Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

As has happened before during my annual two-weeks-in-the-country, I returned to the city with an unnatural interest in country music. Wouldn't have happened without my Pick Hit, which I figured for a hype job until I got around to putting it on. But there was more where that came from.

AFRICAN ACOUSTIC VOL. 2: KENYA DRY . . . (Original Music) "Dry" is what Africans call acoustic guitar, and for the first side, which samples tribal languages before homing in on Swahili, this collection of '50s rarities sounds like a sweetly typical folk-song collection--just happens to be out of Africa is all. But as the B progressed through catchy little guitar tunes and relaxed harmony groups I got a more specific vibe, and when the notes adduced African heroes Jimmie Rodgers and Jim Reeves I decided I was right. Fans of string bands, bluegrass, and other old-time country music: if you find polyrhythms daunting, boring, or whatever, this could be your way in. B PLUS

BABYFACE: Tender Lover (Solar) Though Teddy Riley got the credit, the streetwise sweets of new jack love man Bobby Brown were mostly this producer's doing, and for his star turn he dispenses with the new jack--comes packaged as the title concept, with no prerogatives and not too many fast ones to spoil the fantasy. I mean, after he gets home from work, fantasy enough in the age of structural unemployment, he promises to cook dinner too. This would have serious attractions as a corrective to the sexist fantasies of hip-hop if there was any reason to think neo-B-boys would listen. But it's my guess they'll just take "Whip Appeal" literally and figure the guy for a bondage freak. B

BATMAN (Warner Bros.) Packaging this as a soundtrack is as ridiculous as complaining that there's only six minutes of Prince in the movie, because its movie exists only in Prince's head--his six minutes of soul are a distraction from Tim Burton's nostalgic ominoso futurism, which Danny Elfman's otherwise useless score expertly evokes. "The Future" is Prince's most visionary piece since "When Doves Cry," and as aural objects, all the others are more than passable. Yet they are really designed for a movie, and all of them--especially the received "Partyman" and the subpoignant "Vicki Waiting"--cry out for the focus of Prince's unrealized alternate version. Hence, what "Batdance" deconstructs is mainly itself. B PLUS [Later]

B-52'S: Cosmic Thing (Reprise) AIDS having robbed them of their most essential musician, this is an almost touchingly brave attempt to dance away from the edge of ecocatastrophe. Earthquakes, tidal waves, bushfires, waste dumps, toxic fog, maybe even that Chrysler big as a whale are counterposed to and in theory renewed by positive natural forces--junebugs, spaceships, cosmic vibes, an expanding universe, poor rebellious kids having innocent fun. They're trying to be seriously silly, and they're right to believe serious silliness is a healer. But between Ricky Wilson's guitar and the permanent defeat his loss doesn't merely signify, they can't quite bring it off. It's enough to make a grown man cry. B

CLINT BLACK: Killin' Time (RCA) He's got good looks, fondly crafted songs, and a trenchant if anonymous voice, subtle even for Nashville neotraditional. Buoyantly in love on "Straight from the Factory," he quickly follows with as gracious a breakup song as you could hope to hear. Yet though she may have left him "A Better Man," he's not together enough to live without her. So for the rest of the album he spends a lot of time in bars--every one subtly and trenchantly evoked, of course. B PLUS [Later: A-]

BURNING SPEAR: Live in Paris (Slash) Where once Winston Rodney was Spear, here Spear is Rodney's since disbanded band. Thrills and chills come from brass belles and caustic guitar and chameleon keybs, while Rodney's indistinguishable exhortations provide essential atmosphere--a physically compelling aural environment. Kind of like the rhythm section. B PLUS

COOKIE CREW: Born This Way (FFRR) The Wee Papa Girls sound more English, but the Cooks have the spunk; dissed sisters and boys-do-it-better notwithstanding, this is the first U.K. rap album worth bragging about. Davy D's stutterstep "From the South" is the only departure, but Daddy-O oversees the music with his usual pride of craft, getting a long overdue hook out of Edwin Starr and one more grunt out of the ever-bountiful JB. Conclusion: boys don't do it better, but Americans still do. B PLUS

DO THE RIGHT THING (Motown) Though Spike Lee may romanticize blackness, neoreactionaries are bullshitting when they claim he romanticizes black rage. On his most coherently contemporary piece of aural upward mobility, he centers Afro-America's great tradition in soul, with Stevie Wonder a key influence; the rage begins and ends with "Fight the Power" and is countered by Take 6's postgospel "Don't Shoot Me" ("I didn't mean to step on your sneakers"). Guy and EU give Spike primo new stuff for the rhythmic-wonderland side, but only Ruben Blades fully transcends the songwriting problems on the vocal-riches side--problems that begin and maybe end with de facto producer Raymond Jones. B PLUS

EPMD: Unfinished Business (Fresh) The full-sized hooks and understated groove still mesh, but fame has rendered this self-made duo less brazen and more arrogant simultaneously. The real money (and pussy) they now boast doesn't suit them any better than the increasing subtlety of their steals--they need tunes, not just beats. But beyond the humble origins described in "Please Listen to My Demo" and the dramatized public service announcement "You Had Too Much To Drink," the overriding idea seems to be that stars can do it themselves. Which is the usual half-truth. B PLUS

GHOSTBUSTERS II (MCA) My child having commandeered the thing a hundred times in the past six months, I've come to admire (nay, love) the candor and minimalism of Ray Parker's original "Ghostbusters"--making no bones about its own silliness, it does its job with efficient good humor, where Bobby Brown's "On Our Own" bogs down in plot-hyping talk of proton packs and children's parties. Though not all the entries here are equally egregious, the movie dominates the cross-promotion. It's almost like 10 different versions of "Ben," albeit with better music--and also worse. B MINUS

JIMMIE DALE GILMORE (Hightone) Cut in Joe Ely's basement, Gilmore's 1988 debut sank or swam with his rather pinched delivery, so if it contained anything as gorgeous as Gilmore-Hancock's "See the Way" and "When the Nights Are Cold," there was no way to know it. Cut in Nashville, this one beefs up both voice and settings. The imagistic honky tonk of Gilmore's "Dallas" and Hancock's "Red Chevrolet" are why poets manque like steel guitars. Mel Tillis is tapped for a sneakily oblique opener. And the rest is the kind of principled professionalism that's made Randy Travis a heartthrob. A MINUS [Later]

NANCI GRIFFITH: Storms (MCA) Having gained her precious country credibility, she promptly released a live acoustic best-of. Now she asks the never-say-die Glyn Johns to . . . what? Turn her into Suzanne Vega? I don't know. But I expect she thinks it has something to do with art. C PLUS

MERLE HAGGARD: 5:01 Blues (Epic) It wouldn't be strictly accurate to claim Haggard has pissed his talent away, but the temptation to say so anyhow beckons. His laid-back vocal signature is the lazy man's friend. His originals suggest that he has no reject pile--just entunes any old piece of verse for the annual session. And again and again his famous ecumenicism camouflages lame genre excursions--on this album, the Bellamy-reggae "Sea of Heartbreak." A slight improvement over 1988's feckless Out Among the Stars, due mostly to a formulaic title tune Hag didn't write. But if he thinks he isn't getting away with shit, he needs a shrink. C PLUS

REDHEAD KINGPIN AND THE F.B.I.: A Shade of Red (Virgin) Proud Jeffersons fan, casual abortion foe, his stupid fresh showing the occasional expiration date, this Englewood eclectic stores his brains somewhere near his ass, where his beats do his thinking for him--first couple of cuts'll have you bopping so happy all you'll care is that he doesn't stammer or sass your mama. Both were mixed and arranged by Teddy Riley, whose salutary effect on Red's mind-body continuum is evinced by his alternating presence and absence throughout. B

LORRIE MORGAN: Leave the Light On (RCA) With Reba McEntire coming on perkier than Donna Fargo and various young pretenders folkies in disguise, the pseudostrings of this Tammy Wynette-styled throwback are traditional enough to suit me. She'll stand by her man, but not as his love slave, and if "Out of Your Shoes" would betray a sisterly premise for a roll in the hay, the unprecedented "He Talks to Me," which climaxes with afterwords, is compensation. B

ROLLING STONES: Steel Wheels (Rolling Stones) All rancor and bad vibes, Dirty Work was the Stones; all impartiality and bad boys grown up, the reunion is an amazing simulation. Charlie's groove enlivens--and IDs--the mature sentiments while gibes at "conscience" and "reason" hint obliquely at self-awareness. But for Mick, self-awareness means above all accepting one's status as a pop star. Maybe he thinks "So get off the fence/It's creasing your butt" saves "Mixed Emotions" from its own conventionality. Probably he thinks giving Keith two vocals is democracy and roots. Certainly he thinks he needs the money. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. B MINUS

DOUG SAHM: Juke Box Music (Antone's) Alive and well well well--I've never heard him in better voice than on this unexpected r&b record. Not a cleaning-up song in the carload, either. But there's also only one original after an eight-year dry spell, and though I'm happy to hear from him again, I hope the followup isn't more Tex-Mex for the white blues circuit. I also hope there's a followup. B PLUS

SOUL II SOUL: Keep On Movin' (Virgin) "A happy face/And a pumping bass/For a loving race" wouldn't bother anybody if these Londoners didn't take dread in vain--with hair like that you're supposed to be more, you know, cultural. But for a disco band they're quite all right, really--very tuneful, with a nice loping groove and vocals out of Chic and Eddy Grant. And though I wish they liked saxophones, the flute is them. B PLUS [Later]

RANDY TRAVIS: No Holdin' Back (Warner Bros.) Travis doesn't get lucky on this one, which is dragged like most country albums by its quota of ordinary--maybe "Singing the Blues" is uncoverable. But after kicking off with a Richard Perry-produced "It's Just a Matter of Time" that apes and aces Brook Benton's original, side two reminds us why Travis is currently the genre's ranking pro--the tunes and turns just keep on coming. B PLUS [Later]

KEITH WHITLEY: I Wonder Do You Think of Me (RCA) Already 33, Whitley was just finding himself professionally when he died of acute alcohol poisoning while completing his fourth album last April, and where the hell he was hiding his voice beats me. Supple, resonant, deeply relaxed, he cuts Travis, Anderson, and Haggard physically, and productionwise he's harder than any of them, ranging easily across all the purist subgenres except the bluegrass that gave him his start. With songs to match from the likes of Curly Putnam, Sanger Shafer, Bill Rice, this could have been 1989's Old 8 X 10, with stringencies of formula serving only to keep the music on course. Instead it'll probably inspire another stupid suicide legend. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Finally, three best-ofs, still the natural configuration of a singles music. Beyond three classic originals--"Seven Year Ache," "Hold On," and "I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me"--Rosanne Cash's Hits 1979-1989 (Columbia) is a touch cute, languid, soft, and it fairly depicts the decade's premier interpretive singer nonetheless. Dwight Yoakam's Just Lookin' for a Hit (Reprise) plots a neorowdy's escape from country radio by adding memorable covers of "Sin City" and "Long White Cadillac" to a honky-tonk-slanted distillation of his three albums. And Hank Williams Jr.'s Greatest Hits III (Warner Bros.) almost makes you think the CMA has a point--the "Ain't Misbehavin'" isn't gratuitous, the miracle-of-science duet with his dad isn't dead, the star-studded "Mind Your Own Business" swings like a mother, the autobiography is good shtick, and the country songs are good country songs. Let it also be noted that James Talley's long-lost Got No Bread has finally been reissued, on a Bear Family CD.

Village Voice, Oct. 3, 1989

Sept. 5, 1989 Oct. 31, 1989