Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Though I don't listen to jazz knowledgably or systematically enough to review it much, this month's Pick Hit hit me square in the sensibility. In Honorable Mention I've listed a few related items, ranked with even fewer pretensions to absolute authority than usual.


DENNIS ALCAPONE: Forever Version (Heartbeat) In the dawn of toasting, well before dancehall or rap, Alcapone played Hammer to U-Roy's PE, stealing pop hooks for the fun of it rather than constructing remixes as deep as his ideological posture. And he's a lot wittier than Hammer. Expostulating, cheerleading, butting in, fabricating duets with local heroes who have worse to worry about, he acts like the best parts of his favorite hits belong to him. And even if that's only because entertainment law hasn't hit Kingston, it's a truth for the ages. A MINUS

CHRIS BELL: I Am the Cosmos (Rykodisc) Protopomo chameleon Alex Chilton had so much Anglophile in him he didn't need this full-fledged Beatle obsessive to create Big Star's world-historic Radio City and suicidal Third. And where Chilton evolved toward bent cabaret-rock, Bell's secret vice was folkiedom. But it's clear from Bell's very posthumous solo album--recorded mostly in 1975, three years before he slammed his TR-6 into a telephone pole--that Big Star was his idea. Stuck inside of Memphis with the Liverpool blues again, so pop-against-them he never fully grasped the function of the rhythm section, he was every bedroom bohemian who ever drove 300 miles to see the Kinks. Yet at the same time his spiritual yearnings are hippie on "I Am the Cosmos" (adolescent self-absorption at its most sex-starved), Southern on "Better Save Yourself" (in Jesus's name, amen), and both on "There Was a Light" (God meets gurl as if Bell's truly secret vice was Al Green). A MINUS

BODY COUNT (Sire/Warner Bros.) Exploiting and burlesquing the style's whiteskin privilege from "Smoked Pork" to "Cop Killer," Ice-T's metal album takes rap's art-ain't-life defense over the top. Not only does he off pigs, he murders his mom--because she taught him to hate white people. Then he cuts her up, sticks her well-catalogued body parts in Hefty bags, deposits same all over this great land of ours, and suggests that listeners with parents on the racist tip follow his example. For Satanism he tangles with a voodoo queen and enters the "Bowels of the Devil," a/k/a the state pen. He wilds with Tipper's 12-year-old nieces, fucks his "KKK Bitch" in the ass when a rally gets his dick hard, and fakes an orgasm for good measure. And like any long-haired frontman worth his chart position, he sings a tender ballad--in which a coke fiend steals enough money to buy the best shit, then goes cardiac when he smokes it. A MINUS

ALEX CHILTON: 19 Years: A Collection of Alex Chilton (Rhino) Even if Chilton approved the selections himself, his retrospective isn't what it ought to be--we get half of Third (with "Thank You Friends," "Jesus Christ," and other goodies left to the spiffy new Rykodisc reissue), the Lust/Unlust seven-inch (no Ork seven-inch), bits of the eminently excerptable Like Flies on Sherbert (no Bach's Bottom), dollops of mid-'80s spurt (no "Under Class" or "Dalai Lama"). So you were expecting maybe Exile on Main Street? If Chilton had ever figured out his calling, he would have made a living at it; he's the EP king because coherence and endurance mean less to him than quantum physics (which he no doubt studied on his own when that dishwashing job dried up). You can't excerpt such an eccentric to anybody's satisfaction but your own, and even then you couldn't build an hour's momentum. But listen to any three cuts in any order and I guarantee you'll get off on two-and-a-half. A money-saving introduction to his self-abusing pop and Southern-hipster r&b. A MINUS

THE DISPOSABLE HEROES OF HIPHOPRISY: Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury (4th & B'way) As critics kvell, skeptics eye their p.c. quotient: a black rapper with white adoptive parents and Asian American DJ who subsumes his racial analysis in an explicitly antihomophobic, antixenophobic leftism and allies himself with the Piss Christ and the Dead Kennedys. And for sure a few of the ideas are pat or simplistic and a few of the metaphors flat or anticlimactic ("politics is merely the decoy of perception"? wha?). But if Michael Franti is no Linton Kwesi Johnson, neither was LKJ at 25. His wordslinging isn't quite Chuck D., subject of the ballsy imitation/tribute/parody/critique "Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury," but his intellectual grasp thrusts him immediately into pop's front rank--I'd put money on his thought quicker than Michael Stipe's or Michelle Shocked's, not to mention Richard Thompson's or Black Francis's. And then there's the DJ that isn't--with crucial help from Consolidated's Mark Pistel, industrial percussionist Rono Tse is a one-man hip hop band. He creates more music than he samples, stretching Bomb Squad parameters to carry the tracks whenever Franti falters. I'd like to think the two could penetrate right to hip hop's fragmented core. But if they never achieve full cultural resonance, their art will have to suffice. And it will. A MINUS

FUNKYTOWN PROS: Reachin a Level of Assassination (Peace Posse) All clenched throat and quick internal rhymes, Boiwundah disdains "white green," and he knows how to brag: "I'm the debate master, you're just a masturbator." His hybrid hard is as self-invented as Kool Moe Dee's or Def Jef's, without the sexual or cultural baggage. Even stronger "coffee with no cream" comes from his DJ cousin Devastatin', who states his business with a "Big Payback" loop and never retreats. At their most bodacious--check the twisted horn intro/refrain on "Here Me Now, Believe Me Later," which could have been ripped bleeding from late Miles or choice Art Ensemble--his beats are as out as JB's spaciest and jazziest. In short, this unaffiliated L.A. crew deserves better than to go down in the juice wars. B PLUS [Later]

GEORGE JONES & TAMMY WYNETTE: Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (Epic) In art if not life, this was a rich, amazing marriage, goofy and tragic at the same time. Anybody who thinks Tammy got nothing but trouble from the same old him should compare this "My Elusive Dreams" to the David Houston classic. Anybody who thinks serial monogamy equals mental health should try and giggle at the Louvin Brothers' "When I Stop Dreaming." Anybody who thinks novelty songs say nothing new should check the postconjugal intimacy of Bobby Braddock's "Did You Ever." A fitting companion to volume one--just press stop before the inspirational finale. A MINUS

KRONOS QUARTET: Pieces of Africa (Elektra Nonesuch) Since even the title acknowledges the expropriations that must ensue when you invite African composers to submit to your sincerely panhumanist but ultimately Eurocentric string quartet, I feel a little p.i. enjoying this. And since my ignorance of string quartets matches my ignorance of Moroccan, Sudanese, Gambian, Ghanaian, Ugandan, Zimbabwean, and post-Afrikaner pan-Africanism, I also feel like a fish out of water. But despite the third-stream stiffness of the groove, the most accessible tracks give off the same calm melodic charge as the sweetest mbira and kora music. And I'm never one to refuse the cheap thrill of an exotic timbre--I love my bottleneck, but oh you pizzicato! A MINUS [Later: Neither]

BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS: Talkin' Blues (Tuff Gong) With Joe Higgs standing in for Babylon-shy Bunny Livingston, the seven songs they recorded before an audience of half a dozen at the KSAN studios one morning in 1973--maddeningly interspersed with separately tracked bits of a 1975 interview that make a CD you can program a must--isn't just the best live Wailers I've ever heard, but the best Wailers I've ever heard. The ensemble--which by the time of 1976's Live! will substitute the dutifully beautiful I-Threes for his male mates and adjust the instrumentals to arena scale--is at a supple, subliminal peak of interactive intimacy and intensity. The previously unreleased "Am-A-Do" plus three later outtakes are a letdown only by comparison. A MINUS

DAVID MURRAY: Shakill's Warrior (DIW/Columbia) Murray is the most fluent saxophonist this side of Sonny Rollins, a far more expansive leader than King Wynton. His new big-band album serves up plenty of thrills and chills; hell, when he composes a string quartet I'll give it a shot. But I reserve the right to believe that his least pretentious record is his best. Backed by swinging beatmaster Andrew Cyrille on drums and tasty high school bandmate Stanley Franks on guitar, Murray enlists Don Pullen on organ in a knowing encomium to lounge r&b. Though too often the Hammond B-3 is a one-way ticket to Cornytown, Pullen the pianist is capable of clusters as abstract (not to say unlistenable) as Cecil Taylor's, and the tension works perfectly: his harmonic cool keeps the music honest and a little strange without ever stinting on emotion. As for Murray, you know he can blow--hot and hard, warm and soulful, sly and sleazy. He even rollicks through a Rollins-style calypso. The title tune owes Sammy Davis Jr.'s "The Candy Man." And the moody avant-garde move "Black February" swings anyway. A PLUS

SOCIAL DISTORTION: Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell (Epic) Like their sceneboys Bad Religion, these hardcore holdouts get over on a saving touch of trad: where Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz break into anthem, Mike Ness gives new meaning to hard honky tonk. And where Graffin and Gurewitz ponder the fate of humanity, Ness universalizes his personal problems like millions of unhappy male chauvinists before him. Me, I'd rather the other guys had made a career album. But as all four of us know, life is unfair. B PLUS

KELLY WILLIS: Bang Bang (MCA) Up till the Joe Ely conceit she goes out on, this 22-year-old doesn't get a single lyric worthy of her lusty-voiced appetite for decent love. She claims she'll wrap her pipes around any original her drummer husband hands her, but since the five on the debut are down to a sane two here, there's reason to hope that next time her Nashville handlers will put her in touch with an actual female songwriter. Would Lucinda Williams be asking too much? B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Bob Marley and the Wailers, One Love (Heartbeat): 1963-66 Studio One ska/rocksteady--gems you'll play again amid curiosities you'll be glad you heard once ("Who Feels It Knows It," "Bend Down Low," "Hooligan," "Let Him Go")
  • Johnny Griffin, The Cat (Antilles): tenor sanity ("The Cat")
  • Astor Piazzolla, Love Tanguedia (Tropical Storm): less subtle than the American Clave versions (I count five repeats), but not so as newcomers could tell ("Return to Love (Regreso al Amor")
  • Big Star, Live (Rykodisc): Radio City, loose and in person ("O My Soul")
  • John Anderson, Seminole Wind (RCA): new label effect--it's no secret you feel better when you try ("Straight Tequila Night," "Who Got Our Love") [Later: ***]
  • World Saxophone Quartet and African Drums, Metamorphosis (Elektra Nonesuch): most prefer their Africa less hectic, their jazz more straight-ahead ("The Holy Man," "Metamorphosis")
  • Marshall Chapman, Inside Job (Tall Girl): just the gal to cool Kelly down ("Real Smart Man," "Come Up and See Me")
  • Culture, Three Sides to My Story (Shanachie): ital keybs, natural percussion ("Armageddon")
  • Machines of Loving Grace (Mammoth): humanist industrial ("Cicciolina")
  • Bad Religion, Generator (Epitaph): in lieu of the future, they'll accept nice neighbors and the occasional stroll ("Too Much To Ask," "Generator")
  • Joe Higgs With the Wailers, Blackman Know Yourself (Shanachie): they are family ("Blackman Know Yourself")
  • George Jones, And Along Came Jones (MCA): new label effect II ("I Don't Go Back Anymore," "You Couldn't Get the Picture")
Choice Cuts:
  • Tracy Chapman, "Bang Bang Bang" (Matters of the Heart, Elektra)
  • Paleface, "Burn and Rob" (Paleface, Polydor)
  • Tammy Wynette, "Unwed Fathers" (Best Loved Hits, Epic)
  • Tracy Lawrence, "Sticks and Stones" (Sticks and Stones, Atlantic)
  • Gail Davies, "Unwed Fathers" (The Best of Gail Davies, Capitol)
Duds:
  • David Byrne, Uh-Oh (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)
  • Def Leppard, Adrenalize (Mercury)
  • Lorrie Morgan, Something in Red (RCA)
  • Astor Piazzolla, Maria de Buenos Aires (Milan)
  • U2, Achtung Baby (Island)

Village Voice, Apr. 21, 1992


Mar. 3, 1992 June 2, 1992