Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

This month's scandal is that seven of the records below were released in long-ago 1988, though only experts know they were released at all. Given current racking policies, you probably won't find any of them at the mall. But you wouldn't have found them at the mall last December either.

AMAPHISI--UTHWALOFU NAMAKENTSHANE: City Shoes, Rural Blues (Kijima import) Showcasing two deserving mbaqanga acts, both fond of squeezeboxes. Good. But as an American who's listened to more mbaqanga than 99 per cent of those who've heard any at all, I shouldn't have to strain to distinguish between the one described as spearheading a "revitalization of traditional Zulu music" and the one said to be "zulu jive's fastest rising group." Hint: the latter shares a family tree with the Soul Brothers, so bear down on the harmonies. B

A SPLIT-SECOND: . . . From the Inside (Wax Trax) Avatars of a slightly slowed-down Belgian industrial-disco style (subculture?) that I suspect is called "new beat" because buyers will know what the phrase means anywhere in the EEC, they don't overdo the wimp and doom factors that ruin so much synth-based dance music--just play them for tune and discord respectively. A taste for sex and the occasional funny bit facilitate this achievement. B PLUS

BOOGIE DOWN PRODUCTIONS: Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop (Jive) Martin to Chuck D's Stokely, KRS-One isn't just serious, he aspires to sainthood, and tough noogs if you think that makes him "boring" or "pretentious" or any of that racist, anti-intellectual cant--he comes so close that the whole of the record is greater than the minimalism of its blueprint stylee. Austerely sampled or all the way live, the music per se is almost hookless and swingless. But the dubwise skank of his natural groove carries his rhymes when the rhymes themselves don't capture the consciousness like a good hook should. Though I wish he didn't feel compelled to argue what color Moses was, his fundamental conceit--a peace harder than violence--is visionary. And when he takes no shit from the police, I say amen. B PLUS [Later]

JACKSON BROWNE: World in Motion (Elektra) May he remain a protest singer in perpetuity, and not just because I wish his love songs were history. But n.b.: the two standouts are "My Personal Revenge," a pledge of forgiveness by Sandinista hardliner Tomás Borge, and Little Steven's--yes, Little Steven's, his stock always improves when he doesn't sing--"I Am a Patriot." You think the secret flaw of the archetypal singer-songwriter might be songwriting? B

FRONT 242: Front by Front (Wax Trax) Could it be that these impassive disco powermongers are the latest in the long line of European rockers who have symphonic grandeur so deep in their bones that they believe they can reach the, er, masses with it? Well, let's hope they're wrong--if they got popular we might have to take them seriously. B MINUS

AL GREEN: I Get Joy (A&M) By now he's B.B. King or Ray Charles--his genre exercises outjoy lesser mortals' great leaps forward. Only Al is more consistent, and he shares his genre with Amy Grant: pop songs addressed to God. What distinguishes this exercise is unflinching formal exposition--no Supremes or James Taylor ringers. Even the electrofunk belongs. B PLUS

AL GREEN: Love Ritual: Rare and Previously Unreleased 1968-1976 (MCA) Cut one wild night in early 1975, the polyrhythmic title track was hot enough to lead Al Green Is Love and lend its name to a misbegotten 1978 compilation before Colin Escott ever dreamed of remixing it, but that's not to say it isn't even wilder with strings censored and voice and percussion up front. Livin' for You's "So Good To Be Here" also thrives, and the rest is as advertised--singles and outtakes originally deemed too eccentric for general consumption, many of them unadorned uptempo jams with the eternal Hi Rhythm Section. Willie Mitchell was no fool--"Strong as Death (Sweet as Love)" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand," which were released, top "Mimi" and "Ride Sally Ride," which weren't. But Escott is no fool either, and in retrospect these songs of mysterious origin cohere into a phonogram as desirable as Greatest Hits Volume II. A MINUS

INNER CITY: Big Fun (Virgin) Kevin Saunders and Paris Grey want to be Chic 10 years after, and they have the jumpy club hits to prove it--"Good Life," "Big Fun," yum. Computer literacy notwithstanding, what they don't have is Niles or 'Nard. B MINUS

THE JUSTIFIED ANCIENTS OF MU MU: The History of the JAMS (TVT) Though the results are more interesting than compelling--not to mention postsignificant, prerevolutionary, better than hip-hop, and whatever else Britcrits claim--the drum-machine cut-and-paste of these white rappers cum dance-music guerrillas definitely deserves its footnote in the annals of sampling. Announcing themselves with "All You Need Is Love" as AIDS protest, they rob the BBC, rip off hunks of Sly, kidnap Whitney Houston, construct the ultimate Eurodisco homage, and do whatever else they can to give copyright lawyers apoplexy. Of enduring artistic originality and importance for sure, judge. B PLUS

KOOL MOE DEE: Knowledge Is King (Jive) His beats grander, his samples funkier, his cadences harder, Moe Dee not only ain't no joke, he's lost his sense of humor. He's feeling his age, has something to prove: all that gladiatorial imagery sounds pretty defensive. With help from Teddy Riley, his natural swing puts the first set of boasts across anyway, but on the B, only the magnificent "Pump Your Fist" (attention, JDO: he has the chutzpah to call the Middle Passage a "Holocaust") shows the kind of knowledge that is power or vice versa. B PLUS

L.L. COOL J: Walking With a Panther (Def Jam) From self-centered teenager to man with a mission: "I hope to prove to the world that I can reach all materialistic goals and be young, black and legal." On the cover he and his panther wear gold while his three women sport tight dresses and Moet, with not an Africa medallion in sight, but call it part of a larger strategy: justifying conspicuous consumption with conspicuous production. His output totals 16 tracks for 68 minutes on a single vinyl LP, with three extra on CD and the superhard B-side "Jack the Ripper" completing an 85-minute, 20-track cassette. Though one of the ballads is a killer, the other two are, well, changes of pace; the (vinyl) side-closers make "Jack the Ripper" sound slow; the arrogant sense of humor comes with a snide, irritating, completely original laugh. My standard response to such overkill is to wish someone had boiled it down to the great album it contains, but with this egocentric, hedonistic, workaholic materialist, I'll take it all--definitely including the nonvinyl "Change Your Ways," which preaches compassion to the young, black, and legal competition. A MINUS

MINISTRY: The Land of Rape and Honey (Sire) Former Anglodisco clone Alain Jourgenson is said to hate Steve Albini, and why not, but I still think Big Black changed his life. Whomp whomp whomp whomp, these huge ugly slabs of beat are like the metal of dreams, all urban din and therapeutic brain damage, only done with synthesizers. Though I wish I knew what they were bellowing about down in the abyss, this will tone up your innards a lot more efficiently than whatever's hep in garage grunge these days. And you can dance to it--supposedly. B PLUS [Later]

VAN MORRISON: Avalon Sunset (Mercury) Like it or not, Morrison's genre exercises are kind of boring. Having long since sold his soul to his Muse, he's her slave for life, and though he keeps importuning various gods to loose his chains, the best they can offer is extra inspiration once in a while--now, for instance. Cliff Richard's support on his liveliest tune since "Cleaning Windows" suggests that Christ the Redeemer is lending a hand, but on the first side Van prefers to find the divine in the blessed present--folk lyric, poem about birdwatching, song called "I'd Like To Write Another Song." Side two comes out more today-is-the-first-day-of-the-rest-of-Van's-life--that is, his own genre exercise. And for a side he gets away with it. A MINUS

MUTABARUKA: Any Which Way . . . Freedom (Shanachie) I wouldn't give back rock and roll if it were mine to relinquish and Africa's to claim. But for all his ital hit-and-miss, I hope this Afrocentrist is taken seriously--especially when it comes to such crucial matters as God in the sky ("a universal lie") and when-is-a-revolution-not-a revolution? (when it's a revolt). Let it also be noted that he breaks into Afrobeat and pop-funk and chamber-synth more meaningfully than universalists do. B PLUS

MBONGENI NGEMA: Time To Unite (Mango) Once you get past the underwhelming Jo'burg-goes-B'way rhythm section and the overpowering Jo'burg-takes-B'way chorus, Ngema's background as a township guitarist makes itself heard. The man projects so powerfully that you begin to think his political commitment, theatrical gifts, and way with South African English could make mbaqanga a truly international style. Then you notice that while in Sarafina! the girls take over, the villains of these pieces--a golddigger, an aborter, and an informer--are all women. Ain't contradiction the shits? B

RAMONES: Brain Drain (Sire) Laswellization neither saves their souls for rock and roll nor turns them into a metal band. First side's basically Dee Dee, period-hopping from the pleasantly dreamy "I Believe in Miracles" to the East Coast surf cover "Palisades Park." Second side's basically Joey, pushing the envelope on "Ignorance Is Bliss," going flat on "Come Back, Baby." For professionalism, not bad. B

STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN AND DOUBLE TROUBLE: In Step (Epic) Believe it or not he's writing blues for AA: "Wall of Denial" and "Tightrope" fall into ex-addict jargon like it was natural speech, which for ex-addicts it is. If the music was preachy or wimpy this would be a disaster, but not till I perused the lyric sheet did I even notice where his homilies got their start. Essential that the leadoff "House Is Rockin'" keeps on boogieing on--and that on the mood-jazz closer he escapes the blues undamaged for the first time in his career. A MINUS

VOLCANO SUNS: Farced (SST) Finally an album that captures the half of Mission of Burma who didn't turn to chamber music--the half that's half joke band--in all their half-assed glory. As in "Commune," about the hippies they never wert. Or "Can I Have the Key?," about the medicine cabinet. Or "Laff Riot," about a bassline. B PLUS

WIRE: It's Beginning To and Back Again (Enigma/Mute) In an arty variation on the remix best-ofs that pass for new dance product these days, they recorded some concerts and reworked them in the studio and then reworked that. I don't know whether the new versions are better art than the old ones. But formalists rarely can tell the difference between progress and attenuation. And as the ear candy once-removed that is Wire's current calling, this wanders. B MINUS

YO LA TENGO: President Yo La Tengo (Coyote) Exceptionally well-connected on a very social scene, Ira Kaplan seemed even less likely than his fellow semipros to record music worth telling the world about, especially after his breathy debut thumbed its larynx at vocal projection and the well-illustrated New Wave Hot Dogs proved typically forgettable in its lilt-and-yell competence. Yet except maybe for Thelonious Monster, no Amerindie band all year has come off stronger openers than "Barnaby, Hardly Working" (mysterioso guitar hook) and "Drug Test" ("I wish I was high"). Nor can I recall a "Sister Ray" hommage as felt as the live 10-minute "Evil That Men Do." They rock out, they wax poetic, they cover Dylan, they do their bit for the boho weal. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Despite the inevitable omissions ("Under the Boardwalk," my wife chides), Summer & Sun (Rhino) is an uncommonly useful thematic compilation. "Summer in the City," "Summertime, Summertime," "In the Summertime," "Hot Fun in the Summertime," etc. prove ideal for blocking out the pneumatic drills and crack salesmen wafting through one's windows. The companion Surfin' Hits doesn't speak so appositely to the Gotham experience.

Front 242's "Welcome to Paradise" (Wax Trax) deserves credit for sampling a televangelist dead on the beat. But the Never Stop EP is just hard, suspiciously danceable synthbeats that belie virtuous protestations that this isn't a mere dance band. Mit samples--including, gasp, some guy intoning "242" in German!.

Village Voice, Sept. 5, 1989

July 25, 1989 Oct. 3, 1989