Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

As promised, 1989 product, albeit in the narrow margin of 11-9, including six A or A minus entries, not bad at all for so early in the year. Believe me, it can't last.

ALPHA BLONDY: Cocody Rock!!! (Shanachie) This is his moment, his chance to break his one-worlder synthesis with another advance--or exploit his one-worlder formula with hit-plus-filler. Wish I could say his choice surprised me. B MINUS [Later]

MZIKAYIFANI BUTHELEZI: Fashion Maswedi (Rounder) A traditionally raised country Zulu, he sings like he's calling cattle or berating his six wives while his brother saws away on concertina or violin and groups of wives and male underlings muscle up to the mike. Pretty raw even for mbaqanga, and pretty repetitive, too--Jo'burg rhythm pros provide the now-familiar four-four. But familiarity doesn't flatten the overall intensity--instead, Buthelezi's wail demonstrates its character. If someone had bothered to pick and choose from his 100-plus titles instead of rereleasing an old album, he might end up more than a strange name in a catalogue. B PLUS

CICCONE YOUTH: The Whitey Album (Enigma/Blast First) "Into the Groovey" you should know. "Burnin' Up" you shouldn't, 'cause this one's "the original demo on four-track cassette," and also 'cause it sucks. "Addicted to Love" was cut live to a canned backing track in a record-your-own-single booth and will make my top 10 if they deign to release it as a single. The rest is funny mixes, found girl talk, beats from a band not noted for same, and other remembrances of their avant-bullshit roots. Why don't they take this stuff to John Cage? I want to be sure I get course credit. C

DE LA SOUL: 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy) An inevitable development in the class history of rap, they're new wave to Public Enemy's punk, and also "pop" rather than pop, as self-consciously cute and intricate as Shoes or Let's Active. Their music is maddeningly disjunct, and a few of the 24-cuts-in-67-minutes (too long for vinyl) are self-indulgent, arch. But their music is also radically unlike any rap you or anybody else has ever heard--inspirations include the Jarmels and a learn-it-yourself French record. And for all their kiddie consciousness, junk-culture arcana, and suburban in-jokes, they're in the new tradition--you can dance to them, which counts for plenty when disjunction is your problem. The quiz-show "Intro" is 2:17 too long. But they will tickle your funny bone. A MINUS [Later]

LUCKY DUBE: Slave (Shanachie) A South African who's studied his Bunny Wailer, Dube thinks reggae is "the one and only type of music that will bring black people back to their roots (where they belong)." I don't. But he earns his stylistic fundamentalism: the shared r&b affinities of JA and S.A. deepen his groove, "I'm just a slave, a legal slave" overtaxes no metaphor, and the transcendent falsetto of "How Will I Know" conquers all. B PLUS

DYLAN & THE DEAD (Columbia) Dylan is Bob, the influential singer-songwriter who's resurfaced as the brains of the Traveling Wilburys; the Dead are Grateful, and not just because charismatic guitarist-antileader Jerry Garcia survived an offstage coma--they're rich men, and they sound it. Like Dylan, Garcia plays hardest and works most playfully when somebody pokes him a little--Ornette Coleman, say. But unlike Ornette, Dylan's not forever young, and what he makes of his catalogue here is exactly what he's been making of it for years--money. C MINUS

E.U.: Livin' Large (Virgin) In which the winners of D.C.'s five-year elimination tournament come to terms with a truth of the recorded medium: unless you're James Brown, and not always then, even a Möbius groove benefits from some variety. With Mother Africa, doowop, Spike Lee/Marcus Miller, Salt-n-Pepa, and white girls adding assorted spice, fundamental romps like "Buck Wild" and "Livin' Large" have somewhere to go go. A MINUS

FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS: The Raw and the Cooked (I.R.S.) All I can tell you about the content of these songs is that they seem to concern romantic love. That makes them pop. I can also tell you that I don't much care if I know what they're about or not. That makes them good pop. And add that since this is 1989, good pop doesn't mean melodies and hooks, though neither is overlooked. It means beats (most admittedly quite hooky) and vocal ID. A MINUS

GALAXIE 500: Today (Aurora) With their strained, murmuring Sprechgesang, half-speed raveups, and sobbing guitar, they evoke circa-"Pale Blue Eyes" Velvets so beautifully you think they're an imitation until you recheck the original. Instead it's like Today's supposed to be as soft and gawky compared to The Velvet Underground as that album was up against The Velvet Underground and Nico. Like Jonathan Richman, source of the sole cover, they're sweet young aesthetes who love the Velvets without making them role models. "I'd rather stay in bed with you/Until it's time to get a drink"--what kind of decadent is that? B PLUS [Later]

DEBBIE GIBSON: Electric Youth (Atlantic) Casting about for a clue to this cipher, I found a gem in the bio: "My mom and dad took me to literally thousands of auditions, lessons, and performances." Making her a showbiz kid manque who immersed her perfect pitch and competitive Chopin in disco and Billy Joel, with every pop dream supported by doting parents who didn't want to raise a rebel and got their wish--so far. Unable to fall back on even an alienated childhood for inspiration, her music is synthesis without thesis or antithesis. A mimic and nothing more, she emits banalities about relationships and life choices that are no doubt deeper than anything she's actually experienced--so far. C PLUS

STEVE JORDAN: The Return of El Parche (Rounder) In a decade that's rediscovered the accordion's heritage as portable people's orchestra, this 50-year-old is as timely as Astor Piazzolla. Influenced by both Afro-Latin rhythms and the border polkas he played as a kid, he's every bit as original and a lot raunchier. It's the usual overstatement to call him the Jimi Hendrix of Tex-Mex--though I don't doubt he's the finest improvisor in his idiom, Jimi cuts him deeper than the assailant who took two years out of Jordan's career in a New Mexico bar in 1973. But if on casual hearing Carl Finch's loving compilation sounds insularly subcultural, the briefest check against Finch's two multi-artist Rounder ¡Conjunto! collections puts Jordan's all-American swing and sonic range into relief--even Flaco Jimenez is folkloric by comparison (though equally wondrous). Far from generic, Jordan's distinctive sound can connect furriners like me to the genre. I'm sure I can't feel it the way someone who lives among Chicanos can, but I'll call it rock and roll if he will. A MINUS [Later]

LOS LOBOS: La Pistola y El Corazón (Slash) This tastefully modernized tour of their Mexican roots is admirably uncommercial and more than pleasant, but without imputing "reverence" or some other backhand insult, I'll mention that I prefer the ¡Conjunto! albums because they're faster. And then there's this: usually, strange music is most efficiently conveyed by strangers. B [Later]

MAHLATHINI & MAHOTELLA QUEENS: Paris-Soweto (Celluloid import) He no longer sings as goatishly or as much, which is a loss, but until someone compiles his best-of, this will be proof he deserves one. The songs are new, many with far from embarrassing English verses and hooks you swear you've heard before, but it's production values that make it his first export album to soar. Soukous audio gives the beat bite. Strong support--not just Makgona Tsohle and the Queens, but West Nkosi second-stringers Amaswazi Emvelo--helps carry that weight. And I bet they took the time to get it right, too--blessed by the relief of a European tour, they waited till the spirit was more than willing. A MINUS [Later: A]

THE NEVILLE BROTHERS: Yellow Moon (A&M) Daniel Lanois's production is so subtle that at first this seems like a return to mighty-kootie-fiyo, but in fact it's the modernization they've been chasing since the Meters were history. Whether isolating rhythm-makers, adding electronic atmosphere, or recontextualizing "natural"-seeming instrumental effects (the un-New Orleans bottleneck that grounds "The Ballad of Hollis Brown," the Dirty Dozen horns that rescue "Wild Injuns" from generic throwaway), Lanois isn't afraid to go for drama, and while drama does have a way of palling eventually, the songs are worth the risk. The expansive "My Blood" and the educational "Sister Rosa" are their finest millennial-political originals ever, and though "Hollis Brown," "With God on Our Side," "A Change Is Gonna Come," and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" may seem like an obvious bunch of covers, their total effect is audacious instead (one '64 Dylan OK, but two?). Add Art's singing lessons (from Aaron) and Charles's horn lessons (from Lee Allen, say) and you have their masterpiece. Even the languours of "Healing Chant" seem apt and premeditated. A

LOU REED: New York (Sire) Protesting, elegizing, carping, waxing sarcastic, forcing jokes, stating facts, garbling what he just read in the Times, free-associating to doomsday, Lou carries on a New York conversation--all that's missing is a disquisition on real estate. I don't always find his politics especially smart (though I have no problem with his grousing about Jesse's Jewish problem), but that's not really the point, is it? As usual, the pleasure of the lyrics is mostly tone and delivery--plus the impulse they validate, their affirmation that you can write songs about this stuff. Plus, right, the music. Which is, right, the most Velvets of his entire solo career. And which doesn't, wrong, sound like the Velvets. Not even as much as Galaxie 500. Just bass, drums, and two (simple) guitars. A MINUS [Later]

WALTER SALAS-HUMARA: Lagartija (Record Collect) If this were really an ace songwriter doing his own thing, rather than a long-suffering semipro wondering why his group is short a label deal, he'd showcase songwriting. Instead he concentrates on riff-tunes--pretty good ones that aren't what you'd call propelled by the auteur's overdubbed guitar and drums. Which must mean he's saving the ace stuff for the Silos. Good. B MINUS

THE SCENE IS NOW: Tonight We Ride (Lost) My opposition to "good" voices is well-documented, and I admittely find it impossible to hear the alternative I pine for in my mind's ear--something sweeter, softer, more murmured. (Paul Simon half an octave lower and cleansed of the cutes? Never mind.) But I know damn well I'd enjoy their pomo chamber-rock more if the singer could carry a tune. There--I said it and I'm glad. B PLUS

SIMPLY RED: A New Flame (Elektra) First album never mentioned his roving third eye and got him noticed. Second told the unvarnished truth about his fast way with the ladies and didn't make him a star. So the third comes on as smarmy as Tom Jones, and not so he'll get laid more--rack jobbers have been his great romantic disappointment. What else can a poor boy do, 'cept try to be the white Teddy Pendergrass? C PLUS

THE THREE JOHNS: The Death of Everything (Caroline) Descrying the "gothic" tattoo that ID's a cartoon Jon Langford on the inner sleeve, I was reminded, invidiously, of his fondness for the Sisters of Mercy. The Johns are political jokers, hence not gothic two ways. But there isn't a track here as high-powered (or funny, or politically efficient) as "This Corrosion," and from the sound Adrian Sherwood gets out of "Never and Always," I just know Langford wishes there was. As well he might. B

THE THREE JOHNS: Deathrocker Scrapbook (ROIR cassette) Sloppy on principle, prolific to the point of automatism, they too have outtakes--and how. "Fun and games," maybe. "Some great fun and games," not bloody likely. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Compilation reviews often take on an aura of scholarly disputation over sacred texts whose premises are beyond question, especially with upper-echelon artists. A Chuck Berry comp is going to include "Johnny B. Goode," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," etc., an early Drifters comp "Money Honey," "Ruby Baby," etc. Since raw availability is the real issue for the new fans who need these projects most, later for the judgment calls--it's OK to cite your omitted faves, uncouth to go on about them. So MCA reissue director (and ex-crit) Andy McKaie might have gotten pissed at me for making light of Berry's The Chess Box in Pazz & Jop even if I hadn't committed two major factual errors by claiming that The Great Twenty-Eight and St. Louis to Liverpool are out of print. They're not, and they're recommended. McKaie also complains, understandably, that it's perverse to charge MCA with dominating the P&J reissue balloting by servicing many reviewers, because reviewers obviously should have the records--it's good business, since print is crucial in promoting such product, as well as a valuable educational opportunity. Right--PolyGram should have sent out Tom T. Halls the way MCA sent out the Willie Dixons and Rhino blanketed the media with Joe Tex and Ray Charles. Meanwhile, though, P&J results are a highly unreliable indicator of available quality. And now to the angels on the head of the pin. Problem with Berry's Chess Box, as Dave Marsh has noted, is the gaping crevice that divides his (far more than 28) classics from his filler. The 71 selections did alert me to great ones I'd never focused on--"Betty Jean," "Dear Dad," "Ramona Say Yes." They also convinced me that his cover versions never subsume the originals, that "Wee Wee Hours," "Rockin' at the Philharmonic," and others are eternally nondescript, and that "Chuck's Beat," "Liverpool Drive," the entire Bio album, and more are eternally lame. (Also where's my beloved "It Don't Take But a Few Minutes"?) The Drifters don't approach Berry's highs (I mean, they didn't invent rock and roll, or even doowop), but their generic stuff is so seamless that the slightly inflated 32-cut Atlantic double-LPs (40 on CD) belong in any moderately serious collection. The Clyde McPhatter/Johnny Moore 1953-1958 Let the Boogie-Woogie Roll goes higher and dips lower, while the Ben E. King/Rudy Lewis/Johnny Moore 1959-1965 All-Time Greatest Hits & More documents one of professional rock's most consistent brand names. Just as essential is Rhino's I Believe I'm Gonna Make It: The Best of Joe Tex, the bell-like audio of which finally rights Atlantic's disgracefully dim 1984 best-of. Tex was deep country, and the greatest soul lyricist: he preached, he scolded, he joked, and he shot VC in the name of Jackie Robinson, Batman & Robin, and his girl. (Without going on, though, let me note that the replacement of "You Better Get It" and/or "I've Got to Do a Little Bit Better" by the name-dropping collectible "You're Right, Ray Charles" is a typical Rhino crime against history.) Less to my personal taste but equally honorable is Rhino's For the Lonely: A Roy Orbison Anthology, 1956-1965. I should also note that Rhino has finally gotten Ray Charles to put his ABC material into the stores again--and that Charles remains on the U.N.'s Register of Entertainers Who Have Performed in South Africa, thus meriting a boycott no matter how seminal his music.

Village Voice, Mar. 28, 1989

Mar. 14, 1989 Apr. 25, 1989