Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Not a single record below was released in 1989. This is what we in the rock world call concept. It's also called catching up. Every entry was endorsed by the Pazz & Jop electorate or handicapped by your faithful Dean, sometimes correctly. Next month, next year.


JAMES BROWN: Motherlode (Polydor) Damned if I noticed "People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul" on the Slaughter's Big Rip-Off soundtrack, but for nine minutes it climaxes the instrumentals and vamps on side two of this revelatory-as-usual Chris White vault job, bopping along on some swinging souly-funk genre cusp of its own--not "Sex Machine," but in the same worth-the-price-of-admission league. The spare, curlicued "Untitled Instrumental" is more like jazzy-funk, the rest just JB playing rough and getting loose in the halcyon early '70s. Which come to think of it is also worth the price of admission. A MINUS

COWBOY JUNKIES: The Trinity Session (RCA) One consequence of the rootsy two-track recording is that despite her austere-to-impoverished arrangements and bell-like murmur, it's often hard to understand what Margo Timmins is saying--is she driving to "Nashville" or on "ash-fault"? The tempos don't help either--takes her many seconds to get from subject to predicate. Leaving us with the usual oxymorons--histrionic understatement and vague specificity. Why is she so sad? She just is, that's all. C PLUS

DONNER PARTY (Pitch-a-Tent) Like Camper Van Beethoven, who started the label in their DIY days, they're sardonic ethnic/folk-rock postpunks, just as Kaleidoscope and the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band were sardonic e./f.-r. hippies two decades ago. I don't know why northern California does this to its bohemians, but rootlessness must contribute; rootlessness fertilizes popular culture, forces it to reach out. As in their fabulous folk-punk name, these postteenagers are fascinated by mortality--their most striking songs are about infancy, ingestion, illness, fucking yourself up, and various commonplace-to-horrible vicissitudes. They're postteenage psychologically as well as chronologically because they don't romanticize death--just joke about it a lot. A MINUS

JOE ELY: Dig All Night (Hightone) Not one track runs under four minutes. Not one reveals why he was ever mistaken for country. Not one was written by Butch Hancock, by anybody but Joe--though he did get help on the title tune, which suggests a self-knowledge otherwise in retreat. B MINUS

FLIPPER: Sex Bomb Baby! (Subterranean) They had another classic in them after all, or call it a semiclassic--all the stuff from their moment that didn't make the classic. On 12 inches of vinyl (three extras make the cassette/CD too much of a bad thing), the six sides of single (including the impossible "Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly") and three compilation cuts (including a live "Ever" that climaxes with Woodstock warnings for hardcore brats) sound made for each other. And the fanzine flexidisc adds that soupcon of shit. A MINUS

GUNS N' ROSES: G N' R Lies (Geffen) Axl's voice is a power tool with attachments, Slash's guitar a hype, the groove potent "hard rock," and the songwriting not without its virtues. So figure musical quality at around C plus and take the grade as a call to boycott, a reminder to clean livers who yearn for the wild side that the necessary link between sex-and-drugs and rock-and-roll is a Hollywood fantasy. Anyway, this band isn't even sex and drugs--it's dicking her ass before you smack up with her hatpin. (No wonder they're doing an AIDS benefit.) "One in a Million"--"Immigrants and faggots/They make no sense to me/They come to our country/And think they'll do as they please/Like start some [garbled]/Or spread some fucking disease/They talk so many goddamn ways/It's all Greek to me"--is disgusting because it's heartfelt and disgusting again because it's a grandstand play. It gives away the "joke" (to quote the chickenshit "apologies" on the cover) about the offed girlfriend the way "Turn around bitch I've got a use for you" gives away "Sweet Child o' Mine." Back when they hit the racks, these posers talked a lot of guff about suicide. I'm still betting they don't have it in them to jump. E [Later]

GUY (Uptown/MCA) Until you absorb the beats and focus in on Aaron Hall, Teddy Riley's main band sound like almost arrogantly anonymous light funksters. Riley would always rather insinuate than overwhelm, and Hall lacks the chops and the inclination to soul anybody out--learned his main shit from the Gap Band and Stevie Wonder. He often sounds like he's winging it. But where Bobby Brown and Al B. Sure! play the love man falsetto straight, Hall adds depth by straying toward the manly emotionalism of the church. And unlike most light funksters, Riley doesn't aspire to slow ones. A MINUS

JANE'S ADDICTION: Nothing's Shocking (Warner Bros.) The Dream Syndicate in the age of metal worship, a/k/a Alice Cooper revisited. Of course, Alice didn't get this good until album three. Then again, album three had "I'm Eighteen" on it, and the new guys aren't humble enough to try for one of those. Or lucky enough to get one--as Alice has spent his life proving, talent didn't have much to do with it. But if they stick at it like the pros they'll be, they might land an "Only Women Bleed." B MINUS

MORY KANTE: Akwaba Beach (Polydor) Maybe those who find Afropop too ethnic will appreciate the confident compromises of this Guinean griot turned Malian pop star turned Parisian bandleader. Unlike his rival Salif Keita, he considers dance music his mission--even the title song, a romantic showcase for his flawless tenor, maintains a groove. Not out of hopes for world peace did his hyped-up arrangement of the traditional "Y K Y K" become a giant single in Europe last year--his mix of brass, synths, polyrhythm, and kora is a typically hokey Eurodisco alignment. And it sure beats house by me. A MINUS

PAUL KELLY & THE MESSENGERS: Under the Sun (A&M) Disinclined though I am to believe that styles just wear out, I note that when this inspired wordsmith doesn't get it right he sounds corny--not just on a gaffe like "Desdemona," but on the sex tropes of "Happy Slave" or the frontier boogie of "Forty Miles to Saturday Night." Problem's those foursquare Messengers, the rock and roll band of a wordsmith's dreams--never threaten his suzerainty for a second. Granted, when he's outlining a young fool's marriage in "To Her Door" or the story of his life in "Dumb Things," it's just as well they don't. But you know his admirers feel all warm inside when they hear that moderate four-four, never suspecting that "Forty Miles to Saturday Night" would sound corny from Hsker D. B

K.D. LANG: Shadowland (Sire) Whether claiming Nashville for torch song, joining Tracy Chapman's New Dignity movement, or embalming country the way title-tunesmith Chris Isaak embalms rockabilly, Lang resembles Patsy Cline (or whomever) less than the Pet Shop Boys--impossible to suss out her relationship to music she presumably loves. B

MARLEY MARL: In Control, Volume 1 (Cold Chillin') Best sample: the horny blast that introduced Grandmaster Flash on "Freedom" and honors him on M.C. Shan's show rip of the same name. Lean JBeats, nasty scratches, and stolen dialogue keep the likes of Craig G. and Heavy D. moving--who knows, maybe someday they'll outdo themselves too. But like any ace producer, Marl is no better than his talent--certainly no better than Master Ace, who stands out from the crowd on the party-starting "Simon Says" (not a 1910 Fruitgum tribute) and speed-rapped "Keep Your Eye on the Prize" (and you were too cool for Channel 13). N.b.: Roxanne Shant's "Wack Itt" is her fourth straight mistresspiece. Where the hell's her album? B PLUS [Later]

METALLICA: . . . And Justice for All (Elektra) Problem isn't that it's more self-conscious than Master of Puppets, which is inevitable when your stock in trade is compositions not songs. Problem is that it goes on longer--which is also inevitable when your stock in trade is compositions not songs. Just ask Yes. C PLUS

MIDNIGHT OIL: Diesel and Dust (Columbia) After not figuring out who Peter Garrett sounded like (sotto voce Roger Waters slightly, Peter Gabriel not at all, Peter Hammill not really, David Bowie what else is new), I decided his animadversions were in fact generic, and not in a bad way--he hectors like a crank politician would hector if the politician were a rock singer. Since this rock singer is in fact a crank politician, his authenticity requirement is thus satisfied. Nor is it a bad thing that his band is hooking it up these days. Garrett remains irritating even as you start singing along in spite of yourself, which is all anyone can ask of a crank. B PLUS

PET SHOP BOYS: Introspective (EMI-Manhattan) What a cerebral band--if they keep on at this rate, they'll inspire more deep thinking than David Bowie and Henry Cow combined. The textures on their bubble-salsa statement are so cheesy that it takes forever to penetrate to its intellectual essence, which lends the cheese its savor. And as a pop aesthete I'm offended by the pace--average cut length on this six-song disco mix is a languorous 8:20. Guess I'm just a sucker for lyrics that give Ch Guevara his due. A MINUS

RAI REBELS (Virgin) Lewd bellydancer music rocked by angry young men semi-improvising to a click track for producers who add the accompaniment afterwards--how could it not be great? Lots of ways, especially if you don't feel Algerian culture or speak Arabic (though any rock and roller will dig those gutturals). With its mad intensity and funkadelic guitar, "N'Sel Fik" may stand forever as rai's (and multi-instrumentalist Rachid's) one transcendent moment. Take the rest as a visit to exotic modern-day Oran, poised between old and new . . . B PLUS

SCRITTI POLITTI: Provision (Warner Bros.) Wonder how much Green knows about Immanuel Kant, who rhymes with "Gaultier pants"--more than you or me, probably, and less than he should before he starts name-dropping. But thereafter he strives to right his arty rep. The ones that begin "Gonna get that girl," "I wanna get 'em girl," and "Get you girl" proceed as you'd expect, into a flighty funk of positively offensive banality. I always thought his pretentions were kind of fun myself. C PLUS

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS: Lincoln (Restless/Bar/None) XTC as computer nerds rather than studio wimps--change for chord change and beat for irrelevant beat, they're actively annoying even if intelligence is all you ask of your art-pop. Except maybe on the antiboomer "Purple Toupee," side one's hooks begin and end with "Ana Ng," a beyond-perfect tour de force about a Vietnamese woman they never got to meet; until "Kiss Me, Son of God," which closes the album and could be anti-Castro if they let it, side two's are cleverness for cleverness's sake. And damned clever they are. B PLUS

TIFFANY: Hold an Old Friend's Hand (MCA) Maturity doesn't become her--exchanging schlock-rock remakes for still more Hollywood readymades, she's hellbent for biz divahood and may well get there. But she hasn't shed that husky Valley-girl drawl quite yet. B MINUS

VOICE OF THE BEEHIVE: Let It Bee (London) California girls meet Brit rockers for fun and profit--in Britain, which explains how they chose one of the stupidest names in the history of fun and profit. They're not twee, I swear it. In fact, this could be the first Bangles album, back when the femme quartet took no shit and wrote like it did them good, except that it's brasher in rhythm and guitar--not so Anglophile, so twee. "The beat of love is a nasty one" sums up their worldview, and if unlike Joan Jett they don't relish it, they also don't deny its sick appeal. Stay single and keep your heart off your sleeve is their solution, and I hope for our sake they buy it for another album or two. A MINUS

Village Voice, Mar. 14, 1989


Jan. 24, 1989 Mar. 28, 1989