Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Surprises from Aerosmith to Zap Mama, and from L.L. Cool J to Rosanne Cash. Give a record a chance and you never know what'll get you--and what won't.

AEROSMITH: Get a Grip (Geffen) There are no rules. Obscene megabucks, boring rehab, song doctors, turning 40, minuscule interest in doing something new--nothing stands between the world's greatest hard rock band and their best album since Rocks. The drugs long gone, they show a strong professional commitment to rebellion and an undiminished relish for the fleshpots. If the song doctors prescribed "I'd rather be' on the/Crack of her ass," not to mention "It's like gettin' head from a guillotine," they were worth every point. And though at first you may miss the killer cut, the "My Fist Your Face" or "Janie's Got a Gun," in fact the midtempo, classic-rock, love-as-pain "Cryin'" should prove irresistible to anyone who doesn't equate good art with doing something new. A MINUS

LES AMBASSADEURS INTERNATIONALES FEATURING SALIF KEITA (Rounder) Where Rounder's first Ambassadeurs reissue was a vocal treasure-house billed to the band, this attempt to cash in on Keita's modest portion of fame is a band showcase headlined by the vocalist. Keita had left before one track was recorded, and on all five the instrumental bed is more seductive than the excellent singing it supports. You wait for Kante Manfila's guitar, for the oddly tuned horn riffs, for the unidentified keyb (Farfisa? Casio?) that evokes heavy wah-wah, cheap alto sax, unalloyed synthesizer. Penciling shadows of kora and kalimba behind local beats and copycat tintinnabulations, it documents a moment before West African dance music had figured out what to do with Congolese hegemony or its own traditionalism, and a lovely moment it must have been. A MINUS

THE BREEDERS: Safari (4AD/Elektra) Now posing as a major-label debut, Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly's 1990 Rough Trade one-off Pod still sounds like the art project it was, but although Donnelly is otherwise occupied, this 1992 EP sounds like a band. Postamateur Raincoats, say. They substitute the Who's "So Sad About Us" for the Kinks' "Lola" because they're less arch and less soft. But they're lovers not fighters nonetheless. A MINUS

BUTTHOLE SURFERS: Independent Worm Saloon (Capitol) With closet M.B.A. Gibby Haynes t.c.b., their freak show has always had more P.T. Barnum than Salvador Dali in it, and more Salvador Dali than Swamp Dogg. All John Paul Jones does is improve their entertainment value. Channeling horrible noise into runaway power riffs, they maintain a style of momentum reminiscent of Gibby's sometime collaborators in Ministry--messier, which is their calling card, but not that much messier. With nuttier jokes, too. A fun-loving guy, Gibby. A MINUS

COUPÉ CLOUÉ: Maximum Compas From Haiti (Earthworks) Now almost 70, Gesner Henry is a master of Creole double-entendre who chose his stage name (literally Cut Nailed) to signify Cut and Score in soccer and Fucking Fucking in sex. Yet the puns that are lost in translations-provided aren't missed, because Henry is also a master of the same Cuban guitar style that spawned Zairian rumba in the '50s. By the time these tracks were recorded circa 1980, his large, simple band--three male singers, three guitarists, three percussionists, bass, drums--had perfected a beguiling lilt free of Kinshasa's far-off fashion wars. I wish I understood the words, but I'm not greedy--the music may well be sweeter without them. A

PJ HARVEY: Rid of Me (Island) Never mind sexual--if snatches like "Make me gag," "Lick my injuries," and "Rub 'til it bleeds" aren't genital per se, I'm a dirty old man. And if the cold raw meat of her guitar isn't yowling for phallic equality, I'm Robert Bly, which is probably the same thing. She wants that cock--a specific one, it would seem, attached to a full-fledged, nonobjectified male human being, or maybe an array or succession of cocks, it's hard to tell. But when she gets pissed off, which given the habits of male human beings happens all the time, she thinks it would be simpler just to posit or grow or strap on or cut off a cock of her own. After which it's bend-over-Casanova and every man for him or herself. A

LUNA: Slide (Elektra) More than a stopgap, by addition (one guitar) and subtraction (one superscript 2). Who cares if the best cut on the EP is the best cut on the LP and the three runners-up are all covers--Velvets/Dream Syndicate/Beat Happening, yet. Every song is good, and several are fast. I do believe Dean Wareham wants people to type the group's name right as a first step toward putting it in lights. A MINUS

RUN-D.M.C.: Down With the King (Profile) A triumphant comeback, but the comeback is spiritual and the triumph formal, which adds up to art rather than culture. Where multiple producers usually signal overweening identity crisis, this is debt collection--since rap as we know it proceeded from their innovations and accommodations, there's no one in the music who doesn't owe them. And though the two Bomb Squad cuts owe Cypress Hill in turn, all the other guest overseers--Q-Tip, Jermaine Dupri, Pete Rock, EPMD--drop plenty flavor without impinging on the group's aural identity. Sure of their hard-not-gangsta ethos, equally deliberate in the vocals and the bass and drums, they always sound like Jay, Run, and Darryl Mac. Yet with the spareness of their own production style signifying only as a trademark, they live off those outside shots, and the boasts about the stages they useta rip up ring truer than the ones about the trends they're gonna start. I hope their godfather status is good for sales as well as respect, influence as well as sales. But I wonder how much their return will mean, even to rap aesthetes, if it isn't. B PLUS [Later]

SLOAN: Smeared (DGC) As Nova Scotian as lox and bagels, it's orthodox North American neohip. The specifics of the Halifax "scene" are irrelevant; dissonant, guitar-decentered pop has become the province of anyone within reach of a culturally correct college radio station--anyone "Left of Centre," a title that refers in so many words to "pop culture" rather than politics. The most meaningful song is the opener, about a cool coed whose grade average is higher than the singer's even though "her spelling's atrocious." Everywhere else, the ugly beauty of the guitars sustains. B PLUS

TARIKA SAMMY: Fanafody (Xenophile) In concert, these two women and two men from Madagascar left me nauseous with memories of Peter, Paul & Mary--made me suspect that their profusion of lively rhythms and lovely melodies could be nothing more than the market-ready "folk music" of the planet's largest one-world theme park. On record, however, the fine Afro-Asian tunes and sonorities overcome--with a crucial guest boost from two Mustaphas two on Afro-American bass and drums. A MINUS

THELONIOUS MONSTER: Beautiful Mess (Capitol) As always, Bob Forrest is beset by bad feelings he can't comprehend--about an unjust society, a dysfunctional family, a feminist girlfriend who runs off with "some faggot from the Posies," above all about himself. Crawling around the nice house he secured with his advance or gazing awestruck at the nice girlfriend he doubts he deserves, covering Joan Armatrading or duetting with Tom Waits, sleeping eight to a room in Vegas with his equally confused friends, he always seems to end up doing what he does best--whining. He whines tunefully, loudly, childishly, revoltingly, nakedly, sweetly, intelligently, and though he probably doesn't deserve that girlfriend, you can tell why she doesn't think so. With a jerk like Forrest, this constitutes a major artistic achievement. A MINUS

WASHBOARD SAM: Rockin' My Blues Away (Bluebird) Not a lost genius, just a forgotten "race" star--the 6/26/41 session arranges the same tune the same way three titles running. But this is where anyone who's striven to comprehend the reputations of Sam's half-brother Big Bill Broonzy and associate Memphis Slim will hear the light--they played terrific backup. Scraping away on his homely percussion device, the once and future Robert Brown is almost always uptempo and always happy just to be like he is. So when the record business contracted during World War II, he integrated the Chicago Police Department, an easier target than Billboard. Bill and Slim, sly devils, took off for Europe. A MINUS

ZAP MAMA: Adventures in Afropea 1 (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.) Like most a cappella, this ethnomusicological pop move--melodies lifted from all over Africa as well as Spain and Cuba and Syria, with Zairian tunes and Pygmy chants foregrounded--requires concentration. In the background it can fade or annoy, but on the Walkman, or a good sound system with the street noise under control, it's pure joy of timbre--female timbre, plus clicks and gutturals and percussion sounds and camel-driver impressions. And unless you fancy ethnomusicology lectures, which tend to be prissy, don't worry about the words. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

L.L. COOL J: 14 Shots to the Dome (Def Jam/Columbia) Proof we didn't need that his talent is as phat as an elefant's phart and his brain is the size of a pea. Only it isn't his brain--it's his ability to comprehend contradiction. Like Michael Ivey, of all people, he flunked his follow-up because he can't figure out how to put success and rap together. Where Ivey (or the Basehead "character," ha ha) takes his dorky confusion out on women, L.L.'s sexism is love-man suave--his "It's so relaxin'" after a piece of pussy gets off in the back of his Jeep is a rare moment of grace. Instead he slings the gangsta metaphors and handgun memories in the vain hope that the guys hanging out by the check-cashing place will think he's hard. But from the look of the crotch he's grabbing in several photos, as of now he just ain't. B

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Willie Nelson, Across the Borderline (Columbia): his best in a coon's age, and a touch too artful all around ("She's Not for You," "Don't Give Up," "American Tune")
  • No Safety, Spill (Knitting Factory Works): Henry Cow meets da funk on da Lower East Side ("Sad," "Saturday Morning")
  • Eleventh Dream Day, El Moodio (Atlantic): postpomo guitar heroes--not quite smart enough to be slow ("Makin' Like a Rug," "That's the Point")
  • Sugar, Beaster (Rykodisc): immanence not transcendence, sonics not songs ("Tilted," "JC Auto")
  • Bongwater, The Peel Sessions (Strange Fruit): two concept singles about sex b/w ("Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," "Pussy Power")
  • A House, I Am the Greatest (Radioactive): the rationalizations of a million pretentious losers--not including you or me, of course ("I Am Afraid," "You're Too Young")
  • Jaojoby, Salegy! (Rogue import): 6/8 dance beats from Madagascar, by guys with their own drum set ("Samy Mandeha Samy Mitady," "Mampanino Anao")
  • Grand Puba, Reel to Reel (Elektra): easy-going racist-sexist motherfucker ("Lickshot")
  • Pansy Division, Undressed (Lookout): "We're the buttfuckers of rock and roll/We want to sock it to your hole" ("Bunnies," "The Cocksucker Club")
  • Deep Blues (Atlantic): Mississippi jook music today (R.L. Burnside: "Jumper on the Line," Big Daddy Johnson, "Daddy, When Is Momma Coming Home")
  • Boukman Eksperyans, Kalfou Danjere/Dangerous Crossroads (Mango): conscious, fluent, liberal-ready pan-Africanism, Haitian-Congo style ("Zansèt Nou Yo")
  • Dr. Michael White, New Year's at the Village Vanguard (Antilles): if not Dixieland without corn, then Dixieland with spirit, smarts, chops, and a sense of the present ("Lord, Lord, Lord")
  • Joan Armatrading, Square the Circle (A&M): in her search for love may she record forever ("True Love," "Weak Woman")
  • Rosanne Cash, The Wheel (Columbia): in her search for love may she trip over a new arranger--and a new metaphor bank ("Roses in the Fire") [Later: A-]
Choice Cuts:
  • Tone Loc, "Old Mother Hubbard" (Rap Rhymes! Mother Goose on the Loose, Epic)
  • Ya Kid K, "Move This," "You Told Me Sex" (One World Nation, SBK)
  • Belly, "Slow Dog," "Feed the Tree" (Star, Sire/Reprise)
  • Crash Vegas, "You and Me" (Stone, London)
  • Brand Nubian, In God We Trust (Elektra)
  • Ray Charles, My World (Warner Bros.)
  • EPMD, Business Never Personal (RAL/Chaos/Columbia)
  • Intro (Atlantic)
  • The Pleasure Barons, Live in Las Vegas (HighTone)

Village Voice, June 1, 1993

Apr. 6, 1993 Aug. 3, 1993