Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Michelle Shocked

  • The Texas Campfire Tapes [Mercury, 1986] B+
  • Short Sharp Shocked [Mercury, 1988] A-
  • Captain Swing [Mercury, 1989] B
  • Arkansas Traveler [Mercury, 1992] B+
  • Kind Hearted Woman [Private Music, 1996] Dud
  • Mexican Standoff [Mighty Sound, 2005] *
  • Don't Ask Don't Tell [Mighty Sound, 2005] Choice Cuts
  • Got No Strings [Mighty Sound, 2005] Dud

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Texas Campfire Tapes [Mercury, 1986]
"Recorded on a Sony Walkman at Kerrville Folk Festival, Kerrville, USA," announces this U.K.-first debut--rather coyly, but you know those alternative Brits. And you have to hand it to those Japanese--without much depth to account for, the audio ain't bad. And maybe you should hand it to Shocked too. She's got more vocal personality than is common among solo folk, her guitar accomps her wherever she goes, and though she may be a little long on folkie mythos (sleeping in the park, guys with tattoos, etc.), she has a reporter's eye and a tale-spinner's ear. Beyond mythos: "The Secret Admirer," about a good-looking woman's looks. B+

Short Sharp Shocked [Mercury, 1988]
"Anchorage" is the fondest friend-from-a-former-life song you've ever heard. The East Texas barn burning, driving lesson, and beer run evoke the bored fun of a rural adolescence like nothing you could imagine. Shocked understands the tougher formal challenges of protest and metaphoric flight, too, especially on the unclassifiable "When I Grow Up." The Jean Ritchie cover seems unsuitably traditional until you realize it's Jean Ritchie. And the uncredited punk-rock extra reminds us that this singer-songwriter puts music second, just like they all do. A-

Captain Swing [Mercury, 1989]
First line of the last one was "When I grow up I want to be an old woman," first line of this one is "God is a real estate developer." Last time she stuck to received country/folk-rock, this time she essays horn arrangements that got lost in the mail. I appreciate the genderfucks (she's hetero here, homo there, and male when you mess with her sister) and could go for a few of the love songs (the long-suffering "Silent Ways" in its current incarnation, the long-suffering "Sleep Keeps Me Awake" and roving "On the Greener Side" gone to heaven). But on the whole this is too arch, too busy, too artistic, too political, succumbing to the overreach that always beckons when you have greatness thrust upon you. B

Arkansas Traveler [Mercury, 1992]
Personally, I'm sorry she chickened out of doing the cover in blackface, because it would have added yet another fucked-up twist to her impossibly confused attempt to sort out American music's racial debts. After all, her confusion is no more impossible than anybody else's, just further out there, and at least the opacity of her pontifications on minstrelsy illustrates how deep the mysteries run. As someone who knows a fair amount about minstrelsy, I'd point out that most of its tunes were written by whites, albeit whites who aped and/or stole from blacks, or anyway (speaking of confusion), claimed to--after 1860, 'twas oft complained that newer minstrels weren't faux-darkie enough. And as someone who'd like to know more, I wish Shocked had said damn the copyright lawyers and detailed the sources of all her new songs, which--except for the gnomic "Arkansas Traveler" on the up side and the preachy "Strawberry Jam" on the down--are at their best when they seem influenced but not imitated. "Prodigal Daughter" out of "Cotton-Eyed Joe" is a coup--hooray. But is there a sense in which the equally praiseworthy "Come a Long Way" is also a rewrite? Or did those notes just float in from the ether? B+

Kind Hearted Woman [Private Music, 1996] Dud

Mexican Standoff [Mighty Sound, 2005]
For no discernible reason, blues and Spanglish bring out the irreverence in her ("La Cantina," "Mouth of the Mississippi"). *

Don't Ask Don't Tell [Mighty Sound, 2005]
"Hi Skool" Choice Cuts

Got No Strings [Mighty Sound, 2005] Dud