Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Closer races than might appear for both Pick Hit and Must to Avoid, with the near-A-and-listening Go-Betweens the unlucky runner-up and the pleasantly anonymous Meat Puppets the lucky one. Both selections get the nod for provocation beyond the call of simple self-expression.


BON JOVI: Slippery When Wet (Mercury) Sure seven million teenagers can be wrong, but their assent is not without a certain documentary satisfaction. Yes, it proves that youth rebellion is toothless enough to simulate and market. But who the hell thought youth was dangerous in the current vacuum? Would you have preferred the band market patriotism? And are you really immune to "Livin' on a Prayer"? B MINUS

ROSANNE CASH: King's Record Shop (Columbia) If I can't claim to find any special hope in this record, I'll settle for pleasure. The catchiness of Rodney Crowell's production would seem manipulative behind a shallower singer, but Cash--like fellow roots renegades Tina Turner and the Nevilles--has the stuff to imbue the arrangements with some self. It's perverse to complain about the programmatic "Rosie Strike Back"--a hard-hitting pop song for battered wives is a wondrous thing by definition. And her romances are truer than most. A MINUS

MARSHALL CRENSHAW: Mary Jean & Nine Others (Warner Bros.) Work too long toward a future that never arrives and you lose your hold on what comes naturally. Where once he soared, now he drags, and don't blame Don Dixon, whose hitbound modesty and popful soul match Marshall's fine. When your strongest song is about how nobody understands you, you're crying out for a spiritual lift no producer can provide. B

THE DEAD MILKMEN: Bucky Fellini (Enigma) Just like Howard Stern says, it's tough being funny every time out, but at least they're in there pitching, hurling sophomoric knuckleballs at every freshman in sight. Though they've picked up some sarcasm at the feet of Camper Van, pop gothic remains their thing, from the '60s to Graceland to exploitation flicks to Anglodisco "art fags," an epithet I'm sure Mark Knopfler will find hilarious. B PLUS

JOE ELY: Lord of the Highway (HighTone) A decade of being told what a hot shit he is has Ely oversinging to signify his intensity, which is too bad: he might have snuck in "Silver City" if he'd talked the song instead of howling it. But when he keeps it light--pissed off at Billy the Kid or his girlfriend's karate lessons or that s.o.b. Lucky, who gets the lowdown on the honey he left behind--Ely rebounds like he's made of silicone. He's an honest man--when Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam meet women who take self-defense courses, they're too fucking pure to admit it. B PLUS

GLORIA ESTEFAN AND MIAMI SOUND MACHINE: Let It Loose (Epic) She's compelling when the rhythm gets her, annoying when she pledges slow-motion devotion, just like uncounted party girls before her--and also like uncounted rock pros before her, which is more the point. Don't deny her her gimmick--received or stolen though this suburban salsa may be, it can getcha. B PLUS

MARIANNE FAITHFULL: Strange Weather (Island) Scornful of the notion that realism entered pop music with rock and roll (a/k/a "the blues"), Hal Willner introduces Faithfull to a world-weary band of Lou Reed/Tom Waits sessioneers and hopes everybody'll like the same songs he does--by Leadbelly and Henry Glover, by Dylan and Jagger-Richard, but also by Kern and Dubin-Warren. The result can rightfully be called rock Billie Holiday. Faithfull's nicotine-cured voice serves the material instead of triumphing over it; its musicality equals its interpretive intelligence. Just because she's jaded doesn't mean she can't be a little wise. A MINUS

DAVID FRISHBERG: Can't Take You Nowhere (Fantasy) "You knock back the schnapps/You talk back to cops/You walk in the room and conversation stops," begins the album and title tune; "I owe it all to you," he tells his "attorney Bernie" to kick off side two. These are the things this jazzbo songwriter knows, and he knows them well enough to delight non-jazzbos with an interest in exotic subcultures. Nor will they turn down the jazzbo pianist's Ellington or Berlin. But that doesn't mean they'll buy his beliefs that Frank Loesser is a great American hero, Zoot Sims the essence of swing, and (L.A. trumpeter) Jack Sheldon "one of the most gifted of all jazz musicians," presumably because he gets work as an actor. Or forgive the ecology song he produces to demonstrate he's not a cafe-society cynic. B PLUS

THE GO-BETWEENS: Tallulah (Big Time) They stick to what they know, and their knowledge increases. The quartet's a quintet now, up one violin, which may not seem like much but does serve to reinforce the hooks that have never been a strength of their understated, ever more explicit tales from the bourgeois fringe. So though I was pulled in by "The Clarke Sisters"--"They sleep in the back of a feminist bookstore"--I soon got involved with every song on the album, with a special rush for "Right Here," where Robert Forster or Grant McLennan, I still have trouble telling them apart, stands by his woman. [Original grade: A minus] A

GRATEFUL DEAD: In the Dark (Arista) Despite the hooks, highlighted unnaturally by do-or-die production, this is definitely the Dead, not Journey or Starship. But only "When Push Comes to Shove," a ruminative catalogue of paranoid images that add up to one middle-aged man's fear of love, shows up the young ignorami and old fools who've lambasted them as symbols of hippie complacency since the '60s were over. One problem with the cosmic is that it doesn't last forever. C PLUS

THE IGUANAS: Reptiles, Lust and Dogs (Midnight) The voice is more bullfrog than lizard, like Iggy or Buster in deep blooze mode only more generic, fraternal twin to the single-minded guitar drones that keep this Topeka trio raving. Both emanate from one Alan Wilson, who succumbs to the style's bad clichés on "Hot Rod" (to h--l) and defeats them only on "Coffee O.D.," recommended to morning jocks everywhere. B

L.L. COOL J: Bigger and Deffer (Def Jam) Like the pop-metal egotists he resembles every which way but white, J proves that there's something worse than a middle-class adolescent who's gotta be a big shot this instant--the same adolescent the instant he becomes a big shot. Overrated though it was, the debut had guts, spritz, musical integrity, and Rick Rubin. Breakthrough though it may be, the follow-up has a swelled head, a swollen dick, received beats, and quotes from Berry, Brown, and the Moonglows that confuse me. Could it be that the planet existed before he brought it to fruition? C PLUS

MEL MCDANIEL: Just Can't Sit Down Music (Capitol) With his best material--not commercially, but critically, a concept that doesn't cut much vinyl down in Nashville--slotted three and four on each side, McDaniel remains a notably decent artist caught between his druthers and his a&r man. So be glad the album's gem, "Stand on It" (composer credit: "B. Springsteen"), did eventually make some noise as a single--albeit not enough to qualify for the best-of that followed it into the racks. B

MEAT PUPPETS: Mirage (SST) At their most unhinged these space potatoes always had the charm of true seekers. Who cared if they were soft in the head--their tentative lyricism conveyed the sense of endless discovery that's the great blessing of soft-headedness. This time, they've found what they were looking for, and it's hard to believe it took them so long. C PLUS

THE MEKONS: Honky Tonkin' (Twin/Tone) Nobody would take them for amateurs or anarchists on this evidence. Just a catchy, rocking Brit country band with more enthusiasm than skill in the vocal department and lyrics-included that don't seem to have much to do with honky-tonks--that tend overmuch to the metaphysical, metaphorical, and obscure for all their show of specificity. I await the next phase. B PLUS

SMOKEY ROBINSON: One Heartbeat (Motown) With executive producer Berry Gordy very hands-on, the man who named the quiet storm goes for his own--middle-aged platinum, just like Tina and Aretha and Dionne and Marvin, God rest his soul. After entrusting the lead single to outsiders who've made pop-funk their metier, he inputs some songwriting, with superpro results that carry the A. But only side two's "Love Don't Give No Reason," one of those shocking domestic melodramas that have dotted his maturity, packs the slightest surprise. Moreover, I doubt he'll get his own. Being perpetually underrated ain't about talent--it's about glamour. As is middle-aged platinum. B

SONIC YOUTH: Sister (SST) Finally, an album worthy of their tuning system, and no, it's not like they've suddenly started to write tight or see a shrink. All they cop to is making their bullshit signify, which means keeping a distance from the insanity they find so sexy and not letting their slack-jawed musings drone on too long. Hence, those with more moderate tastes have space to feel the buzz and a chance to go on to something else before boredom sets in. With the California punk cover acknowledging their debts and the bow to coherent content safeguarding against that empty feeling, their chief pleasure, as always, is formal--a guitar sound almost unique in its capacity to evoke rock and roll without implicating them in a history few youngish bands can bear up under these days. A

JAMES BLOOD ULMER: America -- Do You Remember the Love? (Blue Note) One danger of putting Bill Laswell in the studio with the likes of Blood is his respect for the avant-garde. From Nona Hendryx or Motorhead or even Sly and Robbie he'll brook no bullshit, but give him a committed innovator and he can turn into a humble servant of the muse, as in his worthy, inconsequential Celluloid LPs for Daniel Ponce, Billy Bang, etc. From Sonny Sharrock he got a definitive record that way; from Blood he gets a dud. The digital neatness may be Blue Note's fault, and the schematic instrumentals typify Laswell's compulsion to contain chaos. But the thinness of the guitar itself sounds like Blood's misplaced idea of a Wes Montgomery move. And I guarantee you Laswell didn't think any of the three vocal tracks were radio fare, no matter who he hired to sing backup. B MINUS

JAMES BLOOD ULMER: Live at the Caravan of Dreams (Caravan of Dreams) Decked out like a rent-a-pasha on the colorized cover, bellowing/muttering lyrics he might as well be making up on the spot ("Gonna get me a cow and dick around"?--nah, can't be), Blood's too wild and woolly for his own good here. But if wild and woolly is the price of live and well, his admirers should be happy to pay up. B PLUS

X: See How We Are (Elektra) Even during the first four songs, when the sustained detail of the writing--with a boost from Dave Alvin's tormented yet unembittered "4th of July"--makes it seems they'll fight for every inch, you miss Billy Zoom's syncretic junk: fine though he is, Tony Gilkyson is too neoclassy for these convinced vulgarians. Then the material devolves into complaints, throwaways, wasted stanzas, and utter clinkers. B

Additional Consumer News

Atlantic continues to repay its debt to society with overdue reissues, and as usual does the deed ass-backwards. The Otis Redding Story is a four-disc box that augments, supplants, duplicates, or renders irrelevant the one-disc Best of Otis Redding and the two-disc History of Otis Redding. Audio and programming are unexceptionable, and the few non-LP-available rarities unearthed to suck in recalcitrant collectors don't intrude. Buy it, young-un--you have no choice. But believe me when I insist that the original LPs were among the most intelligently conceived black albums of the '60s, and that it's a disgrace you can't buy them without further upsetting this nation's precarious balance of trade. (Consumer tip: you can now help the Canadian economy cheaper than the Japanese.) The same goes for Aretha Franklin, whose 30 Greatest Hits I'm forced to recommend with the caveat that the first side of my copy has so much surface noise it's unlistenable. (With Atlantic, always pay attention to the pressing--always.) Most welcome as product is Big Joe Turner's Greatest Hits. It ain't actually his greatest hits, though--the charting "Rock a While," "Lipstick, Powder and Paint," "Morning, Moon and Night," and (this one hurts) "TV Mama" are all missing. Admittedly, all are available on 1986's Rhythm & Blues Years, as are "Honey Hush" and "Chains of Love," duplicated here. This doesn't even make sense chronologically--"Rock a While" b/w "Lipstick, Powder and Paint" was Turner's last hit--but never mind. Greatest Hits is a must, Rhythm & Blues Years superior by rock and roll standards to any of Turner's classier work for Decca, Savoy, or, right, Atlantic. Only Elvis is in his league as a vocalist of the period. Take what you can get.

Village Voice, Sept. 1, 1987


July 28, 1987 Sept. 29, 1987