Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Let no one claim good old well-crafted rock and roll has disappeared from the culture. See the top three Honorable Mentions, each more substantial than the Donnas' regressive little winner, not one as consistently inspired. Then look at the pictures and proceed elsewhere.

NATACHA ATLAS: Gedida (Beggars Banquet) Although production is credited as usual to Transglobal Underground, bassist Count Dubulah has departed, and so has keybman Alex Kasiek--unless he also goes by the name Tim Whelan, as some suggest. In any case, the music has morphed so that it now bears in on the always dominant Middle Eastern pop aspect of Atlas's mystery-laden Belgian-Arab-Asian-Jewish persona. It's good riddance to the multicultural kitchen sink--bhangra rappers, hyped-up electropercussion, metaphysical atmospherics, long slow Arabic meditations on I could never care what. Instead we get a probably shallow and definitely delightful piece of exotica--ouds and hand drums and Cairo strings, tunes that hold your ear until the next one begins, perky tempos that always convey good cheer as they reduce passion to a trope. Unless your idea of magic is to switch to English and presto change-o turn into Bj÷rk, Atlas is one of thousands who prove that a terrific voice doesn't guarantee great singing. But as the icing on this cake, she could make belly dancing look like a lesson in self-determination. A MINUS

ANI DIFRANCO: Up Up Up Up Up Up (Righteous Babe) Reports that she's fallen in love with the mirror are rank last-big-thingism. She's still the girl who ran away with the circus because bearded ladies do honest work, and far from going too far, her 13 climactic minutes of poetry-with-jazz attest to her unflagging esprit. She should let her junkie jones be for a while. But not her class jones. The rich are always with us. A MINUS

THE DONNAS: The Donnas Get Skintight (Lookout!) Teen life as teen combat, with tunes and sexual content both revved up, which synergy is the only form maturity can (as yet) take with these Bay Area molls. If more young females had a purchase on the scornful independence the Donnas transform into fun, this act might actually pose role model problems. Let's just hope it'll loom larger in the fantasy lives of shy girls than of dirty young men. Because fun it is. A MINUS

MARK ISHAM: Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project (Columbia) The auteur isn't Windham Hillbilly turned soundtrack impressionist Isham, whose mushy desecrations I would have slagged big-time if only I hadn't listened to them first. Instead, this proves the ranking companion piece to Panthalassa, with a proficient no-name band focusing the compositional skills of the auteur, who is also the greatest musical impressionist of the century. Reducing the Jack Johnson theme to five minutes, they even rock like they mean it. B PLUS

SALIF KEITA: Papa (Metro Blue) This Vernon Reid coproduction is beyond fusion, crossover, world music, and the rest. The master guitarist is pure polyglot, comfortable anywhere from AOR to funk to harmolodic to aleatory, and after two decades of knocking on Euro-America's door, the master singer is at home in the white world even if he never found the fortune he sought there. So the straightforward rhythms mesh imperceptibly with the traditional instruments Keita is forever rediscovering, and though it's not clear from the credits whether such Bamako big men as Toumani Diabate (kora) and Ousmane Kouyate (guitar) ever occupied the same room as such New York delegates as John Medeski (organ) and Henry Schroy (essential on bass), their spiritual confluence is in the grooves. More than Keita's vintage work with Les Ambassadeurs, this is the natural music of a landowner-class albino expatriate. Almost as much an outsider in Mali and Senegal as in France or the U.S., he's finally arrived at a style that's indigenous everywhere. Which is what he always wanted. A MINUS [Later]

MOBY: Play (V2) I doubt the little messiah sat down and "composed" this. There are no reports he even strove to unify it Ó la DJ Shadow. But Endtroducing . . . is the reference point nevertheless. It's because Moby still loves song form that he elects to sample Alan Lomax field recordings rather than garage-sale instrumental and spoken-word LPs. But though the blues and gospel and more gospel testify not just for song but for body and spirit, they wouldn't shout anywhere near as loud and clear without the mastermind's ministrations--his grooves, his pacing, his textures, his harmonies, sometimes his tunes, and mostly his grooves, which honor not just dance music but the entire rock tradition it's part of. Although the futurist's dream of Blind Willie Johnson that opens this complete work was some kind of hit in England, here it'll be strictly for aesthetes. We've earned it. A [Later: A+]

WILLIE NELSON: Night and Day (Pedernales/FreeFalls) In the Nashville era, country instrumental albums have been models of dexterous precision and dispatch dominated by the sterile expanses of the Chet Atkins catalogue, a tradition that shares as much with this small miracle as Nelson's singing does with Brooks & Dunn's. Even simpatico analogies--early string bands, the looser Western swing units, the relaxation Merle Haggard's guys go for, or for that matter Django Reinhardt--don't suggest the casual musicality this long-running off-and-on octet achieves without apparent effort every time it sits down, which happens 150 nights a year. Musicians for life who've achieved a satori that barely skirts virtuosity, they adore the melody. But they adore it after their own fashion, which is Willie's fashion whether he's singing or, as here, only playing lead guitar--pretty much on the note when you listen up, only you don't because the timbre and phrasing are so talky. Is this a species of jazz? Given the awkwardness of the session Nelson once cut with jazz-identified Nashvillian Jackie King, I wouldn't bother calling it that. It's just Willie, who wants folks to think everything he does is simpler than it is and in some mystical sense may be right. A MINUS [Later: A]

PAVEMENT: Terror Twilight (Matador) Since I was fooled myself until I saw them live and knew every riff, I'm wondering why some believe there are no songs here. Probably the explanation is tempo. There's never that frantic hang-on-for-your-life moment when you either pay attention or embrace brain death--when you engage at gunpoint. And though the music seems stitched together rather than wound tight, it's never in any apparent danger of falling apart; it isn't riven or driven by internal contradictions. Thus, too much meaning is left up to the words. But that's not the same as the songs not being there--or as the meanings not being there either. A MINUS

ROOTS ROCK GUITAR PARTY: ZIMBABWE FRONTLINE 3 (Stern's/Earthworks) Chimurenga and its vaguely soukous-inflected descendants are liberation music no longer. Mugabe's the new boss, and though he isn't the same as the old boss--they never are, and at least he's not white--he is certainly a tyrant, dividing-and-plundering along tribal and sexual lines. But where Afropop surrendered lilt and intraband debate for escapist desperation and automatic virtuosity as nationhood bore down on the material lives of the people, these 12 tracks, all but one recent, maintain an illusion of communal jollity and balanced progress. Past kisses future as guitars articulate thumb-piano scales into a language all their own, an endeavor spiritually engrossing enough to keep everybody involved occupied. When you read the translated lyrical snippets, you can infer how much the all-male Shona choruses aren't saying. When you listen to the music, you give everybody involved credit for tending their bit of human space. A MINUS

RZA: The RZA Hits (Razor Sharp/Epic) If Enter the Wu-Tang is a block party mythologized into a masterwork, most of its endless of spinoffs are soirees in smoke-filled rooms, where intimates tender messages and crack jokes newcomers can only pretend to understand. So this public work is a public service. Never mind that it pulls three tracks from the source and two each from the most obvious solo exceptions, by ODB and Ghostface Killah. Just be grateful that for once they're celebrating the obvious--the anthemic, the obscene, the braggadocious. In this context, even Raekwon sounds like a regular guy. Says the produceur: "That's enough information right there to get you involved, get you inside the system." Whereupon he sets off a three-minute bonus track cum Wu Wear ad. A MINUS [Later]

SOURCE DIRECT: Exorcise the Demons (Astralwerks) I make no pretense to caring what the junglists think they're up to at this late date. But maybe my fellow dabblers will enjoy this particular U.K. concoction. You will hear: beats developed in perceptible patterns, cannily minimalist middle registers, fun vrooms and slams as musical content. You will not hear: strings, jazz, extreme lassitude, the ocean's murky depths, continental drift, Conlon Nancarrow homages. Light instrumental music at its diverting best--which is just good enough. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

INSANE CLOWN POSSE: The Amazing Jeckel Brothers (Island) Refreshing for white guys, especially white guys as dumb as these two, to complain about the slave owner on the dollar bill--simpleminded, but an act of cultural nonconformity nonetheless. Cool to give away a special-offer CD where you rap over stolen gangsta tracks, too. But when a real gangsta's bitch fucks his homey he kills everybody in sight. These kiss-offs just kill the girl, every chance they get. And though they claim clown, they rarely get funnier than "I'd cut my head off but then I would be dead," and that on the cut everybody uses to prove how dumb they are. Personally, I think saying fuck 93 times in one song is a riot. Tell Fatboy Slim the news. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Blur, 13 (Virgin): halfway there, it sits down in the middle of the road and won't budge ("Tender," "B.L.U.R.E.M.I.")
  • Fountains of Wayne, Utopia Parkway (Atlantic): retro popcraft as the pursuit of doomed happiness ("Prom Theme," "Red Dragon Tattoo")
  • Smash Mouth, Astro Lounge (Interscope): surveying the world from a temporary star ("Then the Morning Comes," "I Just Wanna See")
  • Speech, Hoopla (TVT): Lauryn wannabe unearths apposite folk-rock tunelets ("Slave to It All," "The Hey Song")
  • Kandia Kouyate, Kita Kam (Stern's Africa): female pride, Malian and Islamic style ("DoninkÚ," "Douwawou")
  • Miles Davis/Various DJs, Panthalassa: The Remixes (Columbia): ambient techno goes to heaven, or hell--anyway, steals trumpeter ("On the Corner [Subterranean Channel Mix]," "Shhh [Sea4 Miles Remix]")
  • The Wild Magnolias, Life Is a Carnival (Metro Blue): the New Orleans Funk Repertory Orchestra ("Pocket Change," "Pock-a-Nae")
  • Chic, Live at the Budokan (Sumthing Else): featuring Sister Sledge, Slash&WinwoodDoJimi, and the great Bernard Edwards on the night he died ("Good Times/Rapper's Delight," "We Are Family")
  • Ani DiFranco & Utah Phillips, Fellow Workers (Righteous Babe): old Wobbly tells war stories, young CEO watches his back ("Direct Action," "Pie in the Sky")
  • We, Square Root of Negative One (Asphodel): sounds from the dark side ("Diablos," "Gaya's Kids")
  • Genius/GZA, Beneath the Surface (MCA): he means the surface of a frozen lake, if I'm not mistaken ("Victim," "Crash Your Crew")
  • Austin Powers--The Spy Who Shagged Me (Maverick): genuine simulated psychedoolic Velveeta (Madonna, "Beautiful Stranger"; Dr. Evil, "Just the Two of Us")
  • Loudon Wainwright III, Social Studies (Hannibal): commentary not protest, and usually worse for it ("Tonya's Twirls," "Pretty Good Day")
  • The Chemical Brothers, Surrender (Astralwerks): nostalgic--for futurism past, yet--at, what, 29? ("Hey Boy Hey Girl," "Let Forever Be")
Choice Cuts:
  • Faith Hill, "The Secret of Life," "This Kiss" (Faith, Warner Bros.)
  • D-Generation, "Helpless," "Rise and Fall" (Through the Darkness, C2/Columbia)
  • Van Morrison, "Drumshanbo Hustle" (The Philosopher's Stone, Polydor)
  • Sloan, "C'Mon C'Mon (Gonna Get It Started)" (Navy Blues, Murderecords)
  • Tim McGraw, "She'll Have You Back" (A Place in the Sun, Curb)
  • Anggun, Snow on the Sahara (Epic)
  • Cassius, 1999 (Astralwerks)
  • Geri Halliwell, Schizosonic (Capitol)
  • His Name Is Alive, Always Stay Sweet (4AD)
  • Moby, I Like To Score (Elektra)
  • Saint Etienne, Places to Visit (Sub Pop)
  • Spacetime Continuum, Double Fine Zone (Astralwerks)

Village Voice, July 27, 1999

June 22, 1999 Sept. 7, 1999