Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Finally, the return of world music, or shall we say Afro-internationalism--the Motherland provides seven entries, Jamaica two-and-a-half. And though it may seen otherwise, I don't go for every African album released stateside. I just see no point in panning the also-rans.

CULTURE: Good Things (RAS) After a 10-year layoff they have a right to simultaneous albums, but not simultaneous genre exercises. The overriding theme befits the layoff--they feel beset by all these kids who have strayed from the right path. "Cousin Rude Boy" and "Youthman Move" are fearful and imploring, so alienated that they're a tad less ordinary than you'd figure, while the title tune is positively avuncular--in one of the most unmillenarian sentiments ever uttered by a Rasta, it urges youth to enjoy electric lights and fax machines while they're still around. "Psalm of Bob Marley" has a great tune. B

CULTURE: Nuff Crisis! (Shanachie) Even more generic because it's less obsessive, this tour of reggae cliches (titles include "Peace, Love and Harmony" and "Jah Rastafari") makes up for it--with folkloric tropes (titles also include "Frying Pan" and "Bang Belly Baby"), the Roots Radics, and an edge of intensity. "Crack in New York," about Manley's war on ganja, almost gloats. Inspirational Cackle: "Even professionals get spoiled by it too (hah!)." B PLUS

DIBLO: Super Soukous (Shanachie) Melding what's finest about the original into a conceptual variant--like Sweetheart of the Rodeo turned Gilded Palace of Sin, say, or the Time turned Jam & Lewis--this solo debut (later albums are available under the band name Loketo) is the best kind of spinoff. Though it's fronted by soft-sung Aurlus Mabele, Kanda Bongo's man Diblo Dibala dominates--rolling out sweetly, sheerly, endlessly, piling signature riff on signature riff, his guitar lines and interludes lift and lyricize the boss's stripped-down Afrodisco. Thematically, he's traditional Afropop. Spiritually, he has more going for him. A MINUS

BILL FRISELL: Before We Were Born (Elektra/Musician) He can get too abstract in both jagged and atmospheric modes, and the eclectism signals a sideman's record: it's more impressive than meaningful to pass from hoedown to skronk in a second and harmolodic hymn next cut. But it is impressive--also fun. And unlike his predecessor Pat Metheny, Frisell needn't turn to Ornette for urban grit or deep content--which isn't to say Julius Hemphill doesn't sound right at home. B PLUS

DEBORAH HARRY: Def, Dumb and Blonde (Sire) Though she only approaches the daffy, wryly detached tone of past glories on maybe four songs (including a couple by the Thompson Twins), she's got the right idea and some nice touches--little recitatives, unassuming rap and house, Ian Astbury chiming in like Fred Schneider on Chris's occult number. The opener eagerly awaits the 21st century: "I'll keep the money/You can have the fame"; the closer goes on elegiacally about the pastness of past glories: "I knew it then/It won't be back again." And in the end she's worth the trip if you can go CD, thus securing a lyric sheet and four add-ons, three of them punky. B PLUS

THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN: Automatic (Warner Bros.) Success didn't lighten them up, but failure straightened them out--this is the hard-driving stuff preferred by all but the true gloom addicts in their target audience, with the gloom taken care of by lyrics about drugs, death, or both. It's as if they live in the glam-metal netherworld, only ever so much more tastefully--they flaunt no groupies, solos, or stupid fashion statements. If you've always had your doubts about their shtick, chances are you'll find the loss of aural mystery fatal. B MINUS

ORAN "JUICE" JONES: To Be Immortal (OBR/Columbia) The push here is an anticrack message that's not as fresh or convincing as he pretends, but whatever the man's relationship to cocaine, he's finally confronted his demon--he can't sing. Not a stupid guy, he hits upon a model more within his means than Blue Magic, generating the best Ray Parker Jr. record since "Ghostbusters" obviated the original's need for same. Not a nice guy either, he goes for a harder tone, with real live insight into the "Gangster Attitude" he knows so well. But the angular studio funk and talky vocals ring the right bells, and the slow ones you can ignore. B PLUS

QUINCY JONES: Back on the Block (Qwest) Q's ecumenicism stands as a beacon to the narrow-minded. Jazz, pop, rap, schlock, anonymous divas he's got a piece of, choruses going doo-doo-doo--they're all black music to him. The superrap with Zulu chant is a crossover worthy (also reminiscent) of Michael J., and Kool Moe Dee and Big Daddy Kane's "Birdland" lets Joe Zawinul into the canon while setting up a scat connection that further twists the eternal is-rap-bop-or-dozens? debate. As for Barry White, he's done worse. But he's also done better. B PLUS

THE JUNGLE BROTHERS: Done by the Forces of Nature (Warner Bros.) Somehow these young Afro-New Yorkers have evolved a rap version of urban African pop at its most life-affirming: the boasts low-key, the propaganda beyond hostility, the samples evoking everything tolerant and humane in recent black-music memory, this is music designed to comfort and sustain. Between DJ AfriKa's casual drawl and sidetalk that ebbs and flows under the main track like an inner-city McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the sound is as original as De La Soul's, and the dreams of pleasure are straight out the urban jungle--in my favorite, a smooth brother muses to the Coasters' "Shopping for Clothes" as a tropical stream washes over his family jewels. And though I can live without promises that the final judgment is at hand, the JB's do wonders for one's sense of doom just by sounding merciful. A

KANDA BONGO MAN: Kwassa Kwassa (Hannibal) Vocals mild, tempos unvaryingly moderate-plus, named for an African dance craze that's only a wonderful name to me or you ("Quoi Ça? Quoi Ça?"), this one-hour serving of modern soukous cynosure is what vulgar poppophiles call samey. The first two cuts played back-to-back will certainly delight whoever you play them for. Any two cuts played back-to-back will probably delight whoever you play them for. All 10 cuts played back to back will fade into the background as surely as Brian Eno or the washing machine. B PLUS

MIRIAM MAKEBA: Welela (Mercury) Too bad for Americans that this smart singer-songwriter collection--the voice sure and soulful without bearing down on the dignity, every tune greeting you like an old friend as its arrangement kicks in--is mostly in Xhosa. Also too bad that the songs in English are nothing special--makes you wonder whether the rest are as smart as they sound. B PLUS

THOMAS MAPFUMO: Corruption (Mango) Though there's nothing here as compelling as the Bristol-stomping "All my life" wail of "Hupenyu Wangu," this is looser and more indigenous than such renowned mid-'80s albums by the father of Zimbabwean pop as Chimurenaga for Justice. Never have his guitars sounded more like mbiras; never have his rhythms better evoked their own intricate selves. The vocals are also relaxed, giving off an aura of ruminative wisdom that may even have some truth to it. What can it be like to sing the poor against the rich in the language of your tribally divided country's ruling culture? Helps that, geopolitically, Shona is still a have-not tongue. A MINUS

MEAT BEAT MANIFESTO: Storm the Studio (Wax Trax) Bill Burroughs having given the word, these Brit art-schoolers shape two years of 12-inches into four sides of industrial-strength samples and "annihilating rhythm." And though they do sometimes settle for electrodance, the laughs and abrasions keep on coming. B PLUS

WILLIE NELSON: A Horse Called Music (Columbia) Over the four or five albums of a commercial decline that's probably permanent, he's proven more George Jones than Merle Haggard. That is, he's a genius interpreter who always stands a chance of hitting you where you live--even though, like Merle, he still occasionally writes his own, and because of rather than despite the show of laziness the two share. Assuming you can stomach many strings and two pretentious clinkers (the title trope plus one called "If I Were a Painting"), this is his best of the period, maybe because he put the least effort into it--it's when he tries to sing powerfully, or traffics in concepts like the '50s standards of What a Wonderful World, that he flounders. Sometimes, of course, his modest efforts come across flat; sometimes, no doubt, they really are lazy. But most of these murmured tributes to good love getting better and gone bad are touching and apt, and it's an illusion that the two big winners are remakes from his own book--the accurate figure is more like two of four. B [Later]

REMMY ONGALA AND ORCHESTRE SUPER MATIMILA: Songs for the Poor Man (Realworld) Isolated culturally and economically by socialist underdevelopment, Tanzanian pop nurtures national treasures more diligently than neighboring Zairean and Kenyan styles--though since soukous is hegemonic from Accra to Harare, you can bet both compete mightily. Ongala's unbrassy lineup--three guitarists, three percussionists, a bassist, and a sax player or two--doesn't strive the way Afro-Parisian often does, which is a relief. Rather than relentless Afrodance upmanship, he cultivates a variety that suits Tanzania's folk-friendly cultural policy. And whatever their actual rhythmic origins, the up-front conga parts that double the guitar lines convey an esteem for both tribal difference and East African ways that complements the caring precision of Ongala's singing and the undulating buoyancy of his groove. Sweet. Strong. Maybe even self-sufficient. A

MICHELLE SHOCKED: Captain Swing (Mercury) First line of the last one was "When I grow up I want to be an old woman," first line of this one is "God is a real estate developer." Last time she stuck to received country/folk-rock, this time she essays horn arrangements that got lost in the mail. I appreciate the genderfucks (she's hetero here, homo there, and male when you mess with her sister) and could go for a few of the love songs (the long-suffering "Silent Ways" in its current incarnation, the long-suffering "Sleep Keeps Me Awake" and roving "On the Greener Side" gone to heaven). But on the whole this is too arch, too busy, too artistic, too political, succumbing to the overreach that always beckons when you have greatness thrust upon you. B

SLY & ROBBIE: Silent Assassin (Island) The BDP raps are as strong as the S&R riddims, but despite their wealth of narrative detail they're more predictable, flattening this attempt to formalize a reggae-hip hop synthesis already in progress. Attributes not present: wit, joy, jokes, hooks. B PLUS

TABU LEY: Babeti Soukous (RealWorld) More showbiz if not Vegas than his great rival/collaborator Franco, soukous's surviving coinventor is a cornball so seigneurial that I've walked out on him twice, and at first I found this hectically eclectic live-in-the-studio best-of hard to listen to. But when I gave it a chance its constituent parts snuck up on me--the procession of dance beats and guitar styles, the female vocal cameos, even the Smokey-styled/stolen ballad. Take it as the Zairean equivalent of Sunny Adé's Juju Music--an unguided tour through a long, deep pop tradition. A MINUS [Later: B+]

TRANSVISION VAMP: Velveteen (Uni) Unlike the Sex Pistols, whom they resemble in so many ways, these cheesy media sluts want to Grow Musically. So they cop "Louie Louie" whole for their lead cut, and once they've scored that automatic bullseye, the shit just keeps on coming. Wendy James does love-versus-sex and tragedy-of-fame almost as good as Patti now, and with "Dust My Broom" and "Bo Diddley" ahead of her, she should create enduring art for the next two-three years or as long as her attitude holds, whichever comes first. B PLUS

THE VENANDA LOVELY BOYS: Bo-Tata (Rounder) A taste for mbube, isichatamiya, ingoma ebusuku, or what these notes call cothoza will never come naturally to Americans, but if Ladysmith got you interested, try this. The sharp, nasal leads are dominated for the non-Zulu ear by waggish effects that are probably more sound than sense anyway--whoops, rattles, repartee, animal calls. In short, it's not especially beautiful, which is good. How many Joseph Shabalalas can there be? How many do you want? B PLUS

Village Voice, Feb. 6, 1990

Dec. 26, 1989 Mar. 13, 1990