excellent! Bob Dylan covers, Brent Mydland more Rod McKernan than Page McConnell, creaky and transcendent "Black Peter," "Walkin' Blues" and "Jack-a-Roe," the nightly "Drums" and "Space" excursions scenic enough. And above all, that mesh of the tight and the shambolic that on their best nights rendered their music responsive and interactive in a way marshmallow-heads will never understand and therefore never hear. A MINUS

LADY SAW: Passion (VP) Seated in red suit and executive chair on the cover, the buxom Jamaican blond sprawls on a striped couch in halter and who-knows-what? inside--who knows because her hands cover her split beaver and the CD hole covers her hands. It's the new slackness, confidently and voraciously refusing to become the last big thing. Cribbing "That's Amore" and a generic country tune and a properly credited "Love Is Strange," ranging riddimically from something we call oompah to something she calls joy ride, she sings about sex without confusing power and pleasure or sounding beholden to anyone but herself. Do I like it raw? Well, since you were nice enough to ask . . . B PLUS

DAVID MURRAY: Fo deuk Revue (Justin Time import) What generally costs African-jazz fusion its spark is that for the principals, jazz is hegemonic. However admiring the American instigator, he feels he has something to teach, and however proud his African collaborators, they adjust. In this Dakar-recorded big-band project, Murray and his New York cohort do the adjusting. After leading off with a typically attention-getting sax showcase, he hands the rhythms over to the mbalax-tinged Dieuf Dieul band and surrenders center stage to matched clarions Tidiane Gaye, Doudoud N'Daiye Rose, and Baaba Maal's brother Hamet; Dakar rappers Positive Black Soul; and the very New York-sounding Amiri Baraka. This music swings only as part of the total package, which has more forthright and complex beats to make its own. A MINUS

NECKBONES: Souls on Fire (Fat Possum/Epitaph) Essence-of-garage is hard to hit on the nose because so-near-and-yet-so-far is simple--with three months practice, anyone can almost do it. Hell, with a little talent you can be New Bomb Turks, the Humpers, even Rocket From the Crypt, all now adduced to explain an Oxford, Mississippi quartet who deserve better. Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, I say, and though I miss Ron House's postdoctoral slacking, they actully put out more noise, riff, and especially groove, I mean beat. The Lyres? Mere myths. The Lynnfield Pioneers? Arty-farties. A MINUS [Later]

PEARL JAM: Yield (Epic) Videos, interviews, even TicketMaster--one way or the other, irrelevant piffle. The reality they come to terms with here is musical, and I'm impressed they had it in them. From the electronically foreshortened riff that announces their need for attention to "Push Me, Pull Me" studio manipulations that signal their refusal to be pigeonholed, the nice techy edge of Brendan O'Brien's production can't conceal their aesthetic conservatism or materially enhance songwriting and performance skills they've never pitched higher. Like nobody less than Nirvana (right, they're dumber, thank you for sharing), they voice the arena-rock agon more vulnerably and articulately than any Englishman standing. Rarely if ever has a Jesus complex seemed so modest. A MINUS [Later]

TIMBALAND AND MAGOO: Welcome to Our World (Blackstreet/Atlantic) Tim is as unpretentious as he pretends, as simple as his unsampled bass-beats. In fact, he's so uncompromising about being laid-back that he finds himself charged with no less a responsibility than redefining reality, which in his unorthodox view is benign, within limits: "I got my man Big D./Rodney/In case somebody wanna rob me." Magoo does the Flavor Flav thing, leaving Tim free to keep the self-referential rhymes as clean as they wanna be: "I'm on my last verse/As you can see I did not curse/I wanna make it radio-friendly/So people in America can hear me." He's woman-friendly too--won't call you a ho, just lick on your toes. A MINUS

VICTORIA WILLIAMS: Musings of a Creekdipper (Atlantic) There's eccentric and then there's loopy, and this fragile, well-named follow-up is loopy; the cred-checking Loose, with its hooks and choruses strolling by, could be a Peter Asher record by comparison. Williams ruminates around with trap washes and a tentative piano fanfare before delivering a discursive, indirect opener, and is moved to recollect the entrancing "Kashmir's Corn" before settling into more declarative material, as in: "I'd like to take this time to complain about the train!" Give it time and you could fall hard. I swear, bucolic dreamers aren't my cup of branch water either. A MINUS

YURI YUNAKOV ENSEMBLE: New Colors in Bulgarian Wedding Music (Traditional Crossroads) Unable to resist such an enticing title, I couldn't deny the frenetic high spirits it came with either. Soon I learned that "wedding music" is an insurgent genre favored by Gypsies and feared by Commies--and that the sax-wielding leader is a retired prize fighter who now makes his home in the Bronx. Do Muzsikás have beats like this? Ivo Papasov, even? Not that I've been able to notice. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

STEREOLAB: Dots and Loops (Elektra) From folkie soprano to synthesizer tweedle, many young people are down with their validation of high and clean--"Let There Be Flutes," as Bentley Rhythm Ace put it. And on a pretty good track, too, just like Emperor Tomato Ketchup is a fine album. Where us down and dirty types say sayonara is after the high artist peaks. Exploring rather than apotheosizing personal secrets, the high artist is like any other formalist, especially since he, she, or they probably suffered from formalist tendencies to begin with. On this album the tunes fall off and the wacky smarts lose the charm of surprise. There's still plenty of agile bass and clever sonic garbage. But only the high and clean will notice. B

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • The Mystic Fiddle of the Proto-Gypsies (Shanachie): from Baluchistan, wherever that is, sorud melodies over lute drone--very intense, rather narrow ("Suite of damali pieces, performed by Ramazan")
  • Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Heavenly (Shanachie): Joseph Shabalala & Co. sing the pop-gospel songbook (best cameo: Dolly Parton) ("Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "I'll Take You There")
  • John Prine, Live on Tour (Oh Boy): de facto best-of with four previously unreleaseds, three previously rereleaseds, and lotsa strumming ("Space Monkey," "Lake Marie," "Jesus the Missing Years") [Later]
  • Finley Quaye, Maverick a Strike (Epic): he's got a sound and some songs, but he's either too dubwise or not dubwise enough ("Sunday Shining," "It's Great When We're Together")
  • Roni Size/Reprazent, New Forms (Talkin' Loud/Mercury): in the mildly overrated tradition of Massive Attack and Soul II Soul ("Digital," "Electricks")
  • Carmaig de Forest, El Camino Real (Saint Francis): sharp narrative eye, cocky nerd attitude, too smart for folk and his own good ("Coldwater Park," "Sexy/Scary")
  • Baader Meinhof (VC import): that's right, Auteur (and now auteur) Luke Haines's song cycle about the West German terrorists, and at 30 minutes not half bad or too long ("Baader Meinhof," "There'a Gonna Be an Accident") [Later: **]
  • Erykah Badu, Live (Universal): knew about the technique, glad about the personality, still waiting on the content ("Tyrone," "Stay")
  • Spiritualized, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (Arista): proving that druggies deserve a fair hearing ("All of My Thoughts," "Cop Shoot Cop")
  • Beth Orton, Trailer Park (Heavenly): sincere SWF, enjoys tunes on acoustic guitar, likes technology and musos with glasses ("She Cries Your Name," "How Far")
  • Forward Kwenda, Svikiro (Shanachie): if meditate you must, better a mbira than a didgeridoo ("Chiahangechidhange," "Kanhurura")
  • Trish Murphy, Crooked Mile (Raven): you say you're really sick and tired of waiting for that Lucinda Williams record? ("Scorpio Tequila," "She Belongs to Me")
  • Elliott Smith, Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars): he could too be popular--he just doesn't want to be, that's all ("Rose Parade," "Say Yes")
Choice Cuts:
  • Yandé Codou Sčne, "Gainde" (Night Sky in Sine Saloum, Shanachie)
  • Wu-Tang Clan, "Sucker MC's"; Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, "F--- Tha Police"; the Roots, "The Show" (In Tha Beginning . . . There Was Rap, Priority)
  • Kramer, "She's Everything Mr. R"; DJ Spooky, "Remix Sistrum" (Drop Acid . . . Listen to This!!, Knitting Factory Works)
  • Salt 'n Pepa, "I'm Ready (Remix)" (Brand New, London/Red Ant)
  • Will Smith, "Gettin' Jiggy Wid It" (Big Willie Style, Columbia
  • Aqua, Aquarium (MCA)
  • David Byrne, Feelings (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)
  • Daniel Cartier, Avenue A (Rocket)
  • Lung Leg, "Hello Sir" (Kill Rock Stars)
  • John Lydon, Psycho's Path (Virgin)
  • Morrissey, Maladjusted (Mercury)
  • The Need (Chainsaw)
  • The Offspring, Ixnay on the Hombre (Columbia)
  • The Perpetrators, Porno Rock (Rimshot)

Village Voice, Mar. 3, 1998

Jan. 27, 1998 Apr. 21, 1998