Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Occasionally I should point out that, except for a Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot and a Dud of the Month, this column features recommended records only--nothing under a high B plus, with lesser successes described briefly as Honorable Mentions. No surprises genrewise below--rap, "world," "alternative." But always a few artists out of left field.

CACHAO: Master Sessions Volume 1 (Crescent Moon/Epic) Israel Lopez is a 76-year-old contrabassist credited with bringing the jam to Cuba and the mambo to the world. He has lived in the U.S. since 1962. Yet to my knowledge this is his second album, and n.b.: his 1976 Salsoul entry was also subtitled "Vol. 1." So thank Emilio Estefan and Andy Garcia for capturing a genius even a salsa agnostic like me can't ignore, but don't bet the follow-up will ever stick its head out of the can. Working with Paquito D'Rivera, NÚstor Torres, Chocolate Armenteros, et al., Cachao cut 30 tunes one week last May, and these 12 alone run over 76 minutes. Far less hectic than New York salsa, often with a stately charanga feel, they respect Cachao's roots in the old danzon tradition, but the youngbloods' heat and surface motion were just what a veteran of more Miami weddings and bar mitzvahs than he can count ordered. The notes claim all the tunes are stone classics, and this agnostic believes. A MINUS [Later]

IGNACE DE SOUZA (Original Music) Migrating to Ghana from Dahomey in 1955 to become a highlife star in the '60s, the trumpeter's selling point was his Francophone roots, which gave him a leg up on those newfangled Congolese rhythms. He wasn't above the occasional twist or cha-cha either. Initially these 19 cuts sound pleasingly familiar but not all that distinctive, on the cusp between the generic-elemental and the generic-cliched. Yet although my highlife comp of choice remains the same label's more obscure, more exacting Azagas and Archibogs, slowly the pleasure wins out. B PLUS

HOUSE OF PAIN: Same As It Ever Was (Tommy Boy) Where the first time they rode an easy hit and easier Vanilla Ice comparisons, now they're compelled to prove that they have a right to exist, and the struggle is tonic. Plug-ugly vocals and mean lean beats make this the hardest hip hop of the year, and for extra torture they jam their own curse words by skipping past them, simulating the maddening effect of CD playback in continual subcritical malfunction. Name checks include Hendrix, Page, Steven Tyler, Divine Styler, Salt-n-Pepa, GG Allin, and Pearl Jam. A MINUS [Later]

L7: Hungry for Stink (Slash/Reprise) Always a song band, they reverse the usual evolution by slathering themselves with grunge, which they play for weird sounds rather than dull despair. Hence their anger seems more metal-generic than punk-programmatic--rooted in the rock and roll everyday, where it belongs. It should go without saying that it's often about gender nevertheless; how anyone can accuse them of riding a bandwagon is beyond me. Every day, women is what they are, and there are lots of ways that can be shitty--the rape avoidance diary "Can I Run" describes only a few. But every day, rock and rollers is also what they are, and they're much better at it than Candlebox or Alice in Chains. And yes, the songs help. A MINUS

PUBLIC ENEMY: Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age (Def Jam) For a time PE's confrontational music/ideology compelled young blacks to hope that consciousness would get them somewhere, and don't think it was the limitations of Chuck's worldview that left them hanging. He never said it would be as easy as pop fans always expect, but he must have figured racism was a little more tractable than this. And when it wasn't, well, here came da gangstas--copping instant gratification for the padded jeepbeats they dealt, they talked tough and stayed out of the man's way. Taken for granted as an elder statesman by the young turks who are always coming up, resented for leading on middle-class followers who've since discovered War and Rose Royce, what can poor Chuck D. do 'cept rap in a rock and roll band? So he harangues and excoriates same as always, his dense rhetoric deep with puns, his hard beats charging you up just when you think the enamel on your bicuspids will never be the same. Despite the gangsta-dissing "So Whatcha Gone Do Now?" and the ecology-dropping "Bedlam 13:13," you know the ideas and the musical tactics too. But in the end, half these tracks dynamite the harshly layered formula one way or another and the other half reprise a great sound. Some kind of funk, I swear, and if I understand the complaints that they sound like a damn alternative rock group, well, I always did--that's one reason I love the shit out of them. A MINUS [Later]

SEBADOH: Bakesale (Sub Pop) Two decades ago, Lou Barlow might have been Eric Justin Kaz, which I hope cheers anyone who thinks progress has gone out of style. And who recognizes Kaz's name, of course--confessional songpoet, acoustic guitar buried in El Lay cliches when he tried to get his songs out there himself. Believe me, indie-rock irony improves the type. I don't much care whether these sensitive types Can Love, but at least now the mooniness is under control, and access to technology enables them to make their own noise. With guitarist Eric Gaffney a constant companion, Barlow's labyrinthine welter of demos-for-sale includes five previous so-called albums that are rarely gemless but full of songs one admirer described as "mostly written while they're being recorded and rarely played again," and in 1990, before drummer-songwriter Jason Loewenstein butted in, he was heard to derogate "the 'repeat the chorus three times' deal." Yet here, four years later, there are refrains, reiterations, hook riffs galore. The sound herks and jerks, far from the psychedoolic flow of the J Mascis aggregation where Lou first made his name, and I doubt I'll hear a catchier indie album all year--or a more visionary Unable To Love song than "Together and Alone." A MINUS [Later: A]

SUGAR: File Under: Easy Listening (Rykodisc) Loud electric guitar metaphors fall into two basic categories: attack and transport. The buzzsaw, the jackhammer, and the machine gun versus the V-8, the midnight special, and the jet airliner. Bob Mould has always been a barrage man, but here he's in takeoff mode--whether embracing girl-group doo-doo-doos and blues readymades or simply lifting heavenward, his exhilaration doesn't show much downside. The blissful "Your Favorite Thing" (see below) suggests he's running on love sweet love, suffusing even side two's breakups and putdowns with kindness and good humor. It's that impossible dream, an interesting album about happy romance. Remember power pop, all those benighted Byrdsmaniacs and tintinnabulating Rickenbackers? Now imagine it with brains and muscles. A

SUGAR: Your Favorite Thing (Rykodisc) Skinflints and formalists both, indie guys resist the digital bloat that sends most releases ballooning toward an hour, and I say good for them. The three otherwise unreleased tracks on this EP would have fit physically onto the new album but undercut it conceptually, and all the worse if few listeners would have noticed. More powerful than Beaster, less revealing than Copper Blue, this is Mould Inc. in "dark" mode. Fans will be content to pay extra for it. Admirers won't suffer if they pass it by. A MINUS [Later: B+]

MOE TUCKER: I Spent a Week There the Other Night (Sky) Tucker's genius as the found drummer in the greatest of all bohemian bands was knowing the shortest distance between two points, and she maintained the knack as a divorced mother of five who couldn't make ends meet working for a Wal-Mart in Douglas, Georgia. It's rare enough for any artist to give this American archetype its due; when the archetype turns artist, it's a gift from the pop muse. Backed by a claque that includes John Cale and two Violent Femmes on these 1991 sessions, the self-taught rhythm guitarist lays down a crude, almost skeletal rock and roll that never suggests anything so highfalutin as minimalism and says what she has to say about poverty, sloth, shyness, and the idiocy of provincial life. There's also a love song to a daughter who has trouble loving back. And an "I'm Waiting for the Man" that's pure found minimalism. A MINUS

VIOLENT FEMMES: Add It Up (1981-1993) (Slash/Reprise) No deep thinker and probably a jerk, Gordon Gano is the good-looking cad in a collegiate picaresque, putting himself across on feckless charm and endless libido. Most will grant the Femmes' 1983 debut its cult status and leave it at that, but the 19 titles otherwise unaccounted for on this typically irresponsible compilation suggest that they stayed young through the '80s. They get away with countless variations on the hoary "America is the home of the hypocrite"--"I Hate the TV," "Old Mother Reagan," "Lies," it goes on--and sell a lyric that begins and ends "Dance, motherfucker, dance!" They score with obscure erotic escapades like "Gimme the Car" and "Out the Window." And having rendered the titillating faux-folk gothic of "Country Death Song" and the rank jungle fever of "Black Girls" doubly offensive with bad-boy cuteness, they then somehow make them illustrate a shallow postfolkie primitivism they transcend by exploiting. Their demiacoustic sound the essence of inspired amateurism even when surrounded by horns, sitars, Jerry Harrison, Michael Beinhorn, they remain funny, sexy, sloppy, irreverent, unpredictable, and above all lively--still unconvinced they'll ever have to worry about their permanent record. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT: Zingalamaduni (Chrysalis/ERG) Will someone in the chart department tell us the last time the follow-up to a number-one album endured only eight weeks on the Billboard 200, topping out at 55? Although it's still alive on the r&b list, which they can claim proves a racial militance that was never in doubt or the point, this looks like a stiff of historical proportions, more evidence that their short-term commercial success was a long-term musical fraud--limp, sententious rap feel-goodism quickly forgotten once it failed to drive the scary stuff away. Maybe in another three years, five months, and two days they'll come up with another slice of life like "Tennessee"--or another guilt trip like "Mr. Wendal." But they don't have that long. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Prince, Come (Warner Bros.): porn now an annoyance, funk still a surprise ("Loose!" "Pheromone")
  • The Cucumbers, Where We Sleep Tonight (Zero Hour): almost a great pop marriage--ardent, troubled, in love with itself ("Make You Mine," "That Is That," "I Wish I Was")
  • Diggin' in the Crates: Profile Rap Classics Volume One (Profile): linear beatbox fantasias, no fresher or sillier now than they were then (Rammelzee Vs. K-Rob: "Beat Bop"; Word of Mouth Featuring D.J. Cheese: "King Kut")
  • Great Divorce Songs for Her (Warner Bros.): gals only country fans have heard of show Travis and Hank up for the blowhards they are (the Forester Sisters, "Men"; DeAnna Cox, "Never Gonna Be Your Fool Again")
  • The Auteurs, Now I'm a Cowboy (Vernon Yard): only one auteur here, and his success has gone to his songs ("Chinese Bakery," "Lenny Valentino")
  • Luna, Bewitched (Elektra): Pale Blue Eyes play ambient alternative ("Friendly Advice," "Going Home")
  • 1-800-NEW-FUNK (NPG): the princely funk-lite Warners wasn't actually too good for (MPLS, "Minneapolis"; Mavis Staples, "You Will Be Moved")
  • SF Seals, Baseball Trilogy (Matador): .667 ("Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," "The Ballad of Denny McLain")
  • The Raincoats, Extended Play (Smells Like): sui generis after all these years ("Don't Be Mean," "No One's Little Girl")
  • Moe Tucker, Dogs Under Stress (Sky): saying less with more ("I Wanna," "Crackin Up")
Choice Cuts:
  • No Safety, "Balm" (Live at the Knitting Factory, Knitting Factory Works)
  • The Puppies, "Do Our Own Thang," "Funky Y-T-C," "Summer Delight" (The Puppies, Chaos/Columbia)
  • Buster Poindexter, "The Worst Beer I Ever Had" (Buster's Happy Hour, Forward)
  • Violent Femmes, "Don't Start Me on the Liquor" (New Times, Elektra)
  • Lisa Germano, Happiness (4AD)
  • Sophie B. Hawkins, Whaler (Columbia)
  • Ice Cube, Lethal Injection (Priority)
  • Billy Joel, River of Dreams (Columbia)
  • Mazzy Star, So Tonight That I May See (Capitol)

Village Voice, Sept. 13, 1994

July 26, 1994 Oct. 18, 1994