Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

As not quite promised, I've avoided "world" artists altogether this month--not counting the matching depicted Ameribrits, the Irish-plus folk, and the Icelanders, and why not is another discussion. Guarantee the drought won't continue, at least not past the Turkey Shoot scheduled for our Thanksgiving issue next week. And maybe not even that long.


AEROSMITH: Pump (Geffen) If fried brains is your idea of a rock dream, the first side will do the job at least as good as whatever raging slab is also your idea of a rock dream. For five songs, everything loud and acrid about them just keeps on coming--not even tune doctors can stave off the juggernaut. Of course, this band's idea of a rock dream is also the traditional "Young Lust" and "Love in an Elevator"--OK as far as it goes, but I could do with more "Janie's Got a Gun," in which an abused teenager offs her dad. I could also do with a second side that makes me forget Rocks even though Rocks established a parameter where this connects the dots. B PLUS [Later]

BIG AUDIO DYNAMITE: Megatop Phoenix (Columbia) Forward-looking of Mick to devote himself to interracial rock-the-house. But strip away the samples and give the lyrics the respect they deserve and you're left with a mild voice over beats so dinky only college radio could dance to them. Plus a sweet pop song that isn't called "Feelings" because that title's taken. C PLUS

TRACY CHAPMAN Crossroads (Elektra) I like her best here when she's most objectionable--keying her politics to the anachronistic locution "government relief," making her lover commit first, identifying evil with white people. She's still too solemn, but at least she's not too tasteful, and how else do you describe a musician who gives the impression of singing solo with her acoustic guitar while deploying five or six musicians a track? As a musician who gets over on her voice, that's how. B

D.J. JAZZY JEFF AND THE FRESH PRINCE: And in This Corner . . . (Jive) The Prince is already planning for life after rap. Will settle for standup, but wants his own series. Does creditable Richard Pryor-style impressions--rev, grandma, barber, wino. Writes good situations, too--"Who Stole My Car?," "I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson," "The Men of Your Dreams." Then there's the gold digger (calls her a '49er, a new one on me), and the cannibal yarn no white artist would dare anymore. B PLUS

HEAVY D. & THE BOYZ: Big Tyme (MCA) He's got a smooth, rhythmic delivery. He knows his beats and cliches, assigning Teddy and Marley to set the bait and his own DJ to pull in the lines. Although he doesn't always use his vocabulary very precisely and isn't above "happy like a faggot in jail," he rarely pumps the boasts or sexism all the way to wack. He even samples Martin Luther King. In short, he knows the right people and does the right things. Which is never enough. B MINUS

RICKIE LEE JONES: Flying Cowboys (Geffen) She's got her feet on the ground, with a warm simple song about motherhood and a cracked blues about addiction the signposts, but everywhere there are images of flight--as something heroes do, as something she used to do, as something she still can do in her mind. For anyone who never bought her effusions, the music is an advance--grounded as well, from studio-rock four to white-reggae depth charge to the guitars and synths of that blues. Problem is, it rarely flies--which with her more effusive lyrics leaves her not adrift, just nowhere. B

MC LYTE: Eyes on This (Atlantic/First Priority Music) No longer a minimalist, she layers samples ("Rockin' It"! Millie Jackson!) and backtalk like a pro, sometimes like an original--the rhythmic obscenities on the spectacularly unsisterly "Shut the Eff Up! (Hoe)" are mind-boggling. Her tales of the drug wars are tough and prowoman, and the narrative tone of "Cappucino"--part fable, part metaphor, part confessional revery, part dumb it-was-only-a-dream--is avant-garde. Elsewhere she's a pro. B PLUS

MEAT PUPPETS: Monsters (SST) Supposedly a combination of their two 1988 albums (a mirage omelet, thanks a lot), this is really the guitar-god record Curt Kirkwood always had in him--on all but a couple of cuts the arena-rock bottom that's an interview fantasy for those who haven't caught them on a ZZ Top night powers his chunky riffs and psychedelic axemanship. What'll keep them from turning into plutonium is the utterly unmacho vocals, brother harmonies making even "Party Till the World Obeys" and the one that begins "Tie me up/Get it right" seem like critiques of power, which is what they are--psychedelic in the nicest way yet again. A MINUS

MEKONS: Rock 'n' Roll (A&M) If you love rock and roll (which is possible even if you slum the spelling with apostrophes), but don't think Rock and Roll (much less Rock 'n' Roll) a propitious title right now, you could love this album, which takes their love-hate relationship with America to the bank. Musically, it's rock and roll despite the fiddles sawing louder than ever, almost as Clashlike as the promo claims, with Steve Goulding bashing away louder than ever too. Lyrically, in great song after great song, rock and roll is devil's-breath perfume, capitalism's "favourite boy child," a commodity like sex, a log to throw on the fire, a "shining path back to reconquer Americay." Are they implicated? Of course. Do they love it? Yes and no. A

EDDIE MURPHY: So Happy (Columbia) The failure of this wicked Prince rip to scale the charts reminds us once again how difficult it is for defiant outsiders to fracture pop stereotypes. Murphy will never be El DeBarge, but he's perfect for cartoon funk, and over the years his wheedling croon has gotten serious. Maybe the problem is that his sexual urges still don't emanate from very deep inside. Often, in fact, they're inspired by his bathroom reading--he's big on locations, spends an entire song convincing her to do it in a chair. Inspirational Dialogue: She: "Are you close?" He: "If I get any closer I be behind you." B PLUS

PIXIES: Doolittle (4AD/Elektra) They're in love and they don't know why--with rock and roll, which is heartening in a time when so many college dropouts have lost touch with the verities. You can tell from the bruising riffs, the rousing choruses, the cute little bass melodies, the solid if changeable beat. But not from any words they sing. They'll improve in direct relation to their improved contact with the outside world. Getting famous too fast could ruin them. B PLUS

THE POGUES: Peace and Love (Island) After I secured a CD, with both digital definition and the lyric sheet Island pulled from the vinyl correcting their chronic incomprehensibility, this phonogram finally began to make sense to me. But the horns still betoken folk-rockers moving on rather than the brass bands I bet they're supposed to evoke. And the trot convinces me that Shane MacGowan will remain the only Pogue in the down-and-out hall of fame. B

QUEEN LATIFAH: All Hail the Queen (Tommy Boy) "And when I say I'm `Queen' Latifah, it has nothing to do with rank. It has to do with how I feel spiritually." That's her claim, and I'm a believer. It's a relief to hear a woman grab onto the mother-worship that's an unhonored subtext of male rap Afrocentrism--the feminist instincts of "Ladies First," a duet with Brit sister Monie Love, and "Evil That Men Do," with KRS-One's music underpinning the budding matriarch's message, are years overdue. Her Afrocentrism is beatwise, too--eager reggae, deep house, "Chicken Scratch." De La Soul, Daddy-O, and her steady mixer Mark the 45 King prove they're good enough for her by playing consort for a track apiece. A MINUS

SCHOOLLY D: Am I Black Enough for You? (Jive) Some call Schoolly's show of racial solidarity a career move, but I find Sly and P-Funk and Malcolm and James I-Am-Somebody and Richard Pryor's coke routines a productive use of his sound--almost believe "Pussy Ain't Nothin'" is designed to convince the womenfolk that he wants their brains. B

JOE STRUMMER: Earthquake Weather (Epic) A man without a context, Joe digs into Americana up to his elbows, up to bebop, up to Marvin Gaye, cramming obsessions and casual interests into songs as wordy and pointless as Ellen Foley's. Foley's absence is a relief, but with Joe emulating Gaye and Bird--crooning and murmuring instead of screaming and spitting, cramming in the syllables--not that much of a relief. New guitar sidekick Zander Schloss does what he can to make things worse. C

THE SUGARCUBES: Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! (Elektra) They're as quirky as you thought they were, but no longer are their quirks strictly personal, which may help their disjointed musical effects impact on the rest of us. Björk's Freudian fantasies are subsumed in a not unfantastic adult sexuality, and she shares more of the stage with Einar, who plays madness to her empathic concern even when she's abandoning him to the encroaching ice. The end of the world interests them now that they've got a place in it: they face or face down their doom with a humor and affection that's sometimes fatalistic but never passive. In short, they're beginning to sound like a band with at least as much future as the rest of us--even a band that might make our future better. B PLUS

MARC ANTHONY THOMPSON: Watts and Paris (Reprise) Over a jumpy synth-funk concrète that's kin to Scritti Politti and the Ambitious Lovers, a prodigy 10 years past his clubland heyday and five years past his one-man debut has the world surrounded--not pinned, just surrounded. He wants to "sleep with a precedent," slips into the wrong hole, remembers Ricky Ricardo and Ezra Pound. He dreams he's Paul Simon and wakes up Bruce Springsteen: "My lips were gone my weenie shrunk/I tried to dance but I moved like a drunk." Hope we find out how he dances when he's himself. B PLUS

TIMBUK 3: Edge of Alliance (I.R.S.) "Dirty Dirty Rice" is the single, and before you say, "Just what we need, another song about soul food," give them credit--that would be "Dirty Rice." Dirty dirty rice is a street delicacy available in the dumpster of your local Popeye's, and releasing singles about such stuff could keep them on "the B side of life" for the rest of their natural days. Since they not only cop to the prospect but can live with it--"I like my free time and I love my wife"--I predict that their songs will remain winsome and wise for as long as the record company puts them out. And that they could hit the jackpot again without trying. B PLUS

ERNEST TUBB: Live, 1965 (Rhino cassette/CD) You may never love his amazingly resonant baritone--he always sings flat, and by his own admission can't hold a note for longer than a beat. After nearly 50 years on the road, though, his two "live" albums were applause-added phonies, so this posthumous find is something new. Cut by an engineer friend when Tubb was 51 (not so bad when you consider that he rerecorded his compilations for stereo and full rhythm section in his mid-forties), it documents a show that evolved but never really changed--unhurried, genial, skipping from Tubb standards to chart fare to honky-tonk classics to band features to climax with his first and greatest hit, "Walkin' the Floor Over You." Reliable, reassuring, the man who invented honky-tonk belies truisms about how great pop music is always passionate or urgent or necessary. And sounds weird as hell. A MINUS

WARREN ZEVON: Transverse City (Virgin) With his eye on the fate of the earth, from malls and gridlock to entropy and deorbiting heavenly bodies, Zevon succumbs to the temptations of art-rock. This beats country-rock, at least as he defines it, and given his formal training it was decent of him to wait until his material demanded sci-fi keybs--arpeggios and ostinatos and swirling soundtracks. With Little Feat's Richie Hayward the timekeeper, the stasis is a little heavier than anyone concerned with the fate of the earth would hope, but you don't get the feeling Warren's hopes are high enough to warrant anything livelier. "Splendid Isolation," about solipsism as a life choice, "Turbulence," about perestroika and Afghanistan, and "Run Straight Down," about the fate of the earth on the 11 o'clock news, are exactly as grim as they ought to be. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

You may have noticed the gloveless pugilist who adorns the Pogues' Peace and Love. Perhaps you also noticed that he has "peace" tattooed on the fingers of one hand and "love" on the other. But has it occurred to you that there are five letters in "peace"? Cover design of the year.

Dinner music of the year: Thelonious Monk's Standards CD (Columbia).

Village Voice, Nov. 21, 1989


Oct. 31, 1989 Nov. 28, 1989