Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Small surprises (best blues since Cray, best white rap since the Beasties) subsumed in somewhat larger disappointments (Pogues and Run-D.M.C. and Living Colour and, yes, NRBQ). When your favorite new song--that would be "The Madison Time," just edging "I Can't Rock You"--was released in 1960, you wonder what no future might hold.

BOOGIE DOWN PRODUCTIONS: By All Means Necessary (Jive) Musically, this could and should be richer. Deprived of the great murdered beatmaster Scott LaRock, KRS-One is reduced to a stark minimalism that matches his mood: still brandishing his piece on the cover, he's as serious as Jesse inside, occasionally pretentious but never full of himself. He criticizes the self-proclaimed kings of a scene too democratic to support royalty and the self-proclaimed godfathers of a scene too young to have an old school, identifies tribalism as the white man's game, and comes out strong for peace through strength. Only "Jimmy" is much fun, and "Jimmy" is a condom commercial. But at his best--"Stop the Violence," which might conceivably catch black radio in a community-spirited moment of weakness--he's as complex and cold-eyed as the kings themselves, with two extras: he's not middle-class and he's on a mission. B PLUS [Later]

TRACY CHAPMAN (Elektra) "Fast Car" is so far-seeing, "Mountains o' Things" so necessary, that it's doubly annoying when she puts her name on begged questions like "Why" and "Talkin' Bout a Revolution." Maybe I should be heartened and so forth that Intelligent Young People are once again pushing naive left-folkie truisms, but she's too good for such condescension--even sings like a natural. Get real, girl. B PLUS

THE CHURCH: Starfish (Arista) Anybody who can't hear this album's pretty textures and expert hooksmanship has problems with his or her central nervous system. I mean, facts are facts. But tastes are open to dispute, and anybody who gets off on its lulling rhythms and obscure lyrics has his or hers stuck in the '60s and up his or her ass respectively. B

HAIRSPRAY (MCA) Conceived by collector John Waters rather than some marketing strategist, this is a party record that doubles as proof of a sensibility, refurbishing the pre-Beatles '60s not by polishing girl-group touchstones but by mining the middle of the r&b charts. Dance mania rools, from the swinging popcult ecumenicism of Ray Bryant's "Madison Time" to the "Squish squish" backup of Gene & Wendell's "The Roach." The plot-advancing "Town Without Pity" doesn't quite fit, but by sticking Little Peggy March's "I Wish I Were a Princess" in between the funky-girl touchstone "You'll Lose a Good Thing" and the protosoulful "Nothing Takes the Place of You," Waters points up both its objective laughability and its seriousness in the mind of the behearer. This is camp at its best--giving the ridiculous its due because the ridiculous makes life worth struggling for. A MINUS

HARD AS HELL! (Profile) Though "rap's next generation" is really only nine U.K. acts with the same packager, this is noteworthy in its less than epochal way. Strange to hear black Brits talking South Bronx the way white Brits aped Memphis drawls 25 years ago. Accentwise they've got an edge, too. But musically, not to mention conceptually, they don't. Svengali Simon Harris has a knack rather than a gift for the dissociated steals and electrobeats of contemporary hip hop, and when Einstein observes that British DJs "ain't got enough talent to rock no jam," he ain't just pumping his man C. J. Mackintosh. Nevertheless, the energy is what they call fresh--the sense of unbounded possibility that makes the early phase of any pop movement such an up hasn't dissipated into calculation. Check out Nomis Sirrah's mastermix, Asher D and Daddy Freddy's skank, and Lady Sugar Sweet's tough-ass dis, and wonder what else is cooking over there. B

JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: Up Your Alley (Epic) Jesus I wish she was just a little bit better than she actually is, and by closing side one with the cover exacta "Tulane" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog," she comes this close to convincing me she's made the leap. But though nobody else male or female puts out such a reliable brand of hard rock, lean and mean and pretension-free, and though being female gives her an edge in a quintessentially male subgenre, not since her start-up has she made something special of her populist instincts. It's almost as if that's the idea. B PLUS

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: Umthombo Wamanzi (Shanachie) Though it's worse than ridiculous for Grammy tastemongers to classify these slick professionals as folk musicians, they are exotics, subject to foreign pop's law of diminishing returns--after you get past how different it is, you're stuck with differentiating it from itself. So, a couple of hints. One, this is a harmony album; Joseph Shabalala isn't submerged, but he isn't showcased either. That makes for a nice little change. Two, it's a religious album, replete with full translations and 12 ways to sing amen. That one I'm not so sure about. B PLUS

LIVING COLOUR: Vivid (Epic) A few songs--the just-minding-my-own-business-sucker "Funny Vibe," the Mick Jagger production/tribute "Glamour Boys," and "Middle Man" if it's as unironic as I hope--are smart enough, but while it's momentarily exhilarating to hear this all-black band come power-chording out of the box, after a while the fancy arrangements and strained soul remind me of, I don't know, Megadeth. Like any New Hendrix, Vernon Reid is only as good as his last context, and I'm not positive crossover metal is a good idea even in theory. B

MAROON: The Funky Record (Arb Recordings) College wise-asses is all they are, biting the Beasties as if they'd made the shit up, stealing hooks from operas and disco records I never even heard of (or heard, anyway). Their gimmick is that they're not stupid (or stoopid, whatever)--mention Icarus, dis guys who don't know their mikes from their dicks ("should be castrated," very funny). Also dis Reagan and Koch, for that "political" touch. Pure opportunism. Must admit I get off on their skinny little beats, though. Beats count for a lot with this shit. A MINUS

MBUBE!: ZULU MEN'S SINGING COMPETITION (Rounder '87) In which the judge at a Durban singing meet whittles 19 choirs and six hours down to nine choirs and 48 minutes. It's the kind of record that appeals to the converted; I wouldn't have paid so much attention to a similar document from Bahia or the Caucasus or a Pentecostal church in North Carolina. But I swear the notes and song summaries are lively enough to hook the curious, and anybody whose knowledge of Zulu chorale stops at Ladysmith should check out these hymnful shouts, stomps, whistles, yodels, and ululations. The deep, muscular harmonies of the Easy Walkers get my blue ribbon, but every rock and roller ought to hear the Greytown Evening Birds, who sing about their hunger like the Beach Boys. B PLUS

MEGADETH: So Far, So Good . . . So What! (Capitol '87) Dave Mustaine is earnest about his rage--at nuclear holocaust and the P.M.R.C. and lying scumbags and his own self-destructive tendencies. He covers the Sex Pistols like a champ. He doesn't boast, he doesn't preen, he allows himself but a single "bitch" on an entire long-playing record (she sounds very irresponsible and probably deserves it). And thus the latest well-regarded metal band gains its modest portions of profit and respect. But where's the monster guitar? Where's the angel singing like a bat out of hell? Where's the big deal? Upped a notch for meaning well. B MINUS

MOFUNGO: Bugged (SST) In an evolution that now seems inevitable if exceedingly slow, they jam hot, and this is how they'll prove it in Alaska, California, Buffalo, and other distant locales. Helps that they've learned their own instruments and each other's moves after 10 years. Helps even more that they've integrated a real live misguided virtuoso into the concept. Elliott Sharp's fills and solos are the making of "#1 for Take-Off" and "The Pope Is a Potato" and "The Wit and Wisdom of Judge Bork." Which latter I trust SST's dance department will get on immediately. A MINUS

NRBQ: God Bless Us All (Rounder '87) The first live album by the Northeast's finest road band stands a chance of showing the rest of the world what it's been missing. It also runs the risk of revealing how the rest of the world managed to stay away. Face it, fans--expecting the same old unexpected can deaden the synapses too, and 20 years can put the snazziest key changes and time signatures in a rut. One set, no song list, audience all unawares, hot-cha-cha. B

N.T.U. SMALL TIGERS: Mususkungibulala Wethu (Kaya import) Anybody with a taste for mbube's droll complexities, especially those who find Ladysmith too sweet (the pleasures some people deny themselves for propriety's sake), will get a kick out of this alternative. Without a great voice up top, the Small Tigers emphasize quirk and interplay, cutting whistles and clicks and animal noises and nasalities through the harmonies. Sing in English, too--but sound more at home in Zulu. B PLUS [Later]

GRAHAM PARKER: The Mona Lisa's Sister (RCA Victor) No rocker this sarcastic has any right (I didn't say business, though who knows what bizzers see in him at this late date) coming on so relaxed, and no rocker this relaxed has any right coming on so sarcastic. Add 'em up and you got smug. Cover: "Cupid." Auxiliary art reference: Bosch. Now are you impressed? C PLUS

THE POGUES: If I Should Fall From Grace With God (Island) With Steve Lillywhite out to prove he's both a true punk and a true son of Eire, neither pop nor rock nor disco crossover stays these groghounds from the swift accomplishment of their appointed rounds. Lillywhite is so permissive he lets Shane MacGowan slur the words Elvis Costello forced him to enunciate, and at tempos like these you can be sure there are plenty of them. Politics, down-and-outers, New York, the broad majestic Shannon--just don't lose your lyric sheet. B PLUS

RUN-D.M.C.: Tougher Than Leather (Profile) Coming off their sophomore jinx and out to prove their mastery, they ended up celebrating it as well; coming off their triumph and feeling too damn big for their minor label, they merely demonstrate it. Technically, the kings are nonpareils--not a duff beat or a forced rhyme. But for the moment they lack desire. I'll enjoy the genre-busting side-closers anywhere, the original-metal title tune and anticrime message on the radio, and the rest later. B PLUS

TINA TURNER: Tina Live in Europe (Capitol) Almost two hours of double-LP, with an extra half of covers on cassette and CD, and not as pointless as you think. It's interesting to hear songs originally crafted for 64-track crossover streamlined or steamrollered by the gruffly inexorable forward motion of a crack road show, and sometimes--a "Break Every Rule" with that live elle-sait-quoi followed by a sharply funky "I Can't Stand the Rain," or most of side three, from Pickett parlay to Cray and Clapton cameos to the inevitable "Proud Mary"--there are transformations or revelations. Then there's the Bryan Adams cameo. And before that there are the David Bowie cameos--two of the ugly things. B

JOE LOUIS WALKER: The Gift (Hightone) No house-band barrocker, no funkified keep-up-with-the-times hopeful, never show up on a Tina Turner album. Like they say, he just plays the blues. Yet between sharp tempos and wordly-wise material, he overcomes the boredom factor built into that time-worn endeavor. Even when he lays back his beat has a forward tilt, and he's not proud about where he gets his songs--from producers or band members or fellow guildsmen. The sole throwaway is more than offset by the title tune, a bluesman's "Change Is Gonna Come"--25 years later, for better and worse. It's not really a blues at all. The bluesman in question wrote it with no help from anybody except his father and his grandmother and the Lord above. A MINUS

WILD SEEDS: Mud, Lies and Shame (Passport) A typical Amerindie story. Led by then-rockcrit Michael Hall, the Seeds took their Southwest-boho syncretism public in 1984 with a self-produced EP that hauled in heaps of hosannas, none so impolite as to note that not a single memorable song shored up the band's, what shall we call it, soulful Austin country-punk. Brave, Clean and Reverent, released in 1986 on the local Jungle label, failed to get them much further despite ace side-leaders: "Sharlene," about Hall's crush on a pretty boy, and "I Work Hard," about his compulsion to wage slavery. Now they've graduated to what's called a major indie, and the first three cuts are everything one could have hoped, especially the self-explanatory "I'm Sorry, I Can't Rock You All Night Long," a true classic as these things are measured. The rest continue their project of defeating male chauvinism in the male chauvinist roots-rock context, but not so's you'd notice. In a saner world, this would be their debut album. It would include "Sharlene" and "I Work Hard" (without horns, please), encouraging everylistener to bear down on their lesser material, the best of which is more than passable. How they would have made a living in the meantime I couldn't tell you. How they make a living now I couldn't tell you either. B

Additional Consumer News

Hairspray's dance party has me comparing and contrasting current competition. Rhino bills Frat Rock as "The Ultimate Party Record." Except for a ringer "Shout" by the revivalist Dynatones, the lineup is both classic--"Louie Louie," "Hang On Sloopy," "Wooly Bully," "Keep on Dancing," whoa--and by artists whose albums are rarely essential even when they're good. But convenient (and conceptually attractive) though it is to have all these go-ape stompers in one place, they're not mutually reinforcing like, to choose a prized example, the twist-era ephemera on Roulette's long out-of-print Golden Goodies for a Dance Party, which has won a place in my heart not only for "Peppermint Twist" and "Watusi" but for Little Joey & the Flips' "Bongo Stomp." One problem is no doubt the classics-only predictability of Rhino's selection--surprise is always tonic when you're going for a good time. But surprise shouldn't be equated with unfamiliarity. Two promising Rounder New Orleans compilations, Carnival Time! and We Got a Party! (best-ofs from Ric and Ron respectively), demonstrate how thin a line divides the surprising from the gneeric. They're more than listenable (this is New Orleans, after all), but only three or four cuts on each are worth the effort of serious fun-seekers: coupla instrumentals ("All Night Long" and "The Git Back"), coupla novelties ("Check Mr. Popeye" and "90 Pound Weakling"), and above all the Party Boys' drunken Huey Smith one-off "We Got a Party," one of those forgotten bouts of divine disarray that keep collectors wading through the generic and calling it classic. Much longer on what-the-fuck-is-this? is an obscure collection called At the Party! (Candy), which I assume is a boot. Imagine what titles like "Camel Walk," "Oh Baby," "Stand By," "She's a Fat Girl," and "Emulsified" might sound like as lost moments of madness--except that's impossible, which is the whole idea. Consult your local oldies dealer, who could be the guy who sold me mine. And let me offend his sensibilities by adding that John Waters still has a leg up.

What can it mean that three of the four standout tracks on Mr. Magic's Rap Attack Volume 3 (Profile)-- the exception being yet another Teddy Riley triumph, the Classical Two's "New Generation"--are by MCs who don't have to tell anybody how big their dicks are? I refer to Sweet Tee, Salt-n-Pepa, and especially Roxanne Shanté, whose LP I await most eagerly. Granted, Volume 4's unlikely to top the killer rap of the year, Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two" (Profile), its sole femme a sexy babe bopping the title chorus into the kitchen sink. Speaking of kitchen sinks, the much-bruited "Paid in Full" remix (4th & B'way), with femme contributions from both Israeli Yemenite Ofra Haza and an unidentified porn hopeful, does for Eric B. & Rakim what "Jack the Ripper" did for L.L. Cool J--makes me want to spin them.

Village Voice, May 24, 1988


Apr. 26, 1988 June 28, 1988