Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

With two of the best records below by over-60s and Dean Wareham and Art Alexakis no kids at 32, my hopes for the future were nourished by teenthrobs Rancid. Then I learned that Tim Armstrong is 29. I wonder who's gaining on him.

ORNETTE COLEMAN: Tone Dialing (Harmolodic/Verve) After a spate of productivity in the late '80s, this genius hasn't released an album in seven years. But the layoff hasn't affected his m.o.--through 16 cuts that go on about as long as the double-LP In All Languages, he's neither stale nor overflowing. As is his practice, he leads with dynamite: an opening charge, a poetry-with-jazz rap that fits together so well the words don't matter, a restful West Indian ditty, some rearranged Bach, and a gloriously oversampled collage that orchestrates "unmusical" sound into improvisatory ground. After which he spends 40 minutes demonstrating his undiminished ability to create beauty out of what would have been called chaos before he changed the world's ears. I don't claim to love it all. But I take exception only to the tabla thing. A MINUS

EVERCLEAR: Sparkle and Fade (Capitol) In his thirties, with a shitload of drugs behind him and a young daughter waiting at home, Art Alexakis has a firm enough grip on his life to articulate the anguish other guitar-wielders yowl about. Where on the aptly entitled World of Noise the sharpest lyrics never quite mesh, here almost every song comes with a story, a tune, and a musical pain threshold. Its cast of struggling souls is evoked by somebody past pitying himself--somebody who's been around the block so often he's finally learned that compassion is for other people. A MINUS

GREEN DAY: Insomniac (Reprise) Billie Joe has an instinctive hold on the rock and roll virtue of sounding like you mean--his songs conceptualize his natural whine with a musicality that undercuts his defeatism only don't be so sure. "I'm a smart-ass but I'm playing dumb": eight million sold and all he admits to knowing is the futility of Telegraph Avenue losers who dis the rich occasionally and each other all the time. How he'll feel when this one doesn't sell two million we should all want to know. A MINUS

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: Liph' Iquinso (Shanachie) Any American who already owns Classic Tracks, or Induku Zethu, plus maybe Two Worlds One Heart, obviously doesn't need album 36 from the definitive Zulu chorale. But not only have they avoided the rut, they've reinvented themselves--with one brother murdered, another departed, and a cousin also gone, Joseph Shabalala enlisted three of his sons and pushed on. And if anything, he's gotten better at arranging and producing the comic byplay and sonic details that are the unsung delight of the vocal beauty he perfected. A MINUS [Later]

LUNA: Penthouse (Elektra) "If the war is over/And the monsters have won/If the war is over/I'm gonna have me some fun," confides born noncombatant Dean Wareham, whose only recorded partisan act is rooting for Nixon to expire. This auteur creates his music from the vantage of a slacker of independent means. Once darkness falls, all Manhattan (or Tacoma, Brussels, wherever he gets to tour) is his playground. But he spends most of his life in what sure the fuck sounds like a high-rise, where he drinks in the afternoon, wheedles his good-for-nothing girlfriends, studies his record collection, and cooks up guitar parts. Being as he's discovered the Go-Betweens, that seems like redeeming social value enough for me. A MINUS [Later: A]

YOKO ONO/IMA: Rising (Capitol) Finally history leaves Yoko free to find the music her life has taught her to make. Neither primitivist/minimalist retro nor a final awkward attempt to improve on Season of Glass, this brims with the calm confidence of an semidetached bystander now hailed as a direct influence by all manner of rock bohemians, including some too snobbish to understand that, actually, her late husband was the stone genius in the partnership. Its precondition is the avant-garde's new pop panache. In the world before Nirvana, I doubt any major would have bankrolled the 14-minute title track's virtuoso vocalese, or the shrieks that fill a six-minute number of identical title and lyric: "I'm Dying." What '80s bizzer would have been down with her arch, lovely animal imitations, or the starkly literal "Turned the Corner," or the plainly simple "New York Woman," or the platitudinous "Revelations"? But these days Courtney could cover "Talking to the Universe" and no one would blink. A MINUS

GODWIN KABAKA OPARA'S ORIENTAL BROTHERS INTERNATIONAL: Do Better If You Can/Onye Ikekwere Mekeya (Original Music) Vocal strongman Warrior Opara and guitar heavy Dan Satch Opara carried the burden of Heavy on the Highlife!, John Storm Roberts's 1991 introduction to the Oriental Brothers, who are more a brand name than a verifiable cohort of musicians. Although third brother Kabaka was the first to break away from the original group, his gift would appear to be mediation--between the band's Ibo loyalties and its continental ambitions, its quiet youth and its jamming maturity. These five lively six-to-17-minute tracks are so sweetly indefatigable that their duration defines them--not polite enough for highlife, they seem almost like juju with a steadier pulse, or soukous with a less flamboyant bottom. Kabaka's guitar invokes both alien styles. A MINUS

[FILE UNDER PRINCE]: The Gold Experience (Warner Bros./NPG) After two or three plays, convinced that "P Control" and "Endorphinmachine" slam harder than any hip hop I've heard in years, I shrugged and recalled that, after all, I already knew he was the most gifted recording artist of the era. But this album documents more than professional genius rampant--all of them do that. This album is a renewal. It's as sex-obsessed as ever, only with more juice--"Shhh" and "319" especially pack the kind of porno jolt sexy music rarely gets near and hard music never does. And you'd best believe "Shhh" and 319" are hard--not for years has the auteur (as opposed to some hired gat) sounded so black, and not for years has the guitarist sounded so rock. As for the ballads, they suffer only by their failure to dominate. One of them has already stormed the radio--and another, good for him, takes too many risks to follow. A

BONNIE RAITT: Road Tested (Capitol) Her supposed comeback in fact a breakthrough, she never approached gold back in the day, and hence was never big enough for a live album until now. This is lucky timing, because Grammy-era bland-out rarely dulls her concerts, where her roots-respectin' rockers come out raunchy, her tender ballads casually intimate. So even if you love Nick of Time (or Luck of the Draw, like me), this two-CD mix of old songs and new illustrates why Raitt became an icon while Ronstadt turned into a gargoyle. She creates a world in which Bruce Hornsby and Bryan Adams project as much soul as Ruth Brown and Charles Brown. She's so free of ironic impurities she sings "Burning Down the House" as if it means one thing. And her parting words aren't "Take care of yourselves"--they're "Take care of each other." A MINUS [Later]

RANCID: . . . And Out Come the Wolves (Epitaph) Third time out they're as far ahead of the Offspring as they are behind the Clash. Musically, their oi-ska 'core has got it going on--the 19 anthems start catchy, rev up the guitar in the middle, tail off to catch their breath, and climax with two war chants and a piece of personal invective that I hope isn't about Green Day because that would be petty. But their words only go halfway, which matters when you honor the literal and print your lyrics--their stories vague out, their slogans implode, and their politics have no future. Even in punk terms, they're not great singers either. Not only won't they change the world, they won't change rock and roll. Which is no reason not to wish them well. A MINUS

MEM SHANNON: A Cab Driver's Blues (Rykodisc) This semipro is an accomplished musician and a better writer. Otherwise, couldn't no concept lift him out of the generic welter of New Orleans bluesmen plying their trade in an entertainment center with scanter historical claim on blues--as opposed to jazz, funk, rock and roll, and countless pianistic celebrations of the second line--than Memphis or Houston, Clarksdale or Chicago. But what distinguishes Shannon's songs about his love life and his work life, Oprah Winfrey and his right to sing the blues, is their context--taped conversations from the back of his cab with locals who've seen their pleasures ruined by the pleasure industry and out-of-town assholes who got their idea of revelry from old tit magazines. Makes one wonder how much joy can be left in a city fogged in by the rosy mirage of a tourist economy. And gives Mem Shannon the right to sing the blues. B PLUS

SUPER SWEET TALKS INTERNATIONAL: The Lord's Prayer (Stern's Africa) A.B. Crentsil wanted to be liked, and he was ready to sweet-talk anyone who got in his way. The least of these six circa-1979 highlife tunes is subtly ingratiating, and the charm of the three English-language numbers subsumes the Christian politesse they promote. Then again, "Adjoa"'s quiet 10 minutes of dazzling polyrhythm probably wouldn't be as nice if you could understand the words, in which Ghanaian women are advised to service whatever soldiers are walking around Accra like they own it. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

YOKO ONO: New York Rock (Capitol) It's reassuring that she came back to cut the album of her life, because this doomed musical's utter absence of pop instinct had me assuming the worst--that she was past learning what it means to communicate with an audience, that she'd twisted her angel's arm, that she didn't respect her own songs. Not only did she lack the modesty to stick with the best, she betrayed the good ones. The arrangements are dreck, and the performances--oy. Eminences from Rosanne Cash to the B-52's have covered her with the love she deserves, but the canniest Broadway belter would wreck material so sensibility-specific, and these unknowns are the kind they call hopefuls because deludeds wouldn't have the right ring. D PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Pere Ubu, Ray Gun Suitcase (Tim Kerr): still rockin' (again) after all these years ("Down by the River II," "My Friend Is a Stooge for the Media Priests")
  • P.M. Dawn, Jesus Wept (Gee Street): more sampling, less singing--please ("Fantasia's Confidential Ghetto: 1999/Once in a Lifetime/Coconut," "The 9:45 Wake-Up Dream")
  • Gift, Multum In Parvo (Tim Kerr): Sonic Youth as Poison from a Portland married-couple-plus-dynamite-drummer who heard another album in those tricks ("Sinking Ship," "OK This Is the Pops")
  • Foo Fighters (Roswell/Capitol): the spirit is strong but the identity is weak ("This Is a Call," "Big Me")
  • Junior Reid & the Bloods (RAS): that old-time riddim meets dem newfangled beats ("World Gone Reggae," "Not a One Man Thing")
  • Bugs & Friends Sing the Beatles (Kid Rhino): beats the Rutles--or as Elmer would put it, Wutles ("Hello Goodbye," "The Fool on the Hill")
  • Steely Dan, Live in America (Giant): a piece of Mr. Fagen's band ("Bodhisattva," "Peg")
  • Van Morrison, Days Like This (Polydor): "I'm a songwriter, and my check's in the mail" ("Songwriter," "You Don't Know Me")
  • CeDell Davis, The Best of CeDell Davis (Fat Possum/Capricorn) slide is beautiful ("Rock," "CeDell's Boogie")
  • Laika, Silver Apples of the Moon (Too Pure/American): proving the Moog has come a ways since Kapp 3562 went to 193 in the summer of '68 ("44 Robbers," "Honey in Heat")
  • S.F. Seals, Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows (Matador): postpunk cute, folk-rock homely, dream-pop barely there ("S.F. Sorrow," "Ipecac")
  • Paul "Wine" Jones, Mule (Fat Possum/Capricorn): country blues in a wired world ("Diggin Mommas Tatters," "Nobody but You")
  • Michael Rose (Heartbeat): badder than you know, but not than you wish ("Badder Than You," "Casabank Queen")
  • Robert Forster, I Had a New York Girlfriend (Beggars Banquet): a cover album that runs out of material ("Echo Beach," "Locked Away")
  • Dédé Saint-Prix, Best of (Déclic/Blue Silver import): flute zouk ("Roulé," "Soldat papillon")
Choice Cuts:
  • II Unorthodox, "Just a Little Flava"; Maniac Mob, "Get Up"; Ill Will, "Blowin' Up the Spot" (The D&D Project, Arista)
  • Lord Kitchener, "Fever" (Klassic Kitchener Volume Three, Ice)
  • Lord Kitchener, "Nora," "When You're Brown" (Klassic Kitchener Volume One, Ice)
  • Team Dresch, "Fagetarian and Dyke" (Personal Best, Chainsaw/Lesbionic Candy-Ass)
  • Yo La Tengo, "Can't Seem To Make You Mine" (Camp Yo La Tengo, Matador)
  • Burning Spear, Rasta Business (Heartbeat)
  • Cybotron, Cyber Ghetto (Fantasy)
  • Eagles, Hell Freezes Over (Giant)
  • Pablo Moses, Mission (RAS)
  • Walt Disney Records Presents the Music of Disney's Cinderella (Walt Disney)

Village Voice, Nov. 14, 1995

Oct. 24, 1995 Nov. 28, 1995