Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Turkey Shoot

The records worth hating located by this annual Thanksgiving anticelebration are generally turkeys on the run, not fish in a barrel. Cynicism saps criticism, and only by going in with my hopes up can I scare up enough hurt feelings to get mean when the argument requires it. So I really believed those Latin lovers would be hot, those Puffy toughs street realists. You gotta believe.

CAT POWER: Moon Pix (Matador) At least Chan Marshall's not trying to fool anybody. From "she plays the difficult parts and I play difficult" to "the music is boring me to death," she's an honest heroine of the new indie staple--not noise-tune and certainly not irony, both as passe as the guilty pop dreams they kept at bay, but sadness. Slow sadness. Slow sadness about one's inability to relate. And not just to audiences. Hell is other people. C PLUS

EAGLE-EYE CHERRY: Desireless (Work) Watch out for this mild-mannered simp: underneath his lite croon, refabricated truisms, and avant-garde pedigree, he's got the tunes. The title track, an instrumental-with-chant composed by his trumpeter dad, points up how flimsy they are. B MINUS

DC TALK: Supernatural (Virgin) If the scruffy yokels of Jars of Clay are tent preachers, these hunky moderns are televangelists, their well-riffed Queen homage the musical equivalent of Tammy Faye Bakker's false eyelashes--considered sinful excess in an earlier era, claimed for Christ now that it is known not to herald the end time. Reports that they have something--anything--to do with rap are apparently based on the presence of a certified Black Person in the group. Instead, they do up a jolly ska tune whose love object is, shall we say, not female, and address a generically whiny-sarcastic selling-out putdown to Collective Soul, trumping their assertion of spiritual superiority by insisting that they still "love" their backsliding brothers. They should remember I Corinthians 13:4: "Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up." C

JOHNNY DOWD: Wrong Side of Memphis (Checkered Past) The vitae that mark this middle-aged Ithaca moving man as a genuwine everyman reduce just as readily to boho-with-a-day-job, and lest you look down on him he's careful to stick an "existential" into the one about the "Average Guy," so-called. When he finds "tender love," his tropes pick up considerable--"Like beans and rice she's a total plateful," nice and homely. But soon it's back to murder and misery in the dismal swamp quote unquote, with malnourished blues to match. Gangsta folk--not only are the stories old hat, the beats suck. B MINUS [Later]

FASTBALL: All the Pain Money Can Buy (Hollywood) "We just wanted to make a personal statement with our music," aver these three Austinites with a sincere look in their eyes. And so they yoke popcraft worthy of Three Dog Night, the Doobie Brothers, perhaps even Matchbox 20 to lyrics that speak of the dark things--institutionalization, methadone, lovers left bleeding, highways going nowhere, and, quite a few times, their own inordinate careerism. Is that personal enough for you? C PLUS

GOLDIE: Saturnz Return (London/FFRR) The only one fooled for a minute by this 152-minute time-stretch was Goldie's mom, who occasioned the more candidly textural of the two CDs, a movementless, and motionless, "symphony." But why was anyone surprised? He was an instant figurehead because he was pretentious enough to poke his head out of jungle's welter of beats. Having fallen flat on his face with a lifetime's worth of self-expression, he can now proceed to the soundtrack work he was born for. C MINUS [Later: Dud]

HOT LATIN HITS/EXITOS LATINOS CALIENTES: THE '90S (Rhino) Doing my bit to nip a world-lounge fad in the bud, I hereby deplore not just a record but an entire sensibility--the florid Spanish-language romanticism at the root of the international ballad style. Performed mostly by one-named singers like Mijares, Lucero, Cristian, and Julian, these early-'90s cris de coeurs are all the excuse any young Spanish speaker needs to believe Los Fabulosos Cadillacs are the Beatles. Emotion so deeply in love with itself is why irony was invented. D PLUS

NATALIE IMBRUGLIA: Left of the Middle (RCA) Compared to the diluted simple syrup of Swirl 360 or the teen-idol rappabilly of Jimmy Ray, Imbruglia's modern pop is Rumours. Not only is she extraordinarily pretty without being too blatant in her babitude, she's got the brains and will to make up her own songs (and did I mention how pretty she is?). Thus she's earned our respect. But under all their state-of-the-studio-art, her competent songs are no more distinctive than the competent songs of hundreds of less pretty women. This was no stiff--RCA milked platinum and a follow-up single out of the sure shot she didn't write herself. But we should be proud that iconicity proved beyond Imbruglia's means. It's three cheers for democracy every time someone goes even a little broke underestimating the taste of the American public. C PLUS

THE LOOK OF LOVE: THE BURT BACHARACH COLLECTION (Rhino) Now it's official: Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach were the best things ever to happen to each other. She's a bore without him, and he brings out the best in none of the other singers here. If anything, his fancy hackwork diminishes them a little--whether it's starters like the Drifters, the Shirelles, and Dusty Springfield or second-stringers like Gene Pitney, Jackie DeShannon, and end-of-the-bencher Chuck Jackson, all sound about as good as you'd expect and all peaked elsewhere. Then there are Lou Johnson, B.J. Thomas, Bobby Vinton, and the hapless Bacharach himself, not to mention horrid one-shots by Richard Chamberlain, Bobby Goldsboro, Trini Lopez, Jill O'Hara, gad. It's enough to renew your faith in Elvis Costello. B MINUS

LOS AMIGOS INVISIBLES: The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.) Inglés, español, japonés, lo que sea--as members of the international brotherhood of bored midde-class collegians, their specialty is crappy music with a concept. And the concept is--crappy music! See Combustible Edison, Pizzicato Five, lo que sea. C PLUS

THE LOX: Money, Power and Respect (Bad Boy) As a statement of principle, the title track is scary-good and creatively derivative; put into practice, it's scary-stupid and oppressively ordinary. How do we get MPR? By play-acting bully-boy scenarios that sound petty enough to be from life and making up others we'd never have the guts for--one production number climaxes with, eek, a hand grenade! And by showing an endless profusion of imaginary bitches who the man is--the other production number climaxes when three gold-digging skeezers, as they were called in the good old days, end up with their blood all over the tracks. C PLUS

MARILYN MANSON: Mechanical Animals (Nothing) If only the absurd aura of artistic respectability surrounding this arrant self-promoter would teach us that not every icon deserves a think piece, that it's no big deal to be smarter than Ozzy Osbourne, that the Road of Excess leads to the Palace Theater. Instead, his banned-in-Wal-Mart slipcase job will fade into the haze of records people found interesting at the time. Its strategy is to camouflage the feebleness of La Manson's vocal affect by pretending it's deliberate--one more depersonalizing production device with which to flatten willing cerebella whilst confronting humankind's alienation, amorality, and failure to have a good time on Saturday night. Catchiest songs: "The Dope Show" and "I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me)." Duh. C PLUS [Later]

AUDRA MCDONALD: Way Back to Paradise (Nonesuch) Compared to Streisand, Garland, and Callas, said to augur a New Era of Popular Song, this two-time Tony winner proudly situates her big range and Juilliard technique on the far side of the chasm now separating Broadway theater from American music. Aficionados may follow the (satiric?) logic of, for instance, the sudden high note that punctuates the Adam Guettel-William Makepeace Thackeray trifle "A Tragic Story." But we who prefer our singing speechlike will figure she's just showing off again, which given the songs is perfectly appropriate. Ignorant of groove, eschewing verse-chorus-bridge, orchestrated to suggest the demon jazz only insofar as 20th-century European composition mooched off it, these are not tunes playgoers will hum as they flag cabs on West 45th Street. They are the sterile spawn of Stephen Sondheim and Ned Rorem, and although they signify little when sundered from their paltry dramatic contexts, serious they remain--what few comic moments they countenance duck their heads as McDonald prepares for her next octave leap. C PLUS

MOMUS: Ping Pong (Le Grand Magistery) In one of his many clever songs, Nick Currie compares his quest for fame to God's and wonders why the big fella gets all the coverage. The answer is that God is a nicer guy. Performers like Currie believe "all interesting behaviors, whether moral or not, are salable in our culture" because they don't have much choice--it's that or a day job. But no matter how well-turned the lyric, very few listeners actually enjoy songs in which snobbish dandies trot out their sexual egomania and baby envy. Deep down, most people have some cornball in them. And this is a good thing. B MINUS

PLUSH: More You Becomes You (Drag City) Feature: "The lonely, ever uncool, always corny piano man." Bio: "Liam Hayes' new record is not just about pop, it IS pop in the classic (circa 1973) sense of the term." Wha? Has Chicago moved to another planet? (Again?) Hayes's closest relative by far is Palace Inc. CEO Will Oldham whittling mountain music down to a doleful whisper. If he's anything, and his aesthetic is so attenuated you have to wonder, he's cool, and if his aesthetic is about anything it's about being about. Hayes's snaillike, lachrymose presongs resemble no pop in history, much less 1973. (1973?) And while it's possible to imagine a piano man this anonymously self-absorbed, no cocktail lounge would permit him to sing--unless he owned it, I guess. C PLUS

THE BRIAN SETZER ORCHESTRA: The Dirty Boogie (Interscope) Big bands still can't rock, Setzer still can't sing, and that's only the beginning. There is for instance chief arranger Ray Herrmann, Bernard's black-sheep grandnephew, whose dad was 86'd by Stan Kenton because he didn't have any soul. There's the hyperactive desecration visited upon Rosemary Clooney's perky "This Ole House," the croakin' belt an' croon of "Since I Don't Have You," Leiber & Stoller's obscure "You're the Boss" retouched so heavy-handedly you'd think Setzer wrote the thing himself. But no, that was--dig these titles!--"This Cat's on a Hot Tin Roof," "Hollywood Nocturne," the Elmer Bernstein-influenced "Switchblade 372." With its Doc Severinsen blare and Paul Schaffer beats, its gross secondhand nostalgia and showoff guitar, the most preeningly stupid record to mount SoundScan all year. C MINUS

MIKE WATT: Contemplating the Engine Room (Columbia) Credwise, Watt's got it all. He was the fulcrum of a great band, he's serious with a sense of humor about it, he's got not just politics but class consciousness, he talks a great game, and, oh yeah, he networks like crazy. The only thing he isn't is a compelling artist. He can't sing at all, can't write much, and still pretends the bass solo is a viable musical form. Like fIREHOSE (sic), like his name-dropping solo debut, this "punk rock opera" ("I just hate the words `concept record.' That's fucking tired-ass, where opera's funny") looks great on paper and hasn't been played for a year by anyone it impressed. It will prove a valuable resource for the numerous forthcoming doctoral dissertations on the alternative rock subculture. C PLUS

BRIAN WILSON: Imagination (Giant) Wilson's genius has never been as indelible or universal as worshippers believe. Generating illusions of eternal sunlight or crafting frames for crackpot solipsism, he was magical; stripped by Don Was or cambered by Van Dyke Parks, he was at least interesting. Submitting to adult-contempo tycoon Joe Thomas, however, he's just what you'd fear: a middle-aged pop pro who's proud he's no longer nuts and knows even less about the world than when he was. The lead cut has a happy tune, the dark finale some dysfunctional intimations. In between, he makes too much of attendant hacks and gestures at old glories from a failing high end. C

Village Voice, Dec. 1, 1998

Nov. 3, 1998 Dec. 15, 1998