Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

As promised, two Amerindie bands break out of the pack, though I hadn't heard either when I made the promise. One's a little brittle, the other a little lax, which pejoratives are essential to their respective artistic statements. The toss-up Pick Hit was going to the lax guys for distinguished prior service when up on the outside came--technobrits!

MAHMOUD AHMED: Ere Mela Mela (Crammed Discs) Because taste leads to knowledge, I enjoy fair familiarity with the West African music that's second cousin to rock and roll and none with the distant relatives in North Africa and the Middle East. But where knowledge ends, taste rules. Ahmed is a singer of unmistakable authority, and maybe an album of the "many standards" he's contributed to "modern Ethiopian music" would expand my horizons. Or maybe this is that album--I don't know. I do know that soon I lose the charge I get from the lead cuts, generated less by the "strange, almost Indonesian-sounding scales" of the vocals than by the two-sax horn section, which (maybe because it utilizes those scales) could be Afro-Brilliant Corners or ill-tempered synthesizer or avant-garde blues. For tastes that run to the Master Musicians of Jajouka and Om Kalsoum, he may be Elvis. B PLUS

ANITA BAKER: Rapture (Elektra) Having listened far more than natural inclination dictated, I've become actively annoyed with this vocal watershed. From its strong lounge-jazz beat to its conscious avoidance of distracting lyrical detail, it's all husky, burnished mood, the fulfillment of the quiet-storm format black radio devised to lure staider customers away from white-bread temptations like soft rock and easy listening. God knows it's more soulful, and sexier, too, but that's all it is--a reification of the human voice as vehicle of an expression purer than expression ever ought to be. B MINUS

CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN (Pitch-a-Tent) Without benefit of a "Skinheads" or a "Bad Trip," this is the most convincing of the three very good albums they've dashed off in a year and a half--sixteen tracks, eclectic in a panfolkrock mode that now seems unselfconscious if not inevitable, even the instrumentals equipped with words of one sort of another sometimes. Their stance is bemused when it's not just spaced out, and their "Interstellar Overdrive" is too conceptual for my tastes. But I reserve the right to read good politics into the likes of "Joe Stalin's Cadillac" (is LBJ's Cadillac is Somoza's Cadillac is General Pinochet's Cadillac is my Cadillac I'd like to drive it off a bridge has anyone seen the bridge). So far their productivity seems proof against the desperate indulgences that can overcome talented bands with dodgy commercial prospects. They're an encouraging aberration in a bad time. I wish them a tour bus w/driver that never lets them down. A

ORNETTE COLEMAN AND PRIME TIME: Opening the Caravan of Dreams (Caravan of Dreams) Only the second LP by the harmolodic funk originators, this was recorded live at the well-appointed Fort Worth avant-garde emporium in 1985, and it's a live album for sure--it lacks the studio-engendered beginning-middle-end that focuses Of Human Feelings and for that matter Metheny/Coleman's Song X. When it threatens to break altogether "free," its risks seem more like entropy than thrills and chills. But it's a live album showcasing one of the great improvisers, as well as musicians who never sound more authoritative than when following his orders. A MINUS

DON DIXON: Most of the Girls Like to Dance but Only Some of the Boys Like To (Enigma) The R.E.M. etc. producer's semilegendary status as leader of Arrogance got even less credence from me than from everybody who'd never heard of them, because I'd heard them: arena-rock as club sandwich. But it's his band experience that powers his good little Southern pop record. Not only does he write hooky songs with a twist--my two favorites involve a bisexual and a one-night stand, half a dozen stand out, and most of the rest plus two covers are fun at least--but he sings them with the kind of ersatz soul that floors houses and counterbalances his Farfisa riffs with compressed guitar spectacles. In short, he ain't cute. A MINUS

FLIPPER: Public Flipper Limited (Subterranean) A live double recorded mostly in '80 and '82, when their fuck-it wasn't yet a defeat, this has the spirit. But though they were anarchists they were no fools, so they put their best material on their first and forever best album, leaving the profusion of originals finally available here to bring up the rear. B PLUS

BOB GELDOF: Deep in the Heart of Nowhere (Atlantic) As a struggling front man he had a weakness for bathos; as a disappointed Nobel laureate he makes me miss Harry Chapin. On and on he blathers, a Bowie clone with glossomania, rolling out additional songs and verses for cassette and CD because they can't be squeezed onto twelve inches of vinyl. Though he knows far more about world suffering than you or I, he's almost incapable of writing about it. All he proves is that when you dwell on suffering you get pompous, something all too many rock-and-rollers have already noticed. C

DEBBIE HARRY: Rockbird (Geffen) It's her achievement and her curse that just listening to the record you'd think she never went away. Vocal technique and vocal identity are sharper than when she withdrew from the fray five years ago, and the songs are brasher and more insouciant than on The Hunter or KooKoo or Autoamerican. If the sound could be a mite fresher, that's because the world is now overrun with the dance-rock Harry made possible--just as it's overrun with cartoon sexpots carrying tunes, whose collective existence give her a larger identity problem she refuses to confront. But it's also because the late '70s were Harry's heyday. Not too many pop icons get more than one of those. [Original grade: B plus] B

JAMES: Stutter (Sire) These Lancashire lads have staked out their own kitchen garden on guitar-bass-and-drums' densely cultivated common. Folkedelic with hints of postpunk-pop, it's a place pleasant, unkempt, and all their own, but not private enough to suit them--hence their wry, well-meaning, angst-ridden, and ultimately impenetrable lyrics. B

MARTI JONES: Match Game (A&M) Seeking airplay worthy of Bonnie Raitt if not Linda Ronstadt, Don Dixon slows Jones down a little, to less than no avail--the airplay has failed to materialize (or whatever airplay does), and the tempos reveal the reluctance of perfectly hooky modern songwriters to say something and/or the inability of a perfectly attentive modern interpreter to make you ignore it. I know the world is confusing enough to warrant indirection. But when you're going nowhere, do so either fast or in fine style. B

ORAN "JUICE" JONES (Def Jam) Supposedly, this is the lowdown on love men: when his lady ventures off her pedestal, Juice drops the sensitive act and treats her like a gangster. And love him or hate him, he's about talking, not singing. I mean, personally I find his brand loyalties and "y'unnerstand?"s kinda revolting, but he talks 'em like he walks 'em, so I can understand why hipper folks think they're hilarious parodies of the player's life and line. What I don't get is why any lady should be fooled by his sensitive act--he's got the falsetto to negotiate the second-rate Chi-Lites songs his raps are buried in, but not to put them across. Which makes the concept a cheat and the album a bore. C PLUS

DENISE LASALLE: Rain and Fire (Malaco) LaSalle earns enough in Malaco's songwriting stable to limit her recording career to a humdrum album every year or two, and since that's all she managed as a perpetual also-ran, there was no reason to hope for serendipity. But here she learns her revenge from the soaps and her tune from George Jackson, throws role model Sylvia Robinson a cover, name-drops all over a toot-toot follow-up, and demonstrates what Millie Jackson might be today if she hadn't put on airs--a teller of truths too raunchy for the country moralists who prime but fail to satisfy her market. Highpoints include the eight-minute saga "It Be's That Way Sometime" and dovetailing critiques of the hard-on, "Dip, Bam, Thank You Ma'am" and "It Takes You All Night" ("To do what you used to do all night"). Plus this Inspirational Verse: "They can't eat no more, no sir/They got anorexia nervosa." B PLUS

NEW ORDER: Brotherhood (Qwest) I never knew why their definitive electrodisco impressed me more than it moved me, and now I don't know why it has me rocking out of my chair or grinning foolishly as I forage for dinner at the supermarket. The tempos are a touch less stately, the hooks a touch less subliminal. Bernard Albrecht's vocals have taken on so much affect they're humane. And the joke closer softens up a skeptic like me to the pure, physically exalting sensation of the music. A

YAA-LENGI NGEMI: Oh, Miziki (MiyeMi) Spare and delicate where most West Africans layer on the rhythms, this Harlem-based Zairean doesn't have much choice--except for two backup vocalists and a guy who chips in the occasional horns and auxiliary guitar, he plays everything himself. Ngemi's conversational tenor lifts off its falsetto whoops, his pulse is cleaner if less awesome than its homegrown counterparts, and the high, sweet minimal guitar obbligatos never let you down. Four titles, an hour of beguiling groove. A MINUS

SCHOOLLY-D (Schoolly-D) From the beginning, rap has been a music of aggressive, expansive possibility, claiming the world on beat and boast alone. This Philadelphia street tough claims only his turf. His powerful scratch rhythms are as oppressive and constricted as his neighborhood, and his sullen slur conveys no more hope or humor than the hostile egotism of his raps themselves. I'm not saying he isn't realer than all the cheerful liars the biz has thrown back to the projects, or that his integrity doesn't pack a mean punch. But he's still an ignorant thug, and he's cheating both his audience and himself by choosing to remain that way. B PLUS

THE SMITHEREENS: Especially for You (Enigma) All pop propaganda to the contrary, Pat DiNizio's no surefire songwriter--he's only moderately hooky, and even the lyrics he hits encapsulates romantic situations you already know the ins and outs of. Takes some singer to score consistently with such songs, and no pop propagandists are palming off that lie. B MINUS

THE SMITHS: The Queen Is Dead (Sire) After disliking their other albums instantly, I was confused enough by my instant attraction to table this one, especially since I had no stomach for the comparisons I knew an investigation would entail. And indeed, I still can't stand the others. But here Morrissey wears his wit on his sleeve, dishing the queen like Johnny Rotten never did and kissing off a day-job boss who's no Mr. Sellack. This makes it easier to go along on his moonier escapades, like when he reveals that looks and fame don't guarantee a good social life. Which gives you time to notice the tunes, the guitars, the backup munchkins. B PLUS

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (Bar/None) Two catchy weirdos, eighteen songs, and the hits just keep on coming in an exuberantly annoying show of creative superabundance. Their secret is that as unmediated pop postmodernists they can be themselves stealing from anywhere, modulating without strain or personal commitment from hick to nut to nerd. Like the cross-eyed bear in the regretful but not altogether kind "Hide Away Folk Family," their "shoes are laced with irony," but that doesn't doom them to art-school cleverness or never meaning what they say. Their great subject is the information overload that lends these songs their form. They live in a world where "Everything Right Is Wrong Again" and "Youth Culture Killed My Dog." A

TROTSKY ICEPICK: Poison Summer (Old Scratch) Not a hardcore band (name's too educated) or an art band either (too politically charged). A pop band if anything, firming up a lyricism that wouldn't have sounded out of place at the Fillmore in 1967 with compact structures, foreshortened solos, and a drummer from the (metaphorical) East Bay. A pop band that regards acts of sectarian vengeance as emblematic, an inescapable environment if not topic. B PLUS

LUTHER VANDROSS: Give Me the Reason (Epic) If only Luther had a little less integrity he might sell out--he's such a great singer he could transform crossover twaddle into universal trivia without even breathing hard. Alas, he's also such a great singer he doesn't have to. But not such a great singer he can interest simple pop fans in his own songs. B

Additional Consumer News

First, oops. Last month I reported that Pathe Marconi had released the EMI reissues with extra cuts. This is true only of the esoterica: the r&b label classics are also available on more generous Italian compilations, but the U.S. discs have been reprogrammed as well as remastered, sound better both ways, and are worth your wherewithal. It will stand. Last month I also reported that PolyGram had scotched its complete Hank Williams retrospective midway through his career, as one of the producers had written me several months before. PolyGram claims I was misinformed and says Volume V is due in March. Good. Last month I also reported that Warren Zevon had 1986's top best-of. This was because the U.S. Postal Service spirited away the Police's Every Breath You Take: The Singles (A&M), as breathtaking a show of their technical command as exists on vinyl.

In addition I overlooked other items, notably The Best of D Train (Prelude), which means the best of James Williams, whose Pendergrass shout dwarfs pretenders as estimable as Colonel Abrams. The Cure's Standing on a Beach: The Singles (Elektra) catches these longsuffering young men in their least lugubrious moments and makes a case for middle-class alienation as a way of life. AC/DC's Who Made Who (Atlantic) isn't a best-of per se, it's the soundtrack to Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive, and as such the first presentable song collection these hit-and-miss riffmasters have ever brought to my attention. Secret Lovers . . . The Best of Atlantic Starr (A&M) is presentable black pop, Giorgio Moroder's From Here to Eternity . . . and Back (Casablanca) a svelte history lesson. Echo & the Bunnymen's Songs to Learn and Sing (Sire) taught me nothing I wanted to know, The Compact King Crimson (EG) is for Sufi audiophiles only, and The Best of Angela Bofill (Arista) will warm Pete Hamill's palpitating heart.

I got so involved cataloguing remasters and multiple-artists samplers last month that I bypassed the single-artist reissues I care most about. It's impossible to keep up (Brit Ann Peebles and Syl Johnson are on my agenda), but what follows will keep any normal set of ears busy till early planting. As a longtime atheist I'm proud to award first prize to Get Right with the Swan Silvertones, compiled by Michael Ochs for Rhino's new Archives Alive label. Lyrically, gospel repulses me almost as surely as heavy metal, but seminal falsetto Claude Jeter has only one equal--his great heir Al Green--and in quartet he gathers grit from the driving shouts of Louis Johnson. Uplifting, infectious, sexy. Less uplifting but with hard wisdom to compensate is the late Esther Phillips, who never sang better than during her long '60s stay at Atlantic, now lovingly excerpted on the two-record Set Me Free. Nashville to Leiber & Stoller to Van Morrison, novelty to pop ballad to blues, and uniting it all a voice that never forgot or gave in. Almost as welcome is the two-disc Atlantic Honkers, the "rhythm and blues saxophone anthology" I've imagined for years. It's not as catchy as the sax album I'd lead off with "Honky Tonk" and "Walking with Mr. Lee," but Joe Morris, Tiny Grimes, Frank Culley, Willis Jackson, Jesse Stone, Arnett Cobb, and King Curtis can wail, Jack, and punctuate too. Treacherous: A History of the Neville Brothers (Rhino) finds just enough pre-Meters rock 'n' soul, salvages the stiff Capitol and disappointing A&M albums, and borrows from The Wild Tchoupitoulas, still available on Antilles (a hint). The Best of Louis Prima (Rhino) casts him as a white Louis Jordan, a rock and roller in spite of himself whose Vegas yocking around will make you bust a gut in spite of yourself. The remastered Break-A-Way: The Best of Irma Thomas (EMI America) adds a rich warmth to tracks I'd heard before, so that finally I can hear why so many women I know treasure her, though despite its New Orleans provenance I'll still take Shirley Allston or Mary Wells. George Jones's mid-'50s Rockin' the Country (Mercury) is crazy enough for unknown rockabilly and memorable as singing (even songwriting) besides. Elvis Presley's early-'60s Return of the Rocker (RCA Victor) doesn't excuse the deletion of Elvis Is Back and should be piped directly into Albert Goldman's hearing aid until he confesses. Ike & Tina's Sue '60s are compiled on It's Gonna Work Out Fine (EMI America), which isn't as hot as you'd hope, their UA '70s on Working Together (EMI America), an eccentric selection at best (no "Nutbush City Limits"?). Buddy Holly's Legend (MCA) is a digital remaster that needn't replace your 20 Golden Greats but might be a sweet introduction for some youngster who lets you listen to his or her stereo. The Vocal Group Collection (Mercury) does too much for the Del-Vikings, the Penguins, and one-hit Danleers, none of whom can sustain a side, and not enough for the long neglected black pop pioneers the Platters, who could sustain four easy.

As much as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra is a popular singer so universal that it's absurd self-denial to shun him out of rock and roll loyalty. But though I admire Greg Sandow's recent "revisionist" defense of CBS's new six-LP Sinatra box, The Voice: The Columbia Years 1943-1952, I must emphasize the countervailing caveat. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is Sinatra's worst music. Most of the Capitol albums are still in print, and you could spend years buying and savoring them (one at a time, I might add--Capitol's consumer durables are for the play shelf, not the display shelf), starting with Songs for Swingin' Lovers and In the Wee Small Hours. The voice glows and shades and aches, and Nelson Riddle's arrangements have a texture and precision that mushmongerng concertmeisters like CBS's Alex Stordahl have trained us never to expect from postswing, prerock pop. If you crave innocence, try one of RCA's Dorsey/Sinatra twofers (or better yet, seek out their long deleted Vintage compilation). And while I agree that his tour of struggle at Columbia is preferable spiritually to his imperious cynicism at Reprise, musically the comparison goes the other way. Stordahl is deadly, and Sinatra's interpretations gained a sureness and concentration at Capitol that faded only gradually. The difference in any case isn't between "real" editions of Frank. It's more an evolution in styles of seduction, from callow confidence to saccharine sincerity to worldly acuity to bully-boy decadence--with the advantage that you can succumb to any of them and still look at yourself in the mirror the next morning.

Village Voice, Feb. 3, 1987

Dec. 30, 1986 Feb. 24, 1987