Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Protopunks and Reggae

Several protopunks and many reggae collections are scattered below, the reggae representing a long investigation that left such eminences as U-Roy and Beenie Man in my Neither file. Wish there was a Pick Hit in the bunch.

BANG ON A CAN: Terry Riley: In C (Cantaloupe) In the '60s I loved Riley's gamelan-like semipop breakthrough A Rainbow in Curved Air, dismissing this earlier composition as too tinkly. Since the trippy minimalist lets players determine their own volume and duration, maybe the vibraphone and marimba guys were on the wrong drugs. Thirty-five years later, overall register has dropped, the music signifying loud and electric with comparable instrumentation. The moment that gets me every time comes 15 minutes in, when the cello surges to the front with the force of a Jimmy Page solo--relative force, that is. A MINUS

CORNERSHOP: Handcream for a Generation (Beggars Banquet) Like Paris-born Catalonian Manu Chao, Punjabi Londoner Tjinder Singh comes to the idea of world music naturally. Mining primitive disco the way Chao does secondhand ska, he isn't a rhythm animal out to beat the world down so much as a laid-back guy who'll be happy to show us the way to better times as long as he doesn't have to work too hard, since better times mean not working too hard. There are even fewer true songs here than on the breakthrough album he dropped five years ago now, and like Manu Chao he favors the reprise. But I love his commonsense grooves--the Memphis bottom and cheesy keyb for honorary compere Otis Clay, the guitar vamp on "Lessons Learned From Rocky I to Rocky III" matching the B-3 on "Wogs Will Walk." Mood music, maybe. How to be conscious and happy at the same time. A

DILLINGER: The Prime of Dillinger: Gangster, Prankster and Rasta (Music Club) "My name is Ragnampaiza/And I don't eat fertilizer/I am the dub organizer/And I come to make you wiser." This not quite pioneering Kingston DJ scored one big '70s hit, the reconstituted, misguided, irresistible "Cocaine in My Brain," and cuts deeper than U-Roy three decades later. He had some of Big Youth's humanity with more of a sense of humor. He named a song for the "three piece suit and thing" line that Althia & Donna picked up. Say it fast, "Killer Man Jaro"--no no no, pronounce it "mon," not "man." B PLUS

IMPERIAL TEEN: On (Merge) After two major-label efforts that I doubt made a cent, this is unabashed art for art's sake--a subsidized hobby, only it's a label rather than a papa laying out the cash and expecting personal fulfillment through creative expression in return. Pop isn't an ambition for these smart people with other things to do, it's a discipline--the tunes strong, the beats solid, the vocals lightly yearning and pungently sweet. As if they've actually been listening to the radio (watching MTV, more likely), they bear down on the rhythm tracks, which I hope doesn't mean they think the whoos and handclaps on "Baby" will get buzz-binned in this day and age. They'll tour, fill small venues, sell some T-shirts. And to what end? The chance to make yet another album this near-perfect right on schedule, in 2005. A MINUS

ALANIS MORISSETTE: Under Rug Swept (Maverick) Once dissed as the voice of pseudofeminist exploitation, Morissette was in fact a thinking original in a showbiz context she had the stuff to make something of. The pop-rock here lacks the faux-punk edge Glen Ballard got on the debut and the expansive grandeur he manufactured for the follow-up. But Morissette instantly demonstrates her gift for the catchy, crunching out a guitar riff and then revealing 21 "not necessarily needs but things that I prefer" in a lover. Stretching out il-lu-si-on and for-med to suit scansion or mood, opposing capital punishment and coming out for sex "more than three times a week," topping memorable verse with indelible chorus, she's a self-actualized nut who goes for what she wants, exactly as pretentious as the college girls she represents for. Whatever the biographical details, I hear love songs to a narcissist, an old flame, an "employee" (has anyone used that word in a song before?), plus a self-doubt anthem for perspective and gorgeous regrets for pathos. Even when the forced pronunciations turn gauche, she remains a good egg who's not afraid to put herself on the line. A MINUS

THE REPUTATION (Initial) First Elizabeth Elmore left a great band to go to law school. Now she leaves a great law school to start a better band, bringing a dark, intense fury to Sarge's runaway jangle. You'd think she'd be proud of herself, and from the way she talks you can tell she is. But is she happy about her accomplishments? Au contraire. Friends and lovers fall away on all sides, so that she would leave this town tonight if she could think where to go--not law school, damn it. One begins to wonder whether beneath her reasonable exterior lurk impossible demands. After all, when guys spend albums complaining about how nobody's good enough for them we figure they're trying to kid somebody. She goes out covering Elvis Costello, who is not my choice to replace Ann Landers. A MINUS

ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ: El Danzon de Moises (Tzadik) From the Prosthetic Cubans' percussionist comes--it's his roots--Jewish son: klezmer con salsa if not the unattainable pernil pastrami. Rodriguez doubles on trumpet, the indefatigable David Krakauer mans the clarinet, Matt Darriau plays both, Craig Taborn ripples the ivories, and what comes out is less wedding than chamber or dinner music. Because there's accordion, it often recalls another triumph of Latinized European cosmopolitanism, tango--as bent and elegant as Astor Piazzolla, and suppler. The last track is the wildest and most African and has the heartrending title "Jerusalem Market." Would it could be so. Would it could be so. A MINUS

PATTI SMITH: Land (Arista) Tacky though the best-of-plus-outtakes gambit may be, especially with another best-of filling out the box set, this is the same artist who's never released a concert album, not even as a profit taker when her income dried up during her seclusion. And though she's scattered live cuts here and there, the five-track sequence on disc two, dominated by post-1996 material that's never sounded better and capped by the inexhaustible "Birdland," is a welcome taste of the real live one she can put together next with no complaint from me. She recites a Blake poem, a Ginsberg poem, a Prince poem. She blows clarinet. She sings "Tomorrow" for her mom. And by the way, the best-of never quits. A MINUS

STEEL PULSE: Ultimate Collection (Hip-O) The greatest English reggae band softened with the years, but not like UB40--though "Back to My Roots" worries about "commercial," David Hinds has always been pretty clear about life in the righteousness business, and could still invoke full indignation on 1994's "No Justice to Peace." Skank courtesy of keybman Selwyn Brown, who has metal and mettle in his muscle and bone. "Ku Klux Klan" is recommended to Ice-T fans. Also Ramones fans. A MINUS

DJELIMADY TOUNKARA: Sigui (Indigo) A great guitarist leading a great show band, Tounkara rolled out the horn arrangements on his Super Rail albums, which I like more now, after this simpler showcase taught me to hear his instrumental voice. His riffs have that circular Malian thrills-you-or-not thing, although the intonation is exceptionally plummy and the fingerwork always impeccable. But listen up and you'll also hear Western-style tasty licks-saved from themselves by the circular Malian thrills-you-or-not thing. Choral singing--female, male, and both--clinches the beauty part. A MINUS

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: Bootleg Series: Volume 1: The Quine Tapes (Polydor) I was cynical too, especially once I'd ascertained that the audio on these three discs was as faint as I'd feared. Played loud, though, the sound improves--not quite crisp or bright, but there. Note that this trick doesn't work with Live at Max's Kansas City and ask yourself if you wouldn't maybe like to hear the number three band of the '60s, after the Beatles and James Brown and His Famous Flames, without wearing out its tiny catalogue. No new songs, true. But over the two hours that aren't devoted to three long, distinct versions of "Sister Ray," no title is repeated, even though every one was recorded in a one-month span in San Francisco in 1969. That's pretty impressive. As is all the new guitar. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

THE LANGLEY SCHOOLS MUSIC PROJECT: Innocence and Despair (Bar/None) Hans Fenger was a gifted teacher on a mission. Cutting keepsake vinyl for his kiddie choir was a great way for him to reward past involvement while inspiring more. Irwin Chusid is a tedious ideologue with a hustle. Turning that vinyl into a collectible CD is the latest way for him to remind the converted that artistic intention is reserved for the beholder in these postmodern times--especially if the beholder has a hustle. A few of these songs were great, a few of them sucked, and every one was more innocent and/or desperate in its original version except Barry Manilow's (but not the Bay City Rollers'). A special annoyance is the reportedly tear-jerking "Desperado" by a 10-year-old who doesn't seem to have any idea what the song means, which is to her credit as a human being but not as a singer. The sole revelation is Brian Wilson, whose six songs still sound like themselves. C MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Jonathan Richman, Action Packed: The Best of Jonathan Richman (Rounder): miniaturist under the magnifying glass ("Monologue About Bermuda," "Closer," "You're Crazy for Taking the Bus");
  • Classic Reggae: The DeeJays (Music Club): plenty beats and version, not enough wuga wuga (Sir Lord Comic, "The Great Wuga Wuga"; Dave Barker, "I've Got to Get Away");
  • All Girl Summer Fun Band (K): the upper limits of cute qua cute ("Canadian Boyfriend," "Stumble Over My");
  • Shabba Ranks, Greatest Hits (Epic/Legacy): it's all about the beats ("Mr. Loverman," "Ting-a-Ling");
  • The Ethiopians, Stay Loose: The Best of the Ethiopians (Music Club): ska gets religion, circa 1970 ("Train to Glory," "Hong Kong Flu," "No Baptism");
  • Iggy Pop, Beat Em Up (Virgin): fine head of dudgeon for such an old guy ("It's All Shit," "V.I.P.");
  • Lee "Scratch" Perry, Jamaican E.T. (Trojan): crazy like a glue ("10 Commandments," "Mr. Dino Koosh Rock");
  • The Dishes, 1-2 (No. 89): pinched punk for girls ("Girls Can Play," "Fishnet");
  • Linkin Park, Hybrid Theory (Warner Bros.): the men don't know what the angry boys understand ("Points of Authority," "Papercut");
  • Hank III, Lovesick, Broke and Driftin' (Curb): he can sing the greats and write enough to stay in the room ("Atlantic City," "Lovesick, Broke and Driftin'");
  • Merle Haggard, Roots Volume 1 (Anti-): who wrote his country soul was Lefty, not Hank--as if we didn't know ("Always Late [With Your Kisses]," "If You've Got the Money [I've Got the Time]");
  • Yellowman, Reggae Anthology: Look How Me Sexy (VP): the man who invented slackness, for better and mostly worse ("Nobody Move Nobody Get Hurt," "Zunguzung");
  • Hank Williams: Timeless (Lost Highway): give him more unreasonable search-and-seizures and not so damn many authorized nominations for the Grammy Hall of Fame (Keith Richards, "You Win Again"; Hank III: "I'm a Long Gone Daddy");
  • Garth Brooks, Scarecrow (Capitol): still hungry after all that platinum ("Big Money," "Pushing Up Daisies");
  • Kittie, Oracle (Artemis): when they are good they are horrid ("Run Like Hell," "What I Always Wanted");
  • Garbage, Beautiful Garbage (Interscope): the new Annie Lennox--bad dreams are made of this ("Silence Is Golden," "Cherry Lips [Go Baby Go]").

Choice Cuts:

  • Junior Brown, "Cagey Bea" (Mixed Bag, Curb);
  • Bob Dylan, "Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache"; Jeff Beck & Chrissie Hynde, "Mystery Train" (Good Rockin' Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records, Sire);
  • Dillinger, "Cup of Tea," "African Roots, Rock Reggae" (Under Heavy Manners, Fuel 2000).


  • Betty Blowtorch, Are You Man Enough? (Foodchain);
  • Bis, Return to Central (SpinArt);
  • Heavenly, Heavenly Versus Satan (K);
  • Shelby Lynne, Love, Shelby (Island);
  • M2M, The Big Room (Atlantic);
  • Willie Nelson, The Great Divide (Lost Highway);
  • Bruce Robison, Country Sunshine (Boat's Nest).

Village Voice, Apr. 16, 2002

Mar. 12, 2002 May 21, 2002