Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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I'm way behind, and soon enough I'll tell you about lots more good ones. But I wouldn't want to give the impression that the river of shit had somehow stopped flowing. And having made wild statements about the future of rap some months back, I wouldn't want to pretend the future is upon us, either.

BABES IN TOYLAND: Spanking Machine (Twin/Tone) Three daring women who decided that if Mudhoney could do it, they could too. And made rock feminists all over 'zineland darn proud. C PLUS

BELL BIV DEVOE: Poison (MCA) Because the new jack thing is supposed to be a "pop" move, softening rap's male-bonded "rock" ethos with sweet beats and romantic lies, their misogyny is more alarming than usual. Scared shitless of how much they need the one thing on their minds, they dis the girls who give it to them. "I had to prove my manhood/Show her that the B-I-V was damn good," but he's sure it isn't just him who makes her hot: "She's like that every day." You might say they'd have a shot at a decent sex life if they'd stop obsessing on every "sexy X-rated video queen." But that's the symptom, not the cure--a cure the slick, juicy polyrhythms of Dr. Freeze and the Shocklee-Sadler crew make me wish they'd find. Sure it's possible they're just shaking off their New Edition image. It's also possible they're mean bastards. B PLUS

DIGITAL UNDERGROUND: Sex Packets (Tommy Boy) I'm not gonna call 'em a singles band, but I defy anybody who loved "Doowutchyalike" and liked "The Humpty Dance" to isolate either's equal among the many cuts that remain. Debonair frat boys, they never leave you totally uninterested, but only twice more are they anything like compelling--on the title track, a properly multileveled age-of-AIDS fantasia, and on "Gutfest '89," which reminds us that frat-boy sexism is no less lethal than the street variety. B [Later: Choice Cuts]

THE D.O.C.: No One Can Do It Better (Ruthless) For three cuts it doesn't matter that he says nothing fast--not only is the music funky (his favorite word), it's clever, multileveled, gut-wrenching, ear-opening. Add the raucous Michel'le cameo "Comm. Blues" and you begin to think he deserves his best-seller, message or no message. And then, zip. Except on the tongue-twisting "Portrait of a Master Piece," the funk straightens out so abruptly you soon wonder what he's got to say. The less the better, as it turns out--guess who's "Beautiful but Deadly." B

ICE CUBE: Amerikkka's Most Wanted (Priority) Musically it's as original as A Tribe Called Quest, and probably doper: with Eric Sadler thickening the mix and the vocalist bluntly banging the tracks home, it delivers the hard beats N.W.A's claque clamors about, not just for a few sucker punches but from beginning to end. Lyrically it's as piggy as it wants to be: despite his gift for rhyme and narrative, Ice Cube's politics revert to victim-of-a-racist-society belligerence except maybe on the willfully perverse (and hateful) "The Nigga You Love To Hate." It was inevitable that some womanhater would elevate his problem into an emblem of outlaw status. But I say fuck the muthafucka, stay on his dick, etc.--anybody who's thinks it's cute to dub himself "the bitch killer" is armed, extremely dangerous, and fair game for the pickle jar. B MINUS

BILLY IDOL: Charmed Life (Chrysalis) Never much of an idol as the pretty Johnny Rotten or the ugly Brian Setzer and now a has-been as the tough Simon Le Bon, he makes a pathetic reentry as the not-dead Jim Morrison. Since the only Jimbo he knows is Jimbo the AOR figurehead, the music tends toward dance-metal, which with his DOR background he occasionally renders pop-seductive. Good--better consensual s&m than unprosecuted rape. But his rebel yells couldn't sell a tattoo to a leather boy. Recommended heckle: "Show us your dick." C MINUS [Later: Dud]

GREGORY ISAACS: I.O.U. (RAS) Isaacs evolves so slowly that he'll still be catching up with pop history when he's 70, which makes keeping up with him less fun than quality music ought to be. Like Smokey, he's given up on songwriting and production, yet musically he's deeper now than five years ago: when Gussie Clarke tells him to lead with an unskanking soul-ballad groove, he gets into it no questions asked--like he owns it. Politically, however, he's disappeared, and since one of his charms was how naturally he yoked resistance and romance, he falls on just the wrong side of the almost imperceptible margin between the crafty and the generic. Though if Clarke had come up with more sound effects like the warbling electronic cricket hiding in the underbrush of "Report to Me," I'd never think to mention it. B

GREGORY ISAACS: My Number One (Heartbeat) Isaacs has got to be the sameyest great artist in pop history--though I own only four of these 13 tracks from his big youth on Alvin Ranglin's GG label, two of them on a tape I haven't played since I got it, just about every tune sounded like an old friend after a brief, casual interchange, because just about every one has been sending its cousins by for years. Coolly crooning lyrics that declare for self-determination up against romance or oppression, caressing and suffering with equal imperturbability, Isaacs is the aural image of an unconquerable, ganja-guzzling serenity. With ace toasters pitching in on four de facto disco discs, this is the U.S. release that will convince doubters until he gets the boxed set he deserves. A MINUS

KID CREOLE AND THE COCONUTS: Private Waters in the Great Divide (Columbia) Word is August Darnell hired out to Sony under heavy pressure from label prexy (and former Dr. Buzzard manager) Tommy Mottola to provide a hit. There's even a shocked report that he was sent back into the studio for a quick "Lambada" stick-on, but I say the voracious universalism of that great hit is an improvement. Most of these songs maintain a level of imagination that has always matched that of Loudon Wainwright, say, or John Prine, but they're limited by a previously undetectable reliance on shtick. "I Love Girls," for instance, is a sinuous sample of the album's homogeneous-to-homogenized disco-funk and a proper first panel for the roue-in-the-age-of-AIDS triptych. But it's not liberating, it's not daring, it's not even surprising, and for wit all Darnell does is show off his vocabulary. The same goes for the true-crime "Taking the Rap," the sexy "When Lucy Does the Boomerang," and so forth. Not even Cory Daye or the new Prince song lift off from the pleasure zone, except of course the dunning refrain of "Laughing With Our Backs Against the Wall": "What you gonna do when the money runs out?" Sign with Sony, of course. B PLUS [Later]

KING MISSILE: Mystical Shit (Shimmy-Disc) People born in the '60s find this postmod counterculture parody/tribute right on, but as someone who turned 21 in '62 I buy mainly the comedy, and not always then--"Jesus Is Way Cool" is ace Dead Milkmen (very '80s, kids) and the free-love fable says all by not drawing a moral, but a convoluted context doesn't render the one about the sandbox any less a doody joke. As for the guitar work, they gotta believe--and they don't, not really. B [Later: Choice Cuts]

MADONNA: I'm Breathless (Sire/Warner Bros.) Show tunes aren't my cup of tea either, and there are no doubt hundreds of frustrated chorines who could sing the three Sondheim originals "better" than the most famous person in the world. But with its pedigree of wit and musicality, show-tune pop-schlock sure beats the direct-to-Vegas power ballads with which she's heretofore betrayed her dance-rock roots. Especially when she writes it herself--except for the "Material Girl"-inspired "More," the Sondheim tunes are fussy and genteel (with Mandy Patinkin's "well-sung" cameo the nadir), but such fake period pieces as "Cry Baby," "He's a Man," and the risque s&m-lite "Hanky Panky" are all her. This is a woman whose great gift is for the mask. Camp isn't everything she can do, but she sure knows how to do it right. A MINUS [Later: A]

MATERIAL: Seven Souls (Virgin) The male version of Laurie Anderson's Strange Angels is a marriage made in purgatory between two cold motherfuckers: Bill Laswell and Bill Burroughs. Seamlessly synthesizing new-age atmospherics, authentic African passion, and arena-rock melodrama, Laswell devises settings for the sci-fi ecopessimism of the greatest reader of our time. Not that it's all dead souls and dire consequences--for balance and to prove he can do it, Laswell also constructs an inspiriting third-world anthem from the remains of John Lydon's "Pop Tones." B PLUS [Later]

PROFESSOR GRIFF AND THE LAST ASIATIC DISCIPLES: Pawns in the Game (Skyywalker) Of course he's serious; who could doubt it? Griff's problem (one of them, I mean) is that he's too serious--Chuck D. is too serious, and Chuck is Kid if not Play by comparison. What little pleasure contaminates this music is like a Stryper solo, or a folksinger who's decided a drummer might bring his or her message to the masses--aping Chuck or biting the Last Poets, Griff's a lame, and the Lads are followers. Even the list of U.S. war crimes, the strongest dumbass leftist moment in a scattershot analysis, is compromised by his praise for Khomeini and Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings. And though he adjudges the universal price code a tool of the Great Satan, he didn't have the clout or the principle to keep it off his package. C

PUBLIC ENEMY: Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam) All preemptive strikes to the contrary, this is a much better record than there was any reason to expect under the circumstances. It's not unusually inflated or self-involved. It's far from lazy or thoughtless musically, though its brutal pace does wear down eventually. It's got a sense of humor, not just from a Flav who gets smarter all the time but from Chuck, whose "Pollywanacraka" message and voice--people keep bringing in Barry White or Isaac Hayes, but he's playing the pedagogue, not the love man, maybe some Reverend Ike figure--is the album's most surprising moment. And it's no more suspect ideologically than they've ever been, with the anti-Semitic provocation of "Terrordome" and the homophobic etiology of "Meet the G That Killed Me," both objectionable and neither one as heinous or as explicit as it's made out to be, countered somewhat by a clumsy attempt at a prowoman slant. Shtick their rebel music may be, but this is show business, and they're still smarter and more daring than anybody else working their beat. A MINUS [Later: A]

SHOES: Stolen Wishes (Black Vinyl) Still hooky after all these years, the three principals divide up 15 more love songs: John Murphy makes up to break up, Jeff Murphy starts happy-happy and gets blown away, Gary Klebe obsesses and suffers and obsesses some more. All over Zion, Illinois, bedrooms quake at the mere mention of these thirtysomething lotharios' names. B

ALI FARKA TOURE: The River (World Circuit import) As a self-taught guitarist who's rarely reviewed without reference to John Lee Hooker, Toure is conflicted about Afro-American music--does he owe it or does it owe him? And although he always displays the guitar style that occasions the comparison (which I'm betting is part influence, part tradition, and part invention), his recordings drift into the folkloric. So it's a relief that unlike Mango's Ali Farka Toure or Shanachie's African Blues, this one means to cross over a bit. Not only does it make room for a second human being (Amadou Cisse on calabash, the percussion device that Toure overdubs on his Mango release), but tracks colored with harmonica, saxophone, fiddle and bodhran, and the single-stringed njarka that Toure picks up for the finale--not to mention an extra edge of vocal command. I don't know what Malians will think. But I say the result is variety, not compromise. And I say it's what he's always needed. A MINUS

SUZANNE VEGA: Days of Open Hand (A&M) Right off she declares for the new realism: "Oh mom/The dreams are not so bad/It's just that there's so much to do/And I'm tired of sleeping." About time, too--only she can't take it. She's politically alienated and not too thrilled about that abortion. She throws up her hands at the future. She's decorous, tuneful, art-directed. And she gets her title, whatever it means, from the one called "Book of Dreams." B MINUS

Village Voice, July 3, 1990

May 29, 1990 July 31, 1990