Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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On the surface this would appear to be one of my jazz months, but I say it's the surprise return of black pop, conceived with the breadth it deserves and sustains--from youngbloods like Treach and James Carter to matched Eurodisco divas to oldtimers like Wonder and Wemba. Let me hear you say yeah.


JAMES CARTER: The Real Quietstorm (Atlantic) I don't see the point of comparing the most prodigious young jazzman since David Murray if not Ornette to anyone less titanic than Sonny Rollins. He can play anything, with a giant sound on all four saxes plus bass flute and bass clarinet. I greatly enjoy and highly recommend his two blowing sessions for DIW, JC on the Set and Jurassic Classics, with the latter slightly favored for its classic heads--Monk, Ellington, Rollins, Coltrane, Clifford Brown. Still, neither suggests much reason for the playing beyond the playing itself, however sufficient a cause that may be. This romantic set has some concept. Two unfazed Carter originals complement a surprising selection of make-out music by Monk, Ellington, Sun Ra, Bill Doggett, Carter's main man Don Byas. Not only is it more unified, it's more pop, which intensifies the aesthetic charge. And Carter lets Byas's "1944 Stomp" rip so fast and hard you'll order up a blowing session immediately. A PLUS [Later: A]

BOB DYLAN: Greatest Hits Volume 3 (Columbia) He can climax with "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" if he wants--Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a piece of crap, the song a work of genius, which is the basic idea on this living testament to random forethought. But shaggy dog story or no shaggy dog story, "Tangled Up in Blue" doesn't belong, and neither does that supernal piece of crap "Forever Young," because both are classic tracks from albums that precede Rolling Thunder and Desire, events that marked his epochal commitment to hackdom even if no one dreamed it at the time. On 14 cuts employing 57 session musicians, four of whom appear twice and none thrice, this collection celebrates that commitment. Its sonic trademark is the soulettes who back "Changing of the Guards" (Street Legal, 1978), "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar" (Shot of Love, 1981), "Silvio" (Down in the Groove, 1988), and the magnificent 11-minute Sam Shepard collaboration "Brownsville Girl" (Knocked Out Loaded, 1986)--all obscure, all compelling, all cockeyed flights of prophecy or mythic narrative, and all featuring the backup pipes of Carol (sometimes Carolyn) Dennis, who I bet has been feeding him lines for two lost decades. B PLUS

SHANE MACGOWAN AND THE POPES: The Snake (ZTT/Warner Bros.) Fuckin' right he's still alive, and without stooping to abstinence, either. He abuses any substance you got, addresses love bitter love with the unexampled expertise of a snaggle-tooth who might have fucked your missis but never fucked your daughter, bawls catchy tone-deaf tunes, and entrusts his life to the Church of the Holy Spook. The only great Pogues album was Rum Sodomy and the Lash, 10 years ago. This is the next best thing. A MINUS

SAM MANGWANA: Maria Tebbo (Stern's African Classics) On two renowned late-'70s albums, seven cuts totaling about an hour, the polyrhythms are far less elaborate than in present-day soukous, the tunes far more direct. The booklet attributes their winning confidence to the vibrant culture of early independence, and though artistic and commercial logic would have led to overdevelopment anyway, the metaphor is evocative. It's that the-world-is-in-front-of-me thing. Think early hip hop--or early Beatles. A MINUS

M PEOPLE: Bizarre Fruit (Epic) Second time out they're obliged to prove their staying power--not just produce a new batch of sure shots, but add the weight of a few slow grooves and tokens of conscience, with no beginner's backlog or U.K. singles-only to fill in the blanks. So, as is only human, they don't go all the way. Where Elegant Slumming was pure pleasure machine, this stops at intensely likable--a band record rather than a producers' record, with trickier percussion and subtler hooks. But only the one about heroes is altogether leaden, and "Drive Time" is the radio move of every club band's dreams and career prospectus. A MINUS [Later]

DAVID MURRAY: Jug-A-Lug (DIW import) Recommended recent jazz titles by this endlessly resourceful if suspiciously prolific recording artist include the Malcolm tribute-quickie MX (Red Baron), stirred and soured by Bobby Bradford's cornet, Saxmen (ditto), which knocks back Young-Rollins-Parker-Rouse-Stitt-Coltrane standards guaranteed to knock new jazz fans out, and Special Quartet (DIW/Columbia), featuring McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones to guess what conceptual end (if you don't know, start with Rhino's Coltrane box and proceed). I can also dig Shakill's II (DIW import), a less audaciously greasy follow-up to the Don Pullen-drenched avant-lounge organ outing Shakill's Warrior. But more to the pop point is the post-Shakill leap he takes here and on The Tip, cut during the same four-day burst: a funk band, period, or do I mean question mark-explanation point?! Imperfect for sure, but although I'd prefer it didn't swing so much, in fact the full-bodied confidence of the only-jazz that begins this set gives it the edge over The Tip, which never equals the Sly Stone and David Murray classics it takes off from. The drag throughout is keybman Robert Irving III, whose adoration of Joe Zawinul almost transforms The Tip into the darn good Weather Report album Murray's damn lucky it ain't. The motorvator is bass-whomping Darryl Jones, who is all over this record once it gets going--most spectacularly on the loosey-goosey bass-clarinet workout "Acoustic Octo Funk," where Irving has the common sense to ape Pullen for a while. They should have made a single album out of all this--real pop pros know an an outtake when they hear one. But it frees both Branford Marsalis and Maceo Parker to go back where they came from. A MINUS [Later]

NAUGHTY BY NATURE: Poverty's Paradise (Tommy Boy) I wouldn't swear "Feel Me Flow" or "Clap Yo Hands" is the kind of singalong they can live by (and off). But they're no longer working an anthem thing--it's an album thing. Uncompromisingly street without indulging their anger, unmistakably good-hearted without repressing their aggressions, "Hang Out and Hustle" is their calling card and call to arms. Much respect for the will and skill that can expand their standard five minutes of jubilant escape into an hour of tough, beatwise congeniality. A MINUS

REAL MCCOY: Another Night (Arista) One expediently omniverous German hookmeister plus two soft-sung African American Army brats equals Eurodisco without overkill--every song catchy, every beat perky except on the sad one, every lyric recapitulating the pleasures and perils of l-o-v-e along the mind-body continuum. Shallow? Received? Er, pop? Mais oui--I mean aber ja. A MINUS

SOUL ASYLUM: Let Your Dim Light Shine (Columbia) Welcome evidence that Dave Pirner may not be the Bob Seger of his generation--because where in the late '70s temptation came in the form of classic rock, in the mid-'90s it lies along pop's primrose path, a development that should offend only grunge nostalgiacs. The tunes of these neatly crafted songs are up top, their "roots" submerged the way roots usually are. And the often funny, sometimes fantastic lyrics are so smart you'd almost think Pirner knows how cheap he got away last time. After lingering over idioms like "don't get my hopes up" and "left to my own devices," he moves on to vignettes in which his pervasive depression connects to something less collegiate than existential angst--the hard, sad lives of other people, several of them women seen not as objects of sex or romance, just struggling humans like him and me. A MINUS [Later: B+]

PAPA WEMBA: Emotion (RealWorld) No young buck, Wemba reckons that if his third made-for-export doesn't take it'll be his last, which may be just as well. Ominously, this one enlists Jean-Philippe Rykiel, whose strange keyb technique--suggesting a cross between eternal transcendence and drowning grilled asparagus in Velveeta-melt--already permeates Keita's Soro and N'Dour's Wommat. But with the cannily neofolkloric Lokua Kanza also on hand, its 11-tunes-in-38-minutes (a most un-African proportion) constitute the most appealing crossover Wemba has yet devised for the voice his hopes come down to. Piercing and penetrating without a hint of muezzin, he also commands a "natural," "conversational" timbre richer and rangier than that of his more soft-sung Zairean colleagues. I still prefer my '80s vinyl. But this is a singer you should hear in a showcase you can find. A MINUS [Later]

STEVIE WONDER: Conversation Peace (Motown) Sure you can take him for granted. He's as set in his ways as Neil Young or John Updike, his lyrics complacent mush even when he's preaching against handguns or "man's inhumanity to man." But his musical vitality is a miracle. Overlaying track after track alone in his studio, he's a font of melody, a wellspring of rhythm, a major modern composer. So if at some level you've heard all this before, that doesn't mean it's worn out its welcome. And the seven-minute groove-sound workout "Cold Chill" will make you check back to make sure he's ever been better. A MINUS

YO LA TENGO: Electr-O-Pura (Matador) Electric, sure, but Altern-A-Pura would be more like it. Brimful of fuzz, feedback, punk, skronk, and the lovingly amped squelches of fingers sliding off strings, their seventh album is a subcultural tour de force, luxuriating so sybaritically in guitar sound that I'm reluctant to mention that the tunes are pretty good. That's probably why it's the best record they've ever made, though. Singing's breathy as usual, with Ira yelling when the time is right. As for the lyrics, you know--murmured, gnomic, pop culture references, that kind of thing. A MINUS [Later: A]

Dud of the Month

MEDESKI MARTIN & WOOD: Friday Afternoon in the Universe (Gramavision) Supporters apologize for calling this stuff "eclectic" not because the cliché embarrasses them, but because they know the band's much-bruited groove will sound suspiciously like a hodgepodge to heathens like me. Bad Brubeck, Jimmy Smith as fusion, musique concrète ordinaire, soundtracks for arty shorts about urban hyperactivity--it's all these things and more, one after the other in apparent perpetuity. Please let me out of the basement before they think of something new. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.): Andean salsa, say (Susana Baca, "Maria Lando"; Lucila Campos, "Toro Mata"; Peru Negro, "Lando")
  • Grateful Dead, Dick's Picks Volume Two (GDCD): the good old days, circa Keith Godchaux ("Jam," "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad")
  • Wilco, A.M. (Sire/Reprise): realist defiance grinding sadly down into realist bathos ("Casino Queen," "Box Full of Letters")
  • Jazz at Lincoln Center Presents: The Fire of the Fundamentals (Columbia) Neoclassicism 101--conceptions of genius interpreted by talents of integrity ("Jungle Blues," "Dahomey Dance")
  • Michael Jackson, HIStory: Past, Present and Future Book 1 (Epic): if stardom is your only subject, you might as well take it to the limit ("Smile," "Tabloid Junkie")
  • Arnett Cobb, Arnett Blows for 1300 (Delmark): honking jump blues on the big-band side ("Cobb's Idea," "Big League Blues")
  • The Jayhawks, Tomorrow the Green Grass (American): always sincere, never wimpy, can write some ("Miss Williams' Guitar," "Ten Little Kids")
  • Daniel Johnston, Fun (Atlantic): just like K. McCarty, I prefer my crazies childish and well-supervised--only I also prefer their own voices ("Love Wheel," "Happy Time")
  • Nyboma, Anicet (Stern's Africa): not soukous paradise--just a sweet stopover ("Anicet")
  • Bob Dylan, Unplugged (Columbia): excellent songs pronounced with gratifying clarity ("Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Dignity")
  • Thurston Moore, Psychic Hearts (DGC): bosser tunes than Free Kitten--bosser guitar, too ("Queen Bee and Her Pals," "Ono Soul")
  • Mold, Reject (Funky Mushroom): Henry Street settlers ("We're an Alternative Band," "Me")
Choice Cuts:
  • Alex Chilton, "What's Your Sign Girl" (A Man Called Destruction, Ardent)
  • Jill Sobule, "I Kissed a Girl" (Jill Sobule, Lava)
  • General Degree, "Pianist"; Pan Head, "Punny Printer" (Love Punany Bad, Priority)
  • Macka-B, "To Be Racist" (Discrimination, Ariwa)
Duds:
  • Adina Howard, Do You Wanna Ride? (EastWest)
  • London Suede, Dog Man Star (Nude/Columbia)
  • Traci Lords, 1,000 Fires (Radioactive)
  • Method Man, Tical (Def Jam) [Later: *]
  • Outkast, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (LaFace)
  • Yo La Tengo, Tom Courtenay (Matador)

Village Voice, July 11, 1995


June 6, 1995 Aug. 29, 1995