Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

I suppose it is inevitable that the onrush of good-to-great hip hop albums will soon lose some of its force. I only have a couple waiting in the wings. But when the Foxy Brown is pretty good, you know something is happening. And don't think alt-rock is throwing it in, either.

KING SUNNY ADE: Odů (Atlantic/Mesa) Ade is no longer a signifier of polyrhythmic African mystery--he's a lesson learned and absorbed. Recorded almost live in a Louisiana studio, this is a convincing statement by an individual titan who dominates juju the way Joseph Shabalala does mbube. Ade's slightly roughened pipes subtract less than Jonah Samuel's piano and organ add to an almost jazzlike synthesis of studio-imposed concision and party-time expandability. And the lyrics are translated and transliterated, situating the music in its culture for anyone who cares. A MINUS

BLONDIE: No Exit (Beyond) Forms lose their spring; social configurations fissure and disintegrate. But what usually wears out first is the commitments they inspire, and here the commitment is as palpable as such ironic formalists can make it. Chris Stein is still a great listener, and Debbie Harry never stopped growing. She sings with a force and technical command unimaginable in 1980, and producer Craig Leon comes back at her resonance for resonance. No new song will equal your very favorites. But as a "Rapture"/"One Way or Another" guy, I'll trade the sexo-mystico "Screaming Skin" for "Heart of Glass," the Euro-friendly "Maria" for "Call Me," and No Exit for, oh, Eat to the Beat. A MINUS

BOUKMAN EKSPERYANS: Revolutíon (Tuff Gong) These righteous Haitians are thought of as a pan-African party machine, but in the aural fact they're devotional. Well past their new flavor moment, they turn out to be one of those bands that develops its craft rather than one of those bands that hits you over the head with an idea they proceed to wear out. Something like soulful, drenched with synthesizers because synthesizers seem natural, their impassioned trance recalls Nyabinghi chants more than Holiness hymns and is closely related to both. B PLUS

STEVE EARLE AND THE DEL MCCOURY BAND: The Mountain (E-Squared) With bluegrass "more comfortable all the time," the sometime country-rocker turns in his strongest and loosest record of the decade. But bluegrass it ain't--it's too comfortable. I was so impressed with how the music moaned and shivered and flapped around in the wind I wondered how I'd ever overlooked McCoury's outfit until I played their new CD, which is just as clean and tight and anal as every other spoor of Bill Monroe I've ever swept out the door. Slurring like a moonshiner who's been on a mush diet since his bird dog died, Earle rowdies up McCoury's sharpsters till they turn all hairy and bounce off walls like the Pogues. And though the songs are less literary, more generic--blues and breakdown, "pinko folk song" and "real-live-bad-tooth hillbilly murder ballad"--literature is Earle's critical selling point, not his artistic strength. It's as a singer that he's grown. A MINUS [Later]

EMINEM: The Slim Shady LP (Aftermath/Interscope) Pundits who believe kids are naive enough to take this record literally are right to fear them, because they're the kind of adult teenagers hate. Daring moralizers to go on the attack while explicitly--but not (fuck you, dickwad) unambiguously--declaring itself a satiric, cautionary fiction, this platinum-bound cause celebre runs short on ideas only toward the end, when Dre's whiteboy turns provocation into the dull sensationalism fools think is his whole story. Over an hour his cadence gets wearing, too. But he flat-out loves to rhyme--seizure/T-shirt, eyeballs/Lysol/my fault, BM/GM/be him/Tylenol PM/coliseum, Mike D/might be--and you have to love the way he slips in sotto voce asides from innocent bystanders. Sticking nine-inch nails through his eyelids, flattening a black bully with a four-inch broom, reminding his conscience-producer about Dee Barnes, watching helplessly as an abused Valley Girl OD's on his shrooms, cajoling his baby daughter Hailey into helping him get rid of her mom's body, he shows more comic genius than any pop musician since--Loudon Wainwright III? A MINUS [Later]

IMPERIAL TEEN: What Is Not To Love (London) Precisely the kind of smokescreen specialists now on their way to extinction at every major in the country, these understated gender offenders respond to commercial clampdown by mooning around their bedrooms until their hooks are covered with mattress lint. They're true to their alt-bred school--foggier and coyer, yet sweeter than ever if you prove you love them, and hardly averse to reminding whoever's listening that they're "fucking congressmen," say. The brutal fact is that they're not going to break pop no matter how assiduously they polish their lissome tunes or sand down their intelligent noise. So I admire their resistance, and sometimes love it. A MINUS

THE OFFSPRING: Americana (Columbia) Four or five years late, they make selling out seem both easy! (unlike the major-label labor Ixnay on the Hombre) and fun! (unlike the fluke smash Smash). A dozen or two bpm faster than when they caught Green Day's punk wave, they sound like a Bad Religion whose catchy drone is at long last unencumbered by any message deeper than "the truth about the world is that crime does pay"--which, to their credit, makes them indignant--or, more generally, that "The Kids Aren't Alright." This truth they explore as fully as--but, as is only fitting given their relatively privileged upbringing, less solemnly than--any gangsta. Only on the title track do they get grandiose. And while keeping it light keeps them on the right side of their frat-boy base, it also makes the fuckups they mock and mourn seem seem all the more hurtful. A MINUS

PRINCE PAUL: Prince Paul Presents A Prince Among Thieves (Tommy Boy) The main thing wrong with this record is that it's too short at 77 minutes: character sketches like Kool Keith's ordnance man, Big Daddy Kane's pimp, and Chubb Rock's crime lord could easily be fleshed out. Deploying hip hop stereotypes of mythic proportions in a coherent fable, it isn't just one of the few hip hop albums ever to make you look forward to the next skit--it's the closest thing to a true rock opera you've ever heard. So root for Chris Rock to turn it into the movie few optioned properties become. And note that while the full meaning of the title track, for instance, depends on the story, the songs hold up when you program around the skits. I'm not claiming Tommy Boy can break the steady-funking Albert King jam "What U Got," where gangsta Sha and good kid Breeze have much love for each other. But I'm not claiming Sleater-Kinney's about to go gold, either. A

THE ROOTS: Things Fall Apart (MCA) Stop the violence in hip hop, but make an exception if these guys will shoot the piano player. Kamal gets away with his omnipresent ostinato beds here mostly because the band is on an old-school kick. Remembering the music they loved before they discovered jazz lite, they even sample now and then, and let me tell you, I've never been so happy to run into Schoolly-D in my life. What's so consistently annoying on their earlier intelligent records is almost hooky on this one, integral to a flow that certainly does just that, which isn't to say you won't be relieved when it rocks the house instead. Gee--maybe they've gotten more intelligent. B PLUS [Later]

SLEATER-KINNEY: The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars) What's hard to get used to here, and what's also freshest and perhaps best, is how Corin and Carrie's voices intertwine--even reading the booklet it's hard to keep track of who's saying what to whom about what, as if they'd fallen in love with (or to) the Velvets' "Murder Mystery." Not that meanings would be crystalline in any case, or that they should be. With Cadallaca an outlet for Corin's girlish ways, S-K emerges as a diary of adulthood in all its encroaching intricacy. I mean, the guitars don't crunch like they used to either, and that's the very reason "Get Up" sounds like death and desire at the same time. The reason "The Size of Our Love" sounds like death, on the other hand, is that sometimes love is death. Nobody ever said maturity would be fun and games. A

SOUNDBOMBING (Rawkus) "You record label people gonna die and your family gonna die too motherfuckers." Far more eager than the militantly joyless Company Flow, far more songful than the secretly ambient Lyricist Lounge, this 1997 singles-plus showcase remains "underground" hip hop's most convincing advertisement for itself. Reflection Eternal, a/k/a Black Star plus Mr. Man, add crowd samples and a chorus about Medina to an echoing guitar-piano hook and top anything on Black Star's secretly smoove debut. Mos Def and Kweli freestyle with feeling. Company Flow give up their catchiest album track and devolve into the more complex Indelible MCs, who "keep tabs like Timothy Leary and/or ASCAP." And Ra the Rugged Man ("all information concerning Ra is currently unknown"), who swears he'll be into "this rap shit" "Till My Heart Stops," admits that actually he's "not succeedin'": "They turn my mind state into evil 'cause I want everyone dead on this fuckin' earth/It really hurts/'Cause if music doesn't work I got nothing left to live for except dyin' in the poorhouse." Pray he returns on volume two. A MINUS [Later]

SIDI TOURÉ: Hoga (Stern's Africa) Adept of the trance-prone voodoo called "holley," inventor of a trad-to-the-future band music where guitars vie wildly with calabashes over a swirling drone of African viol, this Songhai, whose day job is with Mali's big official Bambara band, is not to be confused with fellow Songhai Ali Farka Touré. He's weirder, and more active. It's a Gao thing, you wouldn't understand--until you listen, once. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

SHAWN MULLINS: Soul's Core (Columbia) Sincerity was smug long before irony was, and while Mullins devoted a long, honorable folk-circuit career to reinventing the feeling before he stumbled on his very own "Taxi"--six indie albums in the trunk of his car and he could still muse, "I don't know what I've been lookin' for, maybe me"!--I figure he'd rather be called smug than dumb or, heaven knows, in sincere. Pretty good at observing/concocting the kind of composite characters journalists get fired for, he's so wrought up about their humanity that he rarely captures their humor or grace. That would require establishing a distance from them, and while they may live with distance, poor souls, he can't countenance it in himself. He's like a one-night stand who feels constrained to tell you he loves you instead of making clear why he finds you attractive. Feels icky, right? C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • David Murray, Creole (Justin Time import): carnivalesque as sonny idea, but remember--one nice thing about rock and roll is you don't have to like flutes ("Mona," "Flor Na Paul")
  • Royal Trux, Accelerator (Drag City): the snot-rock of their dreams ("Accelerator: I'm Ready," "The Banana Question")
  • Foxy Brown, Chyna Doll (Violator/Def Jam): if bomb-ass pussy could talk ("Hot Spot," "My Life")
  • Brand Nubian, Foundation (Arista): funk lite to improve the race ("Probable Cause," "Let's Dance")
  • Saint Etienne, Good Humor (Sub Pop): modern love for the postmodern English--sad, kind, contained ("Mr Donut," "Been So Long")
  • Massive Attack, Mezzanine (Virgin): pre-millennium unction ("Risingson," "Man Next Door")
  • The Jazz Passengers Featuring Deborah Harry, Live in Spain (32): who says a rock chick can't sing jazz music? ("Fathouse," "Dog in Sand")
  • The Lounge Lizards, Queen of All Ears (Strange & Beautiful Music): the inevitable progress, as they say, from fake jazz downtown-style to progressive jazz downtown-style ("The First and Royal Queen," "Queen of All Ears")
  • Excess Baggage (Prophecy): John Lurie Entertainment presents . . . movie music for people who don't like movie music--not to mention television music.
Choice Cuts:
  • Method Man, "Suspect Chin Music," "Sweet Love," "You Play Too Much" (Tical 2000: Judgement Day, Def Jam)
  • Peter Stampfel, "His Tapes Roll On" (The Harry Smith Connection: A Live Tribute, Smithsonian Folkways)
  • Gilberto Gil, "Tatá Engenho Novo" (O Sol De Oslo, Blue Jackel)
  • Mia X, "Put It Down," "Daddy" (Mama-Drama, No Limit)
  • William Parker & the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, "Sunrise in the Tone World" (Sunrise in the Tone World, Aum Fidelity)
  • The Friggs, "I Thought You Said That You Were Gonna Kill Yourself," (Rock Candy, E-Vil)
  • Olu Dara, In the World: From Natchez to New York (Atlantic)
  • DJ Clue?, The Professional (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
  • EC8OR, World Beaters (DHR)
  • Vance Gilbert, Shaking Off Gravity (Philo)
  • John Gorka, After Yesterday (Red House)
  • Shaquille O'Neal, Respect (T.W.IsM.)
  • Refused, The Shape of Punk To Come (Burning Heart)
  • Rolling Stones, No Security (Virgin)

Village Voice, Mar. 23, 1999

Feb. 23, 1999 May 18, 1999