Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

In the limbo of the computer file I call Neither, the following artists attracted at least 50 points from the Pazz & Jop electorate while inspiring not a word from me: Frank Black, Blood Oranges, Eugenius, Gang Starr, MC Solaar, the Mekons, Shara Nelson, Seefeel, Ali Farka Toure with Ry Cooder, Wu-Tang Clan.

ELASTICA: Stutter (DGC) Their three EPs/maxisingles are all mere foretastes of an oft-delayed album now scheduled for March 14 that will include three songs from each. On this domestic EP and on the import-only Line Up the odd track out is the shiny unhappy "Rockundroll"; on the import-only Connection it's the jerkwire "Spastica." Second-generation girlpostpunk is the product--less arty than Wire, less smarmy than the Knack, so if I were you I'd think Buzzcocks. I'd also hold off till March, but iou just can't stand the wait you might as well pay domestic prices for an indulgence anyone who can't stand the wait is guaranteed to enjoy. A MINUS [Later: Choice Cuts]

ARETHA FRANKLIN: Greatest Hits (1980-1994) (Arista) She's not the titanic presence of 25 years ago, but never count her out. That would require explaining away Clivillés & Cole's new "A Deeper Love," an electro masterpiece as emotional as "Ain't No Way" and as propulsive as "Chain of Fools" (and by the way, it's about God). She even makes Babyface's "Honey" sound like a song. If such late classics as "Jimmy Lee" and "Who's Zoomin' Who" are frothier than true believers might hope, that only proves her evolutionary superiority. All the principle she needs is in her voice, which should only keep adapting into the next millennium. Inspirational Verse That Isn't Even From the Michael McDonald Duet "Ever Changing Times": "I say the past is the past and it no longer matters." A

STEVE GOODMAN: No Big Surprise: The Steve Goodman Anthology (Red Pajamas) Cool Hand Leuk, this impish folkie liked to call himself. When cancer finally got him after 15 years in 1984, Randy Newman could think of no apter or kinder way to open a tribute concert than "Short People," but it grieves me to report that Keith Moreland did not drop a routine fly at his funeral, as Goodman suggested in 1983's "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request." Living in the valley of the shadow of chemo, Goodman believed in enjoying himself, and he also believed it was his job--meaning among other things the precondition of all the gratifications he refused to delay--to induce us to enjoy ourselves as well. That's one reason the live half of this double-CD is especially irresistible despite the old stuff. He's adroit, very funny, very tolerant, only rarely too warm, and incorrigibly middle-class. Up until now, he had his name on a lot of great songs and nothing anyone imagined was a great album. A MINUS

JON HASSELL AND BLUESCREEN: Dressing for Pleasure (Warner Bros.) Like they say, only never before with this guy, play loud--background it ain't. Hassell's untreated trumpet leads a multipedigreed avant-pop cusp band--from Praxis, Disposable Heroes, Tom Waits--through what most often sounds like that rare thing, good fusion. Miles and Eno, acid jazz, hip hop lessons, New Age world-music BS--all are here, with barely a hint of ripoff. The minimalist experimenter/dabbler's most conventional and convincing record. A MINUS

JIMI HENDRIX: Woodstock (MCA) Transitional--less definitive than Winterland early or Berkeley late. But more essential (also historic) than any other Hendrix concert record. The ad hoc Gypsy Sons and Rainbows band goes with Billy Cox on bass, picks Mitch's sticks over Buddy's bigfoot; two percussionists sit in for a snakier groove and Larry Lee adds extraneous guitar. The loosely rehearsed music sounds that way. But it's way, way out there--"The Star Spangled Banner" is a bon-bon compared to "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)/Stepping Stone" or "Jam Back at the House (Beginnings)" or the unaccompanied "Woodstock Improvisation." All in all, your basic rock concert as act of flawed genius. Does this kind of thing happen any more? Not on such a scale for sure. A MINUS

SKIP JAMES: She Lyin' (Genes) James is in the canon for a few wildly unprecedented guitar and piano solos captured in 1931, his only session until he was yanked from his sickbed by the folk movement 33 years later. Although the two '60s albums he cut for Vanguard were hailed by the country blues claque, they lack the charm and commitment of John Hurt's. This contemporaneous exhumation isn't brilliant either, but it has more life. A detached noninnovator by the time it was recorded, James nevertheless maintained a personal take on an enduring entertainment music, notably in a falsetto that breathed mystery and sexual magnetism. A minor moment in the tangled history of a seminal genre. A MINUS

PEARL JAM: Vitalogy (Epic) It's getting hard to hate Eddie Vedder--his struggles with stardom have a concreteness missing from more mythic epics of resistance. But it isn't his MTV boycott or TicketMaster stand that make his third album his best--it's his need to live up to Kurt's musical example and expiate Kurt's mythic pain. Three or four of these songs are faster and riffier than anything else in P. Jam's book, token experiments like "Bugs" are genuinely weird, and in an era of compulsory irony his sincerity is something like a relief--a Kurtlike relief at that. A MINUS [Later]

SOUL COUGHING: Ruby Vroom (Slash/Warner Bros.) If it was down to M. Doughty's hipster cynicism and summer-stock declaiming, this would be a novelty act not unlike Tonio K., whose shouted studio speed-rock provided a nonpunk corrective to Jackson Browne in 1979. But the music isn't just second-rate poetry-with-fusion backup. Standup bassist Sebastian Steinberg (dig his "Misterioso" under "Casiotone Nation") and chopswise drummer Yuval Gabay (hear him threaten to fly off the track on "Blueeyed Devil") remain up front, while keyb man M'ark De Gli Antoni (that's what it says) orchestrates synthesizer and sampler for atmosphere, commentary, and plain old cheap thrills. Not that the music isn't more compelling when Doughty hits his satiric targets, the easy ones included. A MINUS [Later: A]

SPELL: Mississippi (Island) Sonic Youth as Ramones from a Denver married-couple-plus-dynamite-drummer who figure somebody might as well go pop with those tricks. Even if they succeed, it won't last--where their models had too much principle to break through, they don't have enough to hang on. But song junkies with dual citizenship in their contiguous aural universes have been taken for much duller rides. B PLUS

JOSEPH SPENCE AND THE PINDER FAMILY: The Spring of Sixty-Five (Rounder) On most of his records, the Bahamaian Ry-&-Taj influence is one more reason to never trust a guitar cult. Sure he's an original, a self-taught virtuoso, et cetera--so much so that his poky vocal gestalt fails to signify for those who believe accompaniment ought to be just that. But with his unfettered in-laws slinging song around, these spirituals, shanties, and other cultural riches are all the way live--felt, gorgeous, jocose, revelled in for what they are and what can be made of them. A MINUS

VERUCA SALT: American Thighs (Minty Fresh/DGC) Who cares whether it's "real" or not? However much Nina Gordon, Louise Post, and their bepenised rhythm section sound like the Breeders, you could tell the two apart in a blindfold test (probably). But the confluences overpower the divergences anyway, and good. Commercial calculation is as irrelevant here as they're-just-a-band gender-has-nothing-to-do-with-it bullshit. Whatever their motives and existential reality, they're less coy, less goofy, clearer melodically, and surer of their rhythmic turf at least in part because the Breeders got over, thus diminishing (but not eliminating) their felt need for diversionary tactics in a continuing project of aesthetic reconceptualization--creating a pop-rock style that steers between male-identified canons of manipulative pseudocertainty and female-identified canons of pseudoconfessional sensitivity. At present, what they say with that style means less than how coherently and attractively they configure it. If and when they become (even) better artists, it won't. A MINUS

HOWLIN' WOLF: Ain't Gonna Be Your Dog (Chess) Muddy's marginalia slip past when you're not listening. Wolf's always register--two hour-long discs containing 42 U.S.-uncollected tracks (including a mere smattering of acoustic versions and alternate takes), and not a song just makes nice and lies there. Even when he's only stretching his lungs, his voice fills the room, and from jump blues to pop soul, all attempts at commercial affability are swamped by his huge natural sound. Plus a bunch of horn arrangements that somebody up there probably thought were too bizarre or raggedy or something. The thing about Wolf is, he can never be too anything. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

THE JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION: Orange (Matador) For Jon Spencer to make fun not of old black bluesmen but of the white hippies who emulated them so crudely just makes him an asshole coming and going. Given his cultural-chronological advantages, what right does he have to dog, oh, Bob Hite, who did scour the South for lost artists and recordings as well as conceiving Canned Heat, a pretty decent band in the end? And do you really believe he doesn't relish the excuse to play-act a racist stereotype that increases his stupid sex appeal? Irony--an excuse for anything and a reason for nothing. B MINUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Half Japanese, Fire in the Sky (Safe House): fast ones fast, slow ones heartbreaking ("This Could Be the Night," "Always," "Magic Kingdom," "Everyone Knows")
  • Carmaig de Forest's DeathGrooveLoveParty (Knitting Factory Works): if the Violent Femmes had never gotten famous . . . ("Bend Down Low," "So Happy Together")
  • The Affected, A Fate Worse Than a Fate Worse Than Death (Frontier): raised-on-AOR guitar with punk attitude--thousands try it, these particular Australians get it right ("Wilt," "Mind")
  • Craig Mack Project, Funk Da World (Bad Boy): Biz Markie as postgangsta ("Flava in Ya Ear," "Funk Wit Da Style")
  • Heavenly, The Decline and Fall of Heavenly (K): nice quiet girl asserts herself--quietly, but you can hear her talking ("Me and My Madness," "Three Star Compartment")
  • Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral (Nothing/TVT/Interscope): musically, Hieronymus Bosch as postindustrial atheist; lyrically, Transformers as kiddie porn ("Heresy," "Reptile")
  • The Cranberries, No Need to Argue (Island): soulful things to say, tuneful ways to say them, way too long getting there ("Ode to My Family," "Zombie")
  • Dan Hicks, Shootin' Straight (On the Spot): the old old-timey shtick sits better on an actual old-timer ("Up! Up! Up!" "Who Are You?")
  • Buddy Guy, Slippin' In (Silvertone): From the Source: more voice, more soul, plenty guitar, less classic (and shopworn) songs ("Love Her With a Feeling," "Little Dab-a-Doo")
  • Elvis Costello, Brutal Youth (Warner Bros.): fussy as Streisand, ugly as sin, touched with grace ("London's Brilliant Parade," "My Science Fiction Twin")
  • Sonny Sharrock, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast (Cartoon Network promo); a little skronk, a little tune, some weird vocal overlay, and voila--cable soundtrack fusion ("Hit Single," "Ghost Planet National Anthem")
  • Spearhead, Home (Capitol): recyclable Michael Franti--he's black, he's grooveful, he's Gil Scott-Heron ("Crime To Be Broke in America," "People in the Middle")
Choice Cuts:
  • Dr. Dre & Ice Cube, "Natural Born Killaz"; Nate Dogg, "One More Day" (Murder Was the Case, Death Row/Interscope)
  • The Afghan Whigs, "My World Is Empty Without You/I Hear a Symphony," "Mr. Superlove" (What Jail Is Like, Elektra)
  • The Goats, "Butcher Countdown" (No Goats, No Glory, Ruffhouse/Columbia)
  • Ben Harper, "Mama's Got a Girlfriend Now" (Welcome to the Cruel World, Virgin)
  • Tom Robinson, "Green," "Fifty" (Love Over Rage, Rhythm Safari)
  • Live, Throwing Copper (Radioactive) [Later: C+]
  • Pat Metheny, Zero Tolerance for Silence (DGC)
  • Palace Songs, Hope (Drag City)
  • The Popinjays, Tales From the Urban Prairie (One Little Indian)
  • Saint Etienne, Tiger Bay (Warner Bros.)
  • The Veldt, Afrodisiac (Mercury)

Village Voice, Feb. 21, 1995

Jan. 17, 1995 Apr. 11, 1995