Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Ever since techno kids started resting their dogs two or three generations ago, I've been hearing loose talk about trance music. So when Ellipsis Arts . . . sent out its admittedly rather specialized Trance I and Trance II last spring, I started sniffing around. Ended up in the Middle East a lot, and I'm not done yet.

LAURIE ANDERSON: The Ugly One With the Jewels and Other Stories (Warner Bros.) The difference isn't between "spoken word" and "music." The difference is that this is stories and the dull Bright Red is songs--and that right now she can better justify her obsession with the limits of American sense by telling about her travels than by devising metaphors for her displacement. Anyway, Bright Red's music retreats so far downtown from Strange Angels that it's reprised (minimally, of course) in the portentous swells and eerie punctuation employed so effectively on this album--which showcases her most striking musical talent, for recitative, even if the clipped phrases and drawn-out final consonants do get predictable. Not something you'll play a lot. But broadening. B PLUS

BARRY BLACK (Alias) Headman of nifty young almost-punk group studies sax in college, organizes sax-led instrumental side project that evokes marching bands, Dixie Dregs/Love Tractor/Pell Mell, klezmer, Henry Mancini for pinheads, a quieter jauntier Beefheart. "Interesting" but boring, you might expect, and it could just be some weird somatic bond with fellow German American Eric Bachmann. Nevertheless, I usually think side projects are pathetic, and I say this one is funny, lyrical, a gas. It shoots a Zen arrow in the air. A MINUS

BRUTE.: Nine High a Pallet (Capricorn) The songs on Vic Chesnutt's albums are so good he sometimes puts them across, which is more than anybody can do for the songs on Widespread Panic's albums. But that doesn't stop the latter from touring or the former from wishing he could eat his reviews, and so this cross-inspirational fluke will probably never be anything more than the ace Athens oddball-mainstream one-off it is. Chesnutt provides the cocked eyebrow and fancy dreamwork, the band turns his strums into tunes, and who the hell is going to notice? Sure "Good Morning Mister Hard On" is really about his matins, but that won't boost it into heavy rotation. These days, the path of commercial expedience would be to make it about his banana. A MINUS

BILL FRISELL: This Land (Elektra Nonesuch) For the groove-minded, Frisell is a frustrating case. Unlike so many jazz guitarists, he can get loud and rock out, but for him those are but two compositional options in the grand plethora. So while most of his albums are graced by great moments or nice mood, in the end I'm too rhythm-bound to want any part of the new live one or the two new soundtracks or the one where he covers Madonna or (especially) the one where he falls for a synthesizer. This beautifully constructed sextet record I come back to. It rocks out primarily by association; in fact, many of the avant-garde rags and elegiac ballads feel early 20th-century as they bounce off each other like motives in a symphony. But as is often claimed and seldom achieved, the sheer sound of a few bars of guitar can evoke the whole electric blues gestalt, just as the alto-trombone-clarinet combo can evoke all horns. On his Madonna record Frisell also covered Aaron Copland, who I keep meaning to get to. In the meantime I have this. A MINUS

ORüJ GüVENÇ & TüMATA: Ocean of Remembrance (Interworld) Guvenc is a clinical psychologist, practicing musicologist, and Sufi sheik who heads his own department of music therapy at a med school in Istanbul. He's also a warm, intent, unvirtuosic, spiritually contained singer who plays ney (a flute), oud (a lute), and rebab (a three-stringed fiddle). He and his three associates recorded these six pieces during a blizzard in western Massachusetts while fasting for Ramadan. All six are zhikrs, recitations of God's names. Their distinct rhythms are mesmeric rather than exciting, and while they're not the healing music that is Guvenc's lifework, I can testify that they helped get me through a 101-degree fever--and that I love them when I'm straight as well. Sample-ready: the chanted breaths that take over "Allah, Allah, Allah" about 10 minutes in. A MINUS [Later: A]

ALISON KRAUSS: Now That I've Found You: A Collection (Rounder) Even with the greatest voices, tastes are personal--where you might prefer Aretha's Diane Warren song, I'd probably go for Al Green's. Krauss isn't quite in that class, but after this compilation-plus overcame my personal penchants, I began to think she was only a notch below. However much fans appreciated the child prodigy for her fiddle, they love the woman for her kind, precise, intent soprano. And not only is this a singer's showcase, it's a pop singer's showcase. Sure she's still country--bluegrass, even. She's nothing if not principled. But she also ropes in not just the Beatles but the Foundations and, believe it or not, Bad Company. And by reclaiming guest tracks from specialist albums by Jerry Douglas, Tony Furtado, and the Cox Family, she oversteps the sonic boundaries of her admirable but specialized band. Best in show (after the Beatles, the Foundations, and Bad Company): a sexy little sacred number. A MINUS

NEW YORK'S ENSEMBLE FOR EARLY MUSIC: Istanpitta Vol. 1 (Lyrichord) Except perhaps in matters of tempo, where the most leisurely citizens of the machine age feel speed's tug in their bones, there's no way this music could sound as raw as it did back in the day. There's a class bias inherent in the survival as written texts of three saltarellos, which probably involved leaping, and 11 other even more obscure dances--whether or not they started with peasants (or Arabs), presumptive gentlefolk put their estampie on them. What's more, moderns who can play archaic bowed, plucked, strummed, blown, and beaten instruments inevitably come out of the classical world, where they are trained in the sweet, precise intonation that was standardized by the 19th-century orchestra, and director-arranger Frederick Renz is not known for rocking the boat. But frame drummer Glen Velez, who guests on three tracks, can make some noise, and courtly or not, you have to grant these tunes a decisive victory over ye olde test of time. So take this careful, lovely, not altogether unlively collection as a romance about aristocrats who ate with their hands. Anyone with a thing for Shakespearian interludes will love the shit out of it. A MINUS

LIZ PHAIR: Juvenilia (Matador) One Whip-Smart remix, one new wave cover, and one undeveloped new song no more fascinating than the five old Girly Sound demos that are why any noncollector should hear this CD. The hands-down keepers are the dirty joke once removed "California" and the cowboy-Iggy "South Dakota," but all are a respite from her persona, her career, her sacred mission--none of which she chose, exactly, but none of which she's shown any knack for averting. Here she's the least she deserves to be--a fecund oddball so full of ideas that creaky execution is part of the excitement. In other words, an important minor artist. A MINUS

SONIC YOUTH: Washing Machine (DGC) With nothing to prove except that they can do it forever without going gold, they do it again. Recalling their roots, they stretch the title cut past its songful limits and build the finale into a 20-minute improvisation not altogether unreminiscent of the Grateful Dead. But at the same time they stick to the theoretically radio-ready songwriting that is now an aesthetic commitment, even trying their hand at a folk tune and a Shangri-Las tribute. As it happens, the latter owes the Fleetwoods. But needless to say, both ultimately sound like Sonic Youth, an institution whose guitars are often emulated and never replicated. As does everything else on a record that will startle no one and sound fresh in 2002. A MINUS

THOMAS JEFFERSON SLAVE APARTMENTS: Bait and Switch (Onion/American) Formerly leader of the slovenly folk-rockers Great Plains, among whose achievements was the best song ever written about Rutherford B. Hayes, Columbus lifer Ron House demonstrates on this $800 debut album that punk and youth need have nothing to do with each other anymore. First five tracks rush by in a perfect furious tunefest, climaxing with a bar song called "Loser's Heaven" that's ripe for total rearrangement by anybody in Nashville with some guts left. After that recognition is less instantaneous except on "RnR Hall of Fame," which comes with liner notes to match: "TJSA proudly accept the honor of being indicted by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame . . . " If indie scenes are so full of wordwise ne'er-do-wells like this, how come they never put it on tape? A MINUS

WHALE: We Care (Virgin/Hut Recordings) In which three media pros--a female VJ, a hot producer, and the hip host of a tongue-in-cheek talk show--buy into the new international pop hegemony, in which neatness not only doesn't count but marks you a hopeless square. Could come out a prefab pseudomess, except that they're Swedish, far enough away from it all that they still mean their we-don't-care. They have fun as they "just have fun." Their jolly insults are indistinguishable from their jolly fucks, their candy tunes from their skronk guitar. They're so good you have to think twice to remember which two tracks Tricky helped out on. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

THE DOVE SHACK: This Is the Shack (Def Jam/RAL) Lazing around in Warren G's groove without making a pass at his tragic sense of life, these arrogant hangers-on would be yawns if they weren't the ugliest sexists to make a three week splash all year. Although the hatred is everywhere, it's most painful on an early "skit"-song-"skit" triptych: "The Train" (a backslapper about gang rape in the dark),"Fuck Ya Mouth" ("To all our hookers and hoes"), and "Slap a Hoe" (a device invented for punks too yellow to do the job themselves). Heaven forfend the rappers actually doing any of these things, except maybe buy a Slap-a-Hoe--this isn't advocacy, it's constitutionally protected representation, harrumph. What I don't understand is why anyone who doesn't hate women is outraged when C. Delores Tucker goes overboard in response. If they understand when black men express themselves in these, harrumph, metaphors, why don't they understand when black women counterattack by any means necessary? C PLUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Ali Hassan Kuban, Nubian Magic (Mercator): Sudanese wedding music for the Aswan diaspora--fast by rustic standards, James Brown-influenced but who isn't ("Mabrouk Wo Arisna," "Maria-Maria," "Al Samra Helwa")
  • Big Phat Ones of Hip-Hop Volume 1 (BOXtunes): "Press play on remote at the Playaz Club"--a mythic realm of unknowable pleasure (Rappin' 4-Tay, "Playaz Club"; Scarface, "I Seen a Man Die")
  • Garbage (Almo Sounds): if Whale is Tricky without a dark side, Garbage is Whale without Tricky and depressed about it ("Queer," "Supervixen")
  • Sif Safaa: New Music From the Middle East (Hemisphere): their hit parade, intense whether hybrid or in the tradition (Mohamed Fouad, "Hawad"; Saleh Khairy, "Agulak")
  • Trance 2 (Ellipsis Arts . . . ) Moroccan Gnawas, Turkestanian Sufis, and Balinese Hindus, none carrying Discmen or coming down from humanmade drugs (Halimi Chedli Ensemble, "Touhami Dikr")
  • Pond, The Practice of Joy Before Death (Sub Pop): not drowning in guitars, waving ("Sideroad," "Van")
  • Primus, Tales From the Punchbowl (Interscope): modern teen horrors simplified--and funkified ("Wynonna's Big Brown Beaver," "On the Tweek Again")
  • The Dambuilders, Ruby Red (EastWest): they don't like what they see and they know how to sound that way ("Teenage Loser Anthem," "Drive-By Kiss")
  • Kalesijski Svuci, Bosnian Breakdown: The Unpronounceable Beat of Sarajevo (GlobeStyle import): Muslim polkas from the good old days, when the disaster was economic ("Oho Ho Sto Je Lijepo," "Ramino Kolo")
  • Wally Ngonda, Modo (Stern's Africa): soukous after the storm ("Roger Lino," "Mody")
  • Stacy Dean Campbell, Hurt City (Columbia): more is less ("Pop a Top," "Mind Over Matter")
Choice Cuts:
  • Chris Gaffney, "My Baby's Got a Dead Man's Number," "Loser's Paradise" (Loser's Paradise, HighTone)
  • Sagreddin Ozcimi/Neceti Celik/Arif Erdebil/Kemal Karaoz, "Perde Kaldirima" (Trance 1, Ellipsis Arts . . . )
  • Trisha Yearwood, "XXXs and OOOs (An American Girl)" (Thinkin' About You, MCA)
  • George Jones & Tammy Wynette, "If God Met You" (One, MCA)
  • Dead Hot Workshop, 1001 (Tag)
  • Omar, For Pleasure (RCA)
  • Jimmy Somerville, Dare to Love (London)
  • Supergrass, I Should Coco (Capitol)
  • Twinz, Conversation (Def Jam/RAL)

Village Voice, Oct. 24, 1995

Aug. 29, 1995 Nov. 14, 1995