Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

If in a month of sifting I haven't found a guitar band that can keep me happy longer than 20 minutes, well, I'm just doing my job--however little it seems to mean as I write, around 2 p.m. January 15. Good luck, world.

JEWEL ACKAH: Me Dear (Highlife World import) A onetime soccer pro who's been singing 25 years, long enough to watch highlife sink from top of the Afropops to regional specialty, he's not down, no sir. Talking tradition here and synthesis there, based in Ghana but happy to service the Anglophone diaspora, he goes with what he knows, including blues licks, reggae beats, and pop-funk basslines. From Accra to Toronto, he's making it in his own little world, and he's here to tell you you can too. A MINUS

THE CIVIL WAR (Elektra Nonesuch) A panorama of American melody circa 1865, when all manner of minstrels and semiclassically trained composers were melding hymns and folk airs into an American popular style. Modest execution guards against dated fussiness, forced projection, and parlor gentility--on its own terms it's a quiet classic. But its elegiac reflectiveness calls out for gruesome pictures that aren't there--because it conceives music as a respite from war, never as a weapon, it's more sentimental than the music deserves. Did you know that North Carolina's Salem Brass Band used to play in the midst of battle to spur the boys on, or that at a post-Appomattox concert a Southern major told his Yankee hosts, "Gentlemen, if we had had your songs, we'd have licked you out of your boots"? Not from this you didn't. A MINUS

GANG OF FOUR: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century (Warner Bros.) A gorgeous artifact, history by a band that doesn't even control its own--all their product good (Entertainment, Solid Gold, Another Day/Another Dollar, Songs of the Free) and bad (Hard) has been deleted ("is history," one might say), replaced by one otherwise uncompromising nonvinyl retrospective. Explication aplenty is provided by the Greil Marcus essay that supports the package, though he underplays their crabwise rhythmic progress and sporadic militance. Docked a notch so you scour the remainder bins first. A MINUS [Later]

HEAVY ON THE HIGHLIFE! (Original Music) The six selections on this 67-minute best-of are attributed to three artists, but I say they're all the Oriental Brothers, so called because they're from eastern Nigeria--the biggest stars of what was once Biafra, where Yoruba juju somehow never caught on. With the polite Ghanaian horn sections that lace through the accompanying Giants of Danceband Highlife as passe as colonialism by the time the war was over, Sir Warrior Opara, Dan Satch Opara, and Godwin Kabaka Opara went for a wild Afropop that combined indigenous guitar hooks with the putatively Zairean rhythms then sweeping the continent. Unlike the Ibo hits preserved on Vertigo's long-lost African Music comp, the four-minute l973-1974 songs are gentle and charming only in comparison to the 18-minute mid-'80s tours de force that follow. Natural soul disco from the heart of Africa, they don't relent until they fade into forever. Listening rather than dancing, your attention may wander for a minute or two, but whenever you tune back in, Dan Satch is coming at the guitar beat from yet another angle, or Sir Warrior is shouting out yet another variation on an eternal theme that transcends whatever tribal truism translation might provide--a confluence of body and spirit you wish touched those who would impoverish either, which always means both. A PLUS [Later: A]

ICE CUBE: Kill at Will (Priority EP) I don't want to claim the criticism is getting to him--still talking tough, he remixes "Get Off My Dick and Tell Your Bitch To Come Here." But he's keeping his woman problem to himself and putting the gangsta shit in perspective: "The Product" tells a young black con's story from his pops's nut, "Dead Homiez" cops to a sadness a lesser outlaw might consider unmanly. With Sir Jinx running the board, the beats never work up to carpet-bomb density. And if Ice Cube keeps rhyming like this, you won't care. A MINUS

PÉPÉ KALLÉ (Gefraco) The soft touch of Empire Babuka's headman takes his speedy new wave soukous a crucial lift or two higher than Loketo's more masculine Soukous Trouble. But a Diblo Dibala record is what it is--in a style where every guitarist sounds the same and pretty damn good, the producer's articulated billows of rhythm always encourage your faith that this time it'll be even better. And especially on the buoyant, surging "L'Argent Ne Fait Pas le Bonheur," it is. A MINUS

JERRY LEE LEWIS: Rockin' My Life Away (Tomato) Last time I saw this fugitive from Madame Tussaud's was a 1984 performance video that convinced me Mr. Scratch had collected his half of the bargain in advance. So I expected nothing from this slightly earlier live-at-the-Palomino rehash, James Burton or no James Burton. And was immediately confronted with a "You Win Again" so bitter, so reconciled, so defeated, so above-it-all, so miserable that for a few songs I suspected the monkey-gland shots had worked--except that he sounds old, old and lecherous, old and lecherous and determined to enjoy it. Things do wear down in the middle, the voice can get weird, and caveat emptor: if these versions aren't identical to the 11 duplicated songs on Tomato's companion volumes, the country Heartbreak and the rockin' Rocket '88, Jerry Lee taught his shit to Milli Vanilli. Nashville-haters may prefer Rocket '88--"Chantilly Lace" and "Headstone" are keepers. But the true-pop "Harbor Lights" and "You Belong to Me" suit his ecumenical voracity, and James Burton is hot wherever. When and if he finally dies, the Killer's gonna challenge Mr. Scratch to a piano-playing contest. Then he's gonna show Cousin Jimmy his ass. A MINUS

MONIE LOVE: Down to Earth (Warner Bros.) Set loose on a saturated market, female rappers must overcome overproduction--like the indie rockers before them, they're competing for a store of compelling musical ideas that's clearly diminishing even though its limits will never be determined. But rhymewise--contentwise--they're just getting started. Connected to the street and her family's front steps, Monie's shtick is proud rather than hostile, as in "R U Single," where she sees through a casanova's bullshit to what's "cute and smart" about him: "And don't you getta attitude when I speak straight and blunt/It simply shows you ma brother that I don't front." She radiates sisterhood even though she concentrates on the guys, and positivity and tradition even though her only political/cultural move is "Swiney Swiney," the most disgusting antimeat song you ever heard. And she finds way more than her statistical share of beats. Cute and smart--also tough. A MINUS [Later]

THE MEKONS: F.U.N. '90 (A&M EP) Such traditionalists yet such parodists, such idealists yet such cynics--such pomo conflaters. Their latest interim EP is another all-cover job: Robbie Robertson as Gram Parsons, Kevin Coyne as Sally Timms, the supposedly trad. arr. "Sheffield Park," and a hotel-room vocal by Lester Bangs turned muffled centerpiece of . . . what have we here? A dance record, maybe they think--except for the "country" song, every track motorvates off an atypically insistent and/or electronic riff or obbligato. So maybe it isn't interim after all--maybe it marks one of their big transitions. And maybe it's a goof. A MINUS

MY BLOODY VALENTINE: Glider (Sire/Warner Bros. EP) The first two cuts all but wordless, the final two murmured in a studio-stoned trance, this is the industrial new age their organlike guitars have always promised--the reliable rhythm of a giant linoleum buffer systematically rubbing the skin off your soul. A MINUS

RED HOT AND BLUE (Chrysalis) Although only Shane MacGowan, David Byrne, and Debbie & Iggy have ever been identified professionally with punk, only the Jungle Brothers--whose suave rap, unlike Neneh Cherry's gauche one, ignores Cole Porter altogether--would exist as we know them without it. From U2 to K.D. Lang to Sinead O'Connor, from Tom Waits to Salif Keita to the Neville Brothers, they've all built their market shares in fissures of taste and heightened expectation that punk opened up. And this is where punk's fierce certainty that "rock" is never enough ends up--in the suspicion that the "rock" punk changed utterly and not at all is actually a historical phase of "pop." Rarely has the pomo practice of trashing history while you honor it reached such a pitch of accomplishment. The songs are so strong that they remain Porter's whether Waits is bellowing one to death or the Fine Young Cannibals are rearranging one to a draw or Lisa Stansfield is literalizing one to within an inch of its printed lyric. Inevitably, there are duds, but listen enough and they shift on you. The recontextualizations--O'Connor's gravid "You Do Something to Me," Keita's Mandinka "Begin the Beguine," Erasure's electrodance "Too Darn Hot"--are for the ages. A

SHAZZY: Attitude: A Hip-Hop Rapsody (Elektra) "You nigger-nappin', corny-snappin', booger-pickin', butt-be-kickin', no-tooth big-lip-breathin', night-funk-lovin', mother-starvin' marvin eatin' out o' garbage cans wearin' holey drawers and a bra strap tryin' to call yourself a man." And also: "Black's the race 50 per cent of my blood flow/The other flows white or what society won't show." This never gets catchier than "Giggahoe"'s freestyle dissing and soul-grown piano-and-horns hook. But the music is deep, subtle, and culturally audacious throughout, claiming its turf with a radio-sample intro that includes FDR and Molly Goldberg as well as MLK and Muhammad Ali. You may think she's consorting with the enemy. You may think she's too middle-class, too judgmental. And you may think she's not earth mother enough to talk so sisterly. But she ain't playing--especially with you. Docked half a notch for withholding two crucial cuts from vinyl and cassette. B PLUS [Later: A-]

SKA BEATS 1 (ROIR cassette) So here we are "in the age of sample," and who should come diddybopping out of hip house but Prince Buster and the Skatalites? Evoking history without quoting it on any but the most obvious or abstract levels, the upstart mixers and rappers who mastermind the permutation make the old-timers sound livelier and more righteous than the dancehall competition. Is it pride in a black tradition untainted by the U.S.A. that keeps Brits coming back to ska, or just the all-purpose quickstep of the beat? Irrepressible either way. A MINUS

TRAVELING WILBURYS: Vol. 3 (Wilbury/Warner Bros.) A genre piece without a genre, this plays down the masquerade--Tom Petty's superstar equipment-storage problems coexist naturally with toxic golfers, blood-yellow skies, uppity wimmin, elusive wimmin, greedy wimmin, and of course beautiful wimmin. From the gal who's "got a body for business, got a head for sin" to riffs that date to when they were pups, it shows off just enough of the colloquial command of the old masters they hype themselves as. Inspirational Verse: "Lift your other foot up/Fall on your ass/Get back up/Put your teeth in a glass." B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • The Vaughan Brothers, Family Style (Epic Associated): dance music from Jimmy and Nile ("White Boots," "Hard To Be")
  • Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, Wanted: Dead or Alive (Cold Chillin'): hard again ("Streets of New York," "Erase Racism")
  • ZZ Top, Recycler (Warner Bros.): title of the year ("Concrete and Steel," "Decision or Collision")
  • Primus, Frizzle Fry (Caroline): Don Knotts Jr. joins the Minutemen ("Mr. Knowitall," "Spegetti Western")
  • Christmas Party With Eddie G. (Strikin' It Rich/Columbia): cut to ribbons (Detroit Junior, "Christmas Day"; Bobby Lloyd and the Skeletons, "Do You Hear What I Hear/You Really Got Me"; Rufus Thomas, "I'll Be Your Santa Baby") [Later: *]
Choice Cuts:
  • K-Solo, "Tales From the Crack Side" (Tell the World My Name, Atlantic)
  • Safi Abdullah, "Afrika Is Burning '89," "Another One Gone" (Another One Gone, Shanachie)
  • Dread Zeppelin, "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth"; Klark Kent, "Yo Ho Ho" (Just in Time for Christmas, I.R.S.)
  • Rockin' Dopsie & the Zydeco Twisters, "Jingle Bells"; Dr. John, "Merry Christmas Baby" (A Creole Christmas, Epic Associated)
  • David Baerwald, Bedtime Stories (A&M)
  • Bob Mould, Black Sheets of Rain (Virgin)
  • Paul Simon, The Rhythm of the Saints (Warner Bros.) [Later: *]

Village Voice, Jan. 29, 1991

Dec. 25, 1990 Feb. 26, 1991