Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Turkey Shoot

Most Americans get sick after they gobble their turkey, but not me. Just to remind the world that capital can impact as fulsomely on music as on any other necessity of life, I force-feed myself a year's worth of uglybird before the big chow-down. Yes, it's the annual Consumer Guide Turkey Shoot. Come dear Lord and be our guest.

HOWIE B.: Music for Babies (Island) On a major label yet, the Skylab instructor and U2 pet takes the aimless vapidity of ambient another step toward total stasis. Lullabyes are universal. Crib death needn't be. D

LES BAXTER: The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter (Capitol) Not so terrible, I caught myself thinking first time I played these imaginary soundtracks, and they're not--not by the standard of the early-'50s radio mush preserved on the companion Baxter's Best ("Unchained Melody," "I Love Paris," oy). Here, selections from Ritual of the Savage and its many successors exploit mallet instruments with some verve and tickle those nostalgic for their grandparents' fantasies of benign imperialism. But even in the same dubious vein, Esquivel has more razzmatazz and Martin Denny is crucially sparer. The strings and occasional brass are de trop enough--if you can abide the choruses doo-dooing and ahh-ahhing away, start monitoring your insulin levels. C PLUS

BRING IN 'DA NOIZE, BRING IN 'DA FUNK (RCA Victor) No matter how many of the owners have been in bands, the voices of Rent epitomize that anonymous synthesis of "talk `street'" and "project, my dear, e-nun-ci-ate" with which Broadway has fended off "rock" since Hair. But the second time I braved the two-CD original-cast monster, I noticed something strange--not only did I remember half the songs a month later, some of them made me feel something. That the singing is better on its African American counterpart is no surprise, but the catch sure is: for all practical purposes, there is none. This is an album of people banging their feet on the floor while a PBS narrator talks about oppression. No noize, no funk, OK--what do you expect of the musical theayter? But no songs? Call 'da po-lice. D PLUS

CAN: Soon Over Babaluma (Spoon import) A basically instrumental excursion that aficionados rank with the sprawling Tago Mago, this 1974 Kraut-rock opus is to the Miles Davis of the era as acid jazz is to real jazz. It's never pompous, discernibly smart, playful, even goofy. If you give it your all you can make out a few shards of internal logic. But the light tone avoids texture, density, or pain. The jazzy pulse is innocent of swing, funk, or sex. And if it generates any intrinsic interest, as opposed to the conceptual kick of being so singularly European, after half a dozen plays I should have some inkling what that interest is. B MINUS

MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER: A Place in the World (Columbia) Why do I believe this Nashville liberal showers three times a day and doesn't think sex is the right place to get your face wet? Is it the Stones riff that marches by as neatly as the quaint mandolin-and-harpsichord figure? The voice that never doubts its own clarity? Creative writing like "The sepia tones of a lost afternoon/Cradle a curio storefront"? As dull as Al Gore and Ralph Nader put together. B MINUS

THE CRANBERRIES: To the Faithful Departed (Island) In which the deserving pop stars discover noise and politics simultaneously, and nuts to any part-of-the-problem who preferred them when they knew their dreamy place, right? Wrong. Tragically but also irritatingly, Dolores O'Riordan indulges all the vices people too stupid for Woody Guthrie or Linton Kwesi Johnson say politics bring out in music: she's strident, moralistic, simple-minded, full of herself. Not only is she shocked to discover that wars are caused by, I would never have guessed, "political pride" and "territorial greed," but she thinks she's a better person for telling Tchaikovsky the news. Better than you. Better than me. Better than Tchaikovsky. And much, much better than Alanis Morissette. C PLUS

THE HEADS: No Talking Just Head (MCA/Radioactive) Not as horrible as lead tracks fronted by the frontpersons of Concrete Blonde and INXS promise--in fact, once you forgive Johnette her pain, hers is actually OK. As is that of Live's Ed Kowalczyk, aping not R.E.M. or U2 but (what a dandy idea) Talking Heads, whose frontperson is otherwise much missed--for his personality, his lyrics, his inimitable guitar, his glue. Best in show: "Punk Lolita," in which Tina, Chris, and Jerry back Tina, Debbie, and Johnette with results that recall no one so much as (what a dandy idea) Tom Tom Club. B MINUS

KULA SHAKER: K (Columbia) What Happy Mondays did for substance abuse these fools vow to accomplish for spirit abuse. Drunk on Krishna, they take an anonymously commonplace chorus-guitar melange and stir in some sitar/tabla/tamboura and banalities I hope aren't translated from the Hindi. Bet it wouldn't occur to Cornershop to inform Billboard that Indians are "content" because they have "faith." Kaleidoscope either. C

ERIC MATTHEWS: It's Heavy in Here (Sub Pop) Beatles, Bee Gees, who's he trying to kid? The template for these sensitive scores, useless songs, and breathy vocals was forged by failed Zombie and insurance man Colin Blunstone, whose solo LPs are now going for as much as five bucks at garage sales up and down the Portland-Seattle corridor. I know Matthews isn't old enough to know better. I just hope the world is. C PLUS

MECCA NORMAL: The Eagle and the Poodle (Matador) Humorless, devoid of rebop, admired by a pretentious minority of an alt-rock subculture already way too full of itself, Jean Smith is a typical avant-garde hustler, her self-promotion harmless as long as innocent bystanders don't get guilt-tripped into deciding she gives them a thrill. I prefer her poetry to her songs because it's over faster, and because I can absorb it without hearing David Lester's freeee guitar. Naive interviewer (and jerk): "Do you listen to any music that you would consider obscure or different?" Smith: "I'm not really into all that record crap to tell you the truth." C

METALLICA: Load (Elektra) One of the nice things about being old is that I'm neither wired to like metal nor tempted to fake it. Just as I figured, these here-come-the-new-heroes-same-as-the-old-heroes could no more make a "grunge" album than they could do double-entry bookkeeping. Grunge simply isn't their metier. So no matter what riff neatniks think, for outsiders this is just a metal record with less solo room, which is good because it concentrates their chops, and more singing, which isn't because they can't. C PLUS

MINISTRY: Filth Pig (Warner Bros.) As a joke about disco and a joke about heavy, Al Jourgenson's dance-industrial had some wit to it. Here the motherfucker realizes that metalheads will throw money at you long after your hip cachet has gone the way of your hard-on. Result, not counting the funnier-than-shit "Lay Lady Lay": a grindcore album worth hating. C

NO DOUBT: Tragic Kingdom (Trauma/Interscope) Like any pop skyrocket, Gwen Stefani is video-driven, and so hebephrenic you know she unprotests too much. The production's as bizzy as the Ivy at lunchtime, too. But this act's real problem is ska. Since the dawn of two-tone there hasn't been a single band in the style--excluding the punk Rancid but including Madness and the Specials--that was as songful as its fun-besotted partisans claimed. When that hippity-hop beat is hyped up for postpunk consumption, its energy somehow precludes tune. Not that she could sing in the same shower as Cyndi Lauper anyway. But Belinda Carlisle is another story. C PLUS [Later]

RADIOHEAD: The Bends (Capitol) Admired by Britcrits, who can't tell whether they're "pop" or "rock," and their record company, which pushed (and shoved) this 1995 follow-up until it went gold last spring, they try to prove "Creep" wasn't an immortal one-shot by pretending that it wasn't a joke. Not that there's anything deeply phony about Thom Yorke's angst--it's just a social given, a mindset that comes as naturally to a '90s guy as the skilled guitar noises that frame it. Thus the words achieve precisely the same pitch of aesthetic necessity as the music, which is none at all. C [Later]

SAMITE: Silana Musango (Xenophile) It's hard to argue with the life choices of a Ugandan who lost a brother to Idi Amin. But when he opened for the gently ecstatic Samba Mapangala and the eternally vigorous Mahlathini at S.O.B.'s, he was a tragedy of "world music." Mapangala and Mahlathini, whose lives haven't been easy either, do what Afropop masters have always done: import American materials for their own uses. Samite is an exporter who treats music like a cash crop, adapting to the master culture rather than from it. On record you don't have to watch his drummer expressing her spirituality, and Bakithi Kumalo can flat-out play bass. But in any context Samite is soft-headed as a matter of principle--and by now, as a marketing strategy too. C PLUS

UNDERWORLD: Second Toughest in the Infants (TVT) Americans enticed by talk of "rock"-dance fusion should bear in mind the cultural deprivation of our siblings across the sea. Befuddled by the useless "rock"-"pop" distinction, they believe "rock" is something that happened in the '70s. The more inquisitive among them are aware of Pearl Jam and Nirvana, but if they've ever heard of Los Lobos or Husker Du they probably think they're "pop." So check out these comparisons from admirers of this inflated trio, spawned by the famously bad new-romantic band Freur and an "art collective" others might call an advertising agency: "pre-stadium Simple Minds," "way beyond the length of a Frank Zappa guitar solo," "J.J. Cale on an ecstasy comedown," "a warm bath." Plus their proper predecessors Pink Floyd "with bigger bass sounds and better drum patterns." Here and there--eight minutes into "Kiteless," for instance--they do work up a dangerously off-kilter groove. But the lyrics of Animals were more than "insane ramblings" or "the colours of cars going past a friend's house." And Ummagumma had more purity of purpose. C PLUS

SCOTT WALKER: It's Raining Today: The Scott Walker Story (1967-70) (Razor & Tie) Nothing I'd read about this L.A. wannabe turned moody Brit teenthrob--going back to Nik Cohn's Rock From the Beginning, which pegged him as "top-heavy and maudlin" in 1968--prepared me for how purely godawful he'd be. We're talking Anthony Newley without the voice muscles, "MacArthur Park" as light-programme boilerplate, a male Vera Lynn for late bloomers who found Paul McCartney too r&b. Go ahead, believe Nick Cave, Oasis, Foetus, and, I cannot tell a lie, compiler Marshall Crenshaw. But I'm warning you--when I gave him the benefit of the doubt, all I got was this lousy review. C MINUS

WESTSIDE CONNECTION: Bow Down (Priority) If you think East Coast Illuminati shit is silly, wait till you hear the "gangsta rap in it's highest form" that Ice Cube and two like-minded liars counter with. Not only that, they threaten to cut off the scrotum of "All the Critics in New York." Gosh, I sure hope they don't mean mine. D PLUS

THE WHO: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 (Columbia/Legacy) Commemorating a signal moment in rock history--the day Sony got a piece of the Who. C PLUS

CASSANDRA WILSON: New Moon Daughter (Blue Note) Compelled to pretend they're superior to the pop text as well as the pop tune, encouraged to express rather than interpret but forbidden to ignore the words, too many jazz singers have trouble figuring out what to make of their material. And however admirable Wilson's independence of so-called classic pop, most of these songs escape her attentions without a mark on them. Which isn't to mention the "Strange Fruit" that establishes the surpassing weirdness of Billie's original, or the disastrous Monkees cover, designed to prove she has a sense of humor I'm now convinced isn't there. B MINUS

Village Voice, Dec. 3, 1996

Oct. 8, 1996 Dec. 17, 1996