Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Every January I immerse myself in Pazz & Jop music. Most years I do better than this--except for the Chemical Brothers (thanks, folks) and 68th-place Cornershop, every A record below was passed over by the electorate.

KING SUNNY ADE: E Dide/Get Up (Mesa ) Can't claim this sustains the promise he had going for him on both sides of the Atlantic in the early '80s--that sense of limitless possibility betrayed by chaos in Nigeria, parochialism in Gaia, and the failure of Aura to move up the charts. But it's possible to applaud his development of Lagos's recording facilities and still be glad he's cut another studio album outside of Africa. A nickel short on both hook and flow, it nevertheless achieves an internationallly suitable balance of detonation and quietude--and of voice, percussion, and guitar. B PLUS

RUBY BRAFF AND ELLIS LARKINS: Calling Berlin, Vol. 1 (Arbors) So imagine you walk into this, well, lounge in Miami. Or Atlantic City, say. Maybe Chicago. Two old guys are playing, one black and one white, piano and trumpet (cornet, actually, but why quibble?). It's jazz, all right, but not the arty kind--mostly you can follow the melodies, some identifiable ("Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Easter Parade," even you know those) and many vaguely familiar. The tunes are a little corny, and so's the playing now and then, yet the playing also has an attitude--jaunty or humorous or gently sarcastic or just damn pleased with the whole situation. Not campy at all, and never bad even when it seems generic. In short, it embodies the sophisticated spiritual ideal toward which lounge aspires while remaining too serious and self-possessed to tickle the young twits who claim to have rediscovered the stuff. If you're no twit yourself, two first-rate players and one major 20th-century composer may have something to offer you. A MINUS

GAVIN BRYARS: Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Point Music) It's 1971 in the streets around London's Waterloo Station. With halting certainty, an old homeless man--"tramp," the term was--sings one stanza of a hymn a cappella. Takes about 25 seconds. The stanza is looped, with "classical" accompaniment that grows gradually grander. In the original 25-minute version it repeated some 50 times; this CD lasts 74 minutes, so make that 150 or so. Doesn't matter--if you're like me, you never get tired of it. You hum it to yourself, murmur the words, eventually sing it aloud, unable to resist a show of expression that reveals only your own banality. Some complain that at this length the piece is overblown, but as a devotee of ordinary voices, I much prefer it to Bryars's 1995 expansion of the B-side, the "classical" documentary The Sinking of the Titanic. I'm ready to swear the "composer"'s--really arranger's--writing never once obtrudes on the voice or the conviction it embodies. Even Tom Waits bellowing along in a star-time cameo does the tramp's song not the slightest violence. My only regret is that we never get to hear the whole hymn. The tramp is the true star, and he deserves his say. A MINUS

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS: Exit Planet Dust (Astralwerks) They won't convert you because their main interest is pleasing you--pleasing anybody who's both open-minded enough to conceive techno as a bright sun in the rock cosmos and well-adjusted enough not to start star wars over it. Starts out whomping irrepressibly, ends up schlocking imperturbably, and either way provides the noise, beats, and basslines us earthlings like in our electrically enhanced popular music. Means nothing--except that pleasure is a function of somatic and cultural givens less malleable than mutants have always claimed. A MINUS

CORNERSHOP: Woman's Gotta Have It (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.) There are only so many places you can take the Velvet Underground at this late date, and after an overly indie indie debut, this cheeky Anglo-Punjabi consortium has found one. Sometimes the signature trick of spicing up the art-punk drones with Indian ones is self-evident because the sitar or tamboura gives it away; other times you sit there wondering where exactly they stole that rough yet perfect chord. Also included are found sound, lo-fi textures, various keyb cheats, and the casually irresistible Punjabi street tune of "6 A.M. Jullandar Shere," all mixed in with just the right edge of false naivete. A MINUS

HANDRAIZER (Moonshine Music) In club hypertime, this crashingly obvious 1994 techno compilation is already two-three generations gone, but musically it occupies an eternal present of supercharged beats. High end mostly keyb/organ (not much fake guitar), low end more disco than funk (few nods to the unlocked pelvis), midrange provided by mostly black voices shouting out challenges and exhortations (you will get up now). Occasional cushy synth-symph flourishes provide what respite there is, because beyond a few of the very incidental vocals nothing here is slow--nothing. We'll never know now how it works in situ. But I guarantee you'll clean your apartment at a record pace. A [Later]

THE HIGHWAYMEN: The Road Goes On Forever (Liberty) Uncle John Cash is the Monotone King, and Waylon and Willie have gotten so creaky they make the long ghastly Kris Kristofferson sound like just another old guy who can't clear his throat anymore. This million-dollar quartet was 242 years old as of last July 4, and while they open and close with two of the very few outlaw songs to join the canon as their dotage encroached, by Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen respectively, they concentrate on what they know best: death, immortality, and its correlatives, compassion prominent among them. Their good-hearted whore, good-hearted waitress, and good-hearted wife are idealizations, but the surpassing wisdom these idealizations express and embody is recommended to cynics everywhere. Inspirational Slogan: "I am what I am 'cause I ain't what I used to be." A MINUS

JIVE NATION: THE INDESTRUCTIBLE BEAT OF SOWETO VOL. 5 (Stern's/Earthworks) The title is poetic license. Not only will it take a lot more than music to hold South Africa together, but I doubt the posttribal genres Trevor Herman fuses into jive are "modern" enough to do the trick if it could be done. Nevertheless, these 18 tracks, the series's strongest since volume one, prove how robust the genres remain. Three tipico Shangaan outfits and one supertrad Sotho group hold their own and then some against the Zulus. The King Star Brothers and especially Colenso Abafana Benkokhelo render Ladysmith's absence moot. Johnny Clegg sounds like himself and fits right in. And on his sole track, Mahlathini blows everybody else else away. A MINUS [Later]

R. KELLY (Jive) "He's grown up a little," an intelligent young member of his target audience was gratified to report, and that's a reasonable explanation for his surprise abandonment of bump-and-mack banality. But as a sage old outsider, I wonder whether he hasn't also sold out a little--and whether pop music and the world aren't better off for his market-driven pursuit of the love-man demographic. Luther's ladies buy as many tapes and CDs as B-girls do, and in real stores, too. So as said B-girls evolve into jobholding consumers who won't get played, a fella with his eye on the main chance learns to improve the quality of his dubious promises: "Trade in my life for you," that's strong, and no harm in a little "goin' down on you by the fireplace." Add a dollop of Dre, a cup of Isleys, and more church than he sees the inside of in a year, and you have the smartest and sexiest new jack swing since Teddy Riley fell off the edge of the biz. A MINUS

RAMONES: It's Alive (Sire/Warner Archives) Redundant when it was dropped on the punk-besotted U.K. in 1979, this concert is precious history now--seems so impossibly light and quick it makes you suspect they didn't fully sustain their live pace into their forties after all. Partly it's repertoire--the 28 songs reprise their three best albums, and all but a couple are still classics. Mostly, though, it's Tommy, who hung in for five years without ever turning show drummer. They needed Marky (and Richie) to drive them on. But it was Tommy who designed the vehicle. A MINUS

BILLY WARD & HIS DOMINOES: Sixty Minute Man: The Best of Billy Ward & His Dominoes (Rhino) Bass man Bill Brown's title boast dwarfed and outlasted the rest of their catalogue because Ahmet Ertegun knew how to channel Clyde McPhatter's weirdness, whereas all Billy Ward could do was sell it. On the Drifters' exhaustive Let the Boogie-Woogie Roll, McPhatter is too busy swinging to succumb to the histrionics that fly every which way here. "Harbor Lights," "The Bells," and, yes, "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano" are memorable--absolutely. How often you'll want to refresh your memory is the question. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

SON VOLT: Trace (Warner Bros.) Finally the answer to a question that's plagued me for years. I'd pound my pillow at night, drift into revery at convocations on fun, plumb forget how my dick got into my hand, wondering why, why, why I could never give two shits about Uncle Tupelo. But the answer, my friends, was blowing in . . . no, I mean hopes "the wind takes your troubles away." Name's Jay Farrar, never met a detail he couldn't fuzz over with his achy breaky drawl and, er, evocative country-rock--and needn't trouble with the concrete at all now that that smart-ass Jeff Tweedy is Wilco over-and-out. In the unfathomable Tupelo, Tweedy whiled away the hours writing actual songs, leaving Farrar the drudgery of mourning an American past too atmospheric to translate into mere words. As sentimental as Darius Rucker himself, Farrar is only a set of pipes and a big fat heart away from convincing millions of sensitive guys that he evokes for them. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Angry Samoans, The Unboxed Set (Triple X): consumer advisory: everything these scabrously hilarious hate dorks ever released ("They Saved Hitler's Cock," "Lights Out")
  • Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects, Shabeesation (Rykodisc): defying the dread hand of Moroccan tradition by reinventing it--or maybe just recapitulating it ("A Muey A Muey," "Dunya")
  • Orlando Owoh, Dr. Ganja's Polytonality Blues (Original Music): "toye": juju-highlife as four psychedelic suite-jams ("Logba Logba"/"Edumare da Mi Lihun"/"E Se Rere"/"Prof Oyewole")
  • Toni Price, Hey (Discovery/Antone's): Austin interpreter triangulated by Memphis, Nashville, and El Lay ("Bluebird," "Too Much Coffee")
  • Phat Rap Flava '95 (Cold Front): jeepbeats nationwide (69 Boyz, "Tootsee Roll [Set It Off Dance Version]"; Way 2 Real, "The Butterfly [Chux Party Mix]")
  • Scots Pirates, Revolutionary Means (Schoolkids'): as if the Allmans had joined the White Panthers ("88," "Marijuana Wine")
  • The Soul Brothers, Jump and Jive (Stern's/Earthworks): old pros in control ("Abantu")
  • The Presidents of the United States of America (Columbia): younger fresher fellows ("Lump," "We Are Not Going To Make It," "Kitty")
  • Funkmaster Flex Presents the Mix Tape Volume 1 (Loud/RCA): freestyle rap more exciting to read about than to hear, just like free jazz ("Puerto Rico," "Get Up")
  • Mud Boy & the Neutrons, They Walk Among Us (Koch): r&b as self-induced dementia ("Power to the People," "Money Talks")
  • Emmylou Harris, Songs of the West (Warner Western): selflessly serving the song for 17 years ("Queen of the Silver Dollar," "I'll Be Your San Antone Rose")
  • Francis Dunnery, Tall Blonde Helicopter (Atlantic): Bob Geldof with no pretensions, no investments, and a pickup band ("Too Much Saturn," "I Believe I Can Change My World")
  • The Geraldine Fibbers, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home (Virgin): alienated violin, dramatic tempo changes, stentorian vocals--if this be country music, so was King Crimson ("A Song About Walls," "Marmalade")
  • Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . . (RCA): purer than Steve Albini, and with more street cred ("Ice Water," "Knuckleheadz") [Later: A-]
  • Bruce Springsteen, The Ghost of Tom Joad (Columbia): his gift for social-realist literature exceeds his gift for political music ("The Ghost of Tom Joad," "Across the Border")
  • Batman Forever (Atlantic): the class of cross-promotional new wave songbooks (PJ Harvey, "One Time Too Many"; Massive Attack With Tracey Thorn, "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game")
Choice Cuts:
  • Charles & Eddie, "24-7-365," "Keep On Smilin'," "Jealousy" (Chocolate Milk, Capitol)
  • DJ Food, "The Dusk" (Journeys by DJ: Coldcut, JDJ import)
  • Daniel Johnston, "Come See Me Tonight" (My So-Called Life, Atlantic)
  • Boy George, "Funtime" (Cheapness and Beauty, Virgin)
  • Dionne Farris, Wild Seed--Wild Flower (Columbia)
  • Gang of Four, Shrinkwrapped (Castle) [Later: Neither]
  • Goldie, Timeless (FFRR) [Later: C+]
  • Goo Goo Dolls, A Boy Named Goo (Warner Bros./Metal Blade)
  • Guided by Voices, Alien Lanes (Matador)
  • Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball (Elektra) [Later: B]
  • The Mavericks, Music for All Occasions (MCA)
  • Pram, Sargasso Sea (Too Pure/American)
  • Ron Sexsmith (Interscope)
  • The Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Virgin) [Later: Choice Cuts]
  • X, Unclogged (Infidelity)

Village Voice, Feb. 20, 1996

Jan. 23, 1996 Apr. 9, 1996