Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • Maxinquaye [Island, 1995] A+
  • Pre-Millennium Tension [Island, 1996] A-
  • Angels With Dirty Faces [Island, 1998] A-
  • Mission Accomplished [Anti-, 2000] ***
  • Blowback [Hollywood, 2001] A
  • Vulnerable [Sanctuary, 2003] *
  • Knowle West Boy [Domino, 2008] **
  • Mixed Race [Domino, 2010] A-
  • False Idols [!K7, 2013] ***
  • Adrian Thaws [False Idols, 2014] ***

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Maxinquaye [Island, 1995]
From Soul II Soul to Massive Attack to Tricky is a straight line leading straight down to a bad place you should take a chance and visit. Depressive, constricted, phantasmagoric, industrial, yet warmly beatwise and swathed in a gauzy glow that promises untold creature comforts, these are the audioramas of someone who's signed on to work for the wages of sin and lived to cash the check. Determinedly Lo-NRG, he's a sad sack with attitude, a complicated malcontent whose cynicism can't quash his capacity for euphoria or rebellion. And though he long ago saw through the willed optimism of black-Brit dance music, he's here to tell you that a dystopia with Martine singing in it has some serious rewards. A+

Pre-Millennium Tension [Island, 1996]
Far from an anomaly, "Tricky Kid" is definitive here, exploiting two moderately odious cliches--the woes of stardom and I'm-Tricky-and-you're-not--as if they're OK because he's Tricky and you're not. Rubbing our face in shit is his specialty, after all, and since everything else depresses him, why shouldn't that extend to his own success and his own arrogance? Whether you go along depends on how compelling you find his decon job on a hip hop soundscape that's discernibly rawer and starker here than on Maxinquaye. I say his music comprehends and inhabits the dystopia of everyday life more radically than Wu-Tang could conceive. And acknowledge that on this evidence, his trick requires Martine and can't work forever. A-

Angels With Dirty Faces [Island, 1998]
"Mellow" might have been recorded in a shipyard--augmenting Jack Hersca's nagging if fetching guitar and Gene Lake's steady if seething drums is a rhythm element that suggests a boat whistle heard across a moonless harbor. Next track the artist makes his pop bid with a catchy femme-chorus refrain and a guest star: Polly Jean Harvey, what a draw! For another three songs, a decent level of musical amenity is maintained: Martina's crooning tale of woe underpinned by low-register guitar/keyb riffs of unspecified origin and Calvin Weston's free drumming, three-note distorto hook beneath Tricky's speed-mumble, xylophonish tinkle countered by a keyb belch like an engine that won't catch. Thereafter the residues of grimy technologies settle into permanent low-level disorder: foghorns lowing, brakes complaining, clocks sounding across windswept nights, locomotives struggling uphill. He's a hater not a fighter, and the devil is in his details. So give that man a set of horns--he's earned them. A-

Mission Accomplished [Anti-, 2000]
Four tracks not market-friendly enough to convince me "PolyGram" offed him for being a "fucking nigger" ("Divine Comedy"). ***

Blowback [Hollywood, 2001]
I have no idea whether this will prove the smash Maxinquaye wasn't--well, actually I do, but I promise to keep it quiet if you do. For sure he's presented his new label with his first song album since then. Where once were textures you could write a poem about now are textures you can hang a tune on. And forget P.J. Harvey for clout, this one's got the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Alanis Morissette and, uh, Live and Cyndi Lauper--all of whom sound fabulous. Yes, he's still very down in the mouth. With him, that's a matter of principle. But his defiance is more coherent, his mysticism more visionary. And if it's not gauche of me to mention it, he rocks and does a Nirvana song, not necessarily at the same time. A

Vulnerable [Sanctuary, 2003]
Obscure Italian chanteuse finds producer of dreams ("Moody," "Search and Destroy"). *

Knowle West Boy [Domino, 2008]
Hmm-long-aborning rock album asks that we look past his sonics and hear his wordy wisdom ("Puppy Toy," "Council Estate"). **

Mixed Race [Domino, 2010]
What Massive Attack's stealthiest weapon of ass destruction rightly claims is his most uptempo and clearly conceived album isn't therefore his most songful, though he'd probably disagree, out of habit if nothing else. That's still 2002's criminally neglected Blowback, available as I write used and domestic for under a buck or new and imported for 45 of 'em. The thematic attack here is pretty surgical, cutting most of the time to the gangsta life he's so glad he sidestepped as a youth. The individual pieces are well-defined by his muzzy standards. And the usual lineup of vocal guests you never heard of--in this case Kingston hard Terry Lynn, London patois-slinger Blackman, Tricky's reformed little brother Marlon, Bobby (from Primal Scream, you remember), and most prominently Irish-Italian belle Frankie Riley--certainly stick up for themselves. But things only get catchy when an Arabic speaker who turns out to be Rachid Taha's guitarist--not even backup singer!--grabs the album by the throat and is followed by Riley taking up a "big underground tune" from when Tricky was a teen. It goes "Shiny gun, shiny gun, shiny gun, right now." He can still remember some thug scaring him silly by singing it to him in a shop that happened to stand on disputed turf. A-

False Idols [!K7, 2013]
Illbient slimmed into smoove groove, a conscious maturity move less escapist than you'd fear and less vital than you'd hope ("Tribal Drums," "Hey Love") ***

Adrian Thaws [False Idols, 2014]
Leaning harder on his ladies' auxiliary than Leonard Cohen, he continues to mutter that it's a bummer out there, and half the time prove it ("Lonnie Listen," "Nicotine Love") ***

See Also