Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

After nigh on three months of turkey shooting and best-of shopping, I expected easier pickings. Depicted concept comp and indie fluke aside, however, most of this recommended list is all too marginal, and nothing I know and you don't about the forthcoming Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll gives me hope for the immediate future.


BUJU BANTON: Inna Heights (VP) This starts out in the heights of "Hills and Valleys," an affirmation of Rasta community which adds to the deep soul of "'Til Shiloh" a melody that is hope itself. After that shoo-in for the reggae canon, the album can only descend, and while Banton's voice remains the essence of dancehall and the tracks are well-conceived--strong rhythms, welcome guests, thought-through principles, the nice touch of "Small Axe"--it soon appears that PolyGram 86ed the flagship act of banished troublemaker Lisa Cortes on practical grounds: by pop standards the vehicle seems high-generic. But the last five songs suggest that spite was at work. Suddenly the music zooms upward from its pleasant plateau, spooky bouncing bass and twisty guitar stile and intense Toots remake with the man himself chanting "I say yeah" and "54-46" like prison was yesterday, all culminating in the voice-only social-determinism tract "Circumstances," a heartening bit of analysis from a man who 45 minutes earlier was claiming his "Destiny" far less convincingly. A MINUS

BIG ROCK'N BEATS (Wax Trax!/TVT) Funny and shameless, whomping where artier types now skitter and not too futuristic for harmonicas or choo-choo trains, the 13 acts from five nations who here define what some dubiously dub "big beat" cohere more generically than does the high-buzz Amp. But in a compilation that claims to lay out a genre, that's a mark of honor. A MINUS

BLONDIE: Essential Blondie: Picture This Live (EMI/Capitol) Repeating nine songs from the perfect slickpopdiscosellout Parallel Lines, this piece of brass welds two sections of a 1980 show around one from 1978 into memento mori for fans who loved them to the bone and forensic evidence against fools who mistook their flesh for plastic. It laughs at polish all the way to a 15-minute "Bang a Gong"/"Funtime." Punk? Who knows? Garage? Wake up and smell the carbon monoxide. A MINUS

COMMON: One Day It'll All Make Sense (Relativity) With no notable penchant for ear candy or mass ass appeal, this Chicago rhymer carves out an unpretentious artistic space that couldn't have existed before hip hop--no singer-songwriter's everyday ruminations come near such content or physical form. Common raps about black life as most black people live it and black manhood as most young black men grow into it, and while his flow isn't primed for the dance floor, it's complex and full-bodied in a way few, you know, white artists could imitate, much less make up. Nor is that the only way he's complex--guy spends considerable time dancing in his head. B PLUS

STEVE EARLE: El Corazon (Warner Bros.) Earle writes with the flair and searching eye of a great talker who's also a great reader, and he can sing with anyone--on The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, his dissolute "In the Jailhouse Now" keeps the ball rolling after two of the canniest vocals of Bob Dylan's and Willie Nelson's not exactly thoughtless careers. But now that he's sober he sounds drunker than ever, recalling the blurry, lost-my-dentures drawl of John Prine at his cutest. And since unlike Prine he doesn't take naturally to cute, his back-porch sentimentality can seem as unearned as any folk revivalist's; when he reflects too much, as is his current spiritual wont, he proves that the only thing softer than a tough guy's heart of gold is a populist radical's corazon sangriento. I'm glad he remembers his real-folk comeback Train a Comin' and hope the born-to-lose sex problems of his rock comeback are behind him. But I still find his fast ones more convincing than his slow ones. A MINUS [Later]

RUBÉN GONZÁLEZ: Introducing . . . Rubén González (World Circuit) Never much for horn sections, I've always preferred my clave straight from the timbales, perhaps with some violins for accent. But in part that's because Eddie Palmieri himself doesn't give up as much montuno as this 77-year-old Cuban virtuoso, here granted his first album as a leader five years after he thought he'd retired. Although his joints may be aching and his home piano consumed by woodworm, rhythm and romance flow from his old-fashioned digital memory as he and his friends jam the classics, guaracha to bolero to cha cha cha. A MINUS [Later]

JON LANGFORD: Skull Orchard (Sugar Free) The difference is palpable. The Mekons, Waco Brothers, Killer Shrews, and I forget who are/were groups that couldn't do without Langford, whereas this is Langford deploying backup musicians, aides-d'arte who happen to be Wacos as well. There's no band feel, no sense of music-in-process--the garrulous artiste is audibly up top, organizing structural support for a sheaf of good tunes, and while the best of these is courteously passed on to Gertrude Stein, who wrote the words to "Butter Song," all the rest belong to Jonboy. Anyone who's tried to keep up with his one-liners knows he's an articulate bastard, but he's better off when he doesn't have to get to the end in 75 words or less, which is why his country band has always thrived on covers. Here he runs on, confessing his antisocial tendencies like the singer-songwriter he temporarily is--without forgetting that capitalism is antisocial too. A MINUS

LONESOME BOB: Things Fall Apart (Checkered Past) A Nashville naysayer with a painful vision of domestic truth, a robust rocker who's fond of words like "overidealized" and "problematic," an organic intellectual who looks on the dark side, this guy is too smart to let the music take care of itself. But music isn't where he puts his conceptual energy. On maybe half these songs, he gets the words just right--cf. the outrageous "My Mother's Husband," about not always getting what you want, and the clever "What Went Wrong," about the practical parameters of psychotherapy. Every time he does, the music sounds fabulous. B PLUS [Later]

MODEST MOUSE: The Lonesome Crowded West (Up) With unadorned melody suddenly fashionable among superannuated indie-rockers who have seen the limits of both irony and techno, I still prefer my tunelets noised up. And until these become the exclusive province of undistinguisheds and indistinguishables like, oh, Versus or Polvo, I'll crow about every exception. Skirting the professional class they were born to for a poverty that's real if voluntary, these three youngsters are probably wise-asses, probably thieves. But their songs never quit even when they're divided into the kind of stylistic segments that usually irritate the hell out of me. Although their glimpses of a cockroach world living on its own discards may seem jejune to some and homely to others, the lyrics are observed, informed, and explicit enough--in fact, as brave and beautiful as the blues, albeit at a more rarefied level of cultural specificity. A MINUS

THE POWER OF THE TRINITY: GREAT MOMENTS IN REGGAE HARMONY (Shanachie) Dancehall having relegated all classic reggae beyond Marley and the early dubmasters to the realm of specialist arcana, a concept that might have seemed obvious a decade ago now comes as essential pedagogy. Culture's Joseph Hill aside, not one of the leaders here commands a drop-dead voice, but whether they make themselves felt like the Itals' Keith Porter or remain as obscure as Israel Vibration's Skelly Spence, all find strength in unity. Nowhere else will you encounter the tragic intensity of the best of these tunes--and beyond Culture, whose Two Sevens Clash is an essential piece of popular music, the Wailing Souls' "War," the Mighty Diamonds' "Right Time," and the Congos' "Row Fisherman" are touchstones. The devotional aura is without parallel even in gospel or mbaqanga, both of which are far more upful, as Jamaicans used to say. It's the sound of conscious alienation, a pervasive longing for the motherland accessible to anybody who longs for anything--justice, or the chance to say goodbye one more time. A MINUS

THE REPLACEMENTS: All for Nothing/Nothing for All (Reprise) I never bought the theory that Warners tamed them--life generally has that effect anyway. But the all-for-nothing disc's selection from the descent made inevitable by Let It Be, which stands beside Wild Gift as Amerindie's very peak, short-changes the wild ("I Won't") and the tasteless ("Waitress in the Sky"); you'd be better off just proceeding from Tim. The miscellaneous arcana on the nothing-for-all disc, however, are pretty unkempt for a pop band that's mastering its craft as it loses its purpose--blues, lo-fi come-on, Disney cover, B sides, what-all. Although it's a mess or because it is, it's got more life than either of their two final albums--and no "Aching To Be," either. A MINUS [Later]

SHANIA TWAIN: Come On Over (Mercury) Aside from a quota of sound effects, Twain's latest incarnation has nothing to do with country. Setting out into the vast unexplored territory separating Garth from Madonna, she and husband-producer-cowriter Mutt Lange glance over at Gwen Stefani and take a few tips from Lange's old charges the Cars before arriving at a new pop formula that's all flirtatious ebullience and lively hooks. Miraculously, this discovery proves more exhilarating than a barrel of orgasms--the happy kind, none of your soul-shaking groaners. Not while this incarnation has juice, anyway. A MINUS [Later]

Dud of the Month

PORTISHEAD (Go! Beat/London) When you're this subtle, marginal differentiation is everything. Louder tracks, sparser samples, less insinuating tunes--all these changes are slight, but they impel antistar-to-die-for Beth Gibbons six inches toward stridency, and she's hard enough to take seriously when she's toning it down. The real and theoretical depressives who adore them will experience this as growth. Workaday music lovers will glance off Gibbons's shows of misery and never figure out why. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Afro-Cuban All Stars, A Toda Cuba le Gusta (World Circuit): lots of soneros, lots of salseros, and Ry doesn't get in the way ("Habana Del Este," "Alto Songo")
  • Bentley Rhythm Ace (Astralwerks): busy busy busy ("Bentley's Gonna Sort You Out!" "Whoosh")
  • LL Cool J, Phenomenon (Def Jam): astride the world as R-rated pop staple ("Father," "Nobody Can Freak You")
  • LSG, Levert-Sweat-Gill (EastWest): manly, masculine, male--they cover the bases ("Door #1," "My Side of the Bed")
  • Oasis, Be Here Now (Epic): "Uncle! Uncle! Let go of my ear! Uncle, for chrissake!" ("Be Here Now," "My Big Mouth")
  • Fatboy Slim, Better Living Through Chemistry (Astralwerks): bang bang bang ("Santa Cruz," "Going Out of My Head")
  • Horace Andy, Skylarking (Melankolic): one weird tenor ("One Love," "Skylarking") [Later: **]
  • Soul Food (LaFace): Babyface for boys--his genius, his fallibility (Total, "What About Us"; Milestone, "I Care 'Bout You")
  • Waco Brothers, Do You Think About Me? (Bloodshot): their "militant honky tonk" could stand some "Nashville songcraft" ("Hard Times," "Revolution Blues")
  • Usher, My Way (LaFace): the sweetest nonvirgin a mama could ask ("Just Like Me," "You Make Me Wanna . . . ")
  • Big Youth, Isaiah--First Prophet of Old (Caroline): Mr. Sunshine Meets the End of the World--in 1978 ("World in Confusion")
  • Prodigy, The Fat of the Land (Maverick/Warner Bros.): smack them up, they deserve it, but they still got the beats ("Mindfields," "Funky Shit")
Choice Cuts:
  • David Bowie, "All the Young Dudes" (Essential David Bowie: Best of 1969-1974, EMI/Capitol)
  • Serge Gainsbourg, "Je t'aime . . . moi non plus" (Comic Book, Mercury)
  • Brian McKnight, "You Should Be Mine" (Anytime, Mercury)
  • Daft Punk, "Da Funk" (Homework, Virgin)
  • Lamb, "Lusty" (Lamb, Mercury)
  • Mary Coughlan, "Sunburn" (After the Fall, Big Cat)
  • The Crystal Method, "Busy Child" (Vegas, Outpost)
Duds:
  • David Bowie, Earthling (Virgin)
  • Judy Collins, Christmas at the Biltmore Estate (Elektra)
  • Tanya Donelly, Lovesongs for Underdogs (Reprise)
  • Dru Hill (Island)
  • Inti-Illimani, Arriesgaré La Piel/I Will Risk My Skin (Xenophile)
  • Antonio Carlos Jobim, Composer (Warner Archives)
  • Love Spit Love, Trysome Eatone (Maverick/Warner Bros.)
  • Holly Palmer (Reprise)
  • The Tories, Wonderful Life (N2K).

Village Voice, Jan. 27, 1998


Jan. 6, 1998 Mar. 3, 1998