Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

The sharp-eyed will detect a total absence of white guitar bands from this month's A list. It's not permanent--I'm working on a few. On the other hand, it's not what I would have hoped. In theory, I love white guitar bands, honest.

JOHN ANDERSON: Greatest Hits (BNA) By now, his irreverent working-stiff warmth is both likable shtick and a precondition of his specialty, happy love songs whose notion of permanent fun combines conjugal self-sufficiency and downhome raunch. The best thing here is a rocking Georgia Satellites remake. The most surprising comes when he cops to his own careerism with a sad, loving song about a family that's functional but not altogether together. B PLUS

ROBSON BANDA AND THE NEW BLACK EAGLES: Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (Zimbob) If Thomas Mapfumo is a genius, his biggest fan is a pro, reassuring of voice and steadfast of mind. There's no prophet in him--he's a singing moralizer who knows that when a Zimbabwean commandeers three guitars, two have learned something from the thumb piano. Reprocessing the little melodies in which southern Africa abounds, Banda leads two Earthworks compilations with standouts this showcase couldn't do without. Here are some more. B PLUS

MARK CHESNUTT: Greatest Hits (Decca) Chesnutt's claim to authenticity is that he grew up in Beaumont like George Jones and cut a lot of dud 45s like his daddy before him--not that he came out of the East Texas that produced the music, but that he came out of the music East Texas produced. Forget it, Mark--you're Nashville. On your breakthrough single you hang out in the honky tonk as an alternative to playing golf. On your breakthrough tearjerker you only wish you could wilt as many bouffants as that fat wimp Garth. And on your best-of you put on your hits one at a time and see if they stand up. The tearjerkers deserve more juice, but somebody up there knows how to pick 'em. And when it comes to working-class hell-raisers like "It Sure Is Monday" and the immortal "Bubba Shot the Jukebox," you're the bully of the town. A MINUS

GEORGE CLINTON: Greatest Funkin' Hits (Capitol) A remix album, not a best-of, and one that avoids the promotional overkill and commercial double jeopardy of its half-assed demigenre. The live track, the previously unreleased, the remakes from the unnoteworthy R&B Skeletons and the unnoticed Jimmy G., the woofing bookends, the recycled P-Funk classics--all are renewed and of a piece. One secret weapon is youngbloods who owe him, including the Miss America he saved from the bluenoses and a typically nonjudgmental range of excellent rappers--Ice Cube and Q-Tip, Coolio and Busta Rhymes, Humpty Hump and Ol' Dirty Bastard. Another is Clinton's perpetually renewable tracks, which are always of a piece. A

GRAHAM HAYNES: Transition (Antilles) In which Roy's son the cornet player melds Vernon Reid and Jean-Paul Bourelly--not to mention hip hop scratchbeats and whoopbeats, twisted Braxton-esque march structures, Mandingo-Tunisian Islamoiserie, New Age vocal mood-setters, New Age vocal mood-breakers, bird cries, and harmolodic saxophone--into a funk few jazzbos have gotten near. The effect is '70s Miles with somewhat softer tastes in expanded consciousness, or Jon Hassell less hung up on repetition. If at times the syncretism seems slightly received, this often beautiful, often kicking record proves not just that rock can fuse with jazz and "ethnic" with "Western," but that each fusion can then fuse with the other--as long as you keep your ear on the music and your eye off the demographics. A MINUS

HOT LUV: THE ULTIMATE DANCE SONGS COLLECTION (EMI) Tough nooky to snobs who think good dance music now consists entirely of sensitive techies extending the frontiers of recorded sound. Its essence remains stupid singles you can't get out of your head, as on this peerlessly crass contemporary collection, which will lower your IQ so fast you'll settle for a "Macarena" with no girls on it. Sure I could nitpick about every cliched, overexposed, blessedly obvious track. But only if you gave me more time to think about it. A

MANDELA (Mango) The heart of this soundtrack is eight pieces of ebulliently sophisticated '50s pop from South Africa's swing era, before the cultural genocide that was the razing of Sophiatown. Their lilt is like no other pop groove, a diasporan dream apartheid would soon destroy, and I pray Jumbo Vanrenen won't resist putting out a whole album of it now that he's gotten started. But while the rest is typical soundtrack hodgepodge, it's a hodgepodge of quality--from the African National Congress Choir to Johnny Clegg, from predub poet Lesoko Rampolokeng to pop queen Brenda Fassie. Perhaps most important, the "original score" interludes recognize that South Africa's classic tradition is choral, not symphonic. And the Choir Gauteng A Team has the chops to tell Mambazo the news. A MINUS

MUSIC REVELATION ENSEMBLE: In the Name of . . . (DIW import) In + Out's rerelease of Blood Ulmer's 1977 debut Revealing reveals how articulately George Adams's saxophone answers his guitar and how drastically that guitar was to change--he's quickly evolve away from Montgomeryesque sonics toward blatant distortions and dense note clusters that take Hendrix down the road a piece. The rockish cult this sound attracted encouraged him to sing in a mumble of real but limited charm, and soon he was collaborating with David Murray on the most galvanizing live music I've ever heard him make. On this briefly domestic 1995 release as well as 1996's somewhat milder import-always Knights of Power, a horn man--Arthur Blythe on alto, Hamiet Bluiett on baritone, or (here only) Sam Rivers on soprano/tenor/flute--leaps to the fore the way Ulmer's voice ordinarily would, with the guitar chording and commenting and laying down a bed of noise more than it solos. His peak is still Columbia's now rereleased Odyssey, featuring one violin, no bass, and his finest all-around performance on record. But for a taste of how exciting he and Murray could be live, listen to Bluiett blow out "The Dawn." A MINUS [Later]

[File Under Prince]: Emancipation (NPG) In which the greatest popular musician of the era writes the book for the young turks of a reborn, historically hip r&b--three disks and hours of liberation, hubris, divine superfluity, and proof that he can come all night even if by six in the morning it takes too long and he never actually gets hard. Yet although there's not a bad track in the 36, I bet he himself would have trouble remembering them all, and I don't hear a song here that tops the Delfonics and Stylistics covers, which latter wasn't the debut single for nothing and flopped anyway. Great grooves abound, however. As does great singing. Harmonies too. Did I mention that the horns are surprisingly cool? And hey, the little guy has a sense of humor. A MINUS [Later]

TOKYO INVASION, VOLUME I: COSMIC HURUSHI MONSTERS (Virgin Import) Not counting the Boredoms, who have finally cracked the carapace of my utter disinterest, my knowledge of the 22 Japanese bands on this uproariously thrilling two-CD import is confined to the track listings. Disc two is too arty for anybody this side of the Boredoms, who in context sound weirdly middle-of-the-road and seriously funny, and yet the quiet stuff grew on me. "Martzmer" is almost pretty until the guitar kicks in at around 5:00, and on "Blood Stained Blossoms" even the guitar is pretty. But those are exceptions on a showcase for more ugly guitar than sane people think they want to hear--plus yelling and ranting and crooning and torture, funk song and distorto-metal and funeral march and noise experiments and riffs ad infinitum. Where other comps annoy by jumping from artist to artist, here the bands are so hard to take that each change comes as a relief--which instantly plunges the listener into yet another maelstrom of sensationalism. These carefully selected doses are probably all of this 'orrible stuff us rock and roll normals need. But need it we do. My thanks to Tony Herrington of The Wire for doing the dirty work. A MINUS

THE JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER BLUES EXPERIENCE: Live (In + Out) The advantage of this live album over Ulmer's studio blues (DIW's Blues Preacher, In + Out's Blues Allnight) isn't choice material but excess guitar. Although "I Can Take You Home" provides a lovely respite midway through, he's a more proficient (jazz) composer than (r&b) songwriter and a more exciting player than either. His funky rhythm section has slipped into blues-rock, and that he was one of the first jazzmen to understand why Hendrix treated his axe as a protean noisemaker doesn't mean he commands Hendrix's palette--although he's gotten louder with the years, he still reverts to single-string lines more often than I'd prefer. But with Sonny Sharrock dead, he smokes the competition. Guitar diehards should get hip to this wild, solid cross-section of a seminal genre buster. B PLUS [Later]

Dud of the Month

YO YO: Total Control (EastWest) As distasteful as I find Lil' Kim, who conveys even less pleasure in sex than that tragic sensualist Eazy-E, and Foxy Brown, who isn't subtle enough to shroud her vicious fantasies in an aura of mystery, at least they break new ground in candor and aggression. And Yo Yo's East Coast counterpart Lyte has gained in wisdom and principle, while the self-appointed Intelligent Black Woman has gone soft. The beats are a case study in the banality of G-funk, and where once she was a proud, tough-minded observer, here her only winning moments come when she pledges allegiance to her ordinary G and fantasizes momentarily about having babies. These dreams die, she don't know why, and soon it ain't nuthin' but a party where she can find her dream guy--"nice and thick with more dollars than sense." Hey, didn't she steal that line from Julie Brown or somebody? L.A., what a town. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Girls Town (Mercury): strong womanism from Yo Yo, Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa--and that's just the stuff you know (Roxanne Shantť, "Thin Line"; Suga, "And I Say"; Tyte, "Sista"; PJ Harvey, "Maniac")
  • Quad City DJ's, Get On Up and Dance (Atlantic/Big Beat): they think they can they know they can ("C'mon N' Ride It [The Train]," "Get On Up and Dance")
  • DJ Kool, Let Me Clear My Throat (American): just keeps on go going ("Let Me Clear My Throat," "Let Me Clear My Throat [Old School Reunion Remix '96]")
  • Hank Jones Meets Cheick-Tidiane Seck and the Mandinkas, Sarala (Verve): Afro-jazz fusion with the emphasis on the Afro ("Touniya Kanibala," "Hadja Fadima")
  • Jonah Sithole, Sabhaku (Zimbob): gentle generic Zimpop, masterful mbira guitar ("Chakafukidza Dzimba," "Vakomano Vehondo")
  • Ornette Coleman, Sound Museum: Hidden Man (Verve): not the ideal place to get to know him ("Macho Woman," "City Living")
  • Ornette Coleman, Sound Museum: Three Women (Verve): nor to continue your acquaintance--or is it the other way around? ("City Living," "Macho Woman")
  • Set It Off (Eastwest): hard r&b epitomized (Queen Latifah, "Name Callin'"; En Vogue, "Don't Let Go [Love]"; Organized Noize [Featuring Queen Latifah], "Set It Off")
  • Grant Calvin Weston, Dance Romance (In + Out): Blood's strongest studio blues, in part because he's not the leader ("Preview," "Chocolate Rock")
  • Deana Carter, Did I Shave My Legs for This? (Capitol): for the catch in her throat as well as her well-schooled indifference to anybody's purist niceties ("I've Loved Enough To Know," "Before We Ever Heard Goodbye")
  • MC Lyte, Bad as I Wanna B (EastwesT): as sane as Chuck D, plus she likes to have her toes sucked ("TRG [The Rap Game]," "Everyday")
  • Jayne Cortez & the Firespitters, Taking the Blues Back Home (Verve): the band articulates complexities the words gloss over ("Mojo 96," "Taking the Blues Back Home")
  • Dr. Octagon (Bulk): the shock horror! the shock horror! ("Earth People," "Wild and Crazy," "Introduction")
  • Curtis Mayfield, New World Order (Warner Bros.): floating free of the merely corporeal, just like always ("Here But I'm Gone," "The Got Dang Song")
  • Axiom Funk, Funkcronomicon (Axiom): P-Funk with Bill Laswell's sense of humor, God help us ("Free-Bass [Godzillatron Cush]," "Orbitron Attack")
Choice Cuts:
  • Nasida Ria, "Keadilan" (Keadilan, Piranha import)
  • Beck, "The Little Drum Machine Boy" (Just Say NoŽl, DGC)
  • Klymaxx, "The Men All Pause," "Meeting in the Ladies Room" (Greatest Hits, MCA)
  • Keith Whitley, "Don't Our Love Look Natural" (The Essential Keith Whitley, BNA)
  • Lil' Kim, "Spend a Little Doe" (Hard Core, Undeas/Big Beat/Atlantic)
  • Marty Stuart, "The Mississippi Mudcat and Sister Sheryl Crow" (Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best, MCA)
  • Foxy Brown, Ill Na Na (Def Jam)
  • Miles Davis, Live Around the World (Warner Bros.)
  • Wasis Diop, No Sant (Triloka)
  • The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Now I Got Worry (Matador)

Village Voice, Jan. 28, 1997

Dec. 31, 1996 Mar. 11, 1997