Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Not all the records below are new--in fact, a couple predate 1994. But all are as timeless as music can be--nowhere near as much as pretended, but enough to satisfy mortals like you and me.

BELLY: King (Sire/Reprise) Pigeonholing Belly as another pop band is a fatuity if not an insult. The signature shape of these songs for two guitars, bass, and drums--apparently aimless prologue veering into stronger, squarer verse and then, when all goes well, slamming home on a fast, hooky chorus that rings your chimes later than the usual paydirt--duplicates nobody else's. Just as decisive is the bemused contour of Tanya Donelly's voice--slanted and enchanted, as some clever soul put it. And if the lyrics are a little soft, they're tailored to the mystofemme aura she naturalizes so modestly. Anyway, they're also generous. Not to mention nicely rounded. A MINUS

JOHN FAHEY: Return of the Repressed: The John Fahey Anthology (Rhino) The catch-phrase I like best for his deliberate acoustic style gets its '50s-collegiate pretensions and folk/not-folk ambivalence: "existentialist guitar." A record collector who bases many songs on treasured blues and string-band obscurities, he also cops from Saint-Saens, rock 'n' roll, Christian hymns, Hindu hymns, and what-have-you to construct a late-night music untouched by lyrics or speed: spacy and contemplative, yet with an implacable common touch. True enough, Fahey's pioneering DIY label, named after Takoma Park, the D.C. suburb he called home, was where George Winston got his start. But after two decades of asking myself why he's any better than Leo Kottke I've decided it's a spiritual thing--he's maintained a direct line to his inner amateur. For two whole CDs, definitely not boring. Just close enough to make you question the category. A MINUS

HEART OF THE FOREST (Hannibal) Where Baka Beyond: Spirit of the Forest, the acoustic guitar jam producer Martin Cradick constructed around tunes and percussion tracks parts he took out of the jungle, is so easy to ignore it makes you appreciate the candid hokeyness of Deep Forest, this is a literally awesome and enchanting glimpse of another world. Cradick's musical record of the Baka pygmies borrows the structure Steven Feld devised for New Guinea's Kaluli on 1991's Voices of the Rainforest, which condenses the sounds of a village day down to an hour. But unlike Feld, Cradick doesn't try to evoke a mindset in which birds, insects, frogs, running water, and crackling brush create music to that the human beings who share their earspace "lift-up-over sound." Instead the forest provides the ground of an ethnomusicological array dominated by indigenous harps--magical incantations, nursery rhymes, work songs, occasional divertissements, and drunken revelries. Before you buy any more guff about aural environments and ambient whoziwhatsis, check out what a real soundscape sounds like. And don't miss the water drums. A MINUS [Later]

LITTLE CHARLIE AND THE NIGHTCATS: Straight Up! (Alligator) It would be nice to think Rick Estrin cares that his persona is an anachronism--that in 1995, the streetwise standard of automotive savoir-faire is the Lexus, not the Cadillac. But houserockin' bands are proud to be retro, so thank whomever there's one that doesn't stop at fleet solos and beer-soaked boogies. Estrin sings in the voice of a natural sophisticate whose day is made by a few pithy lines of well-chosen vernacular. He punctures phonies, rolls with the woman problems, has trouble buttoning his lip before his foot jumps in. And his best buddy is a guitarist who can play the blues and tell Charlie Parker jokes simultaneously. A MINUS

PERCY MAYFIELD: Poet of the Blues (Specialty) Lionized by r&b aficionados who'd rather groove a lounge than rock a joint, Mayfield has the substance operators like Charles Brown and Jesse Belvin made a show of. Compiler Billy Vera might have varied the flow with oddments from the follow-up, Memory Pain. But except for Willie Dixon, widely suspected of exploiting help he didn't talk about, no one on the jumping postwar black pop scene wrote with more brains or care, and he sang with a nicely oiled confidence that never ground against his suave, full arrangements. Not a god for most of us, but a resource--a sufferer who had more to say about suicide than is dreamt of in Metallica's philosophy. A MINUS

MOBY: Everything Is Wrong (Elektra) Is it strange that a studio wizard of Moby's evident genius makes such flawed records? Not if he's really a dancefloor wizard--not if the communal-ecstatic is his artistic ground. Where in concert he subsumes rockist guitar and classical pretensions in grand, joyous rhythmic release, on album his distant dreams remain tangents. "What Love" challenges Metallica as incidentally as "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters" does Philip Glass, and all I can say for sometime cocomposer Mimi Goese is that she sounded even prissier in Hugo Largo. Martha Wash, call your agent. I mean, he's a Christian, girl. A MINUS

NOFX: Punk in Drublic (Epitaph) After a 1989 debut distinguished by a very fast cover of "Go Your Own Way," a 1991 jokebook that wouldn't quit (as in "Just the Flu," about the real end of the world), and a 1992 collection that grew in both wit and wisdom (title: White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean), these pranksters proceed to prove absolutely that a sense of humor provides useful training in broader human feelings. Among those they don't put down are a porn actress, a happy born-againer, a guy in Birkenstocks and a tie-dyed Rancid T-shirt, Hasidic O.G.'s, and--implicitly--people who like tunes with their rant and rave. They're a six-figure advance away from that exalted state where assholes everywhere can call them shallow and suburban. A MINUS [Later]

PAVEMENT: Wowee Zowee (Matador) Despite their disavowals of "progress," this proceeds as you'd figure--toward lyricism rather than commerciality or some such chimera. It's rarely hard or fast or chaotic, and if it was their sacred mission to humanize guitar noise, they've betrayed it like the reprobates they no doubt are. But if their vocation is beguiling song-music that doesn't sound like anything else or create its own rut, this reinforces one's gut feeling that they can do it forever. They can't, of course--nobody can. But the illusion of eternity has been music's sacred mission for a good long time. A [Later]

ROARING LION: Sacred 78's (Ice) Lion (a/k/a Hubert Raphael Charles, Raphael De Leon) was the most recorded Trinidadian of the pre-World War II era, and title notwithstanding, this selection of classics (plus a few '50s pleasantries) has nothing to do with praising the the Lord--or no matter how happily he tapped into Shango ritual, the orishas either. Even more than most calypsonians, Lion played the secular sophisticate, cultivating foreigners, intellectuals, Atilla the Hun, Rudy Vallee. Because he took pride in not repeating himself, he deployed more tunes than the competition, and if some of his arrangements are almost pop, "Rhumba Dance" amd "Bamsee Lambay" are almost New Orleans/Latin tinge. Subjects include flies, Queen Elizabeth's royal tour, girls who dance with girls, a pyromaniac, agape, and sex, which the man who made "Ugly Woman" famous rarely if ever associates with love. A MINUS [Later]

PETER STAMPFEL: You Must Remember This . . . (Gert Town) Stampfel has never known the meaning of the word respect, which is OK because he's never known the meaning of the word disrespect either. And if this made him a misfit among folkies, that was OK too--he was a misfit everywhere else. For his entire three-decade "career," the last half of which has had a distinctly not-for-profit aura, his own lyrics have celebrated the normality of his misfit life while his intense, eccentric, comic, loud, sincere vocal interpretations imparted to the widest range of pop songs ever negotiated by a single performer the beauty and wonder he originally discerned in Charlie Poole, Charlie Patton, and other icons of authenticity. Stampfel's enthusiasm is so unquenchable you figure he's got to be making fun of such understandably forgotten copyrights as "Haunted Heart" and "Cry of the Wild Goose," and for sure he's not above it. But he is above belittling a song--any fun he may fashion from one is just another facet of its mystery. Stampfel the inveterate fakebook collector says he loves the chords of the impossible favorites he resuscitates here, and I believe him. I also believe he's such a sucker for music that once he falls for a progression he wants to tie the knot for life. A

TRICKY: Maxinquaye (Island) From Soul II Soul to Massive Attack to Tricky is a straight line leading straight down to a bad place you should take a chance and visit. Depressive, constricted, phantasmagoric, industrial, yet warmly beatwise and swathed in a gauzy glow that promises untold creature comforts, these are the audioramas of someone who's signed on to work for the wages of sin and lived to cash the check. He saw through the willed optimism of black-Brit dance music a long time ago. And he's here to tell you that a dystopia with Martine singing in it has its rewards. A [Later: A+]

Dud of the Month

2Pac: Me Against the World (Interscope) Tough-guy sentimentality is an old story in American culture, but self-pity this rank is usually reserved for teen romances and tales of brave avant-gardists callously rejected by the mass media. His I-love-Mom rings true because Mom was no saint, and his respect for old G's seems genuine, probably because they told him how smart he was. But whether the metaphor be dead homies or suicide threat, the subtext of his persecution complex is his self-regard. What's doubly galling is that these are essential hip hop themes--as Ice Cube and B.I.G. have made all too vivid, it is persecution that induces young black men to kill each other and themselves. That such themes should rise to the top of the charts with this witless exponent of famous-for-being-famous is why pop fans decry the mass media. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Crooklyn (MCA): the young person's guide to '70s soul (the Chi-Lites, "Oh Girl"; Joe Cuba, "El Pito [I'll Never Go Back to Georgia]")
  • Warren Zevon, Mutineer (Giant): lyrical he remains unrepentant and existentially pissed, rocking he's mean fun as well ("Seminole Bingo," "Rottweiler Blues")
  • Stereolab, Mars Audiac Quintet (Elektra): almost hooky enough to reconcile me to a world that needs Marxist background music ("Wow and Flutter," "Fiery Yellow") [Later: **]
  • Baaba Maal, Firin' in Fouta (Mango): so intensely beautiful you can hear through the instruments from the right angle ("Sama Duniya," "Swing Yela")
  • Boukman Eksperyans, Libčte (Pran Pou Pran'l!)/Freedom (Let's Take It) (Mango): utopian militance, Haitian worldbeats, soulful vocalizing, near-pop song sense ("Ganga," "Zan'j Yo")
  • Michael Hall, Frank Slade's 29th Dream (DejaDisc): a folk-rock tour de force that goes "Life is all right for the time being/Life is all right for the time being"--for 38 minutes
  • Ol' Dirty Bastard, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (Elektra): Yacub's worst nightmare as comedian, moral threat, and nut case ("Snakes," "Baby C'Mon") [Later: A-]
  • Sleeper, Smart (Arista): as sexy as their last song ("Delicious," "Inbetweener")
  • Calypso Calaloo (Rounder): while you're at it, read the book (Donald R. Hill, Florida) (Lionel Belasco, "Trinidad Carnival"; Lord Invader, "Rum and Coca Cola")
  • Polvo, Celebrate the New Dark Age (Merge): how dark can it be if it's so full of guitars? ("Fractured [Like Chandeliers]," "Every Holy Shroud")
  • Jazz Passengers, In Love (High Street): artful artsongs, arty artsongs--nu? ("Dog in Sand," "Think of Me," "Imitation of a Kiss")
  • Oasis, Definitely Maybe (Epic): Sixties Schmixties--back when they were a tribute band they were the Diamond Dogs ("Rock `n' Roll Star," "Slide Away")
  • The Coup, Genocide and Juice (Wild Pitch): gangstas never, criminals when they deem it necessary ("Fat Cats, Bigger Fish," "Takin' These")
  • Crooklyn Volume II (MCA): maybe now you should think about that Spinners best-of (the Staple Singers, "I'll Take You There"; Cymande, "Bra")
Choice Cuts:
  • Pavement, "False Skorpion" (Rattled by La Rush, Matador)
  • Slick Rick, "All Alone (A Love That's True)," "Behind Bars" (Behind Bars, Def Jam)
  • Blur, "Girls & Boys" (Parklife, SBK/ERG)
  • Bobby Sichran, "From a Sympathetical Hurricane," "Don't Break My Heart Kid" (From a Sympathetical Hurricane, Columbia)
  • Ween, "Spinal Meningitis (Has Me Down)" (Chocolate and Cheese, Elektra)
  • Concept in Dance: The Digital Alchemy of Goa Trance Dance (Moonshine Music)
  • Flipside R.A.F.R. Compilation (Flipside)
  • Rock Stars Kill (Kill Rock Stars)
  • Samiam, Clumsy (Atlantic)

Village Voice, June 6, 1995

Apr. 11, 1995 July 11, 1995