Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Already on record as pessimistic about the state of popular music, I spent an extra four weeks digging up recommendations and, helped by a bunch of consensus faves and a few forays into deep left field, just barely made it. If we're lucky, it'll be September before I check in again.


MOSE ALLISON: Greatest Hits (Prestige) Always eager to set young martini users on any path of righteousness they'll take, I duly note these piano-tinkling blues. Probably not obscure enough, I know--the goddamn Who covered "Young Man Blues," and it was Old Man Mose himself who taught middle-class white boys about "Seventh Son." What's more, his catalogue remains hopeless after three compilations--one an absurd minibox containing three mediocre CBS albums, another a two-CD Rhino job with liner notes from Kitschmaster Irwin Chusid, who wouldn't mention all the pretentious over-the-hill drivel on disc two even if he was working for free. That leaves this modest item, remastered with the wrong bonus tracks in 1988, which I first heard in 1963 and eventually bought for under two bucks (and if you want something to be nostalgic about, that price is it). Instrumentally, Allison was an accompanist who sold himself as a soloist, but when he bent his insouciant drawl to the black pop songwriting of his '40s youth, he articulated a unique Ole Miss cool that paralleled rockabilly's working-class heat. Trio-era Nat King Cole as riverboat gambler, say. Fun without slumming. A MINUS

ANIMANIACS: The Animaniacs Faboo! Collection (Kid Rhino) At the far end of a trajectory determined by Noel Coward and Shel Silverstein, we come upon Steven Spielberg's answer to Aladdin and the Archies, where three actors I never heard of--Jess Hornell as acutely all-American Wakko, Rob Paulsen as thickly Liverpudlian Yakko, and Tress MacNeille as precocious little Dot--warble a significant body of new nonsense songs. The music is "Turkey in the Straw," Gilbert & Sullivan, Offenbach, and lesser cliches, all rendered in loungecore-ready registers. But three writers with suspiciously similar surnames (Rogel, Rugg, Ruegger) furnish lyrics that are suitable for children (which makes the mildly risque moments more fun), occasionally educational ("Yakko's World" lists U.N. members, "The Presidents" mentions Nixon's ignoble end and says Jefferson wrote the Constitution), and always clever fun, especially on the reissued debut that fills out this two-CD, one-hour box. Maybe you can live without the cannily self-referential "I Am the Very Model of a Cartoon Individual." But don't you have something to learn from "All the Words in the English Language"? A MINUS

DE LA SOUL: Stakes Is High (Tommy Boy) After almost four years, Posdnuos and company emerge from the ether like the long-lost friends they are. Their wordplay assured in its subtle smarts, their delivery unassuming in its quick, unmacho mumble, their cultural awareness never smug about its balance, they bind up an identifiable feeling in an identifiable sound, and just about every one of the 17 tracks comes equipped with a solid beat and a likable hook or chorus. It's a relief to have them back. But it's never a revelation. B PLUS

ANI DIFRANCO: Dilate (Righteous Babe) On an album loaded with quotable quotes, my favorite is the refrain (well, she says it twice) of the six-and-a-half-minute "Adam and Eve": "i am truly sorry about all this." I mean, she knows--knows what a pain in the ass she is, knows how much space her emotions take up, knows she once banged a power line with her stickball bat and blacked out the entire eastern seaboard. She boasts about her integrity, her vulnerability, her joy. She jokes about them too. She has a friend's mom phone in obscure verses of "Amazing Grace." She utters, no shit, the most vituperative "fuck you" in the history of the music. She is herself, and for once that's more than enough. A MINUS [Later]

FLUFFY: 5 Live (The Enclave) Guitars basic not hookless, tempos fast not hyper, attitude bombed not nihilistic, these London lasses are as pure punk as the '90s get. Although their fall album will render their catchy Tim Kerr maxisingle extraneous, these songs will never again sound as raw or desperate as on this 15-minute swatch of their May return to CBGB--not on record. It's one of those rare live moments that signifies in the living room. They're pumped, and you can hear it. A MINUS [Later]

GIRLS AGAINST BOYS: House of GvsB (Touch and Go) Usually good bands choose meaningful monikers like Stereolab or Sammy or Rage Against the Machine. But how about Husker Du? The Pixies? Nirvana? Read into those trademarks whatever you want in retrospect, you were drawn to them by the way the attendant guitars etc. did their things. So take the name for the cheap attention-getting device it is. The main difference here is an attraction altogether less instantaneous and surefire--to a sound that's impressive but cold, suggesting the Fall as produced by Al Jourgensen or In Utero at a more primitive level of spiritual development. Of course, once it reveals its human frailty, its pleasures seem deeper as a result. Ain't retrospect grand? A MINUS

ME'SHELL NDEGÉOCELLO: Peace Beyond Passion (Maverick/Reprise) Anything but a sucker for texts from the Old Testament, Jesus, Shiva, and Kahlil Gibran, I kept wondering who the bass player was. As I should have known and kind of guessed, it was the text-borrower in question. So never mind about Leviticus--this is the humanistic groove never quite made flesh by the jazz-tinged ambient foreground of Sade, Anita Baker, and D'Angelo. Then go back and admit that the texts betray comparable if lesser smarts. Especially the one from Bill Withers. B PLUS [Later]

PRINCE PAUL: Psychoanalysis (What Is It?) (WordSound) Melding classic reggae and Miami booty-bass, Muddy Waters harp and Schoolly-D scratch, cocktail vibes and sacred quartet, the Native Tongue beatmaster turned gravedigging heretic assembles "senseless skitstyle material" by "a motley crew of ill characters and cronies from around the way who resemble a P-Funk on crack (wait, P-Funk was on crack)" into a disturbing laff riot whose dramaturgy is more musical than De La Soul's songs. There's even a sweet-chorused romantic ballad about rape and homicide, two of each, but don't worry--they're only a dream, with a fake Viennese muttering eager encouragement in the background. A MINUS

RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE: Evil Empire (Epic) Three years late, it's the militant rap-metal everybody knew was the next big thing. Zack de la Rocha will never be Linton Kwesi Johnson. But collegiate leftism beats collegiate lots of other things, not to mention high school misogyny, and it takes natural aesthetes like these to pound home such a sledgehammer analysis. A MINUS

SAMMY: Tales of Great Neck Glory (DGC) Rather than hiding their privilege behind obscure witticisms, these alt-rock everyboys tell it like it is for their cultural class--bright, affluent kids who still have more options than they know what to do with. "History hounds" and "encyclopedi-ites," they write mash notes to their own characters and detail manageable traumas like bankruptcy and agoraphobia over hooky post-Pavement dissonances. They're about hedonism not idealism, choice not necessity. Puritans will ostracize them unless and until they succeed. Then they'll try and burn them at the stake. A MINUS

PHAROAH SANDERS: Message From Home (Verve) Where Sanders's serviceable if eerie new collection of Coltrane replicas is pure middlebrow market ploy, this putatively commercial move ventures into the unknown. With his fabulous sound, un-American activities, and grandly simple musical ideas, the man was made for Bill Laswell's world-jazz strategems. Lacking an "Upper Egypt" or "The Creator Has a Master Plan," he establishes his leisurely command, then immerses in an "Ocean Song" that is more former than latter before going out on the two friendliest, wildest, and most African of the six cuts. These highlight old Laswell hands Foday Musa Suso and Aiyb Dieng, and by the time they're over, you'll forget whether you remember the tunes. A MINUS

STEREOLAB: Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra) So it isn't just silly punk songs--there are yet other people who want to fill the world with silly Marxist songs, and what's wrong with that? Academia being the main place Marxism remains a cultural fact in Anglo-American culture, I say watered-down théorie is as valid as the watered-down surrealism we've always made allowances for. I also say the band's ideological tastes commit it to a measure of musical realism, preventing their postdance from doodling off into the ether. So although the obvious tunes, playful sound effects, pretty counterpoints, and mysterioso textures may--no, do--add up to pop, what they don't add up to, despite the vaunted Tortoise connection, is anything fools can pigeonhole as postrock. Songful hence no longer cool, this band will finally repay your undivided attention. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

JEWEL: Pieces of You (Atlantic) Worth ignoring while she was merely precious, she demands our brief attention now that she's becoming overvalued as well. With the possible exception of Saint Joan, who at least had some stature, this is the bad folkie joke to end all bad folkie jokes. With her self-righteousness, her self-dramatization, her abiding love for her own voice, her breathy little-girl innocence and breathless baby-doll sexuality, her useless ideas about prejudice and injustice and let us not forget abuse, she may well prove as insufferable as any hollow-bodied guitarist ever to get away with craving the world's adoration. End of story--I hope. C MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Soul Coughing, Irresistible Bliss (Warner Bros.): the five per cent nation of let's-slow-it-down-a-little-right-now ("Disseminated," "4 out of 5")
  • Buzzcocks, All Set (I.R.S.): love life much smoother, music somewhat ("Totally From the Heart," "Point of No Return")
  • Bahamadia, Kollage (Chrysalis/EMI): word-mad proof that real has a softness and tough can flow ("UKNOWHOWWEDU," "Spontaneity")
  • Tiny Tim With Brave Combo, Girl (Rounder): respect for a lover of popular song ("Stairway to Heaven," "Sly Cigarette," "Fourteen," "Bye Bye Blackbird")
  • Pet Shop Boys, Alternative (EMI): two discs of marginalia proving what?--that Very could have been more amazing yet? ("What Keeps Mankind Alive?" "Shameless," "Too Many People")
  • Team Dresch, Captain My Captain (Chainsaw/Candyass): the everything-clashing model of cooperative style ("Uncle Phranc," "Don't Try Suicide")
  • The Grifters, Ain't My Lookout (Sub Pop): Southern-fried hipsters uproot some pavement ("Parting Shot," "Boho/Alt")
  • Vernon Reid, Mistaken Identity (550 Music): profuse guitar, 'nuff rap ("CP Time," "What's My Name")
  • Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Broken Arrow (Reprise): undeniable yes, irresistible no ("Music Arcade," "Big Time")
  • Junior Brown, Semi Crazy (MCA/Curb): the essence of Western swing--jazzy picking, lousy singing, and a light heart ("Gotta Get Up Every Morning," "Venom Wearin' Denim")
  • George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars, T.A.P.A.F.A.O.M. (550 Music/Epic): authenticated gangsta grooves for the sample factory ("If Anybody Gets Funked Up (It's Gonna Be You)," "Funky Kind (Gonna Knock It Down)")
  • Ass Ponys, The Known Universe (A&M): existential despair in 75 words or less--also in Ohio ("It's Summer Here," "Redway")
  • Blu Lu Barker, Wee Bea Booze, and Baby Dee, Don't You Feel My Leg (Delmark): half a century later, sex as pleasure, respite, gift, medium of exchange, and cliche ("Don't You Feel My Leg," "Buy Me Some Juice," "I Feel Like Laying in Another Woman's Husband's Arms")
  • Johnny Thunders, Have Faith (Mutiny): despite nondescript backup and much solo acoustic, his best crappy live tape yet ("Blame It on Mom," "Too Much Junkie Business")
  • The Afghan Whigs, Black Love (Elektra): doesn't know the devil as well as he thinks he does ("Double Day," "Going to Town").
Choice Cuts:
  • Tiny Tim, "Another Brick in the Wall (Part Two)" (I Love Me, Seeland)
  • Reba McEntire, "Please Come to Boston" (Starting Over, MCA)
Duds:
  • Buck-O-Nine, Water in My Head (Taang!)
  • Melissa Etheridge, Your Little Secret (Island)
  • Tara Key, Ear and Echo (Homestead)
  • No Doubt, Tragic Kingdom (Trauma/Interscope) [Later: C+]
  • Abiodun Oyewole, 25 Years (Rykodisc)
  • Fred Schneider, Just Fred (Reprise)
  • The Specials, Today's Specials (Virgin)
  • Sting, Mercury Falling (A&M)
  • Andy Summers, Synaesthesia (CMP)

Village Voice, July 23, 1996


May 21, 1996 Sept. 17, 1996