Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Not how I'd planned it, but the month went to fusion instead of my Amerindie brethren and sistren--and, oh year, to world beat, JA and African divisions, with lots more knocking at the door.


AC/DC: Blow Up Your Video (Atlantic) The brutal truth is that sexism has never kept a great rock-and-roller down--from Muddy to Lemmy, lots of dynamite music has objectified women in objectionable ways. But rotely is not among those ways. I mean, these guys have never known how to throw a party. Sure their costumery is good for a laugh, but Brian Johnson shrieks too much, which gets positively painful as he grows hoarse with the encroaching years, and they've always been stingy with their famous killer riffs. Their reunion with Vanda & Young no more signals their renewed determination to make good albums than Elton John's reunion with Bernie Taupin. It signals commercial panic, and unlike Elton they're unlikely to reverse their downward sales path over the long haul. I eagerly await their retirement and the dynamite best-of I trust will prove subsequent upon it. C PLUS

KING SUNNY ADE: The Return of the Juju King (Mercury) Shortly after he split with Island, Adé also split with the African Beats, which may be why this fifty-five-minute compilation from three recent Nigerian LPs never generates that familiar aura. Could also be the weakness of digital remixers for percussion. Talking drum fans'll love it. B PLUS

ART OF NOISE: In No Sense? Nonsense! (Chrysalis) First dislocated electrohop, then zap-pow disco, now shards of soundtrack--genteel yodels and heavenly choruses and string quartets, "Crusoe" and "A Day at the Races" and "Dragnet" (the "real" one). And for their next trick, postmodernist Muzak so funny you'll forget to laugh. B MINUS

BLACK UHURU: Positive (RAS) Sly and Robbie won't knock you out, but on Uhuru's best records they never do--given the right songs and performances, all they have to do is make them righter. Junior Reid is now a raspy soul wailer in command, which not so paradoxically gives Duckie Simpson and Puma Jones more room to express themselves, and harmonize too. And while the bootstrap capitalism of the title tune is more Babylonian than the self-made Reid knows, "Pain" and "Dry Weather House" and Simpson's climactic "I Create" place blame with a negativity nonbelievers can relate to. A MINUS

DINOSAUR JR.: You're Living All Over Me (SST) The singer implores in a childish whining drawl while dramatic paradiddles and sculpted streams of molten garage guitar enact one more nostalgic reconciliation with AOR metal. But this one isn't on metal's terms (too winsome), or AOR's either (what they arrange is sloppiness). All these growing malcontents want is a little structure and meaning in their lives. Is that so much to ask? B PLUS

RONALD SHANNON JACKSON: When Colors Play (Caravan of Dreams) It's good that Jackson's avant-fusion sounds like no one else's and a little confusing that it always sounds exactly like itself, presenting the average consumer with the jazz-rock equivalent of the choice among Ricky Skaggs albums. As always, this studio-tight live set is dominated by andante unison statements of medium-complex themes that sometimes break down into vamps for counterpoint. It leans more than usual toward both small-group jazz ("Blue Midnight"'s blue saxophones) and hard fusion ("Good Omen"'s raving guitars). Skaggs's live album is one of his best, too. A MINUS

GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS: All Our Love (MCA) The CD-era duration does indulge Knight's middle-class vices. At twenty-eight minutes for six songs that are longer on melodrama than break beats, the second side is like a suburban living room that seems overfurnished even though all the pieces are in the best contemporary taste. But Knight has one of those burgundy voices, designed to age, and since her albums have rarely done it justice, the edgy writing and overall strength of this multiproducer soul-dance-pop-whatever comeback is a gift. B PLUS

LAST EXIT: The Noise of Trouble (Live in Tokyo) (Enemy) The return of free jazz was inevitable in this time of '60s nostalgia, and believe me, it could be a lot worse. At least Bill Laswell and Ronald Shannon Jackson revert to rhythm when the path of pure inspiration peters out, and Sonny Sharrock is without sonic peer. Somewhat less imposing is the group's unacknowledged center, West German saxophone legend Peter Brötzmann, but Ornette himself couldn't make consistent music out of a concept that eschews not only heads but rehearsal, and he probably wouldn't want to. Consistency's not the idea--becoming is, and those who'd rather watch childbirth movies may have a point. All three of the group's albums are live. Last Exit documents the blinding headache of their first gig and is often played by Lester Bangs to keep angels and rock critics away. My sentimental favorite is Cassette Recordings 87--because its Jimmy Reed cover is "Big Boss Man," because its "Ma Rainey" mentions Alexander Pope, and because half of it was recorded in Allentown. But this is the one that actually comes together. The so-called suite kind of is, "Panzer Be-Bop" is pure atonal convergence, and Herbie Hancock sticks in his two cents like he knows what for. B PLUS

MIRIAM MAKEBA: Sangoma (Warner Bros.) It's disorienting at first to hear women singing what sounds like mbube, and though the weave would be richer (and more competitive) if most of them weren't this fifty-five-year-old matriarch, whose still-powerful voice has definitely thickened, the disorientation is salutary--South African pop is very male. Half the tunes are gorgeous and all of them are traditional, drawn from a cross-section of tribal cultures dominated by Makeba's clicking Xhosa. But they're not recreated, which usually means embalmed at best--they're interpreted for the studio, which permits Makeba her overdubs and enables Russ Titelman to lock in the spare accompaniment. There's even a synthesizer, and damned if I can tell exactly where. A MINUS

POWER TOOLS: Strange Meeting (Antilles) Obliging fellows that they are, Ronald Shannon Jackson and Melvin Gibbs cede this trio to guitar tastemaster Bill Frisell, yielding his strongest music and their nicest. Somehow the effect is basically atmospheric whether they're new-aging "Wadmalaw Island" or covering "Unchained Melody" or wrecking "The President's Nap" or pulling out the rage on "Howard Beach Memoirs." Yet somehow they're always funky as well. Nice and strong--especially nice. B PLUS

DAVID LEE ROTH: Skyscraper (Warner Bros.) In which the Van Halen parody of his debut LP gives way to the Vegas parody yeah-sure of his predebut EP. Instead of speed-metal, speed-Sinatra: while Steve Vai and Brent Tuggle make noises that once employed whole phalanxes of AFM members (brass and strings, respectively), Dave shares with us the wit and weary wisdom gained in his career at stud. C PLUS

SARAFINA! (Shanachie) Maybe I should lighten up and let this album do what an original-cast album is supposed to--evoke the theatrical experience, which as it happens surpassed any phonographic one to come my way in 1987. But I've always believed evocation should be a side effect, and as a thing-in-itself, this is no South Pacific or West Side Story, not to mention Threepenny Opera or Indestructible Beat. Mbube rubs shoulders with mbaqanga sitting atop Jo'burg jazz giving way to musical-comedy declamation: the guitarist is great, the drummer isn't, and the young singers do what they're told. If you want to know what the show is like, go into hock and check it out. A complete killer. B

THE SONNY SHARROCK BAND: Seize the Rainbow (Enemy) Despite a patch or two of signature chaos, this is as accessible as good jazz-rock gets. The beat is assured by stalwart bassist Melvin Gibbs and two drummers, jack-of-all-avant Pheeroan akLaff and sometime Benatar-Earland henchman Abe Spellman, and as he approaches fifty the most fearsome noise guitarist of the '60s is nurturing not only a taste for melody but a gift for it. Like his solo album, his group's debut is uncommonly beautiful and direct without flirting with the saccharine or the simplistic. And like his solo album, it gets even better after you put it away for a while. A

SHIRATI JAZZ: Benga Beat (Carthage) Benga is a vaguer term than the notes suggest, indicating any modern Kenyan dance-pop, not just Luo but Kamsa or Luhya or Kikuyu, that moves the light and rather folkish Kenyan guitar sound toward the big-time West African competition as it explores tribal rhythms of more meaning to Kenyans than to us. Without their guitarist-leader, self-crowned "King of Benga," Owino Misiani, Shirati Jazz recut some hits in London for this collection, a good thing in what is largely an ill-recorded singles music. They do sound light and rather folkish to me--delicate without juju's cosmopolitan intricacy, rhythmic without mbaqanga's urban drive. But in exotics, charm counts for plenty. B PLUS

SISTER BREEZE: Riddym Ravings (ROIR) Prey to moralizing condescension like all self-appointed spokespersons for the downtrodden, Jamaica's female dub poets do enjoy one advantage over their brethren--they see through the male supremacism that suffuses the island's alternative culture as well as its official ideology. This former schoolmarm leads both sides of Heartbeat's 1986 Woman Talk anthology on conceptual reach alone, and here she gets to put her theatrical experience to work, impersonating both a big-talking petty criminal and a girl from the hills gone paranoid schizophrenic in NYC. The riddyms and the eco-African rhetoric could be deeper, but this is one propagandist who isn't afraid to admit how fucked up struggle can get. B PLUS

SQUEEZE: Babylon and On (A&M) The most noticeable of Difford & Tilbrook Mark II's three LPs is a case study in pop-star devolution, suffused with the regrets of successful young professionals who drink too much liquor, smoke too many cigarettes, and don't want to be alone any more. Their best song is about how they really don't understand Americans, most of the rest leech off love lives that comprise long successions of small failures, and where once they were storytellers, now they've withdrawn into metaphor--surprisingly murky metaphor for such detail specialists, with lots of time references. B MINUS

CHRIS STAMEY: It's Alright (A&M) After two excessively eccentric solo LPs, Stamey's new wave supersession is excessively conventional, subsuming his mad pop perfectionism and repressed inner turmoil in mere well-madeness. Under the leader's iron thumb, Fier, Lloyd, Easter, Worrell, and the pack push all the right buttons, even the one marked Liftoff, thus transporting those who've been waiting five years for their hero to take them for a ride. B

KEITH SWEAT: Make It Last Forever (Elektra/Vintertainment) For credentials the next big love man proffers beats on the slow ones and lyrics whose seduction strategy is never to offend. The lyrics don't define either, which is no surprise, just the usual disappointment; the beats prove Teddy Riley New York's answer to Jam & Lewis. So the fast ones are fine. They're also outnumbered. B

THUNDER BEFORE DAWN--THE INDESTRUCTIBLE BEAT OF SOWETO VOLUME TWO (Earthworks/Virgin) This compelling version of mbaqanga is preeminently a music of professional rhythm sections--the legendary Makgona Tsohle Band driving Mahlathini's cuts, the guitar-organ motor behind Amaswazi Emvelo. Unlike such urban roots musics as Chicago blues or Memphis soul, it doesn't mess much with laid-back--as deep into street action as punk, its forward motion is almost frantic with joy, which may mean it's less joyful than we assume (and it pretends). It's no shock that the level of inspiration doesn't match Volume One's--how many miracles do we get in a lifetime?--but the falloff in warmth is a little disappointing. Only Jozi's "Phumani Endlini" has much pastorale in it, and only the three instrumentals cut life much slack. My favorite comes from Malombo, a "black consciousness" band who've always seemed pretentious to read about, but whose haunting understatement bears the same relationship to this nonstop anthology as Ladysmith's pop spirituality did to its vigorously secular predecessor. A MINUS

BUNNY WAILER: Rule Dance Hall (Shanachie) Bunny follows his failed bid for the marketplace by going to the people where his roots are. The results are definitely more ital, and more philosophically defensible as well. But the first side doesn't update his circa-1982 reggae&b quite nicely enough, and except for the "Stir It Up" remake, the songs on side two are a little too dubwise--abstractly dance-specific in the usual manner of disco turned in on itself. B

Additional Consumer News

Let me catch up with a few rap records. Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" (Def Jam) is an abrasive barrage of musical politics that's ruling the clubs as I write. If it's not on your circuit, you owe the only undeniably great record of 1987 a checkout. Roxanne Shanté's "Have a Nice Day" (Cold Chillin') is even spunkier than her premotherhood debut, with Marley Marl providing the identibeats and the ridiculous title refrain the perfect capper to all her dis. Just-Ice's "Going Way Back" (Fresh) is a tough yet laid-back reminiscence of rap's good old days that finally convinces me he belonged there. L.L. Cool J's unrelenting "Jack the Ripper" (Def Jam) is the B side of "Going Back to Cali" and proves that maybe he doesn't belong there, rising to Kool Moe Dee's insults with a JB rip that cuts the cutter's. Forget the crimson assholes of BMOC and go for white rap that's really offensive--Big Stick's well-meaning, wrong-headed, abrasively specific anticoke "Crack Attack" (Buy Our). M.C. Lyte's "I Cram To Understand You (Sam)" (Priority) is a crack attack from the p.o.v. of a girlfriend who wants to finish high school without making a thing of it. Mr. X & Mr. Z's "Mr. X & Mr. Z Drink Old Gold" (Urban Rock) makes malt liquor addiction sound like an improvement.

Time for another reject list, all records I've played twice or more and want to get off my shelves and keep off yours. The order is roughly descending, though the temptations of categorization have yoked a few pretty fair albums with some dead ducks. No Cigar: Last Roundup: Twister (Rounder); LeVert: The Big Throwdown (Atlantic); My Dad Is Dead: Peace, Love and Murder (Birth); Stetsasonic: On Fire (Tommy Boy); Angela Winbush: Sharp (Mercury). Maybe They Should Form a Supergroup: Snooks Eaglin: Baby, You Can Get Your Gun (Black Top); Raful Neal: Louisiana Legend (Fantastic); Mason Ruffner: Gypsy Blood (Columbia); Buckwheat Zydeco: On a Night Like This (Island). They Mean Well: Cindy Lee Berryhill: Who's Gonna Save the World? (Rhino); Peter Broggs: Cease the War (RAS); Stan Campbell (Elektra); Green on Red: The Killer Inside Me (Mercury); Leaving Trains: Fuck (SST); Light of Day (Epic); The Sound of Deep Ellum (Island); Style Council: The Cost of Loving (Polydor); The Washington Squares (Gold Mountain). I Won't Dance: Colonel Abrams: You and Me Equals Us (MCA); Mico Wave: Cookin' From the Inside Out!!! (Columbia); Sylvester: Mutual Attraction (Warner Bros.); Wendy and Lisa (Columbia). Rap Lives, but Not Here: Davy D.: Davy's Ride (Def Jam); Heavy D. and the Boyz: Living Large (MCA); Skinny Boys: Skinny and Proud (Jive). New Wave: Alien Sex Fiend: The Impossible Mission (PVC); The Bears (P.M.R.C.); Faith No More: Introduce Yourself (Slash/Warner Bros.); Felt: Song of the River (Creation); Guadalcanal Diary: 2 X 4 (Elektra); Joneses: Keeping Up With the Joneses (Dr. Dream); The Railway Children (Virgin); Silencers: A Letter from St. Paul (RCA Victor). Yuck: Brandos: Honor Among Thieves (Relativity); Belinda Carlisle: Heaven on Earth (MCA); Cher (Geffen); Del Fuegos: Stand Up (Slash/Warner Bros.); Foreigner: Inside Information (Atlantic). You Can't Go Home Again: Fearless Iranians From Hell: Die for Allah (Boner).

Village Voice, Apr. 12, 1988


Feb. 23, 1988 Apr. 26, 1988