Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Our special this month is West Coast hip hop, which ends up neither good enough nor bad enough (not this month, anyway) to get its picture in the paper. That privilege falls to two women who sum up both sides of world music's/world-beat's weakness for exotic ladies.

RUBÉN BLADES Y SON DEL SOLAR: Antecedente (Elektra) Coming off a failed literary album and a failed rock album, Blades augments a revamped, renamed Seis del Solar with salsa trombones and begets a dance album for the people of Panama. Which kind of leaves his friends from non-Latino cultures in the lurch--is this the "real" salsa record of our crossover dreams? Beats me. The (translated) lyrics are intelligently romantic (with an Indian smuggler smuggled in), and after the usual unusual effort, I can report that the tunes are solid, the grooves Latino, and the vocals proof of a major pop intelligence--he's revamped the floridity of an entire tradition in the image of his own physical limitations. Can you dance to it? Better than me, I'm sure. B PLUS

ELVIS COSTELLO: Spike (Warner Bros.) Paul Whiteman was a bigger star, and though my jazz friends may cringe, I doubt he was as good. But like Elvis C., he made the mistake of applying his refined taste to what he knew was the music of the future--hiring fine players, commissioning Ellington and Copland, emphasizing the danceability of an orchestra too grand to be called a band, he honored the classics. Who knows which of Costello's virtues will seem equally irrelevant 40 or 10 years hence--his obsessive wit? his precise arrangements? his respect for musical history? Unless I'm mistaken, though, he's doomed to be remembered as fatally self-conscious. And doomed as well never to convert the unconverted again. B

EAZY-E: Easy-Duz-It (Ruthless) "I might be a woman beater but I'm not a pussy eater," boasts this man's man, and that sums up his wit and wisdom right down to the way he hides behind Richard Pryor when he says it. Reason is, there's not much music for him to hide behind--Eazy the label owner doesn't get the real good shit out of his boys. Only the video. C PLUS

ENYA: Watermark (Geffen) A new name with a pedigree--she brought her family's upmarket Irish folk concept Clannad into the synthesizer age before leaving to pursue her own economic interests. Whilst humanizing technology, perpetrating banal verse in three languages (I'm guessing about the Gaelic after reading the English and figuring out the Latin), and mentioning Africa, the Orinoco, and other deep dark faraway places, her top-10 CD makes hay of pop's old reliable women-are-angels scam. At least the Cocteau Twins are eccentric. At least ELP were vulgarians. D PLUS

CHABA FADELA: You Are Mine (Mango) I was on this from the day I played the import because, like Rai Rebels, it kicks off with her 1985 comeback with her husband Cheb Sahraoui--"N'Sel Fik," rai's most incandescent and universal moment, one of the greatest singles of the decade. But it took me months to sort it out clearly in my uneducated recollection from Middle Eastern product as distinct as Ouardia's Berber songpoems, or Ofra Haza's Barbra Streisand gone ethnic and song contest with hip beats. Now I hear shades of emotion I don't ordinarily get from foreign-language pop--something as elementary as the way "Ateni Bniti" ("Give Me Back My Daughter") moves from affliction to angry resolve, say. I also notice Oran superproducer Rachid outdoing rather than compromising himself as he aims for the bigger time. And reflect that if now it's for bad boys, rai was originally the domain of women who knew better. Fadela sounds like a sister. A MINUS

JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE: Radio One (Rykodisc CD) If it's getting like Coltrane, crazies examining umpteen versions of the same tune, Hendrix's versions do bear scrutiny like no other rock and roll. Noncrazies aren't obliged or even advised to make the effort, yet newcomers could just as well start with these BBC sessions as with Are You Experienced?, also cut when he still led kind of a pop band. Ace new stuff includes Curtis Knight's "Drivin' South" and Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog." A MINUS

ICE-T: Power (Sire) I don't know about his role modeling: for anyone who thinks real men defy danger, dealing is obviously a surer and easier route to the gold than rapping. But he's got his own sound--flat, clipped, quick-lipped. And when he sticks to his subject, his narrative style is as gripping and understated as Islam's samples. B PLUS

RONALD SHANNON JACKSON: Texas (Caravan of Dreams) It hasn't been funk for years and it's rarely fusion any more--just memorable themes, serious mood pieces, solo room for players who deserve the opportunity but not our undivided attention. In other words, jazz. B PLUS

KING TEE: Act a Fool (Capitol) Looking for Biz Markie Compton-style, I got a gold abuser whose idea of a fool is my idea of a punk motherfucker--somebody who smokes cheeb and drinks 40s, then assaults women. D.J. Pooh (and James Brown) carry him until the anticlimactic "I Got a Cold," which records for posterity the funkiest snurfling you've ever heard in your life. C PLUS

M.C. HAMMER: Let's Get It Started (Capitol) If EPMD's surprise rise was a revelation, the unheralded progress of this Bay Area rapper up the black album chart is a story in the trades. With his stolid boasts, heavy beats, and circumspect samples, he sounds like D.M.C. gone solo, but he's also got a local base, some new jack steps, and a video. In short, he's a pro as in product--already. C PLUS

MIRACLE LEGION: Me and Mr. Ray (Rough Trade) Me is Mark, Mr. Ray is Ray, rhythm section is gone. Unidentified toilers back the pleasant tracks; the unpleasant ones are all voice, bad poetry, and instrumental accompaniment. It gets worse than "I feel like Apollo/And you could be my Venus/I'll close my eyes and hold my ears and walk up to a broken heart," but only rarely does it wuss out in your face like that--usually Mark's more obscure. Sure he's also bright, sensitive, and honest (probably). But so are you (probably). So go sing in the shower. C [Later]

NEW ORDER: Technique (Qwest) The catchy Anglodisco gloom fans have complained about ever since the band lightened up finally arrives, and it's a lot franker and happier (hence smarter) than Depeche Mode. But now that Bernard is a full-fledged human being, we find out he's a slightly boring human being. Is this why he was always in the dumps? B PLUS

N.W.A: Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless) "It's not about a salary/It's all about reality" they chant as they talk shit about how bad they are. Right, it's not about salary--it's about royalties, about brandishing scarewords like "street" and "crazy" and "fuck" and "reality" until suckers black and white cough up the cash. "Fuck tha Police" is a fantasy, "Fuck with me I'll put my foot in your ass" an exaggeration, "Life ain't nothin' but bitches and money" a home truth, and I bet Ice Cube gets more pussy now than when he copped the line. Somehow DJs Dr. Dre and Yella, who's also got the brainiest rap on the Charles Wright rip that busts out of their ghetto, drive the three M.C.'s past their own lies half the time. It would be poetic justice if both of them departed for greener pastures. B

BONNIE RAITT: Nick of Time (Capitol) "A lot of people were probably wondering when they heard about the pairing whether I was going to make a funk record like Was (Not Was)," Bonnie surmises. Right--loyalists were shaking in their boots, I was licking my lips, and now the suspense is over, unfortunately. She deserves respect, not the obeisance she gets from career sicko Don Was, who fashions an amazing simulation of the El Lay aesthetic she helped perfect and we all thought he hated. Bonnie being Bonnie, it sounds perfectly OK, but most of the songs are so subtly crafted they disappear under her tender loving ministrations, and though Was lets her play guitar for the whole first side, his studio pros could just as well be Peter Asher's. B

SHESHWE: THE SOUND OF THE MINES (Rounder) Those who get a kick from accordion-heavy gumboots mbaqanga might be lured to this Sotho compilation--with one producer overseeing and one bassist underpinning, unity wouldn't seem a big problem. Unfortunately, what unifies it is how tuneless and static all four groups are--despite Sebata Sebata's rudimentary hooks and the whistles and rude percussion deployed by the others, these songs about snakes and kings and magic bones are more folkloric than most non-South African fans need. Also than some South African fans need. Cf. Tau Ea Lesotho's Nyatsi Tloha Pela'ka (Kaya 1984, available from NMDS, 500 Broadway, NYC 10012), which drives stronger shouting with a livelier rhythm section (is that a syndrum?), or the vocal esprit of Puseletso Seema & Tau Ea Linare's He O Oe Oe! (GlobeStyle 1985) (is that a woman?). Harder to find, but believe me, both will satisfy your minimum daily grit requirement. B MINUS

SOUL BROTHERS: Jive Explosion (Virgin) An '80s best-of from Azanian pros who come as close as mbaqanga ever does to Ladysmith--and also to what Americans consider pop music. The saxes are smooth, the deep bass is fluid, a Fairlight fills out five tracks, and the vocals honor old Zulu harmonies while showcasing David Masondo's aching tenor. No matter what they're singing about--as much as they think they can get away with, say--their elegance is something they had to win. A MINUS

THELONIOUS MONSTER: Stormy Weather (Relativity) Bob Forrest wasn't taking Monk's name in vain after all--any Orange County punk who gives it up to Lena Horne and Tracy Chapman has a healthy yen for the Aryan Nation shitlist. Best song's about the Forrests' white flight ("They said it wasn't a question of race/It's just property values"), and the relationship stuff beats Paul Westerberg's--"So What if I Did" with its John Doe guitars, the hopeless "Real Kinda Hatred." Laff at "Sammy Hagar Weekend" all you want, but Forrest feels sorry for those guys. He'll never lead a joke band again. [CD version includes Next Saturday Afternoon.] A MINUS

TANITA TIKARAM: Ancient Heart (Reprise) Figure on some ethereal escapist or new age poseur and the dark, throaty contralto will bring you up short--it recalls much uglier people, like Marianne Faithfull, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell. The voice retains its interest, too--which is not repaid by promising lyrics that don't benefit from a lyric sheet or ingratiating tunes that deserve more help than Rod Argent can provide. B

TONE-LOC: Loc-ed After Dark (Delicious Vinyl) If you suspect he's a no-talent, the reason's his lowdown instrument with groove to match--neither fits the accepted rap categories. If his boasts don't convince, the reason's his good humor--instead of blowing the genitalia off the ho or drag queen who leads him on, the sucker just grins and says hasta la vista. Payback: history's biggest rap single, and a better album than you suspect. B PLUS

TOO MUCH JOY: Son of Sam I Am (Alias) Best thing about Green Eggs and Crack was the title, and even now their music is a strictly functional medium for smart-ass words. But there's melody, there's some sock, and you can hear Jay Blumenfeld's guitar ("Not lead guitar, not rhythm guitar. Just guitar."). Where once Tim Quirk spoke his lyrics in tune, now he mocks, expostulates, kid-drawls, projects, so that sometimes they sound smarter (and assier) than they read. And though sometimes they read fine--the scary suburban fairy tale "Connecticut," or "Kicking," which may be about cancer and is definitely about turning 23--listeners may prefer "Making Fun of Bums." Or "I didn't like being Edgar Allen Poe, I was sick a lot when I was Rimbaud." A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Ice-T's "High Rollers" 12-inch features a "Power" remix plus "The Hunted Child," a non-album-available anticrime fable complete with siren. Not a bad introduction if you can tolerate some version. The Thelonious Monster CD includes their entire previous album, a B plus by me, making it that laser rarity, a bargain.

Village Voice, Apr. 25, 1989

Mar. 28, 1989 June 6, 1989