Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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My holiday turkeys/oldies labors over, I note with dismay that my return to the present has a retro tinge--insufficiently Christmasy best-ofs, old local work from an Afropop internationalist, covers of songs I like by a band I can live without, etc. Hey, I know what to call it--"postmodernism."


BIKINI KILL: Pussy Whipped (Kill Rock Stars) The inspired amateur caterwaul of a thousand zine dreams, more convincing than the boys' version even if it isn't as good as it ought to be or as smart as it thinks it is. By now male hardcore bands feel obliged to at least master the fast four-four, which has its advantages but ends up formulaic. This music scorns all rules--there's no way to prepare for it. The primitive tunes stick like peanut butter to the barbed-wire sound, and while Kathleen Hanna stays calm on her love song "For Tammy Rae," she prefers to break her lyrics down into preverbal emotion--the big-dick grunts of "Sugar," the can't-come screams of "Star Bellied Boy," the scratch-your-eyes-out ululations of "Li'l Red." Ideological though their rage may be, it comes off rooted rather than received or rote, so they scare people. If I were young enough to have girlfriend problems, I might scrounge around for ad feminem putdowns myself. A MINUS [Later]

BORN TO CHOOSE (Rykodisc) Granting the thematic animus of the Mekons' brazen "Born to Choose" and Soundgarden's ball-busting "HIV Baby," this charity comp has less in common with No Alternative than with A Very Special Christmas. The secret is consistency: quality artists (11 of the 12 have finished Pazz & Jop top 50, six top 10) doing quality material (smart enough to get involved, they cared enough to do it right). Kudos, then, to organizers Craig Marks and Karen Glauber, both of whom happen to be journalists--even, dare I say it, rock critics. Inspirational Verse, from John Lennon via Matthew Sweet: "She said/I know what it's like to be dead." A MINUS

ROBERT CRAY: Shame and a Sin (Mercury) Out from under Dennis Walker, Cray sounds less twisted, his thwarted-love compulsions a species of good old-fashioned blues suffering. He shuffles and slides like he's been studying up on his Chess reissues, and the directness carries over into his good old-fashioned soul exhortations. He even fools around a little, as if finally convinced that his guitar ain't no joke. A MINUS

DAZED AND CONFUSED (Medicine) But it's really great junk. Seventies AOR as hard-rock utopia, with all the El Lay wimp-out, boogie dumb-ass, and metal drudge-trudge surreptitiously excised, enabling the escapist to bask in history without actually encountering any Montrose or Outlaws records. A few of the selections are ringers--unjustly, neither the Sweet's "Fox on the Run" (too pop) nor the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" (too chick) ever gained much stoner credibility. Most are by major artists (Skynyrd, War, Alice Cooper, ZZ Top) or indisputable legends (Sabbath, Kiss, Deep Purple, Ted Nugent). But only someone who suffered his first nocturnal emission between 1970 and 1975 will be motivated to collect the catalogue it implies. For the rest of humanity, this is an ideal way to enjoy what for all its high volume, guitar excess, and muddled longueurs remained a pop sensibility that harked back to the '50s. Jim Dandy to the rescue indeed. A MINUS

ETOILE DE DAKAR: Volume 1--Absa Gueye (Stern's Africa) Supposedly, Youssou N'Dour has gone onto better things than these first recordings, cut in 1979 with the seminal band he formed two years earlier at age 18. And without doubt his music has grown more ambitious and more accomplished. But there's nothing youthfully naive or folkishly charming about mbalax at this stage of evolution. Counterbalancing clavé-inflected sway with hectic tama-drum interjections, making ample room for guitar and horns, it never shrinks from its own complexities or sinks under their weight. With five band members writing, not one of the 10 tracks is hookless. Many grab you at every turn. And unlike N'Dour's always admirable and usually enjoyable internationalist fusions, they never overreach. A [Later]

GHORWANE: Majurugenta (Real World) The Mozambican music is happy yet principled, soukous-smooth even if the interlocking rhythms show off their seams and the horns are equal parts intricacy and palpable deliberation. The translations add attacks on "fashion" to various unusual, banal ways to die--no medicine, no transport, your general civil-war horror. In short, three-dimensional agitprop--tragedy and left puritanism in one resolutely hedonistic package. A MINUS

GUNS N' ROSES: "The Spaghetti Incident?" (Geffen) Talk about your anxiety of influence. As someone who never thought punk had much to do with musicianship or musicianship much to do with GN'R, I remain impressed even with the excitement worn off. I mean, Axl Rose damn near stealing "Human Being" from David Johansen? Because his drummer is so fierce? Fear and UK Subs (!) and Nazareth (!!) tunes that belong on the same record? What would Harold Bloom say? Something about Axl being a shitty songwriter, I hope. Which wouldn't be altogether fair. But hey--criticism is unfair. A MINUS

JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: Flashback (Blackheart) A career's worth of outtakes, half covers and 13 of 22 from her 1983-86 heyday, this may end up a last gasp. But her simultaneous rediscovery by Warner bigshots and angry old gurls leaves room for hope that instead it will prove a marker. And either way it's her strongest album ever, full of stuff originally judged not weak but impolitic--the censored "Starfucker," the girl-loving "Play With Me," "EMI" as "MCA"--as well as Jett standards backed by Sex Pistols and Melle Mel and L7, soundtrack finds penned by Bruce Springsteen and Janna Allen, oldies new to me like "Hide and Seek" and "She Lost You," oldies forever young like "Rebel Rebel" and "Call Me Lightning," and "Activity Grrrl," in which she advises her spirit children to forget the animal rights stuff and buy a set of leathers. She still loves rock 'n roll. And vice versa. A MINUS

K.T. OSLIN: Greatest Hits: Songs From an Aging Sex Bomb (RCA) A greatest-hits it may be, a best-of it's not. Only "80's Ladies" hints at the desperate edge of "Younger Men" and "Didn't Expect It To Go Down That Way," the sexually aggressive young "Cornell Crawford" would make a dandy companion to the sexually aggressive young "Hey Bobby," and the sexually aggressive old "Oo-Wee" would make a dandy companion to the sexually aggressive old "This Woman." Oslin deserves to be famous, but if she really wants to break pop, she should convince her handlers that taking risks means more than putting 11 cuts on your retrospective where Nashville would hold the line at 10. A MINUS

THE WILD MAGNOLIAS (Polydor) Like The Wild Tchoupitoulas, where Allen Toussaint hangs vocals on the Meters, The Wild Magnolias is a producer's record. What's made it legendary isn't its documentation of Mardi Gras Indians but the myth Willie Tee hangs on his guitaristic funk. It jams on and on, a pseudofolkloric Get on the Good Foot, yet it's as taut as the Magnolias' later faux field recording with Ron Levy is slack. The digital version adds five tracks for 11 in all, including carnival songs the Tchoups took over and the miraculous nine-minute call-and-response Monk Boudreaux builds off "Shoo fly, don't bother me." In 1974 I might have found it repetitive. In 1994 I think it jams on and on and on. A MINUS

KELLY WILLIS (MCA) Willis loves singing like George Jones loves singing, like Rosanne Cash loves singing, and once a fella notices how hard she tries and how strong she feels, he'll want to hug and kiss her till that smile is back on her pretty little face. But though the tunes are her solidest yet, Don Was's Billy Bremner guitar and Jellyfish harmonies don't set them off any more clearly than Tony Brown's neoclassical taste did. That's mostly because Willis's idea of a good lyric is a simple lyric. No wordplay, no narrative, no trenchant details--just the musical statement, alive and direct. OK, honey, if you say so. But I still think maybe you should join that T-group with K.T. and Mary-Chapin. B PLUS

CHARLES WRIGHT: Express Yourself: The Best of Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (Warner Archives) Funk so loose and home-fried it's a miracle it ever got on the radio, most of this sounds like it was recorded by teenagers in a rec room somewhere near Crenshaw Boulevard in 1971, except that the Otis-style croaker up top is too old--somebody's uncle, maybe he financed the instruments. In fact, however, they were groundbreaking pros who'd peaked by then--"Do Your Thing" hit in February 1969, same as the Meters' "Sophisticated Cissy" and six months before Kool or Funkadelic, and by the end of 1970 "Express Yourself" was history. It was also their only classic. But if you'll settle for unfettered creativity, soul culture that doesn't yet fear present or future, pick almost anything. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

U2: Zooropa (Island) I've never seen the point of hating U2. Their sound was their own from the git, and for a very famous person, Bono has always seemed thoughtful and good-hearted. I liked what I read about their pop irony, too. Problem was, I couldn't hear it--after many, many tries, Achtung Baby still sounded like a damnably diffuse U2 album to me, and I put it in the hall unable to describe a single song. But having processed this blatant cool move, I'm ready to wax theoretical. Achtung Baby was produced by Daniel Lanois, and Daniel Lanois isn't Brian Eno--he's Eno's pet romantic, too soft to undercut U2's grandiosity, although I admittedly enjoy a few of its anthems-in-disguise now. Zooropa, on the other hand, is half an Eno album the way Low and "Heroes" were. The difference is that Bowie and Eno were fresher in 1977 than Bono and Eno are today. Each must have hoped that the other's strength would patch over his own weakness--that Eno's oft-wearisome affectlessness would be mitigated by Bono's oft-wearisome expressionism and vice versa. But tics ain't strengths, and although these pomo paradoxes have their moments, when I'm feeling snippy the whole project seems a disastrously affected pastiche of relinquished principle. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Tom Waits, The Black Rider (Island): ace collaborators, could use a libretto ("Russian Dance," "Crossroads," "That's the Way," "I'll Shoot the Moon")
  • Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream (Virgin): it's the sonics ("Geek U.S.A.," "Today")
  • Bratmobile, Pottymouth (Kill Rock Stars): adolescent petulance, tingling clits, no bass player ("Throway," "No You Don't")
  • Cranes, Forever (Dedicated): eerie, stately, cosmic, minor, cute, beautiful, full of shit ("Everywhere," "Clear")
  • Wynonna Judd, Tell Me Why (Curb/MCA): credit to her family, credit to her sex ("Girls With Guitars," "Tell Me Why")
  • Matthew Sweet, Altered Beast (Zoo): he's so great with the help he should hire some lyricists ("Dinosaur Act," "Knowing People")
  • The Muffs (Warner Bros.): Blackhearts as Descendents or vice versa--10 years late it's hard to tell ("Lucky Guy," "Everywhere I Go")
  • The Queers, Love Songs for the Retarded (Lookout!): for 16 songs in 36 minutes, they [heart] Ramones and rhyme with "beers" ("Ursula Finally Has Tits," "Fuck the World")
  • Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell II: Back to Hell (MCA): this time he plays it for laffs ("Life Is a Lemon and I Want My Money Back," "Everything Louder Than Everything Else")

Choice Cuts:

  • Belly, "Are You Experienced?"; Body Count, "Hey Joe" (Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix, Reprise)
  • Whoopi and the Sisters, "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)" (Sister Act 2, Hollywood)
  • Matthew Sweet, "Superdeformed"; Uncle Tupelo, "Effigy"; Beastie Boys, "It's the New Style"; Pavement, "Unseen Power of the Picket Fence"; Patti Smith, "Memorial Tribute" (No Alternative, Arista)
  • Rickie Lee Jones, "Rebel Rebel" (Traffic From Paradise, Geffen)
  • Emmylou Harris, "Jerusalem Tomorrow" (Cowgirl's Prayer, Asylum)
  • Urge Overkill, "Sister Havana" (Saturation, Geffen)

Duds:

  • The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience (Geffen)
  • Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters (Warner Bros.)
  • Lucky Dube, Victims (Shanachie)
  • Lenny Kravitz, Are You Gonna Go My Way (Virgin)
  • Dolly Parton, Slow Dancing With the Moon (Columbia)

Village Voice, Jan. 18, 1994


Dec. 21, 1993 Mar. 1, 1994