Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Funk lives, and the present-day rapper refuses to die. About Amerindies the jury's still out.

BRYAN ADAMS: Into the Fire (A&M) It's got to be deliberate, the voice of the common man or some such. Nevertheless, making all allowances--overlooking quotes/references ("eight miles high"), universals ("the rent is due"), attempted wordplay ("a table for one and a broken heart to go"), and simple idioms ("count me in," "white flag," "heaven knows," "it's up to you")--I count an astonishing fifty-six full-fledged clichés on what's supposed to be a significance move, from "caught in the crossfire" in the first line to "the worst is over" in the third-to-last. And while "Only the Strong Survive," the biggest offender with twelve, streamrollers across despite it all, neither Don Henley soul nor emergent social conscience justify the dumbness density. I know the salt of the earth is the shape of things to come, but these words of wisdom are beyond the pale. C PLUS

BHUNDU BOYS: Shabini (Discafrique) The toast of London last time I checked, these Zimbabweans are suspiciously cuddly in their folk-pop naiveté. But their guitars tickle exactly where Thomas Mapfumo's kick, and in the title tune and elsewhere the folk-pop naiveté of their melodies could tempt you to trust even that portion of humanity that swears by The Face. B PLUS

DAVID BOWIE: Never Let Me Down (EMI America) Maybe he's lost touch so completely that he's reduced to cannibalizing himself just when the market dictates the most drastic image shift of his chameleon career. But maybe this is just his way of melding two au courant concepts, Springsteenian rock and multiproducer crossover. After all, why pay good money to outsiders when your own trunk of disguises is there for the rummaging? Of course, crossover artistes can generally sing. When Bowie wants to play the vocalist, he still puts on a bad Anthony Newley imitation. C PLUS

CLUB NOUVEAU: Life, Love and Pain (Warner Bros.) In the unlikely event that you both don't know and care, I'll note that this is the follow-up cum answer record to 1986's biggest one-shot, Club Vieux's "Rumors." The auteur is rejected Club Vieux svengali Jay King, who proves which half of the one-shot had the professionalism by turning in a listenable as opposed to barely competent album. Why it's a hit album I couldn't tell you--"Lean on Me" cries out for a weathered voice, not fresh beats. B MINUS

THE CULT: Electric (Sire) Rick Rubin meets the doom fops of the former Southern Death Cult and concocts the metal dreams are made of--Zep for our time, supposedly. One reason it's a great joke is that in 2087 almost nobody will be able to tell it from the real thing. The other reason it's a great joke is that right now almost anybody can. Direct comparison reveals that Jimmy Page's thunderclap riffs, Robert Plant's banshee yowls, and John Bonham's ka-boom ka-boom are just as hard to replicate as you thought they were. I hear Steppenwolf (an unconvincing "Born to Be Wild"), Cream ("Tales of Brave Ulysses" as "Aphrodisiac Jacket"), and Aerosmith--fop but no fool, Ian Astbury apes Steve Tyler rather than the unapproachable Plant. I also hear lots of Zep simplified--no sagas, no tempo shifts, no blues. Inspirational Verse: "Zany antics of a beat generation/In their wild search for kicks." B PLUS

CARMAIG DEFOREST: I Shall Be Released (Good Foot) He's an acerbic miniaturist who knows words--just like one of his romantic antagonists, he's forever sharpening his clauses. He's got Alex Chilton on his side. A lot of smart guys will love him every time out. I think he proves that these days smart songwriters consider politics rather than romance the fun challenge, reserving my love for the shaggy-dog "Judas" and the self-explanatory "Crack's No Worse Than the Fascist Threat." B PLUS

FIREHOSE: "Ragin', Full On" (SST) Maybe Ed Crawford appeared to Mike Watt and George Hurley as in a vision, but he appears to us as their new frontman, and the courage they showed starting fresh after D. Boon took the Minutemen with him resists auralization almost as obdurately as that vision does. In short, this sound pretty good insofar as it postpunks like the old band and pretty bad insofar as it makes room for Crawford, a moderately hot guitarist whose vocal instincts are as sappy as his lyrics. C PLUS

FLEETWOOD MAC: Tango in the Night (Warner Bros.) Fifteen years ago, when their secret weapon was someone named Bob Welch, they made slick, spacy, steady-bottomed pop that was a little ahead of the times commercially. Now, when their secret weapon is their public, they make slick, spacy, steady-bottomed pop that's a little behind the times commercially. This is pleasant stuff, nothing to get exercised about either way--no Rumours or Fleetwood Mac, but better than Bare Trees or Mystery to Me, not to mention Mirage. Marginally better, anyway. In a style where margins are all. And all ain't all that much any more. B PLUS

THE GOLDEN PALOMINOS: Blast of Silence (Celluloid) It was thankless enough conceptualizing arena-rock, so what gave Anton Fier the bright idea of adding country to the synthesis, as he probably calls it in the privacy of his own cerebration? Did he meet T-Bone Burnett at a party? Fight with Syd Straw about her roots? Or just think it would sell? Anton, get this straight: especially as you approach country, sincerity sells. Sincerity soulful, sincerity stupid, sincerity ironic, sincerity faked if necessary. Not this cold shit. B MINUS

ISCATHAMIYA: ZULU WORKER CHOIRS IN SOUTH AFRICA (Heritage) Put off by its ethnographic audio, I shelved this as a field reference until my boundless thirst for knowledge induced me to take it out and turn it up. Whereupon it exploded. Although everything I read says all contemporary South African choruses derive from the "soft" style Joseph Shabalala developed in the '60s, this stuff doesn't come off as cathama ("to walk softly")--sounds like ibombing ("bombing"). It's aggressive where Ladysmith is spiritual, which seems fitting, since its commercial purpose is triumph in all-night hostel competitions. Also worth noting are lyrics that both zero in on broken families, the most galling symptom and symbol of apartheid to black South Africans, and defy the tribalism that's one of its nastiest strategies. A MINUS

KOOL MOE DEE (Jive) Sex is this Threacherous Third's only great subject, and before you tell him to grow up already, check out the dumb hyperbole of "Monster Crack" and bite your tongue. His braggadocio and jibes at the fair sex also won't mollify liberals, but that's even less the point than it usually is. This man boasts for the sheer joy and truth value of it. He loves words more than any thesaurus or rhyming dictionary can teach, and though I'm sure he owns several, they're not where he got "I'm a rap warrior/Elite Astoria/I'll take on a hundred and four-aya," not to mention "Drip-drip-drippin' and pus-pus-pussin'." Which latter isn't even the raunchiest moment on "Go See the Doctor," a safe-sex song followed hard on by yet another monitory tribute to the dumbness of dick. Knowing sex is both dangerous and funny is unadolescent enough for me, his offbeats are def, and Harlem computer whiz Teddy Riley keeps him on the one-and. A MINUS

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: Shaka Zulu (Warner Bros.) Though I continue to prefer the curlicued sound effects of Induku Zethu, the lyric sheet alone (with four songs in English!) makes this the Ladysmith album of choice for any normal U.S. dabbler. Roy Halee separates the harmonic elements just enough to enhance their fit and shows off Joseph Shabalala's grainy tenor, which anybody but a devoted family man would go solo with tomorrow. The politics settle in around a generalized gospel yearning, but the sheer sound is gorgeous enough to embarrass most Americans. Let's just hope they last longer on Warners than Urubama did on CBS, so we get a chance to listen deeper. A MINUS

HUGH MASEKELA WITH KALAHARI: Tomorrow (Warner Bros.) The words document his losses, his struggle, his oppression as a South African exile. I learned from them, and that's high praise for any lyric. The music documents the life he wants to lead, which is as corny as any other dance-fusion jazz played by musicians overimpressed with their own chops. He has a right to that life, obviously. Just as obviously, I have a right to pursue my own life elsewhere. B MINUS

MINUTEMEN: Ballot Result (SST) As someone who's never had much patience with the mystique of the ill-recorded moment, music overheard just before it slips into the historical void its creators figure it for, I'll make a partial exception for the Minutemen, because I miss them so much. I know most of the songs on this mostly live double in versions I prefer, but better than any studio distillation it underlines the crucial point: they lived. And given the modesty so intrinsic to their world-historical public ambitions, its muffled, take-a-flier intimacy speaks. Also, I like the covers. A MINUS

ASTOR PIAZZOLLA: Tango: Zero Hour (American Clavé) Until Piazzolla, I never gave a thought to tango, which I conceived vaguely as the music of displaced Europeans slumming their way through an American limbo, compounding angst and self-regard into ridiculous sexual melodrama. But now that I put all that down on paper, it seems both kind of interesting and ripe for destabilization. Piazzolla has been exploring both possibilities since 1946 and claims this is the best of his 40 albums. True semipop, dance music for the cerebellum, with the aesthetic tone of a jazz-classical fusion Gunther Schuller never dreamed. A MINUS

SALT-N-PEPA: Hot, Cool and Vicious (Next Plateau) In the updated "Tramp" (former A side of "Push It," bargain hunters), two gals dis an easy lay cum slave to his dick, but elsewhere the raps are only the gender change you'd hope, not the one you couldn't have imagined--feisty, not too reverse-macho, yet fairly predictable. What I love is how the sampled hooks and not-so-predictable scratches pounce out of the mix, always good for a shiver of recognition/dissociation. And the change is certainly due. A MINUS

SLY AND ROBBIE: Rhythm Killers (Island) Language Barrier was a world-music mishmash. Taxi Connection Live in London and The Sting are show and schlock reggae respectively. This is nonstop funk--powered by world pop's greatest rhythm section, which happens to be Jamaican, and filled out by a chauvinistic variation on Bill Laswell's usual international brigade--Daniel Ponce and Aiyb Dieng are the only furriners, although Henry Threadgill, Nicky Skopelitis, and D.S.T. aren't exactly from the same neighborhood. Art-rapper Rammelzee, Brooklyn toaster Shinehead, and studio mouthpiece Bernard Fowler add their lyrical signatures to those of P-Funk satellites Bootsy and Mudbone, but S&R's sensationalism combines with Laswell's imperiousness to rock each side from its Ohio Players or Allen Toussaint intro. Word. A

SOUTH AFRICAN TRADE UNION WORKER CHOIRS (Rounder) These groups have an aura of officialdom, as if organized at the workplace by wily fomenters of solidarity. Women make themselves heard in a traditionally male domain; the style is relatively declamatory, confident of its platform and its captive audience; American jubilee and mass-choir voicings abound; the acronym for "Federation of South African Trade Unions" bedecks six of the twenty-five titles. But for agitprop, it's long on high-jinks, with stomps and whistles erupting frequently around the exhortations. If South African pop makes the struggle of the South African people doubly immediate, this does the same for South African politicos--while apprising skeptics of how close to the people they are. B PLUS

SPOT 1019 (Pitch-a-Tent) Some Camper Van fans will suck up the only other band on their heroes' indie vanity label, but the true faithful won't believe. All together now, children, in your best Valley-boy-turned-surf-punk accents: "They're just an imi-tay-shun." Actually, without the (tongue-in-cheek) psychedelic utopianism and (closet) one-worlder rhythms, they're much more the college dropout humor magazine. Get off their share of snotty-to-spacy jokes, too. B

JAMAALADEEN TACUMA: Music World (Gramavision) First side's my kind of new age, a kitschy travelogue laid down with local fusioneers in Tokyo, Paris, Istanbul. Second side journeys from New York to Philadelphia, and let me tell you--both "The Creator Has a Master Plan" and "One More Night" have sounded more at home elsewhere. B

Additional Consumer News

EPs are still supposed to showcase emerging bands, but most of the best are true ends in themselves when they're not totally sui generis. Leading example from my long-accumulating "current" pile is Moe Tucker's impossible Moejadkatebarry (50 Kazillion Watts), which proves who was the body and maybe soul although not brains of the Velvet Underground. With forever-young Jad Fair playing front man, they run through three joyous VU obscurities, a Jimmy Reed blues, and a throwaway instrumental just the way the original guys might have if jaded hadn't been their thing. Sally Timms and the Drifting Cowgirls' Butcher Boy E.P. (T.I.M.S. International import) lets the most seriously country (or maybe just the most serious) Mekon exercise pipes and sensibility, with the "Long Black Veil" and "Dover" covers up in Gram Parsons's neck of the stratosphere. The Stouthearted (Indelible) is a seven-inch publishing demo for one Mimi Schneider, who has me convinced she's a farm girl gone to college who figured out how to encapsulate rural-to-urban in the era of federal foreclosure. The Angry Samoans' Yesterday Started Tomorrow (PVC), third installment of an all-EP recording career dating back to 1980, snarls as hookily as ever through a pop phase signaled by an average song length of 2:02 and the occasional appearance of the word "love." Age of Chance's Crush Collision (Virgin) reintroduces Phil Oakey to the Gang of Four for "sonic metal disco" that may convince me to forget my Phil Oakey problem if it achieves its goal of world revolution. Fearless Iranians From Hell (Boner) is a punk joke no less cathartic for the possibility that some racist somewhere (in the band, for instance) will take it seriously. The Dogmatics' Everybody Does It (Homestead) is a more familiar punk joke that sustains its burlesque of teen angst for a whole side before slipping into "Saturday Nite Again." Joey Arias's Arias on Holiday (Flaming Pie) is Billie Holiday impressions by an Ann Magnuson crony that don't come off campy, and if the idea makes male heterosexual jazz fans vomit, well, they've got their own bag. Pussy Galore's Pussy Gold 5000 (Buy Our) is noisy and obscene. The New Christs' Detritus (What Goes On) is fast and loud.

More traditional EPs in function and feel are Scruffy the Cat's raucous High Octane Revival (Relativity) and the Balancing Act's wistful New Campfire Songs (Type A). Both are well put together with LPs not far behind, and both always seem to end before I can get interested in (or, more likely, bored with) the intelligent young people who put them together. Maybe I don't have that problem with Wire's Snakedrill (Mute import) because Wire are old if lately silent comrades. Or maybe it's because "A Serious of Snakes" stakes out a bigger and wilder although equally "personal" piece of turf and the rest doesn't even respect the precedent.

For established bands, EPs mark time and maybe take a small profit. Honorable examples include Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper's Get Out of My Way! (Restless), most of its japes (Xmas side included) impolite and previously unrecorded; the Mekons' Slightly South of the Border (Sin import), which heats up the remixed title tune to accompany two minor originals and (surprise) a Gram Parsons cover; and the Feelies' more dubious No One Knows (Coyote), which adds "She Said, She Said" and "Sedan Delivery" to two repeats from The Good Earth well after Jonathan Demme has proved them capable of an all-cover EP (or album). Two three-cutters by the Fall (Beggars Banquet import) are saved by one album-worthy song apiece, "Living Too Late" to lead a side and "Mr. Pharmacist" for filler. Coproducer, cocomposer, and synth player Andy Bloch destroys the Roches' No Trespassing (Rhino), the trio's most depressing reading of the marketplace ever. Minuteflag (SST) is a 'tween-band instrumental jam that should have died in the can.

Village Voice, June 2, 1987

May 5, 1987 June 30, 1987