Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

As I'd hoped and figured, the dearth of memorable music by women in 1991 meant a lot of people with something to say were waiting in the wings. You remember Maggie, Terre, Suzzy, Kim? Not to mention Lady Kier and Yo Yo and others pending? Year of the . . . ? If you're looking for a tag. I just call it 1992.


THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH: 0898 Beautiful South (Elektra) Even more obscure stateside since he traded the Housemartins' jangle in on lusher conventions, songsmith Paul Heaton does his endangered species proud. The tunes stick, and the lyrics transcend their sarcastic shtick--predictably idiosyncratic though "You do English/I'll do sums/You break fingers/I'll break thumbs" may be, it brings you up short anyway. Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush hand Jon Kelly adds musical authenticity, and third vocalist Briana Corrigan sings lines like "This is the woman you laid" with just the right edge of icy remorse. Introduce them to a decent drum programmer and they could be a threat. A MINUS [Later]

YA NTESA DALIENST & LE MAQUISARD: Belalo (Sango Music import) Franco's main tenor leads a large portion of Franco's immense band through five cuts, all in the 10-minute range, which those who find Afropop too atmospheric to begin with will consider a bit much. I hear the tunes shift beguilingly and think the real star of the show--which includes alternate tenor Lassa Carlito, ace guitarist Dizzy Mandjeku, and a battery of casually tuned horns--is bassist J-Baptiste Nsamela, whose snake the music rides. A MINUS [Later: A]

DEEE-LITE: Infinity Within (Elektra) The most original mutant Funkadelica since prime Laswell does more to counteract the airhead in their New Age disco than the explicit politics. In the musical biosphere of Bootsy, Bernie, Catfish, and the Horny Horns, Towa's bumps, taps, squiggles, and sound effects aren't just hooky in theory, and Lady Kier's prochoice prolifism doesn't seem shallow, thoughtless, or unwittingly ironic. As "Rubber Lover"'s safe-sex agitprop proves, these people have a mission. B PLUS [Later: ***]

DIBLO DIBALA & MATCHATCHA: Laissez Passer (Afric Music) The master of speed soukous succumbs to traditionalist tastemakers or repetitive stress injury and waxes (almost) lyrical (almost) half the time. Just because it isn't him doesn't mean he can't fake it--he changes pace a lot more hummably than his old boss Kanda Bongo Man. Check out the mandolin imitation on "Merci Papa." A MINUS

FU-SCHNICKENS: F.U.--Don't Take It Personal (Jive) No, not "Asiatic," and not "Asian" either. "Oriental," as in the kung FU movies where these black Brooklynites learned the warrior's way. 'Cept FU also ciphers to For Unity, and they watch a lot of TV, and headman Chip FU's dancehall stylee goes by so fast you'll have trouble keeping up on the lyric sheet, especially when he throws in exextra syllallables or semyhr sdrawkcab. Armchair zucchinis with dreams of multiculti deconstruction have been on the lookout for these guys--rappers whose visions of fun, agape, and aural conquest remain open-ended, playful, and, face it, silly. Hope their ideals and/or illusions don't evaporate upon contact with the outside world. A MINUS

MONTY PYTHON: Monty Python Sings (Virgin) Greil Marcus wrote Lipstick Traces over the background buzz of the comedy albums where most of this music first appeared, but I feed my absurdism jones more cautiously. So I'll save these 14 songs plus 11 jokes/fragments for whenever the specter of cosmic frailty starts getting me down--at least 20 of them tickled me first time through, and half still make me smirk four or five plays later. Rarely has any professional wag, singing group, or existentialist philosopher showed off his, her, or their reading like these too, too mortal polymaths. Their idea of a good joke is a pimple on the Milky Way or a king with his head cut off. Sex, race, and class also interest them. Inspirational Chorus: "Gonococcal urethritis, streptococcal ballinitis/Meningo myelitis, diplococcal cephalitis/Epididimitis, interstitial keratitis/Syphilitic choroiditis, and anterior u-ve-i-tis." A MINUS

YOUSSOU N'DOUR: Eyes Open (Columbia) Unless Springsteen returns to life, the arranged rock song now seems beyond the reach of white men. In a context defined by Paul Simon and Robbie Robertson, minor talents like Matthew Sweet and Freedy Johnston sound smug by assocation, while at the same time many women--Sinéad O'Connor, Bonnie Raitt, Rosanne Cash, Laurie Anderson--escape the taint. So does Living Colour. And so does N'Dour, whose mbalax rhythms and instrumentation mitigate any conceptual link to studio-rock. On 14 songs that would have required double vinyl five years ago, he strikes an African tone far from pop's confessionals and attempted empathy. Directing matter-of-fact moral warnings at the powerful and the disenfranchised like the griot he might have been, he seems sure of his social function even as he tours the world. And for all that the set-piece stiffness seems as outmoded in America as it must seem modern in Senegal. Since N'Dour usually sings in Wolof, the lyric sheet is a necessity. But I wish once in a while I could do without it. B PLUS [Later]

THE ROCHES: A Dove (MCA) For a long time they seemed strangers in their own music, distracted by some purist superego whispering in their ears about acoustic guitars. Here their pop style hasn't changed that much--it's a little more eclectic, if anything. But they inhabit it so confidently that it could almost be growing out of their three consanguineous voices; they sound as natural and gorgeous as the Comedian Harmonists, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, maybe even the Judds. So on the songs where the words don't kick in right off, just immerse in the sound until they do, because they will. Pained smiles replace nervous giggles not because they've lost their sense of humor, but because Suzzy has finally gotten sick of her own whimsy, because the '90s are even less fun than the '80s, because you can't live with them and you can't live without them, and because they thought following "You're the One" with "You're the Two" was feminist comedy enow. A [Later]

SONIC YOUTH: Dirty (DGC) With the help of their first real producer, they stop flirting with progress and concentrate on remaining the world's greatest rock and roll band--if Butch Vig snuck in a "Smells Like Teen Spirit," it's known only to David Geffen's bagmen, who understand things about airplay that you and I don't. "Youth Against Fascism" is catchy indeed, but fun as it would be to hear "I believe Anita Hill" roaring from a passing boombox, I don't think it'll fly. And elsewhere it's gonna be tough extricating the hooks, which are more plentiful than ever, from the noise, which makes a comeback. Aurally as well as lyrically, this album earns its title. Thurston never could carry a tune, but he can surround one. And when Kim warns you not to touch her breasts, the possibility that she's an uptight chick never crosses your mind. A

T.P O.K JAZZ: Somo! (TMS import) With the leader already too near death to fulfill his commitments, I checked out Franco's band sans Franco four or five years ago, and while it wasn't as transcendent as Franco's band avec Franco, which I'd been lucky enough to catch four or five years before that, I could barely drag myself away at 2:45 from a set that began around midnight. Honoring the gentle rumbas of the storied past, this seven-track, 55-minute feast doesn't peak like live or get hype like modern. But at its malest it's sweet, so sweet. A MINUS

JOHN TRUDELL: AKA Grafitti Man (Rykodisc) Stubbornly utopian in the face of continuing defeat, hip to the way idealism succumbs to neurosis, the politics of this Indian rights activist's New Music Seminar keynote were rich beyond contradiction, and his remixed compilation is a counterculture throwback that never seems dated. The settings, sharp studio-rock readymades keyed to the very '60s guitar of the late Jesse Ed Davis and spiced occasionally by Native American chants or drumbeats, can get you going, and Trudell takes them as his due. Making no attempt to sing, he bounces his recitations off their backboard like a beatnik discovering poetry-with-jazz, his timing and inflection devoid of hesitation or bad faith even though Kris Kristofferson's laconically off-key backup sounds harmonically sophisticated by comparison. It's as if nothing of musical moment has happened since Highway 61 Revisited. A MINUS

A WORLD OUT OF TIME (Shanachie) Pomo folklorists Henry Kaiser and David Lindley stick their fretboards into these 18 Malagasy songs at will because despite their thing for Madagascar's isolation (you'd never guess from title or music that hundreds of thousands of strikers filled the capital's streets during their two-week visit), they understand that this Indian Ocean island is as multicultural as it gets--an Asian/Malaysian/Polynesian part of Africa that's been fucked over by Europe like everywhere else. The 13 artists represent a profusion of mostly commercialized styles, yet between their euphonious language and the indigenous timbres of their lutes and flutes, they blend gracefully together. Fittingly, the gentle Japanese pop tune the foreigners feed them melds better than "I Fought the Law." From lullaby to jamboree, melody is clearly treasured in this place. A MINUS

YO YO: Black Pearl (EastWest) Foreshortening Stax-Volt or Zapp or "Strawberry Letter 23," the nervous propulsion and unreleased tension of her funk agitates mind-body-spirit, only to be put right by a voice that's gotten kinder without even thinking about going soft. Advising the downpressed or dissing fools, her lyrics are smarter throughout and stunning on "I Can't Take No More," which makes a battered wife's bizness its own. But yo, Yo--the title cut and the love ballad are not "East Coast." They're nowhere. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • En Vogue, Funky Divas (EastWest): three years after the audition, they still don't have enough identity to let the songs quit ("My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)," "Giving Him Something He Can Feel," "Free Your Mind")
  • Faith No More, Angel Dust (Slash/Warner Bros.): but it's really great shit ("Land of Sunshine," "Midlife Crisis," "Midnight Cowboy")
  • Roy Nathanson & Anthony Coleman, The Coming Great Millenium (Knitting Factory Works): the avant-garde klezmerized ("You Took Advantage of Me," "Birds/Jews")
  • Stumpy Joe, One Way Rocket Ride to Kicksville (Popllama): good old same-old excellent, drinking (and girl) problems high generic ("Proverbial Straw," "Drunk Idea")
  • Christine Lavin, Compass (Philo): meaningful when funny, wry when serious, lugubrious when artistic ("Blind Dating Fun," "Until Now")
  • Emmylou Harris, At the Ryman (Reprise): grand old newfangled one-woman hootenanny ("Hard Times," "Guitar Town")
  • Jonathan Richman, Having a Party With Jonathan Richman (Rounder): confessions of a reluctant grownup ("Monologue About Bermuda," "The Girl Stands Up to Me Now")
  • Two Kings and a Cipher, From Pyramids to Projects (Bahia): old-school beats, Egyptian mythology, looney tunes ("Daffy Wuz a Black Man")
  • Reggae for Kids (RAS): Dad says, "The real thing"; kid says, "I like all the songs but this one [Black Sheep's `Time To Think']" (Eek-a-Mouse: "Safari," Gregory Isaacs: "Puff the Magic Dragon")
  • Le Commandant de Bord, Kiambukuta (Musicanova import): Franco's head baritone Josky leads the lads through two LPs worth of sweet paces ("Selengina," "Chandra")
  • Das Efx, Dead Serious (EastWest): deep funk versus jibber-jabber, dick versus diarrhea ("Looseys")
Choice Cuts:
  • Roxanne, "Ya Brother Does," "Go Down (But Don't Bite It)" (Go Down (But Don't Bite It), Select)
  • Kym Sims, "Take My Advice" (Too Blind to See It, Atco)
  • Otis Redding, "Trick or Treat," "Send Me Some Lovin'," "Cupid" (Remember Me, Stax)
  • The B-52's, "Is That You Mo-Dean?," "Hot Pants" (Good Stuff, Reprise)
  • Beats International, "Brand New Beat" (Excursion on the Version, Polydor)
  • ESG, "Erase You" (ESG, Pow Wow)
Duds:
  • Annie Lennox, Diva (Arista) [Later: C+]
  • Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, Mbaqanga (Verve World)
  • Material, The Third Power (Axiom)
  • Soul II Soul, Volume III Just Right (Virgin)
  • XTC, Nonsuch (Geffen)
  • Yothu Yindi, Tribal Voice (Hollywood)

Village Voice, July 28, 1992


June 2, 1992 Oct. 20, 1992