Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
African Connection

Two techno comps, a country-rock best-of, some lounge authenticity, and what? The African connection, that's what. West Africa and Cuba, to be more specific. Slim pickings in rock proper these days, rap included. This figures to change. But one never knows, does one?

BAOBAB: N'Wolof (Dakar Sound import) A mere 3800 miles west of the contemporaneous Éthiopiques sessions, the-original-is-still-the-greatest Senegalese salsa band surveys its turf after hiring leather-lunged Laye M'Boup to up their trad cred with his Wolof blues. Sometimes the grooves bounce and sway on their poky three-and-two, sometimes they pace soulfully forward. Either way the voice holds--first time the soon-renowned Thione Seck takes a lead, the record briefly disappears. So all praise to M'Boup, dead in a car crash in 1974. And to saxophonist Issa Cissokho and guitarist Barthelemy Attiso, whose band it was. A MINUS [Later]

CASA DE LA TROVA (Detour) Even when the musicians have a drop taken, there's nothing bacchanalian about this survey of the poetic, composed Cuban folk songs it designates trova. Their clave subsumed in guitars and the occasional chamber orchestra, they're formal, precise, intensely romantic, old-fashioned, crotchety. All the singers are stylists, and sticklers for harmonic detail, and though only the 70-ish sisters Faez, tart as grand-aunts and weird as widows in a haunted house, command one-of-a-kind deliveries, the vocal variety keeps you alert. Call it the Buenas Vozes Hearts Club Band and hire a film crew. A MINUS

ESTRELLAS DE ARIETO: Los Heroes (World Circuit/Nonesuch) An amazing story. In 1979, a Paris-based Ivoirian bizzer convinced Cuba's state record company to convene a cross-generational all-star band, and for a week some 30 musicians and over a dozen singers jammed in combinations dictated by a trombone-playing a&r man. The five albums that resulted stiffed in Cuba except among musos, although they were a hit in Venezuela. But don't think the jams didn't jell. These two CDs, a mere 14 cuts lasting two-and-a-half hours, grant a second life to what was obviously a blessed event. Simple heads-plus-improvs dominated by tres and violins, the first disc is one of those rare records that nails such pieties as the joy of music-making and the pleasure of the groove--the way Layla does, or, if you'll pardon my obscurities, Delaney & Bonnie's Motel Shot or the first side of Marc Benno's Ambush. The convergence of relaxation and exhilaration, teamwork and exhibitionism, skill and fun, is nothing less than utopian, which in Cuba, where utopia was a bitter memory, may have been hard to take. The second disc overemphasizes the strident trumpets adored by Cubans who want to be modern. The first one makes me want to send Ry Cooder an ironic thank-you note. A MINUS [Later]

ÉTHIOPIQUES 3 (Buda Music import) The instant cachet of a five-CD series documenting the 1969-1978 run of the only record label in Addis Ababa did not reflect the irresistibility of its parts. I doubt any reviewer bonded with many individual songs/tracks even on this superior volume, not after the three or four listens preceding publication and probably not ever. Because Ethiopia was its peculiar self--an uncolonized absolute monarchy so insensible to indigenous music that its national anthem was composed by an Armenian--the set also does without such world-music boons as love of the past, belief in the future, and lust for conquest. As the soundscape to a locale undiscovered by squarer, older tourists, however, it obviously has its uses, especially for an alt generation that's always mistrusted organic ecstasy. I've never encountered a more neurotic-sounding Third World sensibility. Its m.o. is to mush up Middle East, Africa, and Europe for a small-time power elite you can almost see--anxious young traffickers in court intrigue sitting around smoky, well-appointed clubs where petit-bourgeois artistes strive to give them a thrill. And just often enough, the organic--imbued with melody or hook or vocal commitment or instrumental synergy, only to be tempered and twisted by an endemic uncertainty--peeps through. B PLUS

JOHN HIATT: The Best of John Hiatt (Capitol) Master of a Nashville-Memphis fusion that is all of rock and roll to his own generation and totally cornball to the next, this Springsteen-writ-small has always yoked Grade A songwriting to Brand X singing, and by now it's clear the limitation is as much intellectual as physical. Almost every individual selection here connects, the wedding plea "Have a Little Faith in Me" no less than the bank-robbing saga "Tennessee Plates." But though one doesn't negate the other--life is long, and various--Hiatt's ever more skillful shows of soul can't make them cohere, because at bottom he has nothing to say. All things considered, he might have been better off with less voice, not more. Then he wouldn't have been tempted to juggle career options on that endless road. He'd have settled into the well-heeled life of a Music Row pro. Alan Jackson would record his songs. B PLUS

ALBERT KING WITH STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN: In Session (Stax) About a year later, in October 1984, Vaughan would throw a birthday party at Carnegie Hall with his brother Jimmy, Dr. John, and the Roomful of Blues horns. This was just a Canadian TV taping with the stalwart bluesman, who barely remembered jamming with the skinny young kid in Austin years before. With Vaughan dead (oh right, King too), both these events are now CD-available for keepsake-hungry fans. Rockers always overrated Albert King, whose broad aesthetic was longer on power than definition, but here his presence has a quieting effect on his disciple, who in the end did far more with a closely related aesthetic. And since King is the putative star, we get his repertoire, a big problem with the endless Vaughan reissue program, and his singing, less than classic but stronger than Stevie's. So to my surprise, this is the one to wear around your neck. A MINUS [Later]

LIQUID TODD: Action (Ultra) Former college sportswriter Todd Wilkinson didn't get to host K-Rock's syndicated Saturday-night mix show by pumping exotica. The interlocking beats and catch-phrases of his first mix CD aren't what any Z-100 fan would call pop, but they're cheap, effective, and party-hearty enough to insure fun-fun-fun from beginning to end, which is more than Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers, or Fratboy Slim himself has managed. Having gotten our attention with the church-bell tune of Mike & Charlie's "I Get Live," he cedes the floor to Norman Cook for five minutes and we're off to the races. The ebullience flags as ass-shaking turns endurance contest, but never settles for the functionalist minimalism this supposedly hedonistic scene runs on. Compiling such an hour from the tens of thousands of hours of techno product out there ought to be easy. I've begun dozens of CDs that prove it isn't. A MINUS [Later]

LOS VAN VAN: La Collección Cubana (Music Club) These dozen tracks from the decade-plus following Milan Latino's comp, including two redone on Mango's Songo, reinforce my suspicion that Cuba's essential postcharangists only got better as they went along. The songs roll their hips for an extra minute or two, which never hurts when the grooves are so sexy, and the comedy comes through even if you don't understand one word in 50 ("Hey, playa, I know that one, and they sure say mas a lot, must be what they want"). I also appreciate the synth splats on "De La Habanas A Matanzas." And the two minutes of percussion--most definitely including their secret weapon, vocal percussion--that is "Llegada." A [Later]

TAJ MAHAL AND TOUMANI DIABATE: Kulanjan (Hannibal) No longer does Mahal talk a bigger African diaspora than he walks. He deserves his top billing, but every other musician on this piece of serendipity is a West African retrofitting a simple little studio in Athens GA. Like the guitar hot shot he'd have turned into Stateside, costar Diabate is a virtuoso and nothing more, and his Manding songs are mostly some kind of change. But when his kora echoes the happy-hollering "Ol' Georgie Buck" or the deep-Delta "Catfish Blues," those straightforward old blues take on a filigree Diabate's percussive confederates can go to work on. And when Mahal's piano strides beneath the balafon of a Diabate named Lasana, the rhythms canter so comically you wonder who said open sesame. A MINUS

FRANK SINATRA: Sinatra '57--In Concert (DCC) The big deal about the new George Jones record is supposed to be that, due to his near-death experience, he didn't get to overdub the vocals. He should have. One of the few better singers in this century was also a perfectionist cautious about preserving his live shows. Of those officially released so far, including the 1959 date with Red Norvo, this is the most impressive, its lighter and less precise attack good for a a grace that's rarely so prominent in the studio work. The audio is exquisite, the repertoire is choice, the excellent Nelson Riddle arrangements are mixed way below the voice, CD technology lets you zap his monologue, and just to affirm our common humanity, he hits a clinker on "My Funny Valentine." A MINUS [Later]

Y2K: BEAT THE CLOCK (Columbia) Starts out blatant--it don't get blatanter than "Rockafeller Skank"--and then, generously, remains that way for half its allotted 73 minutes: quality Prodigy, that Wildchild song everyone loved last summer, Crystal Method's reason for existence. Second half's less enlightened if equally obvious: "Lost in Space," "Born Slippy," Björk remix, Orb edit, spanking-new remake of Sparks' prophetically annoying and exciting title song. In short, all the big beat an adherent of the first big beat need own. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

JUAN CARLOS FORMELL: Songs From a Little Blue House (Wicklow) I knew he was the son of Los Van Van's big man first time I played his blandly pretty folk-jazz and chalked its bloodlessness up to "world music"--the suburban New Age crap first harbingered when Kenny Rankin discovered chromatic chords in Marin County 30 years ago. Not until later did I read that the younger Formell had "literally re-defined the concept of Cuban music," only the Commies wouldn't let him so he went into exile, only then he suffered "rejection" "in some communities here in America too." Self-pity being folk music's universal solvent, my own suspicion is that said communities, if they exist at all, didn't dig his clave. Really, JC--I don't care whether you like Castro. I'm a major El Duque fan. I just think you're a wimp. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Missy Misdemeanor Elliott, Da Real World (The Gold Mind, Inc./EastWest): no more Missy Nice Girl ("Busa Rhyme," "Smooth Chick")
  • Bottle Rockets, Brand New Year (Doolittle/Mercury): bitchin rock move, but any band that boasts about not using a calculator cares less about history than it believes ("Gotta Get Up," "Headed for the Ditch")
  • African Salsa (Stern's/Earthworks): in Wolof, both the consonants and the clave are harsher (Pape Fall, "African Salsa"; Super Cayor de Dakar, "Xamsa Bopp")
  • Los Lobos, This Time (Hollywood): chewing their cud for one album too long ("Oh, Yeah," "Corazon")
  • Candido Fabré, Poquito a Poco (Candela): violins loud like horns ("Bailando con Otro," "La Mano en el Arazón")
  • Éthiopiques 1 (Buda Musique import): notes from an aborted pop scene (Muluqèn Mèllèssè, "Wètètié maré"; Sèyfu Yohannès, "Tezeta")
  • The Pernice Brothers, Overcome by Happiness (Sub Pop): if the Hollies had created pop so pretty and morbid it would have been genius, but these sad sacks are just doing what comes naturally ("Monkey Suit," "Chicken Wire")
  • Ibrahim Ferrer, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer (Nonesuch/World Circuit): at 72, he has the right to take it easy--and luckily, also the ability ("Marieta," "Bruta Maniguá")
  • Beth Orton, Central Reservation (Arista): so she wasn't techno after all--glad we got that straight ("Stolen Car," "Central Reservation [Original Version]")
  • Éthiopiques 4 (Buda Musique import): Booker T. and Ramsey Lewis trade concepts over a drummer who first laid eyes on a trap set last month--Ethiopian-style, mais oui (Mulatu Astatqué, "Yèkèrmo sèw," "Mètché Dershé")
  • Éthiopiques 2 (Buda Musique import): barest, craziest, sexiest, least melodic, least grooveful, most Arabic (Tigist Assèfa, "Toutouyé"; Malèfya Tèka, "Indè Lyèruzalèm")
  • Linton Kwesi Johnson, More Time (LKJ): most poetic when he's most quotidian ("If I Waz a Tap Natch Poet," "Reggae Fi Bernard")
  • Freedy Johnston, Blue Days Black Nights (Elektra): Sinatra he's not--maybe not Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen either ("Depending on the Night," "Changed Your Mind")
Choice Cuts:
  • Tsèhaytu Bèraki, "Aminèy" (Éthiopiques 5, Buda Musique import)
  • Lunachicks, "I'll Be the One" (Luxury Problem, Go-Kart)
  • Jack Knight, "Who Do You Love" (Gypsy Blues, Universal)
  • Toumani Diabate With Balaka Sissoko, New Ancient Strings (Rykodisc)
  • Gloria Estefan, Gloria! (Epic)
  • Irakere, La Collección Cubana (Music Club)
  • Mase, Double Up (Bad Boy)
  • Mu-Ziq, Royal Astronomy (Astralwerks)
  • Mu-Ziq, Urmur Bile Tracks Volume 1 Volume 2 (Astralwerks)
  • Ned Sublette, Cowboy Rumba (Palm Pictures)

Village Voice, Sept. 7, 1999

July 27, 1999 Oct. 26, 1999