Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

My annual pre-Pazz & Jop A list offers one early-'96 release, more than the usual quota of high B plusses, and no clues to my personal top 10, most of which was in the changer by June.

THE AMPS: Pacer (4AD/Elektra) Definitely slight and probably a one-off, which is what we said about the Breeders, this collection of songs for workaday buddy-band is as uneven as the vocal charms it showcases. But showcase them it does--speedy or dreamy, Kim Deal sounds so sane, so unpretentious, so goddamn nice that you want to take her home and give her a shampoo. B PLUS

BOBBIE CRYNER: Girl of Your Dreams (MCA) Having gone nowhere with the best pure country album by any woman this decade, Cryner cuts a purer country album--nicer, sweeter, more male-identified despite "I Didn't Know My Own Strength," an all-purpose declaration of independence she should submit to AA. And in case you doubt she's a giant killer, she leads off with "Son of a Preacher Man," which I thought Dusty and Aretha owned, and makes the sex sound like fun instead of sin. Cryner is a terrific writer--"Preacher Man" excepted, the five songs with her name on them are the five sharpest, with the devastating "You'd Think He'd Know Me Better" her subtlest addition to Nashville's family values campaign. But the reason she expects to take over the world is that's she's an equally focused singer--even more so with Tony Brown inducing her to add flashes of clarity and infusions of warmth to her natural smoke and sass. A MINUS

ANI DIFRANCO: Not a Pretty Girl (Righteous Babe) Although her mostly female young cult loves this self-starting folk-punk madly, the guys I know smell trouble every time she opens her mouth. This has nothing to do with her face, body, or sense of style. It's her words, the sheer volume of them, jetting out in expressionistic torrents as if she feels free to say any goddamn thing that comes to mind. But give DiFranco the chance and she may just make you like her ancient formula for self-indulgent songpoetry. Augmented only by a drummer this time, her acoustic guitar and electric bass produce a sound of self-evident distinction, and those torrents take shape as literal accounts of a mercurial inner life with more love than anger in it, no matter what guys think. So if she's not my type and maybe not yours, big deal. At 24, she already has seven albums hanging from her nose ring, and they're getting good enough that we need her more than she needs us. A MINUS [Later]

THE FUGS: The Fugs First Album (Fantasy) If I had any principles I'd carp as usual. Why not excise what a neutral observer would reasonably judge unlistenable--tuneless "Ah, Sunflower," contract discussion, Warhol raspberries--and fold in the undeniable likes of "Kill for Peace" and "Morning Morning" from the The Fugs Second Album, which comes complete with echo, vocal harmonies, actual lead guitar? Or better still, let Rhino mine the un-CD'ed Warner catalogue for a best-of permanently establishing their right to make fun of Andy, whose gossip squad still disses these latter-day beatniks with catty bohemian-sectarian condescension. Well, sometimes history is its own reward. The counterculture the Fugs inhabit is fascinating even when it isn't entertaining, and educational both ways. Not only do they bury most Kerouac, but their prerock music--with Peter Stampfel chiming in, Ken Weaver not yet a burlier Spencer Dryden, and (crucially) Tuli Kupferberg's songs at the forefront--rides the homemade charm and unsullied aura of discovery lo-fi sentimentalists think they're living for. A MINUS

GET SHORTY (Antilles) Two new compositions perform the postmodern miracle of updating the Booker T. template "Green Onions," which is included for comparison. Especially in the five-minute version featuring his happy vocal interjections, soundtrack designer John Lurie's "Stink" melds jumpy funk to Casio kalimba with fine postneoprimitivist brio. And Us3's "Chilli Hot" hot-wires both action and music with the drop-dead snap and self-referential sass they cry out for. Too bad so much of the rest merely does its job--by declining to develop snatches like the matched pair "Bo at Airport" and "Romantic Walk," Lurie aspires to atmosphere rather than the redefinition of r&b. Too bad--better him than such well-modulated helpmates as Morphine and Medeski Martin & Wood. B PLUS

AL GREEN: Your Heart's in Good Hands (MCA) MCA is docked a notch for updating German BMG's admittedly long-winded Don't Look Back by hiring Queen of Banality Diane Warren to write a new lead track, and then having Little King of Funk Lite Narada Michael Walden produce it. Jodeci's DeVante provides the other new one, and although Al schmears his mythic high range all over both, their timid low range sounds like nothing more than a suave market ploy up against the emulated Hi Rhythm and borrowed Fine Young Cannibals propelling everything that follows. B PLUS [Later]

JANET JACKSON: Design of a Decade 1986/1996 (A&M) Her two count-'em two A&M albums produced 12 count-'em 12 top-five singles. All are here. So are two excellent tracks from her one count-it one Virgin album, and two rather less excellent previously unreleaseds. The three estimate-'em three million who own both A&M albums obviously needn't bother. But for those who once begrudged her the place she's earned in the pop cosmos, here's the best Jam & Lewis album anyone has ever heard. A MINUS [Later]

THE KLEZMATICS: Jews With Horns (Xenophile) If I was a maven, maybe the hodgepodge of influences would grate, but more likely they'd just delight more. Conceptually, the pleasure here is how subtly a free and easy universalism animates a style that's often provincial on purpose and sometimes culture-bound in spite of itself. And musically, it's how unassumingly these folks deploy their endless chops. That goes even for the wonderful singer Lorin Sklamberg, who never betrays the slightest emotional or physical strain even though he's as transcendent a tenor as today's semipop can offer--and for my second favorite, violinist Alicia Svigals, and for avant-clarinetist David Krakauer, and Miles-inflected Frank London, and loose-limbed David Licht, and no doubt bassist-vocalist Paul Morrissett too. This is a wedding music for listeners of every sexual persuasion. Its object is joy. Its miracle is that they come by the joy honestly. A MINUS [Later]

JO CAROL PIERCE: Bad Girls Upset by the Truth (Monkey Hill) A song cycle about a Lubbock girl who seeks Jesus on the two-lane black-top of carnal knowledge and ultimately enjoys the just desert of giving birth to Her, this is clearly the product of an abusive childhood. Like, she asks her mama what women do with all those extra ova they lay and what is she told? "Color 'em, decorate 'em, and hide 'em in the yard." And what's her dad's idea of living-room conversation? "I am so horny I'd fuck a rockpile if I thought there was a snake in it." Fortunately, Jo Carol overcompensates via a verbal hypertrophy she feels compelled to display over a 78-minute album featuring some dozen songs, with equal time for explanations. And she's aided handsomely by a bunch of musicians who are there for her every time she commits suicide. A MINUS

THE ROLLING STONES: Stripped (Virgin) Accepting--nay, embracing--the necessity of performing as a unit, they rehearsed. Ditto his responsibilities as a member of Great Britain's ruling class, Mick enunciated--except on the sole words not reproduced in the lyric booklet (that's right, lyric booklet), which go, approximately, "She was [n?]ifty, [sh?]ifty, she looked about 50." And macabre though it may seem, they all went out and cut not merely another unplugged recap, but a live album that reprises their classic material and groove in an honorably autumnal spirit--an album that might tell you something a decade from now. Muddy Waters would be proud. A MINUS

WAITING TO EXHALE (Arista) With the shining exception of Aretha Franklin and the dim one of Chaka Khan, none of this amazing array of divas is funny, honest, introspective, or original enough to sustain an entire album--not matriarch Patti LaBelle or B-girl Mary J. Blige or new jills SWV or sexpots TLC, not Toni or Brandy or Whitney herself. And since producer-songwriter Babyface has always been kind of soft as well, it's not as if they suddenly equal Billie Holiday, singly or collectively. But because they're enough like each other to flow and enough unlike each other to put the music through some changes, this stands as a significant, stirring showcase for a sensibility. Proudly pliant, mucous membranes at the ready, the one woman they fuse into isn't quite a virtuoso even when she has the chops, because that would distract from her business, which is pleasure. Anyway, it's her skills that count, not her chops. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

TRACY CHAPMAN: New Beginning (Elektra) Beyond thrilling to "Bang Bang Bang" and the inescapable "Fast Car," my only felt insight into Chapman's aura came at a Nelson Mandela tribute where her voice filled the venue, which happened to be Yankee Stadium. Maybe it's a positive that her recordings never convey that kind of size--means she's more modest than her foremothers, Joan Baez and Odetta. But what's left is a joylessly self-sufficient gravity that makes her "heaven's here on earth" sound a lot more pro forma, not to say phonier, than her "The whole world's broke/And it ain't worth fixing." B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Sleater-Kinney (Chainsaw): figuring out love by learning hate ("Be Yr Mama," "The Day I Went Away") [Later: A-]
  • Telephone Lobi/Telephone Love (Original Music): medium-statured persons of Ghanaian danceband highlife (Red Spots, "Oya Kae Me"; Professional Beach Melodians "Uhuru No. 2," "Akwantu")
  • The Beatles, Anthology (Apple): after the hype has cleared, this--their inalienable right to juvenilia, historical context, and live ones where you can hear the words ("Money (That's What I Want)," "Can't Buy Me Love," "Shout," "Moonlight Bay")
  • Hole, Ask for It (Caroline): well before Live Through This, her outtakes have it going on ("Pale Blue Eyes," "Over the Edge")
  • The Foremen, Folk Heroes (Reprise): "We used to wanna sing like Joan Baez/Jesus, what were we smoking?" ("Russian Limbaugh," "Peace Is Out")
  • Martina McBride, Wild Angels (RCA): a marriage manual like only Nashville can make them ("Crying on the Shoulder of the Road," "All the Things We've Never Done")
  • Salif Keita, "Folon" . . . The Past (Mango): Malian world-beat with a pan-Afropop flavor-not-flava ("Africa," "Dakan-Fe")
  • All-4-One, An All-4-One Christmas (Blitzz/Atlantic): always they should have such good material ("Silent Night," "Frosty the Snowman"/"Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer")
  • Genius/GZA, Liquid Swords (Geffen): gangsta as mystery, religious and literary ("Shadowboxin'," "Killah Hills 10304")
  • Tribe 8, Fist City (Alternative Tentacles): lay back and trust the band, gal--also your own lyrics ("Freedom," "Barnyard Poontang")
  • Dave Stewart, Greetings From the Gutter (EastWest): Bowie lives! ("Heart of Stone," "Oh No, Not You Again")
  • D'Angelo, Brown Sugar (EMI): OK, OK, but Marvin did write songs ("Brown Sugar," "Sh*t, Damn, Motherf*cker")
Choice Cuts:
  • Stephen Yerkey, "Cocksucking Blonde" (Confidence Man, Heyday)
  • Alanis Morissette, "All I Really Want," "You Oughta Know" (Jagged Little Pill, Maverick/Reprise) [Later: B+]
  • All-4-One, "We Dedicate," "I Could Love You Like That" (And the Music Speaks, Blitzz/Atlantic)
  • L.L. Cool J, "Doin It" (Mr. Smith, Def Jam)
  • Luniz, "I Got 5 on It" (Operation Stackola, Noo Trybe)
  • Helium, "Pat's Trick" (The Dirt of Luck, Matador)
  • Goodie Mob, "Guess Who" (Soul Food, LaFace) [Later: **]
  • Sally Timms, "Homburg," "Junk Barge" (To the Land of Milk and Honey, Feel Good All Over)
  • Ain't Nuthin' but a She Thing (London)
  • Aztec Camera, Frestonia (Reprise)
  • David Bowie, Outside (Virgin)
  • Cypress Hill, III (Temple of Boom) (Ruffhouse/Columbia)
  • Helium, Pirate Prude (Matador)
  • Hempilation (Capricorn)
  • KRS One (Jive)
  • Ann Magnuson, The Luv Show (Geffen)
  • Mecca Normal, Sitting on Snaps (Matador)
  • Pram, Sargasso Sea (Too Pure/American)
  • Space Needle, Voyager (Zero Hour)
  • Sponge, Rotting Pinata (Chaos/Columbia)
  • Tapestry Revisited (Lava/Atlantic)
  • Chris Whitley, Din of Ecstasy (Columbia)

Village Voice, Jan. 23, 1996

Dec. 26, 1995 Feb. 20, 1996