Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Sorry if the Must to Avoid seems obvious, but us "Livin' on a Prayer" fans were prayin' for a miracle and got screwed. Obviously there's lots more candidates out there. Stay tuned for next week's Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot.


DELE ABIODUN: It's Time for Juju Music (Super Adawa import) Six years on, juju strikes some as an odd place to have begun selling Africa to white people--subtle, discursive, hard to dance to. But in Nigeria it's just pop music, and if King Sunny never recovers, he can still teach the competition a few things. The funk and pop fusions claimed for this old-timer, who toured the U.K. way back in 1974, sound more like shadings to me, but I swear he's absorbed Martin Meissonnier's production philosophy. In its tuneful construction and clean, hot mix, this circa-1985 item recalls Synchro-System, only it has a ruminative side that's very tipico. Maybe that makes him ingenuous. Or maybe it means he knows his market. A MINUS [Later]

KING SUNNY ADÉ AND HIS AFRICAN BEATS: Live Live Juju (Rykodisc) Like so many live albums, it promises the real deal and then reduces an event that once engaged five or more senses to an aural abstraction. Worse, the percussive bias of both recording method and performance concept undercuts the momentum of the ensemble groove. Ruined by the Fallacy of the Drum Solo, in quadruplicate. B MINUS

ANGRY SAMOANS: STP Not LSD (PVC) Their material is still pretty surefire, but it's also pretty scattershot, because in 1988 they're reduced to a joke band--there's no scene worth outraging any more, as the bands that try it prove. Better folk-rock acid casualties and recycled recycled Sabbath than B.A.L.L. parodying Bangla Desh or Rapeman beating somebody else's meat. B PLUS

BON JOVI: New Jersey (Mercury) I see three ways to take the transparently pseudo Springsteenian sincerity of Jon's bid to improve his artistic reputation and his platinum multiple at the same time. You could lie back and enjoy its giant hooks, identifying with the masses all the while. You could cheer its de facto deconstruction of rock "authenticity." Or you could barf. As someone who learned to love "Livin' on a Prayer" once an hour at a Puerto Rican swimming pool, I reserve the right to choose option one upon suitable stimulus from somebody else's radio. Meanwhile, pass the bucket. C PLUS [Later]

STELLA CHIWESHE: Ambuya? (GlobeStyle import) A woman in a man's domain, "Zimbabwe's queen of the mbira" here reorchestrates an instrument so delicate most Westerners hear it as a toy or sound effect. Neither innovation makes her a rebel, just a Shona revisionist adapting conventional wisdom to transcultural reality: by replacing the customary shakers with a band--another woman's mbira, two marimbas, and unobtrusive bass-and-traps for world-dance accents--she takes a gentle music out of the village without downplaying where it's coming from. I hear courage and tradition in her kind, playful, nasal-to-breathy singing, but not sexual brass, which distinguishes her instantly from other African women intrepid enough to run their own musical shows. A MINUS

ZANI DIABETE & THE SUPER DJATA BAND (Mango) What jumps out of the speakers isn't the Malian Jimi of the jacket copy but a groove harsher than Zaire's and more ferocious than Senegal's. There's lots of cheesy keyb in the mix; full-repeat call-and-response and mullah harangues stir up the hectic mood. It's on top of all this that you get the guitar, which sings and declaims and shouts out loud instead of just chiming or chattering. I find the hottest soukous relaxing. I put this on to wake up. A MINUS

FEEDTIME: Cooper-S (Rough Trade) Most cover albums trip over their own roots--self-conscious simplicity is too neat a trick to bring off a dozen times running. These guys are adepts of self-conscious simplicity, so naturally they have trouble negotiating the radio classics that got them started. I mean, "Paint It Black" and "Street Fighting Man" have tempo shifts. B [Later]

IGNITION: Machination (Dischord) It's a mild up to run into the old hardcore idealism, and somehow no surprise that the singer's brother to the producer, too-idealistic-for-this-world straight-edge avatar Ian MacKaye. The lyrics avoid the excesses of hardcore rant and posthardcore doubt without rejecting the truth of either--or equalling the evolutionary smarts of the guitar. Attack's tough, minimal, fast but no longer speedy. High points are slow side-closers: "Strain" with its honest struggle and pain, "Lucky Thirteen" with its Flipper refrain. B

JOY DIVISION: Substance (Qwest) Where New Order's Substance showcases the trajectory of secret singles specialists, Joy Division's recollects the byways of a natural album band. Starting out as unhysterical punks, they follow their pessimism where it leads, into slower tempos and machinelike rhythms, getting excited only at the end of side one, where enveloped by the dark of night they find their beat and shout out "Dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio." They follow that beat where it leads, back down into a pessimism that's now frankly romantic and personal if you've got the sense to hear it that way. And then love tears them apart. B PLUS

KONK: Konk Jams (Dog Brothers) As a white salsa band they were horn players who'd found their niche in the cosmos. Then they discovered sampling, most impressively on the Earth, Wind & Flames rip "Acid Jam." So now they're a white funk band con salsa, and tastier for it, too. B

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: Journey of Dreams (Warner Bros.) Transcriptions from the Zulu help the student trace the intricate structures in 48-track detail. Lyric summaries reveal three songs about God, three about their career, two that mention oppression in South Africa, two that mention Paul Simon. Simon takes the lead on "Amazing Grace," the "Send in the Clowns" of roots music. B PLUS

ORIGINAL CONCEPT: Straight from the Basement of Kooley High! (Def Jam) A couple of years ago these guys released two mysterious singles with almost nothing on them but bass, buzz, beats, and offhand joshing. One of those singles is lost among the protests, admonitions, sexism, camaraderie, laugh lines, true stories, and samples of this professional rap album. It's the old rock and roll story--a lot of knowledge can also be a dangerous thing. B MINUS

KEITH RICHARDS: Talk Is Cheap (Virgin) State-of-the-art rock and roll traditionalism. Steve Jordan and Ivan Neville aren't just schooled in the verities, they're cocky enough to teach the verities new tricks, and the songs really do have a near-classic, half-remembered feel. It isn't just the late date that prevents them from going that extra mile, though--it's that Keith is singing, and Keith wrote the words. He's the soul of the Stones, fine. But as the Stones defined it, neotraditionalism takes concept, and no matter how fucked Mick is, concept would seem to be his department. B PLUS

DÉDÉ SAINT PRIX: Mi Sé Sa (Mango) Saint Prix's chouval bwa rhythm is an uncle of zouk, much less high-tech even in this modernized version and a little light for my tastes--the leader counts the flute among his accomplishments, and rarely does his keyboardist rev up high enough to drown one out. Yet the sense of give comes as a relief when you're braced for Antillean NRG. You can actually parse the patois. B PLUS

SONIC YOUTH: Daydream Nation (Enigma/Blast First) At a historical juncture we can only hope isn't a fissure, a time when no sentient rock and roller could mistake extremism in the defense of liberty for a vice, the anarchic doomshows of Our Antiheroes' static youth look moderately prophetic and sound better than they used to. But they don't sound anywhere near as good as the happy-go-lucky careerism and four-on-the-floor maturity Our Heroes are indulging now. Whatever exactly their lyrics are saying--not that I can't make them out, just that catch-phrases like "You've got it" and "Just say yes" and "It's total trash" and "You're so soft you make me hard" are all I need to know--their discordant never-let-up is a philosophical triumph. They're not peering into the fissure, they're barreling down the turnpike like the fissure ain't there. And maybe they're right--they were the first time. A

TRAVELING WILBURYS: Volume One (Wilbury) The clumsy conceit--has-been supersession masquerading as family road band--produces more or less the mishmash you'd expect. Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan have never sung like brothers to anyone, much less each other, leaving Tom Petty's chameleon, Jeff Lynne's teddy boy, and George Harrison's dork to blend as best they can. Harrison's the only lead guitarist; Lynne plays not piano or Hammond B-3 but a marooned synthesizer; Orbison and Harrison take solo turns on songs that obviously belong on their own sorry albums. Yet from Harrison's hook on "Margarita" to the ridiculous ride-your-automobile metaphors of "Dirty World," this is the fun get-together it's billed as--somebody was letting his hair down, that's for sure. My nominee is Dylan, who dominates half the tracks and is the only man here capable of writing a clever lyric on call. Maybe he's a genius after all. [Original grade: B plus] A MINUS

U2: Rattle and Hum (Island) Pretentious? Eux? Naturellement, mais that ain't all. Over the years they've melded Americana into their Old World riffs, and while Bono's "Play the blues, Edge" overstates this accomplishment, their groove is some kind of rock and roll wrinkle. This partly live double-LP is looser and faster than anything they've recorded since their first live mini-LP, with the remakes of "Pride" and "Silver and Gold" and "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" improved by both practice and negligence. A good half of the new stuff could knock over unsuspecting skeptics, the B.B./Hendrix/Dylan cameos are surprising and generous, and as a token of self-knowledge Bono concludes a lecture on South Africa with a magisterially sarcastic "I don't wanna bug ya." Yet as usual things don't get any better when you decide to find out exactly what he's waxing so meaningful about. B PLUS

LUTHER VANDROSS: Any Love (Epic) Your grandma had a saying that applied to Luther, though he's so unstuck-up she would have hesitated to use it on him: "That fellow's certainly in love with the sound of his own voice." B MINUS

TOM WAITS: Big Time (Island) Sure he's an American original and all that. But from half-assed one-man original-cast album to soundtrack of filmed live show, Waits continues to confound the categories more aimlessly than seems necessary. Not counting one shaggy testicle story, the sharpest moments here subject overlooked songs to a crack cabaret-tinged band. From American originals I expect bigger surprises. B

LUCINDA WILLIAMS (Rough Trade) The side-openers--"I Just Wanted To See You So Bad," which repeats the title nine times in 21 lines, and "Passionate Kisses," the last of a series of modest demands that begins with a bed that won't hurt her back (a good bed to sleep in, that means)--are winners as written, avid and sensible and all Lucinda. After that the songs are fine, but it's down to a big not enormous, handsome not beautiful voice that's every bit as strong as the will of this singer-by-nature and writer-by-nurture, who fought seven years to do an album her way. She's so at home in blues and country that she won't abide a rock and roll pigeonhole, and she can make a winner out of any song that spurns the cliches she's too avid and sensible to resort to. Why any record man would want to order her around I can only guess. Maybe because she seems just an inch's compromise away from a hit. But that inch is why this rock and roll traditionalist still sounds fresh. A MINUS [Later: A]

Additional Consumer News

Is there Sonic Youth collectorama out there for the insatiable? Is the band Catholic? Master-Dik Beat on the Brat (SST) is a bricolage manqué of white rap, Ramones cover, Swiss interview, and studio fucking around that will change the world (again!) of anybody who believes their revolutionary potential is realized only in confusion. The rest of us will prefer (even) the Coachmen's Failure To Thrive (New Alliance), halting boho melodicism from a circa-'79 NYC art band featuring but not led by a guitarist named Thurston Moore.

Thanks to San Antonio beatmaster Steve Bartels for writing that my favorite bit on the new Eric B. originally appeared in somewhat faster form not on some rai record but on the Eagles' "Those Shoes." Isn't that fabulous?

Village Voice, Nov. 22, 1988


Nov. 8, 1988 Nov. 29, 1988