Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

March is always a slack time, but Fugees aside, nothing in this motley of best-ofs, Africana, and good new product from full-fledged adults enhances my hopes for the future of world culture. Shape up out there, kids.

ADVENTURES IN AFROPEA 3: TELLING STORIES TO THE SEA (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.) Like Nonesuch's lavishly praised and quite possibly worthy Césaria Évora project, David Byrne's compilations have been lyric-heavy in a world where only saints and singers enjoy interpretive nuance in a foreign tongue. Here the slow ones, including Évora's classic morna "Sodade," are so choice they get across before they're swept away by a panoply of Caribbean-tinged Afro-Lusophone dance styles at their most hookily universal. I know it's crass of me, but I find that dirty little catch in Jacinta Sanchos's throat more alluring than all of Césaria's incomprehensibly earthy wisdom. A MINUS

BAD RELIGION: All Ages (Epitaph) Maintaining a sonic constancy that makes New York's three-chord retirees seem chameleonic by comparison, these Valley boys are monotonous enough to benefit from a best-of, but don't think they've ever settled for a duff album--they're too focused, and too brainy. No doubt a better writer would find a simpler, more eloquent way to say, for instance, "Culture was the seed of proliferation/but it has gotten melded/into an inharmonic whole." But a) the song bashes like a motherfucker anyway. And b) the big words are a hook. If their antipolitical ecopessimism isn't spreading like wildfire, which is just as well anyway, give them credit for aiming to challenge, not convince. And believe that where most bands with a message for the masses wind up looking like bigger fools than they already are, Ph.D candidate Greg Graffin and departed homeboy Brett Gurewitz aren't just better informed than their fans--they're probably better informed than you. A MINUS [Later]

GARTH BROOKS: Fresh Horses (Capitol) A little heavy-handed (all right, a little more heavy-handed), with three rodeo songs and a big fat Irish anthem that won't be to everyone's taste (all right, your taste). Don't matter, because he's so far from the schlock phony he's taken for--so open-hearted, so extreme, so sui generis--that all but a couple of tracks do his thing even when he's protesting too much (which, all right, may be his thing). Cute trick: the two about marriage explain his weakness for bucking broncos. B PLUS

STEVE EARLE: Train A Comin' (Winter Harvest) "Some of you would live through me," the ex-con charges on his Warner rock comeback, and he's probably right. When the vernacular flows easy or sounds that way, a rare thing, five wives and enough heroin to destroy a saner man are the kind of myth rock and roll fools are always mistaking for reality. And clean though Earle may be, he's not above or beyond embracing that myth--among his latest celebrations of romantic dysfunction is one where he all but dares the object of his obsession to call the cops. Better the laconic narratives and pipeline to the great American tune clusters of this alternative offering, a trad reimmersion with Norman Blake and Peter Rowan picking mandolins and dobros as Earle dredges up songs by his fine young self. "Tom Ames' Prayer" and "Hometown Blues," from '76 and '77, are as undeniable as any Earle this side of "The Devil's Right Hand." And so are "Angel Is the Devil" and "Ben McCulloch," from '92 and '95. A MINUS [Later]

MOSE FAN FAN & SOMO SOMO NGOBILA: Hello Hello (Stern's Africa) Insofar as soukous has room to grow anymore, it rejects Paris hyperdrive for the confident understatement of the golden era, and too often (cf. Zaiko Langa Langa) the formal energy lags second time around. Masterminded by a veteran Zairean guitarist who's resided in four African and two European cities, this exile supersession (Quatre Etoiles, Sam Mangwana) finds the balance: bold yet complex, lively yet reflective, scintillating yet groovesome, fast yet mellow--yet fast, you know? A MINUS [Later]

FUGEES: The Score (Ruffhouse/Columbia) They got black humanism, gender equality, and somebody to eclipse Duke Bootee in the Columbia alumni magazine. They sample "I Only Have Eyes for You" from before they were born, misprise "Killing Me Softly" like it was the Rosetta stone, emerge unscathed from the both-sides-of-gangsta trap, and aren't so nervous about being followed they won't leave landmarks on their soundscape. And astonishingly, they're not just selling to a core audience--this is one of the rare hip hop albums to debut high and rise from there. So you bet they're alternative--they'd better be in a subculture backed into defiant self-pity by rabid reactionaries, lying ex-liberals, and media moguls suddenly conscience-stricken over the nutrititional content of what they always considered swill. Forget their debut, from before they discovered the gender-equality formula in which one girl learning equals two guys calling the shots. Forget the Roots, Aceyalone, Pharcyde. This isn't another terrible thing to waste. It's so beautiful and funny its courage could make you weep. A MINUS [Later: A]

NORMAN GREENBAUM: Spirit in the Sky: The Best of Norman Greenbaum (Varese Sarabande) Boston jughead, California dreamer, great lost hippie. He spun tales of harmless weirdness from Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band ("The Eggplant That Ate Chicago," No. 52 in '66, how quickly many forget)to his royalty-investing days as a chicken farmer and goat-milk entrepreneur, the latter recounted in homely tunes like "Petaluma" and "The Day the Well Went Dry" (although I miss the agrarian escape song "I'm Campin"). Nor was "Spirit in the Sky" anything like a one-shot, as he proves on the great lost album track "Marcy," a fond and respectful ode to a chick who takes her chances (although I miss the great lost dope synonym "Tars of India"). A MINUS

LOS LOBOS: Colossal Head (Warner Bros.) Set on proving how big a band from East L.A. could rock, they painted themselves into a cornball corner until Tchad Blake lured two of them out with his cache of found sounds. Result: Latin Playboys, an accidental masterpiece at once otherworldly and overheard, impressionistic fragments coalescing into a self-sustaining aural counterreality. And although this return to their primary identity masquerades manfully as an arena-ready song collection, neither the one about rain nor the one about trains convinces me they'll ever revert. From enchanted-island salsa to Santana solo, from revolutionary disillusion to feeling happy anyway, their infinitely absorptive eclectism feels blessed rather than bombarded. They're not dealing with it, they're digging it. And if you're as big as they are you will too. A [Later]

PULP: Different Class (Island) Unless Uncle Bruce hooks his lost hope to his abandoned rhythm section, 1996 won't produce a more indispensable song than "Common People," but that doesn't mean young Americans know enough about the bourgeoisie to get it. And when sex gods are added up, Jarvis Cocker's Bryan-Ferry-plus-Blurandoasis won't equal George Michael. But beyond his devotion to songcraft, Cocker isn't Bluroroasis--Culture Club with lyrics is more like it. Smart and glam, swish and het, its jangle subsumed beneath swelling crescendos or nagging keybs and its rhythms steeped in rave, this isn't pat enough for the disco-still-sucks crowd. And although Cocker's stick-to-itiveness over four albums there's no need to expend time on suggests that he's attained a measure of maturity, his breakthrough is a mutation, not a fruition. If "Common People" should fall short, I recommend Island proceed directly to "Something Changed," a happy love song every bit as clever and realistic as his class war song. A MINUS [Later]

TABU LEY ROCHEREAU: Africa Worldwide (Rounder) Except when Franco showed him how on Omona Wapi, Tabu Ley has never conquered his schlock habit Stateside. Even the 1989 best-of he recut for RealWorld sounded like cummerbunds and leisure suits. But as Kinshasa transformed itself from hellhole to charnel house, Afropop's smarmiest godfather withdrew not just to Paris but L.A. Then, with a quick new guitarist and dulcet vocal acolytes helping him exploit a nostalgia it would be cruel to deny, he rerecorded a magnificent dozen of the thousand or so songs he churned out when Zaire was young, and in the great tradition of classic Afropop, their airy grace still projects an illusion of possibility. This old hero no longer plans to conquer the world. He's just grateful he can remember how it felt to be looking ahead. A MINUS

MATTHEW SWEET: 100% Fun (Zoo) Frustrated because I couldn't grok Bluroraimeemann even after isolating their tunes and turns of phrase, I turned to another pop album I'd never gotten and had a revelation. Not a new idea--what a difference a band makes is old theory by now. Just an experience--this particular band at the moment of this recording, two or three or four guitars layered into densely striated sludge with shiny ribbons of metal sticking out. Perfect for accustoming confused young adults to his sanely phrased ideas about romantic commitment. B PLUS [Later]

IKE TURNER: I Like Ike!: The Best of Ike Turner (Rhino) Hardly the last major rock and roller to brutalize women, Turner gets short-changed by history partly because his best-known victim was so major herself and partly because his specialty was collaboration. Sadly, Rhino's licensing whizzes failed to secure his Federal sides, depriving us of both his rawest singer--Billy Gayles, the real Screamin' Jay Hawkins--and his most primordial guitar. And leaving a lean, mean bandleader whose ear for the permanent novelty only began with "Rocket `88'"--as did everything else. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

LUSTRE (A&M) "What these boys do is what they call muscle pop. Turned up axes, muthafied drums and some soul-waking [get this--ed.] sweet-Jane vocals, shaken and stirred, slurred and purred . . . " Never blame a band for its press release, right, but having ingested the music first, I'll swear they're even worse than this all-purpose so-square-they're-hip. North Carolinans, drummer from Antiseen ("That's why you never pick up a drummer, dear--there's no telling where he's been"), other two coy about pedigree and (probably) too young for Bread or Journey, which are far more plausible analogies than the Teenage Fanclub and (get this) Hüsker Dü Billboard supposedly came up with. My guess: roadies from Collective Soul and Better Than Ezra getting greedy. The New South! C MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Steve Earle, I Feel Alright (Warner Bros.): sure winner of 1996 Grammy for Best Use of Outlaw Pathology in a Roots-Rock Setting ("South Nashville Blues," "CCKMP," "More Than I Can Do")
  • James Brown, Live at the Apollo 1995 (Scotti Bros.): tempos up a notch, vocal pitch down a notch, he puts out like he has something to prove ("It's a Man's World," "Make It Funky")
  • Wenge Musica, Bouger Bouger (Africassette): indigenous, understated neoclassic 1988 soukous, replete with tasty-not-speedy guitar ("Bakolo Budget," "La Fille du Roi")
  • Spleen, T.S. Eliot Reads The Waste Land and The Hollow Men (Skoda): what it says--loathes better than Uncle Bill, recites better than Dr. Dre, ace rhythm tracks added, five bucks
  • D'Gary & Jihé, Horombe (Stern's Africa): Madagascar's master autodidact of the guitar figures out a band ("Mbo Hahita Avao," "Mihasy Lonaky")
  • Dada Kidawa/Sister Kidawa (Original Music): more '60s dance hits from Tanzania, which improve as they Congo-Cubanize (Njohole Jazz Band, "Mpenzi Zaina"; Dares Salaam Jazz Band, "Mpenzi Sema")
  • Cake, Motorcade of Generosity (Capricorn): unambiguity from the near side of cool ("Rock'N'Roll Lifestyle," "Jesus Wrote a Blank Check")
  • Bad Religion, The Gray Race (Atlantic): now actually the Greg Graffin Group, as you can tell with a scorecard ("Punk Rock Song," "One in Twenty Ten")
  • Joe Meek, It's Hard to Believe It: The Amazing World of Joe Meek (Razor & Tie): just like Phil Spector, not all he's cracked up to be (the Tornados, "Telstar"; the Honeycombs, "Have I the Right") [Later: *]
Choice Cuts:
  • Michael Hurley, "I Paint a Design" (Wolf Ways, Koch)
  • Thomas Anderson, "Jerry's Kids" (Moon Going Down, Marilyn)
  • Joni Mitchell, "Last Chance Lost" (Turbulent Indigo, Reprise)
  • Elvis Costello, "Strange," "Payday" (Kojak Variety, Warner Bros.)
  • Mud Boy and the Neutrons, "Money Talks"; Ross Johnson, "Wet Bar" (It Came From Memphis, Upstart)
  • Tori Amos, Boys for Pele (Atlantic)
  • Edsel, Techniques of Speed Hypnosis (Relativity)
  • John Wesley Harding, John Wesley Harding's New Deal (Forward)
  • Help (London)

Village Voice, Apr. 9, 1996

Feb. 20, 1996 May 21, 1996