Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

After pondering the Public Enemy question, I decided to give the music its due without conflating art and artists or putting their picture in the paper. They are publicity hounds, you know. Of course, so's our Must To Avoid. Pick Hit's beyond that now.

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA AND FAMILY: The Light (Capitol) No kind of sellout, not even a mishmash, just a great DJ trying to reproduce the anything-funky ambience of his parties, go go to reggae to disco to rap. Unfortunately, the ability to hear still ain't the ability to create. On the John Robie-coproduced disco side, "Reckless" (UB40 with dance hook) and "Something He Can Feel" (Nona Hendryx and Boy George back from limbo together for the first time) are pretty great; so's "World Racial War" (Professor Griff please copy) on the Bill Laswell-coproduced funk side. None of them saves the party from approaching mishmash. B

ERIC B. & RAKIM: Follow the Leader (Uni) Ahh, sampling--it'll turn a minimalist into a melodist every time. If like me you've found their Brownian motion grooveful but a touch austere, maybe you'll get hooked by the obscure Arabian-nights snatches (first a a snatch of the snatch, then finally completion), or the girls (speeded-up guys?) singing (this can't be, beatmasters please advise) "You're so stupid, you're so rough." Or the symphonic intro. Or maybe Rakim's ever-increasing words-per-minute ratio--the man loves language like a young Bob D. Beatmaster's P.S.: It's the fucking Eagles, speeded up, singing "You're so smooth, the world's so rough." A MINUS

ALPHA BLONDY AND THE WAILERS: Jerusalem (Shanachie) There's something suspect about this ex-Manhattanite turned parttime Parisian and his multilingual Islamic reggae from Abidjan--he's a third-world marketer's dream even if he's marketing himself. But at worst he puts out a finer grade of generic Wailers than Rita's ever going to front, and three cuts sound like acts of genius rather than strokes of luck: the otherwise Francophone "Kalachnikov Love," whatever that means (and I want to know); "Jerusalem," slipping with a sly presumption of innocence from basic English to pidgin Hebrew, pidgin Arabic, and pidgin French; and "Travailler C'Est Trop Dur," which breaks his loping skank into a pretty gallop. After all, there's something suspect about Prince, too. B PLUS

BONGWATER: Double Bummer (Shimmy-Disc) The whole two-record set teeters on the edge of in-joke, avant-bullshit, and not-for-profit self-indulgence. But where the found tape documentaries w/ neoexpressionist noodling are exactly as interesting as their sources (surreal pre-Watergate Nixon, the standard radio evangelist), Ann Magnuson's rock dreams and Chinese "Dazed and Confused" and Monkees cover and straight satirical Tuli Kupferberg chantey have the unjudgmental plasticity of the best camp. Can't quite claim she's worth the price of admission--a talent to watch, say. B

JAMES BROWN: I'm Real (Scotti Brothers) Fact is, he hasn't known what to do with his reality, originality, genius, and so forth since the mid-'70s, when disco took the bump out of the JB funk that made modern dance music possible. Though after years of floundering he figured out the new groove, Brad Shapiro still had to show him the ins and outs of its glitz; now that young dance musicians have reacted back to JB funk, cramming and twisting its bottom while running poesy across the top, he needs Full Force (who like Shapiro aren't true genre insiders, just pros who can take the genre to the bridge) to hip him to its lore. Raps and hooks are nothing special. But whether it's live or Memorex, the dense hostility of the drum attack is both fresh and in the tradition--his tradition. B

BUZZCOCKS: Lest We Forget (ROIR cassette) A 19-cut compilation recorded at seven U.S. gigs in '79 and '80, long after Howard Devoto had gone his foolish way, this is half Singles Going Steady, only with the opposite effect--instead of proving how tight and commercial they are, it proves how raw and punky they were. Which combination is definitely no contradiction--in fact, it establishes their classic status once and for all. You'll miss "Orgasm Addict" and "Everybody's Happy Nowadays." But you won't need them. A MINUS

ORNETTE COLEMAN AND PRIME TIME: Virgin Beauty (Portrait) If the quietest of the Prime Time records--lyrical, sublimely reflective, autumnal at times, even Milesish when Ornette picks up his trumpet--ain't rock and roll, that doesn't mean it isn't "rock." The pulse pulses, and Jerry Garcia, never exactly King Kickass, fits right in. The tuneful themes show off Ornette's pop feel, and while Garcia has rarely comped or noodled more purposefully, it's the unsung Charlee Ellerbee or the equally unsung Bern Nix who does the tighten-up beneath "Bourgeois Boogie." In and around the themes Ornette improvises a whole lot of saxophone without once showing off. He's beyond that now. A

THE DONNER PARTY (Cryptovision '87) R.E.M. as punks. Feelies as folkies. Horseflies without horseshit. "John Wilkes Booth." "When You Die Your Eyes Pop Out." "Jeez Louise." B PLUS

THE GEORGIA SATELLITES: Open All Night (Elektra) Forget bars 'n' barbeque--the 24-hour eatery of the title tune belongs to Dan Baird's new sweetie ("I just got to know if that thing is open all night"), who shouldn't be confused with "Mon Cheri" ("Her skirt rolled up and I could see she was French"). I know, I know, but trust me when I say their appetite makes up for their boogie recidivism. Sure they'd like to be the the Stones, but they're smart enough to know they won't make it and young enough to take their fun where they can get it. B PLUS

GETTOVETTS: Missionaries Moving (Island) "Intellectual terrorism" by "Rock Box" out of Rhythm Killers, this Rammellzee-Laswell metal-rap is heaviest when it's funkiest and can move the crowd just by moving its ass. Slows down on the rhythm dirge "Go Down! Now Take Your Balls!," which is Laswell's indulgence, and comes to a virtual halt on the wacko lecture "Lecture," which is Rammellzee's. B PLUS [Later]

JOE HIGGS: Family (Shanachie) In a chronically undifferentiated music, subtlety can be a curse, and though I've gotten to know every song here and have no trouble admiring most, I wish Higgs had rehired the musicians who backed Triumph three years ago. It's my guess--and with subtlety you have to guess some--that the likes of Chinna Smith, Wire Lindo, and Augustus Pablo made the difference between an acknowledged classic and an obscure near thing. B PLUS

MARTI JONES: Used Guitars (A&M) She satisfies that familiar hankering for self-expression, a disquiet known to any female interpreter worth her salt, by doing her lesser songwriting buddies some favors--at least their material will be identified solely with her. Best track is the outright cover, written and originally performed by that closet feminist Graham Parker. C PLUS

LEGAL WEAPON: Life Sentence to Love (MCA) For years a great female hope in punk-metal mode, Kat Arthur makes her belated major-label debut too damn late, carrying the eternal Joan Jett comparison far into love-is-pain cliche. The songwriting's resourceful, but even further from Jett's best than Jett's latest, with the dark undertow that once colored Brian Hansen's music succumbing to upbeat hooks that rise out of the locomotion like bluebirds fluttering hopefully around Kat's erotic doom. B MINUS [Later]

THE PIXIES: Surfer Rosa (Rough Trade) By general consensus the Amerindie find of the year, and I'll say this for them: they're OK. Aurally articulate but certainly not clean, much less neat, with guitar riffs you actually notice and a strong beat that doesn't owe any subgenre. Feature a woman as equal partner--no separatism or blatant gender aggression. If I was on the lookout for contemporaries who proved my world wasn't coming to an end, I might overrate them too. In fact, maybe I still do. B

IGGY POP: Instinct (A&M) Twixt the thematic if hardly definitive "Cold Metal" and the humorous if hardly hilarious "Squarehead," Mr. Big Dick makes like the gargoyle he is, crooning in his ghastly Vaughan Monroe baritone when he isn't asserting his tenuous connection with HM, which whatever its offenses is at least popular, and punk, which whatever its offenses is at least arty. If Bowie can't save him and Laswell can't save him, maybe he gone. C PLUS

PUBLIC ENEMY: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam) Chuck D is so full of shit Chuck E can dis him: "You know Public Enemy are punk rockers, 'cause they bitch about rock crits and airwaves so much." To which I'll add: "And make art about conflicts with the law that as a scion of the middle class (albeit an Afro-American and a second-generation leftist) D's avoided in real life." That said, the leader gets points for oratory, political chutzpah, and concealing his own asininity. If I'd never encountered him and Professor Griff in the public prints, I'd still figure them for reverse racists--last cut boasts that "Black-Asiatic man" got here first as if he should therefore inherit the earth. But their "freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude" wouldn't in itself have clued me to their contempt for the black audience, because these dense, hard grooves are powered by respect: musically, no pop in years has reached so far while compromising so little. Bill Stephney, Hank Shocklee, and Terminator X juice post-Coleman/Coltrane ear-wrench with the kind of furious momentum harmolodic funk has never dared: the shit never stops abrading and exploding. Yet it holds fast, a revolutionary message D's raps have yet to live up to--which isn't to say that isn't a lot to ask or that they don't sometimes come close. I mean, me and Chuck E like punks--D's not the first talented asshole to front a great band. In fact, he's in a grand rock and roll tradition. A [Later: A+]

STETSASONIC: In Full Effect (Tommy Boy) A dream of raised consciousness, "the world's only hip hop band" has teamed with Jesse Jackson on an "edu-taining" 12-inch about the frontline states, and when Wise dreams of "a woman with a realistic imagination, a woman who thinks for herself, whose thoughts are bold and free," I swear he's not euphemizing freaky sex techniques, and that he wouldn't be grossed out by them either. Problem is the mere competence that afflicts so many well-meaning bands: it's versatile of them to generate as well as sample beats, but "A.F.R.I.C.A." went nowhere musically, and Wise's smart talk is buried in a "Float On" remake even ickier than the original. Album two gets across not on ace cuts like the revolutionary credo "Freedom or Death" (Professor Griff please copy) or the sampling credo "Talking All That Jazz" (James Brown please copy), but on a camaraderie that reaches deeper than the usual homeboy bonding. How much further it can go remains to be seen. B PLUS

AL B. SURE!: In Effect Mode (Warner Bros.) Winner of a Sony talent contest at 19, he uses amateur technology to define a private dreamworld rather than a public space, and he cracked black radio almost instantly, going pop with the DIY cockiness of his rapper homeboys. This is electronic cocktail soul as thrill-a-minute mood music, and as usual the secret is rhythm--playful riffs and echoes and synthetic percussion setting off a hopelessly slight, totally supple voice. B PLUS

YOMO TORO: Funky Jibaro (Antilles New Directions) Since there's more "world music" than anybody can hear, not to mention enjoy, often preferences are arbitrary. No aficionado of Spanish romanticism, I've never gotten into salsa, but I happened to go see Toro at S.O.B.'s, where I was won over by his unassuming fingerpicked mastery of the cuatro (kind of a large 10-string mandolin), as well as the unassuming cornball showmanship of his group. Maybe that's why I like his sweet mountain record better than, say, Daniel Ponce's hot city record or Nana Vasconcelos's big ethnomusicological record on the same label, or maybe it's because I've always resisted horny bands while favoring the simple charanga this vaguely recalls. A salsa trumpeter I know says he likes it too--sound reminds him of Penguin Cafe Orchestra. B PLUS

BRIAN WILSON (Sire) What made Brian's utopian fantasy so believable was the guileless hypocrisy of the simpletons fate and family tied him to--his shy, sincere, goofy, subtly tortured lyrics took off from the cheerful hedonism of the Beach Boys' secular chorales and white-boy soul. Solo, the pain in his voice is all too unmediated, and he isn't deep enough to make something of it--he sounds like the sincere, talented, mildly pretentious nut he is. What's more, his multiproduced million-dollar return is weighed down by a collective Phil Spector obsession--comes off incredibly labored. Of course, Smile was probably kind of overwrought too. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

You know punk nostalgia is rampant when marketing hipsters start sticking two-LP retrospectives onto the racks. As anyone who was there has probably guessed, both The Story of the Clash (Epic) and Ramonesmania (Sire) are pretty useless. Though some dross is eliminated by the vague chronological rationale, the Clash set could have been programmed by a random-play button (as of course it will be, countless times). To pretend that it tells a story is an offense--they fought the corporation and the corporation won. The Ramones set isn't any more perceptively sequenced--"Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?" sounds even more out-of-it now than it did in 1980 and comes third--but its trivia-mongering B sides and 45-only mixes do suit the band's collectability. Mission of Burma (Rykodisc CD) does the seminal Boston postpunk prenoisists another kind of disservice. Comprising all of Signals, Calls and Marches and Vs plus the great "Academy Fight Song" and lesser arcana, it boasts a new world-record CD length of 80 minutes, which means it goes on for fucking ever--prenoise quickly turns into background annoyance on this scale. Slash is due to release a $17.98-list CD of X's Los Angeles and Wild Gift, and though I presume their two best albums will hold up a little better in the longest of long-playing formats, I'll listen hopefully (my Wild Gift is really beat up by now). One encouraging precedent is the Angry Samoans' Gimme Samoa: 31 Garbage-Pit Hits (PVC CD), which squeezes their entire recorded output plus outtakes onto one plastic-coated piece of aluminum five inches in diameter. I find that the Samoans' bad attitudes reinforce each other played back to back in this format: hard, catchy, unashamed straight-teen-male hostility so funny that there's no denying the educational value of its self-knowledge, though maybe more for observers than participants. And Black Flag's beer-party compilation Wasted Again (SST) sums up their contribution to Western civilization quite neatly--in retrospect, their rampaging anomie seems pitilessly self-critical, and maybe eventually they'll figure out that they were never much of an art band.

In a hearteningly consumer-friendly development, the CD only Rykodisc label has manufactured vinyl alternatives to some releases, such as the impeccably pressed double-LP version of Jimi Hendrix's superb Live at Winterland. Maybe black plastic is here to say after all. A choice, not an echo.

Village Voice, Sept. 27, 1988

Aug. 30, 1988 Nov. 8, 1988