Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide: Alt Lives!!

Alt-rock dead? Only if your ears are. Most of the indie and postindie artists who get the big reviews below are veterans coming into their own. But in Honorable Mention you'll find younger bands I bet have better in them.

ASS PONYS: Some Stupid With a Flare Gun (Checkered Past) Chuck Cleaver has always been in it for the vignettes--for situations evoked or described in words, pithy words. But as he declares himself a lifer--his first album in four years and fifth overall brings him to age 40--he reveals himself a bandleader. His seasoned rhythm section and strapping guitarist get so far into the guts of the songs you wish they hadn't wasted Electric Rock Music on the last one even though they had a sillier title ready. Cleaver's corkscrew falsetto bores into the high-strung music to transform lots of death and a third nipple into the stuff of noisy desperation, desperate celebration, etc. It's alt-country only insofar as it favors forms and farms. But if shit shovelers can convince Cleaver the cosmos has a niche for him, I'm ready to forgive all the fiddle fills. A MINUS

CHUMBAWAMBA: Uneasy Listening (EMI import) This "Collection of Stuff From 1986-1998" establishes that their sloganeering gift for the catchy long preceded "Tubthumping," and also that it's not in them to write apolitically--"This Girl," described as one of "a series of jangly love songs" they tried because they weren't supposed to, concerns a nonconformist who throws bricks from the top of a parking garage. Their music and their anarchism combine the programmatic and the quirky. Despite the trumpets, many arrangements reduce to rock readymades with a march pulse, yet despite the guitar chords and drum beats the enunciated lyrics evoke music hall. Really, they're that funny. You say that when they barf to cap each infinitely repeated "Your ugly houses look so . . . " there's no way to know they were inspired by Sting's country mansion as opposed to row-house ticky-tacky? I say the notes are worth reading. A MINUS

CHUMBAWAMBA: WYSIWYG (Republic) Waddaya know, the money's been good for them--22 songs in 47 minutes, an unslackening stream of infectious invective and simplistic satire, too jolly to accuse of contempt. "I'm With Stupid" isn't about ordinary people even if "Dumbing Down" is, and for the most part the tunes are so cheerful and the mood so up that the songs feel like jokes the whole world has been waiting for a chance to laugh at. Really, wasn't it about time for one called "Hey Hey We're the Junkies"? Even if the junkies in question are addicted to media? A MINUS

FATBOY SLIM: On the Floor at the Boutique (Astralwerks) The stupid album he's not genius enough to make himself is a live mix tape seguing many dance records unknown to me and a few I've long loved, most crucially the Jungle Brothers' groove-setting "Because I Got It Like That." All are speeded up so that the vocalists, let's call them, sound less like cartoons--except on "Michael Jackson," which samples the J5's Saturday-morning show--than like they've just huffed helium. Jumping jack laugh, it's a gas gas gas. A MINUS

THE FOLK IMPLOSION: One Part Lullaby (Interscope) "I didn't leave my room till I learned how to drive," Lou Barlow recalls about being 17, which is probably why he seems retarded to this day. He's not a thug or a dolt, God knows. But he has the awkward aura of someone whose social IQ is 100 points below his math-and-verbal, and I wouldn't bet his socks always match. This is so pretty it's almost a poem about quiet lyricism--and so passive you want to put crystal meth in its apple juice. B PLUS

THE HANDSOME FAMILY: In the Air (Carrot Top) The reason these alt-country cult heroes stir up so much humbug is that they do sometimes strike the great elusive motherlode of American tragic deadpan. When Rennie Sparks's lyrics don't settle for "dark," or Brett Sparks's music for lo-fi dirge, they can be miraculous. So next time you're in Dublin, be sure to pick up the Ireland-only '90s best-of Down in the Valley, on Independent. And in the meantime believe that their fourth and best album is almost as good. Of course Brett's no Acuff or Haggard; his static baritone barely negotiates the notes. But as the quietly elaborate direct-to-Mac arrangements swell unassumingly beneath haunting verses and the occasional killer refrain, Rennie's conceits hit home. "I shouldn't have smuggled in that bottle of gin because after the film I could hardly walk"? "Tuesday at dawn Michael's glasses washed ashore with a styrofoam box and two broken oars"? If that's not real life, it certainly stands as symbolic truth. A MINUS

HIGH FIDELITY (Hollywood) The best mix tapes are made by guys with good ears, crammed shelves, and tastes that don't quite match up with yours, so they're full of surprises. Roky Erikson's greatest hit undiminished by Ray Davies's lesser one, say. Classic Costello from a subclassic album, classic Dylan ditto, Doug Yule as Lou Reed (twice), Arthur Lee on earth. Eight minutes of obscure Stereolab just when you need a change of pace. Memorable Smog and notable Royal Trux and intriguing Beta Band and acceptable John Wesley Harding and now they can all go back where they came from. Stevie Wonder pledging his obvious love. Cinematic compromises that almost fit in. We want more movies about record geeks because we want more soundtracks like this one. A MINUS

MARY LOU LORD/SEAN NA NA (Kill Rock Stars) Two born buskers split a six-song EP that contains, the very idea, at least four identifiable songs. Pioneering Courtney-basher Lord covers Lucinda Williams and follows Kelly Willis and Two Nice Girls to a Janis Martin rockabilly number. Sean Tillmann deserts the one-man punk band Calvin Krime to wax sardonic about his funeral and his misspent youth, both of which I hope he lives to enjoy. B PLUS

M2M: Shades of Purple (Atlantic) Believe it or not, there are three impossibly touching songs on this record, all at least cocomposed by 15-year-old Norwegian Marion Raven. "Don't Say You Love Me," a minor hit from the Pokemon soundtrack, sets the standard. He's "cute and all that," but she's not ready to get kissed or, for that matter, hear he loves her--after all, "It's not like we're gonna get married." Conceivably "Girl in Your Dreams," which is all Raven's--"Maybe I don't have the blonde hair you like/Or maybe I don't have eyes like the sky"--gets me because my daughter's a brunette, or maybe it's the way the melody meshes with the childish, just barely presexual burr in Raven's voice. And when "Don't Mess With My Love" takes her and 16-year old Marit Larsen to where they have a love to defend, it's as if they've grown up right in front of your ears. But even when the writing is ordinary, the quality teenpop, some assembly-line and some personalized, is transfigured by the duo's singing. If the result isn't brazen or fizzy enough to suit the marketplace, then nuts to the marketplace. This is the kind of left-field gift crazes make possible. A MINUS

LOU REED: Ecstasy (Reprise) Despite a few bloopers, including a love-equals-time metaphor he worked out for a Robert Wilson thingy, this is the album we hoped he'd make the first time we heard The Blue Mask--one of them, anyway. Disillusioned yet again to discover that the object of his affections is almost as fucked up as he is, Reed returns to the scene of his Oedipus complex while roto-rooting the internal contradictions of enduring romance from every angle he can think of. But there's more regret than rage, and no sense of finality, as if he's been through too much to stay mean. And note that his relationships endure, including the one with Mike Rathke, Fernando Saunders, and Tony Smith, now the longest-running band of his roving career. With Lou's guitar firmly at the helm, they impart something like tragic beauty not just to intended soul-shakers like "Ecstasy" and the 18-minute "Possum," but to the existentialist joke "The Modern Dance" and the cheater's diatribe "Mad"--which I call the most original song on the record even if Reed prefers the one about the white slave and the black master. A

SARGE: Distant (Mud) The indie circuit's no life for a girl who's been accepted at law school and wants the kind of relationships that are wrecked by the separations her lyrics dissect. So after four years Elizabeth Elmore broke up a band that contained no other original members, and this is their testament: three new Elmore songs that could break your heart waiting for more, three goofy covers, two sketchy closers, and a patched-together club set of six songs, five of which sound brighter on 1998's The Glass Intact. Overall, for fans and collectors, I guess--only I'm not so sure this isn't the one I'll play. My favorite moment is on the live solo-acoustic "The First Morning," where dimmer doesn't mean less affecting. "Bye guys--miss you," she offers after the cheers, and comes this close to sobbing, wondering how she'll do without the only relationship the road is good for. A MINUS

TARAF DE HAÏDOUKS (Nonesuch) Look, I got no use for Gypsy music, nor for the Balkan stuff to which it is geographically related. Gypsy's too demonstrative in its passion and longing, and as for Balkan, I've tried and failed and gone on with my life. So here's Band of Brigands, three generations of lautari from southwestern Romania it says in the notes, the elders not above improvising about the fall of Ceausescu, the young ones imbued with the old ways even if they love the music of the cities where they dream of performing--and where they now enjoy a presence, this being a best-of from three albums on a Belgian label. I love the tongue-twisting "Dumbala dumba," the deep cellar-door creak of "Rustem"'s large cymbalum, and the heartbroke melody of "Sabarelu," which seems to be about rivers. I dunno, maybe the other guys work up that floridity for the tourist trade. Or maybe this is a special band--fast, intense, tuneful, yet always frayed around the edges. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

LA BOTTINE SOURIANTE: Rock & Reel (Hemisphere) Winking whenever the folk do something cute (or dirty), wearing an I [Heart] Jazz button on their collective sleeve, this accordion-fiddle-horns nonet epitomizes the cloying multicultural sophistication that infests "world music." I'd hoped they were French, but in fact they're Québecois, which makes sense--the Breton-Celt connection. Austin's Brave Combo prove it's possible to make "fun" fun. Bilbao's Kepa Junkera proves it's possible to keep eclecticism clean. But this kind of stuff gives purism a good name. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Marianne Faithfull, Vagabond Ways (Instinct): a ravaged old hippie's bitterest laments ("Vagabond Ways," "Incarceration of a Flower Child")
  • The Fall, The Marshall Suite (Artful import): alt-rock won't die till they ban Pignose amps in Mark E.'s senior residence, but that doesn't mean he'll put this much into it ("F-'Oldin' Money," "Touch Sensitive")
  • Wheat, Hope and Adams (Sugar Free): falling-apart love songs for a broken world ("Body Talk [Part 2]," "Slow Fade")
  • Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, No Old Guy Lo-Fi Cry (Rockathon): he's always better when you listen to the words, and he's not making it any easier ("Internet Is Just Bad Pot," "Hell")
  • Burn Barrel, Reviled! (Heathen): neorealism Columbus style--via Far Rockaway, but Winesburg is proud anyway ("Scratch," "Mrs. Tubbs")
  • Issa Bagayogo, Sya (Cobalt import): Mali's great circle, described with the help of a drum machine ("Sya," "Gnangran")
  • Lobi Traoré, Duga (Cobalt import): Mali's great circle, described with the help of some French blues harmonica ("Sogow," "Wolodennu," "Lala")
  • Lyle Lovett, Live in Texas (Curb/MCA): entertaining to the converted ("Here I Am," "I've Been to Memphis")
  • Septeto Nacional & Guests, Mas Cuba Libres (Network import): high-generic son, pretty much like you-know-who, except I'll take rough-voiced eightysomething Pío Leva over Compay Segundo or Enrico Ferrer ("Oye Como Sena," "Llore Como Llore")
  • The Negro Problem, Joys & Concerns (Aerial Flipout): prefer XTC to Love and love to ecstasy ("Come Down Now," "Mahnsanto")
  • 'N Sync, No Strings Attached (Jive): the beats their statement, the ballads their way of life ("I Thought She Knew," "It Makes Me Ill")
  • Crooked Fingers (Warm): Eric Bachmann describes degradation as if he wants you to avoid it like a plague ("Broken Man," "She Spread Her Legs and Flew Away")
  • The Black Heart Procession (Up): three clattering dissonant songs (or tracks) establishing their right to record yet more clattering dissonant songs (or tracks)--not that anything could stop them ("Song About a . . . ," "A Truth Quietly Told")
Choice Cuts:
  • Habib Koite & Bamada, "Cigarette A Bana (The Cigarette Is Finished)" (Muso Ko, Alula)
  • Starpoint Electric, "Let My Brother Lie," "Bitter Happiness" (Bad Directions, Plastique)
  • Judy Henske, "Mad Dog Killer" (Loose in the World, Fair Star)
  • Charlie Robison, "Poor Man's Son" (Life of the Party, Sony/Lucky Dog)
  • Matt Witte, "There's a Bull Loose in Queens" (La Notte é Giovane, Exit Nine)
  • The Cure, Bloodflowers (Fiction/Elektra)
  • Alan Jackson, Under the Influence (Arista)
  • Pantera, Reinventing the Steel (Elektra)

Village Voice, May 2, 2000

Mar. 28, 2000 May 30, 2000