Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

This belated Consumer Guide, possibly the last in a time-honored format, consists entirely of records released in 1989. With a second CG compilation book (complete with bonus cuts) due in October, I wanted to find every '80s B plus I could, and came up with the usual shitload. In descending order: Vulgar Boatmen, Bats, Scandal Ska, xxSummer, Bernhard, Thompson Twins, Griffiths, Jimenez, Young M.C., McMurtry, Sister Carol, Base. The question for the future may well be: how many of them are really good shit? The top three certainly are, the bottom four definitely aren't, and in between is going to be an area of conceptual reorganization in the near future.

ROB BASE: The Incredible Base (Profile) Still trying to prove that "It Takes Two" had something to do with him, not just Lyn Collins and James Brown and the gods of mixology, he swings half these 10 cuts on a real funky concept. Hard, hard, the boy is hard--at the very least "The Incredible Base" and "Turn It Out (Go Base)" and "Get Up and Have a Good Time" and "If You Really Want To Party" are worthy followups to one of the greatest singles ever, which is enough. And "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," a slow one with a mean streak that gives its moral some bite, is the best in show. I bet he can't follow it up. B PLUS

THE BATS: Daddy's Highway (Communion) These New Zealanders are wimps if not simps. Robert Scott's reedy if not weedy quaver cries out for Kaye Woodward to chime in, and the one-foot-at-a-time folk-rock pulse can get pretty lame. But their jangly modesty is touching and smart--they understand the formal and historical limitations of their chosen style. And even though only one of their homely metaphors--" . . . there'll be a morning sky/Bringing you some peace tonight"--unites words and music into a pop moment, the atmosphere sustains. B PLUS

SANDRA BERNHARD: Without You I'm Nothing (Enigma) If Laurie Anderson's a musician, so's this conceptualist. Her band includes Ivan Julian and Adele Bertei, and she needs 'em: there are composer credits on 11 of 12 cuts, including the boite medley (thank God for cabaret, it lets you stay in New York and enjoy your co-op), the Prince cover (for Sheila E., Apollonia, Vanity, Wendy, and Lisa), and "The Women of Rock 'n' Roll" (the story of her magic night with Stevie Nicks, who hasn't called in six months). B PLUS [Later]

THE BEST OF REGGAE DANCEHALL VOL. 1 (Profile) As JA post-toasting evolves from change-of-pace to staple, as disco habitues learn to perceive its marginal distinctions, tolerate its generic repetitions, and crave its pulse, the style becomes less accessible to simple curiosity-seekers like yours truly. I'm sure every song on this assiduous compilation was a special favorite in context, and appreciate all the little touches--the late-breaking piano hook on "This Feeling Inside," the lilting Sunday School promise of "Prophecy," the multiple interjections of "Nah Go Switch," the aggressively incredulous "Wha-at"s of "Bun and Cheese" and then "Life," the squeaky echo of "Life." But even at that the closing "Watch a Them" and for that matter "Nah Go Switch" seem too damn marginal in their distinction. And excepting three or four--Tiger's "Ram Dance Hall" (he roars), Gregory Peck's "Oversized Mumpie" (blue patois), and Derrick Parker's "Cool It Off" (sounds like "coup d'etat"), with Shelly Thunder's "Kuff" a dark horse--none stand much chance of becoming special favorites of mine. Ordinary favorites, maybe. A MINUS [Later]

ANNA DOMINO: Colouring in the Edge and the Outline (Giant EP) Neither of her albums has gotten to second base with me, and not because I'm unwilling--all three EPs score. Here she croons about metaphysical-sounding stuff like luck and joy over the snaky electrorhythms that in her past work were all too metaphysical themselves. And never sounds like stamina's her long suit. B PLUS

GAIL ANN DORSEY: The Corporate World (Reprise) Conventional exercises on side one: liberal protests ("Wasted Country") and reflective love songs ("If Only You"). But from the literal title tune to the Beethoven-drenched romantic climax, side two is the yuppie blues, its killer the literal "No Time," about how busy she is. Pet Shop Boys, this is how it sounds with soul. B

ELEVENTH DREAM DAY: Beet (Atlantic) Only in a world where major labels have publicity departments and the Pixies are rock and roll future could this tuneless guitar band be a hot rumor. The major attraction is a girl drummer who chimes in on backup and should write more. Plus, of course, a raunchy, energetic guitar sound. No solos or anything--that would be corny (and hard). Just a sound. C PLUS

FRESH REGGAE HITS (Pow Wow) Here's where the quality begins to thin out--where a novelty-hungry dance audience demands variations on moves so subtle that novelty-hungry outsiders can't even hear them. Though somatic judgments are more subjective than most, Half Pint's "Level the Vibes" leads off, suggesting that a lot of bodies feel it the way mine does--as a dance track from God, not quite "Word Up" or "You Dropped a Bomb on Me," but close. Next two cuts are winningly songful. But it's only on side two, with Sophia George's "Tenement Yard," that I find anything else for my tape. B

ALBERT GRIFFITHS AND THE GLADIATORS: On the Right Track (Heartbeat) More than any other rootsman I'm hearing, Griffiths keeps his spirits up. Though it's no longer in JA's cultural mainstream, there's tremendous life and variety to this music--falsetto play and jazzy interactions and catchy dubs, even an Elvis cover. "It's Now or Never," in case you were wondering. And if you're still interested, it may just be definitive. B PLUS

FLACO JIMENEZ: Arriba El Norte (Rounder) Comparison to Santiago Jr.'s more generic-sounding Familia y Tradicion leaves no doubt as to why Flaco has been the hep Chicano box-squeezer since Doug Sahm brought him to New York in 1972. For this brother, traditionalism doesn't mean straight and square--he's sprightly and flexible, "pop" only because he's not allergic to change. And this 1969-1980 compilation from his San Antonio label, complete with translations and knowledgeable notes, ought to be the Flaco for me. But though a similar collection by his rock-oriented compadre Steve Jordan did the trick, I find that I'm still on the outside after ten plays, which ought to be enough. I'm a New Yorker who doesn't know Spanish, and folk music isn't my thing. Until something changes, so be it. B PLUS

JERRY LEE LEWIS: Rockin' My Life Away (Tomato) Last time I saw this fugitive from Madame Tussaud's was a 1984 performance video that convinced me Mr. Scratch had collected his half of the bargain in advance. So I expected nothing from this live-at-the-Palomino rehash, James Burton or no James Burton. And was immediately confronted with a "You Win Again" so bitter, so resigned, so defeated, so above-it-all, so miserable that for a few songs I suspected the monkey-gland shots had worked--except that he sounds old, old and lecherous, old and lecherous and determined to enjoy it. Things do wear down in the middle, and the voice can get weird. But James Burton is hot. And when and if he finally dies, Jerry Lee's gonna challenge Mr. Scratch to a piano-playing contest. Then he's gonna show Cousin Swaggart his ass. A MINUS

JAMES MCMURTRY: Too Long in the Wasteland (Columbia) He's gonna be a prestige item, just you wait--quality singer-songwriter from the heartland-wasteland. He's been there, he's still there, has his own RFD box on the back cover lest you doubt his authenticity. Also an eye for detail, perhaps from his novelist dad, and John Mellencamp showing him around the studio. I enjoy his sketches, their weary women especially. But like so many singer-songwriters and so many local-colorists, he tends to a soft fatalism, especially when he tries a big statement: the metametaphorical "Painting by Numbers," or "I'm Not From Here," which notes that we've been picking up and leaving "since the stone age." No way a simple quality singer-songwriter can change that, now is there? B PLUS

RAM DANCEHALL (Mango) I expected more of our former finest reggae label, though Jamaica hasn't been its strength since it turned into one of our three finest African labels. Anyway, these selections are just a little too subtle (the way Johnny P.'s "Ring a Roses" finally gets you going, the synthpan intro on Cocotea's "Bad Love Affair" that doesn't return often enough to act as a hook) or second-drawer (Tiger's "Never Let Go" rather than his supposed title cut, Brian and Tony Gold's "Maniac" rather than Michael Sembello's). Manhattan Special: Admiral Tibet's "Mad Man." B

SCANDAL SKA (Mango) The excuse for the label's very belated fourth ska compilation is the Christine Keeler movie that lends it a title and a rather generic lead Don Drummond instrumental. Cut in '60 and '61--and thus predating rather than duplicating Intensified!, More Intensified!, and Club Ska '67, all still in print--these 16 cuts are ska as imitation r&b, their chugalong a kissing cousin to a New Orleans shuffle, and sometimes they really don't require an excuse. In addition to early Cliff and Marley and Dekker, there are songs here that feel as impossible as any obscurely wondrous '50s novelty--Skitter's "Mr. Kruschev," or Lloyd Clark's "Japanese Girl." But sometimes unknown r&b songs are curiosities, nothing more. B PLUS

SISTER CAROL: Jah Disciple (RAS) Like so many rappers, this dancehall queen gets over on music--irrepressible Augustus Pablo, live and computer drums out of nowhere, the explosive spunk of a delivery rich in interjection, admonition, whoop, holler, and sound effect. Lyrically, she loves Africa and "intelligence" but thinks the space invaders on the Challenger had it coming. B PLUS

THE STONE ROSES (Silvertone) These Britindie pheenoms are overhyped for sure, so there's a temptation to blow them off. What do they do that the Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield weren't doing better in 1967? And that a hundred Amerindie bands don't do just as well now? But they aren't all press clips--they're postmodern English, filtering folk-rock romanticism through Joy Division and Jesus and Mary Chain hyperromanticism. Though they have their moments as songwriters--"Bye Bye Badman" always stops me, and "I Want To Be Adored" sums them up--their music is about sound, fingers lingering over the strings and so forth. And in the end they're surprisingly "eclectic." Not all that good at it, but eclectic. B MINUS

DONNA SUMMER: Another Place and Time (Atlantic) I tried to credit her comebacks, giving up only when that song about fucking Einstein cracked WBLS. But though Stock Aitken Waterman are no Einsteins, they're smart enough to know a voice when they hear one, which usually happens when they listen to other people's records--they've invented a pop machine that enables singers as adenoidal as the average British teenager to pass for Motown Mark XC after one or two treatments. Since Summer's great gift has always been her ability to emote inconsistent banalities as if her life depended on them, which after all those failed comebacks it kind of did, she lights into these retooled tunes with a phony enthusiasm that must have scared the shit out of Bananarama. Ever up, ever danceable, ever there, she's once again a believer, or rather "believer." And hidden over on the second side is a succinct new cliche about why women leave their men. B PLUS

THOMPSON TWINS: Big Trash (Warner Bros.) No one cares, but this is their best by miles. The singing is as characterless as ever, but at last their brains show, and when their well-named homage to Blondie and the B-52's adduces Salvador Dali, it leaves no doubt that they admire him as a charlatan, not an artist--or at least that they regard the two callings as closely related. So maybe the B-52's should hire Bailey/Currie when they need something catchy and meaningless, as they do. Deborah Harry did just that last year and wound up with a side-opener. B PLUS

THE VULGAR BOATMEN: Me and Your Sister (Record Collect) These guys make much more than you expect out of what first sounds like almost nothing--just tuneful enough to warrant play two, their mild jangle gains sweetness and kick as your faith increases. But their lyrics come from an English prof who may be too much the formalist to say what he wants but more likely just doesn't know what he wants: hoping for more "Change the World All Around," what you get instead is six minutes of "Drive Somewhere." It's such a great riff you wouldn't care if it kept going, either. But an honorable, self-aware nowhere is where it'll end up. B PLUS

YOUNG M.C.: Stone Cold Rhymin' (Delicious Vinyl) From the bright, cute funk of "I Come Off" to the Q. Jones Jr.-cowritten "Just Say No," he's just too clean. His polysyllables and quick lips aren't as fresh as he thinks they are, either. Much more than his East Coast counterpart the Fresh Prince, though, he has his own sparely hooky musical style--courtesy Matt Dike, Michael Ross, and the usual panoply of pop-funk geniuses past. Has his own style as a writer, too, summed up pretty well in the title--he's not a storyteller, he's a wordslinger. Fun fun fun until daddy takes the contract away. B PLUS

ZETROSPECTIVE: DANCING IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY (ZE cassette/CD) Resuscitating the four standout tracks from the 1981 nouveau-disco anthology Seize the Beat and 12 others besides, this is the soundtrack to a lost era--art-scene disco according to Michael Zilkha on one side, art-scene DOR ditto on the other. It's very Manhattan, even more dilettantishly cerebral after all these years, and I prefer the disco even though the beat does get repetitive (those handclaps): only Kid Creole's "I'm a Wonderful Thing Baby," which oddly enough is the compilation's only readily available cut, has much give to it. But good work by uneven or ultimately tedious artists abounds. From Cristina's satiric "Disco Clone" to Was (Not Was)'s literal "White People Can't Dance," from Coati Mundi's bad-rapping "Que Pasa/Me No Pop I" to Lydia Lunch's sweet-talking "Lady Scarface," from Don Armando's cheesy "Deputy of Love" to Breakfast Club's cheesy "Rico Mambo," this is the first postmodern dance music--dance music with a critical spirit. And it's funny as hell. A MINUS

Village Voice, May 29, 1990

Apr. 3, 1990 July 3, 1990