Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

As usual, my annual Pazz & Jop supplement supplement is dominated by records I like and records my colleagues overrate. Plus the Dirty Dancing of 1989, which makes you wish the word "oldie" could be stricken from the language. Pairs nicely with the Pick Hit, though--as it would with the closest contender, Negativland.


THE AFRICAN TYPIC COLLECTION (Virgin) Annotator-cocompiler Jumbo Vanrenen's latest Afrodisco sampler showcases the Caribbean-Camerounian rhythm--designated "makassi," and don't ask me to tell you more or recognize it on the dance floor--that was the making of Sam Fan Thomas, who has his name on three of the six cuts and his fingers in two others. As the owner of one Thomas LP, I hereby certify that this one is more catchy, infectious, and all the other meaningful things Afrodisco samplers should be. It closes corny with a "Peter Gabriel inspired" (oh dear) Mandela tribute, opens fresh with an acoustic-guitar-based mesh of African dances. In between, relentless genericism does its number. A MINUS

BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS: It's the Talk of the Town and Other Sad Songs (Hannibal) In which 16 Netherlanders pay pomo tribute to near-tragic pop like "I Cover the Waterfront," "I Get Along Without You Very Well," and "A Cottage for Sale." About half the songs (the earliest from 1927, the latest from 1949) are new to me, and if I'd grown up with the originals, I might find the conceptual distancing a distortion, even a sacrilege. But at this late date it's their salvation. The four vocalists, who betray just enough accent to remind you where they're coming from, honor the era's well-enunciated conventions with care, and Roland Brunt's jazzy sax undercuts the violins without patting itself on the chops. If they were French they'd overdo the camp or the sincerity, but the Dutch have the mercantilist knack of respecting a culture for its natural resources. In fact, at this remove they probably understand it better than we do. A MINUS

KATE BUSH: The Sensual World (Columbia) The longing for contact and obliteration are themes grand enough to support a little grandiosity, and because she's smarter than the average art-rocker, she brings something worth telling to them--even something worth "expressing." She knows herself better, too; typical that her roots move is Trio Bulgarka rather than some Afro-source having nothing to do with who she is. Just wish she convinced me the Trio Bulgarka had more to do with who I am. The title song could give Henry James a boner. The one where her beloved turns into Hitler is art-rock. B

GALAXIE 500: On Fire (Rough Trade) Who needs world-beat when indie darlings might as well be singing in Tagalog? I don't mean the words are physically or even semantically incomprehensible, either. Twinkies and decomposing trees and staring at the wall do break through the fog; motivated, I could probably construct a lyric sheet. But just like Lisandro Meza or Chaba Fadela, only not as well, what they produce for the curious outsider is a sound--halting, folk-psychedelic guitar signatures that establish each song's atmosphere. With "Isn't it a pity/Isn't it a shame/How we break each other's hearts/And cause each other pain?" the measure of their wisdom, verbal motivation isn't on the agenda. B

GRANT HART: Intolerance (SST) Playing all the instruments (notably a Hammond C-3), he sounds more spontaneous than his former bandmate's fully interactive new wave supergroup. After all, Hart was the hummable Hüsker--nothing like a simple tune to create that off-the-cuff feel. Also, he generally says what he means. But for all his drug-drenched vicissitudes, he doesn't know quite enough to go it alone. B

MICHAEL HURLEY: Watertower (Fundamental) His core audience couldn't be much over 2000, and since I'm on its fringe, I don't much care that this typically unheralded, offhand, and tardy acoustic collection will make no converts. He still writes more calmly and curiously about the great beyond than anyone. What's more "Broadcasting the Blues" and "I Paint a Design," break thematic ground--television and professionalism, respectively. B PLUS

THE JAYHAWKS: Blue Earth (Twin/Tone) Gram Parsons comparisons get you nowhere, but I'm not kidding--this is the obliquely songful followup the Burritos never made. Mark Olson is spared Parsons's obsessions and probably his genius. When he sings about death--there are three angels in the first four songs, two grievous though not identified as such--you suspect Gram rather than Thanatos got him thinking on the subject. But his "Commonplace Streets" are his own. A MINUS

JIVE BUNNY AND THE MASTERMIXERS: The Album (Atco/Music Factory) These evildoers sample as if enacting a worst-case scenario for the copyright mafia--except that they pay for the privilege, which means the copyright mafia doesn't even suffer as a result. And they trivialize every stupefyingly obvious piece of music they touch. Little Richard to Everlys to Cochran to Elvis to Haley--it's like being stuck on a tight-playlist oldies station that's afraid you may get a new idea about one of its touchstones if you hear it all the way through. So for perversity's sake I got one anyway: the big-band components of these syndrummed pastiches demonstrate that the great rupture wasn't as precipitous as we thought--that '50s teens lindied to rock and roll because the music swung. Which is fine with the evildoers, who mean to convince the '50s generation (and anybody else who'll buy it) that Chuck and Elvis have advanced on the nostalgia scale--that they're now as safe as the music our parents liked. This is the opposite of recontextualization, which suggests new meanings in familiar (and not so familiar) music, thus recharging it. Somebody sue the motherfuckers for crimes against history. D

KMFDM: UAIOE (Wax Trax) In both reggae and rock modes, this twisted Belgian dance band is groovier than the noise norm--positively sinuous sometimes, especially on the pick-to-click "Murder." Guest vocalists--metal heldentenor, spliffed-up toaster--add personality, risking the verboten corn. Yet the product emerges unscathed. Dare to struggle, dare to win. B PLUS

LENNY KRAVITZ: Let Love Rule (Virgin) For a black Jewish Christian married to Lisa Bonet who overoveroverdubbed his Hendrix-Beatles hybrid himself, not bad. But that's a lot of marketing to live down. B MINUS

DANIEL LANOIS: Acadie (Opal/Warner Bros.) In which Lanois adapts the all-embracing New Orleans groove to new age--not soft or lite or adult contemporary--rock. It has that intellectual aura, you know? Contemplating the human condition in sound as well as folkish words and melody, the mild-voiced Eno crony pieces together compositions that are half song, half "atmosphere" (as in "The atmosphere for this goes back a few years"). And tops them off with just you guess--"Amazing Grace," dummy. B MINUS

EDDY LAWRENCE: Whiskers and Scales and Other Tall Tales (Snowplow) You know the routine--local folkie sets down with a couple of stringed instruments and lets fly. It works or it doesn't; usually it doesn't. But Lawrence is showing off so much eye, ear, and imagination that his stories barely require the appearance of music. Try the catfish farmer. Or the Marine's big-talking little brother. Or the bigamous lady trucker with the girlfriend in Wisconsin. Or Tommy's mommy's swami playing hide the salami. He's even moderately funny about fishing. B PLUS

MICHEL'LE (Ruthless) People say I sound like a baby, but I'm a hundred per cent woman," she chirps on "Special Thanks," most of them tendered to the usual sexist suspects surrounding her producer and guest rapper, N.W.A.'s Dr. Dre. A rapper she's not--like Bobby Brown or Al B. Sure, she's a singer in a rap world, and though her voice is less surprising when she doesn't talk, she gets the decibels up there even with her warble set on squeal. She can liquefy like Chaka or Teena, too, which is impressive even though neither songstress could get away with these slow ones. The fast ones hint at what an L.A. woman has to do to get the sexist suspects to stop calling her a bitch with the tape running--act half-nice, half-nasty (in a word, "Nicety"), and assume real love is her prerogative. B PLUS

MINISTRY: A Mind Is a Terrible Thing To Taste (Sire) Industrial's edge on metal is anonymity--unlike major-brand sonic barrage, it presents itself as resultant rather than expression, music/noise emanating from a society/culture. It's objective; it doesn't imply a subject. This illusion boosts the music/noise's impact and authority while rendering it virtually indistinguishable from itself (as well as difficult to access from what's human/humanist in our aesthetic sense). The bestselling Chicago version gets faster and purer with every release. Even when Alain Jourgenson raps, or apes (hires?) John Lydon, I could give a fuck who he is or what he thinks. Which is essential to the intended sensation. B PLUS

DANIEL OWINO MISIANI AND SHIRATI BAND: Benga Blast! (Virgin) Not all that easy to tell this Kenya-recorded '80s-spanning compilation from Shirati Jazz's London-recorded 2/11/87 Benga Beat even though Misiani is missing from the earlier release, which consists entirely of material penned and cut/recut by members of the band he continued to lead 25 years after he invented it. Quality does emerge: Misiani's writing is catchier, and he's good for an extra measure of vocal and instrumental authority despite the U.K. production's superior audio. But what defines both is the still-delicate benga sound, uncommonly folkish for modern Afropop even though the soukous competition has prodded it toward what passes in Kenya for revisionist HI-NRG. Sweet and beaty. A MINUS

NEGATIVLAND: Helter Stupid (SST) These Bay Area naysayers have made a conceptual leap--they're like Double Dee & Steinski refracted through the Firesign Theatre, manipulating found (and sought) spoken-word segments over ironic musical segues and backgrounds. Each side-long satire flows and coheres, suitelike on the seven-part "The Perfect Cut," motif-style on the disinformation symphony "Helter Stupid." Dominated by '70s audio promotions and trade ads, "The Perfect Cut" makes a more telling case against commercial radio than any smug media theory (or "alternative" programming). And "Helter Stupid," the fallout from a phony press release implicating one of their songs in a teen ax murder, orchestrates a hash of socially conscious cliches--sensationalism, rock censorship, random violence, gun control, assassination, even that rotten horse the broadcast evangelist--into a funny, slightly scary, dumbfoundingly surreal demonstration of why those cliches so excite rock-culture left-liberals. Because they're all scary, that's why. A MINUS

NRBQ: Wild Weekend (Virgin) First cute, then peculiar, then annoying, their callow act is turning positively perverse as they twinkle-toe past 40. "Boy's Life" and "Immortal for a While" are only where they state their interest in so many words--everywhere Joey Spampinato's eager eternal-adolescent whine rubs up against Terry Adams's sly grownup changes. They may be smart enough to consider this a creative tension, but it isn't. It's an evasion--a fib as opposed to a lie, kiddies--and it isn't funny anymore. B MINUS

GRAHAM PARKER: Human Soul (RCA) Latest objects of his bottomless rancor: sugar, hamburgers, mailman (black). But not his lost youth--his lost youth makes him feel all gushy inside. C

SEDUCTION: Nothing Matters Without Love (A&M) If I harbored the slightest weakness for disco ballads--sit-down harmony numbers with side-opening titles like "Give My Love to You" and (the hit) "(You're My One and Only) True Love"--I could go all the way with these girls. They sing, they rap, they sex it up; they honor Rob Base and Taana Gardner with subtle samples and proud savoir-faire. I say the murmured "a mountain of spices in the arms of the desired" could almost be Coleridge (all right, Rossetti). My wife says it sounds like Sidney Sheldon. And therein lies their charm. B PLUS

TECHNOTRONIC: Pump Up the Jam: The Album (SBK) Fitting that true house's first true smash should prove a fountainhead of formal innovation, albumizing the genre's natural configuration, the 12-inch, with followups that suggest remixes--alternate versions of Ya Kid K's unjustly maligned punk-house songtalk and the technogroove underpinning the smash. There's also a male rapper who rhymes "posse" and "bossy" (ho!). If you love the single as much as you should, the album will keep you going. And if you're in thrall to moribund aesthetics, there are other songs on it. A MINUS

Village Voice, Mar. 13, 1990


Feb. 6, 1990 Apr. 3, 1990