Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Three months and it still wasn't easy filling an honest quota--if I didn't prefer the original, a goddamn Frank Loesser remake would be a Pick Hit. I'm beginning to believe in bad years.


ANTONE'S WOMEN (Antone's) Eight gals whose natural habitat is the blues bar in all its beery, bedenimed isolation--the malest enclave this side of the men's locker room. Individually they're not immune to the rowdy conservatism that shackles all so-called house-rockin' music, but together they constitute a singular sisterhood: tough and independent, yet--with guidance from the label's cofounder, unflappable Austin oldtimer Angela Strehli--willing to help each other hoe that hard row. The songwriting is high generic, which in bar blues takes effort, and this sampler isn't just a wheat-from-chaff job. It highlights facets of a collective sensibility--earnest or cynical or sluttish or loving or proud, it's always of its world. B PLUS

ERIC B. & RAKIM: Don't Sweat the Technique (MCA) Rakim didn't really frag that general in Iraq--wasn't even there. He's just trafficking in the metaphors nightmares are made of, exploiting the interface between horror movies and the postmodern imagination. Putting it literally: "My intellect wrecks and disconnects/Your cerebral cortex/Your cerebellum is next." And metaphorically: "I took a kid and cut off his eyelids/Killing him slow so he could see what I did/And if he don't understand what I said/I push in his eyeballs way to the back of his head/So he could see what he's getting into/A part of the mind that he's never been to." As for the star of the show, Rakim calls Eric B.'s new groove--a jazzy minimalist funk trailing uncentered horn hooks--relaxing with pep. When he hits it right, it's like the mouth you love doing the spot you forgot. A MINUS

STACY DEAN CAMPBELL: Lonesome Wins Again (Columbia) No strings, no metaphors, no shows of soul. Fast ones medium fast, slow ones medium slow. Backup singers, but they make the Jordanaires sound like the Harry Simeone Chorale. Music Row tunes, but never clever and always indelible. Voice pure, quiet, serious, deeply unpretentious. In short, a country album so austere it's like a Platonic ideal. Or anyway, like Chris Isaak rockabilly minus the arty pose--this guy's alternate career was with the sheriff's department. A MINUS

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: Forever and Ever (Bullseye Blues) On the label debut of this long-exiled songster-pianist, the Rounder folks worked session men, thematic material, and MLK rumination into a standard Crescent City hustle, sending the roots claque into paroxysms of approbation. Here the quality control board lets up some, with results that seem far more personal and overheard--a dirty old man in fine fettle entertaining the room. And for sure his age is part of the charm. When an 82-year-old can sing the blues about how his family gave him away when he was one, you know his shtick has staying power. A MINUS

GUYS AND DOLLS (RCA Victor) It's a measure of musical comedy's descent into technique that every principal in this revival has more pipes and less style than those in MCA's 1951 original-cast version. And it's a measure of the boundless melody and street cred of Frank Loesser's songs that only a curmudgeon or a critic would make the comparison. The score isn't impregnable--after enduring Debbie Reynolds's New Yawkese in Reprise's Rat Pack version, I remembered why I get paid for doing this. And to give technique its due, only diva wannabe Josie de Guzman (whose insatiable urge to peal out does actually make a kind of sense in "If I Were a Bell") fails to add entertaining details. Forget West Side Story--Damon Runyon's criminal-minded wiseacres and untragic romance are for every rock and roller who prefers Chuck to Elvis and the Stones to the Doors. A MINUS

PJ HARVEY: Dry (Indigo) Since she doesn't fancy comparisons to Sinead or Kate Bush--"I'm like anyone as long as they're female. If they've got dark hair it's even better"--perhaps she'd prefer Cream or the Doors. Island Records sure would, but in a sexist world she's unlikely to achieve such heights of rockist catalogue stuffing--I just meant a band that sounds great until you listen to the words when you're not stoned and decide they're self-indulgent blather. This fate she's spared by the cloudy but essential feminist distinction between egoist bullshit and honest irrational outpouring--and of course by her postrockist guitar, where she starts to reinvent her instrument the way grrrl-punks reinvent their form. A MINUS [Later]

JOE HOUSTON: Cornbread and Cabbage Greens (Specialty) These 26 titles were cut some 40 years ago for three related L.A. indies by a Texas honker with one major national r&b hit--"Worry Worry Worry," not included here or ever heard by me, although I bet "Troubles and Worries" is close enough. Many were recorded in identical versions with equally anonymous sidemen for yet other L.A. indies, and only six were released. Yet I feel as if I've been waiting for this collection all my life. Sax reissues by the likes of Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb retain a veneer of structural respectability, just like the official singles here--they're never all-out all-out. But at its best--which despite the fine thick raunch of the slow blues usually means its fastest, from famous flag-wavers like "Flying Home" and "Lester Leaps In" to prototypical jams like "Richie's Roll" and "Coastin'"--most of this sounds as if the engineer is holding the mike stand parallel to the floor because Houston is flat on his back. Until somebody puts "Honky Tonk," "Slow Walk," and "Walking With Mr. Lee" on one record, this will be how I explain rock and roll saxophone. A MINUS

LUNA²: Lunapark (Elektra) Reedy, velvet, chilly, and feelful though it may be, I doubt I'd like this so much if Galaxie 500 sad sack and smart person Dean Wareham weren't fed up with his stupid sad-sack friends: "You're always loaded/Your life has imploded." I also like his perspective on his own bad character--a record that begins "You can never give/The finger to the blind" can't get too serious, or too nice. I like how the drummer pushes the music away from the slough of despond. And of course I like the guitar, which is pretty and ugly in all the right places. A MINUS

MINISTRY: Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs (Sire/Reprise) Like the good orthodox category-haters you'd figure, these perverts claim they're not industrial, which is true only in the sense that Led Zeppelin wasn't metal: they may be too good for the category, but that doesn't mean they're not of it. And like Led Zep, they're cold bastards who are worth your time even if you think you don't like what they do, which is toning up your cardiovascular system by running you over with a tank. Their rockism is checked somewhat this time by a meticulousness that may put off casual sympathizers, but from synth-ooze to caterwaul, the care they put into their din connects as an aural wit that complements and undercuts their over-the-top doom-mongering. You don't laugh with them and you don't laugh at them--you just throw back your head in glee at the unlikely fact that they exist. A MINUS

RIDE: Going Blank Again (Sire/Reprise) Selling out to stunningly vulgar effect, high-texture also-rans process a grand panoply of rock and roll readymades through their art-school sensibilities and infernal machines. If you consider My Bloody Valentine hopelessly trendy, think Low and "Heroes"--the sides with the songs. And if that doesn't move you, try the old reliable "Telstar." A MINUS [Later: ***]

DENNIS ROBBINS: Man With a Plan (Giant) With neotraditionalism going and outlawism gone, it's an up to run into a Nashville cat with a beard and a miracle that it could stand a trim. A Detroit native gone hillbilly and proud, he savors the details pop leaches out of country--the 300-hp galmobile, the words of the hymn he gets married to, the TV set that freaks with the sewing machine on. And like the young John Anderson, whom hear, he's smart and unassuming enough to keep things fast and/or funny whenever possible. A MINUS [Later]

MICHELLE SHOCKED: Arkansas Traveler (Mercury) 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 aped. "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 PLUS [Later]

SUGAR: Copper Blue (Rykodisc) The miracle isn't that Bob Mould has progressed, thank God. It's that he's picked up where he left off. After six years spent straining over Warehouse: Songs and Stories and two overarranged records with his name on the cover (why do you think they call them solo efforts?), he not only fabricates a Hüsker Dü album but makes it sound as if it just rushed out of him, like a great Hüsker Dü album should. Never mind who takes Grant Hart's place, because it isn't the new drummer. Fashioning the popwise tunes that were always Hart's specialty and taking on all the vocals himself, the new musician is Mould. Maybe he has progressed after all. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News:

Honorable Mention:

  • Chris Cacavas, Junkyard Love (Heyday): raw, sweet, and gawky--too bad Neil himself didn't play guitar ("Did You Hear What She Said?" "Many Splintered Thing")
  • Helmet, Meantime (Interscope): speeding, crunching, giving as bad as they get ("Unsung," "Give It")
  • Ricky Van Shelton, Greatest Hits Plus (Columbia): just handsome and mellifluous enough to snag more top-drawer songs than he deserves ("Life Turned Her That Way," "Somebody Lied," "Rockin' Years")
  • The Bats, Fear of God (Mammoth): jangle crystalline, melodies well-defined, beat clear, lyrics intelligible, meaning murky ("Dancing as the Boat Goes Down," "The Looming Past")
  • R.E.M., Automatic for the People (Warner Bros.): eternal sleep ("Man on the Moon," "Nightswimming")
  • Honkers & Bar Walkers Volume One (Delmark): '50s sax raunch for joints with lounge dreams (Teddy Brannon: "Everybody Get Together," Paul Bascomb: "Pink Cadillac")
  • Public Enemy, Greatest Misses (Def Jam): seven worthy remixes, two cultural criticisms, four us-against-thems cum me-against-thems ("Air Hoodlum," "Gett Off My Back")
  • Honeymoon in Vegas (Epic): Elvis impersonators (best Billy Joel, worst Amy Grant) meet Elvis interpreters (best Jeff Beck, worst Bono)
  • Singles (Epic): Seattle sampler plus ringer (Paul Westerberg: "Dyslexic Heart," "Waiting for Somebody," Mudhoney: "Overblown," Jimi Hendrix: "May This Be Love")
  • Rare Essence, Work the Walls (Sounds of the Capital): dance single of the year go go go ("Work the Walls")
  • Mark Chesnutt, Longnecks and Short Stories (MCA): the clichés tuneful, the jokes better, it was ever thus ("Old Flames Have New Names," "Bubba Shot the Jukebox")
  • Travis Tritt, A Travis Tritt Christmas--Loving Time of the Year (Warner Bros.): "`Free Bird'!" ("Silver Bells")
  • Motorhead, March or Die (Epic/WTG): eternal rage ("Bad Religion")
Choice Cuts:
  • Lisa Stansfield, "All Woman" (Real Love, Arista)
  • Joe Diffie, "Startin' Over Blues" (Regular Joe, Columbia)
  • Michael White, "One of My Near Mrs." (Familiar Ground, Warner Bros.)
  • Bobby Brown, "That's the Way Love Is" (Bobby, MCA)
  • Mary-Chapin Carpenter, "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" (Come On Come On, Columbia)
Duds:
  • Blackbird (Scotti Bros.)
  • Vince Gill, I Still Believe in You (MCA)
  • Travis Tritt, T-R-O-U-B-L-E (Warner Bros.)

Village Voice, Oct. 20, 1992


July 28, 1992 Dec. 1, 1992