Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Finally, Consumer Guide goes digital--two months after I plunked down $300 for my little Sony, I'm pondering CDs. This isn't easy--companies are reluctant to service reviewers with such toney product, even when extra songs sweeten the package, and damned if I'm going to spend Lennie's money to double-check the creative excesses of artists whose solidest efforts are all in my day's work. As a rule, I'll continue to review vinyl, which remains the cheapest and most broadly utilized audio medium. Still, in cases like the four adduced below, to ignore CDs would be to miss the point, and I thank the publicists who signified their agreement by helping me make comparisons, even when they knew damn well they'd be invidious. Labels inclined to provide review CDs should be aware that I'm especially interested in remixed, recompiled classics and otherwise unavailable new music, and that I never guarantee to write about anything.


AFRICAN HEAD CHARGE: Off the Beaten Track (On-U Sound) Hoping against hope that it's some fucking place, I occasionally find myself suspecting that cut-up and dub are where the semipop action is. Enthusiasm, iconoclasm, and willingness to live in the present make it the avant alternative to neoclassicism--aware of the weight of history and the unavoidability of received materials, but also aware that past glories have been and gone. Then I listen to Curlew or Fats Comet or Mute Beat or Version X and go back to my four-four. Thing is, the semipop action ought to be more than metaphorical; rock bricolage is too cerebral and reggae subtract-a-track too spacy to work that body. Although in my casual experience Adrian Sherwood's vast output combines both problems, this fourth album by one of his array of studio-only projects adds minimelodies galore and a shifting but reliable bass-and-drum pulse--Jamaica steeped in field recordings and heavy machinery--to the usual panorama of depth charges, funny noises, exotic rips, and spoken words. Kind of like Augustus Pablo if Pablo weren't so pastoral, and so pop. A MINUS

DAVE ALVIN: Romeo's Escape (Epic) Alvin's hoarse timbre, bellowing passion, and approximate pitch call up other songwriter front men--such dubious predecessors as John Prine and Guy Clark, who at least can claim to sound like themselves. Nevertheless, he's a born songwriter--guitarist, too. The country demos and Blasters covers hold their own. The X cover is why he moved on. B PLUS

ERIC B. & RAKIM: Paid in Full (4th & Broadway) Rakim raps quick and clean and almost quiet about the business at hand, which is moving the crowd. Eric B.'s grooves approach a classic swing on nothing but scratch and sampled percussion, with touches of horn or whistle deep in the mix. If you spent your life listening to people brag, sometimes without opening their mouths, you'd overrate the new crew too. B

BACK TO THE BEACH (Columbia) Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pipeline"? Herbie Hancock's "Wipe Out"? Dave Edmunds's "Wooly Bully"? Pee-wee Herman's "Surfin' Bird"? This soundtrack opens up undreamed vistas of recontextualization, then shuts them down. Unlike Los Lobos claiming Ritchie Valens, the participants find no deep cultural resonance in the ancient texts, and unlike French, Frith, Kaiser & Thompson romping over "Surfin' U.S.A.," they get no kick out of destroying them, either. All they manage is trademarked modernizations consonant with the CHR fodder Mark Goldenberg shovels Aimee Mann and executive culprit David Kahne pours all over Marti Jones. The only winning cuts--and by me this includes even Pee-wee's--come from dodos too simple to aim for anything harder than fun fun fun: Eddie Money, Frankie Avalon, and Annette Funicello. C PLUS

BOYOYO BOYS: Back in Town (Rounder) The lead voice of the band that changed Paul Simon's life isn't a voice, it's a rather thin and monotonous alto saxophone, devoid of vibrato or growl--though if the unidentified player had the personality of, say Oliver Lake, he'd still be overmatched by any of dozens of South African singers you can hear. Ain't all that much going on below, either. Take it one cut at a time. B

DEF LEPPARD: Hysteria (Mercury) You know about the music, and if you don't think you'll like it you won't: impeccable pop metal of no discernible content, it will inspire active interest only in AOR programmers and the several million addicts of the genre. In short, it's product--but as product, significant, because it's product for the CD age. Stuck with over an hour of material after four years (after all, could twelve songs be any shorter?), they elected to put it all on one disc because as technocrats they instinctively conceive for formats that can accommodate an hour of music: cassettes, which now outsell vinyl discs, and CDs, which outdollar them. The cassette sound is a little too dim, as commercial cassette sound usually is, and though I sometimes find myself preferring the depth of the vinyl once I've turned my amp up to six or seven, the clarity of the CD gets more and more decisive as the needle approaches the outgroove. I mean, I have trouble perceiving these guys as human beings under ideal circumstances. Not docked a notch because at least they didn't pad it into a double. C

THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE: Live at Winterland (Rykodisc) This reconstructed hour-plus, drawn from the same three-night October '68 engagement that showed up on the 1982 Jimi Hendrix Concerts, is what the format is for. The sound is bigger and better in every way for an artist whose sound was his music--a vast improvement on live analog remixes, a meaningful improvement on the digitals that redefined live Hendrix last year. The uninterrupted length makes sense, conveying a concert's pace and logic into your audio-only living room. Also, the performances are splendid. A

CHRIS ISAAK (Warner Bros.) For me, the almost genteel formalism and romanticism of this dreamy foray into rockabilly's dark, hurtful, sensitive side is epitomized by the fiddle-as-violin that adds its sad color deep behind "Fade Away." Don't get me wrong, it sounds good. Whole damn thing sounds good. B

MICHAEL JACKSON: Bad (Epic) Anybody who charges studio hackery is too narrow-minded to be able to hear pros out-doing themselves. Studio mastery is more like it, the strongest and most consistent black pop album in years, defining Jam & Lewis's revamp of Baby Sis as the mainstream and then inundating it in rhythmic and vocal power. But what made Thriller a miracle wasn't consistency--it was genius like "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" and the unknowable allure of the pure star. The closest thing to genius here is the CD-only "Leave Me Alone," which isn't all that close and also suggests what's happened to his allure--the more knowable he gets, the more fucked up he seems. This is a record that damn near wrecks perfectly good dancin' and singin' with subtext. He's against burglary, speeding, and sex ("Dirty Diana" is as misogynistic as any piece of metal suck-my-cock), in favor of harmonic convergence and changing the world by changing the man in the mirror. His ideal African comes from Liberia. And he claims moonwalking makes him a righteous brother. Like shit. B PLUS

COLORBLIND JAMES EXPERIENCE (Earring) Speaking of bands that won't change the world--do we have anything better to do?--here's a dry good-timey outfit who obviously feel something's amiss out there but can't quite articulate what it is. Or rather, won't--they cultivate a subtlety that will piss some off and pass most by. Me, I think "Dance Critters" is a mean antiboogie and "A Different Bob" a different cheatin' song, and direct your attention to "Considering a Move to Memphis," where Colorblind expects to bowl, speak in tongues, visit Graceland, eat piroshkis, and (most important) get to know Gus Cannon. B PLUS

KID CREOLE AND THE COCONUTS: I, Too, Have Seen the Woods (Sire) Mr. Softee isn't the type, but somehow August Darnell has turned into Old Faithful. Mortality impinges attractively on this typically elegant and literate dance album, which few will dance to and enough buy--especially in Europe, where they think he's Josephine Baker. If you've never gotten him, chances are you're stuck with your deaf spot. Otherwise, get it. A MINUS

LA BAMBA (Slash) To cover Ritchie Valens's rebel rock for your cultural heritage is neither sentimental self-deception nor desecration of capitalism. It's an inevitable impulse that exploits defiant gestures--which in this case showed small animus against either sentimentality or capitalism--for their enduring value, for the historical connections and intrinsic beauty sure to inhere in any defiant gesture worth remembering. Face it--at his wildest Valens is no longer much of a threat, even as an example. That Los Lobos didn't attempt to reconstitute that threat is unfortunate and no sin. Take the connections and the beauty for what they're worth. B PLUS

JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP: The Lonesome Jubilee (Mercury) In which Mellencamp's confused conscience and self-serving defeatism become so single-minded they take on the force of truth. His protagonists don't expect all that much and get less, but they're not beautiful losers--they're too ordinary, too miserable. Riding a spare, tough groove I don't hear Scarecrow matching, they convince you (but not themselves) that they're the heroes America deserves. A MINUS

PETER AND THE TEST TUBE BABIES (Profile) In this time of micromargins and cults subdividing like paramecia, we gravitate toward bands that hark to whatever obscure titans we picked up on when obscurism was a harmless sideline. For me it was the Vibrators, the wildest and tightest of Britain's trad rockers in punk disguise, and I bet these guys were there. Despite the chiming expansiveness of the hooks and song lengths, they're the same nasty group, driven to drink by their microcultish prospects. B PLUS

BOB PFEIFER: After Words (Passport) When half of the greatest couple band this side of X makes a solo album that broods obsessively about a broken relationship, we're entitled to our biographical assumptions. Damn right it's more fun to fuss and fight than to sit home feeling sorry for yourself, but the idea is to illuminate this truth, not prove it. B MINUS

10,000 MANIACS: In My Tribe (Elektra) Natalie Merchant's nasal art-folk drawl isn't altogether intolerable, and her "Peace Train" cover sets up dippier expectations than her new lyrics deserve. Signalling her professionalism by deprivatizing her metaphors, she actually says something about illiteracy, today's army, and cruelty to children. In private, however, she remains a Cat Stevens fan with a nasal art-folk drawl. B MINUS

TROUBLE FUNK: Trouble Over Here/Trouble Over There (Island) Rather than solving this party band's problems, lead and background vocals from guest producers Kurtis Blow and Bootsy Collins underline it--ain't a one of the four vocalist-percussionist-keybist/bassists up front who's trouble enough. B

UB40: UB40 CCCP--Live in Moscow (A&M) To the usual concert-album flaws of redundancy (Labour of Love and Rat in the Kitchen revisited) and speedup (what do Russians know of deep grooves?), UB40 adds a presumably well-intentioned attempt to cram an hour of music onto one vinyl disc. As a result, the vocals are even hollower and duller than you'd expect--on vinyl. The CD, wouldn't you know, is markedly richer and clearer. But for sheer audio I still prefer Little Baggariddim. B

UTFO (Select) For years rappers boasted that they were in it for the money, which given the amounts of money involved proved how close to the street they still were. These days you can't be so sure. After announcing their educated synthesis with a verse in pig Latin on their first single, the new guys on the block have proven street professionals--if they don't use a rhyming dictionary, then they'll probably market one. And Full Force comes up with the one great hook Roxanne Roxanne needs. [Original grade: B plus] B

BUNNY WAILER: Rootsman Skanking (Shanachie) Back in 1981, when Bunny's most unabashed sales bids ("Dance Rock" indeed) seemed swathed in an ital glow seven of these ten cuts surfaced as Rock 'n' Groove, on Bunny's JA-only Solomonic label. If they don't sound quite so unpremeditated now, they do cut a switch. Also a natural: the add-on ballad, "Cry to Me." A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

For the second time this year, an SST record rated C plus both in my head and on my copy has been transmuted into a B plus in print. This time it's the Meat Puppets' Mirage, generally overpraised like Firehose's Ragin', Full On before it. It's customary around here to blame gremlins for such mishaps, but I'm beginning to suspect a mole--maybe Spot has taken up word processing. So let me be clear. Both records are far more conventional than their raps suggest. I'll take Slippery When Wet over either--it's more meaningful and more fun. Repeat: I advise against purchasing the Meat Puppets' Mirage or Firehose's Ragin', Full On. Nuff said?

It's been almost a year since my last rap 12-inch roundup, which with my customary objectivity I'll guess is partly my problem and partly rap's: as with all new waves, both self-referential formalism and top-this extremism have set in, leaving the quality where you find it. It's way too late for me to more than mention such old news as Whistle's "Just Buggin'," the Real Roxanne's "Bang Zoom! Let's Go Go!," the Disco Twins and Starchild's "Do the Whop," Mantronix's "Bassline," or the Junkyard Band's succès d'agitprop "The Word" (or such neodisco goodies as Dhar Braxton's "Jump Back" or the Bang Orchestra!'s "Samples!," either). But I feel compelled to recommend a search for Mixmaster Gee and the Turntable Orchestra's "The Manipulator" (MCA), an aptly self-referential technocratic boast, powered by a keyb-generated metal riff and a bell that suggest both a cash register and a carnival strength-meter, which went unnoticed on the street, maybe because it's from L.A. I also await the Original Concept LP, which seems to have gotten lost in the rush of less interesting if more forceful Def Jam acts since the release of two droll singles, "Knowledge Me" and "Bitin' My Stylee." More recent findings have been slim indeed. Although I've enjoyed such trifles as King Doe-V's wam-jamming "Shamalama" (Fresh) and Whistle's fair-minded answer B, "Barbara, Punch 'Em in the Mouth" (Select), in which Barbara enacts her dissent from Jazz's description of her boudoir, it's the old-style veterans who've moved me. Treacherous Three kingpin Kool Moe Dee's "Go See the Doctor" (Jive) is rap single of the year hands down, and the album's almost as strong. The only competition comes from the even more venerable Spoonie Gee, whose off-rhymed "Take It Off" (Tuff City) jumped me from my car radio last spring and has been impressing me with its rhythmic savvy ever since. Two additional songs on the B, too, a rarity in Versionville, and now Frank Kogan has alerted you to the follow-up, in which Spoonie declares himself "The Godfather" on the undeniable strength of Marly Marl's astonishing JB rip. Dan Hartman, are you listening?

Village Voice, Sept. 29, 1987


Sept. 1, 1987 Oct. 27, 1987