Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

In the biz, September is boom time, and you'll find several brand-new albums below, with other late-month releases certain to follow. But in my life, it's also time to put a summer's pleasure on paper. I don't know how the Garbage sounds on the radio, but I guarantee it's dandy in a car.

DAVE ALVIN: Blackjack David (HighTone) Fronting an acoustic band that gives his voice the breathing room it needs, Alvin brings off the quiet despair of "Evening Blues" and "From a Kitchen Table." But making the personal historical is still his metier--the border patrolman of "California Snow," the Vietnam casualty of "1968." He also knows how to make rootlessness historical. But I say he just likes the road. B PLUS

ARCHERS OF LOAF: White Trash Heroes (Alias) Hey, we all have our personal alt-rock standbys--campaigners who've stuck out a sound that rings our chimes dead center. So if I tell you mine are the Voidoids revisited, will I maybe make a sale? Two guitars, one choppy and one fleet, rip up bebop-worthy dissonances over punk forcebeats, and if the frontman seems less than charismatic, well, Richard Hell types never hold their bands together for six years. Seeker that he is, Eric Bachmann varies croak with tweetle, massages some keybs, even samples. Minor details, I insist. This is their sound, there is none higher, other indie bands should just retire. A MINUS

BEASTIE BOYS: Hello Nasty (Grand Royal/Capitol) Rap is their heritage, and having wasted years proving they can't play their instruments while enrapturing MTV fans who loved them for trying, they come home not an album too soon--flowing prose to cons and cons to pros, scheming rhymes against reason like flow against know. Old-school in their spare breakbeats, skilled back-scratching, and heavy-breathing beatbox, they also remember how to lay some guitar on this shit, and dance like Juba through missteps from planet-rock Vocoder to Roy Ayers carioca to good old Hammond B-3. And of course they rhyme, wise and wise-ass, humanitarian without ever getting sappy about it--and without mentioning the Dalai Lama once. A [Later]

BIKINI KILL: The Singles (Kill Rock Stars) Nine songs in 18 minutes--one bunch of three entrusted to Joan Jett in 1993 and keyed to the unforgettable anthem "Rebel Girl," the rest vented by the band in 1995 and keyed to the unforgettable title "I Like Fucking." It's striking and impressive the way they ratcheted their popcraft down. With this band, incoherence was always a way of knowledge, imbuing their spew of ideas and feelings with a conviction that made one's confusion about whether they actually liked fucking or not irrelevant. After all, it was probably a little of both--given their intensity level, a lot of both. A MINUS

MARY J. BLIGE: The Tour (MCA) If "street" seems fake and "real" stupid, try an older cliche: "down-to-earth," a corny compliment no one in the '90s earns more completely. Because she cultivates youth-center loose rather than arena big, Blige's de facto best-of is more than an enlargement. If her raucous tone and sour pitch aren't deliberate, they aren't unwitting either--she believes, correctly, that her fans will relish them as tokens of honesty. And to go out she covers Aretha's "Day Dreaming," which made clear long ago just how street soul sisters on both sides of the monitors really want to be. A MINUS

JAMES CARTER: In Carterian Fashion (Atlantic) I could call the organ a pop concept, but fact is I enjoy this as a jazz record. Just by blowing so lustily and swinging so edgily, Carter puts out more personality and pleasure than all but a few musical word-slingers. Deep meanings? I dunno. Aren't we in this for the pizzazz? A MINUS

GARBAGE: Version 2.0 (Almo Sounds) The chrome-plated hooks and metronome hardbeats of this irresistibly dislikable exercise are perfect for a frontwoman whose vaunted sexuality is no more welcoming than Tina Turner's. For those of us with no knack for real-life sadomasochism, how better combine pleasure and pain than to let 12 impregnable theoretical hits march over us in their digital boots? A MINUS

KINGS OF AFRICAN MUSIC (Music Club) Ali Farka Toure's folkloricism to Manu Dibango's dance jazz is a leap for anyone who can hear, and as a listener who has learned to distinguish instinctively among the vocal approaches of Zimbabwe, Congo, and Senegal (to overgeneralize shamefully, call them rough, sweet, and piercing), I object in principle to the pan-African conceit. But essentialism has its lessons, such as how overtly dramatic--ergo individualistic?--pop vocals have gotten continent-wide since the ebullient postcolonial communitarianism captured by John Storm Roberts's Africa Dances. And done as well as this, essentialism also has its uses--as a budget-priced introduction for theoretical Afrocentrists ready to confront musical reality, and a minor treasure trove for supposed experts like me. How can it be that I never heard Franco's "Tres Impoli" before? A MINUS

LOCAL H: Pack Up the Cats (Island) At first I was just glad to ascertain they weren't a fluke. Now I think they've gone and made themselves the straight rock album of the year. Their idea of roots Husker Du, their idea of avant-garde also Husker Du, they attack the 100-bpm four-four with a singleness of purpose unknown to rap-fearing new metalists, ska-loving old hardcorists, and indie adventurers adrift on the great unknown. They're not true believers, writing early and often about just how far straight rock can't take you. They address an audience they swear is still there. And they have something to prove, even if it's only that a duo from the same Illinois town that produced the Shoes can make more noise than a pumpkins-smashing factory. A MINUS

MTV'S AMP 2 (MTV/Astralwerks) Defined by a new Fatboy Slim opener, this is rap-techno fusion in the great tradition of Snap's "The Power," which is best at its cheapest--Chuck D sounds disoriented while KRS-One is saved by, of all people, Goldie. And if you think Fatboy Slim gets boring pretty fast, that's the beauty part. After all, Roni Size gets boring pretty fast too. But with the concept providing unity as the multiple choice provides variety, you can enjoy these obvious macho beatfests for as long as they're worth. Here we go, let's rock and roll. A MINUS [Later]

AMY RIGBY: Middlescence (Koch) What's most original about Rigby isn't her analysis of the men who fail to provide the kind of love she demands so sanely and evokes so hotly. Nor is it her designated theme, age, although I wonder how many 23-year-olds will learn as much about fun from "The Summer of My Wasted Youth" as she wants them to. It's class, which she's old enough to understand for the simple reason that she doesn't have enough money--not the way the executive mom who covets a bigger coop doesn't have enough money, the way the temp mom who buys back-to-school outfits at Goodwill doesn't have enough money. Her voice as real as Roxanne Shant's, Rigby sings in a material world. So Trisha Yearwood, I'm begging: cover "All I Want" if not "What I Need." A MINUS

RACHID TAHA: Diwn (Island) On his U.S. debut, the Oran-born Eurodance phenom was so ethnotechno that few Anglophones guessed his politics were tougher than his beats. Lucky for us, here he elects to catch his breath, retreating from message disco into an Algerian equivalent of Bowie's Pin Ups or GN'R's Spaghetti Incident. An instant touchstone of Arab song and a Taha-composed tour of rai history pitch the collection higher than it can remain if it's gonna be as trad as the artist thinks decent. Throughout, however, the tunes, choruses, instrumental parts, and Taha's raw vocals invoke a cultural identity that any moderately adventurous tourist will find more entrancing than ethnotechno. A MINUS

WARDA: Lebanon/Algeria (Metro Blue) The Parisian-born daughter of an Algerian nightclub owner who fled with her family to Lebanon in 1956, she shed most of her Algerian accent before hitting the Egyptian studios in 1960 and is now tabbed by an informed source as "one of the Arab world's great musical hacks." But for most Americans, this CD ain't really about Warda. Rather, her richly generic pan-Arab emotionality provides a way into Cairo's pop mysteries. Hyped up by the beats modern taste demands, the string sections of what used to be called ughniyah sound a lot fresher than TSOP's or Goldie's. And the beats have more uses than the belly-dancing Websites her lyrics show up on. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

JULIE RUIN (Kill Rock Stars) "What would `L'Ecriture Feminine' sound like as music?" the once and future Kathleen Hanna asked herself, and if this is the answer we're in trouble. It sounds like Calvin Johnson prattle, it sounds like she needs all that sound equipment she can't afford, it sounds like she took her bat and went home. It's fine to reject confessional for narrative if you have some fictional craft, fine to let machines do the playing if you can figure out how to make them sing, but so far Hanna doesn't and hasn't. Instead she takes the obscure rants that were so compelling at Bikini Kill decibels and murmurs them into her cheap mike at two in the morning, if we're lucky to one of the simple tunes that provide meaning in a band context and relief in this. "I don't expect people to like it or anything," she told some zine, and here's hoping they don't. She's 29, and she needs to move on. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Stella Chiweshe, The Healing Tree (Shanachie): even with a best-of, healing don't make humming, especially on a thumb piano ("Huya Uzoona," "Mudzimu Dzoka")
  • The Hangovers, Slow Dirty Tears (Kill Rock Stars): love life of an ex-Raincoat with bad habits and a new sampler ("Sorry," "We Had a Really Smashing Time")
  • Thomas Anderson, Bolide (Red River import): weird tales from many badlands ("Come Back to America," "Theremin Cider")
  • NOFX, So Long and Thanks for All the Shoes (Epitaph): "All Outta Angst," so "The Desperation's Gone" ("Monosyllabic Girl," "All His Suits Are Torn")
  • Holding Up Half the Sky: Voices of African Women (Shanachie): from the Sahara to the Cape, from pop candy to folk porridge, they have one thing in common--vaginas (Netsennet Mellesse, "Yellew Wekesa"; Kin Lam, "Souma Sagnone")
  • Lukas Ligeti & Beta Foly (Intuition Music import): avant German trap drummer and eager Ivoirians with something to teach Mick Fleetwood, Byrne & Eno, and all too many well-meaning jazzmen ("Ren," "African Loops")
  • Hole, Celebrity Skin (Geffen): better punk than actress, better actress than popster ("Celebrity Skin," "Awful")
  • Lesbian Favorites (Rhino): big solid emotions, woman to woman, easiest to take cut down to size (Gretchen Phillips, "Swimming"; Jill Sobule, "I Kissed a Girl")
  • Big Beat Conspiracy: BBC 1 (Pagan): as much fun as a new chemistry set (Laidback, "International"; J Knights, "Catch a Break"; Surreal Madrid, "Insanity Sauce")
  • Mem Shannon, Mem Shannon's 2nd Blues Album (Hannibal): the saddest sound he ever heard ("Old Men," "One Thin Dime")
  • Queens of African Music (Music Club): like most continents, Africa has more kings (Amy Kota, "Soman"; Oumou Dioubate, "Christiana")
  • Fantcha, Criolinha (Tinder): ingenue saudade ("Sonho d'um cril," "Mi dodo na b Cabo Verde")
  • Jermaine Dupri, Life in 1472 (So So Def): why hoochies give coochie ("Get Your Shit Right," "All That's Got To Go")
  • Maryam Mursal, The Journey (RealWorld): a Somalian with a parlor trick--making Danes sound Ethiopian ("Qax," "Fejigno")
  • Trisha Yearwood, Songbook (A Collection of Hits) (MCA): precisely as good as her material, which gets stuffier all the time ("Walkaway Joe," "She's in Love With the Boy")
Choice Cuts:
  • Backstreet Boys, "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," "Quit Playin' Games (With My Heart)," (Backstreet Boys, Jive) [Later: A-]
  • Snoop Dogg, "Snoop World" (Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told, No Limit) [Later: C+]
  • Spice Girls, "Stop" (Spiceworld, Virgin)
  • Blink 182, "Dammit"; Smash Mouth, "Can't Get Enough of You Baby" (Can't Hardly Wait, Elektra)
  • Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men, "Interstate City" (Interstate City, HighTone)
  • Chocolate Genius, "My Mom" (Black Music, V2)
  • Natacha Atlas, Halim (Beggars Banquet)
  • Barry Black, Tragic Animal Stories (Alias)
  • Don Byron, Nu Blaxploitation (Blue Note)
  • David and Jad Fair, Monster Songs for Children (Kill Rock Stars)
  • Boney James, Sweet Thing (Warner Bros.)
  • Rickie Lee Jones, Ghostyhead (Warner Bros.)
  • Money Mark, Push the Button (Mo Wax/London)

Village Voice, Sept. 29, 1998

Aug. 25, 1998 Nov. 3, 1998