Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Normally at this time of year my poll-watching duties alert me to missed goodies. But except for the Dud of the Month, this CG is pure odds and ends, and as African as any in years.

AIR: Moon Safari (Source/Caroline) Ooh how much I wanted to hate this moist piece of patisserie--how much I did hate it, initially. And as a rock yeoman I direct postrock chauvinists to Simon Jeffes's Brian Eno-sponsored Penguin Cafe Orchestra, whose similar (albeit unamplified) hipster kitsch can now be found in the New Age bin. This is what comes of taking mood music seriously. In the meantime, however, the comfy-funk bass, space-age sound effects, and moments of cool femme treacle are good-humored enough to win over even an old-ager who remembers when lounge was actually worth hating. A MINUS [Later]

CADALLACA: Introducing Cadallaca (K) There's a Cadallaca interview in which Corin Tucker confuses the Ronettes with the Shirelles, and even if it was a "put-on," as young people say, that's all you need know about how much this side project has to do with classic girl groups and the rest of that rot. It's just a song sluice for an irrepressible talent--somewhat gentler and less conflict-purging, with Sarah Dougher's organ replacing Carrie Brownstein's guitar. The one noir period piece is the one misstep; elsewhere they imagine 1942 and dis a booker and invent new romance tropes the way they would in any other band. I love Brownstein. But Tucker could end up eclipsing Polly Jean Harvey herself if that was the way she thought about the world. And one of her strengths is that it isn't. A

CUBA NOW (Hemisphere) I prefer son to other salsa cousins because horn arrangements annoy me--even when they have more jam than the Cherry Poppin' Daddies'. I work on this prejudice, primarily to accommodate my clave-loving in-house advisor, who plucked this item out of the confusion of Cuban comps we've sampled during the current fad. Sucked in, as who wouldn't be, by the off-kilter montuno of NG La Banda's lead "El Tragico," she ignored the blare and voted with her hips. Grooves struggle against surface clutter throughout. Usually they win. A MINUS

ALPHA YAYA DIALLO: The Message (Wicklow) Canadians--presumably white Canadians, although with all the slave-owner names up there one can't be sure--in an Afrowhatever band? A guarantee of New Age blandness if ever I've patted my foot, and when the Celtic fiddle comes in I get the urge to slaughter a whale. Yet somehow this Guinéean guitarist-vocalist parses the link between pan-African beatsmanship and world-music eternal return, evoking now soukous, now chimurenga, now the cyclical structures if not koras of Sahel griots and hunters. Soothing, mostly--yet provocative enough to make you cry out loud when you least expect it. A MINUS

BUDDY GUY & JUNIOR WELLS: Last Time Around--Live at Legends (Silvertone) They last performed together in 1993, half a decade before Wells died, and they fit like an old pair of shoes, picking up on cues that haven't even been delivered yet. The first "What'd I Say," a highlight twice, takes off on the clicks, moans, squeals, hoots, and chicken squawks Wells cuts into Guy's vocal, and again and again classic titles from their book and everyone else's are adjusted to accommodate classic lines from the universe of blues readymades. Take this as a passport to that universe, but don't expect anyone to sell you a map. A MINUS

THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE: BBC Sessions (Experience Hendrix/MCA) An essential exhumation of the only rock artist I'm convinced merits them, though I swear I'll get on the Springsteen box soon. But despite the one-minute "Sunshine of My Love" and other oddments from his mercurial top-of-the-pops career, anyone who owns Rykodisc's one-CD 1988 version, off the market now that the good guys control the catalogue, has the essentials. There's a whiff of completism coming off the definitive Hendrix reissue program--the usual mix of profit maximization and hero worship, certain to separate the fans from the scholars pretty quick. The rationalization being, I guess, that six is nine--the fans are scholars already. B PLUS

BADAR ALI KHAN: Lost in Qawwali II (Worldly/Triloka) Yankee yobs like you and me might reasonably wonder how the hell much more Sufi devotional music we need, and absent this Nusrat cousin's extraordinary, volume-one-leading, elsewhere uselessly and here curiously remixed great hit "Trance," the answer may well be none. Nevertheless, direct comparison with Caroline's honorable, vintage, budget-double Supreme Collection Volume 1 underlines the younger Khan's distinction. To put it in yob terms that would make any radio programmer snort, he's marginally hookier. If you love the first one and want a little more, then you'll like this. And barring unforeseen developments, that will be that. A MINUS

THE KINLEYS: Just Between You and Me (Epic) So womanly they seem almost kinky, harmonizing twin sisters explore an unusually wide range of Nashville life choices--crazy in love or desperate to get back there, lazing around or sleeping around or pondering separations that put mere breaking up in existential perspective. Sound pretty relevant to me. Young or old, married or single, straight or gay, janitor or schoolteacher or constitutional lawyer or championship computer nerd, most people I meet lead emotional lives like these, and the songs get stronger as they go along. In "Contradictions" two mothers let their kids go and the first kid is older than the second mother. Then they go out on "Dance in the Boat," which rocks same. A MINUS

JOHN LENNON: Wonsaponatime (Capitol) As someone who scoffs at the outtake collections of known improvisors, I doubt I'll be delving into the box too often, although the live stuff is worth hearing. But not only does this one-disc distillation deliver borderline obsessives from financial anxiety, it proves Lennon the great singer he's rarely remembered as. Whether the alternate rearrangements are drastic (Cheap Trick on "I'm Losing You," strings on "Grow Old With Me") or subtle (pianoless "God," single-tracked "Oh My Love"), every song is renewed by a vocal commitment that shades the canonical take, usually toward sweetness or rage. There's new material, too: blues cover, Platters cover, pledge of love, and the priceless Dylan answer song "Serve Yourself." Lennon wasn't above dabbling in religion. But he never got so down he mistook God for more than a concept by which he measured his pain. A MINUS [Later]

YOUSSOU N'DOUR: Best of 80's (Celluloid import) Not a reissue, or anyway not an '80s reissue, this comprises 1995's Senegal-only Dikkaat and 1997's Senegal-only St. Louis, which in turn comprise a dozen songs supposedly composed (and recorded?) in the '80s, although none of my sources has unearthed them all. I own two: the strictly indigenous title song of Etoile de Dakar's Thiapotholy, and a David Sancious stinker buried at the tail end of The Lion. The former reemerges cleaner, faster, and more professional, none of which are necessarily positives; I'll take the rock sonics of renegade guitarist Badou N'Diaye over Jimmy Mbaye's lithe new jack lines. But the latter is improved so much it's almost unrecognizable, rougher and shapelier simultaneously. Everywhere guitars, horns, and tama drums interact with sharper punch and tighter pizzazz than in his wild dance music or his crossover set pieces. And sometimes--I'd single out "Xarit," "Diambar," and the unabashedly beautiful "Njaajaan Njaay"--the songwriting transfigures the playing. A MINUS [Later]

NEW RADICALS: Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too (MCA) Poised on the brink of something--smash or near miss, pop triumph or pop despair--Gregg Alexander comes across so brash, so skillful, so not-as-smart-as-he-thinks it's downright touching. As the tunes wind down in that CD way, even the lesser ones grow lovable in all their plethora of words and paucity of meaning, evoking the pathos of the fame game for anyone with a sense of biz mechanics. A realer phony than Billy Corgan by several miles. A MINUS

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS: Severe Tire Damage (Restless) Billed as greatest hits but actually just live, and not especially well-chosen, I say--where's "We're the Replacements"? "How Can I Sing Like a Girl?"? Plus there are bait cuts, new songs their wee fan base presumably can't live without. What I wouldn't have figured is that said cuts, "Doctor Worm" ("I'm not a real doctor but I am a real worm") and "They Got Lost" (trying to find a radio station so low-watt it fades out no matter which way they turn), are my favorite things on a record that includes "XTC Vs. Adam Ant" and "Meet James Ensor." I suggest a new stanza: "Meet They Might Be Giants/Pomo's cultish songmen/Set on random, skim our book/Watch out for falling hooks." B PLUS [Later]

LOBI TRAORÉ: Segou (Cobalt import) Like cameo sideman Ali Farka Touré, Traoré is a Malian John Lee Hooker fan. Only he's faster and tighter. And he works with three drummers all the time. And none of his second guitarists is Ry Cooder. And although I don't find them in the credits, I hear birds in the background. Supposedly he's a link to blues. Me, I hear Wassoulou circle games--a link to rondelets, lariats, cat's cradles. A MINUS [Later]

Dud of the Month

EELS: Electro-Shock Blues (DreamWorks) Mark Everett is a talented 31-year-old who bravely determined to deal with the dying he's seen in song. But that didn't mean he had to make a concept album. Beyond art-rock fashion, which has rendered the static song cycle stupid fresh again, the strategy suits a detachment he'd be drawn to in any era, a detachment there's nothing winning about--which also goes for the concept it hides behind, baggage doubly distracting for consumers without a press kit. I count three excellent songs here--a plighted troth, a teen memory, and an unexpected flight in which Everett invites one of his deceased back for a last look. I sincerely hope they're all covered by singers who can show them the love they deserve. B

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Jean-Paul Bourelly, Tribute to Jimi (Koch): splitting the difference between jazz-rock and rock-jazz ("Electric Ladyland," "Who Knows/Talkin' Bout My Baby")
  • Digital Underground, Who Got the Gravy? (Jake): imparts new flavor, if not flava, to the word "lubricious" ("Who Got the Gravy?" "Wind Me Up," "The Odd Couple")
  • Buddy Guy, Heavy Love (Silvertone): past 60 and feeling it, he's relaxing more and feeling that too ("Midnight Train," "Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You")
  • Gomez, Bring It On (Hut/Virgin): really the roots-rock--they mean it, man ("Whipping Piccadilly," "Love Is Better Than a Warm Trombone")
  • M.O.T., 19.99 (Sire/Warner Bros.): Borscht Belt hip hop from Ice Berg and Dr. Dreidle, who sold their Chevy to the Levys but the Levys can't drive ("Town Car," "Double Dutch Lunch")
  • Amadou et Mariam, Se Te Djon Ye (Sonodisc import): "blind couple of Mali"--reassuring melodies, two voices, one acoustic guitar ("Se Te Djon Ye," "Kelen la Seben")
  • The Derek Trucks Band, Out of the Madness (House of Blues): kid can play--also think ("Preachin' Blues," "Young Funk")
  • Sedhiou Band, Africa Kambeng (Africassette): rolling Mandinka beats from agricultural and above all non-Wolof Senegal ("Nyancho," "Dimbaayaa")
  • R. Kelly, R. (Jive): megaskills for megasale ("Half on a Baby," "Did You Ever Think")
  • Dixie Chicks, Wide Open Spaces (Monument): blondes have more brains (than they get credit for) ("Wide Open Spaces," "Give It Up (Or Let Me Go)")
  • Monster Magnet, Powertrip (A&M): more jokes about dominance and Mr. D. ("See You in Hell," "Bummer")
  • The Secret Museum of Mankind: East Africa (Yazoo) half Kenyan, spanning a mere 24 years up to 1948, these old 78s could almost be said to hold together (Frank and His Sisters, "Mwanangu Lala"; Francis Baloye & Shangaan Band, "Kumbe Siyengetile"; Zoutpansberg Brothers, "Hosi Yehina Masia")
  • Lee Ann Womack, Some Things I Know (Decca): reclaiming female feistiness, which is as close as Nashville gets to feminism ("I'll Think of a Reason Later," "The Man Who Made My Mama Cry")
  • No Easy Walk to Freedom (Music Club): South African roots-pop K-Tel style (Sister Phumi, "Ithemba"; Sipho Mabuse, "Jive Soweto")
Choice Cuts:
  • Aaliyah, "Are You That Somebody?"; All Saints, "Lady Marmalade (Timbaland Remix)" (Dr. Dolittle: The Album, Atlantic)
  • The Handsome Family, "Weightless Again," "Cathedrals" (Through the Trees, Carrot Top) [Later: ***]
  • Patty Loveless, "On Down the Line" (Black Dog, Decca)
  • Cypress Hill, "Looking Throught the Eye of a Pig" (Cypress Hill IV, Ruffhouse)
  • Maxwell, "Luxure: Cococure" (Embrya, Columbia)
  • Mystikal, "I'm on Fire" (Ghetto Fabulous, Jive/No Limit)
  • Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Zoot Suit Riot (Mojo)
  • John Lennon's Original Quarrymen, Get Back--Together (Quarrymen import)
  • Motorhead, Snake Bite Love (CMC International)
  • Nashville Pussy, Let Them Eat Pussy (The Enclave/Mercury)
  • The Tony Rich Project, Birdseye (LaFace)
  • Royal Crown Revue, The Contender (Warner Bros.)
  • RZA, RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo (Gee Street/V2)

Village Voice, Feb. 23, 1999

Dec. 29, 1998 Mar. 23, 1999