Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Here begins an experiment that more or less coincides with Pantheon's revised and expanded compilation of '80s Consumer Guides. I'm not tired of writing the column any more than I was tired of editing the music section six years ago, but again I've come to recognize what the work takes out of me. So I'm reorganizing my energies. Another column under the revived title Rock & Roll & will give me a chance to discuss issues and artists at greater length. The heading on this one will probably remain Consumer Guide, but what I've been calling it in my mind ever since I conceived it is the A List.

Two propositions, then. First, the most wearisome part of this job I invented for myself it telling the adequate from the mediocre--from low B plus down to middle B minus, as I would say. Better records are always fun to listen to, worse ones at least at least fun to make fun of. In between lies an infinity of distinctions that are soul-sapping to pin down even when they're of critical interest. I believe in criticism, and assume my readers do too. But to proceed to proposition number two, I also assume people read the Consumer Guide for consumer guidance, and while I know for a fact that acerbic reservations do steer prospective buyers away from adequate-to-mediocre music, I figure it's recommendations they're looking for. So from here on in, with time out at Thanksgiving for a Turkey Shoot, I'm reviewing only records that have repaid my active interest--A's, and a few high B pluses. Tastes differ. But if a review intrigues you, I bet you like the record that goes with it.

This theory has holes in it, foremost the likelihood that what people really read this column for is yucks--it's harder to be funny about music you admire. It's also harder to be terse, and though math whizzes may have noted that the design djinns have already reduced my immemorial quota of 20 records a page to 18 or so, this month I reached my line count at 15. But the fact that I'll have room for fewer records is one of many factors that convince me I'll have no trouble finding five CGs worth of good stuff a year. Between the CD-powered reissue boom, expanding U.S. world-music production, the jazz I've never had enough time for, and my determination to shop more aggressively for indies and imports, a bimonthly A List (plus one Turkey Shoot) looks like a piece of cake. In fact, till January or so, I'll be coming in monthly, with a reissue/best-of roundup set for Christmastime. And if the music should dry up, I'll figure out some useful way to fill the space. Long intros, maybe--I had to hondel an extra quarter-page for this one.

Other questions remain to be resolved, and your suggestions are more than welcome, which doesn't mean I'll follow them. Should I devise a new grading system? Does alphabetical order still make sense? What about pix? And Additional Consumer News? Am I now an unregenerative slave of capital? Stay tuned to this space.

EYUPHURO: Mama Mosambiki (RealWorld) With no recording facilities and a culture impoverished by frontline proximity to South Africa, Mozambique supposedly favors undistinguished mbaqanga variants when it finds time to party at all. So WOMAD puts this six-piece in a Toronto studio, where it bequeaths a slick, idiomatic Afropop with what would pass in Africa (or the U.S.) for feminist themes. The guitar lilt is soukous or chimurenga or samba or Larry Carlton, anything but mbaqanga, and the soulful voices are Rio-urbane, not Soweto-muscular. Occasionally it's as corny as the most tourist-friendly Brazilian pop, leading me to suspect a hotel band beholden to its breathier Lusophone cousins. But at its best, which is usually, it lilts like crazy. A MINUS [Later: ***]

WOODY GUTHRIE: Struggle (Smithsonian/Folkways) Protest music with a vengeance--originally conceived as a six-song project by Guthrie in 1946, expanded by Moses Asch to mark the Bicentennial, and now reissued by the federal government for the good-politics people at Rounder. The title may be a progressive shibboleth, but there's nothing especially uplifting about these tales of class warfare, most of which detail grisly defeats. Guthrie's heroes are smothered or incinerated in mine disasters, massacred by company thugs, hunted down by bloodhounds, left to rot from nonslip hangknots. A few times they get to kill back, but if they're really lucky they're buried in union coffins--"Every new grave brings a thousand members." In short, morbid shit, its tradition the Appalachian ballad and Emily Dickinson rather than the deracinated spirituals and pink-cheeked camp songs of good clean American leftism. Can thrash covers be far behind? A MINUS

JALI MUSA JAWARA: Yasimika (Hannibal) A 1983 French release picked up by U.K. Oval in 1986, this is the renowned album that made Mango's 1989 Soubindoor inevitable. Though only vocalist-koramaster Jawara plays on both, the bands--each featuring balafon, two guitars, and two women singers--achieve an identical sound. Yet though I heard this one second, it grabbed me where Mango's entry rewarded my dutiful attention. Can't pin down why in the musicianship or composition, and note dutifully that Soubindoor is two songs and 15 minutes longer. Maybe I just needed a break after Soubindoor softened me up--comparison has certainly been painless. Or maybe not--I swear the emotion is higher here, the weave a quantum more intense. And of such quanta are world-music classics made. A MINUS

KOTCH (Mango) They say this self-contained Jamaican sextet returns reggae to harmony-group truths, but with Rueben Espuet's falsetto teasing the cover versions till they giggle and Sly & Robbie exploding those beats, their traditionalism sounds pretty pomo to me. Material includes Sarah Vaughan's "Broken Hearted Melody," three Smokey Robinson songs (one credited to "Unknown"), and a twisted six-minute "Tequila" bent further out of shape by samples from "Pump Up the Volume" and The Marriage of Figaro. B PLUS

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: Classic Tracks (Shanachie) Having beaten Graceland to the gate with the first (and till now best) U.S.-available Ladysmith album, Induku Zethu, and then gotten sandbagged by Warners, Shanachie gives up on the easy way out: instead of licensing yet another high-generic LP whole, it shuffles a dozen of them into a great one. By selecting for "musical quality" from the wealth of product Joseph Shabalala has conceived for his group's presold Azanian fans, Randall Grass concentrates the lively and tuneful while respecting the intricately harmonized and subtly dramatic. One man's sustained vibrato and a whole language's clicks, trills, and amens, cunningly repackaged for your listening enjoyment. A MINUS [Later]

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: Two Worlds One Heart (Warner Bros.) Joseph Shabalala is a modest fellow only on the surface--black South Africans neglect that role at their peril. From the stylistic revolution he imposed on his chosen style to his principled pursuit of international glory, he has the lineaments of a pop visionary, and here he arrives at a crossover formula that does the style proud, moving gracefully from Zulu to English within and between songs and pumping the a cappella rhythms with instruments on three cuts. Twice Ray Phiri masterminds suitably simple mbaqanga tracks, but the big man is George Clinton, whose "Scatter the Fire" neither obscures nor ignores the singers with their name on the cover. I urge the Jungle Brothers to volunteer for a remix. A MINUS

LIVING COLOUR: Time's Up (Epic) The latest subject of the black superman theory won't write history like Harold Cruse and spout Afrology like Robert Farris Thompson any more than Darryl Strawberry will act the mensch like Don Baylor and hit .320 like Rod Carew. That's not his job--leading an arena band is different, and plenty difficult. It's amazing enough for a jazz musician like Vernon Reid to make the transition to pop accessibility, proving that even art-rock can signify with the best album in that meaning-laden genre since Pink Floyd was in mourning. Though the striking choruses and fancy structures are pretty Euro, the proximate model is Bad Brains sans Jah. And though MTV's millions have heard Reid's more panhuman messages before, they've rarely heard them expressed so coherently--or by a black person. Both factors count for something. A MINUS [Later]

L.L. COOL J: Mama Said Knock You Out (Def Jam) This isn't groundbreaking like Nation of Millions, but it shouldn't be pigeonholed as a terrific rap record. It's an exceptionally consistent and entertaining record, period, on a par with Goo or Freedom or Rock 'n' Roll or maybe even Sign "O" the Times. Hilariously unreconstructed, it takes shit from no one and gives shit only in the most high-spirited way--the targets it disses hardest are Mike Tyson, whose mama would say knock the mother out if the poor fucker had a mama, and famed rapper L.L. Cool J, a/k/a Cheesey Rat. It's avowedly street, but star street, voicing sympathy and solidarity rather than bullshitting about where he comes from after five years somewhere else. Marley Marl and assorted live human beings jam into the mix. Great music, great vocals, great lyrics, from beginning to end, by a proud pro with something to prove. A

THE PERFECT DISASTER: Up (Fire) Speaking as an anthropologist, I note the existence of a younger generation that sees no essential difference between the Stones, the Byrds, the Velvets, and Bo Diddley--all rocked, all used guitars, all preceded the Sex Pistols or Fleetwood Mac or whoever. Speaking as a critic, I note the fine taste and good sense of these know-nothings. And speaking as a fan, I thank the Lord the Velvets dominate the equation. Think Feelies (pomo momentum), Only Ones (Perrettistic Kinkology), Chills/Clean (parallel invention), Woodentops (plus musclebottom), maybe even Galaxie 500 (minus wimpophilia). Think "We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together" meets "Pale Blue Eyes." A MINUS

LOU REED/JOHN CALE: Songs for Drella (Sire/Warner Bros.) Lousy background music--absorb it over three or four plays, then read along once and file it away like a good novel. But like the novel it will repay your attention in six months, or 10 years. The music's dry because it serves words that make an argument worth hearing: Andy Warhol was a hard-working genius--a great artist, if you will--betrayed by hangers-on who no matter what carping philistines say gave a lot less to him than he did to them. Villain: Valerie Solanas, whose attempted assassination broke his generous spirit and turned him into "Society Andy." Inspirational Verse: "You might think I'm frivolous, uncaring and cold/You might think I'm frivolous--depends on your point of view." A MINUS

GARY STEWART: Battleground (Hightone) As with so many country albums, one's faith fluctuates from listen to listen: the songwriting isn't always absolutely choice, at times the voice lurches back toward the gulps and hollers that swamped his attempted comeback, and his guilt sounds more emotionally whole than his rowdy ways, which is why he's always been a country singer with r&r affinities rather than vice versa. But this is his best in 13 years (just lucky, I guess). His r&r groove is sharp-witted where Steve Earle's is muscle-headed and the average Nashville cat's just mechanical. And whether he's pledging desperate devotion or spitting out the perfect pun-trope "Seeing's believing/So I'll be leaving today," you know damn well it's his fault. Whatever it is. B PLUS

MERLE TRAVIS: The Best of Merle Travis (Rhino) The Kentucky emigre fronted a California band like no other--Western swing gone honky tonk, with trumpet and accordion--and showed Chet Atkins and Scotty Moore how to play guitar. Which is fine for aesthetes--me, I listen to country music for singers and songs, in this case songs. Writing for money, Travis was a man of his class in the homeless "No Vacancy," the now-traditional "Dark as a Dungeon," From Here to Eternity's "Re-Enlistment Blues," and, oh yeah, "Sixteen Tons." He was a man of his gender in the endlessly clever "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed," "I Like My Chicken Fryin' Size," and on and on. And he was a font of Inspirational Verse. Try "Cincinnati Lou" ("She's got a way of rollin' them eyes/Makes me think of paradise/And I don't mean heaven just a plain old pair o' dice") or "Fat Gal" ("Warm in the winter, shady in the summertime," and also "If things get rough and times get hard/I'll render my gal and sell the lard") or "Lawdy, What a Gal" ("You keep your eyes wide open/Every time I'm kissin' you/The reason that I know you do/Is I keep them open too"). Try just about anything. A

TWO NICE GIRLS: Like a Version (Rough Trade EP) I'm pleased to report that Karen Carpenter, Kim Gordon, Donna Summer, and--who's this?--Paul Rodgers provide fit company for the rowdy dyke anthem that threatens to swallow every other song they ever write. I'm impressed that I have have no idea where the other two covers come from. I'm disappointed that I don't much care. B PLUS

WAS (NOT WAS): Are You Okay? (Chrysalis) With soulful Sweet Pea Atkinson fulfilling their authenticity quota and sarcastic David Was rapping like he thinks Stanard Ridgway is Kool Moe Dee, they diddybop nasty as they wanna diddybop along the edge of racial presumption, certain of their right to give "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" to papa's number-one son and to feel "better than James Brown" (whatever that means in 1990) even though they know they're gonna sideswipe his sexism two tracks later. Sure they're shallower than they wanna be half the time, especially on the geopolitical tip, but even then they're sort of funny. And they sell out with love songs so demented and unself-pitying, respectively, that your average major-label artiste would postpone them until the fickle public was ready to get suckered or headed for greener pastures. A MINUS [Later]

SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON: Keep It to Ourselves (Alligator) With his unerring slur and direct wit, Sonny Boy II, born Rice Miller circa 1897 and dead some 68 years later, is Chicago's third W: his great Chess albums--The Real Folk Blues, More Real Folk Blues, and Down and Out Blues--stand with Wolf or Muddy. These 1963 recordings, culled from two much sparer purist LPs on a Danish label, are late-night visits to the Delta where he saw the light and kicked the bucket, and what they show off above all is his sexy, long-suffering harmonica cry. Where fools like his star pupil James Cotton strain against the dynamic limitations of that little piece of steel, Sonny Boy plays it like he sings it like he talks it--slyly, lethally, whispering complaints, secrets, existential questions, and promises made to be broken to anyone who ventures within earshot. Guitarist Matt Murphy on most cuts and pianist-vocalist Memphis Slim on a few are all the friends he needs. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

(in descending order; alternate headings include Choice Cuts, No Cigar, and On the Cusp):

  • Boogie Down Productions, Edutainment (Jive): insufficiently scientific ("Love's Gonna Getcha (Material Love)," "100 Guns")
  • The Perfect Disaster, Asylum Road (Genius): unperfected ("The Crack Up," "In Conference Again")
  • Shinehead, The Real Rock (Elektra): striver's rap ("Cigarette Breath") [Later: **]
  • Mimi Schneider, The Extended Outlook (Indelible cassette EP): folkie and Donne fan ("The Party Line," "Urban Friends")

Village Voice, Sept. 25, 1990

July 31, 1990 Oct. 23, 1990