Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Not one, not two, but three double plays this month, in each case because two releases by the same artist merited separate consideration. Rogers Nelson's machinations excepted, this is a function of nouveau internationalism--Astor Piazzola has three records out. Nouveau internationalists also garner Pick Hit with their first album in four years. A true Amurrican is Must to Avoid.

AMBITIOUS LOVERS: Greed (Virgin) Guess the title's because this is more commercial than Envy, which I guess Arto called that because he was insecure about playing funk and samba. Well, he's not insecure any more. With Peter Scherer melding Brazil and the Black Rock Coalition into a spectrum of astonishing bands, he's sitting on top of one of the sharpest, coolest, bestest funk or samba records ever made--funk as light and samba as pop as the Michaels McDonald or Franks could hope for, only all fused and fucked with. Moments of guitar anarchy (from Vernon Reid or Bill Frisell when chops are called for, from Arto when Arto is) add a New York edge to the tropico hedonism, and there's a witting yet almost childlike playfulness to Arto's vocal technique that's a hemisphere away from the sun-dazed romantic insouciance of his Lusophone mentors. Which certainly isn't to say he lacks insouciance--the bespectacled sometime skronkmaster is as sexy as George Michael when he wants to be, which on these postpostmodern love songs he does. Wonder what Lust will sound like. A [Later]

HARRY BELAFONTE: Paradise in Gazankulu (EMI-Manhattan) Anybody who thought Paul Simon was jiving about political lyrics should check this socially conscious malapropism by Miriam Makeba's ex. Banned from South Africa himself, Belafonte sent arranger Richard Cummings and lyricist Jake Holmes in to lay down tracks with Makgona Tsohle, Brenda Fassie, even the Soul Brothers (who turned Simon down), and both representatives made a mess with the boss's full approval--Makgona Tsohle play cream cheese, the Zulu word for power turns into a woman's name, and the interracial love duet with Jennifer Warnes is no less saccharine for being punishable by death. Yet the Obed Ngobeni-backed title song is a triumph--a tremendously hot piece of assimilationist mbaqanga that conveys apartheid's insanity and mbaqanga's joy-pain in English ironic enough to get past the SABC. Did I say Simon wasn't jiving? C PLUS

BHUNDU BOYS: True Jit (Mango) In the end, their made-in-U.K. breakthrough attempt is a catchy, unconventional pop record--not only is the song for war-dead children about kids they knew, but you can be sure it doesn't suggest the war was unnecessary. Yet ingratiation is so ingrained in these former freedom fighters that they're almost swallowed by former Sade producer Robin Millar, who goes for pan-Africana with quasi-Zairean horns and transforms subtle cross-rhythms into upfront hooks. Rewriting "Skokiaan" as "Happy Birthday" because they know "Happy happy Africa" won't wash anymore, structuring "Rugare" ("work hard and reap the fruits of your labour") around schlocko synth chords and bridges that go nowhere, they're victims of crossover, compromising and accommodating when they should be expanding and appropriating. And they're still not half-bad. B PLUS [Later]

BHUNDU BOYS: Tsvimbodzemoto: Sticks of Fire (Discafrique import) Though you can understand why the soaring interplay of the Bhundus' post-chimurenga is classified as a soukous variant, it's folkier in basic approach and rockier in basic instrumentation, as comes clear on their second album, cut in Zimbabwe and due for U.S. release on Hannibal this fall. Though the sound is thinner than FM technocrats might decree, it suits the band's peculiarly Zimbabwean polyrhythms, in which guitars and keybs take over lines indigenous to the thumb piano. Anyway, it's not so thin you're gonna notice as you fly around the ceiling. Congenital lead-asses start with side two. A MINUS [Later]

RUBEN BLADES: Nothing but the Truth (Elektra) Although familiarity has tempered my dismay, my first response to Blades's assault on Anglophonia was embarrassment--just what WEA needed, another Jackson Browne album. Admittedly, it's a pretty good Jackson Browne album, with various class acts (Uncle Lou, Elvis C., Sting, and studio luminaries) pitching in for their (and my) favorite Hispanic liberal. When I suppress my corn immunity I'm moved by the AIDS song, the homeless song, and the barrio song. And except for Sting's contribution, I'm impressed by the rest--literate lyrics about Latin America, feckless idealism, and feckless love are never easy to come by. But that doesn't mean they're easy to bring off, and deprived of Seis del Solar's rolling undercurrents Blades is forced to serve them up straight, a skill he hasn't practiced like he has his English. Not that practice would make perfect--cf. Jackson Browne. B

COLORS (Warner Bros.) From Ice-T's horrorshow credo to Eric B.'s mastermix fantasia, the originals and rarities on side one constitute an uncommonly solid rap compilation. Side two's iffier, with a transcendently irritating Roxanne Shante cut, punctuated by whooping gasps uncannily similar to the ones D.J. E-Z Rock stole from house's house, deflated by a crime-does-not-pay ending from M.C. Shan and soulmate Rick James. Bargain-hunters won't pass this chance up, but I still want Roxanne on a 12-inch--keep pretentious people out of the house. B PLUS

RY COODER: Get Rhythm (Warner Bros.) With his desire to please and his lust for lucre both slaked by his renown as a soundtrack composer, he's free to follow his ugly voice where it leads--he's never been louder, and it suits him. Somebody else's blues, "I Can Tell by the Way You Smell," articulates his raw sense of dirty; somebody else's calypso, "Women Will Rule the World," does the same for his postfeminist blues sexism. And "Going Back to Okinawa" is an original only a folklorist could distinguish from the found weirdness that's always been his redeeming social value. B PLUS

FEEDTIME: Shovel (Rough Trade) One Melbourne fan says they're like standing too close to a moving freight train with a six-pack in you, and that's corny-to-classic enough to evoke their size and inexorability--a little slower and more old-fashioned than the IRT the Ramones/Dolls came in on, which definitely doesn't mean they're slow or old-fashioned. Just an art band cum power trio that's spent nine years perfecting its sonic wisdom. Jesus and Mary are wimps by comparison, Motorhead sellouts, yet in the end all three (all five) provide the same minimalist thrill--the one that's forever convincing us rock and roll will never die. You think maybe it won't? A MINUS

FIHLAMAHLAZO NABOCHWEPHESHE: Ziphansi Izintsizwa (Vulindlela import) On several of the mbaqanga albums now available from New Music Distribution Service, the shock of the simple is neutralized by the dull ache of the monotonous. Here the beats remain pretty basic, and damned if I can hear the rude-bowed fiddle depicted on the cover, but the bass is active, there's constant squeezebox byplay, and the leader never shuts up, following song with harangue on almost every cut. Wish I had some idea what he was talking about. B PLUS

GIRLSCHOOL: Nightmare at Maple Cross (GWR/Profile) Since these five females or others of the same name have been doing the old forced march since 1980, I assume the crucial exuberance of their recycled Sweet-metal is something of a simulation. But second-hand cock-rock it ain't--no rape threatened or implied. Just show business. B PLUS

HERBIE HANCOCK: Perfect Machine (Columbia) Unlike Kraftwerk's, definitely a reference and rip, Laswell/Bootsy's beats bite, but not so as to tear anybody limb from limb. Sometime vocalist Sugarfoot should stick with the Ohio Players. As for Herbie's contributions, I know fusion when I hear it, and so does he. Guess he actually likes the stuff. B MINUS [Later: C+]

BRUCE HORNSBY & THE RANGE: Scenes From the Southside (RCA Victor) This unassuming platinum mine is compassionate, serious, literate. He plays a "real" piano. And he's a menace. I mean, in the privacy of your own mind, try crossing vague Bruce with '80s Elton. Then run it through Firefall. Finally--this is important--slow down those tempos. No no no, leave the drum sound up. See? C

MAHLATHINI: The Lion of Soweto (Earthworks/Virgin) Recorded in the late '70s, with tough mgqashiyo mbaqanga out of favor among cultural as well as assimilationist blacks, this proves Mahlathini's staunch loyalty to the style he originated, his total lack of alternatives, or both. The notes say its "refusal to compromise" delivers "Mahlathini at his very peak"; I say that without Makgona Tsohle and the Mahotella Queens it sounds almost as generic as late Toots, even though (and probably because) the man carries the lion's share of the music himself. But I'll add that the glosses make me wish I could follow along more closely. A city "where women have got no mothers," a challenge to witch doctors, and a greeting to the spirit of his own youth all seem to transgress ever so slightly against the traditionalism that is mbaqanga's chief strength and most daunting limitation, and such transgressions hold out the hope of progress. B PLUS [Later]

MAHLATHINI AND THE MAHOTELLA QUEENS: Thokozile (Virgin) The great groaner's 1983 reunion with his greatest backup groups--not just the Queens, returned to the life after a decade of domesticity, but Makgona Tsohle, featuring nonpareil guitarist Marks Mankwane and ubiquitous saxophonist-producer West Nkosi--culminates for the nonce in this 1986 showcase. Not counting "I Wanna Dance," exactly the sort of "disco" that's supposed to be against his principles, it's unexceptionably indestructible, bottomless baritone flexed inexorably against stout sopranos, with Mankwane's licks and Nkosi's pennywhistle darting like traffic up top. Professional dance music at its finest and roughest. A MINUS

MEKONS: So Good It Hurts (Twin/Tone) Reports that they've "gone reggae" are grossly exaggerated and no big deal--the Bellamy Brothers beat them to that crossover by a country mile, and the skank that kicks things off is as lovable as anything they've ever done (bumbling semipros they may be, but their drummer used to work for the Rumour). If only they were hip enough to cover "Old Hippie" (that's a Bellamys song, kids), all would be well. As it is they cover (some would claim redefine) "Heart of Stone" and write bookish lyrics I don't understand even when I've read the authors in question. B PLUS

MORRISSEY: Viva Hate (Sire) From my pinnacle of disinterest I can attest that this solo move is neither here nor there. Vini Reilly doesn't have a unique sound like Johnny Marr, and autonomy does encourage the camp grandiosity of a guy who tries to make "I love you more than life" live: though he may think it's funny for "Late Night, Maudlin Street" to go on for 7:40, in fact it's as boring as you'd expect despite the great line about his revolting nakedness. But the Smiths rarely if ever came up with a hook as must-hear as "Everyday Is Like Sunday"'s and in general the monotony factor has decreased. The artiste is no longer a kid, and he likes it that way. Essential for acolytes, educational for the rest of us, just like always. B

PRINCE: The Black Album (unlabeled cassette) Uncle Jam's sonic wallop and communal craziness are the project's obvious starting point, though Prince will never be as funny. Even better, they're also its finish line. Except for "When 2 R in Love," easily the lamest thing on two otherwise distinct records, the bassy murk never lets up, and at its weirdest--an unpleasant impersonation of a dumbfuck B-boy that's no lost masterpiece and far more arresting than anything on the official product--it's as dark as "Cosmic Slop." With retail sources drying up (I have a fourth-generation dub from a relatively inside source myself), those who pine for heavy funk should nag their local dealers. This is capitalism, so supply'll meet demand, right? A MINUS

PRINCE: Lovesexy (Paisley Park) He's a talented little guy, and this has plenty of pizzazz. But I'll take The Black Album's fat-bottomed whomp over its attention-grabbing beats and halfway decent tunes any day, and despite appearances it sure ain't where he explains why sexiness is next to godliness--lyrically it's sloppy if not pseudo if not stupid. This is doubly bothersome because added religious content is what it's supposed to have over its not terribly shocking alternative. Leading one to the obvious conclusion that the real reason the little guy made the switch was that he was scared to reveal how, shall we say, unpop he could be. B PLUS

SMASHED GLADYS: Social Intercourse (Elektra) Idealism in the young is always to be encouraged, which is why I can't resist a band so straightforward about its values: "Not for the money/Not for the fame/We do it . . ."--for the love of rock and roll, right, Unca Bob? sorry, Tipper, not this time--". . . TO GET LAID!" So it grieves me to report that only rarely do Bart Lewis's glam-metal riffs live up to such Sally Cato lines as "You play the fool and I play the tart" or "It's a filthy lie but someone's gotta live it." Not even the cock-rock riposte "Lick It into Shape" is hard enough. Get down, guys, or your hot mama's gonna go bye-bye. B

TIMBUK 3: Eden Alley (I.R.S.) True folkies, the MacDonalds evolve toward lyric sincerity--or on the debut single, an obvious stiff (which doesn't mean a terrible song), straight sarcasm. Occasionally they get away clean--"A Sinful Life" tugs at my heartstrings for sure. But crooked sarcasm remains their special gift. I'm happy not to know whether they consider the disco champs of "Dance Fever" winners or losers in the end. And I wonder whether their latest foray into tape technology, "Sample the Dog," couldn't break from further out in left field than "Future's So Bright" did. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

MCA could do better recompiling the Chess catalogue than reissuing it, but it could also do worse, and as long as the records stay in print I say let's settle. The label's digital remastering is simple and examplary, clear without making a fetish of definition, and Chess's general musical level was so high that even transparently haphazard original albums sound fairly great today. Perfect example is The Real Folk Blues, a title Chess surrounded with odd tracks in 1966 to exploit the already dated term "folk." Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and Sonny Boy Williamson all survived the treatment and then some. But Muddy and the Wolf did better elsewhere (Muddy on the more genuinely folky all-acoustic Folk Singer and the recently reissued Best of), while Hooker's fresh-cut session is a beaut. As for Sonny Boy II, why does he always get lost in the blues shuffle? Maybe because he's less guitar-oriented than Muddy or Wolf, though Muddy's band backs him on a few key tracks, leaving the rest to the usual Chess aces. A major harp player, a sly lyricist, and an even slyer singer whose unprepossessing slur concealed a tortured soul, Williamson is for all practical purposes the equal of his two competitors on Chess's W shelf. You owe him to yourself. And n.b.: he sounds even better on the newly available Down and Out Blues. Real Folk Blues is slightly more haphazard.

Laserheads looking to justify their addiction could do worse than the Riverside CD compilation Thelonious Monk and the Jazz Giants, which leads with "Bemsha Swing," the most effulgent cut on his most coruscating album, and also includes Misterioso's "In Walked Bud," featuring a long, laconically hilarious (and laconically, hilariously virtuosic) Johnny Griffin solo that's a landmark of saxophony. Of course, this music stuff can be addictive, and given how digital sound enhances Monk's nuances and sense of space, you could wind up with two "Bemsha Swing"s--Brilliant Corners is on CD too.

A tip for the inquisitive: despite occasionally scratchy sound, Mbube Roots: Zulu Choral Music from South Africa, 1930s-1960s (Rounder) is as rewarding a listen as the modern stuff. Between music and notes, this record will compel any rock and roller with a brain to reconsider the neoconventionally negative view of gentility we all share. It has its uses, folks.

Great music movie: Stormy Monday, written, directed, and scored by Michael Figgis, who edits like the video director he's been. Subject: the Anglo-American nexus. Very noir, natch, with the real heroes a Polish jazz band.

Village Voice, June 28, 1988

May 24, 1988 July 26, 1988