Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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African Connection II

Apologies to those who skip my African selections, which have been getting me through rock's bad times (see Honorable Mention, especially toward the bottom) since the middle '80s. And thanks to an old riot grrrl for doing her latest thing.

LE GÉNÉRAL DEFAO: "Ambiance Plus" (Bana Congo Vol. 2 Dance Mix) (Roma Productions import) Well after soukous supposedly withered away, a second-tier crowd-pleaser with a willingness to throw his big body into a dance he named puts out his 17th or 18th album, something like that. Vocally he's no Wemba or Rochereau, but Manda Chante (of Wenge Musica, how did you miss him?) caramelizes one track, and Le Jeune Makuta, Likanga Mangenza, and others I've never heard of take guest turns. Vocal colors shift as leads come and go; the chorus expands and contracts. Rhythms converge, thin out, flow horizonward. A saxophone comes in to garnish the guitars. Songs segue for easier dancing, or divide into parts the dancers better be ready for. The jollity is general, audible. A generic good time is had by all. B PLUS

THE DEL-LORDS: Get Tough: The Best of the Del-Lords (Restless) If 15 years later the anthem that goes "I believe that there's a heaven before I'm dead" seems almost as naive as the anti-imperialist title song, well, these guys were more a straw to be grasped than a future to be seized even at the time--an American version of the Clash just as the Clash was headed for the shredder, substituting for rootsy punk formalism a full embrace of rock and roll and its sources. Leader Scott Kempner and believer Eric Ambel were never dead-on songwriters or overwhelming singers, so this distillation is the perfect place to recall just how humanistic the straight stuff can be. Slightly out of time in their time, today they're just as likely to make you ask why the hell it couldn't happen again. A MINUS

HANDSOME BOY MODELING SCHOOL: So . . . How's Your Girl? (Tommy Boy) More trip- than hip-hop in that its irresistibility is atmospheric--a sound that pits industrial textures against quiet piano samples/parts. Not that the guest rappers (and singers) don't boost the musicality further, or that a few bits aren't drop-deadpan funny. But I was sure this Prince Paul p-jay was distinctly lo-res when I learned that the track that stood out strongest was produced by DJ Shadow. A MINUS [Later: A]

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: The Best of--Vol. 2 (Shanachie) Absolute masters of a self-invented formula neither they nor their fans ever weary of, Ladysmith are like the Ramones at a higher level of musical if not philosophical development. And now they've outlasted these great rivals. Sixteen tracks, mostly new to U.S. consumers, showcase their a cappella trickery with daunting subtlety and never-ending smarts. B PLUS

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: Live at the Royal Albert Hall (Shanachie) Their first live album in a quarter century of taking it to the stage disperses the pious aura with which their religious faith and the self-righteousness of the world-music ethos conspire to surround them. Their sound effects ought to be funny enough in themselves (try the kisses on "Hello My Baby"), but their awkward repartee should convince the properest sobersides that it's OK to laugh. Their rhythms are more pronounced as well--too bad you can't see the steps. Their English repertoire is limited, so the half where you'll understand the words is remakes; their Zulu repertoire is vast, so the half where you won't isn't. Inspirational chorus: "Everything's so stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid"--sung with a smile. A MINUS

LE TIGRE (Mr. Lady) In which Kathleen Hanna does the unprecedented--if not, apparently, impossible--and reinvents punk again. The first time seems a snap in retrospect, a straightforward seizure of formal strategy and emotional stance for grrrl rage and female discovery--between Hanna's instinct for the ditty and her big pipes, Bikini Kill was an instant sure shot. But she got too old for that, and maybe a little too fulfilled as well. So having passed through the woebegone "Ecriture Feminine" of her Julie Ruin project, she gets together with two arty girlfriends and makes deceptively simple music about her arty life. Topics include aesthetic theory, millenarian hippies, John Casavetes (sic), the pleasures of the MetroCard, who put the ram in the rama-lama-ding-dong, and "Hot Topic" ("Nina Simone!" "Ann Peebles!" "The Slits!" "James Baldwin!" "Mia X!" "Billy Tipton!" "Shirley Muldowney!"). Dynamic synthbeats. Spirited choruses. Even some trick guitar. A MINUS [Later: A]

PET SHOP BOYS: Nightlife (Parlophone/Sire) Having spent the decade risking l-o-v-e, Neil Tennant settles down with "A borderline fool/Naive and cruel," cushions the pain with melody, adds up the damages, and accounts himself ready for more. "I only worry for your sake," the altruist-as-ironist insists as he wonders where "Boy Strange" is with who. Not to worry, he will survive--for as long as he at least hears B.S.'s "footsteps in the dark." "Only love can break your heart," he observes, and that we've heard that one before doesn't make it any less poignant--maybe more. A MINUS

SOUTH AFRICAN RHYTHM RIOT: THE INDESTRUCTIBLE BEAT OF SOWETO VOLUME 6 (Stern's/Earthworks) Trevor Herman knows better than anyone that compilations suffer when they sneak in artists the compiler has a weakness for, but here he gets a little sentimental anyway. Kwaito is the biggest musical fad of postapartheid South Africa, and the smashes he wanted to include--notably Arthur's "Oyi Oyi," one of those dance hits that sweep all parochialism before them--make the choicest township jive seem more received than it used to. Put it all together and you get patchwork rather than seamlessness: pop stars like Chicco and Brenda Fassie cambering the old rhythms, the socalike single-mindedness of Aba Shante's Arthur-produced "Girls," even a visit from the tireless Papa Wemba. Fairly terrific track by track--I've tried hard enough with Fassie to admire how skillfully Herman flatters her, and I'd rather hear "Oyi Oyi" here than on the megahit album of the same name. But a sampler nevertheless. A MINUS

STREETS OF DAKAR: GENERATION BOUL FALÉ (Stern's Africa) Under the rubric of a new piece of slang whose meaning is surrounded by "carefree," "fed up," and "whatever," young singers in a land where horns are no longer cost-effective make do with synthesizers. Though they use them well, there's a loss not just in color but in punch and ruckus, and though there are plenty of guitars and enough guitar hooks, the few solos never bust out. Leaving us with tama drums that don't-stop-and-they-don't-stop and a profusion of voices, tremendously varied within their penetrating West African attack--girl group and rap crew share space with blues growlers, trumpetless Gabriels, and other secular muezzins. These voices convey resoluteness, spirituality, spunk, moralism, humor--personality. They also convey good-to-great melodies. So, whatever. A MINUS

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS: Long Tall Weekend ( The biggest problem with net-music utopianism is that no matter how fast and convenient downloads get, music itself will continue to exist in, if you'll pardon the expression, real time. That's its very essence. If 1441 minutes of music go up on the web today, that's a minute more than anyone can hear in that period, period. Might the net be a useful way for consumers to sample their musical options? Sure. Might it help strapped artists get by? Conceivably. Are there good things there that are unavailable elsewhere? Certainly not as many as in the sum total of specialty shops in our metropolis, although the same may not hold in Wichita. This, however, is one of them. Human song generators whose metier is the miscellany, they're ideally suited to construct a download-only album that isn't an out file taking on airs. Although "They Got Lost" is on last year's live album and patrons of their live shows and dial-a-song service may recognize other tunes, this is as enjoyable a CD as they've released in the '90s. With love to the literal "Operators Are Standing By," it peaks with "Older," which is about real time. A MINUS

PAPA WEMBA: M'zée Fula-Ngenge (Sonodisc import) At his New York dates of the past few years, the soukous sapeur seemed both enervated and inflated by the labor of Anglophone crossover, and he puts out so many records in Paris that some doubt he can remember one from the other. But here, at greater length than on any '80s album, he rings in his 50th year with superabundant pizzazz. The new touch--there's generally a new touch--is a xylophone. The old touches are the now sweet, now rich, now cutting leads, the varisized choruses, the assured shifts of tempo and mood, the synths emulating flutes and horns and innerspring mattresses. In the right frame of mind, il reste toujours magnifique. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

BEN FOLDS FIVE: The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (550 Music) What jerks melody inflicts on us. With no connection to any human virtue of substance, the catchy tune ushers all manner of unpleasant personality traits into our lives. And if this smart aleck is less dangerous than Fred Durst, he also does less with what he was given. For sure he's less original musically (as opposed to melodically) no matter how many piano lessons he took, banging away like a garage guitarist with the occasional fancy stuff to prove he has a right--God, Joe Jackson was more fun. And although he also throws in the occasional well-turned sentiment to prove he has a right--"Don't Change Your Plans" and "Mess" are recommended to nice guys seeking covers--his basic program remains revenge-of-the-nerd. He always knew he was smarter than whoever and ever amen. He always knew there were people who'd admire him just because he was clever. And unfortunately, he was right. B

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • The Bicycle Thief, You Come and Go Like a Pop Song (Goldenvoice): Thelonious Monster's feckless leader explains what happened to his teeth ("Cereal Song," "Boy at a Bus Stop")
  • Aphrodite (Gee Street/V2): junglism simplified--at their most brazen, beats to jack your soul ("B.M. Funkster," "Woman That Rolls")
  • Samba Ngo, Metamorphosis (Compass): late soukous for Americans, somehow whole despite mbira, jujubeats, and circular breathing ("Midi Passé," "Mwana Congo")
  • Baaba Maal, Jombaajo (Sonodisc import): cut circa 1990, unreleased because it seemed too loose, and better for it ("Baydikacce," "Farma")
  • Slick Sixty, Nibs and Nabs (Mute): lounge r&b for the age of techno constructivism and Moog retro ("Hilary, Last of the Pool Sharks," "Dun Deal [Wrestler's Rematch]")
  • Basement Jaxx, Remedy (Astralwerks): like so much good house, more fun than reading the newspaper and less fun than advertised ("Red Alert," "Rendez-Vu")
  • Quasi, Field Studies (Up): if someone were to call Sam Coomes an archetypal indie whiner, how would you respond? what about if I did? ("A Fable With No Moral," "Empty Words")
  • John Linnell, State Songs (Zoe): darn--not 69, 50, or even 48, only 15, none of them up for legislative ratification ("The Songs of the 50 States," "New Hampshire")
  • Youssou N'Dour & le Super Etoile, Spécial Fin d'Année Plus (Pape Thiam import): could use more guitar--and songs, though the CD-only add-ons help ("Birima," "No méle")
  • Sally Timms, Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments . . . for Lost Buckaroos (Bloodshot): alt-country songbook ("Cry Cry Cry," "Rock Me to Sleep")
  • Rage Against the Machine, The Battle of Los Angeles (Epic): if only it promised as much for the future of rock leftism as for the future of rock guitar ("Calm Like a Bomb," "War Within a Breath")
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers, Californication (Warner Bros.): New Age sex maniacs ("Scar Tissue," "Purple Stain")
  • Limp Bizkit, Significant Other (Flip/Interscope): give their image credit for having a sound ("Just Like This," "N 2 Gether Now")
  • Lady Saw, Raw: The Best of Lady Saw (VP): cock-rock lives inna dancehall stylee ("Find a Good Man," "Eh-Em")
Choice Cuts:
  • Paul Nabor, "Naguyane" (Paranda: Africa in Central America, Detour)
  • Mekons, "Fancy," "1967 Revisited," "Where Were You?" (Where Were You? Hen's Teeth and Other Lost Fragments of Popular Culture Vol. 2, Quarterstick)
  • Dan Bern, "Talkin' Woody, Bob, Bruce & Dan Blues," "True Revolutionaries," "Cocaine/Blue Jay Way" (Smartie Mine, DBHQ)
  • The Cucumbers, "My Birthday" (Total Vegitility, Home Office)
  • Cake Like, Goodbye, So What (Vapor)
  • Henri Dikongué, Wa (Shanachie)
  • Dublin to Dakar: A Celtic Odyssey (Putumayo World Music)
  • Filter, Title of Record (Reprise)
  • Macha, See It Another Way (Jetset)
  • Van Halen, Van Halen 3 (Warner Bros.)

Village Voice, Nov. 16, 1999

Nov. 9, 1999 Nov. 30, 1999