Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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My apologies if it looks like world music month--next week I've got to return to my roots. Apologies also for the double Pick Hit, which some may recall goes to the very same artists I picked as the best of the decade a decade ago. What does this portend? Nothing, I hope.


ALPHA BLONDY: Revolution (Shanachie) Finally the great weird one he had in him. Its seven cuts include a chanson in Dioula, a crude, endearingly right-on crossover bid called "Rock and Roll Remedy," and the Solar System vamping for 10 minutes behind a speech by Côte d'Ivoire's 84-year-old president Félix Houphouêt-Boigny, a Francophile bourgeois as unrevolutionary as any head of state in Africa. Wish my French was up to what the Old Man is saying; wish my Dioula was up to what the songs about bleeding and elections are saying. I do know that the lead love song ends up in a mental hospital, because it's in English. A MINUS

ALPHA BLONDY: The Prophets (Capitol) Praying that he's Bob Marley, the U.S. major bites. And gets a professional reggae album with the drums too loud, sliding gradually from felt convention to grooveful genericism. Most remarkable thing about it is the dedication, to "the planet Earth" and various oddly spelled principals in the battle for Israel. B

THE BRIDGE: A TRIBUTE TO NEIL YOUNG (Caroline) The boho life certainly is rife with irony--having started out as punks, various avant-garagists find themselves paying respects to Johnny Rotten's favorite hippie. Less ironic is that Young and Rotten got rich and they didn't, which is partly the times, but also partly that they have less to say. They parody, they imitate, they cover, sometimes two or three at once, not because they're complex but because they've never figured out what the fuck they're doing. In contrast, Victoria Williams and Henry Kaiser, who started out as music nuts, seize their good songs. And Sonic Youth, who may get rich yet, seize a catchy piece of junk. B [Later]

CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: Key Lime Pie (Virgin) After an instrumental establishes the band's voice, out march four amazing songs--two literal, two associative, all smart, ambitious, eccentric, eloquent, unassuming, compassionate, and cognizant of history. Music's a more forceful version of their by now homey-sounding bouzouki-rock, and when the country-rock guitar hook snakes professionally out of the associative "Sweet Hearts" it makes sense somehow. But on an album they call "bittersweet"--"not gloomy, but moody"--those four songs are pretty much it. "Pictures of Matchstick Men" smirks cheerfully at hippie nostalgia, and "All Her Favorite Fruit" is all those good adjectives. But both are swamped by music that's not gloomy, not moody, just lugubrious; the big drumbeats evoke nothing so much as the gong at a Chinese funeral. They knew better back when skinhead jokes were funny. B PLUS

GEORGE CLINTON: The Cinderella Theory (Paisley Park/Warner Bros.) Except for the ballad (George, how could you), there isn't a a track here that doesn't stick out its tongue at the merely cliched. The first side isn't vintage, it's kinda fresh: guitar find and/or Rogers Nelson clone Tracey Lewis contributes a lite opener about getting down by never coming down, Chuck and Flav climb into bed with George's paisley hosts, "Why Should I Dog You Out?" rallies canines everywhere. Later, "French Kiss" sticks out its tongue for real. As happened so often with the merely vintage, the luck of the funk isn't always with him. But give Rogers Nelson credit for asking him back. A MINUS [Later]

BOB DYLAN: Oh Mercy (Columbia) His seventh studio job of the decade is the third he didn't just churn out and thus the third to get hyped as a turnaround, but really, there is a difference. Daniel Lanois's understated care and easy beat suit his casual ways, and three or four songs might sound like something late at night on the radio, or after the great flood. All are modest and tuneful enough to make you forgive "Disease of Conceit," which is neither. So I forgive him. B

JOHN LEE HOOKER: The Healer (Chameleon) Pushing 130 now, Hook will still walk anybody into the studio for cash up front. Though the pickings have been getting leaner, here anybody includes Carlos Santana, George Thorogood, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Canned Heat, and Los Lobos, most of whom commit crimes against his ageless essence that tone up the product considerably. And for the purist market, the product ends with four solo stomps. B PLUS

THE JOLLY BOYS: Pop 'N'Mento (First Warning) No matter what it says on the back, mento isn't roots' roots--it's secondhand calypso that's been tourist music since Harry Belafonte was a folkie. It's also good dirty fun. Tourist Jules Shear couldn't resist Allan Swymmer's nonchalant vocals or Moses Deans's laggardly banjo, and did the world a turn by getting them down. B PLUS

CHEB KHALED/SAFY BOUTELLA: Kutché (Capitol/Intuition) Maybe he is Elvis for Arabs, but the analogy wouldn't ring true here even if we understood the words--even if we understood their tradition. The culture he rebels against is just too different from ours, especially in re sex and gender. So though Khaled's urgently masculine melody lines are a necessary condition, the explosive made-for-CD glory of Boutella's settings is what sells this variation on the rai hypnogroove. Supposedly Algeria's top composer, the German-born, Berkeley-educated Boutella relates to Debussy and Davis, it sez here--and to flamenco and house, it sounds there--but at this distance his influences only enrich his Maghreb identity. What texture, what backtalk, what interpolations, what sound effects. What beats. A MINUS

LOS VAN VAN: Songo (Mango) This Paris-rerecorded compilation of top tunes by Cuba's top band is tasteful like Sesame Street rather than Masterpiece Theatre, stealing wittily from commercial culture rather than embalming good ideas in respectability. Electronics, double-hook song structures, sly vocal switchovers--all fit smoothly into a simple, expandable groove that's mellower and more polyrhythmic than Nuyorican salsa. Making it an ad for subsidized pop whether you like it or not. A MINUS

BAABA MAAL AND MANSOUR SECK: Djam Leelii (Mango) The most compelling and beautiful of West Africa's ever-increasing stock of folkloric preservations is a 1984 collaboration between two members of Senegal's Tukulor minority, an ex-law student and a blind griot. Brit reviews suggest a cult record on the order of Mystère des Voix Bulgares: "timeless, resilient and dignified," "mesmeric, stately and gently stirring," "gentle, cyclical," "transfix and hypnotise," and oh yes, "on permanent repeat." For us first-worlders, the interplay of recurring guitar patterns and penetrating Afro-Islamic voices adds up to background music with soul, nearly an hour of it on CD--in a quiet mood, we can still the world's sorrow by immersing in it. There's no point denying that it's valid as such. But my pleasure is dimmed slightly by the knowledge that the title track, for instance, is about young Tukulors forced by colonial borders and encroaching drought to seek work far from the roots the music celebrates. Seems a tad exploitative to bend such specifics to my own needs. At the very least I'd welcome a trot. A MINUS [Later]

BAABA MAAL ET DANDE LENÖL: Wango (Syllart import) The talking drummer dominates three other percussionists on Maal's attempt to forge forward-looking pop from Tukulor rhythms. Tricky, sometimes busy, with Maal's tenor cutting confidently through the crowd, it's closer to rock than soukous--funky sax here, lead guitar there, horn charts everywhere. It's also very much itself. Which gives you some idea of where one tradition-conscious African thinks the future must lie. B PLUS [Later]

CHEB MAMI: Prince of Rai (Shanachie) 'Tis said this tux-clad pretender has a sweeter voice than the goat-king Khaled, but is a green olive sweeter than a lamb chop? He's just higher, more adenoidal, more adolescent. Recorded recently enough to get the groove-bending bass and violin right, this is less monotonous than the competition. Standout cut features a synthesizer echoing the melody line in tribute to "the style `L'Oranais,' a form that predates `Rai.'" Nothing like a touch of tradition to add pop novelty to the world-beat norm. B

MALCOLM MCLAREN AND THE BOOTZILLA ORCHESTRA: Waltz Darling (Epic) "Buffalo Girls" notwithstanding, this is the first time since Bow Wow Wow that the old reprobate has shown pop ambition--Bootsy and Jeff Beck charge serious money to help you with your culture lessons, and money McLaren normally keeps to himself. Linking house, funk, and rai to the historic sexual breakthrough of the Strauss waltz, McLaren romanticizes the rich just like he's always romanticized the poor. But the concept is a cover for the only message he's ever cared about--teen sexuality as liberation, especially for old reprobates. "Algernon's Simply Awfully Good at Algebra" is as good as its title, maybe better. The rest is soft-core kiddie porn. B

NUESTRAS MEJORES CUMBIAS (Globo) Where the competing Fiesta Vallenata has the imprimatur of the world-music good guys at GlobeStyle and Shanachie, this Colombian compilation comes from an RCA subsidiary--two stocking-clad gams stretch ceilingward through a field of balloons on the cover. But I swear it wasn't antiliberal tendencies that induced me to put Fiesta Vallenata's raggedy-ass polkas in the hall while carrying this jaunty, chintzy subsalsa to friends' birthday parties. It was spontaneous attraction. I've since learned that accordion-based vallenata is cowboy music turned cocaine-lord music, while clarinet-hooked cumbia is a mulatto urban style with a longer pop history, and I'm glad I chose the right side. But if the cocaine lords seize cumbia (and for all I know they already have), I bet what makes it jaunty, though maybe not what makes it chintzy, will still liven up a party. A MINUS

ASTOR PIAZZOLLA: La Camorra: La Soledad de la Provacación Apasionada (La Camorra: The Solitude of Passionate Provocation) (American Clavé) Maybe I'm getting sated--how many jazz-classical-tango suites does a Yank rock and roller need? Still, as someone who never had much use for Red Headed Stranger, I note that the historical metaphor this time is the guapo--a "hero or hoodlum," hold the hero. Also, the ruminative interludes suggest that Piazzolla's gift is for passion rather than romanticism. B PLUS

PETER STAMPFEL AND THE BOTTLE CAPS: The People's Republic of Rock n' Roll (Homestead) The title and no doubt the intermittently "commercial" sound are about band democracy, or maybe dictatorship of the proletariat--Stampfel gives up three lead vocals and five songs and gets the most uneven record of a career that's never confused consistency with virtue. The division is almost too neat--only one Stampfel loser, and also only one non-Stampfel winner, the John-Lee-Hooker ad absurdum "Mindless Boogie," which together with Stampfel's democratically romantic "Bridge and Tunnel Girls" may actually earn the college-novelty rotation he's always deserved. Which I hope doesn't prevent all concerned from learning their lesson. B PLUS

NEIL YOUNG: Eldorado (Reprise import CD) This is certain to become a legend on rarity alone, and if you believe mad guitar is all he's good for, you may even think it's worth a buck a minute at the $25 it cost me. I think it's versions and/or work tapes, with two otherwise unavailable songs and mad guitar that ends too soon. I'm glad to own it. But I get reimbursed. B PLUS

NEIL YOUNG: Freedom (Reprise) For years it seemed pointless to wait till he found his bearings--his bearings in relation to what? Maybe he still had terrific albums in him, but history had passed him by--his saving eccentricity was no longer an effective weapon against the industrialization of pop, which had to be ignored altogether or taken to the mat. So apropos of nothing he comes up with a classic Neil Young album, deploying not only the folk ditties and rock gallumph that made him famous, but the Nashvillisms and horn charts that made him infamous. In addition to sad male chauvinist love songs, it features a bunch of good stuff about a subject almost no rocker white or black has done much with--crack, which seems to have awakened his eccentric conscience (though I bet a Yalie as opposed to cowboy president helped). Does this terrific album mean he's found his bearings? I doubt it. But I no longer put it past him. A

Village Voice, Oct. 31, 1989


Oct. 3, 1989 Nov. 21, 1989