Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

JOE "KING" CARRASCO Y LAS CORONAS: Bandido Rock (Rounder) That a "dumb" purveyor of Farfisa retro should transform his Chicago joke into anti-imperialist militance didn't flabbergast smart hedonism fans--only that he then produced effective anti-imperialist songs in his hedonistic silly-detail mode. And that he fails to do the same with slogans and a "better" band comes as no surprise at all. B MINUS

CULTURE: Culture at Work (Shanachie) No simple purist, Joseph Hill rings generic changes on the roots he defined a decade ago; only "Worried" is touched immutably by Jah. They are changes, though, and they do ring. He may rework conventions from "Money Girl" to "Dance Hall Style," but he's full of unexpected pleasures as both singer and lyricist--amused grunts, intuitive tropes. And if JA's finest studio rats aren't touched by Jah here, they must be touched by Joseph Hill. A MINUS

DEPECHE MODE: Music for the Masses (Sire) When Vince Clarke departed Yazward in 1982, Fashion-in-a-Hurry's commercial doom was presumed sealed, whereupon Martin Gore went ahead and proved how easy it is to write ditties once you're in a position to exploit them. It's not as if anybody can, but at this point in pop's progress potential supply far exceeds potential demand. Yet only rarely is the production process altogether mechanical. Gore can't create without venting his shallow morbidity, which happens to mesh with a historically inevitable strain of adolescent angst, and he takes himself seriously enough to have burdened albums with concept and such. This time, however, the title announces his determination to give it up to his even shallower singer, David Gahan, who likes Gore's message because it's a good way to impress girls. Dark themes combine with light tunes until the very end of side two. Anybody with an interest in adolescent angst (adolescents included) can sob or giggle along as the case may be. B PLUS

THE DUKES OF STRATOSFEAR: Psonic Psunspot (Geffen) If this is XTC's real psychedelic album, what the hell was Skylarking? So call it their real psychedelic parody--a concept album about acid damage, which I guess they read about somewhere. I was going to complain that the word "precious" isn't in their vocabulary and ought to be when I noticed that the last song is called "Pale and Precious." Then I realized that for all its kaleidoscopic byplay the parody is a little pale as well. But with every other hook intact, "Pale and Precious" is the only track you might miss without the credits. B PLUS

ERASMUS HALL: Gohead (Capitol) The best Clinton spinoff since the Brides (not including Bootsy, who's on board as well) makes the funk album of the year (not including rap, which I guess is where funk went). Of course, to hear Capitol tell it, George discovered these Detroit pros long after they had their own thing. In the nick of time, I'd say. B PLUS

BRYAN FERRY: Bête Noire (Reprise/EG) As with Mick Jagger, of all people, the signal that self-imitation has sunk into self-parody is enunciatory ennui--vocal mannerisms that were once ur-posh are now just complacent. Except for the Parisian title tune the second side is unlistenable. The first side is faster. C PLUS

SPOONIE GEE: The Godfather of Rap (Tuff City) Spoonie is so unreconstructed he talks the same old shit without even pretending he made it up--a little romantic vulnerability (not much) is as venturesome as he gets thematically. His rhymes'll sneak up on you, though, and his groove is so old it's new. Surprising a Mike Tyson fan is such a counterpuncher; Lee Dorsey as JB, he doesn't float like a butterfly--more like a waterbug on a shore current. Marley Marl is his match, deploying riff and dub and dissonance with a laggardly subtlety that'll pass hotbloods right by. So let me put it this way--Spoonie probably thinks Bob Marley stole his handle from Marl, and he's still the first rapper to come by his reggae naturally. B PLUS

GREAT PLAINS: Sum Things Up (Homestead) Here Ron House follows through on his titles, sum of them bigger and better than the one on the cover--the projected J.C. Mellencamp cover "Alfalfa Omega" and definitely "Martin Luther King and Martin Luther Drinking," both of whom Ron counts as heroes. Fact is, this English major is bidding to become a Tom Waits or August Darnell of the garage, which could use some lit. Since his thrift-shop finds are purchased to cover rather than adorn his nakedness, his adenoids will never follow Frank's frog to Broadway or Creole's tail to Carnegie Hall. So you'd better catch him at his practice space. Watch out for oil stains. A MINUS

TED HAWKINS: Happy Hour (Rounder) This L.A.-based folk bluesman can bring you up short by latching onto homely details or just telling the embarrassing truth. I'll never forget "Bad Dog" ("What's the reason your dog don't bark at that man?") or "You Pushed My Head Away" ("Baby that sucker had to learn too"). But the unaffected can also be naive, and the unsophisticated can also be received. To ignore how often he falls into both traps is to condescend to an artist who deserves our respect. B

THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN: Darklands (Warner Bros.) "I'm going to the darklands/To talk in rhyme/With my chaotic soul." Right--they know damn well their putatively erotic-existential despair speaks to thrill-seeking normals by making chaos rhyme. Seems inevitable for them to take their folk-simple hook-ditties in an acoustic direction, too. Yet as a normal I miss the feedback--without all that chaos, the trick just doesn't come off death-defying enough. B PLUS

KANDA BONGO MAN: Amour Fou/Crazy Love (Carthage) Paris-based soukous keyed less to sweet Congo patois than to supernaturally light-fingered guitar. Quick enough to raise the dead, I swear. Only problem is, it goes by so fast you forget it was ever there--now you hear it, now you don't. B PLUS

KOOL MOE DEE: How Ya Like Me Now (Jive) As a solitary rapper of the old school, locked into praising his own dick, mouth, and brain, Moe Dee doesn't have much room to stretch, but does he make the most out of it. He never lets the jaunty, out-of-kilter swing generated by his electronic percussion lie there--trick rhymes, variable lengths, filters, double tracks, sung refrains, and the occasional extra instrument all work to shift the beat without undercutting its dominance. He never throws a song away, and makes a virtue of "sticking to themes"--last time sex, this time rap itself. The story of "Wild Wild West" and the sound of "Way Way Back" establish his back-in-the-day credentials. "Don't Dance" is the boast to end all boasts. And lest you think he's hung his jock out to dry, "I'm a Player" features the most realistic assessment of male chauvinism yet attempted in a music that makes a fetish of the disorder. He will, he will rock you. A MINUS

THE MEKONS: New York (ROIR) Finally given their megashot at us "American vermin" by the giant Twin/Tone conglomerate, they labored harder than the huddled masses they champion and flubbed it like the born-to-losers they are. So this offhand hour of U.S. live from their self-employed days is doubly welcome. Interspersed with tour-bus patter, soused ad-libs, and other memorabilia, its selected honky-tonk retatters the reputation of a band that's made something friendly of the slop aesthetic without being jerks or airheads about it. Dim ROIR sound adds to the aura by subtracting from same. A MINUS

MOTORHEAD: Rock 'n' Roll (GWR/Profile) Though he's shed Bill Laswell's sonic entourage and rehired the lovable Philthy Animal Taylor to beat skins, Lemmy's brush with perfectionism seems to have transformed his recording philosophy. That layer of grunge is just gone, excised by the sharp vocal and percussive attack that made Orgasmatron the onslaught they'd promised for so long. Songwriting's still there, too, though "Eat the Rich," which ends up with Lemmy's rig on the menu, is the closest it comes to transmuting metal the way "Deaf Forever" did. Guest divine: Michael Palin, who prays for trousers. A MINUS

ALEXANDER O'NEAL: Hearsay (Tabu) This took a lot longer to break through in the living room than it would have on the dance floor, so homebodies be patient. What makes the difference in the end is that Jam & Lewis are letting their love man play the nasty guy--"Fake" and "Criticize" take the offensive after "Hearsay" puts it sweetly. And unlike Jam & Lewis's nasty girl, O'Neal has the vocal muscle (and biceps) to back his nasty up. What's more, the same muscle turns "Sunshine" into a confection you could take home to mother. B PLUS

BUSTER POINDEXTER (RCA Victor) Entranced by the commercial potential of this novelty act, I forgot how novelty acts translate to plastic. The Upfront Horns overstep themselves by half, the inflections are too Jolson for their own good, and even if the television audience is never the wiser, the material is pretty obvious. I want more "Screwy Music" and "Hot Hot Hot," less "Smack Dab in the Middle" and "Good Morning, Judge." And while it's kinda hip to pick up on songs that Al and Aretha were covering back when you favored fishnet hose, it's also foolhardy, especially when you're hard pressed to beat Eric Burdon at "House of the Rising Sun." B PLUS

THE SCREAMING BLUE MESSIAHS: Bikini Red (Elektra) Slot "I Wanna Be a Flintstone" as a college-radio novelty that insults their cockney roots in Clash 'n' blues if you wanna. I say it's definitive, situating their Americana, their apocalypse, and their primitivism amidst the illustrated literature whence they came. B PLUS

THE WAILING ULTIMATE (Homestead) As long as you don't take the hooks too literally--believe me, there aren't many more where they come from--this is a pretty fair introduction to garage postnihilism, a surprisingly palatable mix of musical and sociological interest. Just like the grooveful laborers on a reggae or hardcore compilation, Gerry's kids hold together for the kind of continuous listen most local/label samplers can't sustain. In fact, only their fans and their mothers could tell most of these fourteen bands apart without a scorecard, and I'm not so sure about their mothers. Mrs. Petkovic: "I liked that song you did about the well." John P.: "How could that be ours, mama? A girl sings it." Mrs. P.: "Isn't Samantha a girl?" John P.: "Ma, we're called Death of Samantha--Death of Samantha." Mrs. P.: "Oh Johnny, she's not really dead. That's just, what do you call it, poetic license, right?" B PLUS

TOM WAITS: Franks Wild Years (Island) Amid these fragments from a musical that wouldn't make all that much sense fully staged, you'll find five-six songs that stand on their own--couple howlin' blues, coupla tuneful heart-tuggers, coupla Wayne Newton parodies. But if in the '20s Rudy Vallee sang through a megaphone because he wanted to sound modern, in the '80s Waits sings through a megaphone because he wants to sound old. This being the '80s, you're free to prefer Waits--as long as you don't kid yourself too much about his conceptual thrust. B

WHODINI: Open Sesame (Jive) I admit it, I get off on "Early Mother's Day Card," a rap achievement surpassing even a stay-in-school song capable of keeping somebody in school. But when it's all I notice beyond a def beat or two, I wonder whether they're still in the right business. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Due to sloth, hysteria, or perfidy, I omitted the third-best best-of of 1987 last month: The Best of A Flock of Seagulls (Arista), which would have looked so cute perched on the ladder between Johnny Cash and Reba McEntire, both of whom could use haircuts.

Salt-n-Pepa's spunky Hot, Cool and Vicious (Next Plateau) is beefed up considerably by a new lead cut, their imminent crossover "Push It," which is not about drugs. Schoolly-D's Saturday Night isn't so much beefed as fattened in its Jive version--two of the three new cuts are weak, though liberals will be heartened by Schoolly's explicit denials of those "racism" rumors in "Housing the Joint." Still getting paid, Schoolly offers another consumer option with the CD-only Adventures of Schoolly-D (Rykodisc), comprising Schoolly-D and the unfattened Saturday Night. Very street. A similar CD-only is Box Office Bomb (Questionmark) by Dramarama, the only secret I've ever shared with Rodney Bingenheimer--it includes the better half of their equally worthy debut, Cinéma Vérité. Both CD-only cuts on David Frishberg's Can't Take You Nowhere (Fantasy), "Cole Porter Medley" and especially "I'm Hip," would improve the vinyl. Great Plains' nonvinyl "Standing at the Crosswords" and "The War" ain't bad either. This shit has got to stop.

Village Voice, Jan. 26, 1988


Dec. 29, 1987 Feb. 23, 1988