Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Turkey Shoot

In my annual attempt to dispirit the overly thankful, this Turkey Shoot showcases just a few of the objectionable-to-awful records Americans of widely varying taste cultures pigged out on in 1992. The never-ending cornucopia of unnecessary music--a tribute to the depths of human ingenuity!

THE BLACK CROWES: The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (Def American) Nothing wrong with mixing up a blues-based mush of Stones and Faces and Allmans and whoever, especially when you come by your influences naturally and don't imitate any of them. So of course these youngsters are "original" enough. What they're not is good enough. After all, the Faces and the Allmans weren't such hot songwriters either, and their heirs don't exactly have a Young Rod or a Gregg-and-Dickey to compensate. With seven of Southern Harmony's 10 live-in-the-studio cuts going on longer than 17 of Exile on Main Street's thick-mixed 18, call them the new Humble Pie and put out a search on DFX2's Emotion. Now there was a Stones rip. B MINUS

BUSHWICK BILL: Little Big Man (Rap-a-Lot) Of course you have a big one, Bill. It goes with your minority-group status--dwarves are famous for their big ones. And when you cut it off, you'll probably write something as scary as "Ever So Clear." Scarier than your mind-of-a-skitso shtick, that's for sure. C PLUS

NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS: Henry's Dream (Mute/Elektra) Cave's admirers crow about his literary virtues--a rock musician who's actually published a novel! and scripted a film! about John Henry Abbott, how highbrow! Then they proffer dismal examples like "I am the captain of my pain," or the bordello containing--what an eye the man has--a whalebone corset! (Whalebone is very literary--it hasn't been used in underwear since well before Nick was born.) If this is your idea of great writing, you may be ripe for his cult. Otherwise, forget it--the voice alone definitely won't do the trick. C

SHAWN COLVIN: Fat City (Columbia) Not counting New Age spokesperson Sarah McLachlan, this ambitious sophomore wins the prize--the female postfolkie you're too bored to hate. The digitalized Suzanne Vega is wisely popwise and the bionic Joan Baez positively swangin' by comparison. Matching strong, undistinguished voice to literate, undistinguished verse, Colvin is like a young Joni Mitchell without swoops or self-invention. And lest you riposte that young Joni Mitchell beats old Joni Mitchell, Columbia doles out production chores to old Joni Mitchell's bass-playing husband, who drags the ordinary down toward an offensively well-groomed studio folk-rock that combines the smugness of '70s El Lay with the overstatement of '80s Megapop--and later for the '90s. C [Later]

BILLY RAY CYRUS: Some Gave All (Mercury) With Cyrus oversinging like Michael Bolton at a Perot rally, this album revolted me well before I got to its climactic title cut, about how brave guys help their fellow man by killing other men, presumably not fellow and most likely gooks or something. Only it turns out Michael Bolton was on the same side as Michael Stipe, and it also turns out that Cyrus manages a nice macho self-mockery on both his hit and the likes of "Wher'm I Gonna Live?" and "I'm So Miserable." Give him a few years of ups and downs and he could be the 21st-century Waylon Jennings. Can't wait, can you? C PLUS

DILLON FENCE: Rosemary (Mammoth) Sooner or later, "alternative" recycles everything. Including Pablo Cruise. C MINUS

CELINE DION (Epic) Montreal chanteuse goes gold Stateside, and I'm thinking, hey, North American Eurodisco for Anglophones, could be OK. Not hardly. Though the two Ric Wake productions lilt sweetly enough, she's a creature of the power ballad, with tympani all over her drum pads and Diane Warren hand-me-downs for hooks. Worst album of the year--that I can remember. D PLUS

FIREHOUSE: Hold Your Fire (Columbia) Metal has evolved at such a drastic pace that this assiduously inoffensive prefab seems almost folkloric, a weird anachronism in which the great tradition of Jon Bon Jovi and Mark Slaughter--manly tenor, moderate tempos, technically unassailable riffs--is preserved for the dwindling faithful. They "Reach for the Sky," they "Hold That Dream," they "Rock You Tonight," and because their "Mama Didn't Raise No Fool," they describe the inevitable bone job as "Sleeping With You." Now isn't that sweet? C MINUS

PETER GABRIEL: US (Geffen) His voice permanently hoarse--sounds like he's been campaigning for president since he dropped So in 1986, which in a sense he has--Gabriel deploys a multihued battalion of respected professionals into wave upon wave of overkill. Though the sonic layering isn't devoid of interest or even originality, the problem goes way beyond a grandeur that seems inauspiciously egotistical on "his first real record of love songs"--these arrangements would obtrude into any musical event more low-key than an Olympic anthem or a massed May Day choir singing "The Internationale." "Steam"'s googolgroove overwhelms its petty sexism, but "Kiss That Frog" wrecks a funny little idea about Pete's penis by asking it to hold up the weight of the world. And "Kiss That Frog" is the other fast one, plus one makes two. What you mean us, white man? B MINUS

VINCE GILL: I Still Believe in You (MCA) As bland as Nicolette Fogelberg, with Tony Brown running the broad-spectrum lyrics through his good-taste machine as if he wants to be Peter Asher when he grows up, Gill is the real country-hunk menace because he's so reproducible. I admit they pin a few classics--"Don't Let Our Love Start Slippin' Away" and "Say Hello" have the ring of general truth. But when they don't, it's '70s singer-songwriter all over again. Eddie Rabbitt just didn't know how to market himself. C PLUS

ELTON JOHN: The One (MCA) Fun automaton, floundering has-been, or unnoticed fixture, he hung in there, so that 1992 was the 23rd consecutive year he put a single in the top 40. Since Elvis himself only got to 22, this statistical aberration merits a tribute, and though I was disarmed by the news that he'd not only come out but was donating all singles royalties to AIDS research, I decided to take it as a long overdue hint to ignore his albums. Unfortunately, the first single was an all-too-well-plugged Eric Clapton feature. Then came an AIDS ballad drenched in midtempo melodrama, followed by a title tune that's just as soupy with less content. So here's hoping somebody at MCA likes "Sweat It Out," a fast dance number about vanquishing the forces of reaction. Inspirational Verse That Saves Me a Review: "No more Tears for Fears/Give me tears of rage." C PLUS

ANNIE LENNOX: Diva (Arista) The honorable Timothy White avers, "Her vocals have never felt performed," which those of us who don't commune regularly with the stars can take as a sign that the guy's been in show business too long. It's our belief that Ms. Lennox's vocals have never felt anything but performed--and that this palpably phony quality was her chief charm even though it meant that at her most nuevo wavo she was destined to turn conventional pop singer sooner or later. So here she finally goes normal, if that's what you call somebody who emotes banalities to her baby daughter loud enough to wake the disco: "precious little angel . . . [percolating bass] . . . bundle full of love . . . drowned in my own tears . . . [cool trumpet solo] . . . gift from heaven . . ." Thank your maker she fades it instead of going out on a high note. And give Dave Stewart this: he kept her dishonest. C PLUS [Later]

M.C. BRAINS: Lovers Lane (Motown) In his dick, of course. Where else should they be, he wants to know. B MINUS

FREDDIE MERCURY & MONTSERRAT CABALLE: Barcelona (Hollywood) I can't deny it because I catch myself grinning--distanced by the years, and with the campy kicks magnified by a heightened awareness of Freddie Mercury's sexuality, the music of Queen has accrued the high gloss of committed kitsch, where that of Journey, say, has assumed the dull shapelessness of utter crap. Although I don't enjoy all of Classic Queen or Queen's Greatest Hits--the material's not quite that deep--they're often funny and they're also pop, oddly reminiscent of top-grade Cheap Trick. So lest anyone suspect me of sentimentalizing the dead, let me isolate this resurrected cult item, proof that you don't have to be homophobic to hate opera fantasies. Mercury's voice, unnecessarily strong and pure by rock standards, sounds like a ragged old thing up against that of a true diva well past her prime, while the diva trips over the elementary rhythmic demands of the Brian May-less material, which imparts new meaning to the concept of not quite that deep. C MINUS

THE NEVILLE BROTHERS: Family Groove (A&M) On a braver album, "Fly Like an Eagle" might be a coup, freedom fighters seizing the '60s-are-over sentimentality of a pop tune about a revolution Steve Miller wasn't so sorry we lost. On this record it's a reproach--the hook no song doctor can sell. Socially conscious, romantically ardent, or trading on their good name, their material just sits there waiting for you to like it. Where on the notorious Uptown they were a confused CHR band who deserved more airplay than they got, here they're a second-rate commercial funk band who get more than they deserve. At least Aaron's Ronstadt outing had the courage of her aesthetic convictions. B MINUS

PEARL JAM: Ten (Epic Associated) This isn't the worst of the slew of Seattle albums that are Nirvana's gift to alternative consciousness. But from scag-dragged Alice in Chains and straight-heavy Temple of the Dog to psychedelic stooges Mudhoney and legendary hearts Mother Love Bone, few if any sustain, and all modulate the same misguided ethos. So I'm picking on the big kids, already over three million with The Band That Changed the World stuck at four. What must be understood is that the frame of reference here isn't punk but hippie--at root, this is San Francisco ballroom music. As someone who had it on intelligent, enlightened, and you'd-best-believe-hip authority that only my own small-mindedness stood between me and the true meaning of Blue Cheer, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Savage Resurrection, and Shiva's Headband, I risk acute deja entendu hearing all these white male longhairs play their guitars too long but not too well. Though the mood is less euphoric, it's equally wasted, with the demographic shift from pot and acid to beer and heroin nowhere near as decisive as chemical prophets used to claim--all it means is that grunge is acid-rock transmuting into metal rather than folk-rock on a trip. Take the right drugs and you may find time to note distinguishing characteristics, like the power hooks that hold Jam's jams together or the pained vocals that tear them apart. Take the wrong ones and you may give techno another chance. B MINUS [Later: **]

SHABBA RANKS: X-Tra Naked (Epic) Like any dance music, dancehall is for acolytes. Trick cuts can divert the uninitiated, but there's rarely reason to buy a whole album by one artist, this one definitely included. I'm ready to believe his crossover is rooted in rhythmic authority, but I can't help believing that his heinous sexual politics contribute--finding-fooling-feeling-fucking-and-forgetting or declaring oral-genital contact an abomination, he must seem quite the noble savage to young pan-Africanists seeking new horizons in male supremacism. I just hope Chubb Rock and Queen Latifah collaborated to help their careers. C PLUS [Later]

TOO SHORT: Shorty the Pimp (Jive) In his fourth book, Iceberg Slim--who invented Short Dog's shit as surely as Dr. Funkenstein--boasted about escaping "the terrible emptiness of the pimp game." He considered old pimps "contemptible," "pathetic." On his seventh album, Too Short boasts that he's "a player for life." Who you believe? C PLUS

UNREST: Imperial f.f.r.r. (TeenBeat) You read it here first: the scattered actual "pop" songs on this 11-cut album--the one about eating pussy is the most enthusiastic--tend to break down into long, repetitive, self-consciously inept codas, which blend in the mind's ear with the scattered instrumentals per se. It would be wrong to call such passages drones, because drones propel, and propulsion would be catering to the hoi polloi--"patterns" is quite kind enough. Cool people whose hobby is inept bands seem to think these whatchamacallems apotheosize self-consciously amateurish charm. If you're among them, get a life. C

Village Voice, Dec. 1, 1992

Oct. 20, 1992 Dec. 29, 1992