Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
Books
Writings:
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Playboy
  Blender
  Rolling Stone
  Billboard
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
  Recyclables
  Newsprint
  Lists
  Miscellany
Bibliography
NPR
Web Site:
  Home
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell
CG Search:
Google Search:
Twitter:

Consumer Guide

Next time I publish a Consumer Guide--September or October, depending how good the music is--it'll be a year since the feature turned A List. Response has been pretty uniform--critics have kvetched, consumers have kvelled. Even though the new format squeezes in fewer full reviews and doesn't run monthly, an evolving Additional Consumer News enables me to cover almost as many records as ever and--because I don't expend as much time scrutinizing marginalia--find more good ones. Honorable Mention lists solid (but not near-A) B pluses in descending order. Choice Cuts honors great moments and pans with partial praise. Duds range from flat to awful, and may reappear in the Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot if they continue to offend.


ANOTHER BAD CREATION: Coolin' at the Playground Ya Know! (Motown) They fabricate their bad selves whenever svengali Michael Bivins can't be bothered, and the lead kiddies have more trouble making the notes than Michael Jackson or Ralph Tresvant ever did. So I figure they'll wear off before they grow on me. But I gotta tell ya, nonsexist Bell Biv Devoe is my idea of great concept--who cares whether their two best songs are "Poison" in disguise as long as neither beats up on the object of its terrified affections? Juxtaposing boy sopranos against dissonant samples is pedagogy at its finest. "Spydermann," which also sounds kind of like "Poison," is in the great tradition of Mother Earth's "Marvel Group." And sampling their parents is a cute idea. B PLUS [Later]

MARSHALL CRENSHAW: Life's Too Short (Paradox/MCA) By now there's comfort in his surprising little modulations as well as his plain-spoken prosody, and it's nigh on 10 years since he collected so many strong songs; heard live, "Better Back Off" and "Don't Disappear Now" seem no less inevitable than "Cynical Girl" or "Whenever You're on My Mind." But even if he finally gets his just market share, the new converts won't sing the same praises as the original faithful, because by now his feeling for his craft runs to weary wisdom rather than brimming delight. Marshall's compact solos and Kenny Aronoff's firm beat reinforce his resolve without hinting at his magic. B PLUS [Later]

DOWNTOWN SCIENCE (Def Jam/Columbia) "I could have went to Yale but I wasn't accepted/You know why?/I didn't apply." Deep, linear, never in a hurry, Sam Sever's grooves are as simple and inexorable as War, whose time is coming. Intelligent, confident, in love with words and the world, Bosco Money's rhymes assume a humanism too natural to preach about. The raps aren't especially unmacho or correct--in fact, you might say they're beyond attitude. So it's possible they're not macho or incorrect enough to get over. That would be tragic. A MINUS

MERLE HAGGARD: Capitol Collectors' Series (Capitol) "His Capitol years resulted in 38 Top Ten smashes, many more than can be adequately covered in just this one volume of his hits." But at least this one includes the studio version of "Okie from Muskogee," its first appearance on any Hag album. Although newcomers should note that the man doesn't understand country's essential theme, monogamy, he does know work, prison, family, hard times, my country right or center--which doesn't stop him from getting mawkish about them. And gutless he's not. Six of the seven '74-'76 selections went number one country, while the other barely creased the aforementioned top 10--the one that speaks kindly of Dr. King. A MINUS

MERLE HAGGARD: More of the Best (Rhino) The remaining 18 hits, I presume, including the definitive sinner's lament "Mama Tried." Capitol has dibs on the classics, including flag-wavers rock and rollers think they can live without, so Rhino's is short on working-man songs. But it also avoids unnecessarily educational jingoist jingles. Instead we get an asshole's view of marriage, as instructive as it is irritating. He screws in the afternoon, he takes his wife to Florida for a weekend of woo he's sure will patch things up, he settles for a substitute: "I don't have to wonder who she's had/No, it's not love, but it's not bad." You wonder exactly which working men these songs are for--makes you realize how many high-rolling automobile dealers he plays to. But self-pity has rarely possessed a more observant spokesperson. And "Rainbow Stew" says bye with an antiutopian whimsy lefties can relate to. A MINUS

THE KINGS AND QUEENS OF TOWNSHIP JIVE: MODERN ROOTS OF THE INDESTRUCTIBLE BEAT OF SOWETO (Earthworks) If the successors to Earthworks's epochal mbaqanga comp have been too professional, the predecessors from Rounder and such haven't been professional enough. So finally, here are the '60s/'70s hits. Though it stars the usual great names--Mahlathini, the Queens, West Nkosi--its highs surprise: a beleaguered Soul Brothers boast hooked to a rumbling organ sound effect, a Lulu Masilela one-shot as self-evidently classic as "Walking With Mr. Lee," the rest of the sax jive. I used to get an r&b rush off these folks' mature work. Little did I know how much fun they'd already had. A

THE KLF: The White Room (Arista) "They're justified/And they're ancient/And they like to roam the land," croons anonymous disco soulgirl P.P. Arnold. "They don't want to upset the apple cart/And they don't want to cause any harm/But if you don't like what they're going to do/You'd better not stop them 'cause they're coming through." Whereupon follows a famous sample from the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" and a welter of pop-industrial body grooves. These voracious smarty-pants Brits--a/k/a the Timelords, the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, the Jams--are sampling less and copycatting more these days, and whatever they mean or don't mean, deconstruct or reify or exploit, they like everything I like about house and are canny enough to can the boring parts. Somebody at the label that brought us Snap has an ear for the rap-Eurodance cusp. A MINUS

THE LA'S (London) Blimey, another pop group with guitars--quartet from Liverpool, no less. Once in a blue moon, though, somebody with the gift comes along, and frontman Lee Mavers is that somebody. Given his spunky-to-grotty voice (think Colin Hay or early Cat Stevens--of Men at Work and "Matthew and Son" respectively, you uncultured dolts), they don't sound enough like the Beatles, and I hope that in a hit or two they find themselves a drummer they can tie to his or her chair, because too often the beat is vestigial (think Quarrymen). But don't look a gift genius in the adenoids--not until he turns into Billy Joel on you. A MINUS

DOROTHY MASUKA: Pata Pata (Mango) Masuka's an old-timer, a Zimbabwean with South African tribal ties who came up in the upwardly mobile artistic ferment of the Jo'burg '50s, but there's not much country in her. So her "marabi" derives from Sophiatown musical theatre rather than, say, Zulu wedding music. Sprucing up tried-and-true melodies with mbira-based chimurenga effects, she constructs a swingingly syncretic popular style that partakes of more than its allotted portion of pop--and that sounds southern African, not South African, with none of mbaqanga's guttural thrust or mbube's intricate spirituality. Nobody this side of Abdullah Ibrahim has made the musical aspirations of genteel black South Africans so credible. A MINUS [Later]

MEAT BEAT MANIFESTO: 99% (Mute) Its relentlessness ineluctable rather than sadistic, its pessimism cut with sardonic whimsy, its multistructures pop enough, its electrobeats funky enough, this is dance-industrial that doesn't just seem like a good idea at the time. Whenever things get too skeletal a hook arises from the clatter--if not one of the preclimaxes dance rats live for, then maybe a laugh line, a tune, a Horace Silver sample. Never before have synthesizers sounded like a well-tempered sheet-metal shop for a whole album at a time. Play loud. A MINUS [Later]

NEW JACK CITY (Giant) So what if the ballads are soul on dry ice, not even prime Sweat/Gill? The fast stuff dances the synthbeat interface between rap and disco in a state-of-the-craft showcase. This is black contempopop without filler or willful stupidity--from Color Me Badd's explicit sex to 2 Live Crew's Afrogangsta pride, the songs are exhibits in a morality play that, like the movie, would lose bite if it didn't flirt with exploitation. A MINUS

THE POOH STICKS: The Great White Wonder (Sweet Virginia) I don't approve of retro, never have. But when smart young things discover crappy old records like Frampton Comes Alive! and great old records like Rust Never Sleeps, it can be infectious. The grain of eager pop greed in Hue's Brit-wimp voice, augmented by the earnest craft that enables Paul to stick whole Neil Young solos (copied, not sampled) into borrowed Strangeloves songs, reestablishes the fading distinction between parody and celebration in order to transcend it at a higher level of consciousness--an unselfconscious one. It's even possible they want to be rich and famous. A MINUS

BOUBACAR TRAORÉ: Mariama (Stern's Africa) Guitar and vocals from a Malian (and Parisian) schoolteacher turned singer-songwriter, who declaims like Ali Farka Touré (only Traoré's lovingly preserved Khassonke guitar has no Hook in it) or the Baaba Maal of Djam Leelii (and he accompanies himself). Pealing forth his precepts and laments with a resonant gravity rendered doubly mesmeric by the quiet, implacable instrumentation, Traoré brings me up short every time. If he says everything comes in its own time, then by gum I believe him. And will leave Maal's nice new Baayo to the specialists. A MINUS

GENE VINCENT: Capitol Collector's Series (Capitol) He lived in England after almost dying young there, which was all this greasy-looking, airy-sounding ex-sailor needed to become a rockabilly legend. But Stateside he's remembered, when you get down to it, for precisely one record: his first and biggest, "Be-Bop-a-Lula." I bought it in 1956 and instantly adjudged its Elvisoid B side, "Woman Love," a perfect cartoon of slavering lust, an opinion I hold to this day. Although he's a better legend than artist, Vincent and his Blue Caps also deserve credit for the chart-certified "Bluejean Bop" and "Lotta Lovin'" as well as a string of lesser rockers. Topped by "B-I Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Go" and the barely chart-certified "Race With the Devil," these include "Git It" and "Baby Blue," neither of which I'd heard before his company put Vincent back in catalogue with this overenthusiastic CD-market compilation. But there's also the inexplicably omitted "Who Slapped John?" and "Five Feet of Lovin'," and "She She Little Sheila," supposedly slated for a followup devoted to his Later Work. I await the second Fats Domino. And swear you should hear "Woman Love" once before you die. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Kool Moe Dee, Funke Funke Wisdom (Jive): back in command ("Funke Wisdom," "Rise 'n' Shine," "Death Blow")
  • C+C Music Factory, Gonna Make You Sweat (Columbia): shameless ripoffs to be proud of ("Things That Make You Go Hmmmm . . . ," "Here We Go, Let's Rock & Roll")
  • Stevie Wonder, Music From the Movie "Jungle Fever" (Motown): a genius even if that's what he's selling ("Jungle Fever," "Fun Day")
  • Happy Mondays, Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches (Elektra): their Voidoids is hotter than their "dance music" ("Grandbag's Funeral," "Kinky Afro")
  • Dream Warriors, And Now the Legacy Begins (4th & B'way): West Indian daisy age from boogie-down Toronto ("Ludi," "My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style")
  • De La Soul, De La Soul Is Dead (Tommy Boy): studio obscurantism as street credibility ("Fanatic of the B Word," "Bitties in the BK Lounge," "Keepin' the Faith") [Later: ***]
  • Betty Boo, Boomania (Rhythm King/Sire/Reprise): true, disposable, pop deeelite ("Doin' the Do," "Where Are You Baby?")
  • Gerardo, Mo' Ritmo (Interscope): mocha ice--lick it good now ("Fandango," "Rico Suave")
  • Butthole Surfers, Pioughd (Rough Trade): beyond noisome ("Lonesome Bulldog")
Choice Cuts:
  • Crystal Waters, "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" (Surprise, Mercury)
  • Two Nice Girls, "The Queer Song," "Princess of Power" (Chloe Liked Olivia, Rough Trade)
  • Cheryl Wheeler, "I Know This Town" (Circles and Arrows, Capitol)
  • James Brown, "Teardrops on Your Letter" (Love Over-Due, Scotti Bros.)
  • Deee-Lite, "Good Beat" (World Clique, Elektra)
Duds:
  • Adventures of Stevie V (Mercury)
  • EMF, Schubert Dip (EMI) [Later: C+]
  • Fishbone, The Reality of My Surroundings (Columbia)
  • Nova Mob, The Last Days of Pompeii (Rough Trade)
  • Perfect Disaster, Heaven Scent (Fire)
  • Urge Overkill, The Supersonic Storybook (Touch and Go) [Later: C]

Village Voice, July 30, 1991


June 4, 1991 Oct. 1, 1991