Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Below find detailed explanations of why I like one Warner Bros. Minneapolis two-LP tour de force more than the other. But let me put it this way--the Prince has better lyrics.


BAD BRAINS: I Against I (SST) As a reggae band, they were a hardcore band with a change-up; as a metal band, they're a hardcore band with a great windup and no follow-through. The small problem is H.R.'s lyrics, which he's still smart enough to blur with the speed and attitude that make the lead and title cut their strongest song since "Pay to Cum." The big problem is Dr. Know, who's got a hundred Hendrix moves and no killer riffs. B MINUS

RUBéN BLADES Y SEIS DEL SOLAR: Agua de Luna (Elektra) Establishing his progressive credentials and his rock credentials simultaneously, Blades commits two progressive rock errors, relying on synthesizers for texture and literature for aesthetic complexity. It's a measure of his gift and his freedom from pretension that between his supple voice and even suppler groove he induces you to listen to the damn synths--and that the words sound (and translate) like they make sense until you bear down line by line. As I bet Garcia Márquez knows, this kind of compression isn't realistic or magical, much less both. It's an impressionistic code. B

D.O.A.: True (North) Strong and Free (Profile) These permanent punks not only had the discernment to cover "War" in 1982 but the breadth to link it up with the Dils' "Class War" and Ranking Trevor's "War in the East." Here they have the candor to join ranks with fellow clod and countryman Randy Bachman on an inspiring and sarcastic "Takin' Care of Business," and perhaps by osmosis, the roar into which the originals sink isn't as dull as usual. The protagonist of "Lumberjack City" takes care of business while drinking anything that comes in a barrel. "Bullet Catcher" is a policewoman who shouldn't have got shot. And fifteen years from now, some enterprising enemy of the star-spangled banner can make a roots medley out of their "51st State" and New Model Army's. B PLUS

SHEILA E. (Paisley Park) Without fear of humiliation or venereal disease, and without chumping for either, the real Janet Jackson shows the age of abstinence her underwear. Though it's all a show even if she fucks as much as she lets on, which I doubt, she has a sexy way of standing smack between the centerfold fantasies of Vanity/Apollonia and little sister's wishful bravado while kicking the grooves hitbound. B PLUS

STEVE EARLE: Early Tracks (Epic) Though they're nowhere near as lame as the artist claims (what do artists know? and why should they tell us about it?), these occasionally surprising studies in neotraditionalist rockabilly do lack that crucial aura of authority--the walking bass sounds more committed than the callow abandon when it should be the other way round. Still, side one won't disillusion, and two strokes shouldn't get lost on the B: the supernal male narcissism of "My Baby Worships Me," and "Devil's Right Hand," a ban-handguns parable you'd swear is as old as the Louvin Brothers. B

ROKY ERICKSON: Gremlins Have Pictures (Pink Dust) Live-and-studio outtakes for curiosity-seekers who believe maniacs are best appreciated in their natural surroundings. I say it proves maniacs need engineers, backup bands, and other accoutrements of civilization even more than the rest of us. C PLUS

AL GREEN: Soul Survivor (A&M) His boyish delicacy and mellow insouciance have roughened slightly with the years, but he can still muster that high moan, and here he bids to connect with unbelievers once again. The key's the covers, and those who consider "He Ain't Heavy" bad company for "You've Got a Friend" and vice versa should pause to recall "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart": just as the shameless yet muted poignancy of that homage dramatized the poignancy of Al's crossover dreams, the low-down show of agape he makes of these two universalist-humanist war-horses transports his Jesus fixation into the realm of schlock, where it fits in real nice. A MINUS

HüSKER Dü: Warehouse: Songs and Stories (Warner Bros.) They invented this barrage, and they've perfected it: for close to seventy minutes, songs rise out of the roiling seas like elephant seals, bellow their hooks, and sink sleekly away. But there's a downside to the overwhelming consistency of what those who take the title literally assume is a hodgepodge. Now that they've mastered the feat of yoking elemental noise and elemental melody, their power of musical expression has apparently rendered irrelevant the meaning of individual songs. So that almost as soon as you notice one--Grant Hart's "You're a Soldier," with its sermon to the enemy, or Bob Mould's "It's Not Peculiar," with its stuttered refrain--you're not sure you trust it. A MINUS

EVAN JOHNS AND THE H-BOMBS (Jungle) Johns is a local hero, a rock and roll crazy who lives for the music and whose undeniable gift doesn't do justice to the magnitude of his devotion. After years of fringe rockabilly in D.C., relocating to Austin has brought out the Doug Sahm in him. On "guitars, vox organ, lap steel, upright and electric bass, slide, harmonica, and lead vocals," he rolls out tune after generically catchy tune in his somewhat raspy drawl. Most of them are about purty girls and hellacious wimmin, but I can't even claim he deserves the latter, because the specifics just aren't there--the words are unfailingly good-humored and never anything more, including funny. My favorite cut is an instrumental named after its entire lyric, "Hey Whew!," but those so enamored of authenticity that they fake it can fool their collector fans by covering "Life Sentence in Love" or "Love Is Murder" or "Moonshine Runner" or "My Baby, She Left Me." B

JESSE JOHNSON: Shockadelica (A&M) I don't know what it means to you that he managed to spike this album with a classic fake-Prince single featuring the barely functional Sly Stone. To me it means he needs help--any help he can get. C PLUS

MADHOUSE: 8 (Paisley Park) This isn't "fusion jazz"--it's both more and less, which with "fusion jazz" are both good things. In the tradition of Rogers Nelson Dance Music Inc., it not only digs into rhythms jazzbos would dub mechanical, it also makes up new ones--while permitting the drums what sound like snatches of improvisation. Augmented by snatches of eavesdropped dialogue and one faked orgasm, the rhythms impose an ironic distance designed to discourage us from taking the assorted mood-to-avant clichés up top too seriously. And clichés they remain. B

PRINCE: Sign o' the Times (Paisley Park) No formal breakthrough, and despite the title/lead/debut single, no social relevance move either, which given the message of "The Cross" (guess, just guess) suits me fine. Merely the most gifted pop musician of his generation proving what a motherfucker he is for two discs start to finish. With helpmate turns from Camille, Susannah, Sheila E., Sheena Easton, he's back to his one-man-band tricks, so collective creation fans should be grateful that at least the second-hottest groove here, after the galvanic "U Got the Look," is Revolution live. Elsewhere Prince-the-rhythm section works on his r&b so Prince-the-harmony-group can show off vocal chops that make Stevie Wonder sound like a struggling ventriloquist. Yet the voices put over real emotions--studio solitude hasn't reactivated his solipsism. The objects of his desire are also objects of interest, affection, and respect. Some of them he may not even fuck. [Original grade: A] A PLUS

SIMPLY RED: Men and Women (Elektra) Where the two covers carried the debut, they drag the follow-up. But Mick Hucknall's originals are improving, and their guileless self-interest has its advantages--"I Won't Feel Bad," about his right to make pots of money because he's not the power elite, and "Infidelity," about his right to fuck around because it's his right, are more convincing for their refusal to shilly-shally. They're also more convincing because Hucknall's an inherently convincing singer. All this is relative to the Anglopop norm, however. Better hot narcissism than cool narcissism, and better soul acolytes than Bowie clones. But not that much better. B

PATTY SMYTH: Never Enough (Columbia) I'm probably overrating this record a little. Certainly there are times when its big, every-hair-in-place production makes the big, barely controllable emotions she's going for sound hopelessly false, and from rejected partner Billy Steinberg to new producer Rick Chertoff, the songcraft is manufactured Springsteen. Yet something just slightly bruised in Smyth's big voice recalls the pop axiom that manufacture and integrity aren't mutually exclusive. Kind of like with Katrina Leskanich, only not so's you'd play the album on your own free will. And most would say I overrate Katrina Leskanich. [Original grade: B] B MINUS

SOUL ASYLUM: While You Were Out (Twin/Tone) Dave Pirner's songs and Chris Osgood's sound do focus their barrage-band intensity, but once again the most striking track is a slow country-folk rip, this one cribbed more or less direct from "On Top of Old Smokey." Which isn't to put down Pirner's better-than-average tunes, but to suggest that barrage meanings may not be his calling. B PLUS

SOWETO NEVER SLEEPS (Shanachie) For all but a tiny minority of its U.S. cult, mbaqanga is a fantasy of resilience and resistance--we hear in it the defiant strength we believe must lurk beneath its surface whatever its ostensible subject. Reflecting its earlier date of origin, the latest collection is less sure-footed than The Indestructible Beat (compare "Wozani Mahipi," a/k/a "Hippes Come to Soweto," to its source, the Meters' "Chicken Strut"). It's also less catchy, with what I assume to be the traditional chant of the midtempo title tune the prize melody. But I suspect the major reason it doesn't connect as powerfully is that it compiles "classic female jive." Even though the idiom's male and female singers both adhere to the conventions of tribal syncretism gone showbiz, those conventions format women more tightly than men. As a result, the men sound more assertive. Which suits our fantasy. A MINUS

U2: The Joshua Tree (Island) Let it build and ebb and wash and thunder in the background and you'll hear something special--mournful and passionate, stately and involved. Read the lyrics and you won't wince. Tune in Bono's vocals and you'll encounter one of the worst cases of significance ever to afflict a deserving candidate for superstardom. B

PETER WOLF: Come as You Are (EMI America) Wolf's propensity to rev into high gear has always been his undoing. Only when he lightens up can he uncover what little nuance he has at his disposal. His solo debut was coproduced by space monkey Michael Jonzun. It was playful. This one's coproduced by his engineer. It's mechanical. B MINUS

WORLD PARTY: Private Revolution (Chrysalis) As a sourpuss who counsels self-improvement and jots down the occasional specific, Karl Wallinger is several steps up the evolutionary ladder from Howard Jones. But it's no less fatalistic to say humanity is defined by original sin than to say the world is good because God made it. Jones believes that war is over if you think it is, Wallinger that war is over if each and every one of you think it is; both prefer attitude to action, especially collective action. And if that's rock and roll, as I sometimes fear, it doesn't happen to be good rock and roll. C

WILL WRIGHT & JIM REIMAN: Childhood's Greatest Hits (Rooster) Most kiddie musicians are, to be precise, yucky. These folkies are tart and spare as well as tuneful. They never force the cheer, never condescend, and never censor. If you want, they suggest you substitute "She tied up their tails, and played on her fife," but the lyric sheet for the all-instrumental sleepytime side has the original carving knife, and their dry vocals made me realize that the weasel pops the monkey in order to eat him. "Alabama Girls," "Skip to My Lou," "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," "Brahms' Lullabye," twenty-two sure shots in all, half wake-up sings, half instrumental lullabyes. I bet you don't own more than a few. And yes, the critic in the crib down the hall is almost as delighted to hear "Yankee Doodle" as she is "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" or anything by Madonna. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Allen Toussaint fans: in case you were wondering (I sure was), Staggerlee earned those polite pans. Not the piano, now--the piano's magic. Songs too, especially the ones you already know. But it is supposed to be a play or something, right?

Village Voice, May 5, 1987


Mar. 31, 1987 June 2, 1987