Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Three genuine debut albums make the cut--and that's not counting solo spinoff Killah Priest, or Dock Boggs, whose demographics were not unlike those of Mary Lou Lord, Chris Knight, and Smash Mouth. All three are crowding 30, with time to figure out what they wanted to do when they hit the studio for real. And dissimilar though they are, all convey compassion. Unlike Dock Boggs.

THE APPLES IN STEREO: Tone Soul Evolution (Sire) Robert Schneider's second pass at homemade Beatles conquers his embarrassment over how much he adores this stuff. Stripped of sonic camouflage, the songs are consistently pretty, fanciful, and slight, as clear as existential questions can be. Half a dozen ways he wonders whether he can lose himself forever in this music--and by so doing, find himself. You don't have believe in harmony to grant him the right to try. A MINUS

DOCK BOGGS: Country Blues (Revenant) As careful perusal of Greil Marcus's liner essay reveals, Boggs's legend is based on just eight traditional songs. He cut them in New York in 1927, and there's no better demonstration of how good they are than the four he laid down in Chicago in 1929. In New York he's so full of beans he can scarcely contain himself. If on the one hand he's truly enacting these dark-to-grisly tales, on the other hand they can't touch him; it's Waiting for Godot, in which the intrinsic excitement of creation subsumes all incidental pessimism, plus "I Want To Hold Your Hand," in which one's imminent conquest of the world infuses the humblest ditty with an exhilaration that carries all before it. Where Marcus hears an acceptance of death, I hear intimations of immortality--bitter laughter and defiant cunning, sap rising and blood flowing, meanness and exuberance and sarcasm and deviltry, a refusal to succumb to consequences. Two years later, on leave from the mining town he now senses he'll never escape, Boggs is the image of fatalistic impassivity, as dull as the lyrics he's been handed by the wannabe label owner who underwrote his trip to the city. Soon he would give in to his wife and stop playing for 30 years. A MINUS

ANI DIFRANCO: Little Plastic Castle (Righteous Babe) Here's hoping she gets used to fame, a theme the coolest new-famous are now canny enough to sidestep or caricature. But DiFranco doesn't have much use for ordinary standards of cool, which is one reason she retains such a lock on her corner of fame, and for the nonce, she can do no wrong. Always underlying the bull-session eloquence of her words, which constitutes a hook no matter the message, is the supple, seductive, self-amused musicality that puts all her recent records across. A typical touch here is her choice of world-jazz-ambient trumpeter Jon Hassell to decorate the 14-minute spoken-word finale "Pulse": "you crawled into my bed/like some sort of giant insect/and i found myself spellbound/at the sight of you there/beautiful and grotesque/and all the rest of that bug stuff." "That bug stuff"--who else would dare it? A MINUS [Later]

CESARIA EVORA: Cabo Verde (Nonesuch) Having mysteriously resisted the reigning world-music diva since I encountered her in a quiet Paris club a decade ago, I found a clue in the translation of "Mar é morada de sodade": "The Sea Is the Home of Nostalgia." Usually "sodade," the equivalent of "soul" in Evora's morna style, is rendered "sadness" or "longing," terms that disguise the self-pity beneath its dignity--a self-pity that's easier to take out in the open. Rather more than on her renowned U.S. debut (which I like better now that I've heard her better), that self-pity is mitigated by the somewhat swifter flow of the grooves, a speed achieved at no loss of her fundamental fluidity. And I note that the two drop-dead melodies, both taken medium-fast and one featuring an utterly easeful James Carter, counsel confidently against despair and complacency. A MINUS [Later]

FAT BEATS & BRASTRAPS: CLASSICS (Rhino) "The rules of the game are simple and plain/Turn on the microphone and recite your name," claims the great lost Sparky-D over some break-beats and an audacious two-note Louie Shelton loop. And beyond the two stone classics, Roxanne Shanté's "Have a Nice Day" and the Real Roxanne's "Bang Zoom (Let's Go-Go)," that innocence encapsulates the casual charm and enduring artistic value of this early femme rap comp. It's innocent when Shanté lays out the perils of the street on the rare "Runaway," when young Latifah skanks the Meters, when LeShaun d/b/a 2 Much serves up the lovingly lubricious "Wild Thang" for the ineluctably lustful L.L. Cool J, when the great lost Ice Cream Tee disses "male chauvinists" without thinking twice. Historically and musically, the Sequence and Salt-n-Pepa are missed. But this proves what a great girls school the old school could have been. A MINUS

ORUÇ GÜVENÇ AND TÜMATA: Rivers of One (Interworld) Nobody believes I honestly like this Turkish med-school professor cum New Age spellbinder until I actually pop on Oceans of Remembrance, in which he and his little trio chant the names of God for an hour of unassuming ecstasy. Showcasing the Sufi healing music that Güvenç rediscovered, this one's somewhat less transcendent--longer on flute with minimal vocals, although I dig how assuredly Gulten Uralli pours the water that sets the beat. It comprises three improvisations on the rast makam, a tonality said to promote "inner calmness." As someone who regularly endangers his immune system with electric music, I find this therapeutic at bedtime, and sincerely hope the follow-up moves on to the hicaz makam, which "protects and strengthens the urogenital system." A MINUS

KILLAH PRIEST: Heavy Mental (Geffen) Shaolin mystagogy meets millennarian panic in music for the end time. And though the album may be paranoid, that doesn't mean nobody's out to get it--just like any other product of the projects. "Science projects," Priest calls them, amid Biblical citations, images of crucifixion, 2001 fantasies, warp-speed verbal drive-bys, and this Inspirational Verse: "I roam the earth's surface/Snatching purses/Allergic/To Catholic churches/What's the purpose?/Religious worship/Is worthless." Preach, Killah. A MINUS

CHRIS KNIGHT (Decca) This being Nashville, of course they claim his secret is reality, but I say it's literature. He's a writer pure and simple, schooled in the economical everyday; if he'd grown up in California instead of Kentucky, he'd have tried his hand at sitcoms. I love the way he finds a pungent trope and tops it--drives his truck to Timbuktu and then lies down on a bed of nails. The music is spare enough to signify reality, and big enough to heighten it. A MINUS

MARY LOU LORD: Got No Shadow (Work) Only indie perverts would hyperventilate over Lord's breathy voice, which needs every booster jet mind can devise or money can buy. And only indie perverts would object to her long-aborning major-label debut, where she gets the help she needs. The production is Amy Rigby-style neotraditionalism, with Roger McGuinn rippling under one flowing surge just to mark the concept, and, overcoming her fondness for Nick Saloman (Bevis Frond, don't you know anything?), she makes the most of covers from Elizabeth Cotten to Freedy Johnston. Equally impressive, every once in a while she finds the gumption to eke out a song so winsomely conceived and solidly constructed it belongs in the canon she adores. Sometimes Saloman even helps--the cowritten lead track is a hummer worthy of Stuart Murdoch (Belle and Sebastian, don't you know anything at all?). A MINUS

PRIMAL SCREAM: Vanishing Point (Reprise) As someone who saw the title film stoned in 1971, and loved it, I agree that this is one of the few putatively psychedelic albums ever to evoke the distractible ecstasy of actual psychedelic experience, flitting from detail to fascinating, ultimately meaningless detail. Crucially, the moods and referents that flash past are anchored by tunes and sounds so simple a zonked zombie can relate to them. But as someone not altogether dismissive of the cofeature, Panic in Needle Park (Charles Theater on Avenue B, you could look it up), I must also note that, pace the highly apposite Stones rip that takes the trip back to earth, "medication" has never killed a hole that didn't come back gaping the next morning--a corny truth that renders this an achievement best admired from a sane distance. B PLUS

BONNIE RAITT: Fundamental (Capitol) I'd rest easier claiming this album sounds like middle-aged sex--creaky, caring, not shy about adjusting its groove--if it weren't for the other thing it sounds like, which is the debut album she cut with a bunch of folkie eccentrics when she was 21. So just say it sounds like Bonnie Raitt, old before her time as always. Songwise it's a little less consistent than Luck of the Draw, but now that miracle worker Don Was has withdrawn I can't believe how relieved I am he's gone. Finally there's some mess to go with her slide--Tchad Blake's kind of mess, in which junk is recycled into decor and everybody leaves coffee cups on the speaker cases. Some of them come from Starbucks. Some are straight out the vending machine. Some are Fiestaware originals. A MINUS

SMASH MOUTH: Fush Yu Mang (Interscope) By calculation or osmosis, this unrad agglomeration of semiprofessional entertainers puts bells on the humorous humanism of ska twice removed. As you'd figure, the key is songs, most of them by late-arriving guitarist Greg Camp, whose hardcore links are even more theoretical than his bandmates'. His fondly ignorant take on the hippie moment could be Bertrand Russell by pop standards, and having survived one little sure shot that wasn't (a War cover, how progressive), Interscope is finally getting behind the album-opening "Flo." I couldn't swear radio is ready for a cheerful ditty begging the title lesbian to take the singer's girlfriend back. But the world is. A MINUS [Later]

Dud of the Month

ERIC CLAPTON: Pilgrim (Reprise) Actually, Lord, there's been a misunderstanding. Remember when we said it was OK for You to sing? What we meant was . . . well, first we just wanted You to get rid of Jack Bruce. Then it was more like, Don't be shy, Sonny Boy Williamson didn't have that much range either. But never, never, never did we say, You have the right if George Benson does. Or, You could be the next Phil Collins. Or, Guitars are for sound effects anyway. Really, God. That wasn't the idea at all. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • B.B. King, Deuces Wild (MCA): best cameos of an albumful: Tracy Chapman, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton ("The Thrill Is Gone," "Paying the Cost To Be the Boss," "Rock Me Baby")
  • Loudon Wainwright III, Little Ship (Charisma Records America, Inc.): jape, jape against the dying of the light ("Four Mirrors," "So Damn Happy")
  • George Clinton & the P-Funk All Stars, Live and Kickin' (Intersound): more funky than fresh, their best live one withal ("Flashlight," "Cosmic Slop")
  • Chumbawamba, Tubthumper (Republic/Universal): tub as platform, tub as cornucopia, tub as slop bucket ("Tubthumping," "Amnesia")
  • Fat Beats & Brastraps: New MCs (Rhino): "Unknown MCs" may be closer to the truth, but that doesn't make it justice (Nonchalant, "5 O'Clock"; Shä-Key, "Soulsville")
  • Rakim, The 18th Letter: The Book of Life (Universal): his canon has a clarity his comeback can't match ("When I'm Flowin'," "It's Been a Long Time")
  • Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina (Smithsonian/Folkways): as imperious as Odetta, and he's got a right ("On a Bright and Summer's Morning," "Old Mountain Dew")
  • DJ Shadow, Preemptive Strike (Mo Wax/FFRR): his best here was better the first time ("In/Flux," "Organ Donor (Extended Overhaul)")
  • Madonna, Ray of Light (Maverick/Warner Bros.): pretty sensual for pop enlightenment, thank God ("Skin," "Candy Perfume Girl")
  • Cappadonna, The Pillage (Razor Sharp/Epic Street): as it is written, "Wu-Tang Productions Presents" ("Milk the Cow," "Run")
  • Robbie Fulks, South Mouth (Bloodshot): in the great tradition of Dwight "Little Man Whose Name Is Saul" Yoakam (and Steve "Jap Guitar" Earle), he vows to deliver Nashville from the dread "faggot in a hat" ("Dirty-Mouthed Flo," "Fuck This Town")
  • Fat Beats & Brastraps: Battle Rhymes & Posse Cuts (Rhino): bitch-bitch-bitch and brother-brother-brother (Shanté, "Big Mama"; Roxanne Shanté vs. Sparky Dee, "Round 1 [Uncensored]"; All Saints (London): self-created prefab ("Trapped," "If You Want To Party")
  • Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Friends of Mine (HighTone): hootenannies, they useta call 'em ("Walls of Red Wing," "Me and Billy the Kid")
Choice Cuts:
  • Dorsey Dixon, "Babies in the Mill," "I Saw the Wood," "Weave Room Blues" (Babies in the Mill, HMG)
  • Blur, "Song 2" (Blur, Virgin)
  • James Taylor, "Line 'Em Up," "Walking My Baby Back Home" (Hourglass, Columbia)
  • Boyz II Men, "The Girl in the Life Magazine" (Evolution, Motown)
  • Susanna Baca (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)
  • Solomon Burke, The Definition of Soul (Pointblank)
  • Dance Hall Crashers, Honey I'm Homely (MCA)
  • The Mavericks, Trampoline (MCA Nashville)
  • Rammstein, Sehnsucht (Slash) [Later: Neither]
  • LeAnn Rimes, You Light Up My Life (Curb)

Village Voice, Apr. 21, 1998

Mar. 3, 1998 June 2, 1998