Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Just in time to save my A-list ass, it's the return of Afropop, and not just from the archives. The big finds here are Afro-syncretic, yet also very distinct--Sam Chege's fusion seems innocent, Tshala Muana's cosmopolitan. Merry Whatever.

SAM CHEGE: Kickin' Kikuyu-Style (Original Music) A Kenyan music journalist whose shopkeeper parents struggled to send him to college, Chege recorded these 12 modest songs in Nairobi with session men off the street and backup singers from the university. Although he reports significant sales, his profits haven't cut his straight career off at the pass--he's now studying at Iowa. So this collection is more Afropop in intent than in fact, and while we can't call it Afrosemipop, its self-consciously recombinant formalism--mixing, Chege reports, Swahili taarab, South African kwela, and Congolese soukous over Kenyan benga, tingeing Kikuyu vocal technique with "the poetic intonations of North Africa"--is more Neil Tennant than Sam Mangwana. Credit its irresistible tune appeal to the liquid tonal patterns of the underrecorded Kikuyu language. Fleshed out with a brightness, quickness, and rhythmic complexity absent from the classic folkish Afropop it superficially recalls, this appeal isn't just rare, it's unique. Sweet, cheerful, full of fun--at times almost a dream of happy happy. Yeah sure. Song subjects include suicide, domestic violence, and trading love in on money. A MINUS

CHUCK D: Autobiography of Mistachuck (Mercury) If rap, now hip hop, is the black CNN, the coiner of that historic phrase has gone public access. His disappearing solo debut topped out at 190 pop and broke "r&b" well south of PMD and House of Pain. So his claim to righteousness has to stand as music, or if he's lucky the kind of rumor that kept Amerindie going--like Spearhead and Gil Scott-Heron, not Wu-Tang or Buju Banton. And until he gets winded half an hour in, he slam-dunks. Over a muscular bottom of unsampled funk--"NO contracts NO tracks with NO mechanicals"--the proud Chevy owner pounds home the plain, intricately rhymed truth about black folks who dream of Jenny Jones and hip hop going to hell in an armored limo. Sure helped me get straight after I spent an hour with the law one afternoon. I can only hope it'll do the same for people who really need it. A MINUS [Later]

IRIS DEMENT: The Way I Should (Warner Bros.) Ooh, ick--four protest songs. One about sexual abuse--isn't that a little old? And what right does she have to put down upwardly mobiles with that "Quality Time" cliche? Only maybe she does have the right--maybe she's a better person than you, me, or the striver next door. Anyway, intellectual originality isn't her stock in trade. She's just a singer with the God-given ability to convey commonplace feelings as if they belong to her, as they do to all of us. And that these feelings should now include righteous indignation only proves that she's alive in history. Who else could intimate raging obscenity by putting the words "ass," "crap," and "damn" in the same song? Only the woman who still adduces home, marriage, and spiritual struggle with the unaffected simplicity you loved before she belonged to the world. A MINUS [Later: A]

NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN & PARTY: Intoxicated Spirit (Shanachie) Look, it's simple. Do you want Michael Brook strumming and arranging and practicing right reason, or do you want the most awesome singer in the known universe manifesting his proximity to the divine for your voyeuristic delectation? Whatever rules apply to anyone else--Brook has done handsomely by Cheb Khaled, and most virtuosos should damn well hone their inspirations in the studio before bestowing them on the marketplace--don't apply to Nusrat. This album grabbed me not just because it's uncut--four unfaded tracks lasting 23, 24, 12, and 14 minutes--but because its Sufi ecstasy runs so close to the surface, far wilder than on RealWorld's equally uncut The Last Prophet. Students of song form may want to try Devotional and Love Songs, its harmonium and percussion augmented by a mandolinist-guitarist less distracting than Michael Brook. Me, I'll stick with Nusrat and his boys galloping off into the stratosphere--his wails, his flights, his tongue twisters, his ululations, his naming party for God. A MINUS

KWANZAA PARTY! (Rounder) On the second of what deserves to be a long series, Daisann McLane joins Earthworks's Trevor Herman and Original Music's John Storm Roberts among world-class "world-beat" compilers. Where 1994's Kwanzaa Music exploded in star drive all over the African diaspora, this one gets an intensely listenable flow from an equally far-flung bunch of less renowned artistes. I've never heard of some of these musicians and listened right through others; not even tunes as classic as Trinidad's/Roaring Lion's "Marianne" or Haiti's/Ensemble Nemours Jn. Baptiste's "Rhythme Commercial" seem obvious. Neophytes are in for bigger revelations and just as much fun. Merry Whatever. A MINUS

MASSIVE ATTACK V MAD PROFESSOR: No Protection (Gyroscope) Deeply etched and finely grained, the most ballyhooed dub album of the current resurgence does reveal a few secrets to nonbelievers. Juicier, funnier, and more eventful than the desiccated run of Macro Dub Infection, it also sustains a convincing gravity--a sense that all these whooshings and clangings and suckings and scrapings and boomings and snatches of tune relate to each other and the rest of the physical universe. Not that they do, necessarily. But aren't you glad they care enough to fib about it? A MINUS [Later]

TSHALA MUANA: Mutuashi (Stern's Africa) Out of shrewdness or raw adaptability, this spectacular dancer and savvy singer knows how to find music that does her songs proud. Here she entrusts her Luba soukous to Sahel-salsa masterminds Ibrahim Sylla and Boncana Maiga for a modernization that altogether avoids Euroschlock. Coros and montunos dominate a groove that's cut with West African instrumentation and interrupted by soft ballads, with the standard Zairean guitar peals deployed so economically that when she breaks out a Pepe Kalle cover on the next-to-last cut, it's ecstasy. Pan-Africanism in action. Merry Whatever. A MINUS

THE POSIES: Amazing Disgrace (DGC) Pumped by a frenetic new rhythm section and some half-earned rage, the static tunes of Alex Chilton's hottest backup band approach peak Matthew Sweet or Chris Butler-kicked dB's. Of course it's not the Beatles or Big Star--merely emulated, the formal ideas don't sustain their excitement. But it beats Bluroroasisoraimeemann. Inspirational Verse: "When I asked you, `Why Ontario?'/You said, `It sounds good on the radio.'" A MINUS [Later: B+]

SEBADOH: Harmacy (Sub Pop) Pry the black plastic backing from the jewel box and decipher the credits on the nether side of the rear insert--a perfect metaphor for how public these coy alternastars are willing to go. Note that bassist Lou Barlow's tuneful songs focus on his achy breaky voice, while guitarist Jason Lowenstein's rockin' ones lead with his sloppy riffs. Figure that Barlow needs Lowenstein because by itself his material would be indigestible--the indie-rock version of a peanut butter and jelly diet. But admit that Lowenstein would be a loud cipher without Barlow, who I only wish did like Ann Powers says and paraded his faults to prove his honesty. As with all self-made wimps, the hustle is more insidious--his honesty is supposed to justify his faults. It doesn't. The tunes do. A MINUS [Later]

TONY TONI TONÉ: House of Music (Mercury) Launched by a hilariously gutsy Al Green hommage that knows the great man's every moue and off-beat, Raphael Saadiq and his henchmen give the r&b revival what for, constructing a generous original style from a varied history they know inside out--Tempts, Sly, Blue Magic, Kurtis Blow. And for almost every sound they provide a sharp song, which is more than Holland-Dozier-Holland and Gamble-Huff could manage when they were compelled to stick to one. Defeating second-half trail-off and a CD-age windiness the band isn't beatwise enough to beat, Saadiq's flexible, sensitive, slightly nasal tenor, spelled by the grain of D'Wayne Wiggins's workaday baritone, recasts the tradition in its image. Wasn't sampling supposed to strangle this sort of virtuosity at the root? A

TRICKY: Pre-Millennium Tension (Island) Far from an anomaly, "Tricky Kid" is definitive here, exploiting two moderately odious cliches--the woes of stardom and I'm-Tricky-and-you're-not--as if they're OK because he's Tricky and you're not. Rubbing our face in shit is his specialty, after all, and since everything else depresses him, why shouldn't that extend to his own success and his own arrogance? Whether you go along depends on how compelling you find his decon job on a hip hop soundscape that's discernibly rawer and starker here than on Maxinquaye. I say his music comprehends and inhabits the dystopia of everyday life more radically than Wu-Tang could conceive. And acknowledge that on this evidence, his trick requires Martine and can't work forever. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

HAYDEN: Everything I Long For (Outpost) If the 24-year-old Desser gets to be Lou Barlow when he grows up, which took Barlow years, he'll look back on most of these self-consciously casual vignettes as bores or embarrassments. He's best on young love, nice-guy style, especially when he and his girlfriend stay in bed all day. But the unnatural effort of extragenerational empathy makes him howl in agony. And if he really didn't know that the Susan Smith murders "were gonna become a huge media thing," he hasn't yet learned the first thing about the impossible border between the private and the public. B

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Lee "Scratch" Perry, Who Put the Voodoo 'Pon Reggae (Ariwa): dub for laughs--Newcleus's munchkins, Selassie's brother, Scratch's cock ("Small Morsel," "Messy Appartment")
  • Jane Jensen, Comic Book Whore (Flip): 'twixt Courtney and Alanis on the noise and normality scales, sexier than either ("Luv Song," "Highway 90")
  • The Night Shift (C&S): "laid-back trip hop and ambient grooves" that recline so indolently their souls sometimes fall out (Purple Penguin, "Tribhuwan"; Kitachi, "Spirit (Hip Hop Mix")
  • Tricky Presents Grassroots (Payday/FFRR): respect his way with rappers, love his way with the ladies (Tricky & Laveda Davis, "Devils Helper"; Stephanie Cooke, "Live w/ Yo Self")
  • I.K. Dairo, Definitive Dairo (Xenophile): 1971--the juju patriarch still undefined ("Okin Omo Ni," "Labondo")
  • Kerestina: Guitar Songs of Southern Mozambique 1955-1957 (Original Music): Shangaan roots of Thomas Chauke and Obed Ngobeni (Mahikwani Makhuvele, "Ugandzibyeli Akuxonga"; Alberto Tentowani Mwamosi & Gabriel Maopana Bila, "Achifa Dukwana Chamina")
  • Chris Butler, The Devil Glitch (Future Fossil): one song with a shitload of choruses, or, "Sometimes you can fix something 550 times/there's special grace in repetition" ("Track 3: Mars Williams--sax player from the Waitresses"; "Track 15: Christopher D. Butler--computer music wiz")
  • Jeru the Damaja, Wrath of the Math (Payday/FFRR): no metaphor, fantasy, or conspiracy theories--just straight postgangsta dope ("Tha Frustrated Nigga," "Tha Bullshit")
  • Scrawl, Travel On, Rider (Elektra): their grim, unpretentious, personal best ("Good Under Pressure," "The Garden Path")
  • Nearly God (Island Independent/Durban Poison): Tricky in Unwonderland ("Together Now," "Children's Story") [Later: *]
  • Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Ledbetter Heights (Giant): plays better blues readymades than he writes, writes better blues readymades than his front man sings ("Born With a Broken Heart," "I'm Leaving You [Commit a Crime]")
  • Little Axe, The Wolf That House Built (OKeh): Adrian Sherwood dubz the bluez ("Ride On," "Hear My Cry")
  • Lee Perry & Mad Professor, Black Ark Experryments (Ariwa): "yeah, is a good joke" ("Open Door," "Jungle Safari")
  • Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere (Righteous Babe): over folk-punk thrash 'n' sample, the lefty lifer just wants to say: "No matter how New Age you get, old age gonna kick your ass" ("Nevada City, California," "Bum on the Rod")
  • The Sabri Brothers, Ya Mustapha (Xenophile): Nusrat is Nusrat, these guys are straight qawwali, and more fun with saxophones by me ("Ya Mustapha")
Choice Cuts:
  • Los Del Rio, "Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)" (Macarena Club Cutz, RCA)
  • Spring Heel Jack, "Lee Perry Part One," "Day of the Dead" (There Are Strings, Rough Trade import)
  • Bass Kittens, "Heartbreak Factory" (Spin Control, Imix)
  • Atomic Dog, "Natural Born Killaz" (Jungle: The Sound of the Underground, Sour/Columbia)
  • Fresh Fish, "Bang DaBush (Cadet Mix)" (Club Mix 96--Volume 2, Cold Front)
  • DJ Spooky, "Hologrammic Dub," "Anansi Abstrakt" (Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Asphodel)
  • Diferenz Featuring Jazz Con Bazz, "Face" (More Noize Please, Shadow)
  • Etoile de Dakar, "Dounya" (Volume 2--Thiapathioly, Stern's Africa) [Later: ***]
  • Akinyele, Put It in Your Mouth (Stress/BMG)
  • Hit Mix 96 Volume Two (Cold Front)
  • A Journey Into Ambient Groove (Quango)
  • Loop Guru, Duniya (Waveform)
  • Paul D. Miller, Death in Light of the Phonograph (Asphodel)
  • Salt, Ausculcate (Island)
  • Tool, AEnima (Zoo)

Village Voice, Dec. 17, 1996

Dec. 3, 1996 Dec. 31, 1996