Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

To keep my bearings, I often review records in bunches, by stylistic affinity. So I've reached back to 1990 yet again to catch up with Africa and, er, jazz-rock. Gad--no lyrics to steal jokes from. But the 1991 picks were undeniable.

STEVE COLEMAN AND FIVE ELEMENTS: Rhythm People (The Resurrection of Creative Black Civilization) (Novus) Jazz specialists are claiming the just-released Black Science as the one they always had in them, but from my specialty (whatever that might be), this 1990 item has the right stuff: almost true fusion, yet I diddybop around to its secondhand funk. Helps that they trade off like the Lakers on a fast break. Helps that Coleman plays his alto off. And it really helps that Cassandra Wilson, called in for two horrendous lyrics on the new one, is held down to a scat. A MINUS

CUMBIA CUMBIA (World Circuit import) Hits back to the '50s from Colombia's Disco Fuentes label, with history sweeping consistency aside--any gringo can tell Conjunto Tipico Vallenato's accordion side-closers are country and Rodolfo's coffee commercial isn't. But even if the accordion stuff belongs on a vallenata comp, it passes muster on a collection where at least half the songs bristle with the exigente hooks that sell classic pop the world over. And the unmistakable beat runs down a consummate South American groove, halfway between Euro clomp and Afro hipshake. A MINUS

DREAMS COME TRUE (Antone's) Wrapping her warm, slinky voice around lyrics borrowed and dreamed up, Marcia Ball earns top billing in this ad hoc Austin blues trio. Lou Ann Barton, a professional tramp who's done her share of rehab, and Angela Strehli, a sensible sort who runs the label, must have figured it would be neighborly to help their old pal turn in a decent followup to Soulful Dress, which is eight years old now. Sure they did--they love each other like Ike and Tina, whose "A Fool in Love" they covered to initiate this mission impossible in 1985. Congratulations to coordinator-bassist Sarah Brown for getting a record out of them, and to producer-pianist Dr. John for easing it up toward the sum of its parts. A MINUS

THE FALL: 458489 A Sides (Beggars Banquet) Beginning, naturally, with the least catchy thing on the record (it came first, and who are they to deny history?), this singles compilation spans the entirety of Brix Smith's controversial (especially if you're an old friend of Mark's) tenure with the eternal U.K. art punks. Their drones don't resolve or climax or even pick up speed, yet though Mark's said to be a poet, they're not just there for the words, many of them undecodable--they're there for the drones. Which just hurry you along on a nagging groove whose intimations of eternity are in no way undermined by Brix's penchant for deep detail. The only Fall record any normal person need own. A MINUS

FREEDOM FIRE--THE INDESTRUCTIBLE BEAT OF SOWETO (VOL. 3) (Virgin) Producer Trevor Horn claims the lead cut, featuring Mahlathini and the gang, is "the finest track ever released on Earthworks." I say it's high-generic, and five minutes of high-generic at that, damn near swallowing the shouting spirituality of the two Amaswazi Emvelo songs right afterwards. But gradually things pick up--Zulu fear of flying, nasal Shangaan weirdness, three distinct and magnificent Mahlathini vehicles, modest accordion jive, avant Venda-Pedi instrumental, modernized marabi, hectoring Sotho shout. Out of many peoples, one compilation. A MINUS

HI-JIVIN' (Kijima import) It can't be that every group on this sweet little label sampler has the same rhythm section--certainly not Malombo, or the mbira-style percussion ensemble Amampondo--but at this remove it kind of sounds that way. Equally rustic whether the name up top is Zulu or Sotho, long on squeezebox and masculine stomp, it will come as a bit of a change to fans who hope there's more to mbaqanga than Makgona Tsohle. Those who aren't quite sure who Makgona Tsohle are should find out. A MINUS

ICE-T: O.G. Original Gangster (Sire/Warner Bros.) Learning and diversifying, remembering where he comes from and sticking to what he knows, Ice-T wins big as the old school shakes out. He won't desert the hards because a hard he remains; his violence is pervasive and graphic because he knows brutalization from the inside. But he's nothing if not a moralist, and so the new jack drunk dies in his Benz, the cops break down the gangbanger's door, his gays are left to live their own lives, and his prematurely ejaculated sex jam is a dis on the horny fool who slavers for it. Since most of what I know about the hard audience comes from rap records, I can't guarantee he'll get away with it. But I can guarantee that this one has something to teach everyone who can stand to listen to it and almost everyone who can't. A MINUS [Later: A]

RONALD SHANNON JACKSON: Taboo (Venture import) A departure from Shannon's overworked small-group format featuring varying horn deployments and--get this--old hand Vernon Reid. First side's a suite that'll string you along but good--kind of like Mingus, so to speak. Unfortunately, the second side doesn't exactly move as one thing--a few times its things don't even move as one thing. B PLUS

THE OUSMANE KOUYATE BAND: Domba (Mango) The rockish grandeur of this Guinean world-music ensemble sounds like it owes Santana. Probably doesn't, of course--we know where the polyrhythms started, and in 24 years Carlos has never risked a singer who could steal his thunder like this hereditary troubadour. On the other hand, Carlos can outplay the troubadour even though the troubadour counts himself a guitarist by trade. The crux is that most of the time Carlos's corn just sounds like corn. Kouyate's sounds like the staff of life. A MINUS

LINDA GAIL LEWIS: International Affair (New Rose import) The long-ago costar of the lowbrow gem Together registers more twang per syllable than prime Duane Eddy, belting and screeching like a flat-out hillbilly--Jeannie C. Riley, say. But though I'd love to hear her "Harper Valley P.T.A." (or "Fist City," or "9 to 5"), she's Jerry Lee's sister, wild-ass before she's anything else. She doesn't ignore country on this band-centered studio job, but except for Billy Swan's "I Can Help" ("If your child needs a mama we can discuss that too"), the standouts are from Wolf-Justman, Dave Edmunds, Bob Dylan, all of whom should be damn proud. Covering "They Called It Rock," she gets up to "Someone in the newspaper said it was shit," and instead of rushing discreetly on to the next line she draws out that last word with the relish of a gal who's waited to sing it all her life. A MINUS

MAHLATHINI AND AMASWAZI EMVOLO: You're Telling Tales (Shanachie) Mbqanga maestro West Nkosi long ago commandeered the above-named male vocal combo to inject Swazi traditions into his basically Zulu product. They're movers on Mahlathini's definitive Paris-Soweto, and get numerous leads and writing credits on this robust exercise as well. The track where their backing resembles barking will frighten Arsenio. B PLUS

ZIGGY MARLEY AND THE MELODY MAKERS: Jahmekya (Virgin) Slowly--too slowly, but faster than we had any right to hope--he's getting smarter: if "This generation will make the change" doesn't convince, "When will the innocent stop being punished for their innocence" will certainly do. And the complex drive of the music, cut this time in full Tuff Gong regalia, could pass for innovative: a genuine reggae groove at pop speeds with pop horns. More likely to endure as a turning point than to pass into half-assed oblivion. B PLUS [Later]

TSHALA MUANA: Soukous Siren (Shanachie) A showbiz kid who broke in as a dancer, she followed a few late-'70s hits from Kinshasa to Abidjan and then Paris, where she cut her debut album in 1984. Truth to tell, her voice isn't a lot stronger than Paula Abdul's. But her music sure is, and though she does consult her arranger, hers he is--if the songwriting on this best-of doesn't prove her the most conceptually accomplished woman musician in Africa, it certainly shows a hell of an ear. Varied and consistent. Catchy and uplifting. Pretty great. A MINUS

SONNY SHARROCK: Highlife (Enemy import) As with classic Pharoah Sanders, Sharrock's devotion to cacophony turns out to be the obverse of his devotion to tune--his thematic statements are respectfully stately, his variations more sonic than harmonic. So where Ronald Shannon Jackson is a jazz composer exploring rock colors (and sometimes rhythms), Sharrock has the priorities of a genius son of Jimi and Jimmy. An atmospheric Kate Bush tribute that eventually gains momentum is as arty as this gorgeously straightforward guitar record gets, and though no one will mistake the Sanders cover for "Eight Miles High," it's in the tradition. A

SPIRIT OF THE EAGLE: ZIMBABWE FRONTLINE (VOL. 2) (Virgin) So pleasing it makes me suspect that a nontourist could hear through conventions that gather in too tight a circle around chimurenga godfather Thomas Mapfumo, whose producer also oversaw the quieter Robinson Banda opener and the more percussive Nyami Nyami Sounds entry, while someone named A.K. Mapfumo produced the other Banda song as well as two by old favorites the Four Brothers. And everywhere the ripple of mbira guitar buoys music whose varied details are mere decoration for a tourist like me--a tourist who sits grinning foolishly, amazed yet again that such a wonderful world could thrive independent of his sustained personal attention. A MINUS

YO-YO: Make Way for the Motherlode (East West) Loosing Roxanne Shante's tough talk on Queen Latifah's leadership seminar, Ice Cube's no-shit sister doubles her chance of teaching "intelligent black women" how one respects onself. Her most salient theme is an ass she's not inclined to give up on the first date, and when she succumbs she lives to regret it at speeds that'll set you on yours. Sir Jinx's soul-thick, jazz-inflected production suits her gritty drawl and wayward mouth. And if they should split she'll figure out another way to get over. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Laura Lee, Greatest Hits (HDH): Yo-Yo's mama ("Rip Off," "Wedlock Is a Padlock," "Women's Love Rights," "Since I Fell for You")
  • Lenny Kravitz, Mama Said (Virgin): don't think Hendrix-Beatles, think Prince-George Michael ("Fields of Joy," "Stand by My Woman," "Stop Draggin' Around")
  • Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, The Lion Roars (Shanachie): for his supper ("Masole A Banana," "Amaqhawe Omgqashiyo")
  • The Mthembu Queens, Emjindini (Rounder): girl-group mbaqanga ("Phansi Komthunzi," "Asambeni")
  • Ronald Shannon Jackson, Red Warrior (Axiom): metalhead solo room, metalhead showoff space ("Gate to Heaven," "What's Not Said")
  • Elvin Bishop, Don't Let the Bossman Get You Down (Alligator): Mr. Entertainment ("My Whiskey Head Buddies," "Soul Food")
  • The Fall, Extricate (Mercury): indefatigable ("British People in Hot Weather")
  • Singing in an Open Space: Zulu Rhythm and Harmony 1962-1982 (Rounder): John Bhengu and his country cousins (Frans Msomi, "Zinsiza Zase Makhabeleni")
  • Maria Muldaur, On the Sunny Side (Music for Little People): could be (even) cuter ("Would You Like to Swing on a Star," "The Circus Song," "Never Swat a Fly")
  • Blinky and the Roadmasters, Crucian Scratch Band Music (Rounder): St. Croix polka party ("Ay Ay Ay") [Later: Neither]
Choice Cuts:
  • Marty Ehrlich, "The Short Circle in the Long Line" (The Traveller's Tale, Enja)
  • BWP, "Two Minute Brother" (The Bytches, No Face)
  • Dulce & Orchestra Marrabenta Star de Mozambique, "Tsiketa Kuni Barassara" (Women of Africa compilation, CSA import)
  • Stetsasonic, "Walkin' in the Rain" (Blood, Sweat, and No Tears, Tommy Boy)
  • Nkuku and Jopie Sisters, "Tana Kamina" (Homeland 2 compilation, Rounder)
  • Macka-B, "False Preacher" (We've Had Enough, Ariwa)
  • DJ Quik, Quik Is the Name (Profile)
  • Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, Rhythm and Art (Shanachie)
  • Mahotella Queens, Marriage Is a Problem (Shanachie)
  • Run-D.M.C., Back From Hell (Profile)
  • Young Black Teenagers (SOUL)

Village Voice, June 4, 1991

May 7, 1991 July 30, 1991