Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Sorry about "rock." It's not what I'd prefer, believe me, and for scheduling reasons I had to put a couple off till next time. But there's always "music," now isn't there?

AMP (Astralwerks) Working for the MTV dollar, Caroline wipes out last year's Wipeout XL--the two repeats, Fluke's "Atom Bomb" and Future Sound of London's "We Have Explosive," are the two killers, and Chem Bros, Prodigy, Orbital, Photek, and the accursed Underworld check in on each. But though I miss the disaster-movie conceit (and Orbital's "Petrol" to go with it), this is an EZ-duz-it tour to sit still for. Before you're good and sick of Tranquility Bass's groovy psychedelica, it's daring you to upchuck at Goldie's pop kitsch instead. Take two Dramamines and hate yourself in the morning. A MINUS

BABYFACE: The Day (Epic) Softly, cornily, oh so subtly, Kenny Edmonds hangs real songs off the big pop statement new jack pretenders pretend to. Playing a woman-loving, male-proud guy with ordinary domestic problems, pressing romantic emotions, and infinite sexual patience, he remains alive to black achievement and black pain--you think he doesn't know what it signifies when he runs the elegant "All Day Thinkin'" off hip-hop shading and the Ebonic "be"? Deploying Eric Clapton, L.L. Cool J, Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder, and Kenny G, dipping his well-mannered falsetto into a growl on "I will be down" or marshalling dulcet studio rats for a tribute to the golden age of postdoowop, the man is in such command it may take you half a dozen plays to notice. A MINUS

DOC CHEATHAM & NICHOLAS PAYTON (Verve) Our lesson for today concerns the persistence of culture. Or perhaps the inadequacy of the organic model in matters of style and genre. Or perhaps we should start with the relativity of age. At the time of recording, the session's driving force, trumpeter Payton, was 23. Its star, trumpeter-vocalist Cheatham (now deceased, and not a damn thing relative about that), was 91. One trombonist was barely 40, the other pushing 80. Clarinetist Jack Maheu--next to the trumpeters, the pacesetter here--was almost 70, the others in their fifties. Given his softer embouchure, Cheatham's solos are a little less forthright than Payton's, but both leaders are so immersed in New Orleans style that you rarely register the difference. As rendered here by tourist-circuit revivalists, working scholars, one original, and one pomo phenom, that style isn't dead, decadent, or ironically self-conscious, retaining its spry life and interactive unpredictability even though its revolutionary irreverence is lost to history. Payton keeps his song choices on the novelty side of Tin Pan Alley, where tastemongers are too good to travel unless Berlin or Mercer leads the way, and Cheatham, who only began singing professionally in his late fifties, breathes gentle humor into everything from "Stardust" and "I Gotta Right To Sing the Blues" to "Jada" and "Save It Pretty Mama." Somebody tell Neil Young about this. He's not fool enough to try it, and it'll make him feel good. A

FOO FIGHTERS: The Colour and the Shape (Roswell) Real band, real producer, real lyrics, real pain, and, very important, real talent--put them all together and a solidly satisfying formal exercise follows a vaguely vacant one. Dave Grohl will never sing, play, or care in the same existential realm as Kurt Cobain. But the marital breakup content/concept inspires him to fully inhabit the music that meant so much to him and millions of other Kurt Cobain fans. A MINUS

KIRK FRANKLIN'S NU NATION: God's Property (B-Rite Music) In extremis, choirmaster Franklin's platinum-certified, year-in-the-Billboard-200 Whatcha Lookin' 4 relied on the reflexive gospel strategy of bowling sinners over with solo vocal glory, leaving the skeptic impressed but kind of tired. Here, however, he's generally content to throw his appealing baritone over the sociable interplay of his 18 sopranos, 19 tenors, and 15 altos, thus keeping the enjoyment human-scale. And in extremis we get the gloriously obvious "Yes We Can-Can" and "One Nation Under a Groove" samples, which Kirk's host renders so much more righteous than Suge's posse you figure somebody up there has had it with the Devil getting all the good beats. B PLUS

NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN: Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (Shanachie) I can see only one upside in the dreadful rumor that Khan has blown his voice, seriously if not permanently--it will inspire entrepreneurs with a conduit to the American audience RealWorld developed and misserved to license Khan's Pakistani plethora. Whatever "hit" can mean in qawwali, the world-music veterans at Shanachie tell us these four extended tracks were selected with care, not grabbed at random. Their pure power somewhat less intense and fanciful than on Intoxicated Spirit, they're a special boon for late converts who never got the point of his crossovers anyway. A MINUS

LOS GUANCHES: The Corpse Went Dancing Rumba (Corason) Spawned by the steady old Cuarteto Patria, the most renowned of Santiago de Cuba's dozens of son ensembles, this young quintet hypes things up--leads keener, harmonies tenser, percussion busier, guitar more intrusive. And for a non-Spanish speaker like me, the time-tested melodies levitate with every boost, getting over on interactive intricacy and vocal high spirits alone. A MINUS

MAKE 'EM MOKUM CRAZY (Mokum) Records this idiotic don't come along every day. They don't even come along every year. Anybody remember Hot Legs' "Neanderthal Man"? I mean that idiotic. Apply the broad brush it deserves and call it The Chipmunks Go Techno--"Happy Tunes" in high registers that range from unnatural to very unnatural. The so-called Party Animals do Hair and Olivia Newton-John and "Hava Naquila" (sic); alias Technohead make up songs called "Happy Birthday" and "I Wanna Be a Hippy," which quotes David Peel, which has nothing on the MLK sample. Intensely irritating, perversely delightful, and (trust me on this) just the thing for a 12-year-old's coming-out party. "From The Underground Raves Of Holland To The Top Of The Euro Pop Charts," eh? No wonder the Euro is in trouble. A MINUS

THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: Life After Death (Bad Boy) Biggie's murder made it too easy to romanticize intimations of mortality that don't truck with any Tupac-style martyr complex. Equally devoid of morbidity and joie de vivre, Biggie is far more sardonic, self-deprecating, and tough-minded, "ready to die" in the cast-a-cold-eye sense. Although his moments of warmth for family and comrades seem real enough, he proves one funny son of a bitch on the love-man parody "#!*@ You Tonight," the achingly lyrical slow-falsetto showcase "Playa Hater" ("Playa/Open the door/Lay on the floor/You've been robbed"), and the tall tale about being caught in some bitch's crib by her Knick boyfriend ("one of those six-five niggas, I don't know"), done first as a rap and then as a story for his boys. Where Cali hides behind funkamysterioso, Puffy Combs's chart-friendly r&b hooks rub comically against Biggie's unoratorical street style, with its trademark Schoolly D cum Butt-head "huh huh," as the likes of RZA, Bone-Thugs, and Lil' Kim add flavor. In short, way more fun and somewhat more moral than the look-ma-no-hands unaccountability promoted by showbiz outlaws from Mobb Deep to Westside Connection. A MINUS [Later: A]

PAVEMENT: Pacific Trim (Matador) Not a maxisingle--an EP consisting entirely of recommended arcana, with the bonus of lyrics that actually (seem to) make sense. But note these stats: three songs totaling 7:44 for $6.98, with the prize-winning "Gangsters & Pranksters" finishing at precisely 1:30. Why do you think they call it discretionary income? B PLUS

PAVEMENT: Shady Lane (Matador) The named album highlight plus three-and-a-half new ones, the half being "Type Slowly" rendered as the Stones shuffle "Slowly Typed." Two of the others are also linear in groove and structure, sparely dissonant tunelets you'll love when they get broken out live. And then there's "Wanna Mess You Around," nearly 90 seconds of crammed-with-rock, a secret classic inviting infinite revision. What EPs are for. A MINUS

NEIL YOUNG WITH CRAZY HORSE: Year of the Horse (Reprise) Largest word on package: LIVE. A dozen songs, mostly at the usual midtempo stomp, more than half dating to the '70s (or '60s). Also three off last year's barely noticed Broken Arrow--one terrific then too, one improving as it gets (even) longer, one a permanent drag. The climax is Life's long-lost "Prisoners" (formerly "of Rock 'n' Roll"), which climaxes with the deathless "That's why we don't want to be good." Men of their word, they're great sometimes and good never. And then the CD version--on Broken Arrow, vinyl was the bonus-cut format--climaxes again with a wilder "Sedan Delivery" than the one they thrashed out on Live Rust 18 years ago. Guy never gives up, does he? That's why his completists have more fun. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

BOB CARLISLE: Butterfly Kisses (Shades of Grace) (Diadem) I don't hate the single like I'm supposed to--I think it's healthy for Christians to acknowledge the erotic subtext of parental love, and anyway, I choke up a little when she gets married (stop smirking unless you have a pubescent daughter). I note that as pop oversingers go he's on the human side of Celine and Hanson. And I like the professed humility of lines like, "I'm not tryin' to preach to ya/and tell you that I've found all the easy answers/when half the time I can't even find my keys." But the problem isn't just that this promise keeper is lying--music is his ministry, and damn straight he uses it to preach. It's that only on his fluke hit does he have the grace to universalize his beliefs even as much as Kirk Franklin, who makes his song about "mustard seed faith" signify even though it's far more God-proud. Carlisle is a niche evangelist, addressing the men's-movement generation of alienated suburban husbands, white and Protestant assumed. He's pretty good at it. But he's so short on true proslytizing zeal that no one else will give a shit once his smash crashes. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Steve James, Art and Grit (Discovery/Antone's): jug-band hokum for slide and tuba ("Ooze It to Me, Mama," "Downbound Train," "Viola Lee Blues," "Wet Laundry Blues")
  • The Sabri Brothers, The Greatest Hits (Shanachie): stolider than touristic ecstatics would prefer, but the great track is godlike ("Hazir Hain Hazir Hain")
  • Don White, Rascal (Lyric Moon): two cans of creamed corn beyond the great songpoet of the actually existing lower-middle class he's too modest to be ("Po' Po' Baby," "Great Day," "Nowhere Tornado")
  • Red Hot + Rio (Antilles): art-rocking up grooveful kitsch in a soulful cause (Money Mark, "Use Your Head"; David Byrne + Marisa Monte, "Waters of March")
  • Wu-Tang Clan, Wu-Tang Forever (Loud): the five per cent nation of Oscar aspirations ("The M.G.M.," "For Heavens Sake")
  • Yo! MTV Raps (Def Jam): to paraphase the eminent RZA: "This ain't true hip hop you listenin' to right here, in the pure form; this is some r&b with the wack nigga takin' the loop, be loopin' that shit and stickin' in choruses thinkin' it's gonna be the sound of the culture"--and it has its uses (Bone, Thugs-n-Harmony, "Tha Crossroads"; L.L. Cool J, "Loungin [Who Ya Love Remix]")
  • Nerdy Girl, Twist Her (No Life): nonpareil miniatures ("Single Bed," "Casa Nova")
  • Us3, Broadway & 52nd (Blue Note): they got the beats ("Come On Everybody [Get Down]," "Sheep")
  • Veruca Salt, Eight Arms To Hold You (Outpost): striving toward bar band to be born ("Straight," "Benjamin")
  • The Asylum Street Spankers (Watermelon): like the Squirrel Nut Zippers only older, funnier, and named after a Texan Candy Barr ("Mama Don't Allow," "Chinatown")
  • Archers of Loaf, Vitus Tinnitus (Alias): buy the EP, then see the show ("Nostalgia," "Audiowhore")
  • George Jones, I Lived To Tell It All (MCA): a drunkard's prayers ("I'll Give You Something To Drink About," "Tied to a Stone")
  • Nova Bossa: Red Hot on Verve (Verve): proving once more that good real schlock is better than fake and bad real schlock is worse (Black Orpheus Soundtrack, "A Felicidade"; Elís Regina & Antonio Carlos Jobim, "Águas de Março"; Walter Wanderley, "Bicho Do Mato")
  • Pavement, Stereo (Domino import): completists' advisory--two good otherwise unavailables, eight bucks ("Westie Can Drum," "Winner of the")
Choice Cuts:
  • Hans Reichel, "Le Bal" (Gravikords, Whirlies and Pyrophones, Ellipsis Arts . . . )
  • Marcia Ball, "Let Me Play With Your Poodle" (Let Me Play With Your Poodle, Rounder)
  • Luciano, "Messenger" (Messenger, Island Jamaica)
  • Asylum Street Spankers, "Startin' To Hate Country," "Funny Cigarette" (Spanks for the Memories, Watermelon)
  • The Foremen, "Hidden Agenda" (What's Left?, Reprise)
  • Los Fabulosos Cadillacs + Fishbone, "What's New Pussycat?" (Silencio = Muerte: Red Hot + Latin, Red Hot)
  • Wu-Tang Clan, "America"; Domino, "Sport That Raincoat" (America Is Dying Slowly, Red Hot)
  • The Future Sound of London, Dead Cities (Astralwerks) [Later: Choice Cuts]
  • Makavelli, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (Death Row/Interscope)
  • Sol y Canto, Sendero Del Sol (Rounder)

Village Voice, July 22, 1997

May 27, 1997 Sept. 23, 1997