Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Fewer A-list features, more Honorable Mentions. Overproduction remains a fact of life, and that's always gonna be what it means.


THOMAS ANDERSON: Blues for the Flying Dutchman (Blue Million Miles import) Like most iambic story-songs, Anderson's yarns, plaints, and fables improve when they rock out a little. The putdowns of classy ex-girlfriends get annoying, but his old lit prof Larissa would seem to deserve every word, and from petroleum to Nash the Slash his historical conundrums make sense or no sense as the case may be. Most important, he rocks out like somebody who expected more than he got from Nash the Slash--and remembered it when he founded Angry Young Grad Student Music and opted for singer-songwriting. A MINUS

THE AUTEURS: New Wave (Caroline) Deeply cynical, deeply tuneful, lead everything Luke Haines reconceives the Pet Shop Boys as a guitar band, writing about what he knows--the bedsit-bohemian fringe. He housesits, he parks cars, he goes to the library, he disses astrology and thrift shops and his low-rent showbiz family. All that's missing is a temp job in word processing. He ain't heavy, he's your brother. A MINUS

GILBERTO GIL/JORGE BEN: Gil E Jorge (Verve) Always ready to go further out on a beat than the other samba/bossa geniuses, they walked into a studio in 1975 and spread nine songs over 78 minutes. With percussion up front and snatches of English on the order of "Blue, blue sky/Blue, blue sea" reinforcing all the repetitions and nonsense syllables, the renowned lyricists were playing a rhythm game, and they won. They don't just vamp till ready--they vamp to live, vamp for the sheer open-ended joy of it. A MINUS

GRATEFUL DEAD: Two From the Vault (Grateful Dead) The preserve of a huge, insular cult accustomed to rendering its very real aesthetic discriminations within a context so uncritical no outsider need pay them the slightest mind, the Dead's music has disappeared into the mythology it engendered. They were a great band--probably still are on the right night. But trying to convince an unbeliever is like trying to tell a stranger about LSD. Recorded in August 1968, when Pigpen McKernan was still living in his body, these nine songs include all six on the classic Live/Dead; playing is comparable, audio superior. Great drummers were hard to come by in the hippie era, and the Dead were too discursive to want one anyway--Bill and Mickey rocked out by revving tempo and volume and letting Pigpen take it away. But often the Dead's ruminations have content--they listened more responsively than any other band of the era. And on solos of over a chorus or two, Jerry Garcia stands as the era's most inventive guitarist short of Hendrix and Page. God they were a trip. A MINUS

ICE-T: Home Invasion (Rhyme Syndicate) At first it sounds as if the bad guys won--from sexy stories to o.g. kissoffs, he spends too much time proving he's still Ice Motherfucking T. But in fact he contextualizes himself as shrewdly as ever. He may write the misogynist rhymes--"I got an ill side that drips from my brain," he explains--but he leaves the worst to DJ Evil E and 2 Live Crew sicko Brother Marquis, the unspoken conceit being that some black men think women are hoes just like some black men wanna off cops, and that every one of these black men deserves to be heard. Which I buy, sort of, while noting that in the lead track a narrator posing as Ice-T offs a cop himself, and not for the last time. Unfortunately, most of the claims to hard prowess are of small interest in themselves. "Addicted to Danger" is a shrewd gangsta fable; "99 Problems" takes bitch-talk over the top where it belongs; Grip plays his Yo-Yo; the carefully phrased "Race War" and the self-aggrandizing "Message to a Soldier" and the amazing "Gotta Lotta Love" (is that a bridge? in a rap song?) are as politically felt as the greatest PE. But in a rapper as musically expedient as Ice-T, pro forma lyrics drag the project down. Blame them on the bad guys. B PLUS

KANDA BONGO MAN: Soukous in Central Park (Hannibal) Prolonged comparison to 1988's Kwassa Kwassa and 1991's Zing Zong reveals distinctions so subtle I can't swear they're there. I'm certain guitarist Nene Tshakou is slightly fleeter and more lyrical (if less dazzling) than Diblo Dibala, who went on to make greater records than the boss after helping him reinvent soukous, and that Tshakou was having a good day. And I'd guess that maybe the boss's music tends to take off--lifts, grooves, accelerates--in front of an audience. For sure neither live audio nor live song length are drawbacks. For sure the material is choice. Start here. A MINUS

LIVING COLOUR: Stain (Epic) The best thing about this excellent record is how hard it crunches. From the antiliberal "Go Away" to the propansexual "Bi," the first four songs combine simplicity and smarts like no big-guitar music since vintage Aerosmith, and these smarts ain't stoopid. After that the songwriting dips some, although God knows they write about alienation as knowledgeably as any college-rock band. The weak link is Corey Glover, who still sings too well for his own good (cf. Jack Bruce). The fresh blood is Doug Wimbish, who still plays great (also cf. Jack Bruce). A MINUS

MASTERS OF REALITY: Sunrise on the Sufferbus (Chrysalis) Sonically this accomplishes the feat their 1988 album proposed--to cross the spare power of Cream with the mystic majesty of Led Zeppelin. If Chris Goss's failure to transmute himself into Eric Page is as unfortunate as it is inevitable, his ability to sing with more humor than Jack Bruce is neither, and I'm pleased to report that Ginger Baker makes a difference. As do lyrics that add a homely edge just when you're ready to fend off a Pete Brown poem or 3-D epic. I recommend the one called "Ants in the Kitchen," which is homely with a mystic edge. And the novelty number "T.U.S.A.," in which Uncle Ginger proffers his homely, just beef about American restaurants and tea bags. A MINUS [Later: ***]

P.M. DAWN: The Bliss Album . . . ? (Gee Street) Success has transformed Prince Be from stereo potato into overweight lover, a phrase he lifts without attribution, and like all his multifarious appropriations, this one fits him like a caftan--flatteringly, commodiously, with room to move around. Truth, sincerity, and so forth are probably present and definitely beside the point. Whether he's rapping or crooning, boasting or begging, dishing out a verbal beatdown or plumbing the sacred essence of "Norwegian Wood," his aesthetic constructs are their own socially significant reason for being. As long as he's circumspect enough to allude to his mysterious religious beliefs rather than promulgate them, he'll be a force for good in a world that generates too many misfits and not enough b-e-a-u-t-y. A

SHANTÉ: The Bitch Is Back (Livin' Large) As politically incorrect as the dickheads she disses, Shanté scorns "bitches" and "hoes" (and "hookers" and "sluts" and "bull daggers") who think they can rap--that is, every female rival you can think of, many of whom she calls out by name in the scabrous "Big Mama." She claims to rhyme her own, but she only had her name on three tracks last album, which was four years ago, and this one doesn't bother with writing credits. So if in her world the original is still the greatest, that world exists mostly in her own mind. The thing is, though, it also exists on her records. Because she still is the greatest--she just is. Her tone and attack and enunciation vie with Ice-T and Chuck D and Rakim. Her material is full of outrageous insults and filthy internal rhymes. And perhaps because hard is all there is where she comes from, her tough, jazz-tinged music is as fresh as the stuff gets these days. She's of limited use showing off a slow groove or going dancehall, and I'm not going to claim she's got redeeming value. But I'm not going to tell you "Brothers Ain't Shit" has nothing to say, either. A MINUS

THE VASELINES: The Way of the Vaselines: A Complete History (Sub Pop) Sloppy, silly, barely on the four much less the one, the 19-song studio output of Kurt Cobain's favorite obscure pub band is one of those punk miracles that makes you think anyone can do it just when you were convinced nobody ever would again. The pro in potentia is Eugene Kelly, now of Eugenius; the genius is his then-girlfriend Frances McKee. Toon topics include an acid trip, a dead cat, Catholicism, and coitus, which undergoes an array of ironically far-out genderfuck jokes that bespeak detailed experience of actual fucking. Kelly says the group broke up over "sexual differences." I'm sure he deserved no better. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

SHAI: . . . If I Ever Fall in Love (Gasoline Alley) Why are these putative paragons of sexual vulnerability so much more irritating than the rainbow-hued Color Me Badd, the blandly stylish Boyz II Men, or the utterly forgotten Ready for the World? It's not their indifferent singing and rapping, which are only to be expected. It's that they have no class and no sense of humor; they're too smarmy and too slow; they're big phonies. They epitomize the difference between seduction and betrayal--between shared lie and imposed illusion, rascal and bounder, rogue and complete asshole. There's not a winning wink on the entire album. And only "Waiting for the Day" ("When you can spend the night") offers up a fantasy with any educational potential for the fine females who lap up their shit. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • CB4 (MCA): the rap rainbow, from goof-off to off-whitey (Public Enemy: "Livin' in a Zoo," Boogie Down Productions: "Black Cop," CB4: "Straight Out of Locash")
  • Therapy?, Nurse (A&M): enthusiasts (in the religious sense) of despair (ditto) ("Accelerator," "Gone")
  • Eugenius, Oomalama (Atlantic): irony-pop gone garage-rock--hooky whether it steamrolls, trudges, or whines ("Breakfast," "Bed-In")
  • Sippie Wallace, Women Be Wise (Alligator): pushing 70 in '66, a womanist when there were no womanists passes the knowledge ("You Got To Know How," "Up the Country Blues")
  • Future House: Best of House Music Volume 4 (Profile): grooviest at its least techno, when it peels back house's soul to the kernels of melody underneath (Hyper Go Go: "High," S.A.S.: "Amber Groove," Liberty City: "Some Lovin'")
  • Paris, Sleeping With the Enemy (Scarface): he tries hard, but he could use a producer ("Bush Killa," "Make Way for a Panther")
  • South Central (Hollywood Basic): six timeless "Good Times" rips, five mortal pieces of hard, one pledge of eternal devotion (Vaughan Mason: "Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll," Ronnie Hudson: "West Coast Poplock," Spectrum City: "Check Out the Radio")
  • Abana Ba Nasery, ˇNursery Boys Go Home! (Green Linnet): "the guitar and bottle kings of Kenya"--sometimes charming, sometimes too charming ("Esiesi Siolle," "Elira Yesu Ndayanza")
  • The Pooh Sticks, Million Seller (Zoo): irony-pop gone hermeneutic--with nothing to say ("That Was the Greatest Song," "Sugar Baby")
  • Trespass (Sire/Warner Bros.): why hard dies hard (AMG: "Don't Be a 304," Ice-T and Ice Cube: "Trespass")
  • Old, Lo Flux Tube (Relativity/Earache): soundtrack to the horror movie in your dumb young mind--with band name to match ("Outlive")
  • Gilberto Gil, Parabolic (Tropical Storm): translations or no translations, you'll wish you knew Portuguese ("Where the Baiao Comes From")
  • Loudon Wainwright III, History (Charisma): at its best, why he needs the men's movement; at its worst, why you don't ("Talking New Bob Dylan," "Hitting You")
  • Wartime, Fast Food for Thought (Chrysalis): Black Flag goes electrofunk ("Right To Life")
Choice Cuts:
  • Wreckx-N-Effect, "Rump Shaker," "New Jack Swing II" (Hard or Smooth, MCA)
  • Bill Morrissey, "Inside" (Inside, Philo)
  • Trisha Yearwood, "Walkaway Joe" (Hearts in Armor, MCA)
Duds:
  • Apache, Apache Ain't Shit (Tommy Boy)
  • Sonny Burgess with Dave Alvin, Tennessee Border (HighTone)
  • Coverdale/Page (Geffen)
  • Rollins Band, The End of Silence (Imago)
  • Silk, Lose Control (Elektra)
  • Pam Tillis, Homeward Looking Angel (Arista)

Village Voice, Apr. 6, 1993


Mar. 9, 1993 June 1, 1993