Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Especially since I didn't spend my whole vacation loading up the stereo, it's an unexpected if hard-earned pleasure to be back with some records I can get behind after only two months. Things still sound pretty dire out there. But hope is alive.

BECK: Odelay (DGC) Hipsters are wary of "Loser." It was a "novelty," they fret; frat boys liked it. So one reason they swear by this entry pass for longtime denizens of the Club Club is that except for a touch of hip hop retro there's nothing so easy to swallow here. Not quite forbidding, it embeds its lyricism in soundscape, and only prolonged, well-intentioned exposure will enable outsiders to get inside its skilled flow and ramshackle sonic architecture. Worth the effort, absolutely. But for me, its unpretentious aural array, which shares an aesthetic with contemporary hip hop from Tricky to Wu-Tang, doesn't evoke any more specifically than its lyrics do. What's more, I doubt it signifies for anybody else either--except in the personal-to-arbitrary unreadability of its individual sound choices. When fragmentation is your cultural condition, heroism means trying to make it sing. A MINUS [Later]

TONI BRAXTON: Secrets (LaFace) Front-loaded with five pieces of sexy rocket fuel, including a miraculous Diane Warren ballad you'll want to hear again--the miracle being that it's by Diane Warren and you want to hear it again. Soon the air whooshes out except for the Waiting To Exhale hit and "Love Me Some Him" with its overdubbed yes, but by then her pop presence is established. The apprentice diva of the debut was modest, composed, virtually anonymous. I'll take the right It Girl anytime--especially one who insists on getting her props. A MINUS

EL CAIMÁN: SONES HUASTECOS (Corason) No hablo español, so when it comes to the Mexican songform called son I naturally go for what the French call son--sound. The unvarying structures and repetitive tunes of this northeastern style only foreground the attractions of a sound I can't do without right now--two steady guitars, one wild violin, and two eerie falsettos conjoining to call up no one knows what Arab or (anti-) Aztec ghosts. Dug it before I'd ventured south of Tijuana, love it now, and don't assume you won't until you hear the Pérez Maya brothers, amateurs on a Veracruz islet who learned their weird shit from their father--or Dínastia Hidalguense, dulcet toasts of the subgenre. A MINUS

IMPERIAL TEEN: Seasick (Slash/London) Coy about their Faith No More link, which leaves no mark on their hand-crafted jangle-pop. Not so coy about their gay subtext, which--well, as they say themselves, "our subtext is our plot." A painful one, too. Postgrungers who mistake their cheery surface for happiness either aren't listening or expect too little of life. Sweet and sharp and sometimes mean, they're still feeling their way toward a personal identity as they establish a musical one. And that felt quality makes their jangle-pop come alive. A MINUS

THOMAS MAPFUMO: Chimurenga Forever: The Best of Thomas Mapfumo (Hemisphere) Having first invented a genre and then deployed it against colonialism, Mapfumo would rank with Franco or Youssou N'Dour if only his usages were pan-African instead of southern African or Zimbabwean or Shonan. While he's remarkably reliable--now past 50, he's less rote than Rochereau or Mahlathini, neither of whom phones his music in--his adaptation of thumb piano effects to guitar-band dynamics will remain marginal except among Afropop acolytes. So the more accessible of two recent compilations is a good place to pick up on him. Sharply danceable as often as not, it cherry-picks 12 especially catchy 1978-1993 tracks. You can tell the newer ones because his voice is deeper. A MINUS

THOMAS MAPFUMO: The Singles Collection 1977-1986 (Zimbob) The 16 cuts on this remastering of a cassette compiled by Mapfumo circa 1993, all of which originally surfaced as Zimbabwean seven-inches, consume pretty much the same 70-plus-minutes as the 12 on the Hemisphere collection. Which means that, relatively speaking, they're more about song than groove, and that their groove has a little more reggae/herb skank and a little less benga/whatever propulsion--on the whole, it's gentler, more ruminative. The earlier dates are also a plus in theory, although I can't claim to distinguish the fresh from the formulaic even so. In fact, I doubt the artist knows the difference himself. A MINUS [Later]

KATE & ANNA MCGARRIGLE: Matapedia (Rykodisc) With their mom in the ground and their kids grown up, these tart schoolmarms manqué are left with the sun in the morning and the moon at night, both of which have their drawbacks. So they ponder the tangled history of folk music and their own irretrievable pasts, indulge their fatalism about serial monogamy and the poor getting poorer, and sum up their message in two terse titles with songs attached: "I Don't Know" and "Why Must We Die?" And now, if you'd care to come upstairs, they'd just as soon make love. Save the postmortems for morning. Which always comes, for better or worse. A MINUS

PASS THE MIC: THE POSSE ALBUM (Priority) Because hip hop has never stopped being a singles music, I listen faithfully to compilations even though they're almost always uneven and/or redundant. And despite two West Coast ringers from the compiler, this one's my reward: 13 multirapper competitions/collaborations, most circa 1988-1992, juiced not just by shifting styles but by the pleasure-driven, word-mad forays freestyle cutting sessions were invented for. And though hip hop specialists may be down with Marley Marl's "Symphony Vol. 1," Main Source's "Live at the Barbeque," and Showbiz & AG's "Bounce Ta This," for most of us such happy flukes spice the far-from-overexposed likes of "Ladies First" and "Knick Knack Paddy Whack" just right. A MINUS [Later]

[FILE UNDER PRINCE]: Chaos and Disorder (Warner Bros.) Always a slippery devil, he's damn near vaporized over the past few years, as has his promotional budget, basically because he's reached that certain age--way too familiar for ye olde shock of the new, way too boyish for intimations of immortality. So it's understandable that what's sworn to be "the last original material recorded by [File Under Prince] 4 warner brothers records" has been ignored all around. But anybody expecting a kissoff or a throwaway radically underestimates his irrepressible musicality. Apropos of nothing, here's a guitar album for your earhole, enhanced by a fresh if not shocking array of voices and trick sounds and cluttered now and then by horns. Theme song: "I Rock, Therefore I Am." And right, WEA, it wouldn't have been a hit even with some muscle behind it. A MINUS [Later]

AMY RIGBY: Diary of a Mod Housewife (Koch) Personalizing the political for a bohemia that coexists oh so neatly with structural underemployment, thinking harder about marriage than a dozen Nashville homilizers, the ex-Sham leaves the comforts of amateurism for an ex-Car and some El Lay roots-rockers, throwing her voice around in the process. All the ones you notice at first--the Berryesque "20 Questions," the chartworthy "Beer and Kisses," the lovelorn "Knapsack," and the thematic "The Good Girls"--were laid down in California. But the ones you don't notice you remember, including the five where she returns to reliable locals like Tony Maimone, Doug Wygal, and her hub, who in his real-life version even gets to bang things on a couple of songs. Concept album of the year. A

THE SECRET MUSEUM OF MANKIND VOL. 2 (Yazoo) Hopping from Macedonia to the Society Islands, from Ukraine to Trinidad to Crete, Pat Conte has sequenced his "Ethnic Music Classics: 1925-48" for attentive listeners. A fun parlor game would be guessing cultures of origin, with Tower gift certificates awarded anyone who gets the likes of "Paghjelle" (Corsica, tell me about it--I'd have said Mozambique first, even Society Islands). The point of the programming, if there is one, is to showcase a bewildering splatter of incongruent local styles captured by a machine designed to destroy the musical isolation that makes local styles possible. By all means open up to the diversity--these historic moments do break down into pretty airs, lively dances, dark laments, and other familiar categories. But that doesn't mean you won't find many of them merely educational. In fact, if you like them all (feh on Corsican chorales, I say), I bet you don't love any of them the way I do "Yari Mohi Gatai Dehi Mai Shaim," a virtuoso vocal turn by a professor from India. Since you get to choose, try this disc first. It's hookier and--unlike Vol. 1, which picks up about the time the average listener is done looking at yesterday's Times--it begins strong. But either way, be prepared to concentrate. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

IGGY AND THE STOOGES: Open Up and Bleed! (Bomp!) Distinguishable from competing relics of the Church of Iggy by the oddly qualified boast "The Great Lost Stooges Album?" (they do enjoy their punctuation over at Bomp!!), this one recycles the Raw Power follow-ups of the Rubber Legs EP, with dimmer sound than the ruinous underbassing Bowie inflicted on that piece of classic-openers-plus-filler, and also dimmer songs--"Cock in My Pocket" might make somebody a second encore, "Rubber Legs" is a worthier title cut than "Open Up and Bleed," and the rest belonged on the cutting room floor. Plus, wouldn't you know, equally dim live tapes designed to prove yet again that they did actually vamp longer than Hawkwind and Grinderswitch put together--anything rather than get down to business. Really, folks. He was seminal. He was damn good. He's not bad to this day. He wrote more anthems than Richard Berry himself. But anyone who thinks he's the spirit of the music has been taken in by the doomed theory that rock and roll is transgressive by definition. Like any living artform only more so, it encompasses transgression for sure. But it wouldn't be alive if it didn't also encompass a whole lot else. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • The Secret Museum of Mankind Vol. 1 (Yazoo): marginally more authentic, marginally less fun (Raderman-Beckerman Orchestra, "A Europaische Kolomyka"; Fonseka, and Party, "Kapirigna")
  • Tuscadero, The Pink Album (Elektra/Teenbeat): they want you to know they were gurls, leaving the grrrl question open ("Latex Dominatrix," "Dime-a-Dozen")
  • A Tribe Called Quest, Beats, Rhymes and Life (Jive): fighting sensationalist obscurity with philosophic subtlety, which I wish could work ("Jam," "Crew," "The Hop")
  • Patti Smith, Gone Again (Arista): pure as death and taxes ("Summer Cannibals," "Wicked Messenger")
  • The Secret Museum of Mankind Vol. 3 (Yazoo): Spaniards and Greeks who sound like Arabs, Tuvans and Albanians who sound like each other, Russians who sound like hillbillies, Africans who sound like folks (Thayelo Kapiye Trio, "Mai Wanga Anadiuza"; Grupo Dominicano, "Buen Humor")
  • Ray Charles, Berlin, 1962 (Pablo): first live recording with his big band, which gets in the way ("Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Bye Bye Love")
  • Robbie Fulks, Country Love Songs (Bloodshot): honky tonk gems without the (choose one) soul/voice/context (soul) ("(I Love) Nickels and Dimes," "The Buck Stops Here")
  • La Iguana: Sones Jarochos (Corason): the most intensely strummed Mexican son style, strongest at its slickest (Conjunto Los Jarochos, "El Jarabe Loco"; Conjunto de Santiago Tuxtla, "La Bamba")
  • Sir Mix-A-Lot, Return of the Bumpasaurus (American): stupid, funky ("Jump on It," "Bark Like You Want It")
  • Television Personalities, Yes Darling, but Is It Art? (Early Singles and Rarities) (Seed): part-time punks and how ("Part Time Punks," "Arthur the Gardener")
Choice Cuts:
  • Alex Chilton, "Sugar Sugar"/"I Got the Feelin'" (1970, Ardent)
  • Iggy Pop, "I Wanna Live," "Pussy Walk" (Naughty Little Doggie, Virgin)
  • Prince, "Don't Talk 2 Strangers," "Girl 6" (Girl 6, Warner Bros.)
  • Crowded House, Recurring Dream: The Very Best of Crowded House (Capitol)
  • Crucial Conflict, The Final Tic (Pallas/Universal)
  • D Generation, No Lunch (Columbia)
  • The Reverend Horton Heat, It's Martini Time (Interscope)
  • Dave Matthews Band, Crash (RCA)
  • Monifah, Moods . . . Moments (Uptown/Universal)
  • Busta Rhymes, The Coming (Elektra) [Later: Choice Cuts]

Village Voice, Sept. 17, 1996

July 23, 1996 Oct. 8, 1996