Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

I know, a lot of the records below aren't exactly new--I've been waiting to write about most of them since Pazz & Jop time. And this is only the pop stuff. Next month, exotic subgenres--plus, I hope, more late-breaking news.

AZTEC CAMERA: Stray (Sire/Reprise) Virtually unnoticed since it surfaced last July, this is Roddy Frame's fourth album in eight or nine years as a prodigy, which I guess makes him a failure. Sounding like Harold Arlen one minute and the Clash the next is no way to convince the world of your unique genius, especially if you hint at Green Gartside in between. But I say he gets it all, and wish the pomo crowd would pump his pastiche. B PLUS

BANGLES: Greatest Hits (Columbia) Catchier cut for cut than All Over the Place, this 1990 best-of is also the sad testament of good girls gone bad in the El Lay moneypits. Launched by Susanna Hoffs's and Vicki Peterson's "Hero Takes a Fall," "Going Down to Liverpool" to "Manic Monday" to "If She Knew What She Wants" to "Walk Like an Egyptian" is one of those euphoric pop sequences that makes you believe this can go on forever--this happiness, this knowledge, this being 26, this crest of the wave. Problem is, they didn't write a one of those songs. Culled for dross, the self-penned stuff that follows reaches with some success for the mature self-awareness that is the current El Lay currency, and not a one sounds as fresh or as wise as Paul Simon's "Hazy Shade of Winter." Stale and no wiser, Hoffs is now starring as a put-upon love bunny in When You're a Boy at a record store near you. A MINUS [Later]

BLAKE BABIES: Sunburn (Mammoth) Sure this trio has its own sound, kind of--jagged, perky, sprung. And more important, songs. But so many indie bands have sound and songs that they flop or fly on content anyway, and here content means Juliana Hatfield. For their varying gender-based reasons, some men and some women find her too cute, but I say she's a former girl who's willing to be winsome and has her gender-based beefs regardless, e.g. "I'm not your mother." Later, probably with a different guy, she pops the big question: "If I called on you from far away/Would you say the things I want you to say?" I would, Juliana, I would, whisper a million (or anyway a couple thousand) lonely fellows. But when it came down to cases they probably wouldn't. A MINUS

DAVID BOWIE: Changesbowie (Rykodisc) It isn't just the usual useless bonuses that make the self-serving Sound + Vision unlistenable--Bowie's personal reissue program monumentalizes a monumentally inefficient music machine. Sure he can hit the nail on the head, sometimes for a whole side (first five tracks of Hunky Dory, which now yields a prev unrel good song) or even album (the just-out Station to Station, though these days I find myself making allowances for "Stay" as well as the Johnny Mathis cover--and welcoming the prev unrel live bait). But he's always churned out pomp and dreck, especially in theatre mode. So given his nonstop chameleon act, the consistency of this 18-cut best-of--the superb Changesonebowie plus not much Changestwobowie and too much Let's Dance--is an industrial marvel. Just goes to show that when he lowers himself the man does understand how music works. And that sometimes horrible vocals are all the stylistic unity you need. A

DIGITAL UNDEGROUND: This Is an EP Release (Tommy Boy EP) There's no "Doowutchyalike" or "Humpty Dance" here, but those aren't true album cuts anyway; there's also no "Gutfest '89," the frat-boy fantasy about girls in cages that put the rest of Sex Packets beyond my ken until these remixes sent me back to compare and contrast. The hectic dissonances underneath the original "Sex Packets" jar the senses nicely, but I'll take the slick byplay of this laid-back in-your-face, which sets out to prove that funky dooesn't mean hard. Nor is "Same Song" a novelty, baby brutha. And in case you're worried they're going quiet storm on you, Humpty Hump gets chicken grease on a young thing's pantyhose. A MINUS

ENO/CALE: Wrong Way Up (Opal/Warner Bros.) After years of big-money production jobs and new age environments, we know Eno for a middlebrow dabbler--no longer can he dazzle us with unpretentious impassivity. And if his return to song form seems too easy, well, maybe it was. Nevertheless, this sea of permutation is the followup Another Green World deserved, only 12 years late. He's been synthesizing rhythms so long he makes them sound organic--we get not only world-beat echoes but the soul shuffle his singing is now up to. As for the other guy, he hasn't sounded so sure of his ground since he played second fiddle to Lou Reed. A MINUS [Later]

FUGAZI: Repeater (Dischord) From the unyielding strictures of Minor Threat's straight-edge hardcore to the confrontational formalism of Fugazi's surgical AOR, Ian MacKaye is a musical puritan as well as all the other kinds. Obsessed with corruption, he's learned that words and voices don't excise it as efficiently as a well-honed guitar. So if the rock-solid precision of Guy Picciotto's distorto riffs offer something like pleasure, that's a contradiction MacKaye will have to live with, because Picciotto is the star of a unit that no matter what you read is just now coming on. A MINUS

THE GO-BETWEENS: 1978-1990 (Capitol) Half best-of, half collectorama, this gets you coming and going: you had no idea the album highlights would mesh into perfect pop, and you had no idea the 45-rpm obscurities would coalesce into imperfect pop. What threw you off was that they always seemed too serious for pop, too grown up. But once Robert Forster and Grant McLennan stooped or leaped to melody, they were serious fun in spite of themselves. And bookishly static though they seemed, they were also a band. Forster and McLennan provided the internal tension--subtle friction at its most personal and its most cooperative. Lindy Morrison made sure they moved. A MINUS [Later: A]

LIFERS GROUP (Hollywood Basic EP) Gangsta gangsta: "The Real Deal." Some of these Rahway State inmates rap like pros, some sing like they remember what a street corner is like. All of them wnat you to know that dealers are sellouts and prison is "The Belly of the Beast": a temple of slavery and rape and broken bones, of suicide and genocide and acquired immune deficiencies. Both theme songs are powered by beats that might as well be punching you in the stomach, and for nightmare relief there's Crazy Chris, photographed in all his mad-eyed, ham-armed, white-skinned glory. If you're stupid enough to get inside, he's going to fuck you up personally. A MINUS

EVAN LURIE: Selling Water by the Side of the River (Island) Fake jazz was all well and good, but fake tango? With world music already functioning as dinner music and background music here in the nonworld, why art it up with an extra layer of secondhand knowingness? Inconveniently, however, I liked the Lounge Lizard's bandoneon features, and my middle-aged friends kept asking what they were. Exactly how tango it all is I couldn't tell you, although Alfredo Pedernara would appear to be the genuine article and the four others would appear to be old friends of Evan. But compared to his choppy first efforts for Argentina's favorite accordion on 1988's import-only Pieces for Bandoneon, the new melodies flow with an ease that transcends the idiomatic. Must be world music. Also dinner music. And pleasantly acerbic background music too. A MINUS

VAN MORRISON: Enlightenment (Mercury) Only a perverse motherfucker would choose such a title for an album whose title refrain goes "Don't know what it is." What's he trying to do, fake out the satori market? Also: orchestras, the names of r&b singers, a weird recitative about the radio, and other tried-and-trues, all executed with faith, hope, and charity. Inspirational Verse: "In my soul, in my soul, in my soul." B PLUS

MORRISSEY: Bona Drag (Sire/Reprise) To Anglophiles, Anglos, and young alternative rockers who've never known another world, Morrissey's solo singles are fraught with paradigm, but to the rest of us they're a chapter in the life of a great twit. Less secure in his delusions of grandeur and worthlessness than when he was top of the pops, he hides behind the bitchy jokes his followers consider beneath him. At least half of these fizzle-prone chart charges will amuse and excite the curiosity-seeker. That any of them could be conceived as pop hits is why there are still Anglophiles. Inspirational Verse: "This is the last song I will ever sing (yay!)/No I've changed my mind again (boo!)." B PLUS

MORRISSEY: Kill Uncle (Sire/Reprise) What kills the faithful is the anonymously supportive production, never distinctive enough to threaten (or challenge) a fading superstar in the throes of permanent identity crisis. But though they do meander into the insufferably ruminative self-pity that never used to bother Smiths fans, the songs start out plenty striking, guitar signature or no guitar signature. Tart as a grand aunt, louder on the gay subtext now that he's no longer an antipinup, Morrissey isn't just another English eccentric. He exemplifies what's made eccentricity a staple export of that once-proud nation for generations. Good show. B PLUS

MOTORHEAD: 1916 (WTG) Sonically retrograde and philosophically advanced, this is the testimony of a mad raver at peace with his lot in the world--but not with the world, not by a long shot. As Pete Solley muddies the mix back toward classic grunge, Lemmy rages against war--sometimes in so many words, sometimes by metaphorical imprecation, sometimes by standing tall amid the barrage. But an embittered artiste he's not--riding their iron horses into the sunset, tributes to L.A., Rio, and the Ramones prove he knows how good he's got it, and prove it full-throttle. A MINUS

PETER AND THE TEST TUBE BABIES: The Shit Factory (Triple X) Maybe this delicious joke is wasted on the U.S.A., where we endure the middle-class schlock of Diane Warren rather than the lowbrow banality of the Stock/Aitken/Waterman these latter-day Britpunks vomit back so relentlessly. But the Rick Astley cover will connect--great chords never die, roit? And as an added attraction, "Venus" becomes "Penis." I think. B PLUS

TOO MUCH JOY: Cereal Killers (Giant) After a year of sleeping on floors, stealing wives, and expressing solidarity with 2 Live Crew, their music is thicker, tougher, hookier, sometimes even a tad overproduced. And their lyrics are still what it's there for. So smart they have dumb people sniffing about the Dead Milkmen, they have their moments of empathy, social responsibility, self-knowledge, and so forth. But as a sucker for a cheap laugh, I prefer "King of Beers" ("na na na na na na sorrow") and "Long Haired Guys from England" ("i bet in london i could get a date/'cause i'm a short haired guy from the united states"). Both of which are longer on self-knowledge than most dumb people I meet. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • The Beautiful South, Choke (Elektra): cute but deadly, pop but not ("I've Come for My Award," "I Think the Answer's Yes")
  • Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Heartbeats Accelerating (Private Music): your living room has a computer, theirs has a synthesizer ("I Eat Dinner," "Love Is")
  • Robert Forster, Danger in the Past (Beggars Banquet): singer-songwriter ("Baby Stones," "Is This What You Call Change")
  • Pet Shop Boys, Behavior (EMI): see the movie ("Being Boring," "October Symphony")
  • The Replacements, Don't Sell or Buy, It's Crap (Sire/Reprise promo EP): loud sloppy rools ("Satellite")
  • The Replacements, All Shook Down (Sire/Reprise): slow thoughtful rools ("Sadly Beautiful," "The Last")
Choice Cuts:
  • The Sisters of Mercy, "Vision Thing" (Vision Thing, Elektra)
  • Eric Burdon & the Animals, "Sky Pilot"; Donovan, "Universal Soldier"; Phil Ochs, "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore"; Edwin Starr, "War" (Songs of Protest, Rhino)
  • Superchunk, "Slack Motherfucker," "Sick to Move" (Superchunk, Matador)
  • Fugazi, "Provisional" (13 Songs, Dischord)
  • Suicidal Tendencies, "You Can't Bring Me Down" (Lights . . . Camera . . . Revolution, Epic)
  • Marc Ribot, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (Rootless Cosmopolitans, Island)
  • Macka-B, "False Preacher" (We've Had Enough, Ariwa)
  • The Robert Cray Band Featuring the Memphis Horns, Midnight Stroll (Mercury) [Later: **]
  • Deadicated (Arista)
  • Dust Devils, Struggling Electric and Chemical (Teenbeat)
  • E.U., Cold Kickin' It (Virgin)
  • Soho, Goddess (Atco)

Village Voice, May 7, 1991

Feb. 26, 1991 June 4, 1991