Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Asphodel? SoleSides? Joaquin? Toward the top of Honorable Mention, Lazy SOB? Not to mention reliables like Xenophile and Epitaph and Bar/None, or ringers with integrity like Matador and Grand Royal. Majors don't offend me--in theory, I'd rather like more of what they do. But this column would be nowhere without indies--new ones, all the time.

BIS: The New Transistor Heroes (Grand Royal) I'd take their rhetoric more seriously if it weren't so embedded in their aesthetic. The main function of their antibiz antisexism is clearly to drive grownups nuts, just like their high voices and their chanted choruses and their keyby guitars and their jingly catchiness, one song after another after another 18 strong until you feel like you can't stand to recognize another tune. Only you can; in the right frame of mind, in fact, you get off on it. Cheek, the English call such annoying charm. What the Scots call it is for Bis to know and us to find out. A MINUS

BUILT TO SPILL: Perfect From Now On (Warner Bros.) "In a world that's not so bad," Doug Martsch builds a hideout worth visiting--more tree house than basement or cave, with hooks for footholds and misty guitar vistas when you finish the climb. Not a loner, just a small-town kind of guy, he derives his idea of the social from his experience of the musical. So when he says, "You won't help anyone/cause you're unusable," he can't possibly be talking about himself. I hope. B PLUS

RAY CONDO AND HIS RICOCHETS: Swing Brother Swing! (Joaquin) Mining catalogues known and unknown (Count Basie, Carl Perkins, Ruth Brown, Red Allen, maybe Stuff Smith; but Larry Darnell? Glenn Barber? Lew Williams?), this Vancouver combo converts swing, jump blues, and rockabilly nonoriginals into fiddleless Western swing chocked with newly unearthed references to getting laid and pissing ice and Jerry Lee's taste in teenagers and romantic despair vanquished with a simple "Come the revolution for me." They take over the material so completely that it's hard to tell whether the songs were this good to begin with, and beside the point to care. Singer Condo has a rubber mouth to go with his brain, both of which he sometimes stretches around a saxophone reed. Drummer Steve Taylor could rock the bar with takeout chopsticks and a wastepaper basket. A MINUS

THE KLEZMATICS: Possessed (Xenophile) Modern klezmer obviously celebrates Jewish roots and identity--often mixed in with Jewish eclecticism, usually with Jewish secularism, occasionally with Jewish avant-gardism, and always with Jewish celebration itself. The Klezmatics assume all that and then intensify the Jewishness as they transcend and/or escape it. Lorin Sklamberg's ethereal yet sensual tenor epitomizes the sacramental seriousness of what was at heart a wedding music while suggesting the slippery skepticism of all traveling musicians, and the rest of the Klezmatics make congruent artistic choices--as in the "Reefer Song" Frank London composed with Yiddish lyrics by Michael Wax, or the bewitchingly traditional melody Alicia Svigals provided lyricist Tony Kushner's bereftly postmodern "An Undoing World." Anchored and turned inside out by that song, the first half of this record reaches Jewish heaven--where the undone are restored, where the Messiah gathers the gays and blacks and reefer-smokers to his bosom, where the just feast on a "fabulous and tasty wild ox" called the Shor-a-bor. This is a vision band with a genre, not a genre band with a vision. And both are open to all. A MINUS [Later]

WAYNE KRAMER: Citizen Wayne (Epitaph) The punk line on the MC5 is that their revolutionary pretensions were imposed by conniving hippie John Sinclair. So how come it was Fred Smith who got "People Got the Power" out of Patti? And how come Wayne Kramer has now enlisted ex-rad David Was in the most political record of either career? Despite one small-minded sectarian dis--nobody in my Trotskyite cell would be so gauche as to serve chips with pesto, let me assure you--these songs talk class and counterculture simultaneously, a rare thing, especially with the emphasis on the class. And musically, the two Detroiters tear up each other's roots as Was tilts Kramer's good old guitar toward the avant-funk it has long since deserved. A MINUS

LATYRX (SoleSides) Lyrics Born is deep and contemplative, Lateef speedy and confrontational, and together--on DJ Shadow's heads-up lead track, simultaneously, with only a balance knob and some small print between you and the crash of your rhyme-processing program--their playful mastery has no parallel in today's rap. Not all that many precedents, either, although it's significant that several aren't ghettocentric: early De La, 3rd Bass. They take more pleasure in words themselves than in tales, messages, explicit content. That granted, note that Lateef's riff on "those that talk most got the least to say" merits all the attention it gets, and that Lyrics Born's "Balcony Beach" is rap at its most spiritual--motherfucker actually seems wise. Except on the predictable boast tracks toward the end, their language elevates the music even when homeboy Shadow isn't producing, as he usually isn't. A MINUS

MOBY: Animal Rights (Elektra) To his credit, the hustling little visionary didn't go for an ingratiating follow-up. With the vocals proffering all the human comfort of a loony bin, the hortatory punk with which he betrays his appointed calling assails the central nervous system even more abrasively than his electroraves did. I mean, why do you think they call both styles hardcore? But on the one-CD U.S. version the calmer techno his U.K. label relegated to a bonus disc cuts the speed-rock sex and desperation, so that the two musics enrich and play off each other with the flow and coherence Everything Is Wrong lacks (meaningfully, perhaps by design, but lacks nevertheless). "Alone" wouldn't assuage the way it does if just minutes earlier he hadn't been swearing "When you're fucking me it powers up my soul" in his best messiah-cum-ubermensch monotone. A MINUS

MUGGS PRESENTS . . . THE SOUL ASSASSINS CHAPTER 1 (Columbia) Freed from the big-buddah boom of H.O.R.D.E. hip hop, the Cypress Hill DJ concocts an album's worth of phantasmagoric Wuscape and farms out the lyrical terrorism to two coasts worth of tough talkers, most of whom give the job some thought and all of whom provide welcome relief, if only from each other. Atlanta's Goodie Mob sound plenty goodie between Dre and RZA, LA the Darkman's yknowwhutImsayin adds street, a Fugee rewrites John 3:16, and that ain't all. Not too many crime how-tos and lots of embattled postgangsta militance define a music prepared to survive its own self-abetted demise. A MINUS

THAT DOG: Retreat From the Sun (DGC) For a pop adept, Anna Waronker skimps on surefire tunes. On no more than half does the chorus come around and grab the ring; on no more than a couple does the verse leave you waiting for the chorus to make its move. But I think that's because she realizes that we're so inured to tunefulness that the surefire backfires. Waronker's deep hooks are a flatly winsome voice, an unsentimental guitar, and a flirty adventurism that promises loving sex without offering much hope she'll be there six months from now--even if she's indulging one of her domestic fantasies at your expense. A MINUS

TIGER: Shining in the Wood (Bar/None) One young U.K. rave cites "The Stooges, The Ramones, Stereolab, Suicide and The Fall"; a middle-aged friend eavesdrops from the kitchen and asks who that is that sounds like the Beatles. In short, this EP evokes everyone and no one, except maybe pop fans who get just plain excited making songs out of Moogy drones and distaff football choruses and bang-crash drums and fab guitars and everything else they like. Not just ebullient, which is rare enough, but ebulliently anything-goes, without any neoprimitivist/neominimalist guardrails keeping them out of the abyss. Plus the kind of obscurely goofy lyrics that are so irritating in ordinary theoretical pop. Goofy--I love it. B-52's? A MINUS [Later: A]

WE: As Is (Asphodel) Attentive repose their prerequisite, ambient and jungle their coordinates, these heady New York futurists construct tracks from just two or three elements--always a keyb riff/figure/drone/moo, decked out with drum 'n' bass speedbeat, slurping electrosuck, old-fashioned stereo phasing, bird tweets, even the occasional human voice. Making up for flavorless stretches like the well-named "Dyed Camel Skins," the decorations gather mystery with rhythmwise repetition. Sit back and enjoy a cool one. A MINUS

YO LA TENGO: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador) No one has made more of bohemian easy-listening--cocktail samba, trance-skronk, good old-fashioned slow ones--than our finest cultural miniaturists. They've domesticated garage-alt without taming it, and if the price is 10 minutes of organ drone to prove they're not commercial, which they wouldn't be anyway, what the hell--punch a few buttons and put the dreamy stuff and rockers and raveups and Beatlemaniac oldies on a C-60. Modest rather than narrow, their joy and sadness are no less sweet or intense for the larger life they know nothing of. A [Later]

Dud of the Month

SQUIRREL NUT ZIPPERS: Hot (Mammoth) They cut their second album live to a single mike because they don't just love old jazz--they love old jazz records, which is also why Katharine Whalen thinks the way to channel Billie Holiday and Betty Boop is to scrunch up your tonsils. However sincerely they disavow nostalgia, they're not good enough to escape it--striving for the life they hear on those records, they're neither acute enough musically nor blessed enough culturally to get closer than a clumsy imitation. Mix in a soupcon of postloungecore eleganza and you end up with a band that's damn lucky to have written a couple of dandy songs. And if they purloined that calypso novelty hit they put their name on, I hope the teeth that get extruded are their own. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan (Epic): he's dead, his band isn't (Jimmie Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Dr. John, Art Neville, "SRV Shuffle"; Bonnie Raitt, "Pride and Joy"; Robert Cray, "Lovestruck Baby")
  • Sun Ra, The Singles (Evidence): seminal DIY, bullshit included ("Rocket #9," "The Sun One," "Big City Blues")
  • Charlie Burton and the Texas Twelve Steppers, Rustic Fixer-Upper (Lazy SOB): "She's the sugar in my gastank" and other funny lines ("Baby Let's Play God," "Livin' on Borrowed Time [Livin' on Borrowed Money]")
  • Bettie Serveert, Dust Bunnies (Matador): simpler, cuter, sexier, and, need I add, less hep ("Geek," "Sugar the Pill," "Heaven")
  • Maggie Estep, Love Is a Dog From Hell (Mouth Almighty/Mercury): namechecks John S. Hall, not Patti Smith ("Emotional Idiot," "Jenny's Shirt," "Scab Maids on Speed")
  • Wayne Kramer/Deniz Tek/Scott Morgan, Dodge Main (Alive): so what if it's a little late for an MC-5 tribute? ("City Slang," "Future/Now")
  • Pulsars (Almo Sounds): record collectors and their robot trying very hard to feel ("Silicon Teens," "Tunnel Song")
  • Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Thuthukani Ngoxolo (Let's Develop in Peace) (Shanachie): have they ever made a bad record? ("Sisesiqhingini [Everything Is Stupid]," "Hlanganani Siyobula [The Guests Are Arriving]")
  • KRS-One, I Got Next (Jive): what he really got is beats, for once ("Heartbeat," "Step Into a World [Rapture's Delight"]")
  • Guy Clark, Keepers: A Live Recording (Sugar Hill): making the most of a legacy and an ad hoc band ("Homegrown Tomatoes," "Let Him Roll")
  • Magnet, Don't Be a Penguin (PC): if Moe Tucker can forgive the Yule brothers, so can you ("Summer & Winter," "Don't Be a Penguin")
  • Hamell on Trial, The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword (Mercury): more songs about jobs and saloons ("In a Bar," "Red Marty")
Choice Cuts:
  • Tranquility Bass, "La La La" (Let the Freak Flag Fly, Astralwerks)
  • Spice Girls, "Wannabe" (Spice, Virgin)
  • Fiona Apple, Tidal (Work) [Later: Neither]
  • Doran-Studer-Minton-Bates-Ali, Play the Music of Jimi Hendrix (Intuition Music)
  • John Fahey, City of Refuge (Tim/Kerr) [Later: C+]
  • Funky Porcini, Love, Pussycats and Carwrecks (Ninja Tune USA)
  • Warren G, Take a Look Over Your Shoulder (Reality) (Def Jam)
  • Syd Straw, War and Peace (Virgin)
  • Voodoo Child, The End of Everything (Trophy import)
  • Dar Williams, Mortal City (Razor & Tie)

Village Voice, May 27, 1997

Apr. 15, 1997 July 22, 1997