Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Turkey Shoot

Once again I've defied soul-death and interrupted my yea-saying labors to bring you Thanksgiving cheer. I've tried not to shoot dead turkeys (dubbed Dead Horses in Additional Consumer News), and have left merely dubious entries to the Consumer Guide Duds lists. These albums make me sick, in theory and often in fact. Bon appétit.

BLUES TRAVELER: Travelers and Thieves (A&M) They sure can play their axes--might even be tolerable as a boogie band. But "All in the Groove" is just a classic-rock line. John Popper's interest in fun is strictly rhetorical, and his rhetoric is so prolix I bet they only play three-hour sets so he can get all the words in. I also bet that as a Jack Bruce fan he thinks it's groovy when his rhythm section hustles out more notes than a good groove needs. C MINUS

THE CHARLATANS U.K.: Some Friendly (Beggars Banquet) Historically, children, the organ has occasioned vague-outs and one-shots. Unless you count the Animals, which I don't advise, or the Zombies, where Rod Argent favored piano, the only '60s pop legends to feature one were the Small Faces, and not as a "trademark." When you record your "96 Tears," or even your "Itchycoo Park," call. "The Only One I Know" ain't bad and ain't it. C

MARC COHN (Atlantic) Cohn sings like a sentimental Warren Zevon--an exclusively sentimental Warren Zevon, I mean. He's got some tunes. But his lyrics are sticky with decaying Americana, and he shows no grasp of his limitations. A folkie with a piano is dreaming concert hall--a level of signification higher than folkie talent generally reaches. C PLUS

COLE PORTER: A CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION (RCA) Capitol's swinging Anything Goes survives incursions from the likes of Gordon MacRae. But any solon who disses Red Hot and Blue had better not try and tell me schlock kings like Andre Previn, Skitch Henderson, Robert Shaw, Norman Luboff, and Arthur Fiedler--none of whom even bother with lyrics, for God's sake--do him justice. At least Al Hirt's "I Love Paris" is a travesty, not unlike Les Negresses Vertes'. And then there are the vocalists. Better Arthur Fiedler than opera dropout Mario Lanza, and if Dinah Shore or Alfred Drake understand the material as well as Sinéad O'Connor or Jimmy Somerville, they don't let us in on the secret. From Mary Martin to Patti Lupone, actresses let the songs do the talking, and the two convincing male singers here have the "worst" voices. One is Fred Astaire. The other is Cole Porter, whose three demo-style vocals-with-piano are so alive that I'm praying some solon exhumes a whole album's worth. If Porter found them insufficiently musical, he was wrong. Now he belongs to the ages. B MINUS

THE COMMITMENTS (MCA) Just as it's impossible to make a credible flick about a rock star because no mere actor can play the role, it's impossible to make a credible flick about a bar band because no mere movie fan will sit through the music. So director Alan Parker cheated where novelist Roddy Doyle didn't. Aided by L.A. studio simulacra Dean Parks, Mitchell Froom, and Alex Acuña, his home-grown white-soul cover specialists sacrifice idiosyncrasy for competence--they don't even risk the Dublin version of "Night Train" the novel turns on. Now that's what I call soulful--a cross between The Big Chill and The Blues Brothers. C PLUS

CONSOLIDATED: Friendly Fascism (Nettwerk) White males freaked by the mess of change, these rappers quickly transmute what little science they do drop--about the megapathology of late capitalism, say, or the economy of meat consumption--into purer-than-thou rhetoric. Repulsed by "deceptively complex" contradiction, hyping the cruel ultraleft fallacy that no oppression can end until all oppression ends, they obsess on meat-is-sexism and await the millennium with their "career going down the toilet"--not because people don't agree with them, of course, but because "the culture industry" has brainwashed us all. I predict that within five years at least one of them will sell out, find religion, or both. And can't resist quoting their fellow San Fran assholes the Residents: "Hitler was a vegetarian." B MINUS

EMF: Schubert Dip (EMI) The variations these self-made airheads work on their catchy tune (copy: no plural please) rarely deliver anything heavier than a hook beat. At least the New Kids know there's a difference between fresh and callow. C PLUS [Later]

ENIGMA: MCMXC a.D. (Charisma) On the hit, mellow electrobeat and Gregorian fog provide mutual relief, and the rest of this disco for Camille P. is filler. Some Amurricans think a whispered "Je te desire" is por . . . er, erotic--sexy! I've always preferred "I wanna fuck you" myself. C MINUS

EPMD: Business as Usual (Def Jam/RAL/Columbia) Once they were winning wannabees stealing pop hooks in the basement. Now they're big-time, as rappers measure such things, and for all the difference it makes in general humanity they might as well have gotten there selling crack. Ugly as the Geto Boys and a lot dumber, the cross-dressing tale "Jane 3" climaxes with the rape she deserves; elsewhere the rhymes run three bozacks and three criminal-mindeds to one Mandela/Farrakhan. Who cares whether they're truly street or just following hard fashion? How many dope beats does the world need? C PLUS

GABBA GABBA HEY (Triple X) Somehow I dreamed Ramones songs would resist interpretation simply enough to make a tribute fun. Instead I'm wondering whether Sniffin' Glue went too far when it showed the world how to play those three magic chords. Double-redundant because the respectful L.A. punkoids it corrals are quadruple-obscure, this scenester showcase coughs up small surprises from L7 (gurls), the Creamers (mostly gurls), and the Badtown Boys (not gurls). I wouldn't be surprised if I never liked anything by any of them again. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if I never heard anything by any of them again. C PLUS [Later]

AMY GRANT: Heart in Motion (A&M) Xian Xover queen: "What's the difference between a PMS'ing woman and a bulldog? Lipstick! See, only a woman can tell that joke." Don't be so sure, lady. And note Hits's gnostic riposte: "What do you get when you cross an atheist with a dyslexic? Somebody who doesn't believe in dogs!" C

MIRIAM MAKEBA: Eyes on Tomorrow (Polydor) It was made in Johannesburg, and that's a triumph. But unless you live there yourself, which means taking your uplift wherever you find it, save this genteel schlock for your Afrocentric grandma, who may not appreciate the gesture--she knows how much vague promises are worth. Even if you ignore the corny crossover lyrics, the all-purpose synthesizers, and the received licks from many lands, Dorothy Masuka is singing better, and without dated stabs at modernization. Dizzy Gillespie don't sound so hot either. C

MARY'S DANISH: Circa (Morgan Creek) Led by matched admirers of Jimi Hendrix and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, anchored by a former Anita Baker road drummer, and spiced by a former Three O'Clock gittar man, their sorta-major sorta-debut is way too all-embracing at 17 songs and umpteen cross-genres, following their sorta-indie demo album and live EP into college-radio nowhere. I don't care whether they're progressive and postmodern and goofy and smarter than the person next to you (but not you). And I also don't care whether they can play their instruments. Because they can't play their influences. C PLUS

MY LIFE WITH THE THRILL KILL KULT: Sexplosion! (Wax Trax) Disco-porn lite for kids who have so much trouble figuring out kink isn't sinful that they flip to the jive about how it captures the truth of male-female dynamics, patriarchal oppression, human nature, or whatever else feels-good-do-it. It beats S'Express's Intercourse, which must have been named after the town in Pennsylvania, but if you crave the real shit, sample the Lords of Acid's Lust. These Chicagoans are betting you'll feel more comfortable with a fake. In the '90s, when artists start talking both-a-parody-and-a-celebration, it's 50-50 the concept they can't put their finger on is exploitation. C PLUS

N.W.A.: Niggaz4life (Ruthless) This is supposed to be where they finally slam nonstop. In fact, however, the music's just like the lyrics--market-ready. Catchy, yes, and funky in its laid-back electro way, but never hard enough to scare off the novelty audience. Which might be fun if they didn't outpig the LAPD in the bargain. Can Chuck D really believe they mean what they say? Sure they really hate women, and anybody else who looks at them funny. But unless they're even sicker than they seem, they're too greedy to murder anybody as long as they can make so much money fronting about it. And so they've calculated every rhyme to push somebody's button--to serve up the thrill of transgression to ghettobound and merely ghettocentric young-black-males, and also to the big score, culturally deprived white boys seeking exotic role models. That kids will take them at their word obviously doesn't concern niggaz who'll be hard-pressed to contain their pent-up hostility after the bubble bursts. It'd be nice to think they'll off each other when that great day comes, but I doubt they have the balls. So in the interests of public safety, pray they don't get taken by their investment advisors. C MINUS

SONNY OKOSUNS: African Soldiers (Profile) Those who wish Afropop were more political should reflect on this avowed revolutionary's Fire in Soweto--first banned in South Africa, which is no feat, it then became the theme music for Liberia's Samuel K. Doe, who soon proved one of the continent's worst despots. And as with most protest pros, neither Okosuns's "progressive" music, rock-colored reggae plus ye olde indigenous rhythms, nor his "progressive" lyrics, which praise Jah and Jesus and ye olde African woman, have gained passion or precision with the years. C PLUS

ROBBIE ROBERTSON: Storyville (Geffen) Robertson's unctuous undertone is the voice of a two-bit hustler who's discovered the big lie--the good and the beautiful, rapture and immortality, my BMW's in the shop, of course I'm not married, I can't wait to go down on you. It's disheartening that people whose age and wisdom approach my own are fussing over his New Orleans "concept"--a posse of L.A. studio hacks augmented by a few ringers and the kind of second-line once-removed horn charts the Band was hiring 20 years ago. The '70s are over, gang. Now let's dispense with the '80s. C

SLAUGHTER: Stick It to Ya (Chrysalis) Schlockier than Tesla, smarmier than Skid Row, stupider than Queensryche, simpier than Extreme, these sluts win the Consumer Guide Lead Dildo for the most godawful new metal band to go platinum since the last time I checked. They're not even overly offensive--Mark Slaughter slaughters no one, and despite the bimbo-with-knives cover limits the misogyny to one gold digger and one sex predator. She's got "notches in her belt," and by then I was so bored I was aggrieved to learn it wasn't "nachos in her bed." D [Later]

TWO ROOMS--CELEBRATING THE SONGS OF ELTON JOHN & BERNIE TAUPIN (Polydor) Where most tribute albums hitch second-raters to the famous fans who've been sweet-talked into signing on, this superstar showcase aims to turn the tributees into de facto titans, minting much moolah in the process. Sinéad O'Connor was born to cover, and Rod Stewart is reborn for a day. But the material proves less than titanic--it's just plastic, inspiring or enabling Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, even the Beach Boys and the Who to construct simulacra of their better selves. As for Sting, Hall & Oates, Bruce Hornsby, Jon Bon Jovi, Wilson Phillips, Phil Collins, and even George Michael, they don't have better selves--they have accidents, none of which happen here. B MINUS

VIO-LENCE: Torture Tactics (Megaforce/Caroline) Corporate-censored off the Atlantic-backed Oppressing the Masses, the title track reflects thrash-metal's chronic confusion between politics and horror comics. "Gutterslut" ("Gonna make this bitch bleed") and "Dicks of Death" ("Suck it, whore") reveal the lighter side of earnest nihilists who have hormones after all. Plus a live remake equals an EP. I prefer the major-label version. C MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Dead Horses:

  • Michael Bolton, Time, Love and Tenderness (Columbia)
  • Huey Lewis and the News, Hard at Play (EMI)
  • Joni Mitchell, Night Ride Home (Geffen)
  • Diana Ross, The Force Behind the Power (Motown)
  • Starship, Greatest Hits (Ten Years and Change 1979-1991) (RCA)
  • Sting, The Soul Cages (A&M)
  • Van Halen, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (Warner Bros.)
  • Vanilla Ice, Extremely Live (SBK)
  • Steve Winwood, Refugees of the Heart (Virgin)
Low Dudgeon:
  • Paula Abdul, Spellbound (Virgin)
  • Mariah Carey, Emotions (Columbia)
  • Julian Cope, Peggy Suicide (Island)
  • Jane's Addiction, Ritual de lo Habitual (Warner Bros.)
  • Paul Simon, Paul Simon's Concert in the Park (Warner Bros.)
  • Rod Stewart, Vagabond Heart (Warner Bros.)
  • Surface, The Best of Surface . . . A Nice Time 4 Lovin' (Columbia)
  • James Taylor, New Moon Shine (Columbia)

Village Voice, Dec. 3, 1991

Nov. 5, 1991 Dec. 24, 1991