Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Happy You Near

Forget centuries and millennia--it's the tail end of the decade, and as I commence my poll labors, I don't see where the usual late discoveries are going to come from. With a third CG book staring me down, I've been keeping up. Still, it's nice to know that next time there'll be a '99 or two I've never heard of.

BABY GRAMPS: Same Ol' Timeously (Grampophone) This long overdue CD from a post-Luddite codger who prefers 78s features a unique guitar style only other folkies can hear and not a one of his endless supply of Dylan covers. Instead we get blatant blues and welcome Wobbly songs, cartoon heroes, throat-singing techniques learned from Popeye or a pet frog, and loving versions of "Teddy Bears' Picnic," "Let's All Be Fairies," and "I'm Gonna Eat Some Worms." Also eight minutes of palindromes (damned if I can make the "Margy" in his sobriquet do such tricks) and a recitation utilizing but a single vowel (not counting--can't fool me, Bearded Wonder--"Don Juans" and "ironical"). Inspirational uncontrovertible (sic) facts: "Rooks do not roost on spoons nor woodcocks snort/No dog on snowdrop rolls/Nor common frogs concoct long protocols." A MINUS

THE BEASTIE BOYS: Beastie Boys Anthology: The Sounds of Science (Grand Royal/Capitol) Simultaneously overconfident and generous as usual, this asynchronously omnivorous package has all the hits, only there aren't that many, so 16 of 42 tracks are "rarities." In their opinion, that doesn't include the revelating early single "She's Got It" or the fine late B side "Skills To Pay the Bills." It does include Fatboy Slim's "Body Movin'" remix, which is as much fun as "Fight for Your Right," which they apologize for, although they're proud to debut "Boomin' Granny," which puts moves on a "sassy, sophisticated, sexy" eighty-year-old in the checkout line (hey, that's my mama--and the song's nice in an offensive sort of way, their calling card). Of course, their rarities can be as flat as anybody else's, as can their showcases, like the Latin-funk "Sabrosa" on its third go-round. Rappers and rockers, wise guys seeking wisdom, they'll try anything twice and convince half their many fans to like it, usually to the benefit of said fans if not musical history. This is their claim on said history. They've earned it. A MINUS [Later]

SHERYL CROW AND FRIENDS: Live From Central Park (A&M) Boy did this look like some rock-star bullshit when it happened--Clapton, McLachlan, Richards, Hynde, Nicks, Chicks, oy. All that was missing was Carlos Santana. Only it turned into rock-star bullshit in the best sense--the songcraft and tasty licks to which the '60s-turned-'70s have long been reduced suffused with their full complement of reassuring meaningfulness and congenial noblesse oblige. Crow's unairbrushed enthusiasm bridges the generations, and when she gets too bland anyway a fellow professional steps in to reaffirm our shared fallibility. As always, the man called Richards is especially disarming in this role. They mean us well, why not? It ain't love, but it ain't bad. A MINUS

DESTINY'S CHILD: The Writing's on the Wall (Columbia) I like teenpop fine, but please, one song at a time. And since teenpop likes this glamorous femme quartet, individual songs are all a reasonable grownup would expect. Uh-uh. Lyrics are the usual problem--if there's a quotable quote here, I haven't noticed it. But that may just be because the multivalent harmonies, suavely irregular beats, and, not incidentally, deep-seated self-respect have been keeping me busy ever since I heard through the visuals. B PLUS

DR. DOOOM: First Come, First Served (Funky Ass) Having offed porn junkie Dr. Octagon and bought some incense to hide the smell, Kool Keith's serial killer gets as funky as your bedmate's breath in the morning. Old tropes remain--ass cracks, organ damage, race-baiting, second-level sports stars, claims of biz savvy. But though the beats remain electro, the slasher-movie shtick moves his buddies the Diesel Truckers to find out how low his production can go, including a hook that has Peter Lorre wheedling "I'm very hungry" again just when you thought it was safe to get back in the elevator. No rapper has ever imagined such disgusting apartments--lurid locales with fluorescent cereal on the floor. More than all the "body parts in shopping carts," it's the decor that puts the "fake gangsta hardcore stories" Dooom despises to shame. A MINUS

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: Pizza Deliverance (Soul Dump/Ghostmeat) Rockers playing sorta-country with rough enthusiasm and nothing like a sound, they make their mark detailing the semivoluntary poverty DIY musicians share with the highly subsuburban constitutency they imagine. These are people who'd love to have more money, shit yes, but don't know the first thing about kissing ass, people who think six-packs are necessities of life and Dixie Chicks CDs aren't. So they fuck up as a life principle and then write or listen to songs about it--songs about getting loaded and screwing your sister-in-law, about shooting that lady at the laundromat who stole your sock. About fucking up just like your daddy. About G.G. Allin changing your life, never mind exactly how. A MINUS

MILLENNIUM HIP HOP PARTY (Rhino) Following rap crossover from Flash to Dre, this deflates big time. Hard to believe some find "Baby Got Back" and "Now That We've Found Love" as much fun as, not "It Takes Two" (what is?), but "Bust a Move" or "U Can't Touch This." Circa 1991, as aspiration gives way to calculation and entertainment becomes subculturally suspect, shame enters game--though if the compilers had stuck in "Jump" and "Shoop," who'd notice? A MINUS

MODEST MOUSE: Building Nothing Out of Something (Up) Having once left Tramps deeming them utter wankers after five songs--maybe four, wandered so much I couldn't tell--I harbored few hopes for this catchall of singles, one-offs, and out-of-print EP. But if Pavement has truly checked out, these Washington-state youngsters can carry the noize-toon torch. Although "Sleepwalkin'" is kinda sexy, we understand why Up never released that "Never Ending Math Equation" video. As noize-toon, however, they're irreproachable--dissonant, vulnerable, geeky, and, crucially, sweet where so many other dissonantly vulnerable geeks arm themselves with sarcasm. Maybe that's how they got signed to Epic just when all their club buddies were refurbishing their computer skills. A MINUS

Q-TIP: Amplified (Arista) Q-Tip's agenda is the hundred or so electrobeats that pulse identically for the first 20 seconds of the lead "Wait Up," before he opens his mouth to announce a "brand new page." Thus does the man who made Ron Carter the embodiment of hip hop humanism assert his solo personality, and let the Quest fans who'll never forgive him catch arthritis and die. He gets stronger music out of hard beats than he ever did out of soft jazz, and those surprised by how much he likes sex are in denial. He's his own man, and vivrant for it. A

ALI FARKA TOURE: Niafunké (Hannibal) In Mali a little goes a long way, so after his harrowing experience with Ry Cooder's sense of rhythm the artfully primeval guitarist-vocalist took his modest winnings back to the well-named title village, where he devoted himself to making green things grow. Finally, after five years, he surrounds himself entirely with homeboys and reemerges with a record "full of important messages for Africans." Over here he doesn't "expect people to understand," and of course we don't. But when it comes to evoking a sun-baked place where a little goes a long way, you couldn't beat these hymns, homilies, wedding songs, dance tunes, and we-are-what-we-are apostrophes with a trap set. A MINUS

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: Anthology (Jive) "They provided the soundtrack for your life," annotator Selwyn Seyfu Hinds reminds the collegiate hip hoppers for whom Quest was the great crew of the '90s, politely failing to mention that for just that reason they don't need this record except to reconceive a catalogue they know by heart. But then there's the rest of us, for whom they've always been background music two ways--as the atmospheric stuff so many hip hoppers make of jazz and as the soundtrack to someone else's life. For us, these nonstop highlights are a godsend. Quest's swinging conversation unifies a sequence subtler and more musical than strict chronology would allow--the way two horny debut cuts poke in toward the end, say. Having added jazz bass to funky drum programmers to quiet flow to hooks-to-go to matter-of-fact realism-not-"reality," they convince our viscera what our brains allowed--that Quest was a great band. So if they want Roy Ayers, they can have him too. A

Dud of the Month

THE FLAMING LIPS: The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.) Tiptoeing along the precipice that divides the charmingly serious from the hopelessly ridiculous, this year's Prestigious Pink Floyd Tribute by a Long-Running Band of Some Repute and Less Distinction enjoys two advantages over O.K. Computer and Deserter's Songs. Not only does it map out a sonic identity, the chief selling point of all these records, but it's not above pretty. And lead genius Wayne Coyne mixes up the quotidian and the cosmic in the best American psychedelic tradition, with a social dimension more grounded than the usual dystopian mishmash--heroic scientists, gosh. All that granted, however, listeners with no generational stake in how old alt bands impact history are obliged not only to contend with Coyne's wispy voice and chronic confusion, but to stifle their giggles when Steven Drozd bangs his drums all over a song mixing up summer love and mosquito bites. That is, these guys are Not Joking. Ever. Which makes them hopelessly ridiculous. B

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Stereolab, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (Elektra): yeah! appropriate that vibraphone! and definitely that Glasstinato! ("Blue Milk," "Blips Drips and Strips")
  • The Clash, From Here to Eternity Live (Epic): "I'd like to hear `Wooly Bully,' by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs--yes, not Sham 69, but Sam the Sham" ("Capital Radio," "Know Your Rights")
  • Method Man/Redman, Blackout! (Def Jam): "Turn the rap game into WCW" ("Blackout," "Run 4 Cover")
  • Ramata Diakité, Na (Cobalt import): hews so close to girl-of-Wassoulou verities she's lucky her musicians don't ("Na," "Aye Yafama")
  • Macy Gray, On How Life Is (Epic): if only Esther Phillips had written her own songs, she would have sung worse ones ("I've Committed Murder," "Caligula")
  • Ol' Dirty Bastard, N***a Please (Elektra): that n***a'z crazy ("I Can't Wait," "Recognize") [Later: **]
  • Kool Keith, Black Elvis/Lost in Space (Ruffhouse/Columbia): you know, space--where he rules the world ("Fine Girls," "Intro")
  • Inspectah Deck, Uncontrolled Substance (Loud): foot soldiers' tales ("Movas & Shakers," "Elevation")
  • Alanis Morissette, MTV Unplugged (Maverick): why do you think they love her? because she's lovable, stupid ("Princes Familiar," "You Learn")
  • Tin Huey, Disinformation (Future Fossil): lost postpunk album, more pop and less art than anyone knew at the time ("Seeing," "Cheap Machines")
  • The Band, The Best of Volume II (Paradox): pretty fair country bar group/cover band ("Blind Willie McTell," "Atlantic City")
  • The Funky Precedent (Loosegroove/No Mayo): underground hip hop at its warmest, most multiculti, and least hip hop (the Breakestra, "Getcho Soul Together"; Dilated Peoples, "Triple Optics [Live Funky Precedent Mix]")
  • Paul Westerberg, Suicaine Gratification (Capitol): what gives this fool the right to ruminate all over your earhole? his trick cocktail piano ("Whatever Makes You Happy," "Final Hurrah")
Choice Cuts:
  • Robbie Fulks, "Roots Rock Weirdoes" (The Very Best of Robbie Fulks, Bloodshot)
  • Neil Young, "War of Man (Live)"; Pearl Jam, "Soldier of Love," "Last Kiss"; Black Sabbath, "Psycho Man (Danny Saber Remix)"; Rage Against the Machine, "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar Refugees, Epic)
  • Chico DeBarge, "The Game" (The Game, Motown)
  • Blondie, "Rapture" (Blondie Live, Beyond)
  • Raekwon, "Skit No. 1," "All I Got Is You Pt. II" (Immobilarity, Loud)
  • Carl Hancock Rux, "Blue Candy" (Rux Revue, 550 Music)
  • Hyper Crad, "3 (Back Door Mix)"; Inevidence, "Cum Dancing" (Suck It and See, Palm Pictures)
  • Air, Premiers Symptomes (Astralwerks)
  • Juan Atkins, Wax Trax! MasterMix Volume 1 (Wax Trax/TVT)
  • Garth Brooks, Chris Gaines Greatest Hits (Capitol)
  • Fun Lovin' Criminals, 100% Colombian (Virgin)
  • Gay Dad, Leisure Noise (London)
  • Jungle Brothers, V.I.P. (Gee Street)
  • The Ladybug Transistor, The Albemarle Sound (Merge)
  • The Living End (Reprise)
  • Long Beach Dub All-Stars, Right Back (DreamWorks)
  • The Notorious B.I.G., Born Again (Bad Boy)
  • Sublime, Live: Stand by Your Van (Gasoline Alley/MCA)
  • Zap Mama, A Ma Zone (Luaka Bop)

Village Voice, Feb. 1, 2000

Dec. 28, 1999 Mar. 7, 2000