Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

With best-ofs proliferating faster than yup weekles around here, my annual Additional Consumer News summation skips the multidisc monsters from Clapton, Santana, and, God help us, Jethro Tull (already passed on to the highest bidder) and saves pre-'70s and multiple-artist stuff for a future I hope doesn't abandon jump space as a relic of the age of pre-yup literacy.

ANTI-CHOC (Stern's Africa import) Though the latest Zaiko Langa Langa spinoff is advertised as roughing up slow old-fashioned rumba and hyping up fast newfangled kwasa kwasa, I find the trad harmonies homey and the quick-fingered picking hypnotic. Soothing at any speed. Also danceable. B PLUS

EDIE BRICKELL & NEW BOHEMIANS: Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars (Geffen) Her Suzanne Vega voice is jazzed up with glowing slips and slides that recall Jo Mama's long-forgotten Abigale Haness. Her well-named boys are nuevo-hippies with chops, also like Jo Mama, a braver band they probably never heard of. Her lyrics are escapist as a matter of conviction--"Don't let me get too deep," she implores, as if she could if she tried. I await the Jo Mama CD. B MINUS

CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG: American Dream (Atlantic) Forget the careerist compromise, dazed ennui, and soggy despair, and take this hustle for what it pretends to be and at some level is: four diehard hippies expressing themselves. Poor old guys can't leave politics alone--there's more ecology and militarism here than when they were figureheads of pop revolution, and though the rhetoric is predictable, the impulse has a woozy nobility. Not that that's ever been reason to pay Graham's ditties any mind, or that Stephen's steady-state egotism is redeemed by stray references to judges and changing the world. But while David's cocaine confessional makes "Almost Cut My Hair" seem self-abnegating, his "Nighttime for the Generals" sure beats Sting. And Neil lends musical muscle and gets commercial muscle back. So, not as horrible as you expected--nor good enough to give a third thought. C PLUS

SONA DIABETE & M'MAH SYLLA: Sahel (Triple Earth import) Two singers from the storied policewomen's band Les Amazones de Guinée join a guitarist-marimbist and a flutist-saxophonist in Paris, where everybody plays folk music once removed. Falsetto intensifies the high-end voices and the flute is very prominent, so that the intrusions of saxophone and sometimes even guitar have the effect of male voices demanding confidently to be heard. Secure in their realm, the women continue to muse or chatter or make a joyful noise. B PLUS

STEVE EARLE: Copperhead Road (Uni) This time, it isn't only the heavy beat, loud guitars, and wild-ass vocal mannerisms that make it rock--giveaway's the melodrama that rock set pieces substitute for the flat inevitability of the country variety. So my prescription is simple: more Tom T., less Bruce. Meanwhile, just say his vision of history is more convincing than his vision of personal relations. Which these days is another giveaway. B

FISHBONE: Truth and Soul (Epic) They're better at truth than soul, always a harder sell, and harder to push beyond interesting, too. Taken one at a time, about half these experiments would change any radio station's pace quite satisfactorily. Taken in sequence, they don't follow. B

JUNGLE BROTHERS: Straight Out the Jungle (Idlers) Like an early Bambaataa jam with comic timing, it starts out looser and more comradely than most rap dares any more. Then it stays that way. Crew name turns an insult around while permitting some light pan-Africanism, a Melle Mel hook, and the simple point that anywhere people get killed for the color of their skin is a jungle for sure. Samples come every which way--here Mingus, there Farfisa-cum-Hammond-B3, and over there drumbeats so offhand I'd half swear they were live. And reinforcing their professions of solidarity is the fact that they hardly boast at all--unless you're afraid claims that their jimbrowskis are seven feet tall will be taken literally by their tragically ill-informed audience. A MINUS

KID 'N PLAY: 2 Hype (Select) If professional rap can get tired, it can also get busy. Joyous safari-movie go go, Billy Crystal rip, James Brown rip, James Brown rip, above all the bust-this "Gittin' Funky"--every one, well, gits funky. And when they stick in some sexist shit, the joke ends up on them. B PLUS [Later]

SAM MANGWANA: Aladji (Syllart import) A notoriously footloose and political Angola-born Zairean, Mangwana shocked loyal followers of both Rochereau and Franco by working first with one titan and then the other before his African All-Stars brought kick-drum kick and Brownian nonstop to soukous. Long since single again, he here joins up with the hot Guinean-Parisian producer Ibrahima Sylla for an album said to stand with such landmarks as Maria Tebbo, Canta Moçambique, and the legendary Franco collaboration Cooperation. But much as I enjoy the sustained midtempo lyricism of "Aladji" and the chunky mbaqanga subtext of "Soweto," only the jet-launched "Trans-Beros," which leads French Celluloid's Zaire Choc compilation as well, leaps my language barrier. B PLUS

NAJMA: Qareeb (Shanachie) With no aesthetic judgment implied, the reality encompassed by mass-produced soundtrack schlock and sitar masters fills me with disinterest, and although I find ragas inoffensive accompaniment to chana vazi and shag poonir, I've never voluntarily played one. So I put this on out of professional responsibility (not even curiosity), and fell. Najma is a British Pakistani who popularizes an ancient Urdu lyric form called the ghazal. The words are traditional, with translations that read like abstract love poetry provided. The melodies and vocal harmonies are hers, with soprano sax or fretless bass or guitarlike santoor adding just a touch of Western exoticism. The overall effect is twofold: gentle culture clash and sheer physical beauty. Either one of which would do. A MINUS

BUCK OWENS: Hot Dog! (Capitol) The two rock and roll covers are unbelievably clumsy coming from country's great lost missing link, and not just rhythmwise--did he choose the teen protest "Summertime Blues" because his gerontologist thought it would do wonders for him? Nor are many of the originals worthy of the career-capping compilation that I suspect (and hope) is on the way. But he does have a lesson to teach both his cocky epigones (emotion and commitment) and his exhausted contemporaries (emotion and commitment). Sounds like he's learned some things, too--from premier contemporary George Jones, whose late work had the same phlegmy maturity and every-syllable-counts concentration until the emotion and commitment went out of him. B PLUS

PAPA WEMBA: L'Esclave (Gitta import) Wemba is probably the most famous and certainly the most flamboyant of the many graduates of Zaiko Langa Langa, the band that turned rumba into soukous with hard guitar and traditional rhythms and structures in the early '70s. His high, harsh voice cuts like it's serrated, and the harmonies are almost acrid sometimes, just like Nguando Milos's lead guitar lines, which break away from the merely engaging competition both sonically and melodically. An admirer of the old discursive song forms, Wemba milks soukous's bipartite conventions for something very much like drama--more than once I've assumed a piece was ending only to have it break into a perfectly inevitable aftermath. Inspirational liner note: "La ville et le village: deux visages que j'aime!" A

THE PONTIAC BROTHERS: Johnson (Frontier) First they were Stones clones, then replacement Replacements, their rough-hewn ways a joy to those who find the former too slick and/or the latter too clever. Me, I take pleasure in how closely they resemble their superiors without surrendering their independence--you never get the feeling they're trying to be anybody but themselves. Also enjoy their sonics, lyrics, hooks, etc. B PLUS

THE REAL ROXANNE (Select) Roxanne Shanté's the real Roxanne. This one's the real Lisa Lisa--smart, fast-talking, Puerto Rican and proud, up on the get down. By working her fine brown frame off without ever taking chance one, she verifies rap's pop scope, from Hurby Luv Bug's cute stuff to Howie Tee's dense samples. Also scores two out of three half-sung slow ones, including a day-in-the-life-of-a-rapper-and-aren't-you-jealous? that can only be described as a modest boast. Would I like all this as much if a guy did it? Of course not. And of course, no guy has. A MINUS

R.E.M.: Green (Warner Bros.) The "air" side combines the bite of their realest rock and roll with the shameless beauty their cult once lived for--it's funny and/or serious and/or rousing and/or elegiac right up to "The Wrong Child," a title that speaks for itself and heralds the shit to follow. Which they dub the "metal" side, with heavy tempos and dubious poetry that make good on their intermittent moments only during the funny, serious, elegiac "I Remember California." B PLUS

SALT-N-PEPA: A Salt with a Deadly Pepa (Next Plateau) "Shake Your Thang" is a stroke because as a duo they can come out for two opposing sexual prerogatives at once--one does, the other doesn't, and it's nobody's thang but hers either way. Nor does E.U. hurt their soul. Elsewhere, the confusion signalled by the "See label for Sequencing" is reflected in ordinary rhymes, scattershot beats, and a second Isleys cover, this one masquerading as a Beatles cover. B

SCHOOLLY-D: Smoke Some Kill (Jive) Anybody as smart as Schoolly, who on his own testimony turned down a scholarship from Georgia Tech because he only wanted to study art, must be held responsible for his own bullshit, especially if he makes a large part of his living selling black fantasy to white thrill-seekers. Are B-boys really like this? How the fuck am I supposed to know? What I do know is that between his cheeba and his malt liquor and his foldaway dick and his casual "faggot"s and his eagerness to blame an unspecified cocaine habit on a nameless and maybe even figurative "white bitch," he's the white audience's paranoid-to-masochistic fantasy of a B-boy. He deserves credit for realizing the fantasy so scarily, and for commanding his own tough-guy sound. But that doesn't mean you have to like him. B MINUS

MICHELLE SHOCKED: Short Sharp Shocked (Mercury) "Anchorage" is the fondest friend-from-a-former-life song you've ever heard. The East Texas barn burning, driving lesson, and beer run evoke the bored fun of a rural adolescence like nothing you could imagine. Shocked understands the tougher formal challenges of protest and metaphoric flight, too, especially on the unclassifiable "When I Grow Up." The Jean Ritchie cover seems unsuitably traditional until you realize it's Jean Ritchie. And the uncredited punk-rock extra reminds us that this singer-songwriter puts music second, just like they all do. A MINUS

SLICK RICK: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick (Def Jam) Like that other girlie-voiced rapper Dana Dane, Rick masks insecurities about his masculinity by dissing the opposite sex even uglier than the ugly competition. From the clarion "Treat Her Like a Prostitute" through this bitch and that cocaine dolly and the fake virgin "with a yay-wide gash" and the one who meant yes when she said no and ended up marching a tribe of Indians out her cunt, this man hates women. His ballad is keyed around the refrain "Don't hurt me again" and is directed at all treacherous females, not just one. His anticrime warning closes with a convincing imitation of how bad you groan the first time you get cornholed. C PLUS

NEIL YOUNG & THE BLUENOTES: This Note's for You (Reprise) Those who detect surer songwriting and tougher guitar amid the eccentric horns are right, but the horns render such details irrelevant if not unlistenable--their sour blare mimics Young's crude guitar sound all too crudely, and the charts lack that spontaneous spark, as charts generally do. Grabber: solo blues, with solitary trumpet fluttering in the background. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

The best-of has always been a dubious consumer service: even when it's a genuine bargain, it allows bizzers to make money off the same music twice, and don't think they don't love every dollar of it. These days, compilation-only bait cuts and CD programming make them dicier than ever. But critically, the big problem remains the same: this specific second time around, is the same music better, worse, pretty much the same, or none of the above? In other words, just how useful are these items? Such a judgment is even more subjective than a mere aesthetic one, and to illustrate I'll steer you away from three offerings whose constituent parts sound fairly dandy. Most egregious is Imagine: John Lennon: Music from the Original Motion Picture (Capitol). Foreshortening the first half of his career and romanticizing the second, it wouldn't exist without the tireless promotional efforts of Albert Goldman, and you can certainly do without the two work tapes it's suckered with. Then there's Fleetwood Mac. Since what distinguished them from your average great pop band was that their hits were improved by their filler, the radio-ready Greatest Hits (Warner Bros.) makes them seem blander than they actually were. I had more fun replaying side two of Mirage. As for Paul Simon's Negotiations and Love Songs 1971-1986 (Warner Bros.) it's what's called a gyp: a $12.98-list double-LP of perfect CD length that features just three more songs than CBS's superb and now out-of-print one-(vinyl)-disc 1977 best-of. What's more, the Graceland cuts cry out for home. I love "Mother and Child Reunion" myself, but this means boycott.

The Essential Tom T. Hall: Twentieth Anniversary Collection/The Story Songs (Mercury) is more like it. I'd call him a cross between Chekhov and O. Henry, but that would date him, because next to what the lit crowd calls sentimentality, sometimes played as a capper and sometimes as an offhand theme, the self-conscious narrator is his most characteristic device--one he never seems self-conscious about, fancy that. Nobody who owns fewer than 18 of these 20 gems should do without this gift from the Lords of Nashville. Ann Peebles's Greatest Hits (MCA) is another long overdue document from those halcyon early '70s, recommended to young people who think "I Can't Stand the Rain" is a Tina Turner song (ha!), though its 10-cut, 28-minute duration is almost as inexplicable as the tedious completism of her two import reissues from Demon. If your copy of The Gilded Palace of Sin remains as pristine as the Shroud of Turin, you can do without the Flying Burrito Brothers' Farther Along: The Best of the Flying Burrito Brothers (A&M cassette/CD), but even the outtakes prove that Gram Parsons saved this band from folk-rock, with folk-rocker Chris Hillman adding his less than gracious (and less than trenchant) commentary. The Psychedelic Furs' All of This and Nothing (Columbia) sounded tired last summer, but when I returned it to the turntable in early November, "President Gas" was prophecy and Richard Butler's existential fatigue, faithfully explored over what is now a full-length career, had taken on unexpected dignity: raging against the dying of the light, he refuses to act like a cornball in the process. James Brown's Funky People (Part 2) (Polydor) showcases the likes of Bobby Byrd, Marva Whitney, and Lyn Collins with Cliff White's customary brilliant instinct for the experimental anachronism, the soulful moment, and the def beat. At one clinker and one dubiety per side, Earth, Wind & Fire's The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire Vol. II (Columbia), drawn almost entirely from their '70s catalogue, is every bit as solid as volume one, which happens to be the best album they ever released. R.E.M.'s Eponymous (I.R.S.) is divided into "early" and "late" sides that acknowledge the dichotomy between their formalistic lyricism and their rock and roll content, and though it depends too heavily on Document for the latter, their longstanding avant-singles commitment justifies the package. Though Kool & the Gang's electro-disco "club remixes" of such bare-bones funk milestones as "Jungle Boogie" and "Hollywood Swinging" are off-putting, they're far from sacrilegious, and for the most part Everything's Kool & the Gang: Greatest Hits and More (Mercury) performs a valuable service for a perennially compromised band. On The Greatest Hits Collection (London), Stock Aitken Waterman's odious synthpop suits Bananarama's affectless echo better than Swain Jolley's shallow synthsoul, but it's some kind of camp achievement that just like the totally plastic singles group they play at being, they're equal to their most, er, meaningful early material. The Judds' Greatest Hits (RCA Victor) recycles a full one-third of their definitive debut mini and returns to life both "Love Is Alive" and "Grandpa (Tell Me 'Bout the Good Old Days)," yet at their most neocon they sound confidently prog-trad, and they have a knack for finding tunes that transcend their titles. Shoes' Best (Black Vinyl CD) is quintessentially problematic right from the label name, surely the most ironic ever entered in the digital sweepstakes: its generous length places an impossible burden on these quintessentially slight popsters, reducing them to the background entertainment those with no tolerance for fragility thought they were to begin with. By finessing his recent past, Peter Tosh's The Toughest (Capitol) camouflages the sad deterioration of one Jamaican artist whose hazy alienation always had a political edge. Human League's Greatest Hits (A&M) is body snatcher music, articulate simulated emotion fortified with the coldest hooks ever manufactured, and I keep feeling fascination despite myself. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's Best of OMD (A&M) puts "Electricity," "Enola Gay," and "Tesla Girls" on the same record, and what more do you want 'cept maybe the catchy medium-tempo trifles also included? The Thompson Twins' star power was so evanescent that on Greatest Mixes/The Best of Thompson Twins (Arista) they commemorate themselves as a dance act rather than a pop act--fine song selection, but their tepid beats will drift you off the floor and their pop fades before their dance mixes are over. Anybody who doubts Aerosmith made a great album once (and only once) should check the title of their second best-of, Gems (Columbia), and then explain why buried gems from Rocks lead both sides. The Best of Gladys Knight & the Pips: The Columbia Years (Columbia) makes you wonder what it takes to jolt this woman from her own competence. After Conscious Party, we can dismiss Time Has Come . . . : The Best of Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers (EMI-Manhattan) for the juvenilia we always suspected it was. And after Dire Straits' wittily entitled Money for Nothing (Warner Bros.), we can dismiss Mark Knopfler as the lifetime member of the Fraternal Order of Old Farts we always suspected he was. Finally, though it'll be hard to resist the Journey and REO Speedwagon best-ofs, why don't you make a sacrifice in favor of the multiple-artist AOR-cum-CHR The Heart of Rock (Columbia)--Robbie Nevil's "C'Est la Vie," Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is," proceeds to Tony Martell's cancer/AIDS research foundation?

Village Voice, Dec. 27, 1988

Nov. 29, 1988 Jan. 24, 1989