Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

I've always advocated enjoying good music where you find it, but this edition of the Consumer Guide is ridiculous. Except for a late, hedged appreciation of Stephin Merritt and a dancehall record that may break out of its ghetto, the only selection that isn't hopelessly obscure is my Dud of the Month. Two are live. Three are multi-artist compilations. Three are old. Good hunting.

BUJU BANTON: 'Til Shiloh (Loose Cannon) Even if you find the male voice dancehall has unleashed on the world as incomprehensible in its brawny macho as in its machine-gun patois, the way it embraces contradictions of pride and arrogance, class and gender, strength and menace ends up being more original, powerful, and distinctive than the beats it rode in on. Banton's gay-bashing "Boom Bye-Bye" remains one of that voice's vilest moments. But nobody out there commands a huger growl--Buju could whisper sweet nothings to the World Bank and be a hero by force of physical endowment alone. So I'm grateful for the maturity he vaunts at 23. There is one about the size of his other physical endowment, which he hooks to Maurice Williams's "Stay" just in case. But let the guy have his fun. He can carry a tune, pick a hook, choose a collaborator (a few more cameos like this and the whole world will mourn Garnett Silk). And everywhere else here he articulates empathy, vulnerability, and concern, personalizing and politicizing a style of conscience that comes naturally to the 15th child of a Maroon family. The most fully accomplished reggae album since the prime of Black Uhuru. A MINUS

MARSHALL CHAPMAN: It's About Time . . . Recorded Live at the Tennessee State Prison for Women (Margaritaville) She's a real smart gal who was raised to be a lady, and how she ended up in this godforsaken venue connects to the prison doctor she settled down with after a lost decade and then some of sleeping with guitarists and four years of sleeping alone. His love song is the only soggy moment on this half-retrospective half-showcase. Some of her references--jet sets, self-help books, money-making machines--seem beyond her captive audience's ken. But old charges like "Booze in Your Blood" and "Bad Debt" stick. And new ones like "Good-Bye Forever" and "Alabama Bad" leave no doubt that she still understands her great subject: why she didn't grow up to be a lady. A MINUS

FOR THE LOVE OF HARRY: EVERYBODY SINGS NILSSON (MusicMasters) He was so great he can make Jimmy Webb and Steve Forbert sound interesting, Aimee Mann and Marc Cohn sound enduring, Jennifer Trynin and Ron Sexsmith sound like you should know who they are. He was so great Fred Schneider ain't funnier and the Roches ain't spacier. He was so great you'll play one of these things from beginning to end--twice, even more, for the fun of it. B PLUS

HEAVENS TO BETSY: Calculated (Kill Rock Stars) Corin Tucker is too self-aware about how "fucked up" she is to take her own rage at face value. But because she's also convinced that "everything is fucked up," she's sure her rage is here to stay, something she and the world will have to deal with, thus obliging her to imbue it with intelligible form. Lyrics are crucial--her counterattacks on sexual predators are variously voiced and passionately felt, and "Waitress Hell" should raise tips all over Grrrlland. But the clincher is the noise she and her guitar make along with bassist-drummer Tracy Sawyer--controlled, fierce, a deliberate, powerful punk derivative that's built for discomfort, not for speed. A MINUS

BETTY HUTTON: Spotlight on . . . Betty Hutton (Capitol) Her father walked out when she was two and killed himself soon enough; her mother was a factory worker turned bootlegger turned alcoholic. She joined Vincent Lopez's band at 15, threw him over a couple of years later, and signed with Hollywood's newly formed Capitol label in 1942 at age 21. She cut all 17 of these tracks in the '40s, and although her career extended into the '60s, what with drugs, booze, bankruptcy, a failed suicide, and, eventually, God, it didn't get better. People who think slow signifies serious compliment Hutton's ballads, but then, people who think brass signifies class praise Paul Weston's horns. What endures in her music is its kid's pizzazz--sassy spunk and uptempo jive that wisecrack right past the melody sometimes. With special help from Frank Loesser's vernacular, she's the cornfed blonde next door as backslapping joker-around, and she buys no bullshit. She makes fun of factory work, motherhood, marriage; she spoofs Shakespeare, barely respects Irving Berlin, and has a ball with "Papa Don't Preach to Me." So what if she was a movie star? Paul Weston notwithstanding, she's as rock and roll as Ruth Brown or Ella Mae Morse--and she has better material. A MINUS

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS: The Charm of the Highway Strip (Merge) Those who haven't already memorized Stephin Merritt's oeuvre will have to expend real effort acquiring a taste for him this late in the game, so they might as well experience the full glory of his eccentricity. The 6ths' album isn't just for his cult but by it, and Holiday may mislead the unwary into believing there's some warmth to him. This is where his dolorously impassive baritone and fugueing toy keyboards are at their most anonymous, original, tuneful, and forbidding. Since every single lyric mentions roads or trains, call it his concept album about escape, probably from himself. Even though it isn't where he rhymes "Coney Island" and "prostitutes in Thailand," it's verbal enough to inspire willing workers to decipher the lyric sheet, and its sonic identity takes the Casio demo to unheard of extremes--like something conceived by a Martian who'd read about country music in The New Grove but didn't happen to own any guitars. B PLUS

HARRY NILSSON: Personal Best: The Harry Nilsson Anthology (RCA) Nilsson didn't just share an aesthetic with the Apple-era Beatles who loved him so much--he embodied that aesthetic. Utterly studio-bound, conceiving rock as a facet of pop, proud to be fey yet also proud to pound out the unprecedented lines "You're breakin' my heart/You're tearin' it apart/So fuck you," he was as fluent as songwriting got in the '60s, turning out White Album outtakes like "Salmon Falls" and "All I Think About Is You" well after his doppelganger Paul had died of whimsy and his soulmate John had discovered his roots. This double-CD is mercifully short on such marginalia; the soundtrack one-offs and previously unreleaseds that make the cut are top-drawer. Except for the three Gordon Jenkins schmaltzfests, the covers are gorgeous. And from the autobiographical "1941" to the superschlock "Without Her" to such trademark eccentricities-not-novelties as "Coconut" and "Joy" and "The Most Beautiful World in the World," the high points are ephemeral and transcendent. A

ONLY THE POORMAN FEEL IT: SOUTH AFRICA (Hemisphere) Relying on EMI-affiliated artists with longterm pop ambitions, this modern mbaqanga compilation seems decisively postapartheid even though not all of it is that recent. What once might have sounded like a forced identification with a contemptuous oppressor now seems more like a forced expropriation of the oppressor's cultural capital. The great moments come from 25-year expatriate Busi Mhlongo, whose only solo album begins with the same seven-minute flight of exultant woman power that kicks off this record, and urbane revolutionary Mzwakhe Mbuli, who praises a 19th-century African king to a 21st-century African arrangement. But the glitzy production extras sound as township as the kwela fiddles throughout. A MINUS

TECHNOTRONIC: Recall (SBK/EMI) Jo Bogaert and Patrick De Meyer prove Eurodisco is a producer's music on "2 U X," an instrumental that sets me strutting every time it sneaks up--which it can do because I tune out all the guy singer's exhortations until Ya Kid K (or is that Daisy D.?) picks him up midway through "I Want You by My Side." So if the guy's cuts fade and the girls' take me to techno church, maybe the secret of this spiritual uplift for secular people isn't Bogaert and De Meyer after all. Maybe it's a gift from the girls. A MINUS [Later]

TURNTABLE TASTEMAKERS ISSUE NO. 1: THE SOUND OF CLEVELAND CITY RECORDINGS (Moonshine Music) Rarely if ever has steady-state techno sustained so unfailingly for the length of a compilation. Jungle-ish in its body-friendly moderation if not its unexotic sonic range, a single U.K. label's telling hooks, medium-fast mean tempo, and simple, humane, faintly Caribbean beats pull in the impartial listener rather than beating the hesitant dancer over the tympanum. Let the fogeys snort when I wonder whether it can really remind me of Booker T. & the M.G.'s. A MINUS

DON WHITE: Live at the Somerville Theatre (Lyric Moon) Of the 11 cuts on this debut CD, only six are songs, because this 37-year-old Massachusetts home alarm system installer is my favorite kind of folksinger--a comedian. His laugh lines wear down like anybody else's, but not before he's poked holes in both the working-stiffs-if-they're-lucky of Lynn, where he comes from, and the folkies-if-anything of . . . what's that fancy name they call Harvard? Macadamia? . . . for whom an employee of America's largest marshmallow fluff factory is as exotic as a native of Fiji. And not before he's convinced me his 16-year marriage has a reasonable shot at 60. B PLUS [Later: A-]

Dud of the Month

BJORK: Post (Elektra) This well-regarded little item rekindles my primeval suspicion of Europeans who presume to "improve" on rock and roll (or for that matter Betty Hutton, originator of the best song here). I don't miss the Sugarcubes' guitars per se so much as their commitment to the groove, which--sporadic though it would remain, Iceland not being one of your blues hotbeds--might shore up the limited but real intrinsic interest of her eccentric instrumentation, electronic timbres, etc. Then there's her, how shall I say it, self-involved vocal devices. Which brings us to, right, her lyrics, which might hit home harder if she'd grown up speaking the English she'll die singing, but probably wouldn't. Anybody out there remember Dagmar Krause? German, Henry Cow, into artsong and proud of it? Well, take my word for it. She was no great shakes either. But at least she had politics. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Magnetic Fields, Holiday (Feels Good All Over): more songs about songs and songs ("Swinging London," "Strange Powers")
  • Muffs, Blonder and Blonder (Reprise): and a damn fine formula it is ("Agony," "Oh Nina")
  • Rancid, Let's Go (Epitaph): scattershot rads in the U.S.A. ("Harry Bridges," "Burn")
  • The Roches, Can We Go Home Now (Rykodisc): domestic nonviolence, subtly sublimated for your tranquil contemplation ("My Winter Coat," "I'm Someone Who Loves You")
  • Ini Kamoze, Here Comes the Hotstepper (Columbia): belated one-shot occasions belated mid-'80s comp as belated minor Sly & Robbie album ("Here Comes the Hotstepper," "Rough")
  • Street Jams: Hip Hop From the Top--Part 4 (Rhino): circa-'85 novelty comp that tops out on three nasty-girl rarities (Super Nature, "The Show Stoppa (Is Stupid Fresh)"; Roxanne Shanté, "Bite This"; Symbolic Three, Featuring D.J. Dr. Shock, "No Show")
  • The 6ths, Wasps' Nests (London): cavalcade of drips ("San Diego Zoo," "Pillow Fight," "Heaven in a Black Leather Jacket")
  • Black Stalin, Rebellion (Ice): democratic opinion ina bacchanal style ("All Saints Road," "Nation of Importers")
  • Percy Sledge, Blue Night (Sky Ranch/Pointblank): out of left field ("You Got Away With Love, "Why Did You Stop")
  • Shabba Ranks, A Mi Shabba (Epic): crossover beats, crossover 'tude--hey, "You do me and I do you" ("Ram Dancehall," "Let's Get It On")
  • Neil Young, Mirror Ball (Reprise): baby he was born to lumber--and Pearl Jam wasn't ("Downtown")
  • The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, The Anti-Naturalists (Triple X): and a damn fine formula it is, "decadent" (glam?) division ("Pawn Shop," "Gotta Get My Eyes Done") [Later: Neither]
Choice Cuts:
  • Terror Fabulous, "Action" (Yaga Yaga, EastWest)
  • Wayne Kramer, "Crack in the Universe," "Incident on Stock Island" (The Hard Stuff, Epitaph)
  • L7 & Joan Jett, "Cherry Bomb"; Babes in Toyland, "More . . . More . . . More (Pt. 1)"; Letters to Cleo, "Dreams" (Spirit of '73: Rock for Choice, 550 Music/Epic)
  • Todd Snider, "Easy Money," "Alright Guy" (Songs for the Daily Planet, MCA/Margaritaville)
  • Laura Love, "Less Is More" (The Laura Love Collection, Putumayo World Music)
  • Better Than Ezra, Deluxe (Elektra)
  • Butt Trumpet, Primitive Enema (Chrysalis/EMI)
  • The Robert Cray Band, Some Rainy Morning (Mercury)
  • Syl Johnson, Back in the Game (Delmark)
  • Lois, Bet the Sky (K)
  • Slant 6, Inzombia (Dischord)
  • Slant 6, Soda Pop Rip Off (Dischord)
  • Smoking Popes, Born to Quit (Capitol)
  • Snap, Welcome to Tomorrow (Arista)

Village Voice, Aug. 29, 1995

July 11, 1995 Oct. 24, 1995