Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Kid Creole [extended]

  • Off the Coast of Me [Antilles, 1980] B+
  • Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places [Sire/ZE, 1981] A-
  • Wise Guy [Sire/ZE, 1982] A
  • Doppelganger [Sire/ZE, 1983] A-
  • Don't Take My Coconuts [EMI America, 1983] B
  • In Praise of Older Women and Other Crimes [Sire, 1985] A-
  • I, Too, Have Seen the Woods [Sire, 1987] A-
  • Private Waters in the Great Divide [Columbia, 1990] B+
  • You Shoulda Told Me You Were . . . [Columbia, 1991] A-
  • Kid Creole Redux [Sire/Warner Bros., 1992] B+
  • Kiss Me Before the Light Changes [Atoll, 1994] *
  • To Travel Sideways [Atoll, 1994] Choice Cuts
  • Going Places: The August Darnell Years 1974-1983 [Stunt, 2008] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Off the Coast of Me [Antilles, 1980]
Reformed high school teacher August Darnell having split with black-sheep bro Stoney Browder, the music thins out--Dr. Buzzard's progressive retro is hard to top, Darnell's naturally sarcastic voice short on bottom. So the not exactly all-embracing "Calypso Pan-American" and "Off the Coast of Me" neither justify nor transcend their distanced tone (typically, the title tune affects a megaphone filter), while comedy numbers like "Bogota Affair" (the effete Creole as cuckold), "Mr. Softee" (the effete Creole as limp-dick), and "Darrio . . ." (the effete Creole as new-waver) are simple and strong. When clever means this clever, maybe we should settle. B+

Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places [Sire/ZE, 1981]
When August Darnell kicks off his Caribbean extravaganza with a Foreigner power chord, or the Coconuts sing the I-Threes behind Andy Hernandez, or a JB riff sneaks into a tune called "Table Manners," I'm convinced that both words and music are witty enough to stand. But overwhelmed I'm not. Darnell's pastiche just isn't Stoney Browder's synthesis, and his campy sprechgesang just isn't Cory Daye's babes-on-Broadway razzmatazz. In short, his polyglot musical conception never gets the kind of translation that delves below the signifier. A-

Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Wise Guy [Sire/ZE, 1982]
August Darnell has synthesized his polyglot influences so thoroughly you'd think all show music is written over a fast funk bottom. Two of the eight tunes--"Imitation," a sortastar's complaint in disguise, and the mum "Stool Pigeon"--could use some narrative context, but usually it doesn't even matter much that Augie is singing. The end pieces are the wickedest: "Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy," in which he breaks it to her traumatically, and "No Fish Today," the nastiest song about class since "Career Opportunities." A

Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Doppelganger [Sire/ZE, 1983]
Counting his previous (and best) album some kind of sellout because it's held together by a dance groove, the Kid here returns to the musical comedy stage for yet another original-cast recording. As usual, the book exists only in his head, and the putative plot precis does little to clarify just what these songs are about. And I really want to know--the more closely I analyze the apparently surface wit of the Kid's lyrical-musical synthesis-pastiche, the more I wish I could see the show. A-

The Coconuts: Don't Take My Coconuts [EMI America, 1983]
I can forgive August Darnell the filler on side one because he's a gifted disco producer, which means his throwaway jingles and premature remakes and cynical trifles add up to dance music that's more listenable than most. But the failures on side two are as unfocused as anything he's ever committed to vinyl--excepting only "If I Only Had a Brain," an all too apt cover for these would-be bimbos. B

Kid Creole and the Coconuts: In Praise of Older Women and Other Crimes [Sire, 1985]
Though personally I don't much care whether Cole Porter comes again, I must point out that August Darnell suits the part better than Stephen Sondheim or Paul Simon or Elvis Costello. Certainly no one in rock or musical comedy maintains such a consistent level of lyrical sophistication, even if he does overdo the brittle satire at times like these (which may be because brother Stoney is helping out again). And those who would bewail his relationship to the great European harmonic tradition should remember that Cole Porter was a rhumba man and ponder the title of Andy Hernandez's attack on white-collar crime: "Dowopsalsaboprock." A-

Kid Creole and the Coconuts: I, Too, Have Seen the Woods [Sire, 1987]
Mr. Softee isn't the type, but somehow August Darnell has turned into Old Faithful. Mortality impinges attractively on this typically elegant and literate dance album, which few will dance to and enough buy--especially in Europe, where they think he's Josephine Baker. If you've never gotten him, chances are you're stuck with your deaf spot. Otherwise, get it. A-

Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Private Waters in the Great Divide [Columbia, 1990]
To the shocked rumor that label prexy (and former Dr. Buzzard manager) Tommy Mottola forced August Darnell back into the studio for a quick "Lambada" stick on, I say the universalism of that great hit is an improvement. In general here a level of imagination that has always exceeded Loudoun Wainwright's, say, has turned slightly shticky. "I Love Girls" is a sinuous sample of the album's disco-funk and a proper first panel for the roue-in-the-age-of-AIDS triptych. But it's not liberating, daring, or even surprising. For wit, all Darnell does is show off his vocabulary. The same goes for the true-crime "Taking the Rap," the sexy "When Lucy Does the Boomerang," and so forth--not even Cory Daye or Prince lift off from the pleasure zone. Biggest exception is the prophetic refrain of "Laughing With Our Backs Against the Wall": "What you gonna do when the money runs out?" Sign with Sony, of course. B+

Kid Creole and the Coconuts: You Shoulda Told Me You Were . . . [Columbia, 1991]
Although he claims he's set "to leave his beloved Isle of York once and for all," Manhattan toned up the Kid's politics. The Cory Daye feature "Consequently," which starts with Columbus sailing the ocean blue, is as cold-eyed as the Mekons' Sally Timms feature "Brutal," and "Oh Marie" and "Madison Avenue" are more realistic about crime in the streets and crisis in the schools than most rap or any Lou Reed. As for the love songs, they're fine when love has nothing to do with it--when he's hot for a party girl, or insisting a sex object meet his plastic surgeon. A-

Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Kid Creole Redux [Sire/Warner Bros., 1992]
How do you tell a Nirvana fan about Kid Creole? How do you induce a grunge teen to make common cause with a tropical dandy who proclaimed his commitment to "alternatives" back in 1987, as he completed the album cycle his label is now downsizing. How do you inspire the proud owner of Sub Pop collectibles to search for Wise Guy, and thus hear the deprived "No Fish Today" as well as the depraved "Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy," instead of shelling out for this expediently catchy collection? This is the "Lifeboat Party" that turned into a European toothpaste commercial--an entertaining one, I'm sure, but docked a notch for hiding the baking soda. B+

Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Kiss Me Before the Light Changes [Atoll, 1994]
reduced to pure cult band, they're good enough for one ("To Travel Sideways," "Kiss Me Before the Light Changes") *

Kid Creole and the Coconuts: To Travel Sideways [Atoll, 1994]
"You Shoulda Told Me You Were Catholic" Choice Cuts

Going Places: The August Darnell Years 1974-1983 [Stunt, 2008]
Belatedly, all of Kid Creole and the Coconuts' albums can be purchased on CD, and through the Sire and Columbia years, 1980-1992, every damn one is worth it. This is something else. Though the four cuts with Creole's name on them set the tone, it assembles side projects August Darnell oversaw for ZE, and double-damn if most don't hold up--Aural Exciters, Don Armando's Second Avenue Rhumba Band, Machine's fashionably charitable "There But for the Grace of God Go I," and the long-lost prize, Cristina's neo-nihilist takeover of Peggy Lee's/Leiber & Stoller's merely existentialist "Is That All There Is?" Though the PR calls this postpunk music "grungy," it's just DOR, the forgotten acronym for "dance-oriented rock," with an emphasis on the "D"--stripped-down disco with the occasional rock groove or instrumental flavor. It's slick. But it's also more intelligent than most IDM--sophisticated in the most tolerant sense. For longer than his dangerous lifestyle and surface success portended, Darnell was a visionary lyricist who considered all pop music his domain. He succeeded so well that even his rarities prove it. A-