Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

All newly boarded freeloaders are hereby informed that since 1990 this feature has fully reviewed only recommended records, with a few high B plusses making the cut and near misses relegated to an Honorable Mention list that grows faster than our ad base. Beyond the allotted one dud a month, those who crave cheap insults will have to wait for Thanksgiving's Turkey Shoot.

ARCHERS OF LOAF: The Speed of Cattle (Alias) The usual outtake flotsam--singles, B sides, flexis, compilation cuts, alternate versions, John Peel instrumentals, long-intro thing that would have fit onto Vee Vee, seven-minute opus that thank God wouldn't have. All punky, all dissonant, all yet to be melded into one of them seamless wholes. But I say the bits and pieces of the most musical band in Alternia beat the fully realized works of art of mortal road heroes. In fact, I say they are fully realized works of art. A MINUS

BIKINI KILL: Reject All American (Kill Rock Stars) I define punk so that it includes the Replacements and Nirvana and Sleater-Kinney and any other short-fast guitar unit that gives me a thrill. These gals-and-guy are less broad-minded. So here's a '70s punk album as classic as, say, Green Day's--more so if, like these gals-and-guy, you think those guys-and-more-guys are way too fucking broad themselves. The first album got over on spirit. Here Kathleen Hanna's vocals and Bill Karren's guitar add definition, confidence, (let's bite the bullet and call it) technical skill. Also, right, tunes. Plus I always listen up when they get to the slow one about a dead boy genius. A MINUS

DJELI MOUSSA DIAWARA: Sobindo (Mélodie import) As Jali Musa Jawara, the Guinéean kora master conceived two earlier landmarks of Manding neotraditionalism, Yasimika and Soubindoor, and here once again he flirts with the escapist spirituality of "world music." There's a flute and a piano and a telltale tabla; at times the plucking could almost be Italian or (another giveaway) Andean. Yet once again his confident interweave and powerfully West African (Guinéean?) vocal feel (technique?) overwhelm secular skepticism. Right, this kind of Beauty is an ideological construct. Don't we all deserve a vacation once in a while? A MINUS

SWAMP DOGG: Best of 25 Years of Swamp Dogg . . . Or F*** the Bomb, Stop the Drugs (Pointblank) Like most Jerry Williams fans, I go way back with the guy, and damned if I can find half these songs in my shelves. Just as a for instance, where the hell is "I've Never Been to Africa (And It's Your Fault)," which sums up his worldview if anything does? So I guess the point is that nothing does--he's not only sui generis but completely contradictory, like most people, few of whom would think of writing 400 songs about it. By now his daring soul-rock hybrid is a studio convention, his big piercing voice arguably monochromatic. But between his wild takes on the ins and outs of the monogamy he lives for and his classic and cockamamy mix of political radicalism and cultural conservatism, this Afrocentric integrationist has written more interesting songs cruising in his cab than most tunesmiths manage in their luxury suites. Consistent? Never. In print? For the moment. Scarf it up now. A MINUS [Later]

LOCAL H: As Good as Dead (Island) Quintessential exponents of what the cynics at Spin call scrunge, these two young guys from Illinois are a study in the uses and limits of originality. After their debut proved only that singer-guitarist-bassist-headman Scott Lucas and drummer-dynamo Joe Daniels were to the bash-roil-howl born, they figured out enough about riffs and hooks to transform sound into song, and now evoke a tragic Seattle trio who shall remain nameless. I wish Pearl Jam, whose leader stars in the title song, packed such isometric power--that sense of tremendous force bravely exerted against implacable reality--and I say the exercise makes all of us stronger. Even if it develops further, which is about as unlikely as it having gotten this far, it will never replace the original. But these days we need any reassurance the music machine can cough up. A MINUS

MU-ZIQ: In Pine Effect (Astralwerks) Oh goodie--after two years of Les Baxter and Ennio Morricone assailing my precious hegemony, I finally get to apply for membership in the too-hep-to-be-square club. Sired by Esquivel out of rockist techno, it's Another Fluorescent World, in which moderately intricate synthbeats drain a kitschy kitchen sink of electronic harpsichords, foghorns, string quartets, bubble machines, tintinnabulations, screams, and what can only be called natural synth noises. Anything but ambient (although hum a few bars and they'll fake it for you) and not about cool, it maintains its spritz at all times, so that even the atmospheric low points sound something like fun. I miss the illusion of a centered subject that only a singer or soloist can provide, and am not overrating schlock's use value. But it's my highly complimentary guess that this schlock is way too fine to get me into the aforementioned club--or any other. A MINUS

CHIEF STEPHEN OSITA OSADEBE: Kedu America (Xenophile) I heard this patriarch's huge 1984 "Osondi Owendi" on the Nigerian highlife compilation I found back then and never thought about him again until this delight came in the mail. Nine cuts lasting 70 minutes recorded on one day of a 1994 U.S. tour, it shambles more than Original Music's Oriental Brothers CDs; the band is so well rehearsed it makes relaxation a creative principle, interacting casually over the clattering percussion and never-ending vamps of a genre that intimates juju drums and soukous guitar within the Ghanaian dance style that defined Afropop when Osadebe was a teenager. Known for his store of traditional guitar tunes, he likes the horns to poke their noses in as well. I hope some fan constructs a compilation from his 200 albums. But though his once sonorous voice is well-weathered at 60, this one-off is an honorable testament. A MINUS

CHARLIE PARKER: The Legendary Dial Masters (Jazz Classics) It's absurd for jazz's nonpareil improviser to have fallen into semiobscurity among new seekers for whom Parker and Coltrane and Davis and Armstrong are equally historic because they're equally dead. No one else has ever articulated so many ear-boggling, mind-expanding, stomach-churning, rib-tickling musical ideas so easily--so brilliantly--so insouciantly--so passionately--so fast. The two-CD Confirmation: The Best of the Verve Years makes up for Norman Granz's get-rich-slow schemes--Ella, Machito, Gil-Evans-ruins-Cole-Porter backup chorus, big bands, fucking strings--with small-group genius. And while it's stretched to its 37 minutes by the alternate-take marginalia obsessives dote on, Savoy's audiophile remix of the younger, purer Charlie Parker Story sweeps 50-year-old music into you-are-there territory. So all I can say for this two-CD middle-period remaster is that it's his peak. The secret is twisted heads with magic titles like "Dexterity" and "Scrapple From the Apple" and "Klact-Oveedes-Tene"--jokily virtuosic tunesmanship that suited his arcane harmonic interests the way 'Trane's simpler themes went with his modalism. And even if you believe improvisation is pretentious, arty, or male, Parker's outpourings are hard to resist in three-minute doses. Monk is definitely my man. Coltrane is probably yours. Armstrong is God. But Bird is It. A PLUS

THE RAINCOATS: Looking in the Shadows (DGC) I hate to be schematic, but they ask for it: for the first 10 tracks, the songs alternate in lockstep, Ana Da Silva-Gina Birch and forgettable-remarkable. What puts this comeback over the top is that the last two go Birch-Da Silva remarkable-remarkable--the literal "Love a Loser," which should be a single if only because the infertility fantasy and the old-age fantasy and even the pretty fantasy are a little too remarkable for MTV, and Da Silva's title tune, which summons empathy for a jilted stalker who ends up getting hold of his fantasies. And as always, only at a higher level of instrumental expertise, the band's musical charms are coextensive with its limitations. B PLUS

THAT DOG: Totally Crushed Out! (DGC) Biz babies who get too much shit for it, they come through with a sublime, honest little mock-concept album about teen love among the psychologically nondisabled. Their simple noise-pop tunes are actually melodic, their ugly-pretty contrasts actually generate tension, their sophisticated harmonies actually massage one's ears. And "He's Kissing Christian" is the best triangle song since "When You Were Mine." A MINUS

Dud of the Month

TORTOISE: Millions Now Living Will Never Die (Thrill Jockey) Obviously not stupid, which I can understand means a lot to them after their troubled childhoods, these guys are the class of the American post-rock cough cough hack hack movement ptooey ptooey. But I would direct their attention to the British band Mark-Almond, a now forgotten jamming unit that achieved real sales and a measure of hip around the time they were born. Not that I necessarily think these "eclectic," consciously unspacy, all too unhurried soundscape improvisations are destined for the same degree of obscurity. Patterns of culture have changed, and in a boutique economy, this shit, like all other shit, is probably here to stay. Still, there are surer roads to posterity. Best moment: the lead bassline, lifted directly from "Poptones" (by PiL, kids). B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • The Congos, Heart of the Congos (Blood & Fire import): Lee Perry's falsetto-and-tenor duo revived for our dubwise era ("Row Fisherman," "Children Crying")
  • The Tony Rich Project, Words (LaFace): better his enlightened-bourgie Smokey than D'Angelo's pomo-new jack Marvin ("Like a Woman," "Billy Goat," "The Grass Is Green")
  • Veruca Salt, Blow It Out Your Ass It's Veruca Salt (DGC): two catchy-not-poppy A's, two sludgy-not-grungy B's ("Shimmer Like a Girl," "I'm Taking Europe With Me")
  • La Bouche, Sweet Dreams (RCA): are made of (Euro)disco (as if there's another kind anymore) ("Sweet Dreams," "Le Click: Tonight Is the Night")
  • Paul Westerberg, Eventually (Reprise): too mean because he's not as important as he thinks he is, too irrelevant because he's not as important as he should be ("These Are the Days," "MamaDaddyDid")
  • The Chemical Brothers, Loops of Fury EP (Astralwerks): "a little early but thanks anyway" (I think) ("Get Up on It Like This")
  • Wayne Kramer, Dangerous Madness (Epitaph): visionary guitar, '60s-style, plus low-life lyrics by Mick Farren, who should know ("Dangerous Madness," "A Dead Man's Vest")
  • Hamell on Trial, Big as Life (Mercury): gainfully employed enough to know what he and his amplified acoustic are pissed about ("Big as Life," "Z-Roxx")
  • Roy Rogers, Rhythm and Groove (Pointblank): plays great slide, rides catchy rhythms, writes decent songs ("Built for Comfort," "For the Love of a Woman")
  • Black Grape, It's Great When You're Straight . . . Yeah (Radioactive): frat rock for the apocalypse (what apocalypse?) ("Reverend Black Grape," "Kelly's Heroes")
  • Excuse 17, Such Friends Are Dangerous (Kill Rock Stars): Carrie Brownstein finds her scream ("This Is Not Your Wedding Song," "The Drop Dead Look")
  • Antietam, Rope-a-Dope (Homestead): at long last rock-a-roll--by which I mainly mean a handful of decent songs, honest ("Hands Down," "Graveyard")
  • Michael Hall, Day (DejaDisc): electric-guitar songs for the apocalypse (this apocalypse) ("Their First Murder," "Las Vegas")
  • 7 Year Bitch, Gato Negro (Atlantic): tough broads, hard rock ("Miss Understood," "The History of My Future")
  • Kneelin' Down Inside the Gate: The Great Rhyming Singers of the Bahamas (Rounder): think field hollers, mbube, doowop (Joseph Spence and the Pinder Family, "Standing in the Need of Prayer"; Clifford Ellis with Stanley Thompson and Group, "I Met My Mother This Morning")
Choice Cuts:
  • Bud Alzir, "Morocco" (Macro Dub Infection Volume One, Caroline)
  • Run On, "Xmas Trip" (Start Packing, Matador)
  • Allen Toussaint, "Computer Lady" (Connected, NYNO)
  • Jack Logan and Liquor Cabinet, "Teach Me the Rules" (Mood Elevator, Medium Cool)
  • Chris Knox, "Song To Welcome the Onset of Maturity" (Songs of You and Me, Caroline)
  • The Beatles, Anthology 2 (Capitol/Apple)
  • Halcion, Lemongrass (Twitcher)
  • Rick "L.A. Holmes" Holmstrom, Lookout! (Black Top)
  • Kris Kross, Young, Rich and Dangerous (Ruffhouse/Columbia)
  • Pere Ubu, Folly of Youth See Dee Plus (Tim Kerr)
  • Red Aunts, #1 Chicken (Epitaph)
  • Peter Wolf, Long Line (Reprise)
  • Neil Young, Dead Man (Vapor)

Village Voice, May 21, 1996

Apr. 9, 1996 July 23, 1996