Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

It's a sign of the times that the 13 records selected below include an unprecedented four hedged with a B plus--too accomplished to ignore, too uncompelling to recommend. Perhaps in compensation, there's also a rare A plus from a familiar source.

BRAN VAN 3000: Glee (Capitol) This song-filled genre-trip is best enjoyed as a totality, like Endtroducing . . . DJ Shadow. Whether it's constructed or just strung together, its flat moments are spritzed by its highs, which include sexy pomo new jack hip hop, girl-pop Slade/Quiet Riot cover, faux-country faux-fable, numerous humorous middle-class layabouts, several minibricolages, and a sarcastic indictment of capitalism. How eclecticism should work--even if it almost never does. A MINUS

HENRI DIKONGUÉ: C'Est La Vie (Tinder) A Camerounian who left law school in Paris for a pan-African theater troupe in the self-same city, this thoughtful songwriter and fluent guitarist is a hit in the genteel mold of Lokua Kanza and Geoffrey Oryema. He's what happens when Afropop becomes world music--when it targets broad-minded European connoisseurs rather than rhythm-schooled African sophisticates. In short, he's a folkie. But he's more rhythm-minded than most, rival Africans included, melding piano here and clave there into arrangements whose weave launches his plaintive tunes the way genteel beauty should. And when he sings declaratively, you believe he's saying something. A MINUS

ARTO LINDSAY: Noon Chill (Bar/None) Lindsay has always promoted samba as the mother lode of contemporary artsong, and after several hommages this is where he claims auteurship. Highly verbal, very textured, kinda lovely. But only on "Simply Are" does song sweep art off its fundament. I like my sex subtle sometimes, but never this subtle--which goes double for beats. B PLUS

JIMMY MCGRIFF: Greatest Hits (Blue Note) In a world where Roy Ayers is counted a beatwise godfather by acid jazz casualties, the continued obscurity of this B-3 master isn't excused by his signature quote: "What I play isn't really jazz. It's sort of in between." Sounds disastrous, I know, but what he didn't say because he didn't know it is that he played funk, and not in the hard-bop sense. Early on he's still rooted in cocktail swing, although he has the populism to be vulgar about it, and as this collection cherry-picks its way through 10 '60s albums, both his attack and his uncredited rhythm sections grow tougher and trickier. By the end, well, "The Worm" and "Fat Cakes" may not be "Cissy Strut" or "Look-Ka Py Py," but that's the territory. And later McGriff was known to join forces with Hank Crawford, whose continued obscurity will be taken up in a future lesson. A MINUS

ODYSSEY THE BAND: Reunion (Knitting Factory Works) In which James Blood Ulmer's greatest album is mined for the originality of its band concept, with Charlie Burnham the strong alternate lead the leader needs. Intimations of hoedown notwithstanding, "fiddler" doesn't capture Burnham any better than "violinist"--gypsy riffs bent by blues intonation, blues drones textured with saxophone growl. As for that lowdown meld of güiro scrape, jew's-harp thwong, and two balloons rubbing together, I assume it's Blood, who is also the straightforward vocalist and melodist on a record that starts atmospheric, turns songful, and ropes you in with a sound either way. A MINUS

PANTHALASSA: THE MUSIC OF MILES DAVIS 1969-1974 (Columbia) Tapes of these Bill Laswell remixes have been around almost a year, and for the longest time I didn't get the point. When the original albums were edited down for release by Teo Macero, that was Davis's choice; alive, he was free to object should Macero's forays into formlessness strike him as too discursive, or too commercial. Anyway, learning to distinguish among the author-authorized variants was tricky enough. Hand them over to the ambient-techno brigade and the tide would never stop rising--at 15 bucks a lap. And then one night, listening with a first-timer, I got the message. Metastructures condensed, themes highlighted, beats punched up by a master tinkerer who's loved them forever, the transcendent buzz of electric Miles nevertheless remains undulant, unpredictable, perverse--and so relaxed about getting where it's not actually going that newcomers will find it hard to imagine how much more unhurriedly it might arrive. For me this will get played like In a Silent Way and Jack Johnson before it. For anyone who doesn't know In a Silent Way, Get Up With It, and On the Corner, it's a passport to provisional utopia. A [Later]

QUASI: Featuring "Birds" (Up) Unlike most smart young men with a keyb and a tune sense, Sam Coomes isn't too cool to sing from his own experience. Bitter but not self-indulgent about it, he's better on wage slavery, which he hates, than on love, which he merely finds wanting, and peaks when he explains how they intersect on the profoundly weary "It's Hard To Turn Me On." Nor would he give off so much life without the furious drumming of Sleater-Kinney's own Janet Weiss, who no doubt found it harder to turn him on when she was his wife. A MINUS

RAILROAD JERK: The Third Rail (Matador) On last fall's White Hassle one-off, Marcellus Hall sang oft-clever country songs in a voice he rarely copped to, as in, "Me a rube? That's him over there, man." But on this widely overlooked, slide-drenched 1996 album, his real hobby's fourth, he represents Manhattan art-slackerdom like the proud denizen he is. Whether courting a librarian or donning the leftwing blackface of "Objectify Me," he's got his vernacular literacy down, and he can also write a chorus. Talk about local color--there's even a song with "shareholders" in it. B PLUS [Later]

SARGE: The Glass Intact (Mud) Roughly pop and crisply punky, this is one of the rare good albums to land tunes first these days, indubitably fresh despite its verse-chorus-verse and guitar-bass-drums. Partly it's the voice of young Elizabeth Elmore--unassuming but never retiring, thoughtful but never moony, just what you'd expect of a straightforward lass who neither wears contact lenses nor throws money away on frames. Read the lyrics--so much happens so fast that they make a difference, and note that they're printed across the booklet, compelling you to follow word for word instead of scanning down--and you'll encounter not just a sensible girl but a born writer whose subject is love or relationships depending how you look at it. Dissecting one attraction after another, she's still trying to figure that out herself. My advice, fat chance she'll take it: male or female, maybe you should rule out people in bands, dear. A MINUS [Later]

SCRAWL: Nature Film (Elektra) With a realism other alt vets should have the modesty to imitate, these likable journeywomen cannibalize obscure old records only their cult will ever hear and come away with six songs they figure will top most of their new ones. Having learned to sing like godmothers Grace Slick and Joan Jett, they pump up "Charles," for the lucky sex partner who waits up after rehearsal, and "11:30 (It's January)," the saddest New Year's Eve song ever told. And thus they help you hear the new "Don't We Always Get There," about the perilous drive to the next gig or orgasm. A MINUS

SONIC YOUTH: Anagrama/Improvisation Ajoutée/Tremens/Mieux: De Corrosion (SYR) Nine-minute intro to a song that never begins, stroll through an artificial rain forest, and two improvised explosions, the longer and more playful of which comes in jet-engine stereo. Unlike the album, not rock and roll, although the intro comes close. But not avant-bullshit either. B PLUS [Later]

SONIC YOUTH: A Thousand Leaves (DGC) This record is what it seems--mature, leisurely, rather beautiful, perhaps content. But it's neither complacent nor same-old, and after it's settled into their, I'm sorry, oeuvre, it will rank toward the top for everybody except permanent revolutionaries, a noncombatant category if ever there was one. Awash in connubial ardor and childhood bliss, undergirded by the strength-through-strangeness of angry tunings grown familiar, it's the music of a daydream nation old enough to treasure whatever time it finds on its hands. Where a decade ago they plunged and plodded, drunk on the forward notion of the van they were stuck in, here they wander at will, dazzled by sunshine, greenery, hoarfrost, and machines that go squish in the night. The melodies aren't the foci of the 11-tracks-in-74-minutes--more like resting places. But even when the band is punk-rocking le sexisme or pondering the trippy fate of Karen Koltrane, the anxiety the tunes alleviate is never life-threatening. Motto, and they quote: "`We'll know where when we get there.'" A PLUS

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT (DreamWorks) Just like the daddy he so much doesn't want to grow up like, this mother's son is a born clown who hits the racks awash in poetry. Since he's also a mind-boggling original, however, next-big-thingers are sure to fib about the pleasures of his debut. He can write, and he'll write better; his voice has no obvious precedents, and he'll learn to define it. But for the nonce what he has to offer depends mostly on his piano, played to suggest amateur lieder or the accompaniment at rehearsals of Oklahoma!, and the songs seldom snap shut on a sure-shot refrain and incur no discernible debt to blues materials. Especially as embellished by Van Dyke Parks, whose nutball Americana has been waiting for Wainwright since Brian Wilson vacated the premises, his talent is too big to let pass. And if that doesn't make his hyperromanticism easier to take, there's no point being narrow-minded. Kate & Anna McGarrigle it ain't. But a hell of a lot more actualized than Loudon Wainwright III. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

GARTH BROOKS: Sevens (Capitol) Hyped into what may be the least label-profitable quintuple-platinum album of all time, this is the confirmation of everything Garth-haters believe. But for those with the heart for his avid ways, what happens is an old alchemical switch--where before he channeled his drive to succeed into the emotion of the song, transmuting his ambition as he intensified his music, now his loony need to maintain his unreal numbers distorts material that would be better off without him, or at least it. Not counting "Two Piña Coladas" (Jimmy Buffett, get outta his way), the songs are exceptional, but hearing past the gulping self-parody of his "interpretations" takes so much out of you that it's hard to tell. If that means the perfect divorce song "She's Gonna Make It" is lost to history, NOW should lodge a protest--or work out some kind of cross-promotion, I don't know. B

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Chris Smither, Small Revelations (HighTone): blues his religion, his therapy, his metier ("Winsome Smile," "Dust My Broom")
  • Free Kitten, Sentimental Education (Kill Rock Stars): the simple punk songs I credit to Kim Gordon, the simplistic punk noisefests I blame on Julia Cafritz ("Top 40," "Teenie Weenie Boppie")
  • George Jones, It Don't Get Any Better Than This (MCA) old faithfuls ("Wild Irish Rose," "It Don't Get Any Better Than This")
  • Red Aunts, Ghetto Blaster (Epitaph): the varied punk noisefests I credit to their learning curve, the screechy punk vocals I blame on their voices ("Alright!" "Wrecked")
  • Green Day, Nimrod (Reprise): punks can age gracefully, but for whiners it's hard ("The Grouch," "Walking Alone")
  • Bjork, Homogenic (Elektra): she organizes freedom--how Scandinavian of her ("Joga," "Bachelorette")
  • Guy Davis, You Don't Know My Mind (Red House): blues his heritage, his politics, his craft ("Best I Can," "If You Love Somebody")
  • Tuscadero, My Way or the Highway (Elektra): songcraft as end-in-itself for as long as this contract shall remain in effect ("Not My Johnny," "Queen for a Day")
  • Dan Bern, Fifty Eggs (Work): when you joke around, perfect aim is all ("Chick Singers," "Monica")
  • Sonic Youth/Jim O'Rourke, Invito Al Cielo/Hungara Vivo/Radio-Amatoroj (SYR): gongs, factories, and radio transmissions, on the moon and under the sea
  • R.L. Burnside, Mr. Wizard (Fat Possum/Epitaph): they don't explode, they just pound, and pretty hard too ("Alice Mae")
  • Junior Kimbrough, Most Things Haven't Worked Out (Fat Possum/Capricorn): primal drone ("Lonesome Road")
Choice Cuts:
  • Marilyn Monroe, "I Wanna Be Loved by You" (The Essential Recordings, Music Club)
  • Backstreet Boys, "We've Got It Goin' On" (Backstreet Boys, Jive) [Later: A-]
  • Pee Shy, "Mr. Whisper," "Much Obliged" (Don't Get Too Comfortable, Blue Gorilla/Mercury)
  • Pulp, "Help the Aged" (This Is Hardcore, Island)
  • the Dambuilders, "Break Up With Your Boyfriend," "Itch It" (Against the Stars, Atlantic)
  • Jimmy McGriff, "McGriffin" (The Dream Team, Milestone)
  • Buffalo Daughter, New Rock (Grand Royal)
  • R.L. Burnside, Sound Machine Groove (High Water/HMG)
  • Cake Like, Bruiser Queen (Vapor)
  • Rebekah, Remember to Breathe (Elektra)
  • Solex, Solex Vs. the Hitmeister (Matador)

Village Voice, June 2, 1998

Apr. 21, 1998 June 30, 1998