Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Not hard to find worthy records, not easy to find compelling ones. Plenty more Honorable Mentions await space or final judgment, but I couldn't tell you exactly where my next A is coming from.


BEASTIE BOYS: Ill Communication (Grand Royal) Another you-gotta-believe record, just like Check Your Head--only less so, thank God, whose appearances herein are frequent and auspicious. Although once again it's short on dynamite, at least it starts with a bang. Two bangs, actually, one hip hop and one hardcore--their loyalty to their roots closely resembles an enlightened acceptance of their limitations. With each boy having evolved into his own particular man, the rhymes are rich and the synthesis is complex. You-gotta-love the way the ecological paean/threnody emits from a machine that crosses a vocoder and the p.a. at a taco drive-through, but their collective spiritual gains peak in the instrumentals, which instead of tripping up the Meters evoke the unschooled funk of a prerap garage band. If they've never run across Mer-Da's Long Burn the Fire, on Janus, maybe I could tape them one? A MINUS

EL DEBARGE: Heart, Mind and Soul (Reprise) The great lost love man enlists Babyface (five songs, four jumpy), Jermaine Dupri (one trick groove), various siblings (backing up his ballads), and the shade of Marvin Gaye (self-penned title finale) in an overdue quest for his own genius. The incomparable In a Special Way was 1984, and those hung up on the irretrievable innocence and naturalness of the past may take offense at the digital aesthetic, not to mention El's occasional descent into a manly tenor. Me, I applaud his appetite for the freaky, and note fondly that he adores her for it in the morning, as dogged as ever in his helpless devotion. I urge him to find more harmony work for Bunny and the others. But this is his second-best album. A MINUS

SLIM GAILLARD: Laughing in Rhythm: The Best of the Verve Years (Verve) Operating so far to the left of Louis Jordan that he often passed as a weirdo, Gaillard stands as jazz's premier comedian-eccentric, the hepcat as novelty artist to end all novelty artists. Gaillard laughed in rhythm, barked in rhythm, clucked like a chicken in rhythm; he made up his own language, then adapted it to Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Incan; he was so fond of the suffix "rooney" (as in "You got the federation blues-o-rooney") that when introduced to Mickey Rooney he asked what his last name was. Although this 20-song collection from the '50s relegates "Flat Foot Floogie" to a medley and passes over "Cement Mixer (Put-Ti, Put-Ti)" and "Tutti Frutti" (o-rooney?), it swings and yucks whether the song is a remake, a new stroke, or a piece of Tin Pan Alley silliness. Having enjoyed a U.K. vogue before he died at 75 (or 80) in 1991, Gaillard is ripe. Be the first on your block. A

HOLE: Live Through This (DGC) Punk aesthetic or no punk aesthetic, Courtney Love's songs wouldn't be compromised and might be deepened by steeper momentum and more articulate guitar noise. But they prevail anyway. Their focus is sexual exploitation, and not just by the media, evil straights, and male predators of every cultural orientation. She's also exploited by Courtney Love, and not only does she know it, she thinks about it. These are the confessions of a self-made feminist bimbo--of the girl who wanted the most cake. Just because she's a phony, whatever that means, doesn't mean the world isn't out to deny her her props. A MINUS [Later: A]

ETTA JAMES: Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday (Private Music) Holiday is a great American artist, a genius whose musical improvisations only deepened an unfathomable persona that was sweet, willing, knowing, suspicious, sly, cynical, and impossibly unhappy before she hit 25 and then gained texture as her body broke down. James is merely a fine r&b singer who's been stroking her cult since before she had one. Entertaining an audience of self-anointed sophisticates who had a thing for earthy music, she fell into the habit of cutting her own earthiness with a flattering wink and coasting from there, and as she herself would tell you, preferably while signing your CD booklet, it would be stupid to buy this before taking on Holiday--Columbia's young three-disc box (with Billie, crappy material just adds to the challenge), or Verve's mature two-disc set (with Billie, a ravaged voice ditto). But short of Chess's young two-disc Essential Etta James, it's Etta's most consistent and musical album--her melodic nuances are every bit as hip as the ace backup of Cedar Walton's tight septet. Beyond repertoire, it has little to do with Billie--at most, Etta suggests Holiday's tough soul the way Diana Ross did her pop smarts. But compared to Miki Howard's disgracefully self-aggrandizing "tribute" or Terence Blanchard's dismayingly schmaltzy "songbook," it's an act of love. It's also a hell of a torch record. A MINUS

KICKIN MENTAL DETERGENT (Kickin USA) This 1992 U.K.-label comp proved so seminal that it spawned 1993's Vol. 2, which is merely less consistent, and 1994's Kickin Hardcore Leaders, which is scene specific to the verge of abstraction. And after trolling among competing fast-techno collections, I suspect the downward spiral is an omen. Early on, with label and movement still worried about being liked, songs of dread and abandon bedeck themselves with spoken-word hooks, lending their apocalyptic aura an illusion of coherence that squares can relate to, and aren't above other vulgar fripperies--layers of texture, sound effects, tunes. However impure they are counted by the small legions who have since undergone full aural immersion, they're as cleansing as claimed when approached from the other side--from the rest of music. A MINUS

SAM MANGWANA: Rumba Music (Stern's Africa) As he nears 50, the citizen of world soukous has never filled his large legend on any album to come my way, and although his official U.S. debut reprises several renowned hits, I'm peeved that I still haven't heard "Georgette Eckins" or "Maria Tebbo." On the other hand, the classic "Suzana" and the gorgeous "Fati Mata" were worth the wait. As was the Fania All-Star approach to Kinshasa rumba, especially on the infinitely reprisable "Afrika-Mokili-Mobimba," which somebody with more right than me must already have nominated for continental anthem. A MINUS

OUJDA-CASABLANCA INTROSPECTIONS VOL. 1 (Barbarity import) With Oran's chebs and chabas repressed, depressed, or scared away by the fundamentalists, superproducer Ben Omar Rachid took to prospecting just over the Moroccan border in Oujda and finally far west in Casablanca. His first export is these eight 1988-to-1993 singles, which sound from here like the rawest, most arresting rai compilation ever. Mixing old and new with a fine disregard for anybody's verities, the Berber-Gnawa-Shabi admixtures are lighter sonically and quirkier culturally, with male-female interplay a convention and the battle-of-Algiers ululations a surefire attention getter. A MINUS

SONIC YOUTH: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (DGC) Instead of distilling their weakness for experimental trash into noise-rock that sounds like a million bucks, they apply their skill at major-label compromise to their eternal propensity for experimental trash. After all this time, they know what they're doing when they fuck around, and their long-evolving rock and roll groove breaks down only when they have something better to do--there's nothing aleatory, accidental, or incompetent about it. Anyway, usually the groove holds; this is no Sister because it moves when it means to. Its unexpected noises are the marks of flesh-and-blood creatures thinking and feeling things neither you nor they have ever thought or felt before. If they can't quite put those things into words, that's what unexpected noises are for. A MINUS [Later: A]

MATTHEW SWEET: Son of Altered Beast (Zoo) Interim, tour-keyed EP product--one remix, one B side, one live Neil Young cover, four live remakes and outtakes from the decidedly subepochal Altered Beast album. Happens to include his contribution to the even more subepochal No Alternative comp, which it blew away the way it would have blown Altered Beast away if only Sweet had taken the risk. Except on the remix, no Robert Quine--Richard Lloyd is the guitar hero, and he'll do. Because even though the whole record is basically an accident, this is the way live rock and roll is supposed to sound these days--inspiration on the edge of chaos. A MINUS

CAETANO VELOSO E GILBERTO GIL: Tropicalia 2 (Elektra Nonesuch) Playful, pretentious, political, speculative, and above all gorgeous, this collaboration is enough to make me stop carping about kitsch and wonder whether samba isn't the pop avant-garde after all. Gil gains a beguilingly arty patina as he grounds Veloso's precious lyricism, and if the translations reduce primal beauty to intelligence, that's what we get for never studying Portuguese. Not only do the airy tunes and shimmering beats promise an endless summer, they prove heat needn't addle the brain. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

COUNTING CROWS: August and Everything After (DGC) Adam Duritz sings like the dutiful son of permissive parents I hope don't sit next to me at Woodstock. He went to good summer camps; he doesn't eat junk food; he's confused about all the right things. And he's not going away anytime soon--so starved are his peers for a show of musical emotion more learned than Mariah Carey's that some even compare him to Van Morrison, as if all sodden self-pity were the same. It doesn't end with Duritz, either--"Mr. Jones" and "Anna Begins" might live up to the songs in them if the band conceived the tracks as music first and songs second. Folk-rockers never do. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • The Flintstones: Music From Bedrock (MCA): triple whopper with cheese ("Weird Al" Yankovic: "Bedrock Anthem"; Green Jelly: "Anarchy in the U.K."; the BC-52's: "(Meet) The Flintstones")
  • Nas, Illmatic (Columbia): street poet as realist-not-fabulist--staving off alienation and defeat with whatever you got, sex-and-violence not excluded ("It Ain't Hard To Tell," "Represent")
  • Freedy Johnston, This Perfect World (Elektra): trying to say what he can't sing, trying to drive with the green light on ("Bad Reputation," "Evie's Tears")
  • Manu Dibango, Wakafrika (Giant): all your Afropop faves, with extra added attractions ("Soul Makossa," "Diarabi")
  • Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Pure and Simple (Warner Bros.): hasn't lost a step, hasn't gained one either ("Spinster," "You Got a Problem")
  • Pretenders, Last of the Independents (Sire): style over substance ("Night in My Veins," "I'm a Mother")
  • The Last Poets, Scatterap/Home (Bond Age import): corny-fresh conga-funk like they still mean it ("Reasoning," "See")
  • Rolling Stones, Voodoo Lounge (Virgin): world's greatest roots-rock band ("Brand New Car," "New Faces")
  • Spin Doctors, Turn It Upside Down (Columbia): what's not to like? ("Hungry Hamed's," "Cleopatra's Cat")
  • Idle, Downers Pharmacy (Big Deal): their lives were saved by Sonic Youth ("Cathy Loves Elvis," "Rt. 17")
  • Mold, Sonic Youth at Disney World (Funky Mushroom): contra Our Antiheroes--also Hüsker Dü, King Missile, and (duh) the Spin Doctors ("Sonic Youth in Disney World," "Bob Mould Hates Me")
  • All-4-One (Blitzz/Atlantic): color them goodd ("I Swear," "The Bomb")
  • Jeru the Damaja, The Sun Rises in the East (FFRR): rhythmic dissonance for the beat connoisseur ("D. Original," "My Mind Spray")
  • Ted Hawkins, The Next Hundred Years (DGC): last of the independents ("There Stands the Glass," "Big Things")
Choice Cuts:
  • Culture Beat, "Mr. Vain" (Serenity, 550 Music/Epic)
  • Kicksquad, "Champion Sound"; X-Statik, "Rapture" (Kickin Mental Detergent Vol. 2, Instinct)
  • One Dove, "White Love (Guitar Paradise Mix)" (Morning Dove White, FFRR)
  • Pearl Bailey and Jackie "Moms" Mabley, "Saturday Night Fish Fry"; Big Maybelle Accompanied by Leroy Kirkland and His Orchestra, "Gabbin' Blues" (Stars of the Apollo, Columbia/Legacy)
  • Pascal's Bongo Massive Vol. 2, "Gettin' Started" (Cream of Tomato, Moonshine Music)
  • Worl-a-Girl, "No Gunshot (Put Down the Gun)," "Ten Commandments" (Worl-a-Girl, Chaos/Columbia)
  • Panhead, "Punny Printer" (Buyaka: The Ultimate Dancehall Collection, Big Beat)
  • Yaggfu Front, "My Dick Is So Large" (Action Packed Adventure!, Mercury).

Duds:
  • Vince Gill, When Love Finds You (MCA)
  • Kickin Hardcore Leaders (Instinct)
  • Dianne Reeves, Art and Survival (EMI/ERG)
  • Seal (ZTT/Sire/Warner Bros.)
  • Stone Temple Pilots, Purple (Atlantic)
  • Keith Sweat, Get Up On It (Elektra)

Village Voice, July 26, 1994


May 31, 1994 Sept. 13, 1994