Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Somewhat to my surprise in a year when only converts are making epochal claims for the sole major trend, which I insist on calling techno, good albums continue to pile up. Maybe the real trend is formal consolidation. 'Cause it sure ain't country.

ALL THE KING'S MEN: SCOTTY MOORE & D.J. FONTANA (Sweetwater) There's no rationalizing the success ratio of this tribute comp--I mean, gosh, Elvis Presley's original sidemen collaborate with artists who like them. I'd like to credit Scotty and D.J.'s groove, but with second drummers powering the two rockingest cuts and extra guitarists everywhere, let's just call it serendipity. Plus maybe--since Joe Ely, Steve Earle, and Raul Malo all benefit from not trying too hard--the kind of affable discretion that stays out of talent's way. The knockout rockouts are Cheap Trick's "Bad Little Girl," which sounds like great John Lennon, and Keith Richards and the Band's "Deuce and a Quarter," which sounds like great old roots-rock and also like nothing I've ever heard. And then there's Ronnie McDowell with that essential soupcon of Memphis-to-Vegas schmaltz. A MINUS

JOHN ANDERSON: Takin' the Country Back (Mercury) Minding his market, Anderson announces his commitment to quality with the hilarious male chauvinist love song "Somebody Slap Me" ("She's into football, she likes my chili"), then slips off to the orange grove to pitch woo for a few tracks. That pleasant chore done, it's one exemplary piece of Nashville after another, many with his name on them. He sketches a generic small town, reclaims the eponymous country, rings changes on autumn and "I Used To Love Her," and ends up in one of his white-trash paradises bouncing on a trampoline. "Jump On It," that one's called--belongs right up there with Aretha, Van Halen, and the Pointer Sisters. A MINUS

APHEX TWIN: Richard D. James Album (Sire/Warp) Jungle sure has livelied up this prematurely ambient postdance snoozemeister. His latest synth tunes are infested with hypertime electrobeats that compel the tunes themselves to get a move on. And where once he settled for austere classical aura, now he cuts big whiffs of 19th-century cheese. He even sings. Hey, fella--I hear Martha Wash needs work. B PLUS

BERGVILLE STORIES (Columbia import) As a South Africa-only release, the original-cast album to this drop-dead entry in Lincoln Center's boorishly overlooked South African theatre series (as amazing as the Ornettefest by me) will be sought out (try only by those who already dig mbube/iscathimiya. In the US that means Ladysmith, period--almost nothing else is in the racks. Yet mbube is the heritage of one of the most voice-crazy peoples on the planet--every Zulu is taught to sing, damn well if field recordings from labor congresses and informal competitions mean anything. So in this play, set in a besieged Soweto hostel, the actors break into song every few minutes. Not primarily singers, they aren't pure amateurs either. They know how to project and present, and writer-director Duma kaNdlovu orchestrates their flow--home pitch fluctuates from chant to chant, call-and-reponse patterns shift, sound effects and catchy choruses kick in just when you need them. The result is a vivid representation of the mbube I've always read about, a rougher and more male chauvinist domain than the elegant Christians of Ladysmith ever hint. A MINUS

THE BOTTLE ROCKETS: 24 Hours a Day (Atlantic) Like Wilco, only not so generically or formalistically, this is a rock band. They love Lynyrd Skynyrd; they love the Ramones. Their country leanings merely ground their commitment to content--Brian Henneman's savory sense of character and place, the every-word-counts delivery that lends his singing its specific gravity. Going for simple, they pay a price in detail this time out. But the likes of "Smokin' 100's Alone" and "Perfect Far Away" would be pretty damn rough for Nashville. And "Indianapolis" is the sequel all us "1000 Dollar Car" fans were waiting for even if it was written first. A MINUS

PATSY CLINE: Live at the Cimarron Ballroom (MCA) Cline's current iconicity (which for all I know could signal a heroic surge that will leave her as fixed a star as Aretha Franklin or Edith Piaf) is bound up in the vogue for pre/nonrock pop (which for all I know could prove permanent). Her Virginia twang mere seasoning in an unusually robust pop voice, she's Patti Page with guts. But the main reason she's remembered as the most credible of the countrypolitans is that countrypolitan was invented for her, by producer Owen Bradley. Entertaining the Southern folks who were her bread-and-butter--at maybe $500 a show, pickup backup provided--she was and remains something else. And this 1961 Tulsa gig with Leon McAuliffe's Cimarron Boys establish that the spare physicality and exquisite timing of her Grand Old Opry transcriptions are only a starting point. She could have used more rehearsal here. But the Western swing maestro led a band that was ready for anything, and Cline rose to their challenge as they did to hers: hard, high plains dance music, with her amazing trademark yowl at the end of "Lovesick Blues" a promise of the "Shake Rattle and Roll" she has all set to follow. A MINUS

WYCLEF JEAN PRESENTS THE CARNIVAL FEATURING REFUGEE ALLSTARS (Ruffhouse/Columbia) From kompas to reggae, Celia Cruz to Neville Brothers, the diasporan flavors ("Jaspora," one title spells it, nicely kreyolizing the Greek/Jewish term) are half decoration, half concept, and less than integral either way. Like his soul brother Puff Daddy, master of the simplistic strategy with which the Fugees wrested dominance of hip hop songwriting from the moribund Death Row consortium last year, Wyclef doesn't feature the grandiose depth charges with which Wu-Tang torpedoed hip hop beatmastering well before that. He uses the sampler--augmented by the live quote, the honored guest, and now the genre excursion--like MC Hammer before him, for one-dimensional tunes on which to float his well-articulated morality tales and popwise carnivalesque. Cognoscenti may bitch that it's only r&b, but r&b has been the shit for half a century, and this is where it lives. A MINUS

ISMAL LO: Jammu Africa (Worldly/Triloka) Like any aspiring popstar, this sweet-voiced world-music natural from Niger and Dakar thrives on a format that isolates his trickiest tunes. Not especially danceable, too slick to power through the wall of incomprehension that separates Anglophones from his multilingual homilies, this best-of showcases an expansive adept of Eurovision style. The synthesizer isn't my favorite ax either. But it can cut through the undergrowth like anything else. B PLUS

LUNA: Pup Tent (Elektra) Within the cushy parameters of the smoothness that is Dean Wareham's spiritual discipline, this sonic construction is all stakes and clothesline, relishing the jerrybuilt almost as much as Penthouse did the luxurious. It's still hooky pop as well-savored guilty pleasure, still undercut by Wareham's pleasantly alienated lyrics. But voice and guitars sound more, well, tentative (get it?). Having given his all to Elektra and the marketplace and stood there bemused as they gave him Smashing Pumpkins back, he isn't throwing in the towel yet. But damned if he's going to hire a cleaning service just to have people over for drinks. A MINUS [Later]

THE MURMURS: Pristine Smut (MCA) Outgrowing the bland preciosity of their debut (remember "You Suck," where cute was supposed to sharpen mean and muddled it instead?), these showbiz kids reemerge as prosex lesbians with a weakness for romance and the lissome, breathy country-rock to match. Not since Liz Phair's "Flower," Janet's "Throb," and Madonna's Erotica has pop softcore attended so sweetly to the erogenous zones. A MINUS [Later]

ORNETTE + JOACHIM KHN: Colors (Harmolodic/Verve) Having divided his career between better-than-average fusion records that still weren't anything to write reviews about and explorations of his moderately prodigious classical chops, Khn proves a serviceable helpmeet to genius. On this live-in-Leipzig duet album his pianistics comprise an exotically European environment for Ornette's transcultural sound and melody--a bracing change and a damn fine handle whether crashingly atonal or liltingly romantic. A MINUS

THE SONGS OF JIMMIE RODGERS--A TRIBUTE ALBUM (Columbia/Egyptian) Something about the spiritual proximity of country music's TB-racked founder-hero--plus, perhaps, Bob Dylan's grizzled guidance--moved these lovefesters to sing like the lowly mortals they are. Neatniks David Ball and Mary-Chapin Carpenter must have still been warming up when somebody rolled the tape; even Bono comes down off his high horse a little, although his failure to get his feet out of the stirrups compels him to sing with his head up his ass anyway. As for Jerry Garcia, he just laid down his track yesterday with his new old-timey group, Dead and in the Way. Meanwhile, the great ones--Nelson, DeMent, Earle, and, in this context, Mellencamp, with Dylan topping them all--roll around in their cracks and crannies. Set off by loose-jointed arrangements that move naturally from Dixieland horns to I-for-Indiana fiddle, they reimagine these old songs as if the man who wrote them had had a chance to get old himself. Which in a sense he now has. A

Dud of the Month

RADIOHEAD: OK Computer (Capitol) My favorite Floyd album has always been Wish You Were Here, and you know why? It has soul, that's why--it's Roger Waters's lament for Syd, not my idea of a tragic hero but as long as he's Roger's that doesn't matter. Radiohead wouldn't know a tragic hero if they were cramming for their A levels, and their idea of soul is Bono, who they imitate further at the risk of looking even more ridiculous than they already do. So instead they pickle Thom E. Yorke's vocals in enough electronic marginal distinction to feed a coal town for a month. Their art-rock has much better sound effects than the Floyd snoozefest Dark Side of the Moon, but it's less sweeping and just as arid. I guarantee that it will not occupy the charts for 10 years. In fact, only because the Brits seized EMI does it have a chance to last through Christmas. B MINUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Old 97's, Too Far to Care (Elektra): they get depressed a lot, actually, so what say we just call it the new literalism ("Barrier Reef," "Broadway," "Streets of Where I'm From") [Later: B+]
  • Missy Misdemeanor Elliott, Supa Dupa Fly (The Gold Mind Inc./EastWest): the sex is in the voice, not the rhymes ("Gettaway," "Izzy Izzy Ahh") [Later: A-]
  • The Sex Pistols, Raw (Music Club): live boot (Burton Upon Trent, 9/24/76) as budget-priced history--crude, kinda slow, a few rare titles, four demos added ("Substitute," "No Fun")
  • Puff Daddy & the Family, No Way Out (Bad Boy): death--the biggest hook of all ("What You Gonna Do?," "I'll Be Missing You")
  • Radish, Restraining Bolt (Mercury): the right music at the wrong time ("Failing and Leaving," "Sugar Free")
  • The Songs of West Side Story (RCA Victor): bet they couldn't organize soul-pop meistersingers behind Hair (All-4-One, "Something's Coming"; Aretha Franklin, "Somewhere")
  • Cheikh L, N La Thiass (World Circuit): neotraditionalism hits Dakar ("Ndogai," "Boul di Tagale")
  • Rent (DreamWorks) pretty funny for art-rock ("La Vie Boheme," "Tango: Maureen," "Happy New Year B")
  • Volebeats, Sky and the Ocean (Safe House): neotraditionalism across the pop guitar-band spectrum ("Two Seconds," "Don't I Wish")
  • Jean-Paul Bourelly & the BluWave Bandits, Fade to Cacophony Live! (Evidence): Bootsy meets Hendrix meets Watson meets Blood, and let us not forget Dru Lombar ("Toxic Your Love")
Choice Cuts:
  • Mary Martin, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy"; Ray Bolger, "Once in Love With Amy" (The Best of Front Row Center, MCA)
  • Made, "Joanne" (Bedazzler, MCA)
  • Golden Delicious, "Hot Corn, Cold Corn" (Old School, Cavity Search)
  • The Beatles, "I've Got a Feeling," "What's the New Mary Jane" (Anthology 3, Capitol/Apple)
  • Luna, "Season of the Witch"; Bettie Serveert, "I'll Keep It With Mine" (I Shot Andy Warhol, Tag Recordings)
  • Cagney and Lacee, Six Feet of Chain (No. 6)
  • Changing Faces, All Day, All Night (Big Beat/Atlantic)
  • Floyd Collins (Nonesuch)
  • Fuck, Pardon My French (Matador)
  • The Jayhawks, Sound of Lies (American)
  • Lokua Kanza, Wapi Yo (Catalyst)
  • Martin's Folly (Johnson's Wax)
  • The Muffs, Happy Birthday to Me (Reprise)
  • Third Rail, South Delta Space Age (Antilles)
  • U2, Pop (Island)

Village Voice, Sept. 23, 1997

July 22, 1997 Nov. 4, 1997