Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Following this month's unthrilling selections you'll find a (very)-rough-descending order list of unthrilling unselections. In truth, I'd rather hear some of the unselections. But I'd rather read (and write) about the selections. Newsworthy, we journalists call this quality, and sometimes you get there making a splash.

ORNETTE COLEMAN: In All Languages (Caravan of Dreams) Packed by their eternal leader into ten cuts averaging 3:22, Cherry-Haden-Higgins surge hotter at fifty than they ever dreamed old or new, as if harmolodic funk is an essentially structural principle, inhering more in the constraints of song conception that in the electric pulse. It's the Quartet disc that evokes the dense flow of Of Human Feelings, which leaves Prime Time room for patches of free cacophony as daunting as the Quartet in its youth. Defining both bands is the natural iconoclasm and indefatigable lyricism of the fifty-seven-year-old rebel who's probably the most widely respected musician in the world, and who somehow doesn't get any less amazing as a result. A

THE CURE: Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (Elektra) Samey samey samey is the strategy--repeat repeat repeat repeat the same four-bar theme for sixteen, twenty-four, forty-eight, sixty-four bars before Robert Smith starts to whine, wail, warble, work. Because Smith hasn't veered this far pop since he was a boy, most of the themes stick with you, and in a few cases--my pick is "Just Like Heaven," which gets off to a relatively quick start--his romantic vagaries have universal potential. But especially over a double album, the strategy gets pretty tedious unless Smith happens to be whining, wailing, warbling, or working to you. B

STEVE EARLE & THE DUKES: Exit 0 (MCA) Last time you knew he was a rock-and-roller because he was a soulful wiseass, full of piss, vinegar, and super unleaded. This time you know he's a rock-and-roller because he puts his band's name on the slug line. Whether Nashville has a contract out on him or he harbors a secret desire to become a folksinger, his will to boogie gets mired down in the lugubrious fatalism that so often passes for seriousness among self-conscious Americans. Maybe the problem with country boys who are smart enough to write their own lyrics is that they're also smart enough to read their own reviews. B

FAT BOYS: Crushin' (Tin Pan Apple/Polydor) Rap's longest-running cartoon has all the street credibility of a Dont Walk sign, but that doesn't mean the anticrack and procondom messages won't make an impression with the home viewing audience. Doesn't mean the boys don't crush, either. Once a homemade music starts fulfilling its fantasies in the studio, it can also be manufactured there. B

PETER GORDON: Innocent (FM) Gordon's affectless downtown tone sticks in my craw even though I've learned to have fun with it in other versions. But at least his new mewzick isn't deliberately cheesy. It's kitsch, but it's not cheap kitsch, not factitious so-bad-it's-good; in another time, snobs might have branded it middlebrow, meaning dolts like you and me think it has substance. As a here-disco there-jazz everywhere-semiavant soundtrack to life in media central, kind of fun--though more resistant than fun, or mood music, should ever be. B PLUS

HEART: Bad Animals (Capitol) You'd never know Ann Wilson was riding the catchy intricacies of hired songwriting unless you listened more carefully than the resulting trifles deserve or her relentless overkill permits. And although the camp follower in me is sometimes tickled by the mismatch, it was the professional in me who noticed it. Only in the title cut, where a failed opera singer throws down the gauntlet for the heavy metal boors she's sworn to defend, does the end justify the means. C

JOHN HIATT: Bring the Family (A&M) "I don't think Ronnie Milsap's gonna ever/Record this song," moans the wandering pro on the lead cut, which announces his intention to go get "good and greasy" in Memphis before subjecting himself to "one more heartfelt steel guitar chord" in the Music City he calls home. But now more than ever he seems to derive his idea of good and greasy from, I don't know, Joe Cocker, which only works when he makes nasty. Well-written though it may be, most of this is Ronnie Milsap's kind of thing. B MINUS

WHITNEY HOUSTON: Whitney (Arista) It takes more than unsullied venality and the will to power to reign as the most revolting pop singer in Christendom. It takes active aesthetic miscalculation and, truth be told, more than a little luck. Like falling into the lame dance grooves of Jermaine Jackson and the odious megaschlock of Michael Masser, with Narada Michael Walden limited to "How Will I Know"--which becomes your breakthrough song as well as the only critically forgivable thing on your best-selling debut album in history. So this time Walden gets seven shots, with Masser down to two and Jermaine returned to the bosom of his family, and the results are forgivable--she does have a good voice, you know. C PLUS

THE LOUNGE LIZARDS: No Pain for Cakes (Island) The record ends with John Lurie grousing about the way his minions skip practice. Disgusted, he says the hell with it himself and checks out a party, soon revealed as the source of the greasy, swinging groove underpinning his voiceover. Lurie likes the music so much that he goes into the next room to peep the band, and oops, it's the Lizards. On none of the garish set pieces preceding this capper do they sound so at ease with themselves. But on every one they sound as sardonic as the guy who thought it up. Which is how he wants it. B PLUS

MANTRONIX: Music Madness (Sleeping Bag) The first rap act since Flash to be named after its DJ will make a believer out of you maybe half the time--Mantronik's beats have that much groove, variety, and (damn right) human touch. "Listen to the Bass of Get Stupid Fresh Part II," which features a harmonica, is a minimalist tour de force. M.C. Tee, poor soul, needs boasting lessons. B MINUS

ROY NATHANSON, CURTIS FOWLKES AND THE JAZZ PASSENGERS: Broken Night/Red Light (Disques de Crepuscle) Sax man Nathanson is the second-best composer and best improviser (though not player) in the Lounge Lizards, trombonist Fowlkes his fellow traveler. Here they indulge their fondness for jazz of the real variety without sacrificing their sense of humor or taste in packaging. The tunes are warm but never corny, a distinction lost on the brothers Lurie. The free passages are kept to a modest minimum. The covers include a health-food "Rascal You" and Yiddish "Speedo." B PLUS

R.E.M.: Dead Letter Office (I.R.S.) Peter Buck describes these B sides and outtakes as "a junkshop." Dumpster would be more like it. You can throw away a Velvets cover or three without anybody getting hurt, but bad Pylon gives unsuspecting young people the wrong idea. C PLUS

SCHOOLLY-D: Saturday Night (Jive) Though I'm sure I'd miss the subtlety if he held a .357 to my head or gang-banged my bitch in the back room, I suspect the secret fascination this professional B-boy holds for white critics isn't just his exotic brutality, which he certainly makes the most of--"motherfucker" is such a rhythmic word. It's his intimations of vulnerability--not L.L. Cool J's romantic shit, but something wryer and stupider. What other rapper would write a rhyme about the night his mother pulled a gun on him--or would make it so clear that, just like in West Side Story, he's depraved on account of he's deprived? This doesn't speak too well of white critics, obviously, but it also doesn't take away his raps, his rips, or his muscleman groove. Docked a notch for gang-banging a bitch in the back room. Inspirational Verse: "You know how mothers are." B [Later]

SILOS: Cuba (Record Collect) A marriage of heaven and earth, a divorced father, and a Green Mountain wedding close out side one, stretching rather than subverting or sentimentalizing country parameters and establishing Walter Salas-Humara's claim to the Gram Parsons estate in my book. As rock-and-rollers, however, they're still just in there kicking. B PLUS [Later]

HENRY THREADGILL SEXTETT: You Know the Number (Novus) I enjoy imaginary soundtracks as much as (hell, more than) the next guy, and often adjudge entertaining fake jazz aesthetically superior to proficient real jazz. So let this album stand as a reminder--the most striking of several current examples I could name, with others no doubt languishing unheard on my shelves--that when jazz isn't just proficient it can cut. Threadgill blows more horn than John Lurie, Roy Nathanson, and Peter Gordon combined. In the past his third-stream expeditions have sometimes dragged, but "Theme from Thomas Cole" can be in my movie anytime. His avant gets over on force of personality. And he can play the blues. A MINUS

T LA ROCK: Lyrical King (Fresh) Without making a novelty of themselves, these three guys--not just the king, who's no special wit, but beatmaster Louie Lou and beatbox Greg Nice--are f-u-n fun. Electronic noises, vocal noises, good-natured ethnic caricatures, and a country boy with hair on his butt who keeps on and on till the record's gone. B PLUS

SUZANNE VEGA: Solitude Standing (A&M) I bet "Luka" is a grand fluke like "You're So Vain" rather than a dawning of the light like "Mrs. Robinson." Better her closely observed recent songs than a tale of brave Ulysses or a lover with "hands of raining water" (wet yes, hot no). But close observation is still Creative Writing, and if Vega eventually graduates to, say, the flat command of Ann Beattie, she'll still be precisely nowhere. Real pop lyrics ignore such strictly literary alternatives altogether. C PLUS

TOM VERLAINE: Flash Light (I.R.S.) Supremely self-conscious, utterly unschooled, Verlaine writes like nobody else, sings like nobody else, plays like nobody else. His lyrics sound like his voice sounds like his guitar, laconic and extravagant at the same time. After three years off the boards, he's deemphasized keyboards in a quest for dynamite riffs, and he's found enough to thrill any fan. As usual, I'm not sure just what the songs mean. But that bothers me mostly because it may bother you. A MINUS

WEBB WILDER & THE BEATNECKS: It Came from Nashville (Landslide) Wilder is about as country as Olivia Newton-John. He's got one of those pencil-necked voices, like he not only went to college (which lots of real men and good old boys do these days) but maybe even prep school. His Steve Earle cover beats his Hank Williams cover, and his best song is about hanging out by a pool with a rule against dogs. And I almost don't care. Any Nashvillean who can honestly urge all his "patrons in the teen and sub-teen demographic to pursue happiness at every opportunity" gets slack from me. B

DWIGHT YOAKAM: Hillbilly Deluxe (Reprise) Buck Owens may be his hero, but if George Jones earns a ten for contained intensity and Ricky Skaggs a one, Owens gets an eight and Yoakam maybe a four--he never breaks out of the jams, fixes, and world-historical dilemmas that are country music's reason for being. Reminding us once again that in a genre that's always fetishized tradition, neotraditionalism means immersing yourself in limitation until you convince yourself it's the air you breathe. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

My guarantee: I've played both sides of every unselection on the Consumer Guide Reject Pile at least twice. In order of regret: Ruby Turner: Women Hold Up Half the Sky (Jive); Volcano Suns: All Night Lotus Party (Homestead); Howard Hewett: I Commit to Love (Elektra); John Conlee: American Faces (Columbia); George Strait: Ocean Front Property (MCA); Joe Cocker: Cocker (Capitol); Tiger: Me Name Tiger (RAS); Shinehead: Rough and Rugged (ALM); Lyres: Lyres Lyres (Ace of Hearts); the Micronotz: 40 Fingers (Homestead); Tim Berne: Fulton Street Mall (Columbia); Wayne Smith: Sleng Teng (Greensleeves); the Dave Edmunds Band Live: I Hear You Rockin' (Columbia); Dagmar Krause: Supply and Demand (Hannibal); Squirrel Bait: Skag Heaven (Homestead); Freddie Jackson: Just Like the First Time (Capitol); Jason and the Scorchers: Still Standing (EMI America); Reba McEntire: What Am I Going to Do About You (MCA); Dance Hall Session (Ras/Studio One); Lone Justice: Shelter (Geffen); the Gregg Allman Band: I'm No Angel (Epic); Harold Budd: Lovely Thunder (Editions EG); Concrete Blonde (I.R.S.); Junior Murvin: Apartheid (Greensleeves); Gone: Gone II--But Never Too Gone (SST); Jody Watley (MCA); Paul Young: Between the Lines (Columbia); Kelvynator: Funk It Up (Blue Heron); Grandmaster Flash: Ba-Dop-Boom-Bang (Elektra); Ric Ocasek: This Side of Paradise (Geffen); the Magnolias: Concrete Pillbox (Twin/Tone); K.D. Lang and the Reclines: Angel With a Lariat (Sire); General Public: Hand to Mouth (I.R.S.); Thompson Twins: Close to the Bone (Arista).

Village Voice, July 28, 1987

June 30, 1987 Sept. 1, 1987