Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide: Getting Them Straight

Alt-rock continues both strong and resistant--except for the cheap and easy Chicks on Speed, all the entries in that vague category A-listed below took a lot of listening to get straight. Including Shelby Lynne.

THE APPLES IN STEREO: The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone (SpinArt) Alternative young people may need all the Beatles/Spector-Wilson/Zep-Sly fooforaw to grasp a band who avoid roots sound effects yet put songwriting first. To me they're just syncretic, like all pop if you listen deep, only here shallow will do fine. In typical Elephant Six fashion, they're busy and fussy and can't stop their minds from wandering. But with Robert Schneider fixing the holes, the lyrics swirl around sensibly and the formidable tunesmithing never goes down the drain. Nostalgic and in love with love, he's as American as all get-out or Steve Earle. A MINUS

CHICKS ON SPEED: Chicks on Speed Will Save Us All! (Chicks on Speed) With the effective pop audience spanning 50 years and myriad interlocking taste cultures, early-'80s nostalgia isn't current--it's just a wrinkle in the gestalt. Nor will those who embrace B-52's-to-"Mind Your Own Business" but not Euro-to-electro or Malaria-to-"Warm Leatherette" be especially thrilled by these smart young things' taste or concept--except insofar as the smart young things are thrilled themselves, which in matters of revival makes all the difference. Sexy Malaria song, girls. Nifty new early-'80s Euro-electro originals, too. A MINUS

DE LA SOUL: Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (Tommy Boy) Once pranksters whose greatest pleasure was disrupting the groove they adored, they've evolved into hip-hop's purest musicians. Partly our ears have changed and partly theirs have, so that their brilliant hunches now sound like glowing accomplishments. As they leapfrog around from Busta to Beastie, from herky-jerk drum and bass to diva anthem, from playground old-school to love-men ballad, this holds steady as the Temptations album of dreams, with Smokey and Holland-Dozier-Holland playing king-of-the-mountain and James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin doing God's work below. The lyrics are intelligent of course, clever and moral and street-conscious and just gnomic enough, but their art is in their beats and flow and tunes too. Hip hop as a great black music, as amenable as jazz itself to young turks turned old masters. A MINUS

EMINEM: The Marshall Mathers LP (Aftermath Ent./Interscope) Unless you hope to convince the platinum hordes that you live on Mars, there's even less point moralizing about this one than there was with the last. Right, Marshall Whoever is homophobic; right, he breathes. In context, the worst thing about his casual fag-baiting is that it's at once so received--like the shock-horror his boys envision in "Amityville," the one provocation here whose boundaries are predictable--and, because he's a devastating wordslinger in every context, so hurtful anyway. But the real Slim Whoever seems far more deeply disturbed about stardom, drugs, his marriage, and boning his mom--which latter, like it or not, is the fantasy (or whatever) that sets all the rest up, a big fat fuck you to the black culture Eminem respects and owes so explicitly, for if Snoop or Too Short or DMX would never say such a thing, just how bad can they be? Disable your prejudgment button and you'll hear a work of art whose immense entertainment value in no way compromises its intimations of a pathology that's both personal and political, created by one of those charming rogues you encounter so much more often on the page--exceptionally witty and musical, discernibly thoughtful and goodhearted, indubitably dangerous and full of shit. He may yet give a fuck--he has it in him. But not on anyone else's terms or timetable. A

SHELBY LYNNE: I Am Shelby Lynne (Island) Epistemologically, one tough cookie. A trailer-trash blonde as downhome-and-crazy as George Jones who cut five country albums on the strength of a voice that turned out to have nothing on her writing, Lynne radiates roots signifiers. Yet though her music avoids all shows of pomo dissociation, the harder you listen the more rootless her mix-and-match rock-etc. sounds. Even more than, speak of the devil, Garth Brooks, she's a creature of the recording industry and the smorgasbord-of-the-air it's laid out everywhere. Are the emotions she displays so pithily as synthetic in the end as her harmonica-with-strings or steel/slide guitar? Does that make them less real? Do she or her fans want to know? A MINUS

MODEST MOUSE: The Moon and Antarctica (Epic) Production notwithstanding, the major-label move is the lyric sheet, which situates their circular minor-key riffs in a congruent worldview: eternal recurrence as infinite regress as cosmic bummer. Isaac Brock may be every bit the ass he claims, but basically he seems chagrined that he was ever so inept or unlucky as to get caught up in this, as the saying goes, downward spiral. And unlike other rock pessimists we might name, he's so modest about it that he ends up with an uplifting representation of human life as damn shame. A MINUS

NELLY: Country Grammar (Universal) Cornell Haynes's St. Louis sing-song rolls over an easy mix of N.O. Bounce, Cleveland thug harmony, and L.A. tweedle-twaddle. He remains faithful to Cedric the Entertainer's congenial cellphone-jester intro as he works through some mild dope-slangin' and bitch-mackin' consumer fetishism, and despite all the expensive cars I hope he paid cash for, the jolly diffidence of his heavily accented local color makes his hedonism seem more benign and accessible than the N.O. if not ATLien variety. There's bite to the mild moralism he works through, too, especially in the St. Lunatics' detailed report on cannabis addiction. "Blow 30 mill like I'm Hammer," he boasts early on, and he's such a nice guy you hope it is 30 mill--and wish with all your heart he wasn't certain to blow whatever it turns out to be instead. B PLUS

HARRY SMITH'S ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC, VOLUME FOUR (Revenant) It's true. Half a century after it redefined folk music, the official rerelease can still sound like tombstone rubbings, not to mention tales from the crypt, while this previously unheard two-CD reconstruction is suitable for a PBS special or community sing: blues balancing bluegrass, gospel stylings elevating parlor sentiment, "John Henry" into "Nine Pound Hammer," Lead Belly and Robert Johnson, Joe Louis and Haile Selassie and, hovering over the whole shebang, the Great Depression. That means it's down to whether the individual performances induce the known past not merely to live again but to get up and strut around, and hot damn they do. My very favorite is the Blue Sky Boys' sugary-creepy murder ditty "By the Banks of the Ohio," a maneuver worthy of Harry Nilsson or Robbie Fulks, but I note as well many moments of momentum and interaction--most impressively on Minnie Wallace's "The Cockeyed World" only because the Memphis Jug Band we figured and Jesse James the songster rolls Casey Jones the engineer down the fast track to hell all by his solo self--with no parallel in the earlier recordings. Those who regard self-consciousness as a curse will mourn past glories. Those who consider it quintessentially human will take this present as it comes. A

SONIC YOUTH: NYC Ghosts & Flowers (Interscope) Maybe the trauma of guitar loss jolted them past songform, or maybe they're acting out with David Geffen gone bye-bye. Either way this impressionistic poetry-with-postrock is the most avant-sounding of their DGC-etc. product, and either way its avant parts are more listenable--nay, beautiful--than anything on Washing Machine if not A Thousand Leaves. Songform guy that I am, it put me off at first. But heard refracting the dusk on the Taconic Parkway or spattering through the rain on Second Avenue, its refusal to distinguish between abrasive and tender or manmade and natural is a compelling argument for their continuing to do whatever they damn well feel like. A

TIN HAT TRIO: Helium (Angel) Somewhere in the general vicinity of Astor Piazzolla, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and Cyrus Chestnut, it's dinner music that won't make you blow chunks: accordion-piano-organ plus violin-viola plus guitar-dobro-banjo. Lite jazz that's more filling. Chamber music improvised off-the-cuff. Tango checking its knife at the door. B PLUS

VERUCA SALT: Resolver (Velveteen/Beyond) They've never gotten respect for their girl- and sex-positive rock, and they never will. But they've never made a bad record either. With Nina Gordon off pursuing her dreams of Belinda Carlisle, the principles are down to Louise Post, who's as girl- and sex-positive as ever but more desperate about it. Whispery-vulnerable or bitchy-tuneful, she seems to be deciding that love etc. is more important than rock and roll, a truth always worth putting a hook on. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

DAVE ALVIN: Public Domain (HighTone) If Harry Smith is what some people love about folk music, this is what other people hate about it, summed up by a title that claims humility as it sneaks presumption in the stage door--a title worthy of a brilliant record and dishonored by this dull one. Alvin can be a deft lyricist in the colloquial-songpoet mode, pinning the kind of homely literary detail the folk regularly established or bypassed with commonplaces, absurdities, generalizations, and luck. But it took him years to learn to sing his own stuff, and interpreting the canon he's worse than hopeless. It's not that these songs are all obvious or overdone--this nonfolkie had never heard a few of them. It's that they're so soft they squish even when Alvin tries to rev one past you, which usually he doesn't. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • B.B. King, Live in Tokyo (MCA): cut 1971--fresher than London, not quite as ripe as Cook County Jail ("Japanese Boogie," "Niji Baby")
  • DJ Quik, Balance and Options (Arista): G-funk, hold the G--i.e., "Things I used to do/I don't do no more" ("Do Whutcha Want," "Pitch In Ona Party")
  • B.B. King & Eric Clapton, Riding With the King (Reprise): tireless teacher spurs genius student ("Riding With the King," "Hold On I'm Coming")
  • XTC, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) (TVT): up to their old craft ("Standing In for Joe," "Stupidly Happy")
  • Guy Davis, Butt Naked Free (Red House): "Ain't no bluesman, I'm the bluesman's son/But I'll sing this song until my daddy comes" ("Ain't No Bluesman," "Let Me Stay Awhile")
  • Ani DiFranco, Swing Set (Righteous Babe): two well-armed To the Teeth remixes, two (out of three) well-designed covers ("Hurricane," "Do Re Mi")
  • Confrontation Camp, Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (Artemis/Sheridan Square): Detroit brings the noise, Chuck D- and John Sinclair-style ("U R Us," "Brake the Law")
  • Taj Mahal & the Phantom Blues Band Live, Shoutin' in Key (Hannibal): love so much music and there's always more songs waiting ("Honky Tonk," "Ain't That a Lot of Love")
  • Brougham, Le Cock Sportif (Warner Bros.): LFO jizzes Bizkit, Beck goes pop ("Don't Speak English," "Bong Hits")
  • Lee Ann Womack, I Hope You Dance (MCA): way more soulful than, you know, Trisha Yearwood ("Stronger Than I Am," "Why They Call It Falling")
  • Kelly Price, Mirror, Mirror (Def Soul): halfway to what every diva has to learn--pipes are not enough ("At Least [The Little Things,]" "Married Man")
  • Algia Mae Hinton, Honey Babe (MusicMasters/Sire) a great-grandmother's blues, uncannily John Hurt in the picking and domesticity ("Snap Your Fingers," "Whatcha Gonna Do When Your Good Girl Turns You Down?")
  • Cypress Hill, Skull & Bones (Columbia): just how did it happen, do you think, that the inventors of rap-rock got lost in the shuffle? ("(Rock) Superstar," "We Live This S***")
  • Van Morrison, Lonnie Donegan, Chris Barber, The Skiffle Sessions (Pointblank): trad like it useta be ("Lost John," "Don't You Rock Me Daddio")
  • Taj Mahal, Best of the Private Years (Private Music): the best was discovering the black music the '60s folkie missed ("Mockingbird," "Ooh Poo Pah Doo")
  • Kid Rock, The History of Rock (Atlantic): hip hop as Afro-America's latest gift to hard-rock assholes who can't sing ("Dark & Gray," "American Bad Ass")
  • David Johansen and the Harry Smiths (Chesky): Busta Roots ("Delia," "Richland Woman")
Choice Cuts:
  • The Apples in Stereo, "Ruby," "Questions and Answers" (The Wallpaper Reveries, SpinArt)
  • Trent Summar & the New Row Mob, "New Money," "Be So Blue" (Trent Summar & the New Row Mob, VFR)
  • The Bloodhound Gang, Hooray for Boobies (Republic)
  • Nina Gordon, Tonight and the Rest of My Life (Warner Bros.)
  • The Jayhawks, Smile (Columbia)
  • Kottonmouth Kings, High Society (Capitol/Suburban Noize)
  • Sinéad O'Connor, Faith and Courage (Atlantic)
  • David Olney, Omar's Blues (Dead Reckoning)
  • Josh Rouse, Home (Rykodisc)
  • Carl Thomas, Emotional (Bad Boy)
  • Wood, Songs From Stamford Hill (Columbia)

Village Voice, Aug. 22, 2000

June 27, 2000 Sept. 26, 2000