Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

My customary pre-critics' poll labors (results next week) have yielded far fewer gooduns than usual, which should give you an idea of what kind of year it'll turn out to have been. If my Must To Avoid [Debbie Gibson] seems a bit obvious, I sense a desperate groundswell for such shit. Pick Hit [Rosie Flores], on the other hand, is a genuine find, albeit a small one--and she didn't make top 120.


JOHN ANDERSON: Blue Skies Again (MCA) First side's generic Jawn: sunny title tune for a new label, "Duet of the Polyester Poets" with a new labelmate, and a song his wife worked on, which is the only reason I can forgive its country wet dream of a hook: "Every night you make my day." Second side's brilliant: titles like "His and Hers" and "Lying in Her Arms" are taken as far as they can go. Wonder if Jawn knows the difference anymore. B PLUS

BOOGIE DOWN PRODUCTIONS: Criminal Minded (B Boy) Though one's moralistic quibbles do recede as history demonstrates how much worse things can get and how little music has to do with it, KRS-One's talk of fucking virgins and blowing brains out will never make him my B-boy of the first resort. I could do without the turf war, too--from the Lower East Side, not to mention Kingston or Kinshasa (or Podunk), Queens and the South Bronx are both def enough. But his mind is complex and exemplary--he's sharp and articulate, his idealism more than a gang-code and his confusion profound. And Scott LaRock was a genius. Sampling blues metal as well as James Brown, spinning grooves to toast by, blind-siding the beat with grunts and telephones and dim backtalk, he was spare and rich simultaneously. Music will miss him more than Jaco Pastorius and Will Shatter put together. B PLUS

DANA DANE: Dana Dane With Fame (Profile) Dissing women is nothing. Any fool can dis women, educated fools included. Where you have to hand it to the New York City school system is the way it took a moderately talented kid from the projects and taught him to be this snide this fast. Serves him well in the business world, of course--nothing threatening about snide, goes with Hurby Luv Bug's beats. But there are less retrograde (and funnier) ways for rap to go pop. I'll take the Fat Boys's vaudeville over Dane's in a minute. Also Salt-n-Pepa's. C PLUS

FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI: Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense (Mercury) Fears that imprisonment has turned him into a shell can be put aside, and by tacking twelve- and fourteen-minute instrumentals in front of fourteen- and eighteen-minute songs Wally Badarou goes a long way toward solving the man's record-making problem. At half an hour apiece, his grooves have time to prove themselves, and the vinyl sound is bright enough if you pump up the volume a little. As for message, the lyrics are certainly touched by his incarceration, but his pan-Africanism seems unchanged: it's as limited, as scathing, and as justifiable as ever. B PLUS

ROSIE FLORES (Reprise) From the person or persons responsible for Dwight Yoakam comes this former Screamin' Siren and unheralded neonothingist. Her slightly husky voice one-third promise and two-thirds self-respect, she doesn't even know how to put on airs about not putting on airs. All she does is deliver ten songs that are worth her while, which from Reba McEntire or George Jones these days would qualify as a miracle. And once in a while bassist and occasional songwriter James Intveld contributes a harmony. Gram and Emmylou in reverse--a touch I like. A MINUS

DEBBIE GIBSON: Out of the Blue (Atlantic) People think there's something cute about this schemer, but I ask you--is it really possible to be a self-made millionaire and the girl next door simultaneously? I'll take a Harvard M.B.A. any day. Paul Anka wrote his own songs too, and he had more of a flair for language. As for beats, well, I'm not going to argue with "Only in My Dreams" or "Shake Your Love." But the one she produced by herself is a flat-out dog. C PLUS

ICE-T: Rhyme Pays (Sire) With heavy help from DJ Afrika Islam, this reformed criminal is the rap equivalent of pimp-turned-paperback-writer Iceberg Slim. Can't know whether his streetwise jabs at Reagan and recidivism will make a permanent impression on his core audience, but his sexploitations and true crime tales are detailed and harrowing enough to convince anybody he was there. Wish I was sure he'll never go back. B

THE JOHNNYS: Highlights of a Dangerous Life (Enigma) After doing their impression of an Australian cowpunk band who want to be the Rolling Stones covering the New York Dolls' version of Archie Bell's "Showdown," they turn back into an Australian cowpunk band. And with that lead-in, get away with it for a side. B

SALIF KEITA: Soro (Mango) As he showed those few who heard the sole U.S. release by his Ivory Coast-based Ambassadeurs (on Rounder in 1984), this albino Mali nobleman is one of Africa's great singers. Like his Senegalese neighbor Youssou N'Dour, he's Francophone with Islamic projection, and like anybody this side of Jackie Wilson he falls short of N'Dour's purity and range. But he's old enough to compensate with experience, by which I mean not savvy but feeling and authority. And now, his ambassadorial ambitions largely thwarted, he's making his world pop move solo, recording in Paris with French musicians black and white. Though there's nothing as awkward as the "Rubberband Man" N'Dour committed with similar intentions, the arrangements sacrifice a quantum of groove for dramatic effects that wouldn't sound out of place on an Elton John record, and wouldn't wash there either. The way the choral work calls up the musical interludes of a Hollywood safari movie is one of the record's attractions. Needless to say, an attraction ain't all it is. B

MEAT PUPPETS: Huevos (SST) The rebound from the almost meaningless Mirage is right there in the title. This one not only means "balls" in Spanish, which translates "punch" in the intractably sexist dialect of rock and roll. It also means "eggs"--in fact, it mainly means eggs. And while the lyrics do tend to glimmer away like heat rising off asphalt, they start from an everyday place anyone can see. Sometimes it's funny: "Whoa, crazy, got myself a job." Sometimes it's pissed: "You said you'd make it grow/ You said you'd make it green." Sometimes it's cheerful: "I got a shirt that cost a dollar twenty-five/ I know I'm the best-dressed man alive." And sometimes it's goddamn euphoric: "This is paradise." A MINUS

THE MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (S) This isn't a phonograph album, it's a documentary--audio verité proof that the great rockabillies called black men "colored guys" and each other "boy." Also that they knew and loved all kinds of music, which always bear repeating. But I guess the immemorial working title of this legendary event misled me. Fine as the three voices overheard by the Sun tape recorder were, I keep waiting for Elvis, Carl, and Jerry Lee to coalesce into a group. And spontaneous as the family sing is, I keep waiting for the session. B PLUS

SINéAD O'CONNOR: The Lion and the Cobra (Chrysalis) Lots of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, goodly helpings of Irish folk and European art, touches of Laurie Anderson and Diamanda Galas and Patti Smith. Some U2, probably; Jesus, maybe some Horslips. Titles like "Troy" and "Jerusalem" and (what?) "Just Like U Said It Would B." Gaelic recitation. Loads of melodrama--loads. Yet let me tell you, there's something really riveting about the way she wails and screams and piles on the percussion effects, and "I Want Your (Hands on Me)" is as sexually obsessive as Kim Gordon at her most slatternly. Squeaky Fromme isn't the only one who can shave her head and make something of it. [Original grade: B plus] A MINUS

REDD KROSS: Neurotica (Big Time) Convinced that a life is a wonderful thing to waste, the McDonald brothers devote theirs to writing better songs than Blue Cheer and the Barbarians--and rocking out harder, too! References to Gandhi, George Harrison, and Buffy Sainte-Marie establish their historical breadth, insults to their girlfriends their punk roots. And only their new drummer's hippie-dippy love throwaway holds a candle to any of the '70s schlock-metal covers they came up on. B MINUS

MARVIN SEASE (London) The ten-minute "Candy Licker" isn't so much audacious as preposterous, which isn't going to stop collectors and others from craving their own cache of "I want to lick you till you come." Elsewhere Sease is an ingratiating soul man who's totally unconscious of how anachronistic he is, probably because he thinks licking women till they come is the essence of modernity. B

THE SMITHS: Louder Than Bombs (Sire) Supposedly, Johnny Marr's unobtrusive virtuosity and subtle hooks saved Morrissey from drowning in his own self-involved wit, but on this U.S.-only retrospective of twenty-four previously uncollected songs I hear Marr and Morrissey gliding along on the crest of the same conversational cadence. Morrissey's nattering volubility can get annoying, but the cadence itself always has its charms, and just when you think you've had it he gets off a good line. One of my favorites goes "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera." B PLUS

THE SMITHS: Strangeways, Here We Come (Sire) Having conquered my wimpophobia to where I reflexively enjoy the supple smarts of their sound, I bore down anticipating even tastier goodies, and now I must face facts. In three of these songs somebody's dead or dying, in three more somebody contemplates murder, and in the rest somebody's in a selfish pet of the sort that led to the aforementioned threats. So the liveliest tracks are where somebody's dead or dying: AIDS song, biz song, song about how selfish and petty you feel when somebody you've raged at actually dies. B

THELONIOUS MONSTER: Next Saturday Afternoon (Relativity) It's an old trick, this articulateness-in-inarticulateness, but in the words, the singing, the drumming, even the guitar (though you can tell the guitarist wants to be good real bad), this joke hardcore band that got lost on its way to college definitely has a bead on it. Start with side two, which rises from the singer as jollied-along asshole into smart and almost straight dope on Pleasant Valley teens, then quickly devolves into won't somebody come over, unhousetrained dog, demented half-audible vamp, and "Tree 'n Sven Orbit the Planet," which is an instrumental, as it damn well better be. B PLUS

TIFFANY (MCA) As a commercial strategy, following a merely schlocky cover of a schlock-rock classic with the better of two schlock ballads was aces--number-one singles, double-platinum LP, what more could a svengali ask? But she's got better in her. This is a fantasy album about the growing pains of a wholesome California teen, flexing her sexuality slightly as she moons over that soulful Mexican boy, with two schlock classics of its own: "Should've Been Me," jealously obsessing on an ex-boyfriend's jacket, and "I Saw Him Standing There," which drags a rock and roll classic through the mud by its cheesy Prince-schlock synth riff. Beatlemaniacs who aren't even dead yet will roll over in their graves. I can't wait. B

BEN VAUGHN COMBO: Beautiful Thing (Restless) Unlike many comedians, this mild-mannered male chauvinist is funniest when he lets on how clever he is, as in "Jerry Lewis in France," "Growin' a Beard," and "I'm Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)," only one of which he was clever enough to put on his first U.S. album. He'll never be a Crenshaw (definitive "Brenda Lee"), but his rockabilly as whisper and idea has gained oomph--if he lets it all hang out he may eventually be as commercial as the Morells (definitive "Growin' a Beard"). B

YOUNG FRESH FELLOWS: The Men Who Loved Music (Frontier) Bands this funny have to be funnier than they ever are to be as good as bands this smart want to be. Which isn't to say I don't enjoy most of the jokes and treasure several, like "When the Girls Get Here" ("We'll talk about integrated circuits and things") and "Amy Grant" ("Barry/Barry White"). B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Two late-breaking best-ofs for you. Tom Robinson's The Collection 1977-87 (EMI import) may go heavier than need be on the early work of an artist whose albums all hold up fine if you happen to own them, but it reminds us that gay rock and roll needn't be arch or confrontational to maintain its own identity. For the laser-equipped, The Ultimate Box Tops (Warner Special Products CD) thrashes Rhino's Greatest Hits soundwise (digital remix of a spare production ideal for the process versus the usual indifferent pressing) and contentwise (beyond the great hits, the bluesy soul young Chilton loved versus worse-than-usual pop collectorama).

Village Voice, Feb. 23, 1988


Jan. 26, 1988 Apr. 12, 1988