Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A rather fallow fall, I thought--three of the featured albums in my first A list since early October were post-Thanksgiving releases, and if you wanted to be mean and include Beck you could call seven archival. But 1994 has more to offer, and as Pazz & Jop gets serious you'll read all about 'em.

ARCHERS OF LOAF: Archers of Loaf vs The Greatest of All Time (Alias) Even when they fuck around--half a minute of silence to open, two minutes of scales to whet or ruin your appetite for their catchiest tune--they sound like a live band ready to service a living audience, their gleeful anger felt rather than assumed. And with a new album coming down the chute, this abrasively aestheticized little EP could be your last chance to one-up the madding crowd. A MINUS

ASS PONYS: Electric Rock Music (A&M) Before lo-fi liars convince you to put out a search on Grim, remember that where concept bands are designed to blow up on impact, song bands have a way of, well, improving. Preserved on tape by Afghan Whig John Curley, the music of their normal Middle American freak show--tunes, beat, Chuck Cleaver's anxious falsetto--has gained decisive aural legibility on their major-label sellout, which cost a whopping $2500 to record. And the folk-rock lyrics are firmly grounded in literalist local color from Sherwood Anderson to Tom T. Hall. A MINUS

THE BEATLES: Live at the BBC (Capitol) Only a grinch would deny the intrinsic entertainment value of this significant-by-definition package. For one thing, these are the first known radio tapes where the talk is more precious than the music--in addition to everything else, they were the funniest rock stars ever. A few of the covers--"A Shot of Rhythm and Blues," "Soldier of Love," "Lucille," and a "Baby It's You" that proves once and for all that John was the cute one--are among their greatest. But a number of the more obscure songs (Ann-Margret? the Jodimars?) never reached vinyl for the simple reason that they were too lame, and I bet most of the seven Chuck Berrys were vetoed for redundancy. What's more, these drop-in sessions give off none of the adrenaline rush of the screaming meemies at the Hollywood Bowl or the amphetamine intensity that breaks out of the dim Hamburg tapes--the audience is missing, and no one else is powerful enough to take its place. So in the end the chief historical beneficiary is George Martin, who may just have driven his lads to heights they were too relaxed to scale on their own. B PLUS

BECK: Stereopathetic Soul Manure (Flipside) The absurdist neofolkie as goofball abuser, most strikingly in ("ironic"?) rural guise--hick hermit, acoustic bluesman, wallower in honky-tonk lamentation. Satan, tacos, and aphids make multiple appearances, as does a crazy alien's unnatural falsetto. Cultish, and less than the sum of its inconsistent parts. But the offhand dazzle of these odds and sods is the stuff cults are made of. B PLUS

MARSHALL CRENSHAW: Marshall Crenshaw Live . . . My Truck Is My Home (Razor & Tie) You know the Iron Law of Live Albums: "They all suck." And you also know the Great Exception: "Unless you're a big big fan." Which, all right, I am--not least because his intelligence, integrity, and passion for the great song always show up in his music. As for instance here: 14 titles recorded at eleven separate engagements, most of '90s provenance but two dating back to '82, including fabulous covers of Dave Alvin and Alvin Cash, Bobby Fuller and the Byrds, Abba and the MC 5. And even the ones he wrote himself will remind those who never fell for that wimp nonsense about his passion for great guitar. The man can play. A MINUS

DARK CITY SISTERS AND FLYING JAZZ QUEENS (Earthworks) Lumped with the Mahotella Queens when recalled by Afropop historians at all, Joyce Mogatusi's close-harmony Dark City Sisters are in fact far less raucous--more girl-group than big-mama. They offer the best clue yet as to just exactly what the mysterious "marabi" sounded like. Recall if you can the pop-jazz shadings of Dorothy Masuka, and note the three inevitable and excellent Mahlathini tracks--where the Queens compete with the witch doctor, the Sisters stay as sweet as they are. Also, be glad of this: no fewer than seven songs adduce dances--some new, some traditional, some just themselves. A MINUS

DIGABLE PLANETS: Blowout Comb (Pendulum/EMI) Their edge was music not attitude, vocals not words--they had 'em both, their fellow middle-class revolutionaries in Arrested Development didn't. So while the follow-up rhymes could be more down-to-earth, it's amazing how good they sound with a live band and limited samples--less jazzy, a loss, but still thick, warm, and smoove. They rap like themselves and no one else, and as skilled as the guys are, Ladybug is the genius, even putting across rap's most (nay, only) charming piece of sun-people demonology: "I'm 62 inches above sea level/Ninety-three million miles above these devils." A MINUS

FU-SCHNICKENS: Nervous Breakdown (Jive) You want an inkling of how grim things are for black kids right now, try and find another current rap record that manages to mean a damn thing without slipping into gangsta suicide or Afrocentric cryptoracism. Since this one sank faster than Public Enemy, maybe it doesn't mean much either, but to me the East Flatbush trio radiates the hope hip hop was full of not so long ago. There's deep pleasure in their vocal tradeoffs and hard, wryly textured tracks. There's wordwise grace in rhymes that balance B-movie fantasy against everyday brutality without denial or despair. And there's joy in the nonpareil skills of reformed backward rapper Chip Fu. He coughs, he hiccups, he snorts, he stutters; he whinnies, wheezes, wows, and flutters. A MINUS

KWANZAA MUSIC (Rounder) Kwanzaa, Black History Month, whatever--Africa's musical diaspora is worth celebrating by formal imperative. So instead of flowing like a good multiple-artist compilation should, this one parades the startling diversity generated by a root aesthetic of body-based polyrhythm, expressive emotion, and speechlike song. You'll hardly notice the three subclassic New Orleans/Texas tracks as you're transported Bahamas to Brazil, Peru to Mali, Sudan to Haiti to Zimbabwe. An inspiriting, educational tour de force. A MINUS

M PEOPLE: Elegant Slumming (Epic) Perfect records are so rare that it's foolish to cavil about the scope of the great disco album Soul II Soul and Yaz never got near (although Donna Summer did once). Each five-minute song clicks into its slot on the Michael Pickering-Paul Heard beats and hooks and special effects, with low tenor Heather Small gender-bending her diva devotion over the top. What's a rock and roller to do with such music? Proud Heather puts it perfectly in her angriest moment: "Take it like a man baby if that's what you are." A

BARRY WHITE: All-Time Greatest Hits (Mercury) White's R-rated revival was prefigured not by the latest disco boomlet, so hard to distinguish from its many predecessors, but by the jeepbeat masterminds who will certainly raid the maestro's catalogue as soon as he can get it for them wholesale. He did his share of banging back in the day, and he's always had the integrity to remain utterly lowbrow--street, as they say. Of course, the main thing White heard in the 'hood was the brandy-spiked whipped cream in his head, and with Phil Spector a living legend, nobody could know how few would share such genius. But two decades later "Love's Theme" is a milestone. And then there are his raps, as his style of romantic palaver was called, and a voice that could make Tone-Loc beg for mercy. Never an album artist, he's the stuff of camp for some, and limited for anyone who isn't his sex subject. But where 1993's box was way too much, this 20-song sampler has me hearing the deep truth in "Just the Way You Are": "I don't want clever/Conversation/I don't want to work that hard." A MINUS

VICTORIA WILLIAMS: Loose (Mammoth) Whimsy's not a pose or an aesthetic decision with this woman, it's who she is, and there's no use blaming her for it. Instead, gauge how far you can tolerate her quirks and proceed accordingly, because she's finally transformed her folksy positivism into a worldview worthy of her talent--or maybe honed her talent into a winning vehicle for her worldview. Either way I suspect the reason is less that she's seen the flip side of eternity than that she can no longer doubt how many people love her. It's a responsibility, that much affection--makes you track down those inspirations, finish those songs, get up and go to the studio no matter how scared you are. Makes you not just love back but say why. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

PIZZICATO FIVE: Made in USA (Matador) Avant-pop fixtures in Japan, they're considerably more skillful than our home-grown lounge-wave bands. And despite sonics brittler than anything fashioned by Juan Garcia Esquivel, whose curious little Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music comp is the sensibility's most impressive archeological dig, their fondness for post-1963 black dance music insures a better beat. But they have an attitude problem: an affectlessness that renders them more unreadable than Madonna or John Waters or the Pet Shop Boys or any other pop ironyworker except Saint Andy, who both invented the stance and did more with it. Although I might get it if I'd seen them live, it's my policy never to give an inch to recording artists who say things like, "Without the visuals, people wouldn't understand us." And although I might get it if I were Japanese, I'm not. In fact, I could even surmise that their failure to reveal the emotional core that glints out from Madonna and Waters and especially the Pet Shop Boys bespeaks a repressed culture that has zero claim on an alien's empathy. But I won't. B [Later]

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Walter Becker, 12 Tracks of Whack (Giant): rich junkie's gimlet-voiced lament ("Junkie Girl," "Down in the Bottom")
  • James Brown, Soul Pride: The Instrumentals 1960-1969 (Polydor): all the jams you need and more ("Ain't It Funky Now, Pts. 1 & 2," "Come On in the House")
  • Ace of Base, The Sign (Arista): simple music for a perfect world ("All That She Wants," "Happy Nation")
  • Butch Thompson, Yulestride (Daring): hymns laced with standards and bent quietly into cocktail-piano wassail ("Silent Night," "Jingle Bells")
  • Mike Seeger, Third Annual Farewell Reunion (Rounder): old-timey all-stars ("Shaking Off the Acorns," "Brown's Ferry Blues")
  • Shaquille O'Neal, Shaq Fu--Da Return (Jive): he's got skills, connections, a wicked laugh--and he can rhyme some ("Biological Didn't Bother," "No Hook")
  • Roberta Flack, Roberta (Atlantic): the great black pop of middle-class dreams ("Cottage for Sale," "Let's Stay Together")
  • Joi, The Pendulum Vibe (EMI/ERG): freedom as manumission, freedom as swinging both ways ("Freedom," "Narcissa Cutie Pie")
  • Nice and Smooth, Jewel of the Nile (RAL): rap's pop dream--living large, acting nice, staying smooth ("Let's All Get Down," "Save the Children")
  • The Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die (Bad Boy): "I been robbin' motherfuckers since the slave ship" ("Things Done Changed," "Suicidal Thoughts") [Later: A-]
  • Beck, One Foot in the Grave (K): his one-offs top Calvin's keepers ("He's a Mighty Good Leader," "Asshole")
  • Mary J. Blige, My Life (Uptown/MCA): an around-the-way girl's recipe for happiness ("Mary Jane," "I'm Goin' Down")
  • Barry White, The Icon Is Love (A&M): "You know time has played a very important role in our relationship/It was time that first brought us together and/It's time that we separate and leave each other" ("Practice What You Preach," "Whatever We Had, We Had")
  • The Silos, Susan Across the Ocean (Watermelon): listen to the originals, keep the covers ("Let's Take Some Drugs and Drive Around," "I'm Straight")
  • Madonna, Bedtime Stories (Maverick/Sire): generic self-regard over the best tracks fame can buy ("Don't Stop") [Later: **]
Choice Cuts:
  • Wilco With Syd Straw, "The T.B. Is Whipping Me" (Red Hot + Country, Mercury)
  • Scarface, "I Seen a Man Die" (The Diary, Rap-a-lot/Noo Trybe)
  • John Cougar Mellencamp with Me'Shell NdegéOcello, "Wild Nights" (Dance Naked, Mercury)
  • Beck, "Got No Mind" (Beercan, DGC)
  • The Black Crowes, Amorica (American)
  • John Cougar Mellencamp, Human Wheels (Mercury)
  • Morrissey, Vauxhall and I (Sire/Reprise)
  • Graham Parker, Graham Parker's Christmas Cracker (Dakota)

Village Voice, Jan. 17, 1995

Dec. 27, 1994 Feb. 21, 1995