Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

About half the finds below were released since the last Consumer Guide went to press in early September. If the next month should produce such a bounty again I may have to revise my appraisal of the year upward. But I can guarantee a full Turkey Shoot right now.

ARCHERS OF LOAF: All the Nations Airports (Alias) What verbal content you can parse might be sardonic if it carried any emotional weight at all--conned customers, security from LAX to JFK, assassination on Christmas eve. Yet it's too croaked and wild to seem detached or even deadpan; basically what it gives off is intelligence, as a given you live with rather than a goal you achieve. The import's in croaked, wild, intelligent music that's also virtuosic, especially up against the myriad alt bands who fancy themselves players these days. The controlled discord of the four instrumentals recalls the compositional smarts of Eric Bachmann's sax-based Barry Black, but the nasty little guitar lines have Eric Johnson all over them, and bass and drums put in their two bits as well. I wish their WEA debut were more songful. But they're so set on making the most of the cognitive dissonance that is their lot that in the end I enjoy it too. A MINUS [Later]

CACHAO: Dos (Salsoul) Having fallen for Sony's fib that Master Sessions was Israel Lopez's U.S. debut and then been set straight by a savvier fan's lengthy computerized list of the now 78-year-old bassist's specialty-label output, which apparently meant nada to corporate shills, I went down to Bate Records on Delancey Street and selected two classic-looking items. The way I feel it, the perfectly listenable 1959 and 1974 sessions recycled on Kubaney's La Leyenda Vol. 1 overdo the ballroom politesse. And though it's true and crucial that politesse has never been disrespected by this vigorous old man, not even when he was revolutionizing danzon at 21, I prefer this five-track, 30-minute sample of a mid-'70s attempt to cement his legacy in history. The ballroom's here for sure. But so are the Havana street, the African village, the dockside joint in Anyport, Terra. And the ensemble emphasis assures smooth progression from guiro to danzon to descarga to congafest as famous sidemen come and go. A MINUS [Later]

CACHAO: Master Sessions Volume II (Crescent Moon/Epic) As an instant fan of the first 12 tracks Emilio Estefan and Andy Garcia chose from the 30 they cut one week with the then 75-year-old Lopez and a cast of mostly Cuban all-stars, I found this hyperactive and choppy at first, and I still don't think it listens easy enough. Cut by cut, however, it only rarely slips to acceptable. And when I could discern no serious letdown between the showpiece that sets veteran sonero Rolando Laserie to "stalking the melody" of "El Guapachoso" and a coro-hooked jam that Cachao uncorked on the spot, I stopped quibbling. A MINUS [Later]

THE CARDIGANS: First Band on the Moon (Mercury) Popper-than-thou aggregation backs cute blonde for fun and profit. Think Blondie. They're Swedish. Think Abba. They're Euroalt-by-default. Think, er, Bettie Serveert. Only nowadays, anythinger-than-thou commits you to that extra mile, so that these reformed metalheads make their Beatle move a la Black Velvet Flag. And since metalheads can really, how you say it, play their axes, they also score some funny Black Sabbath covers. As for the blonde, alt types were calling her dark even back when she was imitating a love doll. Me, I prefer her now that she's imitating a cynical young woman--especially since the metalheads provide dissonances suitable to her self-critical rhetoric, which greatly smartens their flute and tinkle. B PLUS

JAD FAIR AND THE SHAPIR O'RAMA: We Are the Rage (Avant import) Although these 23 soliloquies in 46 minutes are a little long on noize-will-be-noize guitar, umpteenth collaborator Kim Rancourt (of When People Were Shorter and Lived in the Water, since you asked) does the 42-year-old boy wonder a favor by sticking up for himself. In fact, while nothing tops the climactic love poem only Jad could have written ("Her eyes are the color of a Slurpee"? "She smells as good as pizza"?), it was Rancourt who gave him the definitive "I Comb My Hair With My Hand." And who sings several of the best soliloquies here all by himself. B PLUS

FLUFFY: Black Eye (The Enclave) Am I forgetting somebody, or is this the most unrelenting (and, not to hedge any bets, best) punk debut since the glory days of Ramones-Pistols-Clash? OK, Wire, but really. When the big loud production by Clash/Pistols veteran Bill Price, tweaks classic riffs for hard rock oomph, the riffs carry the power surges, and except for the fame one, the songs live up to the underlining. Amanda Rootes's sex life is at best a draw, but she knows its garish details thoroughly enough to convince anyone willing to stand up there while she spits them out that sooner or later she'll walk away with a victory. Her rage doesn't mean she's strong--it means she's hellbent on getting there. A

HIS NAME IS ALIVE: Stars on E.S.P. (4AD) Warren DeFever is the cook, but don't expect extra helpings from his side projects. HNIA's artistic flavor, half homespun mysticism and half hermetic cutes, is all in Karin Oliver's cunning, simplistic verbal/vocal content. And the whole exercise in fey sexuality and childlike quietude would fall slightly flat without its greatest hit--three takes on a Woody Guthrie tune about how he was even more alienated than they are. A MINUS

JACK FROST: Snow Job (Beggars Banquet) It's 1993. Grant McLennan of the much-mourned Go-Betweens meets Steve Kilbey of the barely-missed Church for a second one-off, written and recorded on the spot and then stuck in a box until they find time to finalize it, which takes years. The songs evoke romantic moods and vague experiences rather than nailing the literal-cum-ineffable; the music strives for effect rather than detail or even ambience. By McLennan's standards, it's hokey, mysterioso, fulla keybs. Yet its schlock disposability and glam brio generate the crass charm McLennan's class act too often avoids. Too bad only cultists will care--and worse still that they'll probably reject it on principle. B PLUS

ARTO LINDSAY: O Corpo Subtil/The Subtle Body (Bar/None) For over a decade, while Lindsay promoted samba's whispery vocals and fancy-pants chords as makeout music for sensual intellectuals, many who by some mischance lacked Portugese continued to find those very selling points precious, schlocky, or both. So now Arto flexes his connections and writes his own jazzboistic verse, and well, there's nothing like a lyric you can understand. After leading with something about the colors of the sky that's way too sensitive for this reporter, the man sounds like the bedroom astronaut he says he is even when he's celebrating a superbright two-year-old on the most seductive song here--even when he reverts to Portugese. Reason to regret one's unimaginative personal relationship with Caetano Veloso. A MINUS

WILLIE NELSON: Spirit (Island) So bare-boned in language, instrumentation, and melodic contour you barely notice it at first, this turns out to be Nelson's strongest new album in over a decade, his most indelible songwriting in at least two. His latest case of love lost leaves him meeting his maker but not his mortality--if his "life will never be the same again," it's not because he's gonna keel over like some 63-year-old. In fact, the pain has fired him up, so that he not only surrounds the winning "We Don't Run" with new standards, but plays the hell out of that acoustic guitar with the big hole in it. A MINUS

NIRVANA: From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (DGC) One new song and 15 old ones--intense renderings of familiar arrangements recycled for the buying season. Maybe it wouldn't carry the same weight if Kurt Cobain were alive. But it wouldn't carry the same weight if everybody had a good job or plague wiped out half the planet, either. Cobain is dead, alienated labor is everywhere, plague is something we worry about, and this is a great record for a world where those three truths are on the table. Less precise and contained than Nevermind or In Utero, it serves an unduplicated function for a band that changed the pop world with four dozen songs. I play Unplugged to refresh my memory of a sojourner's spirituality. I'll play this one when I want to remember a band's guts, fury, and rock and roll music. A

PET SHOP BOYS: Bilingual (Atlantic) Aware that happy love makes a lousy song subject even when it proves a dandy life choice, Neil Tennant shores up his positivity with a shrug and a question mark. Does the gift seem arbitrary, ineffable? Well, "That's the Way Life Is"--"It Always Comes as a Surprise." Still, what makes the difference is that Tennant hasn't given up disco, or satire either. Thus he leaves us wondering whether the hustling lip-syncher of "Electricity" has the same name as the computer-toting EEC hotshot of "Bilingual"--Neil. A MINUS [Later]

Dud of the Month

TRISHA YEARWOOD: Everybody Knows (MCA) Tricia had a dream, and by 1985 she was in Nashville pursuing it--studying "music business," as her bio says, at Belmont College. An internship and some demo singing later, she had signed with MCA, where she now epitomizes the blandness of today's quality country. Not that she's bad or anything. Her voice is big and precise, and she ends up with a good song or two on every album--including this one, where she doesn't ruin strong titles by Kevin Welch and Steve Goodman and brings off a terrific Matraca Berg line about chocolate and magazines. But if writers love her so much, it must be because she brings nothing to the song but what they put there. The same cannot be said of Willie Nelson, George Jones, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks--even Shania Twain. In pop music, good taste isn't timeless. It's boring. B

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Lyle Lovett, The Road to Ensenada (Curb/MCA): funny guy, but who can trust him? ("Long Tall Texan," "Don't Touch My Hat")
  • Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Braver Newer World (Elektra): trying to prove he's not trad, which we knew already ("Black Snake Moan," "Borderland")
  • Marshall Crenshaw, Miracle of Science (Razor & Tie): picking 'em better than he writes 'em ("Twenty-Five Forty-One," "The `In' Crowd," "Theme From `Flaregun'")
  • Robert Forster, Warm Nights (Beggars Banquet): songs too good for the help, subcontracted to none other than Edwyn Collins ("Cryin' Love," "I Can Do")
  • Candi Staton, The Best of Candi Staton (Warner Archives): dance hits that got lost between soul and disco ("Victim," "Honest I Do Love You," "Young Hearts Run Free")
  • John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey, Dance Hall at Louse Point (Island): art project, theatre tryout, like that--striking proof that her words mesh best with her music ("Dance Hall at Louse Point," "Taut")
  • Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens, Stoki Stoki (Shanachie): after 30 years, not everything (or everywho) they used to be ("Ilamba Lidlile," "Umgqashiyo")
  • Keb' Mo', Just Like You (OKeh/Epic): blues, soul, and the trouble he's seen--just one big happy family ("That's Not Love," "Dangerous Mood")
  • The Montuno Sessions--Live From Studio A (Mr. Bongo import): Charlie Palmieri and friends pursue their clave ("6/8 Modal Latin Jazz")
  • The Customers, Green Bottle Thursday (Vapor): imagine a band whose formative philosophical experience was Ralph Molina's drums ("All Your Money," "Drinking Again")
  • Grateful Dead, Dick's Picks Volume Four (Grateful Dead): three (more) CDs from their Fillmore East heyday ("China Cat Sunflower," "That's It for the Other One")
  • Alvin Youngblood Hart, Big Mama's Door (OKeh/550 Music): like Taj Mahal up and rose from the dead--only Taj is still alive ("When I Was a Cowboy (Western Plain)," "That Kate Adams Jive")
  • Soundgarden, Down on the Upside (A&M): brutal depression simplified ("Ty Cobb," "Applebite")
Choice Cuts:
  • Peter Blegvad, "Daughter" (Just Woke Up, ESD)
  • Taj Mahal, "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" (Phantom Blues, Private Music)
  • The Cardigans, "Hey! Get Out of My Way," "Daddy's Car," "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" (Life, Minty Fresh)
  • Elvin Bishop, "Another Mule Kickin' in Your Stall" (Ace in the Hole, Alligator)
  • Sonny Landreth, "Shootin' for the Moon" (South of I-10, Zoo)
  • Suzy Bogguss, "She Said, He Heard" (Give Me Some Wheels, Capitol)
  • Garmarna, Gods Musicians (Omnium)
  • Angelique Kidjo, Fifo (Mango)
  • Sepultura, Roots (RoadRunner)
  • Shampoo, We Are Shampoo (I.R.S.)

Village Voice, Oct. 8, 1996

Sept. 17, 1996 Dec. 3, 1996