Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Scoff if you must, but there it is--the two most exciting records I've heard in the past couple months are both by guys who were born in 1933, neither of whom is conceding anything to mortality quite yet.

BANG ON A CAN: Renegade Heaven (Cantaloupe) Although only percussionist Steven Schick admits to actually banging on anything, I swear the making of the first two of these five compositions, especially Arnold Dreyblatt's galvanically funky "Escalator," is the live drumming, programmed drumming, and/or divine clatter. After that, as so often with rock-allied downtowners who decline repetition, it's down to texture, only these textures have content. Not only one can live with 16 tonally unstable minutes of a Glenn Branca who has cast off his delusions of grandeur, but Phil Kline's "Exquisite Corpses" risks both program music, which he acknowledges, and melody, which he doesn't. Could this be "post-rock"? Or is it just postconservatory? A MINUS

CHITLIN CIRCUIT SOUL (Rhino) Although the notes downplay the music's Southernness and never mention the audience's mean age, it's as impressive that five selections postdate 1989 as it is telling that eight predate 1980. Slowly but surely, soul is dying. But all the proof you need that it ain't dead yet is 16 great tracks by stalwarts who, beyond Bobby Bland and one or two others, only loyalists will remember. Proof of their collective maturity is that almost every song concerns married love, and not the newlywed kind--by now, soul focuses far more obsessively on cheating than country. Another self-sufficient world that only a CD can unlock, complete with more grit than a laundromat slop sink and more sex than you got last week. A MINUS

CITY HIGH (Booga Basement/Interscope) I like the way this Fugees-configured r&b defines its concept and cohort. Not every high schooler who dresses gangsta just needs respect and motivation, but enough of them do to make a nice little audience base. The vocals are smooth, the hooks suave, and with age-appropriate overlays of sentimentality and distortion--degree-bound female imprisoned for succumbing to underage Adonis, FBI forcing another to betray her G for her baby boy--this gives those well-meaning kids a voice. If you believe the hit "What Would You Do?" has too much Ricki Lake in it, as it does, try "Sista" or "Cats and Dogs," which have just enough. A MINUS

THE DU-TELS: No Knowledge of Music Required (Shimmy Disc) There's not for everyone, and then there's this--Gary Lucas spelling Peter Stampfel on what started out a children's album and ended up half a children's album. Stampfel is a great singer only when both voice and heart are completely in it, and here sometimes he conveys more life than inspiration, maybe because even "bad" voices age. But Lucas's quick-pick guitar and groaned originals--however they began, "Crawlspace" and "Sandman" are children's songs now--tip the balance toward give-it-a-chance-willya. Includes a reeling "Ring of Fire" ("such a dirty song," murmurs Lucas, taken with the "went down down down"), a postcanonical "Rollin' Sea" ("A wonderful place to hunt the snark/Or listen to the dogfish bark"), and three works of kidlike genius: the eight-year-old targeted "Zoe's Song," the elaborately disgusting "Rotten Family," and "Captain Kidd," begun with Michael Hurley in 1963 about one Chris Lindsey, future Deacon of the Admirality of the Fellowship of the Sea. B PLUS

ORLANDO CACHAITO LOPEZ: Cachaito (World Circuit/Nonesuch) From the morass of competent traditionalism that is the Buena Vista Social Club comes Cachao's nephew, supposedly one of 30 bassists in the family and also supposedly the only musician to play on every track on every single BVSC spinoff. Now finally it's time for his own, and how about that--it cuts them all, maybe even Rubén González's, and sounds nothing like any of them. Cachaito is hardly a kid--he was born in 1933. Yet roughly speaking he's conceived a pomo jazz record featuring few BVSC regulars beyond conga whiz Miguel Diaz, with postizo guitar by Los Zafiros' Manuel Galván, ganja organ by Bigga Morrison, lots more percussion, and cameos from Pee Wee Ellis, Hugh Masekela, French DJ, local string players, what have you. Putting its bass foot forward as it does, maybe this is Cuban dub? Fortunately, no--there's too much texture, too much melody, even too much clave. You'll just have to hear it. Don't be scared, now. A

BAABA MAAL: Missing You . . . Mi Yeewnii (Palm) "Recorded after dark in the village of Nbunk, Senegal" with "guidance" from old postpunk hand John Leckie, this isn't as ecstatic as 1984's folkloric Djam Leelii or 1999's jamming Live at the Royal Festival Hall. But like both it avoids the intelligent compromises with which Maal has attracted some non-African listeners and disoriented others, and the concept works. Ambient sounds, traditional tunes, modern rhythms, choruses of women, working bandmates, and old colleagues all sound rooted to a place. The fairest recording ever of all the music this thwarted visionary has in him. Ecstasy can wait. A MINUS

SAMBA MAPANGALA & ORCHESTRA VIRUNGA: Ujumbe (Stern's/Earthworks) Cover claims to the contrary, not "fiery stuff"--not by the hyped-up standards of the soukous this eternal exile has now outlasted. That's why it's special, and that's why it's good. Everywhere he's gone, from Matadi to Kinshasa to Kampala to Nairobi to Paris to his safe Maryland home, Mapangala has brought along a tenor as sweet as a licked frenum and a tune sense that knows what it wants--no wonder he found the sway of Swahili swing so amenable. Here he gathers about him a different set of Afro-Parisian hotshots than on his last visit, except for, no stupe he, the two standouts: guitarist Caien Madoka and trap drummer Komba Bellow Mafwalo. "It is bad to criticize people behind their back, especially when they have tried to help you," one trot reads, but who cares? The music carries any message of tolerance you care to verbalize. A MINUS

WILLIE NELSON: Rainbow Connection (Island) It's another kiddie record gone to seed by another codger who's been around too long to believe in the end of the rainbow. Or has he? A typically ramshackle one-off cut without drums in Nelson's home studio over Christmas break, it makes too much room for daughter Amy and, for some reason, the songs of Mickey Newbury (maybe Mickey's kids could use the royalties). But what you can expect to pay for the illusion of effortlessness is the reality of effortlessness, which is that sometimes it falls on its face. Here that doesn't happen often. "Playmate" and "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" are born again, and where once it was agony to hear Newbury intone the half-past-dead "not all my God-like thoughts, Lord, are defiled," from Nelson that's just one plain truth among many. The truth he wrote himself just last year wants us to know that heaven is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. A MINUS

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO CUBAN SON (World Music Network import) Proceed to "Para Bailar Par Son," by Cañambú, previously unknown to me. Bask in or recoil from the intense nasality of Arístides Ruiz Boza, sole survivor of the five brothers who founded the group in 1940, while tracing younger accompanists' clave-linked tres, bamboo bongo, and inauthentic bass. Ruiz Boza's high pitch is indigenous to his tiny hometown, but it typifies a penchant for idiosyncrasy as crucial to this collection's success as the store of tunes and rhythms on display. Bask in Cañambú and you won't even mind the horn sections of Los Van Van, ¡Cubanismo!, and the Afro-Cuban All Stars. Recoil and stick with Buena Vista--or R.E.M. A MINUS

SHAVER: The Earth Rolls On (New West) Always too rudimentary a singer and soft a writer to earn the unconditional love of anybody but his famous drinking buddies and the woman who married him three times, this good-hearted, weak-willed people's poet cum no-good bum hasn't given up on yon "Evergreen Fields" or that ol' "Restless Wind." But for once rank sentimentality is the exception. The thanksgiving of "Love Is So Sweet" and flipped bird of "Leavin' Amarillo" are equally combative, equally cheerful. Nor is it just the New Year's Eve OD of his guitarist son Eddy that gives "Hard Hearted Heart," "Star in My Heart," and "Blood Is Thicker Than Water" their resonance--though you do wonder whether Billy Joe saw the end coming and was doing what he could about it. A MINUS

SILKWORM: Lifestyle (Touch and Go) Apropos of nothing except their felt needs as thirtysomething bohos who'd like better jobs and more friends, these former Northwest alt-avantists slog out a bunch of songs about being thirtysomething bohos who'd like better jobs and more friends, which latter is why you can tell what the songs are about. The total integration of their grim yet undepressive sound is epitomized by a cover of the Faces' "Ooh La La," which sounds no more or less melodic, dissonant, or thoughtful than the rest of the bunch. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

R.E.M.: Reveal (Warner Bros.) Not as bad as it first sounds, but also not as good as they thought when they released it, or they wouldn't have, I hope. Suffused with somnolent tempos and pensive arrangements, the romantic trials and spiritual quests of struggling rock and rollers can be pretty hard to take, so why should we care about the ditto of wealthy movie producers with a record contract to fulfill and 21 individually acknowledged string players on call? Even a movie producer who knows the names of Japanese carp and French emotions that he'll happily print out in the booklet now that he's e-nun-ci-a-ting ev-ry sing-gle word? B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Koffee Brown, Mars/Venus (Arista): r&b plays house, playa-style ("Fingerpointing," "Blackout")
  • Willie Nelson and the Offenders, Me and the Drummer (Luck): chestnuts roasted in an open studio, Pamper demos-style ("A Moment Isn't Very Long," "Home Motel")
  • Charlie Robison, Step Right Up (Lucky Dog): like an up-and-coming Steve Earle, without explicit leftism or explicit substance abuse ("The Wedding Song," "Desperate Times")
  • Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, Liberation Afro Beat Vol. 1 (Ninja Tune import): musically Fela's a great role model, politically don't be so sure ("Dirt and Blood," "Uprising")
  • Michael Franti & Spearhead, Stay Human (Six Degrees): neodisco whose smartest message, as usual with this guy, is its music ("Rock the Nation," "Thank You")
  • Oliver Mtukudzi, Paivepo (Putumayo Artists): rough-voiced, groove-a-matic Shona who should only moralize as good-humoredly as Toots or Otis ("Pindurai Mambo," "Ndini Mubvunso")
  • Soneros de Verdad, A Buena Vista: Barrio de la Habana (Narada World): more effervescent than your average Buena Vista spinoff, which it isn't, or exploitation, no comment ("Bilongo," "A Buena Vista," "La más bella canción")
  • Juliana Hatfield, Juliana's Pony: Total System Failure (Zoë): at least as smart as an old-time riot grrrl, at least as rocking as an old-time Blake Baby ("Houseboy," "Let's Get Married")
  • The Aislers Set, The Last Match (Slumberland): 6000 miles from Scotland, a girlpop Belle and Sebastian or a strange musical accident ("Chicago New York," "The Walk")
  • Destiny's Child, Survivor (Columbia): smiling bravely through their tribulations ("Independent Women Part I," "Happy Face")
  • El Son No Ha Muerto (Rhino): defining son in the broad dance-music sense, guaranteeing a glitzy-to-glittering compilation that doesn't hang together (Cachao, "El Son No Ha Muerto (The Son Has Not Died)," Estrellas Arieto, "Póngase Para las Casas")
  • Stew, Guest Host (Telegraph): precious pop polymath as sardonic solo seer ("Re-Hab," "C'mon Everybody")
  • Unleashed Live (Lucky Dog): from the lucky doghouse, Jack Ingram, Bruce Robison, and the leader of the pack, his big brother Charlie (Charlie Robison, "My Hometown," "Sunset Boulevard")
Choice Cuts:
  • Bare Jr., "Why Do I Need a Job" (Brainwasher, Immortal)
  • The Soggy Bottom Boys, "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" (second version) (O Brother, Where Are Thou?, Mercury)
  • Eric Heatherly, "I Just Break 'Em" (Swimming in Champagne, Mercury)
  • The Blake Babies, God Bless the Blake Babies (Zoë)
  • David Byrne, Look Into the Eyeball (Virgin)
  • The Delta 72, 000 (Touch and Go)
  • Eve, Scorpion (Ruff Ryders/Interscope)
  • Juliana Hatfield, Beautiful Creature (Zoë)
  • Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Blow in the Wind (Fat Wreck Chords)
  • Nava (Palm Pictures)
  • A Nod to Bob (Red House)
  • Sunny Day Real Estate, The Rising Tide (Time Bomb)
  • Chuchu Valdes & Irakere, Unforgettable Boleros (Velas)

Village Voice, June 26, 2001

June 5, 2001 Aug. 7, 2001