Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Playboy Music

Arto Lindsay is a missionary's son from Brazil who hasn't changed his geeky glasses since 1978, when he attracted attention by wringing the neck of an untuned guitar in the postpunk noise trio DNA. Not what's ordinarily thought of as a sexy guy, yet on the Ambitious Lovers' Greed (Virgin), his second album with the permanent floating samba-funk-noise unit he runs with synth chameleon Peter Scherer, he manages to fuse Joao Gilberto-style insouciance with the direct attack of modern dance music. "You're no exception/To the law of symmetry," he reminds a modest beauty in Admit It, and the same voice that gasped and gurgled incomprehensible metaphor fragments a decade ago sounds sweet and slyly seductive--without falling prey to the sun-dazed romanti-cism that's the bane of Brazilian pop. Scherer's rhythms are both light and tough, and sidemen like Nana Vasconcelos, Vernon Reid, and Bill Frisell could make a fella believe in world-beat. Hot, cool, irresistible.

David Thomas is a schoolteacher's son from Cleveland who's almost as fat as he was in 1978, when his postpunk art-rock quintet Pere Ubu released the classic Dub Housing. After becoming a Jehovah's Witness, Thomas gradually transformed Ubu's industrial noise into fairytale whimsy almost as willful as Jonathan Richman's kiddie-rock. Other members left to pursue other interests, but a 1987 reunion tour proved harder-edged than grizzled postpunks had any right to expect, and The Tenement Year (Enigma) is the best album to bear the Ubu name in a decade. In every phase Ubu was a funny band, and here synth player Allen Ravenstine goes batshit with sound effects as Thomas rechannels his whimsy into the kind of jazzy setting often favored by grizzled art-rockers. But there's always the Ubu difference--these guys rock out. How many other reunion bands can make that claim?

Playboy, Dec. 1988

The news that rap is now where pop's creative action is won't thrill the average rock and roll fan, because rap gets along fine without him. Targeting a loyal but discriminating audience of young black men, the best rap offers few sops to outsiders who aren't attuned to its musical language. Its lyrics are no longer dominated by sex-and-money boasts too unlikely to be threatening--these days, militant black pride is a commonplace if not a commercial necessity. The prime example is Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a major hit despite (because of?) a beat harder than that of the toughest punk or funk and a dense mix whose atonalities recall the most abrasive harmolodic jazz.

Public Enemy the band aren't as hostile to white people on record as in interviews, but even a well-meaning Euro-American progressive like yours truly is liable to find their music brilliant pain and their ideology hurtful. So I'm pleased to note equally militant but more humanistic raps on lesser albums I can nevertheless recommend: Gettovetts' Bill Laswell-produced Battle Call on Missionaries Moving (Island), Afrika Bambaataa and Family's Bill Laswell-produced World Racial War on The Light (Capitol), and Stetsasonic's Central America- and South Africa-inspired Freedom or Death on In Full Effect (Tommy Boy).

And since only those attuned to rap's musical language are gonna listen, let me also mention the freshest current introductions. On Follow the Leader (Uni), Eric B. & Rakim sample their way beyond the spare James Brown rips of last year's Paid in Full into a fast- and smart-talking world of strange world-pop hooks. And on Strictly Business (Fresh), EPMD loot their way into disco heaven. The irresistible title track advertises their technical prowess over a backing track lifted from I Shot the Sheriff--just to prove they don't hold grudges, Eric Clapton's version rather than Bob Marley's.

Postscript Notes:

This was written in Sept. 1988 for publication later.

No sooner did he dump his long-suffering spouse and partner Linda for an L.A. folk impresario in 1982 than Richard Thompson turned into a walking advertisement for connubial stick-to-it-iveness--his solo albums started off vaguely unsatisfying and got deader every time out. Since Thompson is world-class guitarist and composer who can outsing Ry Cooder himself, it's news that Amnesia (Capitol) is at least a big improvement and maybe the rock and roll he's been aiming at all decade: his skill no longer cries out for Linda's acrid contralto and contrary soul. I must note, however, that some romantic reversal or other has inspired an even nastier set of love songs than has been his nasty habit. The uproarious revenge hyperbole of Don't Tempt Me is the pole that defines the regrets of no fewer than six additional songs, some of which motorvate while others brood. Like so many artists before him, Thompson seems to thrive on friction.

Back from limbo at less apparent personal cost are two veteran soul singers who've never been saddled with the label. Both reggae fixture Toots Hibbert and blueswoman-to-the-stars Etta James choose the same route out of the rut: via Memphis. Toots in Memphis (Mango) is a cover album that doesn't cloy-- these oldies taught Toots to sing, though never (before) for the record. His Otis Redding is as on it as anyone who knows his sound would figure; his Jackie Moore and Ann Peebles are strokes. Cut in Nashville and produced by Muscle Shoals's Barry Beckett, James's Seven Year Itch (Island) is more ecumenical, but its deep groove is pure Stax-Volt, the kind of firm musical ground James hasn't stood on since she provided makeout music at basement parties from Chocolate City to Watts 25 years ago. And her Otis Redding ain't bad either.

Postscript Notes:

This was written in Oct. 1988 for publication later.

The title that sums up Sonic Youth's early '80s is Confusion Is Sex, which for you it probably isn't and for them maybe it was. But they got bored with chaos, and unlike so many bohemians who see through that cliche, they proved to have more socially redeeming talents. Daydream Nation (Enigma/Blast First) won't storm the charts--the high-energy monotones of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon aren't radio-ready, the functional audio is grungy by 64-track standards. And so what--if you crave stick-to-the-ribs tunes that won't turn your stomach, they go 14 for 14 on this double LP, sustaining the extended lengths with an avant version of what Iggy Pop ID'd as raw power. With forced rhythms powering a tuning system that delivers their guitar sound from the bent-note bullshit of a thousand beer commercials, they uplift and abrade at the same time. When Moore yells "Forget the past and just say yes" or Gordon progresses from "I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell" to "He was candy all over," they flip the bird to an impoverished time that's designed to lull body and spirit into passivity. "Does `Fuck you' sound simple enough?" Gordon inquires. Not always. For the duration of this album, though, you can just say yes.

Lucinda Williams won't be showing up on any commercials, either, but not for want of bent notes--she just takes no flak. A rock and roll traditionalist whose generous voice comes by its drawl naturally and its blues feeling hard, Williams has been trying to put her exuberantly well-turned songs on an album for most of this decade. Lucinda Williams (Rough Trade), her third try, came out her way, and why any record man would want to order her around I can only guess. Maybe because she seems just an inch's compromise away from a hit. But that inch is probably why this rock and roll traditionalist still sounds fresh.

Postscript Notes:

This was written in Nov. 1988 for publication later.

It would be silly to complain about the continued and possibly permanent failure of African music to sell to Americans the way it does to Europeans. Europe is closer to Africa and home to more Africans--as opposed to Afro-Americans, who have their own music to listen to, and to divert white Americans with. But that doesn't mean Americans aren't missing something. And not since The Indestructible Beat of Soweto have I found proof as convincing as Africa Connection Vol. I: Zaire Choc (French Celuloid cassette/CD).

A variant of Congolese soukous, the funk-inflected Afro-Cuban fusion that's dominated Afropop since the early '70s, choc's common pool of musicians and recording techniques lends itself to anthologization. Virgin Earthworks's Heartbeat Soukous was like a quality disco compilation: generic, maybe, but plenty hot. Zaire Choc, assembled by the biggest and sharpest manufacturer-distributor of a music whose studio center is Paris rather than Kinshasa, is more individuated without any sacrifice of flow, mixing contrasting vocal hooks, quicksilver guitar figures, and negotiable rhythm changes like a great dancefloor deejay working the crowd for an hour-long peak.

As for the rest of Africa (ha!), a coded shopping list. The Bhundu Boys' Tsvimbodzemoto: Sticks of Fire (Hannibal): mbira-tinged soukous variant from down Zimbabwe way. Stella Chiweshe's Ambuya? (U.K. GlobeStyle): sweet, strong neotraditionalist Zimbabwean sister. Zani Diabete & the Super Djata Band (Mango): Malian Hendrix. Obed Ngobeni's My Wife Bought a Taxi (Shanachie): minority township jive.

Postscript Notes:

This was written in Dec. 1988 for publication later.

Nov. 1988 Jan. 1989