Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide: Cleanup Time

As promised a month ago, find below not just the usual P&J cleanup but many records I didn't then know existed even if I recognized their names. Since this category is always especially hospitable to Honorable Mentions, there are more than usual in the fine print. P.S. The Dud of the Month was in type a week before the Grammys.

FIONA APPLE: When the Pawn . . . (Clean Slate/Epic) For any showbiz kid from the Upper West Side, musical comedy is mother's milk, more "natural" than the rude attack of rock or the polite confessional of folk. And having gone mega, Fiona was autonomous enough to want it that way. With crucial help from Jon Brion, she's got the Richard Rodgers/Kurt Weill part down, and will surely tackle the Dorothy Fields/Lorenz Hart part later. Meanwhile, confessional attacks like "A Mistake" and "Get Gone" will do. Webber & Sondheim, watch out. A MINUS

BABY NAMBOOS: Ancoats2Zambia (Palm Pictures) The band Tricky's otherwise unpedigreed cousin threw together includes not only a well-connected stylist to handle the Martina stuff but a real drummer. So though this sounds like, gee, a Tricky record, it's more grooveful and also more playful, catering to the theoretical paying customers however private it must be. Even for us Tricky fans, these intimations of vitality are a relief. Note, however, that one of unk's three consecutive guest tracks provides the album's title and its peak. A walking hook is our Tricky. B PLUS

BLACK BOX RECORDER: England Made Me (Jetset) Terrorism behind him, Auteur auteur Luke Haines (plus a Jesus and Mary Chain guy, bet he had a lot of ideas) sets himself to limning the kind of g-i-r-l indie-poppers can't resist: rich, delicate, contained, and so neurotic that to expect her to give of herself would be meaningless. In her pretty little voice, Sarah Nixey convinces the world that rich English girls have every right to hate their rich English parents and covers the happy ragga-reggae "Up Town Top Ranking" and the morbid teen-chanson "Seasons in the Sun" as if they reflect the identical sensibility, which now they do. A MINUS

CONTINENTAL DRIFTERS: Vermilion (Razor & Tie) The lyrics resolve on home truisms, earned and learned but predictable nonetheless, just like the alt-pop songforms and country-rock groove. So Concerned Citizens Against Teenpop should note that this consistently expert supergroup material has a secret weapon, and it's not the ex-dB, the ex-Bangle, or the ex-Dream Syndicator. It's the ex-Cowsill, little Susan, who before she was 10 knew Top 40 fame on some awful songs and one for the books: "Indian Lake," which said more about vacations than was dreamt of in Connie Francis's philosophy. These days Susan sings with a flat generosity whose ever so slightly sour and serrated relation to pitch renders to the truisms their portion of truth while never suggesting that she doesn't enjoy getting away. A MINUS

GOODIE MOB: World Party (LaFace) Not to truck with the boogie bromide that spiritual uplift requires certified fun, but this album is anything but the pop retreat the conscious slot it as. Quiet as it's kept, message was always icing for these Dirty South pathfinders anyway, and this is the first time their music has ever achieved the infectious agape that's always been claimed for it. The mood recalls early go go--a funk so all-embracing that anyone who listens should be caught up in its vital vibe. But after 20 years of hip hop, the rhythmic reality is far trickier than Chuck Brown or Trouble Funk ever dreamed--as is Cee-Lo's high-pitched overdrive, which may yet be remembered as one of the great vocal signatures of millennial r&b. A MINUS

HAMELL ON TRIAL: Choochtown (Such-A-Punch) Ed Hamell is a DIY folkie with a punky band who inhabits the sleazy corner where boonie bohemia meets pure low-life. Drugs can make that happen, as can marginal employment slipping toward petty crime. His pals Chooch and Joe Brush certainly don't read Hammett, maybe Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen for the warm weather. I bet Hamell reads them all--and that along with talk TV, they've influenced his narrative poesy. B PLUS

JAY-Z: Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter (Roc-A-Fella) Sean Carter isn't the first crime-linked hitmaker with a penchant for kicking broads out of bed at 6:15 in the morning. Frank Sinatra beat him to it. Right, Sinatra never boasted about his own callousness--not publicly, in song--and that's a big difference. Jay-Z has too many units tied up in playing the now-a-rapper-now-a-thug "reality" game with his customers, thugs and fantasists both, and only when he lets the token Amil talk back for a verse does he make room for female reality. But the rugged, expansive vigor of this music suggests both come-fly-with-me cosmopolitanism and the hunger for excitement that's turned gangster hangouts into musical hotbeds from Buenos Aires to Kansas City. You don't expect a song called "Big Pimpin'" to sound as if the tracks were recorded in Cairo. This one does. A [Later]

KELIS: Kaleidoscope (Virgin) Kaleidoscopic not as in psychedelic--this is pop funk straight up--but as in changeable, hard to get a bead on. Beyond male-identified, that is. The many moods of Kelis only begin with the hissy fit she's gone pop with (which, I should mention, is about as riot-grrrl as Gwen Stefani on a bad hair day). She stands by her man, reasons with her man, lies for her man, watches TV alongside her man, loads his gun, fucks him in the window, hopes he misses his damn plane. She thinks about ghetto boys and girls, she thinks about outer space, and mainly she thinks about her man. Why else would she get so mad at him? A MINUS

SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT (Atlantic) In which a cartoonist and a soundtrack hack compose classic postmodern musical-comedy songs, so indiscriminate in their incorrectness that they keep sneaking up on you. Since Eric Cartman can outsing Saddam Hussein and Big Gay Al through a glory hole, only the full-chorus versions of "Mountain Town" can compete with "Kyle's Mom's a B**ch." But the all-around quality of the movie performances is brought into relief by the CD-only "interpretations," where only Joe C. and the Violent Femmes do the material justice; as a writer, Isaac Hayes doesn't get it, and Trey Parker has trouble finding certified gangsta rappers willing to utter the words "uncle fucka." In short, the original cast's greatest hits, undercut by the kind of stoned, wouldn't-it-be-funny-if? fizzles that make the show so dumb sometimes. A MINUS

TOTALLY HITS (Arista) Of course it cheats--every compilation cheats. Inferior Sugar Ray, Monica, and Madonna, ringer from the hapless Five, awful hit from the imitable Sarah McLachlan. But given its BMG-WEA limitations, this is premier radio fodder. It rescues Cher and LFO from their meaningless albums as it repackages ace Whitney Houston and Deborah Cox remixes, and from "No Scrubs" to "Bawitdaba" it establishes a flow that sets off "Smooth" and "Ray of Light" and the formerly execrable "(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You" as the touchstones they are. The mood is hiply happy and humane--the exceptions, a would-be suicide and some heavy yearning, mean only to prove that this is the real world, troubling at times but always manageable. The stylistic signature is keyb/electric guitar as acoustic guitar, rippling its quiet riffs over the intricate rhythms of a body at peace with itself. As composition, I find it as convincing, if not as elegant or organic, as Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians or Franco & Rochereau's Omona Wapi. Note, however, that the only energy rushes come from Cher's Eurodisco and the show-topping Kid Rock, who's also the only true rapper here. It's a relief to know Arista needs him to put its lovely lies over the top. A MINUS

XTC: Apple Venus Volume 1 (TVT) Since their outtakes weren't even rags or bones and their idea of a class pop arranger was the same as Elton John's, I figured that if they were feuding with their record company their record company was right. But after years of orchestral fops a la Eric Matthews and Duncan Sheik, I'm ready for McCartney fans who can festoon their famous tunes with something resembling wit and grace. Studio rats being studio rats, the lyrics aren't as deep as Andy and Colin think they are, but at least irrelevant doesn't equal obscure, humorless, or lachrymose. The next rock and roller dull-witted enough to embark on one of those de facto Sinatra tributes should give Partridge a call. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

CHRISTINA AGUILERA (RCA) "Genie in a Bottle" was such a dazzlingly clever piece of teen self-exploration cum sexploitation that it seemed the better part of valor to hope it was a fluke. But this was avoidance--like LeAnn and unlike Britney, Christina already has "adult" grit and phrasing down pat, and so threatens to join Gloria, Mariah, Celine, and LeAnn herself in the endless parade of Diane Warren-fueled divas-by-fiat hitting high notes and signifying less than nothing. "What a Girl Wants" is clever, too, but in a far less ingratiating way--like its two-hour promotional video writ small, it raises the question of how this ruthlessly atypical young careerist can presume to advise girls not cursed with her ambition, and the fear that some of them will make her a role model regardless. Give me Left Eye any day. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • The Beta Band (Astralwerks): still lost in sound, but oriented enough here to make tunes out of it ("The Hard One," "Round the Bend")
  • Buzzcocks, Modern (Go-Kart): looking for the same new love with the same new tunes ("Thunder of Hearts," "Why Compromise?")
  • Ian Dury & the Blockheads, Mr. Love Pants (Ronnie Harris import): Mr. Smarty Pants mocks meritocracy and enjoys his body ("Jack Shit George," "Geraldine")
  • She Mob, Cancel the Wedding (Spinster Playground): three women in wigs shout their shouts and tell their weird, unassuming tales ("Teacher," "Prozac")
  • Mark Lanegan, I'll Take Care of You (Sub Pop): by my count, seven varieties of musical "authenticity" in 11 cover takeovers ("Together Again," "I'll Take Care of You")
  • Bis, Intendo (Grand Royal): cute, and not just the way demos are cute ("Girl Star," "Statement of Intent")
  • [File Under Prince], Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (Arista): put it this way--two decades after "What'd I Say," Ray Charles's shtick was a lot tireder ("Hot Wit U," "Undisputed")
  • Dolly Parton, The Grass Is Blue (Sugar Hill): bluegrass isn't magic--she could put her back into these songs because she didn't get a hernia writing them ("Cash on the Barrelhead," "I'm Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open")
  • The Neckbones, The Lights Are Getting Dim (Fat Possum/Epitaph): the dissolute tradition, with nuggets as roots ("Cardiac Suture," "Reckless Night")
  • Bis, Social Dancing (Grand Royal): from a punk band on top of the world to a disco band who want to stay there ("I'm a Slut," "Making People Normal")
  • Demolition Doll Rods, T.L.A. (Matador): two girls, one guy, no pants--sex and more sex and rock and roll ("Married for the Weekend," "U Look Good")
  • Knitting on the Roof (Knitting Factory): Fiddler fiddled, less arrantly than you might fear (Magnetic Fields, "If I Were a Rich Man"; Come, "Do You Love Me?")
  • Melky Sedeck, Sister and Brother (MCA): conscious siblings though they may be, they do sex best ("Shake It," "Attraction")
  • Beck, Midnite Vultures (DGC): does eventually get funky, if anybody cares but me ("Pressure Zone," "Peaches & Cream," "Debra")
  • Magnolia (Reprise): Aimee Mann's most flattering setting to date, not to mention Supertramp's (Aimee Mann, "One," "You Do")
  • Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions (Asylum): tribute to the modern artsong, country-folk division ("Western Wall," "1917")
  • Cobra Verde, Nightlife (Motel): if Bryan Ferry was a theoretical dandy, which was hard, then John Petkovic is a theoretical theoretical dandy, which is harder--and he's also John Petkovic ("Conflict," "One Step Away From Myself")
Choice Cuts:
  • Savage Garden, "Affirmation" (Affirmation, Columbia)
  • Santana, "Put Your Lights On" (Supernatural, Arista)
  • Lou Bega, "Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of . . . )" (A Little Bit of Mambo, RCA)
  • Counting Crows, "Hanginaround" (This Desert Life, DGC)
  • Add N to X, Avant Hard (Mute)
  • Atari Teenage Riot, 60 Second Wipe Out (DHR)
  • The Beta Band, The Three E.P.'s (Astralwerks)
  • David Bowie, "Hours . . . " (Virgin)
  • Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Looking Forward (Reprise)
  • The Flaming Lips, 1984-1990 (Restless)
  • Nine Inch Nails, The Fragile (Nothing/Interscope)
  • Dolly Parton, Hungry Again (Decca)
  • Powerman 5000, Tonight the Stars Revolt! (DreamWorks)
  • Shack, H.M.S. Fable (London)

Village Voice, Mar. 7, 2000

Feb. 1, 2000 Mar. 28, 2000