Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Looks like African catchup month--the Earthworks releases below have been out since late '92, though not so's anyone noticed. Worse still, my Afrocentric Pick Hit rereleases songs already rereleased. The beauty part is, it also redefines them.

BIZ MARKIE: All Samples Cleared (Cold Chillin'/Warner Bros.) Singin' in the rain 'cause he got the audacity, Biz returns from legal limbo to mumble, spritz, fart around, cop a hit from McFadden & Whitehead, ride four different versions of "Get Out My Life Woman," and rhyme "audacity" with "Butch Cassidy." From "Family Tree," which builds off 20 first names, to "The Gator," which cuts to the beat in the interests of asthma prevention, he never tries harder than is absolutely necessary, and seldom comes up less than beguiling and hilarious. Masterstrokes: the positive "I'm a Ugly Nigger (So What)," in the great tradition of Huckleberry Finn, and "I'm Singin'," in which he does for Gene Kelly what he tried to do for Gilbert O'Sullivan--and nobody is stupid enough to stop him. A MINUS [Later]

DRAMARAMA: Hi-Fi Sci-Fi (Chameleon) Although "Incredible" uses the present tense to hail the perfect love of younger days--she smokes his brand of cigs and runs up a $12.37 electric bill ("our great expense") because (the historicizing clincher) she never turns off the radio--the bloody snot and lost year of "Prayer" and "I Don't Feel Like Doing Drugs" suggest a maturity move. What's confusing, and a stroke, is that with Clem Burke pounding the skins and the band mixing and matching, it rocks louder, harder, and faster than anything they've done since going pro--or ever. Assuming the content is autobiographical, which given John Easdale's gift for covering his tracks is only a conceit, this makes it the best just-say-no advert since "Tonight's the Night." Neil's, not Rod's, and you'd best believe pop polymath Easdale knows and admires both but prefers to evoke Neil, whose sister does a backup turn. He also lifts "Prayer" from "Search and Destroy." A MINUS

JIVE SOWETO: THE INDESTRUCTIBLE BEAT OF SOWETO VOL. 4 (Earthworks) By now the availability of South African pop far exceeds the needs of the curious, and there's no way any of Trevor Herman's four follow-ups to Indestructible Beat is as essential as Ladysmith's Classic Tracks or Mzwakhe's Resistance Is Defence or Mahlathini's Paris-Soweto or Shanachie's Heartbeat of Soweto. But for the converted, each has its distinct rewards. Featuring six tracks by the Soul Brothers, whose slick arrangements and syncretic harmonies have made them mbaqanga's top sellers, this one abandons basso groaners for the high-end registers of hectoring chatterbox Ihashi Elimhlophe, theatrical interloper Mbongeni Ngema, and pop idol Steve Kekana. It makes itself useful on sonic differentiation alone. A MINUS [Later]

MAHLATHINI: King of the Groaners (Earthworks) Powered by studio stalwarts who know their own strength, the music he's aimed for since his early-'80s comeback has been a runaway train, as unwithstandable as a prime metal anthem. And the late-'70s stuff on The Lion of Soweto often seems despondently formulaic. This early-'70s music is spare, exploratory, feeling its cornmeal--always less luxurious than the songs of his maturity, sometimes more fun. And let's hear it for Alfius Madlokovu, whose bass has strings. A MINUS

MBUKI MVUKI (Original Music) Formally, this is more sampler than compilation--23 tastes of an Afrocentric catalogue that's long on cultural idiosyncrasy, highlighting many Islamic and Caribbean genres and several so local they're barely commodified. You figure that even if it induces some inquisitive soul to try Tumba, Cuarta & Kai and Songs the Swahili Sing--or, more fruitfully, Azagas & Archibogs and The Kampala Sound--there's no way so much weirdness can hang together. But back in the '70s, when Africa Dances made the entire sub-Sahara its oyster, it wasn't just because we didn't know any better that we didn't notice the clash of styles. The unifying force was John Storm Roberts's passion for the simple melody and the folk-pop cusp--the best term I can think of for the magic fusion of village ways and urban overload, naive curiosity and pancultural daring, that permeates the musics he tells the world about. On this labor of love from Roberts's associate Richard Henderson, the same spirit connects Professional Uhuru's "Medzi Me Digya" to, say, Unknown Street Group's "Asoi." You could carp about folkloricism on a couple of early selections, but starting no later than cut six, an eternal New Year's call-and-response from the Dutch Antilles, the tunes just keep on coming. A

MTV PARTY TO GO VOL. 4 (Tommy Boy) At the same moment Vol. 3 convinces me I can live forever without "Baby Got Back," Mary J. Blige, "I'm Too Sexy," and (House of Pain's) "Jump" (and don't much like "Deeper and Deeper" either), the simultaneous Vol. 4 firms up my affection for "They Want Efx," En Vogue, "Give It Away," and (Kris Kross's) "Jump" (I kind of dig "Baby-Baby-Baby" too) (and hey, "Hip Hop Hooray" and "Back to the Hotel" are cool, and RuPaul you know about). It's enough to renew my faith in confluences of taste--sometimes even dance disposables sort out. So what if the higher-grade collection mines higher-grade albums--these are remixes, right? Kris Kross's has Super Cat on it. Fun. A MINUS [Later]

PAVEMENT: Watery, Domestic (Matador) The rumor that the title means "watered-down, not wild" would bewilder music-lovers outside Indieland. Though it does comprise four distinguishable, hummable songs, it isn't anything the big guys would call pop music, just a dandy outro for the EP compilation below. And since nobody this good lives in Indieland forever, it raises the question of what they'll do for an encore. As they brag, admit, or observe, they've got "so much style that it's wasted." Which means the content problem is staring down their throats. A MINUS [Later]

PAVEMENT: Westing (By Musket and Sextant) (Drag City) This concept CD about the limits of vinyl fetishism--23 cuts off EPs, flexidiscs, and other ephemera you may have read about or even purchased--is the ideal way to hear rather than collect their catchy song-noise. Even irritating instrumental doodads like "Krell Vid-User" gain presence (fuck "warmth") in digital form, and besides, if you get too irritated you can zap 'em. Pretend this is all that remains of a great art-punk band that never wert and chances are you won't want to. A MINUS [Later]

LIZ PHAIR: Exile in Guyville (Matador) She's a rebel, and if all goes well, also a pathfinder, which isn't certain mainly because the acts and attitudes that make her a rebel are so normal. Her number of partners may be over toward the right side of the bell curve, and she may have commitment problems too. But for at least two decades, bohemian women of a certain age have displayed this much desire, independence, bitchiness, self-doubt, and general weirdness--while continuing to pin down the unmanly emotional apercus that make "Dance of the Seven Veils" and "Divorce Song" so gender-specific. They can behave this way if they want--they're just not supposed to come out of the closet about it. And while Phair knows more than enough about tunes and guitars to challenge the taboo, the weirdness level of her spare, intuitive, insinuating demos-plus is bohemia-specific. Which is fine as far as it goes--apt, even. But not necessarily pathfinding. A MINUS [Later: A]

RUPAUL: Supermodel of the World (Tommy Boy) I know it wouldn't be an authentic disco album without filler, but this self-creation is too blandly male a singer to put over pro forma romance. The exception is "Supernatural," as you'll figure out if you match title to persona and consider the possibilities. And when he cops an attitude--on five cuts by my count, culminating in the deep-dish "A Shade Shady"--he brings off a time-warped genderfuck all his own. B PLUS

SUEDE (Columbia) Make-or-break is "Sleeping Pills," when Brett Anderson drawls/whines/croons "You're a water sign, and I'm an air sign" so tunefully, repetitively, naggingly, inescapably that you swear he said "I'm an asshole" even though he pronounces "air sign" a lot more clearly than the line about Valium that follows. It's fingernail-on-blackboard city for anyone who doesn't believe Marc Bolan is Chuck Berry, and at first I couldn't stand it. Now it's a fave moment on this appropriately overhyped, surprisingly well-crafted coming out. More popwise and also more literary than the Smiths at a comparable stage, Suede's collective genderfuck projects a joyful defiance so rock and roll it obliterates all niggles about literal truth. If you think their victories over depression have nothing to do with you, be grateful you can make do with a report from the front. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

X: Hey Zeus! (Big Life/Mercury) Stripped of the vicious tensions that made them great--between good and evil, John and Exene, Billy Zoom and Skunk Baxter--they return as the reason young bohos are afraid to grow up. This isn't folk-rock in disguise; Tony Gilkyson's hooks evoke a machine shop, not a barn raising. But they leave going 120 to a bad old black-and-white--there are kids in the back, and even with their seat belts on they'd get hurt real bad in the event of a crash. As for hostility, save it for the warmongers--ensconced in separate but functional marriages, John and Exene have nothing to fight about anymore. Which in the usual tragic contradiction leaves the emotion so abstract that the songs are tough to grab hold of. Only the spiteful putdowns--Exene's "Everybody," John's "Baby You Lied"--sound like old times. Not to mention new ones. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Neil Young, Unplugged (Reprise): folkie and proud, he's earned one of these things if anyone has ("World on a String," "Like a Hurricane")
  • Rod Stewart, Unplugged . . . and Seated (Warner Bros.): "We haven't done this together since we recorded it 22 years ago--most of the band weren't born--me wife was only one--" ("Reason To Believe," "Handbags and Gladrags")
  • West Nkosi, Rhythm of Healing (Supreme Sax and Penny Whistle Township Jive) (Earthworks): think late M.G.'s, trying to consolidate what they'd accomplished--with the Bar-Kays in the house ("Mazuza," "Marabi Kwela")
  • Donald Fagen, Kamakiriad (Reprise): virtuoso time warp--as gorgeous and shallow as Aja ("Teahouse on the Tracks," "Trans-Island Skyway")
  • Bettie Serveert, Palomine (Matador): by the time the tunes grow on you, you'll be wondering why the songs never get where they're going ("Brain-Tag," "Palomine")
  • Capital Tax, The Swoll Package (MCA): joy-riding, hustling quarters, getting hard the next time, and other modest street skills ("Mista Wonka," "I Can't Believe It")
  • Charles & Eddie, Duophonic (Capitol): if Sade could sing, or at least emote . . . ("Would I Lie to You?," "House Is Not a Home")
  • Giant Sand, Center of the Universe (Restless): Howe Gelb is too smart to claim said center is him--but not too smart to suspect it ("Center of the Universe," "Thing Like That")
  • Putamayo Presents the Best of World Music: Volume 1: World Vocal (Rhino): UNESCO greeting card for the ear (Juan Luis Guerra y 440: "Ojalá Que Leva Café"; the Bhundu Boys: "Magumede")
  • Janet Jackson, Janet (Virgin): better nose than Michael, better navel than Madonna, better porn than either ("Throb," "Funky Big Band," "Be a Good Boy . . . ") [Later: A-]
  • Porno for Pyros (Warner Bros.): one good thing about urban conflagration--when it hit you you focus better ("Black Girlfriend," "Porno for Pyros") [Later: Dud]
  • Cyborgasm: XXX Erotica in 3-D Sound (Algorithm): porno for heteros--a spoken, whispered, groaned, and grunted word recording (Bunny Buckskin & Carrington McDuffie: "Pink Sweatboxes," John Bailiff: "Dirty Fare")
Choice Cuts:
  • Malka Family, "Malka on the Beach" (Africolor 2, Celluloid import)
  • Voyager, "Rhythm Dream" (Zoo Rave 1, Zoo)
  • Madder Rose, "Bring It Down" (Bring It Down, Seed).
  • Geto Boys, Till Death Do Us Part (Rap-a-Lot)
  • R. Kelly and Public Announcement, Born Into the 90's (Jive)
  • Putamayo Presents The Best of World Music: Volume 2: Instrumental (Rhino)
  • Silver Jews, Arizona Record (Drag City)
  • The Sundays, Blind (DGC)
  • Pete Townshend, Psychoderelict (Atlantic)
  • Uptown MTV Unplugged (Uptown/MCA)
  • Warren Zevon, Learning to Flinch (Giant)

Village Voice, Aug. 3, 1993

June 1, 1993 Sept. 28, 1993