Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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To my surprise, I find myself putting off my return to internationalism for another month--I'm still immersed in comparison listening. To my dismay, I've also put off the Amerindie research. This was a month for New Yorkers, native and transplanted both--enough to make a fellow a chauvinist all over again.


THE ALARM: Change (I.R.S.) Breaking on through, they sounded a lot like the Clash. College radio staples, they sound a lot like U2. Ain't artistic evolution somethin'? C

LAURIE ANDERSON: Strange Angels (Warner Bros.) Anderson feels powerless, a speck of dust at the speed of light, and these are the bleakest songs she's ever written. Positing progress as the force that prevents history from righting itself, she looks the death of nature in its prosthetic eye and sees bad changes coming a lot sooner than, for instance, equal pay for women, which she calculates is due along about 3888. But she also feels connected to the pop firmament, often constructing her lyrics like a human sampler, and this is the most mellifluous music she's ever recorded. She's taken voice lessons to match the tunes she's writing, and hired sidepeople--notably Graceland bassist Bakithi Khumalo, whose fretless flow unifies the four lithest tracks--whom she knows will add a savvy, sensual sheen to her most cerebral constructs. Some find these two effects a mark of compromise; I find them pleasingly complex. A soothing glimpse of the end of the world. A

BLACK HAVANA (Capitol) Not a real house compilation, my sources say, and good--bet stay-at-homes enjoy these Kenny Ortiz commissions more than the authentic stuff on Republic, DJ International, FFRR, Great Jones. It's funkier and more tropical than the club norm--salsa, dancehall, plenty of rap--without eschewing surefire house machinations. For once the trancey breaks and cries in the night--"Throw 'Em the Chicken," "Like This Like That," the drugged, distorted "Do It Steady"--are as haunting as they're supposed to be. And the way each side breaks into cool, lush escape music is pure coconut milk. A MINUS [Later]

ERIC CLAPTON: Journeyman (Duck/Reprise) What did you expect him to call it--Hack? Layla and 461 Ocean Boulevard were clearly flukes: he has no record-making knack. So he farms out the songs, sings them competently enough, and marks them with his guitar. Which sounds kind of like Mark Knopfler's. B MINUS

TERENCE TRENT D'ARBY: Neither Fish Nor Flesh (Columbia) The tortured imagery and spacey affectations of the first five minutes had me regretting my professional obligation to listen to it again. So believe me, I don't love this record for its ambition--I love it for its achievement, which turns out to include the first five minutes. D'Arby's worst lines are so bad they tempt you to believe he'll never straighten out, but in fact there are three or four superb lyrics here, led by "Billy Don't Fall," humbly literal in the face of difference and death. And even at its most forced the music proves D'Arby a master of the black spectrum from the trad r&b of "I'll Be Alright" to the reconstructed Prince-funk of "This Side of Love"--even though psychedelic pop is just as much the album's category. Believe me--if you let his pretensions put you off, you'll be missing something. A MINUS

DEF JEF: Just a Poet with Soul (Delicious Vinyl) Bronx-raised in Cali, he rhymes hard and fast over pop-r&b samples and the straight JB funk they're rendering passé. Just ordinary enough to get overlooked, just good enough to deserve better, he leads the beat like it comes naturally, and writes so persuasively about loving to write that you know he'll be around. B PLUS

THE GEORGIA SATELLITES: In the Land of Salvation and Sin (Elektra) No longer content to be known as a boogie animal, Dan Baird shares with us his pain, his songcraft, his abiding respect for Lowell George. Just what we needed--a pretentious boogie animal. C PLUS

HIP HOUSE (DJ International) "A rap on a House record does not make Hip House"; an unassuming rap punctuated by simple sung hooks over house piano, pumped bass, and the occasional Brown-whoop does. As per house rules, the breaks are too abstract to justify their length. But party music that would be escapist at this hip-hop moment is a hard move where these kids are coming from, so they sound proud of themselves, and they should. Put your hands in the air, and wave 'em like you just don't care. B PLUS

ICE-T: The Iceberg: Freedom of Speech . . . Just Watch What You Say (Sire) Realer than Luke Skyywalker, glibber than Frank Zappa, able to scare small radio programmers with a single sound, this gangster's new artistic vocation is talking shit to the PMRC. Gratuitous f-words, obscene street rhymes, hilarious metal s&m, Jello Biafra recitations, the joke about boring into a motherfucker's skull with a cordless drill--all are designed to enrage censors while speeching the people live and direct. And as always, the street tales bite harder than fact. Fierce. Funny. A MINUS [Later]

JANET JACKSON: Rhythm Nation 1814 (A&M) She's still Janet Jam-Lewis to me--Quincy Jones's natural bodily rhythms are nothing like Thriller's, but every Flyte Tyme production has showed off these angular beats. Not so smashingly is all--if the P-Funk pretensions of "nation" are a little much from somebody whose knowledge of the world is based on the 6 o'clock news, the "rhythm" is real, and I give her credit for it. Her voice is as unequal to her vaguely admonitory politics as it was to her declaration of sexual availability, but the music is the message: never before have Jam & Lewis made such a hard-rocking album. Best slow stuff: the murmured moans and irregular breathing of the sexually available "Someday Is Tonight." A MINUS [Later]

BILLY JOEL: Storm Front (Columbia) Instead of going Broadway with his cautionary tales and cornball confessionals, he hires the man from Foreigner. And it makes no difference--even in arena mode he's a force of nature and bad taste. Granted, the best songs are the ones that least suit the mold--the tributes to Montauk and Leningrad, the lament for the working couple, the quiz from Junior Scholastic. And even the worst maintain a level of craft arenas know nothing of. B

BIG DADDY KANE: It's a Big Daddy Thing (Cold Chillin') Mr. Asiatic gets respect for his virtuosity and his upright character--though the self-reliance dis of "Calling Mr. Welfare" seems harsh to a bleeding heart like yours truly, the whole first side raps up to the unity message of "Another Victory," with tough, generous music to match. Turn it over and pig on "pimp shit" designed to weed out dilettantes like yours truly. B

ZIGGY MARLEY AND THE MELODY MAKERS: Bright Day (Virgin) He's a confident international entertainer where his dad was a driven third-world artist, which is a loss, but disgruntled accusations that he's betraying his heritage, his confreres, and the great reggae diaspora would disappear if he could take his songs where he wants them to go. Until that if-ever, the synthesis will be more impressive both macro (reggae-rock headed Afrofunk) and micro (this guitar break, that piano comp) than in the middle distance where life is lived and music heard. B

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: Hangin' Tough (Columbia) At five million and counting, this isn't the rank offense its demographic tilt would lead you to expect--auteur Maurice Starr has positioned two exceedingly cute uptempo hits atop two overly balladic sides. Really, why shouldn't a black svengali mastermind the safe white r&b ripoff for once? Funkier than the Osmonds or Milli Vanilli. As hip as New Edition. C PLUS

DOLLY PARTON: White Limozeen (Columbia) The crossover that marked her new label affiliation never got to the other side, so she lets Ricky Skaggs call the shots--these days he's commercial. Except on the Easter song, he cans the production numbers, and since she can still sing like a genius anytime opportunity knocks, her most country album in years is also her best. Of course, even genius country singers are dragged by ordinary country songs. And though the borrowings are better-than-average, she no longer writes like a pro without help--here provided by, such is life, Mac Davis. B

POI DOG PONDERING (Columbia) Their psychedelic world-music rep won't prepare you for what they actually sound like, which is a circa-'86 Brit shambling band that knows how loose is too loose. Imagine the Mighty Lemon Drops with extra percussion singing about breakfast, sex, and wonder in a place where central heating just isn't an issue. Honolulu, Austin, what's the dif? They're Sun Belt hippies either way, glad to be alive where the living is easy. B PLUS

THE ROCHES: Speak (MCA) It took them 10 years to make a second record as unmediated by market anxiety as their first, and that's probably not how people who think they're too smart for their own britches will hear it. They make no special effort to curb their "arty" "New York" tendencies--that's who they are. So despite moderate tempos and a unified production style (electronic folk-rock, say), the album is beautiful but not irresistibly listenable--you have to listen to the words beneath the harmonies. Fourteen honest, intelligent songs about anxious, difficult love, and if there was any justice they'd bury the Indigo Girls. But there isn't. A MINUS

ROXANNE SHANTÉ: Bad Sister (Cold Chillin') I'd loved everything else she'd ever done, and at first this album irritated me, but now I hear it as a self-conscious return to the street appeal of 14-year-old Lolita Gooden's "Roxanne's Revenge." Even the remixed "Wack Itt," heavy with the housed bass fuzz that's the record's aural signature, and "Go On Girl," vocals phased and speeded over hyped congas, suit music intended to sound crude and overheard in an era of packed mixes and clean hooks. So do the casually nasty rhymes, most of which Roxanne didn't write, and almost every one of which--the exception is "Fatal Attraction," a carefully plotted tale that ends with a jimmy in a pickle jar--could have been made up on the spot by the unassuming owner of the most natural voice in rap. Spunky, sexy, conversational, full of fun, with a burr turning quaver that radiates hesitation and delight, she's still in contact with her happy, lucky 14-year-old self. In other words, a true rock and roller. A MINUS

SYD STRAW: Surprise (Virgin) Fitting roots tastes to theatrical background, she connects song by song, eventually--lost dB's hit, riddle-me-rhyme, futurist nostalgia. But nowadays the smoothest singer-songwriter effort sounds mannered, and this ain't it: recorded in NYC, Woodstock, London, L.A., Austin, San Marcos, and Brian Eno's house, its 37 musicians including no horns, no strings, and 13 fairly famous guitarists, the album creaks with intelligence. Don't judge her by her claque. But don't believe her claque either. B [Later]

3RD BASS: The Cactus Album (Def Jam) The music will have to connect like the spoken-word samples before these two get as large as they want to be. But that's not to say it's close to lame, and even without the multileveled "Spinning Wheel" loop they throw around the Beastie Boys or the cool groove of "Monte Hall," they'd be sizable on lyrics and attitude alone. Their pussy song is "The Oval Office," a metaphor so elaborate it may be the first rap inspired by John Donne, and it's not their style to forget that they're white guys moving on a militantly Afrocentric subculture. They equate white racism with leprosy, but irrelevant slanders about monkeys in the Caucasus disgust them as well--"third stage knowledge" is their program. And in case you think they take themselves too seriously, a Satchmo-voiced interlude assures them, "You got soul/Comin' out your asshole," and notes, "You're gonna work with a lot of white people think they're black." Their sexual politics are less hip, unfortunately, though dense and oblique enough to get by. Inspirational dis: "We're Professor Griff--that means we're outta here." A MINUS

Village Voice, Dec. 26, 1989


Nov. 28, 1989 Feb. 6, 1990