Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

A good month for old new wavers--no fewer than three records on which onetime young turks reemerge as wise old men, and a fourth in which a whole set of them are returned to life by the miracle of recording technology. Wish I believed the Archers of Loaf would one day be so lucky.


DAVE ALVIN: King of California (HighTone) A closet folkie since the Knitters were the Unravelers, Brother Dave isn't just marking time with this unplugged job, he's figuring out how to sing--quietly, like maybe John Prine, who croaked as a rockabilly himself. Yes his own songs top the covers, only there's a Tom Russell vignette you'd swear he made up; yes the old songs top the new ones, only check the Nashville-simple Rosie Flores duet. As for the old ones, his gravelly sprechgesang conjures more from most of them than Brother Phil or John & Exene ever did. If words are his gift, empathy is their secret, and empathy blooms in the stillest moments. A MINUS

ARCHERS OF LOAF: Icky Mettle (Alias) Guitars screeching every which way, beats speeding and hesitating and slamming chaos back into the box, twentysomething boyvoices whining and arguing and drawling and straining, it's the world according to indie rock: a tantrum set to music as sharp and self-contained as a comedy routine. Aurally, this is now--one now, anyway. If it has zero to say about tomorrow, why don't you just worry about that then? A MINUS [Later: A]

BUDDHIST LITURGY OF TIBET (World Music Library import) Fourteen monks climax a Tantric meditation by chanting the Sutra. Unison readings are augmented and sometimes driven by precise percussion, patches of multivoiced murmur (like the prelude to a Kiwanis luncheon) are less predictably accompanied, and maybe the coughs are on purpose too. Whatever else goes down, though, the voices are interrupted every four or five minutes by a din out of Wynton Marsalis's nightmares. Handbells and cymbals, rattles and boom-booms, deafening oboes and monster trumpets unite in music that at this distance evokes nothing so much as a four-car accident--and that over there connects to the divine. Meaning notwithstanding, it's an astonishing sound--and I've yet to play it for anyone who's reported back unimproved by the experience. Rock and roll! B PLUS

DAVID BYRNE (Luaka Bop/Sire/Warner Bros.) The former Mr. Head's 40th birthday present to himself is a true solo album--no concept, no collaboration, just basic singer-songwriter stuff over a gawky world-groove from a working bass-drums-percussion/mallet band. Although the personal voice is new, the themes are not--Byrne has long been fascinated by the biological mystery at the core of technological life. As is only meet, the songs are sometimes clear and sometimes not, and if they stick longer in the ear than in the mind, that's fine with Byrne--he's a biology man in the end. A MINUS [Later: **]

DANCEHALL STYLEE: THE BEST OF REGGAE DANCEHALL MUSIC VOL. 4 (Profile) As if to prove Jamaica isn't totally overrun by electric percussion and macho bwoys grunting about guns and punani, this comp centers on two winsome pieces of lover's rock, one male and one female. It also makes room for numerous melody instruments, most of them saxophones repeating phrases you'll want to hear again (and will). For all I know, hardcore dancehall users will find it, to employ an expression current in my country, soft. But old reggae heads who can't be bothered distinguishing between Buju Banton and Wu-Tang Clan can start here. A MINUS

IRIS DEMENT: My Life (Warner Bros.) Although her attack is more austere, DeMent's voice is as country as Kitty Wells's or Loretta Lynn's, and her writing defines the directness sophisticates prize in traditional folk songs--she has something she wants to say, and so she proceeds from Point A to Point B in the straightest line she can draw without a ruler. She doesn't get lost not just because she knows where Point B is, which is rare enough in this ambivalent time, but because she knows where Point A is--she knows that who she is begins with where she comes from, and she's made her peace with that. Unlike so many American artists who outgrow fundamentalism, she's not wracked by rage or guilt; at worst, she's sad about her distance from forebears she loves and admires despite their strict morality--a morality she'll never return to even though it's the bedrock of her personality and ultimately her work. The only change her major-label move means is a firmer commitment to pleasure--that is, to melody. Her dad, who gave up the fiddle when he got saved, would surely understand. A MINUS [Later: A+]

FIRESIGN THEATRE: Shoes for Industry!: The Best of the Firesign Theatre (Columbia/Legacy) Not music, but over and above the jingles and anthems and everyone-knew-her-as-Nancy, so studio-savvy it's impossible to imagine without music--and even more impossible to imagine without radio, which furnished form and sometimes forum for these earplays, talk shows, and commercials from Bizarroworld. Targeting the bland cruelty and rapacious cowardice of life in these United States after we lost World War II, they attacked with a merciless vulgarity that was itself unmistakably American, spouting puns and accents like the surrealist tummlers and lapsed English majors they were. Although few '60s groups better grasped the concept-album concept, their longforms excerpt cleanly. This two-CD set highlights their 1969 and 1970 masterpieces and picks up the right pieces thereafter. Proof that not all hippies were flower children, and that prolonged cannabis exposure need not lower one's political awareness or raw IQ. A

JIMI HENDRIX: Blues (MCA) Your soul will survive if you never hear a moment of Reprise's brass-balled clearance boxes, Lifelines (radio music, radio chat) and Stages (four concerts! four cities! four years!). But on this "new" single disc, the Inexhaustible One sounds pretty fresh for somebody who's been dead 24 years. Even if you've heard him do most of these titles, even if you've committed Rainbow Bridge's "Hear My Train A Comin'" to memory, the simple concept and modest scope do right by his uniqueness, his diversity, and the mother of all subgenres. A MINUS

HÜSKER DÜ: The Living End (Warner Bros.) Culled from their final tour, their second live album--the first was their first, with the lovely protohardcore title Land Speed Record--is long on late songs, its only cover the perfect "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker." But the mutual disregard that had set in well before their demise never dented their reputation as the fiercest band in el nuevo wavo. Their ordinary shows were something else, and given how dimly they were recorded at SST, the live-to-the-soundboard audio is often an improvement. Not an epiphany. But definitely a manifestation you can believe in. A MINUS

LATIN PLAYBOYS (Slash/Warner Bros.) David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez lighten up Los Lobos' quest for meaning with a field recording from their mutual unconscious. Whenever the lyrical impressions lapse toward the stolid or sodden, they're lifted by the spare, bent music: echoes and silences, filtered voices and ancient klaxons, Indian film sounds and scratchy samples of street bebop, jagged Beefheart rhythms and idle guitar thoughts, friendly melodies from a Victrola perched on a barrio windowsill. Magical, mystical, the kind of inner-child fantasia that rarely escapes self-indulgence, and if coconspirator Mitchell Froom made it signify, he's smarter and more intuitive than he gets credit for. A MINUS [Later: A+]

LES THUGS: As Happy as Possible (Sub Pop) These anthemic Parisian punks are all form and no conviction, except for the conviction that form is everything. And despite the always uncharismatic and often choral vocals, this suffices. The proximate source is probably PiL--if "Papapapa" isn't their "Poptones," my name is Jah Wobble. But because they mean to be inspirational, even uplifting, they also evoke the Buzzcocks, not to mention Brian Eno (not to mention 999). Trust the French to do neoclassicism right. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

APHEX TWIN: Selected Ambient Works Volume II (Sire) "Veering between an eerie beauty and an almost nightmarish desolation," intoneth Frank Owen. "Imbuing machine music with spirituality," saith Simon Reynolds. And, most incredibly, "Always a groove going on," quoth J.D. Considine. I mean, what are these dudes talking about? Not that ambient-techno wunderkind Richard James is offensive--when I played all two-and-a-half hours of this at a quiet thermal spring in Puerto Rico, the worst any of the attendant pensioners could say about James's nightmarish desolation was "interesting." And smack dab against Eno's instrumental box--well, if James really gets "physically ill if [his] music sounds like anybody else's," that's one consumer object he'd best not sully his expanded consciousness with. Thing is, James is rarely as rich as good Eno, not to mention good Eno-Hassell or Eno-Budd. One piece here does the trick (no titles or track listings--too Western, y'know--but it is, how crass, the lead cut) by folding in a child's voice (or is that one of his electronic friends?). In general, however, these experiments are considerably thinner ("purer," Owen wishes) and more static ("pulse dreamily," Considine dreams) than the overpriced juvenilia on the import-only Volume I. Anyway, a lot of Eno's "ambient" music could also be described as bland wallpaper. When Kyle Gann or (please God) Tom Johnson pumps a minimalist, I wonder whether I'm missing something. Otherwise I believe my own ears--and pull out David Berhman's On the Other Ocean/Music From a Clearing when I need deep background. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Busi Mhlongo & Twasa, Babhemu (Stern's Africa): amandla ("Izinziswa," "Mfaz Onga Phesheya")
  • Ethnotechno (TVT): relaxed beats + sound effects con Tuva, Yoruba, etc. = "Sonic Anthropology Volume 1" (Juno Reactor, "Alash (When I Graze My Beautiful Sheep)"; Sandoz, "Limbo"; Jonah, "Algiers")
  • The Dambuilders, Encendedor (EastWest): sound punk, structures art-rock, violin bi ("Copsucker," "Idaho")
  • William S. Burroughs, Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales (Island): the Disposable Heroes meet shtick from the crypt ("The Junky's Christmas," "Words of Advice for Young People")
  • G.W. McLennan, Fireboy (Beggars Banquet import): living tunes in studio-rock amber ("The Dark Side of Town," "Riddle in the Rain," "Whose Side Are You On?")
  • Robert Forster, Calling From a Country Phone (Beggars Banquet import): country-rock was never this gangly--singer-songwriter either ("The Circle," "Drop")
  • A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield (Warner Bros.): everyone's eyes stay on the prize (Bruce Springsteen, "Gypsy Woman"; Tevin Campbell, "Keep On Pushin'"; Narada Michael Walden, "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going To Go")
  • Lipstick Traces (Rough Trade import): punk as urpolitical vanguard, from a man who considers the Firesign Theatre background music (Adverts, "One Chord Wonders"; Mekons, "Never Been in a Riot")
  • I've Found My Love: 1960's Guitar Band Highlife of Ghana (Original Music): cultural downmarketing in postcolonial Accra (Youngsters, "Yebewu Asee Kwaa"; Akwaboa, "Onuapa Due")
  • Throw That Beat in the Garbagecan!, Cool (Spin Art): the EP, not The Cool Album, which is too uncool ("Cool," "Little Red Go-Cart")
  • Lisa Lisa, LL 77 (Pendulum): has earned her Janet-wannabe delusions ("Why Can't Lovers," "Knockin' Down the Walls")
Choice Cuts:
  • Bruce Springsteen, "Streets of Philadelphia"; Sade, "Please Send Me Someone To Love"; Neil Young, "Philadelphia" (Philadelphia, Epic Soundtrax)
  • US 3, "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)" (Hand on the Torch, Blue Note)
  • Philip Glass/Allen Ginsberg, "Song #6 from Wichita Vortex Sutra" (Hydrogen Jukebox, Elektra Nonesuch)
  • George Jones, "The Visit" (High-Tech Redneck, MCA)
  • Buzzcocks, "Palm of Your Hand" (Trade Test Transmissions, Essential import)
Duds:
  • DJ Red Alert's Propmaster Dancehall Show (Epic Street)
  • Lethal Riddims (Relativity)
  • NYC Badmen (StepSun)
  • Frank Sinatra, Sinatra and Sextet: Live in Paris (Reprise)
  • The Spinanes, Manos (Sub Pop)
  • Ultramarine, United Kingdoms (Sire/Giant)

Village Voice, May 31, 1994


Apr. 5, 1994 July 26, 1994