Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide: Vibrators

Guitar bands, mostly--some oldish and some quite new, but none completely new, if you know what I mean. Making the old new is what guitar bands do these days. Some of them really get the spirit--or is it do the trick?

THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH: Painting It Red (Ark 21) Just a few years ago Paul Heaton impressed with his empathy for his elders. Two albums later the song that turns on gray hairs seems to be about him. He's not close to losing his gift and may never be; pros like him have a right to their ups and downs, and after the soggy Quench, his music man Paul Rotheray has aired it out some. I dare the callowest Blur fan to resist the three-note piano-then-guitar-then-bass rhythm figure that anchors "10,000 Feet," sure to be a single with B-sides before this 19-cut there, 17-cut here release finishes its U.K. run. But Blur are younger than the Beautiful South, always will be, and now they're on Anglophilia's slippery slope themselves. Americans are so insensitive. B PLUS

BLUR: The Best of (Virgin) Not Kinks, just Small Faces; not miniaturists, just small. Reduced to a tuneful 18-song essence that watches too much television, their mildness seems diverting and their Englishness definitive. Damon Albarn's accent--at once Cockney and civilised, with the laddish music-hall "Parklife" for instructive contrast (and a shot of life)--evokes the classless nowhere their genially opportunistic concept of pop aspires and succumbs to. They're alienated, sure--this is the modern world they sing about. But they're never depressed--melancholy is all. Change the world? All they care about changing is their sales strategy. A MINUS

RODNEY CROWELL: The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill) Big deal. The triple-threat guitarist-songwriter-frontman has been hawking four-on-the-floor country-rock since he came up with Emmylou, and as for the two AIDS songs, where's he been? Except the music has a lightness unmatched on the reissued Life Is Messy and Diamonds and Dirt, or the long-gone Ain't Living Long Like This either. And though there've been hundreds of quasi-autobios like "Telephone Road," their wizardry is in the details: "Skiing in a bar ditch behind a moped/Thirteen stitches on the corner of a sardine can." And coming from a place where once he believed "California gay boys deserve just what they get," AIDS is news to him. The one about his hard-working daddy beating on his long-suffering mama, on the other hand, he's been living with for 50 years. A MINUS

OLU DARA: Neighborhoods (Atlantic) Though the 59-year-old jazzman sired Nas and references the "embryonic state of the hip hop," for him that was "young children's music." And please, he's no "griot." Dara mines a more class- and nation-specific cultural mode: Afrocentric local color in the manner of PBS and Black History Month (release date: February 20). But where 1998's In the World proceeded directly to limbo on the rough-hewn cobblestones of its noble intentions, here he gets somewhere. More direct rhythmically, more considerate melodically, discerningly observed and recalled until it gets all poetic on our ass, this is at least as educational as Maya Angelou, and much more fun. One thing, though. Dara's warm trumpet tone is compared to Roy Eldridge's. You think maybe he could learn to sing with Little Jazz's nonchalant authority? We wish. B PLUS

BIG DADDY KANE: The Very Best of Big Daddy Kane (Rhino) The Volvo-driving rhymer who wrote "Pickin' Boogers" for Biz Markie and "Skeezer" for Roxanne Shanté kept his own image as immaculate as his yellow suit, and for this historical record he plays up the conscious race man--the conscious race man with hooks. No "Pimpin' Ain't Easy," thank the Gods--that bit of street wisdom is reduced to an "I was just kiddin'" for Spinderella, who had reason to wonder. Not much mack daddy either, which isn't to say "Cause I Can Do It Right" and "I Get the Job Done" won't inspire hubbies to get it on home. As steely and articulate as Marley Marl's beats, he makes even "It's Hard Being the Kane" sound like butter. But hard it is--note the live "Wrath of Kane," where intakes of breath turn him into his own human beatbox. A MINUS

STEPHEN MALKMUS (Matador) The Artist Formerly Known as S.M. has blown his chance, because if ever an album cried out to be called Eponymous Solo Debut, Stephen Malkmus is that album. Exactly the unpredictable effort you'd expect, it utilizes a new bunch of Portland buddies to render the old noises into background music as it explores such themes as Yul Brynner's makeover and piracy on the coast of Montenegro. Either he kicks off from the latter to create gangsta alt, or he bites the bullet and turns into an incisive musical observer of manners and mores. Another possibility, I admit it: he shrivels into irrelevancy. A MINUS

THE MOLDY PEACHES (Rough Trade import) They are your parents' nice children and they are not decadent, they're still nice. They don't so much risk cute as sit on its face--they're cute fatties who need a 40 before declaring their fear of skinny girls who talk about bands, cute folkies who break without warning into punk noise and sing a deeply catchy song called "Who's Got the Crack," cute floozies who'll fuck anybody with anything when that's their mood or stage of life. Ambitious teen Adam Green writes about hiring whores older than his mom, bunny-suited twentysomething Kimya Dawson about Josie and the Pussycats. Only Kimya is so lovesick, malleable, or deep-down bad that she'll sing anything Adam tells her to, like the rhyme line on (note st--k consonances) "Who mistook this steak for chicken?/Who'm I gonna stick my dick in?" She's going to be fine, though--in fact, she's fine now. If she wasn't, she wouldn't be cute. Would she? A MINUS

NILS PETTER MOLVAER: Solid Ether (ECM) The son of a (savor this phrase) local jazz musician from an island off the northwest coast of Norway, Molvaer cut his teeth on electric Miles the way other kids cut theirs on Black Sabbath. On 1998's Khmer, he joined or anticipated Jon Hassell, Tim Hagans, and Graham Haynes (with Bill Laswell the only nontrumpeter) in the growing cadre of syncretic visionaries who set themselves to building something from that idea a quarter century after it was hauled off the jazzsite in black plastic bags. And on this follow-up he sounds like the best of them. Not alone in connecting Agartha to the turmoil of drum and bass, he has the guts to let the beat take over, and when he goes ambient he looks to Gil Evans for structural reinforcement. He references Don Cherry as well as Jack Johnson. He mixes in dub, Vocoder, a borrowed piccolo trumpet, even two discreet poetry readings. He immerses in chaos and comes out beautiful. A

THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS Mass Romantic (Mint import) Even understood to indicate "rock" played by commercially theoretical alt-indie guitar bands, "pop" has become a term so elastic it assures only the desire to be tuneful or at least songful. There are wimp pop bands and punk pop bands, bedroom pop bands and studio pop bands, sour pop bands and sugary pop bands, metallic pop bands and folkish pop bands, pop bands that gleam like platinum and pop bands that mulch like autumn leaves. Even the boring ones, which doesn't just mean the tuneless ones, can claim their own "sound." But this Vancouver "supergroup" (Zumpano fans are reeling) have content, personality, and attitude (and tunes). Without powering into the radio-ready amplitude of, oh, Tsar, they have a grand old time faking artificiality: "Telstar" organ and "Carrie-Anne" falsettos, glam Briticisms and Neil Diamond chords, Katrina Leskanich tributes and faux fops tossing off lyrics like "Heavens to Betsy/Come on let's see/What could be worse than/The wheel of history?" All brought off with switched-on brio, sardonic multireferentiality, and jubilant momentum. Get inside that sound and it's a blast. A MINUS

STARLIGHT MINTS: The Dream That Stuff Was Made of (SeeThru Broadcasting) Not only does Allan Vest sing in a Brit-pseud whine that crosses Sparks with the guy in Rain Parade, his lyrics are as arch as he is and his cello-violin duo does "Eleanor Rigby" homages. Red-blooded rock and rollers will grab the barf bag. But if those whose immune systems can always use a little toning hang in there, they'll soon notice, not without some healthy unease, that melodically, harmonically, and even rhythmically this Oklahoman getsya every track. Except the slow ones. B PLUS

THE STROKES: The Modern Age (Rough Trade import) Lou Reed's too easy, Television just wrong--this New York five-piece's three-song preview reminds me of the Vibrators. Who were songfully nonstop Britpunks-of-convenience, slightly trad and not too deep, hence the necessity of IDing them. Their 1978 debut is cherished by many. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

THE JAYHAWKS: Smile (Columbia) The Jayhawks without Mark Olson don't resemble the Flying Burrito Brothers without Gram Parsons so much as Poco without Richie Furay. Not that they were ever as fluffy as Poco (or as chewy as the Burritos). But now they're as vapid as late Poco and then some. Although specifics do assert themselves, like when the drummer sings or the inspirational title cut refences some northern clime, Gary Louris's boys aspire to the generalization level of transcendentalist parlor ballads, Hallmark cards, and, increasingly, Music Row. Alt- and any other kind of country behind them, they praise the Bob Ezrin who produced Alice Cooper and hire the one who produced Air Supply. C

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Neko Case & Her Boyfriends, Furnace Room Lullaby (Bloodshot): country music as saying what you mean--or trying to, which is just as good, right? ("Thrice All American," "South Tacoma Way")
  • Istanbul Oriental Ensemble, Caravanserai (Network import): Roma finger drum as musical Dardanelles ("Askin Sarabi," "Katar")
  • Heavy D and the Boyz, Heavy Hitz (MCA): one track is the "b-side of `Don't Curse,'" everything else the A side, and more seductive for it ("The Overweight Lover's in the House," "Black Coffee")
  • Giant Sand, Chore of Enchantment (Thrill Jockey): one of them newfangled song-cycle sounding sorta things ("[well] Dusted [for the millennium]," "Temptation of Egg")
  • The Embarrassment, Blister Pop (My Pal God): live leavings of a helluva bar band ("Faith Healer," "Time Has Come Today")
  • Idlewild, 100 Broken Windows (Odeon): anthems of the New Sincerity ("Roseability," "Those Wooden Ideas")
  • Jeb Loy Nichols, Just What Time It Is (Rykodisc): too subtle for too long, although the tunes do pick up drastically four tracks in, when he takes on a collaborator ("Room 522," "Kissing Gate")
  • The Naysayer, Deathwhisker (Carrot Top): exile in grrrlville ("Currency," "Plans")
  • Cursive, Cursive's Domestica (Saddle Creek): guitar rageboy marries too young, gets concept album out of it ("The Game of Who Needs Who the Worst," "The Night I Lost the Will to Fight")
  • Capleton, More Fire (VP): prophets of slackness beware ("Danger Zone," "Bun Dung Dreddie")
  • The Corn Sisters, The Other Women (Mint import): Neko Case and friend sing country songs--authentic and simulated, live and acoustic, 1998 ("Too Many Pills," "Corn on the Cob:)
  • Drive-By Truckers, Alabama Ass Whuppin' ( loads of stories, not much music ("The Living Bubba," "Don't Be in Love Around Me")
  • Cracker, Garage d'Or (Virgin): all any nonsophomore need know of a minor popster, major wiseass, and great lost indie-rocker ("Teen Angst [What the World Needs Now]," "Mr. Wrong")
Choice Cuts:
  • Ryan Adams, "To Be Young (is to be sad, is to be high)" (Heartbreaker, Bloodshot)
  • Tsar, "Kathy Fong Is the Bomb" (Tsar, Hollywood)
  • Bette Midler, "In These Shoes" (Bette, Warner Bros.)
  • The Weakerthans, "Pamphleteer," "This Is a Fire Door Never Leave Open" (Left and Leaving, Sub City)
  • Jimmy LaFave, "Elvis Loved His Mama" (Texoma, Bohemia Beat)
  • King Chango, The Return of El Santo (Luaka Bop)
  • Low, Things We Lost in the Fire (Kranky)
  • Van Morrison/Linda Gail Lewis, You Win Again (Exile/Pointblank/Virgin)
  • Papas Fritas, Buildings and Grounds (Minty Fresh)
  • Peaches, The Teaches of Peaches (Kitty-Yo import) [Later: B-]
  • Stockhausen/Andersen/Heral w/Rypdal, Karta (ECM)
  • Swag, Catch-All (Yep Roc)
  • The Waxwings, Low to the Ground (Bobsled)

Village Voice, Apr. 3, 2001

Feb. 13, 2001 May 1, 2001