Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

This month's nine B plusses got me fretting about the inadequacies of my grading system--it's a long way from Kool G Rap's eye-on-the-prize at the top of the heap to Too Short's valiant genre piece on the bottom. Still, my deal stands: if you think you'll like a B plus, you probably will, and if you find yourself disappointed by a B, don't blame me.


NENEH CHERRY: Raw Like Sushi (Virgin) Daughter of a Swedish artist and an African percussionist, stepdaughter of Don Cherry, the Lower East Side, and the London scene, she's a 25-year bohemian, a socially responsible hedonist, a sexy two-time mom--and a relief from bimbo macho and exchangeable female dance phenoms. Slogan: "I know where I'm goin' and where I'm comin' from." Alternative: "If you're gonna do it, you've got to do it right." And oh yeah: "I came already." The music doesn't quite rock one's house. But it's far more beatwise than the Brit norm, and she can sing/talk that song/rap. Bohos who sell--the most interesting kind. A MINUS [Later]

EL DEBARGE: Gemini (Motown) With his solo debut an old stiff, several lesser siblings convicted cocaine traffickers, and Uncle Berry passed on to his corporate reward, this is black pop on a beeline for the cutout bins, which I guess means it isn't really black pop at all. Just good black music, ancient to the future, all jumping rhythms and space-case melody, less catchy song than gorgeous sound. Can't say maturity's done him a damn bit of good. But at least it hasn't killed him. B PLUS

SWAMP DOGG: I Called for a Rope and They Threw Me a Rock (S.D.E.G.) Worth finding for his liner notes alone ("Why does jury duty pay more than my job and why is it the only Joy I know is a dishwashing detergent?"), an unvanquished professional and hopeless eccentric goes sane. His voice won't fend off nuclear attack anymore, but from Shirley & Lee to the Bellamy Brothers, from black history to rap, his vision of soul remains unique, and also remains a vision of soul. Sure "We Need a Revolution" is wordslinging--but not the wordslinging of a simp or a phony. B PLUS

ARETHA FRANKLIN: Through the Storm (Arista) Of the five count-'em five producers who labored over these eight tracks, only Narada Michael Walden--who claims four, including three of the four count-'em four celebrity cameos--can assure a very modern pop album. But only in spite of Walden is it a moderately seductive modern pop album. Delegating the JB duet to dodos who don't have the sense to sample him, buying noncommital generalizations even Whitney can't resist twisting, asking Elton in on the title number, the man epitomizes pop as market research. Singing her ass off on some halfway decent tunes, the artist epitomizes genius. B PLUS

JALI MUSA JAWARA: Soubindoor (Mango) Mandinka folk music reconceived by Mory Kante's multi-instrumentalist brother, whose emotional tenor soars over interwoven balafon (a big, deeply resonant xylophone) and kora (an intricately harplike guitar), with his guitar talking underneath and harmonies from women surnamed Diabate and Keita adding commentary and color. As U.S. product, it is what it is: world-beat tending to world music, exotically pleasurable education for the ears. B PLUS [Later]

GEORGE JONES: One Woman Man (Epic) Less than no way to tell this is his best album since I Am What I Am nine years ago--Billy Sherrill himself doesn't know, not with two cuts previously released and one of those nothing special. The other, however, is the homicidal "Radio Lover," which I first heard on a makeshift 1984 compilation nowhere near as much fun as this 1988 product. Points of interest include veteran honky-tonk, shameless tearjerk, and the impossible "Ya Ba Da Ba Do (So Are You)," about three icons sitting around talking--Elvis Presley, Fred Flintstone, and George Jones. B PLUS [Later]

THE KAMPALA SOUND (Original Music) Though some may find it too mild, here is the most plainly irresistible John Storm Roberts compilation since Africa Dances. Roberts credits mission-school melodies and natural Bagandan rhythms for the simple, striking, singsong charm of this Nairobi-recorded, Kinshasa-dominated "1960s Ugandan dance music"; note also the r&b-derived basslines of Charles Sonko underpinning whoever has his name on the label, and his sister Frida's modest vocals. Created for commercial gain in a Ugandan market that pre-Amin enjoyed the ultimate gift, existence, the music floats in on an innocence of intent that escapes today's self-consciously folkloric African culture preservers. Imminent brutalization lends its lyricism a poignancy I hope no one involved had any inkling of at the time--unless, of course, foresight helped save their lives. A [Later]

KOOL G RAP & D.J. POLO: Road to the Riches (Cold Chillin') From nasty piano steal to harp hook to bicycle horn to layered ear-scrape to Gary Numan cover to Memphis blues again, this is Marley Marl at his most encyclopedic, and G's fast, harsh lisp is straight outta Queensbridge. But there's too much boast, too much money, too much gaydissing no matter how ridiculous. I don't think G is obliged to transcend a spiritual trap he never made. But until he does he'll have to be a genius, not just the new hard on the block, to escape his ghetto. B PLUS

CYNDI LAUPER: A Night to Remember (Epic) Can you believe she's talking this one up as a triumph of self-expression (meaning "personal" songs, like that Kodak ad) over spiritual adversity (meaning commercial shortfall)? How embarrassing to have placed hope in this woman. And how sad to compare the bold finds and off-the-wall vulgarity of the only good album she'll ever make to this bigtime pop--a parameter stretched not an iota by songs about one's very own breakup, not to mention strokes as prudently defiant as the lyric about not being a pet, which was probably Christina Amphlett's idea anyway. C PLUS

LOOSE ENDS: The Real Chuckeeboo (MCA) Conceived in London and cut in Philadelphia, their funk is so suave and supple that on previous albums it slipped into the background without anyone noticing, including them--and until now, me. Here the ballads have more energy and the groove has more thwock, with the result that the whole first side moves like a living thing. This is fitting--despite a modicum of drum/keyb programming and a plethora of overdubs, the two instrumentalists constitute a band almost neotraditional in its liveness, its discreet spontaneity and sinuous swing. And the three voices are deployed with sensuality and spritz. B PLUS [Later]

LYLE LOVETT: Lyle Lovett and His Large Band (Curb) After kicking off with a sharp r&b instrumental, the lapsed grad student dispenses with pretension and boils country down to the basics. Singing: well-schooled. Songcraft: canny, humorous. Concept: women, you can't live with 'em and you can't live without 'em--and it's their fault. Lest anyone mistake his intentions, he also covers "Stand by Your Man." Very humorous. B

JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP: Big Daddy (Mercury) He's miserable because his half-earned success gets him more love than his hard-fought principles, because he still isn't sure what justice is, because his bones creak, because he's an American fool. He wrote the 11 originals sans band for a Woody Guthrie feel, as if structure were the secret, and as rendered by said band they sound so loose-limbed that at first you may blame yourself for not loving the shit out of them. But every one bogs down in his bitter pretensions, as Mellencamp must suspect. Why else would he sneak in the devastating unannounced cover (nonvinyl-only, principle fans) of the 1967 one-shot "Let It All Hang Out," where four loose-limbed fools who never heard of Woody Guthrie achieved the feel he's striving for without even trying--in hopes of becoming pop singers, yet. The loss of grace it signifies could make anybody miserable. B MINUS

OLD SKULL: Get Outta School (Restless) With their shrill tantrums and chaotic coherence, these three nine-yes-nine-year-olds win a hardcore novelty prize on aptness of sound alone. Shit does stand out, too: "Hot Dog Hell" ("Whoever works here doesn't know how to cook a hot dog"), "Kill a Dead Eagle" ("You can't kill a dead eagle/Just like you can't kill a devil with a bomb"), "Homeless" ("I hate you, Ronald Reagan"), and especially "AIDS." "We don't know that much about AIDS," they sing, for all of us. "How does it make you feel?/I feel afraid." B

PERE UBU: Cloudland (Fontana) "We'd never been asked to write a pop record before," David Thomas says. "I guess it never occurred to anyone." Thomas was happy to oblige. No private visions of decaying cityscape, just equally obscure (and evocative) love songs, down on their knees to rhyme with please. Produced mostly out of Ubu's old Ohio home, then smoothed down and hooked up in London, their signature avant-garage survives with its stop-and-go effects and unsalable recitative in fine fettle. If you're a fan, the six Stephen Hague-produced or Daniel Miller-remixed cuts will sound misbegotten at first. But if you're really a fan, you'll come to recognize them as the urban pastoral of Thomas's whimsical period adapted for the cheap seats, which deserve the attention. A MINUS

TOM PETTY: Full Moon Fever (MCA) He wanted something off-the-cuff and got lucky: except for the punk putdown and the pseudo-Dylan throwaway, both nice on their own terms, nary a lyric nor tune clashes with the terrific early-Byrds cover. If guys made roots-rock albums anymore, anything here would spruce one up. B PLUS

ROACHFORD (Epic) Between Brit trendies and American neocons, you'd think this strong-voiced black Free fan was the next Terence Trent. But TT gets over on formal spark and a sense of manifest destiny. Absent both, quality here is a function of the songwriting, which while it hits the occasional phrase isn't any more revealing in its clarity than TT's in its opacity. B MINUS

SPECIAL ED: Youngest in Charge (Profile) With the 16-year-old rhyming quick as he can think over Howie Tee's tenacious samples, this starts off flying--nine "ax"es in 13 seconds clim"ax" "I'm Taxin,'" with sense no barrier. But thematically it's the usual, and as Howie downshifts and Ed pulls out his skeezer number ("I hate cheap sex," he warned us, neglecting to add "after it's over" and "unless I'm selling it"), you wish he'd grow up, fresh or no fresh. B

THROWING MUSES: Hunkpapa (Sire) Whether the more down-to-earth (hardly "pop") tunes and grooves here signal a Kristin Hersh head-change or simply create the right impression, the result's an evolution from bad poetry to obscure poetry--an improvement, definitely, but not the difference that will make the difference. B MINUS

TOO SHORT: Life Is . . . Too Short (Dangerous Music) Musically, Oakland's finest is a throwback, his repetitive monotone trailing midtempo drum-machine beats embellished by low-tech scratches, simple bass and guitar lines, and other synthesized band noises. Not exactly uplifting, either--though he extols the hard haul that got him his Benz, he accepts "freaks" and "rock cocaine" as viable career alternatives, and in general is as matter-of-factly despairing as anyone who opposes suicide can be. Thing is, despair suits the "City of Dope," the generic urban dystopia that the hards down south half-wittingly glamorize with their fancy samples and staged defiance. And though his dirty mind is in effect, Short's not so cock-proud he'll refuse a blow job from Nancy Reagan or stop the chorus from dissing his dick. B PLUS

ALI FARKA TOURE (Mango) A Malian whose guitar owes onetime employer John Lee Hooker, Toure fascinates students of the Africa-blues connection, and his side-openers and foot-stomping Hook tribute are good to hear. Nevertheless, I prefer my blues with a rhythm section. I also prefer Hook. B

Additional Consumer News

MCA has rereleased one of those two-LP CDs Motown concocted back when the new format meant price resistance as well as profit margin, and for once the music fits. Most DeBarge fans think the exquisitely cautious All This Love is their shining moment; I much prefer In a Special Way, when the individual compositions they bear down on are up to the sound their gifts immerse them in. Not to understate, it's my most-played falsetto-group album ever. Digital sound suits the siblings' clarity, and the hour-plus length suits their mix of languor and flight fantastic. Great makeout music. And you can eat dinner to it.

In the wake of Papa Wemba's Africa Oyé! and S.O.B.'s triumphs, I was greeted upstairs at Tower by four Wemba albums, including my prized and long-missing L'Esclave (Gitta import), which is worth the extra buck it'll cost you. Second choice: Ekumani by a head over Papa Wemba (both Disques Esperance import). You can skip Au Japon and avoid French EMI's needlessly synthed-up Papa Wemba CD.

Village Voice, June 27, 1989


June 6, 1989 July 25, 1989