Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

The Dud of the Month feature continues, right before Additional Consumer News, but I see no need to depict the offending album unless I have nothing better to do--like depict a box.

AZAGAS AND ARCHIBOGS (Original Music) Most of these 22 pre-Biafran War dance-band highlifes are just 45s with names on them from the Decca West Africa vaults in Lagos--only three decades later, almost nothing is known of the multilingual Charles Iwegbue & His Archibogs beyond the band intro on "Okibo," or of the raucous Aigbe Lebarty & His Lebartone Aces except that he seemed to be from around Benin. There's not even a consistent style to grab onto, and the overall effect is a lot less suave than that of stars like E.T. Mensah or Sir Victor Uwaifo. They take a long time to sink in. But in the end I get a kick from every one. The will to fun that's palpable in this music isn't anonymous. It's--and I don't give a fuck if this is a naughty word in these anti-essentialist times--universal. A MINUS

JOHNNY CASH: The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983 (Columbia) As a critic, a surrogate consumer, and a mortal whose four-score and hoping dwindles too quickly as it is, I hate boxes. But once I'd steeled myself for this 75-song monster, I almost downed it in one sitting. Like Bo Diddley, another minimalist who improves with time, Cash gains monumentality as one spare track builds off another toward infinity. Nashville icon though he may be, Cash's Dylan connection no longer seems anomalous--he's certain to be numbered among the century's great folksingers. The tuneless delivery and stark-to-received arrangements always serve the purposes of an artist who puts words first. He's as class-conscious as Woody Guthrie if not Irwin Silber, and if he doesn't prove that Jack Clement and Shel Silverstein are people's composers, which he may, he certainly establishes that John R. Cash is. A

NENEH CHERRY: Homebrew (Virgin) She's marked out a meaningful piece of turf: sophisticated secondhand homegirl, personally decent and artistically accessible, a friend to rely on. But where the lithe beats and uncorny sonics flesh out the concept and jolt every track, the lyrics settle for honest. "The choice is mine/With my ordinary joy and pain inside" is up toward the high end, with "Money talks love is for real" and "How long can we be this way" too typical. Personal to Yo Yo: consider a career in rhyme medicine. B PLUS

DIGABLE PLANETS: Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (Pendulum) The title's about escaping oppression and mortality, fleeing social madness and physical contingency into a spiritual realm of your own, and I say they get away clean. As the Godfather taught and the Planets agree--on "Escape-Ism" and "Escapism (Gettin' Free)," respectively--all music is escapist one way or another, a symbolic/sensual refuge no matter how cerebral, demanding, or hard to take. The test is the alternate reality it creates, and by exploiting the solid tunes and light feel of jazz from Sonny Rollins to Lonnie Liston Smith, these hip hop bohemians come up with a credible one. The airy delicacy of their sampled groove seems magically hyperreal in this pop context, transforming Butterfly and Doodlebug's weakness into wit and Ladybug's sambalike skippity-skip into a come-on that's equal parts sexuality and self-respect. The specific "Pacifics," about Sunday in New York, respects the literal here-and-now more observantly than any number of gat-filled street whoppers, and "La Femme Fétal," about Butterfly's conversation with a female friend, is the most humane, didactic, and politically informed prochoice song ever recorded. They could be in for some nasty moments if they expect full acceptance in the so-called hip hop community, but what can you do? Alternate on over here. A

PETE JOHNSON: King of Boogie (Milan) The hero of Big Joe Turner's "Roll 'Em Pete" was third man on a boogie-woogie totem pole topped by Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. All three formed duos; occasionally they even ganged up into a trio I'd love to hear. But on the basis of the records I know I'll just note that the hierarchy was designed for jazzbos. Especially on this mostly solo Hot Club of Paris session, but also on Delmark's small-combo Central Avenue Boogie, Johnson is the barrelhouse piano player of rock and roll dreams--he plays more fast ones and flexes more right-hand muscle. So I prefer him straight up--sidemen just get in his way. A MINUS

E.T. MENSAH: Day by Day (Retroafric) This isn't the music that revolutionized Ghanaian highlife circa 1948--it's the music that rationalized it a decade or so later. On the sweeter, simpler, early-'50s All for You, you can hear how Mensah must have jolted local swing worshipers when he pared down the horn sections and added beaters and shakers from Cuba and Trinidad. But like so many musicianly concepts, his synthesis flowers as his players gain assurance and chops, and for that matter so do his songs, rendered in six different languages and (at least) five different rhythms. Though the segue from the Twi "Traditional" "Kaa No Wa" to the Spanish "Congo" "Senorita" is genuinely surprising, it also makes perfect sense. It sounds like an artist at ease in a world of music that exfoliates out from the place he calls home. A MINUS

MORRISSEY: "Your Arsenal" (Sire) Most consistent solo set to date from talented singer-songwriter who made his name fronting popular British cult band the Smiths. Highlights include the plaintive "Seasick, Yet Still Docked," the kindly "You're the One for Me, Fatty," the cynical "Glamorous Glue," the cynical "Certain People I Know," the cynical "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful," and the satiric (we hope) "National Front Disco." A MINUS

RAMONES: Mondo Bizarro (Radioactive) More like an old country singer (George Jones leaving Epic, say) than the world's greatest rock and roll band (greater than Mick's side project, anyway), Joey and whoever (Johnny credited on guitar, Dee Dee cowriting two good songs, Marky ditto, C.J. singing Dee Dee) do right by their formula. Reasons to believe: the Dee Dee ballad Joey sings, and the Beach Boys tribute that goes, "Touring, touring, it's never boring." A MINUS

SCREAMING TREES: Sweet Oblivion (Epic) Despite lyrics beholden to Mark Lanegan's attention-grabbing baritone, a big spooky aspiring commodity fetish that puts quantity before quality in the feeling department, these Northwest veterans have started roiling and hooking and knocking 'em dead at the very moment they seemed ready to expire of corporate torpor--not Kurt & Co., but definitely good for a fix. It isn't just songs, which are in evidence on their SST best-of and discernible on their Epic product, and before you credit the production, which must help some, ask yourself why Don Fleming can't do the same for Gumball. My theory: they got a new drummer, just like Kurt & Co. Hey, you never know. B PLUS

STEELY & CLEVIE PLAY STUDIO ONE VINTAGE (Heartbeat) Maybe it's mouldy-fig of me to prefer this to the dancehall Steely & Clevie Present Soundboy Clash. But having listened dutifully through the Studio One reissues, I ought to recognize something here besides "Fatty Fatty," so you can't convince me "vintage" means sure-shot. And with Leroy Sibbles, Alton Ellis, and Marcia Griffiths the big names, the singers are pretty anonymous as well. I say this one flies on rhythm tricks that can't carry any old toast by themselves plus songs that cried out for more juice than Sir Coxsone and his minions had in them. A MINUS

SWEET TALKS--HOLLYWOOD HIGHLIFE PARTY + A.B. CRENTSIL--MOSES (ADC import) Two complete albums, both considered classics, both featuring the colorful character who saved Ghanaian music from James Brown--and Osibisa, who were so impressed they bankrolled a band for him when his luck went bad. How Ghanaian Crentsil's music is I couldn't say, since highlife was Westernized to begin with, but at least he brought in palm-wine guitar and African narrative strategies, as the goofy translation of "Moses" makes as clear as is appropriate. The seven earlier cuts, recorded on a 1978 U.S. visit, fall in the five-minute range and will charm if you give them a chance. The two later ones, recorded in 1983, fall in the 16-minute range and will recede unless you read along. A MINUS

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS: Apollo 18 (Elektra) For a stunning five-song run toward the start, they replicate the brittle brilliance that tricked their old fans into expecting a tour de force every time. The packed pop-pomo pastiches make the redolent meaninglessness of near-literal lyrics signify and sing, softening you up for the more scattered experiments that follow. Which include the XTC-does-Bo-Diddley "Hypnotist of Ladies," the 22-part "Fingertips" ("I'm having a heart attack/I'm having a heart attack"), the brittlely brilliant "Dinner Bell," and "Narrow Your Eyes," which if I'm not mistaken is about the actual dissolution of an actual relationship. A MINUS

NEIL YOUNG: Lucky 13 (Geffen) As David Geffen himself would concur, though perhaps not in a brief, Neil's non-Reprise period was a mess even for him--Reagan, techno, horn sections, rockabilly takeoffs. But despite the arrangements and the unavoidably jarring segues, just about every one of these 13 selections therefrom (only four available in this precise form, only two totally unfamiliar) is a Good Song. And this is all we have a right to ask--except that Trans be reissued as a CD. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

ERIC CLAPTON: Unplugged (Reprise) Qua Grammy-winner, this is as dismal a testimony to the biz's longing for respectability as Unforgettable--on the podium, Clapton resembled no one so much as James Galway. On the other hand, it's stupid to hate the thing because you think laid-back is a sign of death. 461 Ocean Boulevard is laid-back and brilliant; what's wrong with this inoffensive stopgap is that it doesn't come close. Relegating Clapton-the-electric-guitarist to the mists of memory and capturing Clapton-the-pop-vocalist in a staid mood only an adrenalin junkie could confuse with the sly somnolence of "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Willie and the Hand Jive," it turns "Layla" into a whispery greeting card while proving for the umpteenth time that these days he's even worse off when he emotes. Those willing to pay their respects without purchasing "Tears in Heaven" would be better off with his 1991 entry, 24 Nights, which is also live--or with 1980's Just One Night, ditto. B MINUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • The Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde (Delicious Vinyl): surrealism in African American life, middle-class cutup division ("Ya Mama," "If I Were President," "It's Jiggaboo Time")
  • Neil Young, Harvest Moon (Reprise): mean length of Harvest track not counting six-minute opus: 3:14; mean length of Harvest Moon track not counting 10-minute opus: 4:37 ("Old King," "Harvest Moon")
  • Alex Chilton, Blacklist (New Rose import): the Shakespeare, or Gregory Corso, of the EP ("Little GTO," "Guantanamerika")
  • Drink Small, Round Two (Ichiban): "You know I've made a lot of albums/Trying to get national attention/But what it seem like now I'm gonna be a old man/Living off a pension" ("I'm Tired Now," "Widow Woman")
  • Midi, Maxi & Efti (Columbia): ragamuffin world-pop, Anglophone Ethiopian-Swedish division--light as a feather, sank like a stone ("Ragga Steady," "Poppadink Tribe")
  • 3Ds, Hellzapoppin (First Warning): down dirges and squeaky-fast dissonance for the insatiable pomo tunehound ("Hellzapoppin," "Outer Space")
  • Soul Asylum, Grave Dancers Union (Columbia): great tunes, corny songs ("Without a Trace," "Somebody To Shove")
  • Rage Against the Machine (Epic Associated): metal for rap-lovers--and opera-haters ("Wake Up," "Know Your Enemy")
  • The Movement (Arista): jump, jump, jump, jump, don't OD, bingo, yo mama, ("Jump!," "B.I.N.G.O.")
Choice Cuts:
  • Gang Starr, "The Illest Brother" (Daily Operation, Chrysalis)
  • They Might Be Giants, "We're the Replacements," "Hey Mr. DJ, I Thought We Had a Deal" (Miscellaneous T, Bar/None/Restless)
  • Tom Tom Club, "Who Wants an Ugly Girl?" (Dark Sneak Love Action, Sire/Reprise)
  • Tori Amos, Crucify (Atlantic)
  • Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes (Atlantic)
  • Da Lench Mob, Guerrillas in the Mist (Street Knowledge)
  • Bob Dylan, Good as I Been to You (Columbia) [Later: B+]
  • Sophie B. Hawkins, Tongues and Tails (Columbia)

Village Voice, Mar. 9, 1993

Jan. 26, 1993 Apr. 6, 1993