Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

As you may have gathered, I'm feeling like only good records are worth my precious time. Within B plus the hierarchy goes Saffire, Gill, Tribe Called Quest, Dust Devils, Rebel MC, Pure Gold, with Gill on the cusp.

BEATS INTERNATIONAL: Let Them Eat Bingo (Elektra) Norman Cook has gone too far--the samples in his kitchen sink are just too blatant, too eclectic. Which is to say that this is the mixing record Coldcut only talk to interviewers about. Whether he's constructing a new rock and roll subgenre from blues, Burundi, and some kind of jump band or embellishing Herman Kelly's "Dance to the Drummer's Beat" with who knows what horns and African huzzahs or revivifying pleasant little tunes you can't quite place and are sort of surprised to hear again, Cook's music is perfect for people who like more stuff than they have time to listen to. Strange--when I play two records at the same time I just get chaos. What fun. A MINUS [Later]

THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH: Welcome to the Beautiful South (Elektra) They're to the Housemartins as General Public was to the English Beat, only General Public stunk up the joint. And though the first two cuts do last 12 minutes, this album isn't soft, sweet, or dead on its feet--it's a killer. The tempos, the keybs, the snazzy new guitarist and his sneaky-catchy tunes--all are camouflage for Paul Heaton's righteous self-righteousness and radical unease. Personally, I miss the Marxian animus he's abandoned for attacks on the pop power structure and sarcastic relationship songs. But I'm knocked out that he can progress so naturally from subverting garage-pop to subverting the real thing. He's a sweet, soft force to be reckoned with, and if he wants to camouflage his politics I'm willing to credit his motives. The pop power structure is always worth taking on--if you do it right. A MINUS [Later]

THE BELOVED: Happiness (Atlantic) Per contempo usual, this duo--an electronic autodidact to run the show, plus one of those "classically trained" sidekicks--say rap and house changed their lives. But that doesn't stop them from sounding at various points like Depeche Mode, New Order, ABC, Heaven 17, the Human League--everyone but the Pet Shop Boys, with whom they share concept and pop sense at a lower level of development. And against all odds, they're fun, even happy. With its informed choice of hopeful optimism over the idiot pessimism even idiots now know is a market ploy, their tuneful rhythm tapestry will make you smile. Like they say, "It's just the sun rising." Later for the ozone layer. B [Later: Neither]

THE CHILLS: Submarine Bells (Slash/Warner Bros.) I might never have known without the printed lyrics, but there's no evidence here that Martin Phillipps is in love with death. He just sees too much of it. So don't dismiss the printed Greenpeace propaganda as gratuitous--for the Chills it's an antidote. What distingishes them from so many politically well-meaning popsters is that neither cheery music nor dour message is one-dimensional or pro forma--they generate plenty of punk gall and a surprising complement of bliss. Maybe "Heavenly Pop Hit" is about waking up as an angel, but I say Phillipps believes there can be a heaven before he's dead, and if his vision of transcendence is a bit nature-bound for my tastes, it's the thought that counts. Inspirational Verse: "Yeah--the world might end/But at least it hasn't/No--at least it hasn't." A MINUS [Later: A]

THE CLEAN: Vehicle (Rough Trade) Sporadic semipros in an Anglo enclave so remote it evades ordinary patterns of formal exhaustion, these three New Zealanders are garage Velvets--even their "eclectic" folk-rock delicacy and speed-pop buzz make the connection. Fortunately, they're too tasteful to pretend they're jaded when they're not--10 years after their first burst there's still a boyish strain about them. And if I remain utterly suspicious of garage exotica, I'm a proud sucker for this quick, hard, flat, lyrical sound--professional no, clean and how. A MINUS

LLOYD COLE (Capitol) Alternate title: Robert Quine, whose six cuts here prove a smart person can still get away with this shit while the other seven demonstrate why even a smart person has to. Except on the herky-funky "Waterline," which offers history nothing but a solo, Quine doesn't just play superbly. Torturing Cole's hummable tunes and easy little folk-pop guitar hooks until they confess, he lays a saving aura of wisdom around the postgraduate melancholy, stretching the songs toward the tensile intelligence the boss so admired on Legendary Hearts. And then he goes home. Who was that masked man? B [Later: Choice Cuts]

THE DEIGHTON FAMILY: Mama Was Right (Philo) Basically this is an English folk band doing lots of "trad. arr."--"Soldiers Joy," "Bonaparte's Retreat," "Farther Along," "Freight Train." But though the instrumentation is pretty conventional right down to the electric guitar, the sound is unique, probably because Mama Josie brings a little bit of South Molucca (in Indonesia, where she grew up) to her guitar (and bodhran), and the kids learned at both parents' knees. Also, they define folk to include "Wonderful Tonight," "When You're Smiling," "Taxman"--and on their first album two forgettable Carl Perkins covers, a fine "All Shook Up," and a tour de force "Money," with young Rosalie inserting "Dust My Broom" on mandolin. Papa Dave arrs., gives history lessons, and sings like a busker who's found his place in the world. A MINUS [Later]

DUST DEVILS: Geek Drip (Matador) Sure they're a guitar band with a chick buried in the dust-bedeviled mix, but even in the early days Sonic Youth pretended to play songs. I say they're Swans meets Hose or Ministry versus Big Black--horrible noise urban zombis can dance to. And I knew they were the industrialists of my dreams when I had to check out the construction site across the street to make sure that power saw wasn't on the record. B PLUS [Later: Neither]

JOHNNY GILL (Motown) He could do with a touch of Tashan's lyrical moralism--Tashan's soul. But before I'll swallow the salty effluvia of Keith Sweat I'll sample this Babyface-Jam & Lewis New Edition spinoff, who can do a mean Teddy when he's not just working those beats. B PLUS [Later: Neither]

M.C. HAMMER: Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em (Capitol) Textbook lowest-common-denominator, excising everything that could conceivably prove off-putting in the era's most demanding pop subgenre. In rap terms, the beats are about as deep as Skid Row's, and the samples are so broad and instantly identifiable that half of them require publishing credits. Why should Hammer care, after all--how many Ninja Turtles fans will ever hear the Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her," or know it's better if they do? Granted, Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" is better, freeing one of history's greatest funk riffs from one of history's dumbest lyrics. Other points of interest: call-and-reponse from the oi-boy hookbook, "Black Is Black"'s pop outreach, the unidentifiable (by me) horn riff on "Work This," and Hammer's principled refusal to altogether abandon the crack-dealer market. C PLUS

PRETENDERS: Packed! (Sire/Warner Bros.) You can catch more pop with misery than you can with connubial bliss, and whether she's feeling her losses or picking up the get-down, Chrissie Hynde is back on her game again. Unlikely highlights include a medium-tempo take-me-back plea, a sendup of class war, an obscurely nasty animal-rights song, and yet another medium-tempo take-me-back plea. That's right, she's groveling--yet she sounds like her own woman doing it. Must have something to do with the melody lines. A MINUS

PURE GOLD: By the Rivers of Babylon (Shanachie) Mbube harmonies ride mbaqanga beats in an inevitable pop fusion--I know I hear genuine gumboots fiddle, yet I'd also swear a synthesizer generates many of the neotraditional rhythms and sonorities. The jaunty mood can be inspiring, but at a modest level of intensity and aspiration--although the sounds are always indigenous, the notion of aural comfort isn't. B PLUS [Later: ***]

REBEL MC: Rebel Music (Desire) Nothing too dangerous about this Tottenham-born 24-year-old--trust a Brit of any color to have his image business down. But rebel or not he's got the deepest reggae-rap groove going--it's in the basslines, with help on two tracks from certified toastmasters of varying sexes. Catchiest safe-sex rap since "Go See the Doctor": "Storytime." Dance hook: "Music Is the Key." B PLUS [Later: Choice Cuts]

SAFFIRE: The Uppity Blues Women (Alligator) Instrumentally and vocally, these three Virginia over-40s are folkies--high-generic though Ann Rabson's woogie piano and Gaye Adegbalola's unamplified guitar may be, it isn't their music that'll inspire imitators. It's what they're about that will inspire imitators, because they're folkies politically as well, just like a lot of blues fans--which is why their feminist redefinition of blues cliches seems so natural and so long overdue. Never again do they get as lewd or as fine as "Middle Aged Blues Boogie," in which Adegbalola stakes her claim on that good young cock (and tongue) as if it was her right as a fully sexed human being, but there's a matter-of-fact candor to "Fess Up When You Mess Up" and "School Teacher's Blues" that's rare among younger guitar poets. And if Rabson has decided in her considerable wisdom never to take care of another man, only an MCP could blame her. B PLUS [Later]

SALT-N-PEPA: Blacks' Magic (Next Plateau) Though I wish these Hurby Luv Bug disciples were as gimmicky as their preceptor, the beats grab and the lyrics hold. They're too centered, too grounded to cop any attitude; some of their best moments are snatches of fabricated ordinary conversation, like the embarrassed 10-second should-we-or-shouldn't-we that leads into "Let's Talk About Sex" (some remixer should sample Salt's "C'mon, why not?" for everything it's worth). Their you-can't-dog-me threat doesn't sound like they want to turn around and dog him, though they may. They're "Independent" because they'd better be. A MINUS

SNAP: World Power (Arista) Hip house from London, or maybe Germany, where rough-hewn Cincinnati rapper Turbo B was introduced to European culture as a GI. And in the great transcultural Technotronic tradition, the shit is crazy and radio-ready at the same time. Also funny. Why else introduce the love rap with an piano hook out of Music for Airports, or call one "Believe the Hype," or go out on a B-boy whining like a wino? Inspirational Mantra, deployed by Turbo's soul cousin Penny Ford: "What's in the bowl bitch?" A MINUS [Later]

SOUL II SOUL: Vol II--1990: A New Decade (Virgin) Jazzie B. is the victim of his own pretensions, and his fickle fans are victims of theirs--anybody so groovy as to mistake a kitschy little dance band from London U.K. for the next phase of world culture is sure to suffer mightily when the truth gets out. But as someone whose chakras weren't realigned by the house album that ate top 40, I must insist--not only is the emperor still wearing clothes, the new ones fit better. You won't find a "Keep On Movin'" here--that honor falls to Snap this year. But the lead cuts are daring and irresistible in their kitschy way, and the boring stretches are all but eliminated--even Fab Five Freddy and Courtney Pine gain the flat-out pop credibility that is Jazzie's true calling. A MINUS

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (Jive) Not Afrocentric enough to hear this indubitably progressive pastiche as a groove album, I cut-by-cutted it, and I'm glad I did: it has more good songs on it than any neutral observer will believe without trying, though they do run on, and most of the second "side" remains subtler than is by any means necessary. Good doesn't mean "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo," swamped by the in-group obscurity that so often afflicts chosen people. It means the Afrogallic "Luck of Lucien," the slumming "After Hours," the cholesterol-conscious "Ham 'n' Eggs," the lustful "Bonita Applebum," the safe-sex (and nonvinyl-only) "Pubic Enemy." Which latter, let me cavil, adheres to rap convention by sticking to gonorrhea, thus rendering AIDS Other-by-omission once again. Onward. B PLUS

Village Voice, July 31, 1990

July 3, 1990 Sept. 25, 1990