Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Six of these 12 picks recast known compositions, and only two of the six are in the rock tradition. But I did find one medium-obscure alt band worth writing work about. One.

BANG ON A CAN: Music for Airports: Brian Eno (Point Music) The problem with the original was that it had a bit too much going on melodically and structurally to minimalize down into a synthesizer, especially one that wasn't pretending to be anything else. Here the piano-clarinet-cello-guitar-bass-percussion ensemble pretends to be a synthesizer. And although I pray postdance knob-twisters don't fall for the Gregorian goo goo girls who douse "1/2" with blancmange, the lovely textures will make them drool. Or anyway, sweat. Perspire. Exude. A MINUS

BECK: Mutations (DGC) Mellow Gold's loser thumbed his nose at the world; Odelay's winner put his mark on it. On this adjustment to musical fashion, a success story discovers what he already knew but hadn't seen up close--eventually, winners lose. No longer immersed in failure, which you joke about (and then beat), he takes on decay, which you hold at bay (for a while). Although he hones his insults when the occasion arises, forget jokes--he's in mourning for dead relationships and the bodily passing they prefigure, and he sounds it. But because he's kept up with the times, he also sounds lyrical and elegiac, evoking the soft nostalgia of folk-rock without falling into it. Embracing the new directness, he feints and sidesteps just like always, exploiting a fad's expressive potential like the shape-shifter he remains. A MINUS

BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: The Boy With the Arab Strap (Matador) Rather than singing the anxieties of suspended postadolescence in lyrics that dissolve upon contact with the mind, Stuart Murdoch pins his themes down one scenario at a time. Rather than tracing his uncertainties in music that wanders hill and dale, he erects song structures and rounds their corners with wispy vocals. With his little gang helping him, the music comes out beautiful and fragile. When their childhood ends, as it must, they'll be happier than they are now--or else much sadder. A MINUS

JAMES BROWN: Say It Live and Loud: Live in Dallas 08.26.68 (Polydor) Counting the half-studio Sex Machine, this makes Brown's fifth live album from the crucial 1967-1971 period--and except for Sex Machine, it's also the best. Its chief competition, Live at the Apollo Volume II, was released a few weeks after it was recorded, but Brown moved so fast in those years that the Apollo record is radically different, a soul envoi at a moment when the funked-over "Cold Sweat" was his centerpiece and the daring "Say It Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud" his pride and joy. From touchstone to newborn, from bop-inflected Maceo on the piss-break instrumental to born-again JB on the climax medley, breakneck intensity for the ages. A MINUS

BOB DYLAN: Live 1966 (Columbia) What no one ever mentions about this oft-celebrated Manchester concert is that the folk set sucks. It's arty, mannered, nervous, as if Dylan is sick of these songs, although three of the seven haven't even been released yet. And when they are, on Blonde on Blonde, they'll be band- if not Band-backed like all the others except "Mr. Tambourine Man," and as such relaxed, confident, committed, meaningful. Appallingly ideological though it is that anyone could have preferred this static display to what followed, the rock set is warmly received, which is not to say it lives up to its myth. You'll hear some of the most freewheeling, locked-in live music of the '60s--far more detailed and responsive than comparable Stones and Who, with Robbie Robertson so cockeyed funky he almost careens off the stage. You'll also hear some folkie fool shouting "Judas" and Dylan calling him a liar and, if you strain, somebody muttering "play fucking loud." But you will not hear the times a-changin' or Robert Zimmerman jousting with destiny. That stuff's for historians. And if we owe the historians for the terrific electric disc, they owe us for the awful acoustic one. B PLUS

GRANDADDY: Under the Western Freeway (V2) An indelibly local unit from the sun-baked I-5 nowhere of Modesto, California, they orchestrate lo-fi so cunningly that the tunes arising from the murk seem angelic in their grace and uplift. The title instrumental, a descending scale voiced by several flutes or recorders and a roomful of busted Casios, sets the standard. But that's not to say skateboard pro turned glorified garbage man Jason Lytle throws away the words, starting with a lead track that dissents from meritocracy with a quiet defeatism too subtle and eloquent for any simple slacker. No matter how wearisome Lytle finds all the Neil Young, Howe Gelb, and Pavement comparisons, they triangulate him accurately and honorably. A MINUS

PJ HARVEY: Is This Desire? (Island) Seeing Harvey in her most original live guise to date at the Hammerstein Ballroom, I didn't think Nick Cave or, heaven knows, Aretha Franklin. Instead I recalled the renowned art-song singer Jan DeGaetani, who I was dragged off to see 20-odd years ago. I didn't much enjoy DeGaetani--not my repertoire, let's say. But I admired her ease, her naturalness-within-formality, and more and more that's how it is with Harvey. In a charcoal suit and stacked heels with red top, this was a concert artist repaying the adoration of her fans, but not so as she'd give them the early songs they wanted. Instead she concentrated on less immediate new material, which gained power in performance just as it does with repeated exposure on record. Melding modal tradition and concrète futurism, dancing to the strong beat as the moment required, she sounded so good she made what she has to say irrelevant. Which was and remains just as well, because what she has to say is limited. Is this desire? It must be, because all she's certain of is that her characters rarely get what they want. Hence, neither do listeners who seek release in formal command. While every song here kicks in eventually, starting with the two-minute "The Sky Lit Up," at times she could be the rock Wynton Marsalis. So thank God she'd rather be Tricky. A MINUS [Later]

ALANIS MORISSETTE: Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (Maverick/Reprise) If "pop" means anything anymore, it ain't this. As a SoundScan-certified megadeal, she's outgrown the bright appeal of pop the way she's outgrown the punky abrasions that gave the debut its traction off the blocks. The mammoth riffs, diaristic self-analysis, and pretentious Middle Eastern sonorities of this music mark it as "rock," albeit rock with tunes. And in this context I suck it up, feeling privileged to listen along with all the young women whose struggles Morissette blows up to such a scale. Here's hoping lots of young men feel the same. A MINUS

P.M. DAWN: Dearest Christian, I'm So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad (Gee Street/V2) Jesus Wept boded mediocrity--although composing is no harder than sampling, it is different, and once he'd redefined himself as one more r&b songwriter, Prince Be's all-embracing aesthetic and flukey chart run seemed over. But working with a steady band, a sometime collaborator, and the occasional borrowed riff, he revives his spaced-out spirituality as music if not commodity, transfiguring his grumpy disillusion with melodies, vocal harmonies, and now also guitar parts, all lovingly designed to convince his son Christian to be here now. A MINUS

RED HOT + RHAPSODY (Antilles) Bacharachians please note: this AIDS-fighting Gershwin tribute is how great songwriters make themselves felt. Beyond near has-beens Bowie and Sinéad and the all too inoffensive Natalie Merchant, the contributors are marginal. Spearhead, Sarah Cracknell, Morcheeba, Finlay Quaye, to stick to standouts, flounder as often as they fly. But entrusted with this material they soar or at least flutter about, as do Smoke City and Majestic 12, both previously unknown to me. Defined by keyboard textures from sampledelica to Hammond B-3, this is a seductive showcase of the moody sensibility shared by acid jazz and trip hop. Now if only the sensibility had Gershwins of its own--well, soon they'd no doubt find themselves something better to do. A MINUS

STEVE REICH: Music for 18 Musicians (Nonesuch) Grown even more universal (and likable) in posttechno retrospect, Reich's mathematically ebbing-and-surging facsimile of eternal return is the great classic of minimalist trance, at once prettier and more austere than any Terry Riley or Philip Glass. Eleven minutes longer than in the ECM original "owing to a tempo change governed by the breathing pattern of the clarinetist," this relaxed rerecording will appeal to graduates of the chillout room. But though rock and rollers can go with its flow, it's not a true reinterpretation like Bang on a Can's Eno, and I prefer the intensities I learned to love. Maybe Beethoven can be rehashed forever (and maybe not). With Reich, one is all any nonprofessional needs. B PLUS

BUTCH THOMPSON: Thompson Plays Joplin (Daring) One reason Scott Joplin's rhythmic revolution comes through so faintly on record is that it was swallowed whole by the tempo of 20th-century life. And it's true enough, as anyone who's ventured near Treemonisha knows, that Joplin craved respect. But that's no reason to forgive all the concert pianists who've arted up and toned down his beat since Joshua Rifkin, and with a firm hand, the man from Lake Wobegon sets them straight. His Joplin doesn't rock, swing, or anything like it. But at their most liltingly delicate these rags are set in motion, as he says, by "the same driving pulse that underlies all of America's truly original music." Marvin Hamlisch go back where you came from. A MINUS [Later]

Dud of the Month

PLASTIKMAN: Artifakts (BC) (Novamute) One needn't feel deep sympathy for the minimalist project to find use and pleasure in the right Brian Eno or David Behrman, or to conclude that, all subjective affinities aside, Tangerine Dream were full of it. Richie Hawtin is at once sparer and beatier, but not by much, and anyone who would sit there for an hour finding out where he's going has too much time to kill. The belated third volume of a trilogy whose earlier installments I dutifully checked out and guiltlessly discarded, this climaxes midway through with an uncanny evocation of static going down the drain before breaking into a cute little piece of electrofunk that might be sampled by someone with more to say. Then it moves on to Tangerine Dream. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Elvis Costello With Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory (Mercury): sings Burt's chewy music lots better than Burt, not to mention Hal, who proves a healthy influence on his poesy ("Such Unlikely Lovers," "The Long Division")
  • Baby Sounds (Kid Rhino): ambient bio ("Baby Sounds [Part Two: Toddlers]," "Baby Sounds [Part One: Babies]")
  • Ultimate Christmas (Arista): chestnuts roasting on an open fire plus surprise gifts--but who invited Kenny, Carly, Sarah, Luciano? (Aretha Franklin, "Winter Wonderland"; Luther Vandross, "O Come All Ye Faithful")
  • Junior Brown, Long Walk Back (Curb): virtuosity as novelty act, meaning virtuosity that knows itself ("Stupid Blues," "Peelin' Taters")
  • James Brown, I'm Back (Georgia Lina/Mercury): it was like you never left ("Funk on Ah Roll [S-Class Mix]," "James on the Loose")
  • Clem Snide, You Were a Diamond (Tractor Beam): deadpan country-folk, nasty when you turn your back ("Nick Drake Tape," "Chinese Baby")
  • Jad Fair & Yo La Tengo, Strange but True (Matador): Jad never runs dry, but he does trickle off sometimes ("Circus Strongman Runs for PTA President," "Texas Man Abducted by Aliens for Outer Space Joy Ride")
  • Jay-Z, Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam): meet Keybmaster Swizz Beats, the missing link between Charles Strouse and Too Short ("Hard Knock Life," "If I Should Die")
  • Little Charlie and the Nightcats, Shadow of the Blues (Alligator): ain't love a bitch, ain't Stratocasters bitchin ("New Old Lady," "Dirty Dealin' Mama")
  • Bette Midler, Bathhouse Betty (Warner Bros.): reclaiming her integrity if not--waddaya want?--her edge ("I'm Beautiful," "Lullabye in Blue")
  • Silver Jews, American Water (Drag City): noise-tune simplified for baritone monotone ("Random Rules," "Night Society")
  • Elliott Smith, XO (DreamWorks): high tune, low affect ("Waltz #2 [XO]," "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands")
  • Chris Isaak, Speak of the Devil (Reprise): rockaballads AC ("Speak of the Devil," "This Time")
  • Matchbox 20, Yourself or Someone Like You (Lava/Atlantic): clods have feelings too ("Real World," "LongDay")
Choice Cuts:
  • John Prine, "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" (Lucky 13, Oh Boy)
  • Def Squad, "Rhymin' Wit' Biz Markie," "Def Squad Delite" (El Niño, Def Jam/Jive)
  • Nick Lowe, "Man That I've Become," "Failed Christian" (Dig My Mood, Upstart)
  • Black Tape for a Blue Girl, As One Aflame Laid Bare by Desire (Projekt)
  • Adam Cohen (Columbia)
  • Creeper Lagoon, I Become Small and Go (Nickel Bag)
  • Mary Cutrufello, When the Night Is Through (Mercury)
  • Deftones, Around the Fur (Maverick/Warner Bros.)
  • Grooverider, Mysteries of Funk (Higher Ground/Columbia)
  • Pere Ubu, Pennsylvania (Tim/Kerr)
  • Queens of the Stone Age (Loosegroove)
  • Track Star, Communication Breaks (Die Young Stay Pretty)

Village Voice, Dec. 15, 1998

Dec. 1, 1998 Dec. 29, 1998