Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Multi-artist compilations plus two triumphs of articulated retro plus music of many lands equals more no next big thing. Good records are being made. But finding them feels more than ever like a research project.

AFRO-LATINO (Putumayo World Music) African salsa derivatives tend toward a relaxed retro, guitar-dappled with a charanga feel, avoiding merengue hyperdrive and reducing hectic horns to a synth wash or solo obbligato. And while it wouldn't be Putumayo without the Peruvian-American subway musicians who write as flat as they groove or the conceptually slack if musically deft Cuban son selections, this opens the niche nicely, expertly promoting label debuts by Sam Mangwana and Ricardo Lemvo and locating an ace lead by the obscure Tam-Tam 2000 as well as picture-card filler by the overpraised Africando. A MINUS

BILLY BRAGG & WILCO: Mermaid Avenue (Elektra) So here's this Brit folksinger, a punk by heritage and a pop star by ambition whose most salient talent is how guiltlessly he mixes up the three. And here's this middle-American alt band, folkies by sensibility and pop pros by ambition whose most salient talent is a musicality they don't know what to do with. With the wisdom of half a century's ripoffs behind them, both are more resourceful melodically than the icon whose thousands of unpublished lyrics they were chosen to make something of. So be glad he kept the tunes in his head. Because while the words are wonderful and unexpected--author of several published books and reams of journalism, Woody Guthrie might have made his mark in any literary calling--it's the music, especially Wilco's music, that transfigures the enterprise. Projecting the present back on the past in an attempt to make the past signify as future, they create an old-time rock and roll that never could have existed. Finally--folk-rock! A

BULWORTH: THE SOUNDTRACK (Interscope) This makes room for too much mere soundtrack, I suppose--only that means not just honorable filler but utterly infectious party-scene beatbombs like "Zoom" and "Freak Out" and album picks and outtakes from B-Real, Cappadonna, Witchdoctor, Public Enemy. Canibus's "How Come" is a quizzical billow in the millenarian tidal wave. And Ol' Dirty Bastard's girly backup bits on "Ghetto Supastar" are pure Dennis Rodman postmacho. B PLUS

PAOLO CONTE: The Best of Paolo Conte (Nonesuch) As befits the cosmopolitan roué this old Italian guy is already pigeonholed as, he writes lyrics worth translating. How about "Maybe by now I have forgotten my colleagues/Locked in the bathroom"? Except that "I sing everything and nothing/Music without music" is the point. Assuming he isn't apologizing for his operatic shortcomings (Italians are weird), I assume this refers to the pidgin English "'swunnerful" and "happy feet," to the harelip scat of "Come di," to the half-stifled laughter that actually gets him laid. And to his music. Steering his piano closer to vaudeville vamp than fancy-pants boogie-woogie, commandeering trad-jazz, world-pop, and Euro-schlock colors with panache (not to mention brio), he's a modernist middlebrow and a natural wit who enjoys cynicism too much to let it go to his heart. A MINUS

BADAR ALI KHAN: Lost in Qawwali (Worldly/Triloka) Cousin of Nusrat, big deal--there's probably whole villages of 'em. Only this one's released the hottest qawwali record I've ever heard. No Western instruments, just harmonium, tabla, and handclaps, but also no ghazals--at times I swear it swings, and direct comparison to the master makes startlingly clear that the higher pitches, faster tempos, and precipitate ascent into ecstasy very nearly create a new subgenre: speed-qawwali. The 13-minute lead track supposedly sold a million as a Pakistani cassingle, and I bet it created a scandal. Nonbelievers, on the other hand, will get Badar easier than they ever did the former real thing. Deep? How would I know? But as intense an hour of music as you'll hear all year. A

LOS VAN VAN: Best of Los Van Van (Milan Latino) Catchy, simplistic, ramming home the clave, not shy of syndrums or syn-anything else, Los Van Van are the class of Castro-era Cuban pop. I confess I still prefer Mango's rerecorded Songo, with which this comp shares four great hits, each of which got richer, longer, and an elegant touch slower the second time around. But these cheesy '70s originals are the golden oldies of underdevelopment. Sometimes their high spirits seem forced, and sometimes their forced quality seems a mark of distinction, like the ingrown musical resources Juan Formell and his comrades had no choice but to make something new of. A MINUS [Later]

MYSTIKAL: Unpredictable (Jive/No Limit) The only No Limit rapper with a style worth talking about fires the words rough and fast, like a dancehall toaster without Jamaica, or Busta Rhymes without a sense of humor. Its boasts, doubts, and recriminations clearly audible through the gravelly buckshot of the rap, its only humanizing inflections Bernie Worrell-style hooks that hover eerily above the subwoofer boom, the CD remains unbearably intense well past the usual N.O. breaking point, leaving Mystikal one of the rare gangstas whose regrets seem powered by anything deeper than self-pity--a brush with the demonic, say. And it adds a killer emotional twist by going out on what sounds like a home-recorded vocal chorus by the dead sister whose murder he'd promised to revenge an hour before. A MINUS

JEB LOY NICHOLS: Lovers Knot (Capitol) Nichols is so subtle it's hard to see how he'll ever crash out of the Americana ghetto--or into it, since his Wyoming-Missouri pedigree quickly gave way to postpunk New York and then London, where he once roomed with Ari Up. Maybe a Don Williams cover, if anybody this side of the Eric Clapton Fan Club remembers that hummable hubby anymore. Until then you'll have to make do with Nichols's less pushy tunes, rendered in a country-soul drawl that rarely ventures above a sleepy murmur and undergirded by a sinuous funk-reggae groove that reads incongruous and sounds ordained. He sings mostly about married love, as strung out as a week of insomnia and as pleasant as an after-dinner stroll. A MINUS

RANCID: Life Won't Wait (Epitaph) With punk revivalism deemed almost as uncouth as frat-boy ska in these postalt times, the three-year hiatus since . . . And Out Come the Wolves may have flattened the rep of one of the few bands to get either style right. That's how pop works--you work your claim, times change, you lose. But art is more forgiving, and aesthetically, this beaty disc is an improvement--snakier in the bass and loopier in the vocals, careening forward in a lovely confusion that never approaches thrash or march (well, maybe march). Whatever their ideas about black lung, glass-pipe murder, baseball bats in Poland, liberty failed liberty, and love redeeming love, they make you glad they have feelings about them--and convinced that for once you know the difference between feeling and pose. A MINUS

MARC RIBOT Y LOS CUBANOS POSTIZOS (THE PROSTHETIC CUBANS) (Atlantic) This witty, beautiful, slightly bent tribute to the old-time trés-playing bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez--inventor of the son montuno, the Cuban conjunto, and practically speaking the mambo--reduces all that action to a guitar-bass-drums-percussion jazz quartet, sometimes with organ and once with a few horns. Deconstructing as it adores, enjoying the rhythms and melodies of arrangements that function simultaneously as dance music, dinner music, and art music, it epitomizes what it is to love something from a distance there's no denying, yet love it well. A MINUS

LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) Williams hasn't just perfected a style, she's mastered a subject. She doesn't just write realistically and music traditionally, she describes and evokes Southerners for whom realism and traditionalism are epistemological givens. She writes for them, too--not exclusively, she hopes, but in the first instance. They are her people and her neighbors, with damn few media-savvy professionals among them. So reassuring shows of hip come no more naturally to her finely worked, cannily roughed up songs than pop universality. Situated in a subculture far removed from both Manhattan and Alternia, these indelible melodies and well-turned lyrics constitute a dazzling proof of the viability of her world and a robust argument for its values. Emotion makes you smirk? Local color has no place in your global mall? Well, you have Lucinda Williams to answer to. Because this is where she establishes herself as the most accomplished record-maker of the age. A PLUS

MIA X: Unlady Like (No Limit) Her mackstress bona fides are predictably generic despite the gender-bent pimp routine, and even after she progresses to the womanisms that dominate the second half of a typically excessive 80-minute No Limit disc, she can't very well avoid cliches: adoring her kids, mourning her G, fending off her current knucklehead, she's role-playing straight up. But especially after she expresses her love for a dead homegirl, her declarations of leather-skinned cynicism and wit's-end vulnerability take on a retrospective weight that counterbalances their surface contradictions. A ghetto story, real as fiction. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

MASTER P: MP Da Last Don (No Limit) The beats speed up without losing their deep post-Cali bump, especially on the nonstop "Make Em Say Uhh #2." The artiste camouflages his rapping by passing work to his brothers and collecting chits from Bone-Thugs and Snoop. Political analyses are essayed. So in fact the brutally predictable solo smashes by said brothers, the cold Silkk the Shocker and the crude C-Murder, are less fun. But they're also less aggravating. In addition to givens about social services and law enforcement, we get "Niggas don't kill niggas--media kill niggas," "why the government don't protect superstars," "no Grammy nominations," and complaints that his taxes are too high. We get all the usual misogynist ugliness and black-on-black crime. We get Snoop calling Puffy out without going so far as to utter his name. "The ghetto's got me crazy" I know--that's the cliche P patented with his groan. But "too legit to quit"? Where have I heard that before? C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Buster Poindexter, Buster's Spanish Rocket Ship (Island): the concept's an excuse to do originals, the best of which stay on concept ("Iris Chacon," "Let's Take It Easy")
  • Big Beat Conspiracy: BBC 1 (Pagan): as much fun as a new chemistry set (Laidback, "International"; J Knights, "Catch a Break"; Surreal Madrid, "Insanity Sauce")
  • Waldemar Bastos, Blacklight (Pretaluz) (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.): crystalline vision of pan-African bliss ("Morro do Kussava," "Kuribôta")
  • Sam Mangwana, Galo Negro (Putumayo Artists): obliging ethnic Angolan adds Lusophone accordion to Zaire-rooted pan-Afro-Latinism ("Galo Negro," "Maloba")
  • Joe Morris, Sweatshop (Riti): through-improvised instrumental rock as per postharmolodic jazz guitarist ("Teeming Millions," "Well Put")
  • Janis Jopin With Big Brother and the Holding Co., Live at Winterland '68 (Columbia/Legacy): the history enjoyable, the jams educational, and listen for this Inspirational Interjection: "When I say no that's exactly what I mean" ("Easy Rider," "Down on Me")
  • Baby Bird, Ugly Beautiful (Atlantic): tunes are not enough ("I Didn't Want To Wake You Up," "Cornershop")
  • Blind Pigs, Sao Paulo Chaos (Grita!): no samba, no ska, 14 songs, 26 minutes ("No Pistols Reunion," "In Love With a Junkie")
  • Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca, Mambo Yo Yo (Putumayo Artists): Californian Afro-salsa, sweet and mild ("Mambo Yo Yo," "No Me Engañes Más")
  • Dave's True Story, Sex Without Bodies (Chesky): lounge as Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, not Martin Denny, and why don't you know the reference? ("I'll Never Read Trollope Again," "Once Had a Woman")
  • Juan Formell y Los Van Van, Te Pone Le Cabaza Mala (Metro Blue): stretching out now ("Te pone le cabaza mala," "Ni bombones ni caramelos")
  • Baby Bird, The Greatest Hits (Baby Bird): needs a whole lot less of Jesus and a lot more rock and roll ("Man's Tight Vest," "In the Morning")
Choice Cuts:
  • Ice Cube, "Ghetto Vet" (I Got the Hook-Up!, No Limit)
  • Puff Daddy Featuring Jimmy Page, "Come With Me" (Godzilla: The Album, Epic/Sony Music Soundtrax)
  • Mack 10, "Backyard Boogie" (Based on a True Story, Priority)
  • Master P, "Time To Check My Crackhouse" (The Ice Cream Man, No Limit/Priority)
  • The Lox, "Money, Power and Respect" (Money, Power and Respect, Bad Boy) [Later: C+]
  • Aphex Twin, Come to Daddy (Warp/Sire)
  • Bad Religion, No Substance (Atlantic)
  • C-Murder, Life or Death (No Limit)
  • His Name Is Alive, Nice Day (4AD)
  • Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra, Rumba Collection 1992-1997 (Epic)
  • Marcy Playground (Capitol)
  • Joe Morris/Ken Vandermark/Hans Poppel, Like Rays (Knitting Factory Works)
  • Nuyorican Soul (Giant Step/Blue Thumb)
  • Silkk the Shocker, Charge It 2 Da Game (No Limit)
  • Tru, Tru 2 Da Game (No Limit)

Village Voice, June 30, 1998

June 2, 1998 Aug. 25, 1998