Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

BRAZIL CLASSICS 1: BELEZA TROPICAL (Sire) I have to tip my hat to any record that can induce me to dig rockpoets Caetano Veloso (four tracks) and Milton Nascimento (two), both of whom I've resisted (uneasily, but with increasing vehemence) for a decade. But in fact my pleasure is more like grudging respect or bemused enjoyment--I admire Arto Lindsay's translations, hum along in unguarded moments. Fact is, every certified auteur on this unexceptionable compilation could support a fetching best-of. Fact also is, the only ones I'm sure I'd dig would be by Gilberto Gil (three), an old fave, and Jorge Ben (two), whom D. Byrne has sold me on. B PLUS

BRUCE COCKBURN: Big Circumstance (Gold Castle) Where other singers have soul, Cockburn has dudgeon, fiercer and bitterer with every record. Delivering lines like "don't breathe when the cars go by" and "may their gene pool increase" as if his life depended on them, which before he's dead it could, he reveals rules about the ineluctable bad faith of the political for the know-nothing shibboleths they are. Too bad he still cultivates his "personal" side. I await a best-of filled with protest and nothing but. B

MARSHALL CRENSHAW: Good Evening (Warner Bros.) With three covers, two written-to-orders, three collaborations, and just two songs by Crenshaw working alone, it looks like his muse got bored and departed for greener climes. But not since the debut has he sounded so at ease, so himself. The way he sings them, Richard Thompson's choleric "Valerie" and John Hiatt's lost "Someplace Where Love Can't Find Me" are kind, and Bobby Fuller's "Let Her Dance" turns into an I-love-music song no less awestruck (or womanstruck) than Crenshaw-Llanas-Neumann's "Radio Girl." Maybe his expectations have diminished so far that he's in that Zen zone where all effort is grace. Simple because he's simple--the second time around. A MINUS

THE CULT: Sonic Temple (Sire) Having risen from cultdom as a joke metal band metal fans were too dumb to get, they transmute into a dumb metal band. Dumb was the easy part. Ha ha. B MINUS

BORIS GREBENSHIKOV: Radio Silence (Columbia) Closely akin to the early-'70s progressive rock that evolved into AOR, this sort of Romantic claptrap made Grebenshikov an underground hero in the U.S.S.R., which proves only that totalitarianism forces you to take risks for the most toothless banalities. Granted, some of the fast ones are vaguely visionary in a rockpoety kind of way, and the eclecticism is total--this is a guy who listened with bated breath to every silly piece of contraband he could get his ears on. Probably he writes better in Russian; possibly Dave Stewart's unironic production gloss creates the wrong impression. But his art-folk filigrees and art-rock ostinatos, not to mention the Aching Lyricism of his voice itself, are more deja vu than anybody with access to media should be asked to stomach. C

KINO: Groupa Kroovy (Blood Type) (Gold Castle) Just Russian new wavers, their translated lyrics unobtrusively poetic, alienated by habit, politically aware, resigned. But Victor Tsoi's solidly constructed tunes have a droll charm that's fresh if not new, and to an English speaker, the physical peculiarities of his talky voice, which saunters along as if a low baritone is the natural human pitch, seem made for the offhand gutturals and sardonic rhythms of his native tongue. When his boys ooh-ooh high behind "It's Our Time, Our Turn!," it's as if someone has finally concocted an answer record to "Back in the U.S.S.R." B PLUS

TULI KUPFERBERG: Tuli & Friends (Shimmy-Disc) At 65, the guy "who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer" (that's from "Howl," kids) survives as the great American bohemian. Yeah, he was in a rock and roll band (the Fugs, kids), but pure bohos rarely gravitate toward such large-scale forms. Tuli prefers found photographs, newspaper clippings, stick figures, new lyrics for famous tunes--the best stuff on his legendary 1968 ESP-Disk spoken-word was want ads. So I grant that this excessively long-awaited follow-up is of specialized interest. Still, music-lovers should hear "Evolution," dictated from the other side by John himself; "Swami" ("How I love you how I love you/Swami Everykinanda"); "Way Down South in Greenwich Village," an updated '20s classic with ukulele impression; and, no joke, "Morning, Morning," a song about life and death and their fleeting beauty that deserves eternal salvation. B PLUS

K.D. LANG AND THE RECLINES: Absolute Torch and Twang (Sire) Finally she swells with the contained enthusiasm of Tracy Nelson Country 20 years ago, back when authenticity wasn't such a vexed concept. Willie Nelson's "Three Days" and Wynn Stewart's "Big Big Love" do stand out, but not so's they embarrass Lang's originals, most of which are pretty metaphysical for country music. They're just highlights, like her own lusty "Big Boned Gal" and her own metaphysical "Luck in My Eyes." And "Nowhere to Stand" is an even smarter (and more abstract, fancy that) battered-child song than Suzanne Vega's or Natalie Merchant's. Maybe it's out of place on a quasiauthentic country record, though you have to like how she sneaks in the phrase "family tradition." But vexed concepts cut two ways. B PLUS

RAY LEMA: Nangadeef (Mango) Lema knows too much keyboard. Orchestrating for drama and structure, he ends up with a music of brilliant passages--now Ellingtonian, now almost Brazilian. If you equate Zaire with the eternal groove you'll find him irritating. But if you get your kicks contemplating rhythms as well as consuming them, try this rooted fusion of soukous, funk, reggae, mbaqanga, rock, fusion, and whatever--complete with shrewd, languid vocals of equal intelligence, or wisdom. B PLUS

MOFUNGO: Work (SST) Despairing, cynical, basically unlistenable unless you grant it your full attention, this is far more pessimistic than anything disco doomsters purvey--it's literal, articulate, no fun. I don't necessarily agree that "voting is for suckers" or "the oceans are dead," but I know why they do, and their most inaccessible yowls in years aided my understanding. Alternate title: End of the World: The Final Chapter. A MINUS

THE NAIROBI BEAT (KENYAN POP MUSIC TODAY) (Rounder) Again and again, tintinnabulating guitar lines lift this carefully annotated compilation of 10 dance-length indie singles. When the vocals are something special--a couple of so-called sister acts and the trailing harmonies of two guys who don't want to mind the baby--the lift is all the way to heaven. When they aren't it clears the treetops. B PLUS

NEW MODEL ARMY: Thunder and Consolation (Capitol) The alienation most bands traffic in is a byproduct of moderate privilege--with sustenance a given, they rant or joke or whine or bellow about meaning. This band sings for the true losers. Given their subject/audience, it's no wonder they've been known to make Britcrits fret about fascism--crippled and scattered by Thatcherism, deprived of the belonging the family isn't good for anymore, these ordinary ungifted people could turn into fascism's foot soldiers. Of course, give up on them and that's what you leave them. Identify, empathize, observe, remember, and they've got that much margin. B PLUS

PHRANC: I Enjoy Being a Girl (Island) The first uncloseted lesbian to bed down with a major label since Isis, and what does she come up with? The cover design of the year and an album so arch it crumbles without a proscenium. Not that she never gets away with it--the chamber-styled Toys R Us tribute and the praisesong to Martina that spells out her nation of origin are worth hearing even after you know the jokes. Moreover, the few "sincere" numbers disappear instantly. But any record that makes its most effective political statement on behalf of child-eating polar bears is resorting to weirdness as a protective device. B

BUSTER POINDEXTER: Buster Goes Berserk (RCA) Be kind and call it Bette Midler's Disease. Or remember what they used to say (stupidly, but why quibble) about the Dolls: you had to be there. Even then the flat-on-its-face overstatement of recorded Buster is pretty appalling. Intimations of minstrelsy he's always subsumed live become all too Negroid with the melon-chomping bass man of "Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well?," even the Sarafina-backed "All Night Party." And Buster's no better at bigtime schmaltz than David was. I begrudge him nothing. But I don't want to say thanks for the memories yet. B MINUS

MAVIS STAPLES: Time Waits for No One (Paisley Park) This dream meeting between the criminally underexploited black singer and the black-pop capo doesn't flop altogether--both principals can generate a certain minimum interest sleepwalking. The two songs composed by old Stax hands are slightly embarrassing, but they sound like Mavis, who's made meaningful schlock her lifework. The six by Prince sound like a top-of-the-line disco producer who can't say no to a great voice or a deep ballad. B

TIN MACHINE (EMI America) The hard-rock version of Let's Dance: in his corporate, iconic way, D. Bowie is sincerely trying to impress consumers. Before it's too late. Guitars range from imitation Thurston Moore to imitation Frank Marino, songs are as pissed off as a millionaire can be. But he isn't the supersponge he used to be, and as he already knew in 1983, the inescapable groove lends itself to skillful manufacture more readily than the righteous onslaught. B MINUS

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: Therapy (Silvertone) He makes fun of it, and why not, but it's been good for him--the only time he revels in what a mean bastard he is you'd think he was describing somebody else. Not only has shrinkage sharpened his instinct for love's twists, it's gotten him musing about his great subject, parenthood. In "Thanksgiving" he rankles and dreams, in "Me and All the Other Mothers" he braves the playground, and in "My Father's Car" he's insecure about his dad, his mom, his kids, an ex-wife, and the state inside of 2:21. B PLUS

JODY WATLEY: Larger Than Life (MCA) Having cornered a new-artist Grammy by narrowcasting her lust for lust, the young black-pop veteran comes up against the perils of upward mobility abuse--once you get hooked, you'll go to any length to keep rising to the top. Yet whatever she's like in "real" life, Jody's more credible servicing pop normals than disco nightcrawlers--demanding "Real Love," hanging onto her "L-O-V-E-R," dissing false "Friends" with a name rapper, etc. And for the first time, Andre Cymone's own grooves sound more original than his Prince imitations. B MINUS

XTC: Oranges and Lemons (Geffen) Compulsive formalists can't fabricate meaning--by which I mean nothing deeper than extrinsic interest--without a frame (cf. Skylarking, even the Dukes of Stratosfear). The only concept discernible on this hour-long double-LP is CD. Def Leppard got there first. B MINUS

ZVUKI MU (Opal) Described by an admirer as "a witty drunkard, wild dancer and failed poet," Peter Mamonov is also an old-fashioned beatnik, with woman problems to match: "Yesterday you gave yourself to me/And now you think I owe you," "just don't thrust yourself upon me with your endless meals." These he recreates in a wild and witty way, complete with hypnotic cabaret-rock (or something). Like a lot of glasnost culture, he has his retro attractions--in his own language, the quarter-truths of his boho sexism give off a pleasant shock. But like a lot of beatniks, he can't resist experiments that aren't as avant-garde as he thinks they are. B

Additional Consumer News

As proof against writer's block, Marshall Crenshaw put in time as an archivist with Hillbilly Music . . . Thank God! Volume 1 (Capitol). Maybe the better-versed will chafe at its unsystematic mix of 24 hits and rarities from the '40s through '60s, but Crenshaw always knows a good song when he hears one, in his ear or his head, and this irresistible California country compilation is nothing but--humorous, lively, and (as he remarks in his typically offhand notes) of an altogther different place and time, or maybe several.

Which brings us to two even more archival Billy Altman CD/cassette excavations from RCA. Are You From Dixie? Great Country Brother Teams of the 1930's is like a dream--you know most of these songs, but you don't know where from, and you're positive it wasn't as nice as this. That's because nobody harmonizes like brothers, or so they say. Wonderful. Ragged but Right: Great Country String Bands of the 1930's is even more classic, but also rougher, scrawnier, less irresistible.

Village Voice, July 25, 1989

June 27, 1989 Sept. 5, 1989