Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Devo would have made a neater Must to Avoid, and such was my plan--Cleveland yes, Akron no. Then I tried to figure out why I'd been bypassing Joni. And gave Devo the old college try.

BIZ MARKIE: Goin' Off (Cold Chillin') Except for the timeless "Pickin' Boogers," not one of the class clown's hits has the life of "This Is Something for the Radio," which sounds like it was tossed off late one night on ludes: "We just talkin' over this beat, I don't know what the hell we're doin' . . ." If you love "Vapors" and all those songs with Biz's name in the title but not the credits, figure I'm nitpicking. If come to think of it you don't, wonder yet again how long a street genre can survive high-intensity commodification. B

JEAN-PAUL BOURELLY: Jungle Cowboy (JMT import) Though there could be more flesh on the voice and more sass in the lyrics, Johnny Watson (with shades of Mose Allison, and, well, Blood Ulmer) isn't such a bad vocal model for a guitar player who wants to better himself. Nice Memphis Slim cover, too. And mostly, nice guitar-based jazz-rock, intense and funky, with sidemen from both sides of the synthesis and not a whiff of "fusion"--the kind of small gift that suggests the genre is good for bigger ones. B PLUS

CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (Virgin) Suddenly these postmodern postfolkie weirdos are transformed into, of all things, a rock band--sans chops. And unfortunately, chops are an issue: both the one-dimensional matter-of-factness of the vocal concept and the time-keeping world-beat-by-numbers of the rhythmic philosophy stick out of Dennis Herring's honest AOR production, which messes up the band's balance even though it leaves everything but the mix untouched. Beneath this disorienting surface the message continues its evolution toward postanomie, and it would be a kick to hear "Life Is Grand," say, on the radio. But mainly on college radio, where the nay-sayers it's aimed at call the shots. And that's not the idea. B PLUS [Later]

LEONARD COHEN: I'm Your Man (Columbia) A European best-seller from the Francophone capital of the Western Hemisphere, Cohen isn't the grizzled folk-rock parvenu we take him for. He works a far older and more honorable tradition, that of the French chansonnier, the singing poet who'll cheerfully appropriate any simple music that fits his meter without giving a second thought to how authentic or commercialized it might be. Because words are his stock in trade, Cohen's music rarely obtrudes no matter how classy or schlocky its usages. So despite what some consider a misguided attempt to yoke stark instrumentation and femme chorus, his latest recording seems no more or less natural/unnatural than his previous offerings, and the poems are his most consistent in a decade. Envoi: "But you'll be hearing from me, baby, long after I'm gone/I'll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song." A MINUS

DAG NASTY: Field Day (Giant) They're D.C. posthardcore postboys with an ex-Descendent on bass whose apostate pop is like Milo Goes to College only more expansive. Concise and propulsive the way hardcore's supposed to be, the music could carry any old lyrics half the time, but that's not necessary--these descriptions and accounts of their growing store of experience are no less metaphorical for their factual aura, and remind us that most postboys understand their own troubles better than the world's. Vide "Typical (Typical Youth)": "Now that it's gone, just admit it to yourself/It was nothing special, no more special than yourself." A MINUS [Later]

DEVO: Total Devo (Enigma) This package of "11 digital cartoons" is improved by the balloons, which distract momentarily from its retro-electro sheen. In case you were wondering (hadn't given it much thought lately myself), the Devo Philosophy has a lot in common with the Playboy Philosophy--as the Bard put it, to thine own self be true. Note quotes from John Lennon, Elvis Presley, and T.S. Eliot--quick, before the retro-electro comes round again. C PLUS

THE DOCTOR'S CHILDREN: King Buffalo (Restless) Like so many Brits (and Yanks), they think they've got a new wrinkle on "American rock," and with bespectacled Peter Perrett soundalike Paul Smith writing and singing and playing, they manage one: chaotic feedback and organ murk subsumed in the soaring Byrdsy-Velvetsy ebb and flow. But I wouldn't say they "return it [`American rock'] with a looping back-spin," though that's hardly a momentous claim. And so it goes in the realm of better-than-average guitar bands. B

BOB DYLAN: Down in the Groove (Columbia) Where Self-Portrait was at least weird, splitting the difference between horrible and hilarious, now he's forever professional--not a single remake honors or desecrates the original. All he can do to a song is Dylanize it, and thus his Danny Kortchmar band and his Steve Jones-Paul Simonon band are indistinguishable, immersed in that patented and by now meaningless one-take sound. And yet, and yet, there's a glimmer--the Dylan-Hunter throwaway "Ugliest Girl in the World," guaranteed to remind the faithful how much fun the one-take ethos used to be. C PLUS

PETER GORDON: Brooklyn (FM) On side two he's up to his usual tricks if not regressing a bit--first three cuts no better than the schlocky instrumental disco-rock they postmodernize, last cut no better than the pretty kora exotica it exploits (which if you're following means it's literally pretty--very, in fact). But side one, how about that, has real words--which are, it took me months to accept this, evocative ("Brooklyn"), romantic ("'Til We Drop"), and funny ("Red Meat"). In an oblique way, but Gordon's problem isn't that he's oblique, it's that he's too oblique. The right dose of oblique can be tonic in this crash-boom world. B PLUS

HALF JAPANESE: Music to Strip By (50 Kazillion Watts) What was still authentic cacophony last time has evolved inexorably into avant-gardism, its jazz/r&b elements articulated by ever classier sidemen. All 22 cuts are entertaining at least, and the musicianship adds listenability, which has its uses even with a singer who models himself on a wise-ass nine-year-old--"Silver and Katherine" is almost "beautiful." But the crude, breakneck, sui generis primitivism has slipped away somehow, and for all his protean whatsis (he's definitely a maturing nine-year-old, a contradiction I come to praise not to bury), Jad Fair is less himself without it. As of now, anyway. B PLUS

THE HORSEFLIES: Human Fly (Rounder) You can tell these sardonic folkies have big plans because they've come up with a slogan: "neoprimitive bug music," which definitely beats "the Ithaca sound." Overimpressed with Philip Glass, bluegrass, or both, they utilize lots of repetition. Very hypnotic, or strophic, or static. Also kind of tedious, like the grim life-cycle they so often evoke--a little goes a long way. Well, better a long way than nowhere. Check out the Cramps cover. B [Later]

LYLE LOVETT: Pontiac (Curb/MCA) He's another Nashville neotraditionalist who'll never surpass his not-bad debut, a rounder who's sharpest playing the husband (as in the unembittered "Give Back My Heart" and "She's No Lady"), with something of Merle's jazz feel and a weakness for songpoetry ("If I Had a Boat," help). And he's something of a hit as he joins such succes d'estime as pure Ricky Skaggs, clean Dwight Yoakam, clear-eyed Ricky Van Shelton, straight George Strait, reborn Reba McEntire, King Shit Randy Travis, and the great Rosanne Cash in a critical-commercial conflux that recalls the chart-topping days of Beatles, Stones, and, er, Jefferson Airplane. Why isn't this more of an up? Because all it means is that the folkies have taken over the establishment again, and a piss-poor one at that--these artists often spend the better part of a year going gold. Granted, the new trend does lend credence to the old folkie claim of proximity to the hearts of the people. But it also lends credence to the old antifolkie charge of middle-class romanticism in disguise. B MINUS [Later]

M C LYTE: Lyte as a Rock (First Priority Music) Unlike so many of her femme-metal counterparts, she knows how to talk tough without yielding to the stupid temptations of macho. But as nobody's girl, she spreads 10 tracks among four producer-DJs, who chill too close to the max as she attempts to carry the music with her bare rap. Even their weirdest hooks are understated by half, and Lyte's quotes (not samples) from "I'm in the Mood for Love," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "I Am Woman," and "Hit the Road Jack" aren't loud enough to compensate. Minimal isn't the only way she can go, as Sinead O'Connor fans know. Are they in for an unpleasant surprise. B

JONI MITCHELL: Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (Geffen) Dreaming, fabulizing, playing the ingenue, speaking for the displaced Native American, preaching about materialism and ecocatastrophe and the engines of war (and abortion, though not so's you can tell where she stands), she's matured into a sententious liberal. Give me the Poet of the Me Decade any day. At least Joan Baez is a sententious radical. C

PERE UBU: The Tenement Year (Enigma) Yes, this is Ubu--four of the seven players were on Dub Housing. But before Scott Krauss was brought in--can't expect much backbeat with Chris Cutler hogging the drums--it was also the most recent edition of David Thomas's Pedestrians/Wooden Birds making a rock move. So what's astonishing isn't just the high spirits and good faith, both rare enough on reunions, but the singleness of purpose. It's not as if Thomas's crotchety nature-boy mysticism has been blown away--one of these songs is an attack on zoos. But the momentum of the backbeat and the electric clamor of the whole move straighten him out and toughen him up, while at the same time his loving, surrealistic sarcasm dominates the music, with Allen Ravenstine reaching untold heights of kooky reintegration. This record proves not only that good-hearted eccentrics can live in the world, but that they can change it for the better. Every song stays with you, but the one for the ages is "We Have the Technology," which leaves you thinking that we just may and we just may not. Thank you, Scott Krauss. A

THE RAVE-UPS: The Book of Your Regrets (Epic) As a somewhat skeptical admirer of Jim Podrasky's country-rock popcraft--how much can so static a commodity be worth in these careening times?--I was irritated at first by the big drum sound, tacked on to this pop product as it is to all others in these conformist times. Only when startled from a revery induced by a competing commodity did I realize that cowriter Terry Wilson's indubitable guitar-banjo-lapsteel-keybs-etc. demanded the percussive kinetics. The boy can't be stopped, his virtuosity serving a song-form rock and roll that's implosive rather than onrocking, pyrotechnic rather than jet-propelled. Even when Podrasky's romantic headaches and American tragedies aren't at a peak of observation, you listen. When they are, you learn. A MINUS [Later: B+]

SADE: Stronger Than Pride (Epic) I'm glad this self-made aristocrat has a human side, but I prefer her image: now that she's singing billets-doux, she's even further from rewarding the concentration she warrants than she used to be. Touching your beloved with a few true cliches is hard enough. For an audience you have to come up with something that doesn't fade into the background like the new age jazz she went pop with. B MINUS

WOMACK & WOMACK: Conscience (Island) On stage, the shy sprite with the truth-telling voice seems way too good for the pompous baldhead she's saddled with, and his album notes don't dispel the impression: something about how a man trusts a woman and she does him wrong but he perseveres and in the end Love prevails, only not that clear. Thus what sounds at first like a great collection turns into a real good one larded with bullshit--its parts are most fruitfully enjoyed at face value, one at a time. Fortunately, Cecil sings a lot better than he talks or thinks; praise the Lord, Linda sings a lot better than Cecil. A MINUS

THE WOODS: It's Like This (Twin/Tone) No way it can mean much at this late date, but for a first side that never quits Don Dixon's backup trio sound like relaxed late dB's remaking Crazy Horse as Exile on Main Street. Thus it's one of those off-the-cuff pleasures most Amerindies are too self-involved to provide any more, a busman's holiday rather than an artistic statement and/or a career move. On side two the songs run out, which could be why the career move is declined. Lucky thing--even with a dozen songs they'd be riding for a fall. B

X: Live at the Whiskey A Go-Go on the Fabulous Sunset Strip (Elektra) Twenty-four titles, the half dozen new ones less than essential, and as Tony Gilkyson zips through 16 songs made flesh by Billy Zoom you begin to wonder whether the guitarist was the secret of the band after all. Maybe it was just the guitar. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

I'd buy Vampire Can Mating Oven (Pitch-a-Tent), Camper Van's 1987 bye-DIY EP, before their hi-hi-fi LP; thwarted love, meaningless love, ice cream, never go back, instrumental breakdown, all distinguished by the calm acceptance of fate that marks their brilliant cover of "Photograph" as unmistakably as it marks Ringo's brilliant original. Half Japanese's seven-inch U.S. Teens Are Spoiled Bums (50 Kazillion Watts) combines two of the most enduring compositions on Music To Strip By--the aforementioned "Silver and Katherine" and the aforementioned "U.S. Teens Are Spoiled Bums" with two non-LP Bs that would have hyped same: "Patty Hearst," which beats Camper Van's "Tania," and "Patti Smith," which beats Arista's push. The dance mix of Sinéad O'Connor's "I Want Your (Hands on Me)" (Chrysalis) has more Lyte than O'Connor on it and lots of jam on it too.

Village Voice, July 26, 1988

June 28, 1988 Aug. 30, 1988