Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Turkey Shoot

It's been a bad year for bad records. Eager though I was to prove my iconoclasm by flailing such variously overrated cynosures as Elvis Costello, Tony Bennett, Seefeel, Pantera, and the Pizzicato Five, again and again I found myself stricken by doubt, invariably occasioned by something even more disquieting: pleasure. So instead this year's Turkey Shoot specializes in the long-predicted Nevermind effect--mediocre pseudoalternatives from every corner of this embittered, all too grateful land of ours.

JEFF BUCKLEY: Grace (Columbia) Although Tim's vocal traces are in his genes as surely as John's are in Julian's, it's wrong to peg him as the unwelcome ghost of his overwrought dad. Young Jeff is a syncretic asshole, beholden to Zeppelin and Nina Simone and Chris Whitley and the Cocteau Twins and his mama--your mama too if you don't watch out. "Sensitivity isn't being wimpy," he avers. "It's about being so painfully aware that a flea landing on a dog is like a sonic boom." So let us pray the force of hype blows him all the way to Uranus. C

CANDLEBOX (Maverick/Sire/Warner Bros.) These postgrunge scenesuckers aren't total pop-metal conformists--they're a tad more intense, with sharper drumming. Their chief distinction is that at 2.5 mill they'll probably outsell the artist-cum-label-owner who set siege to Seattle to sign them--the one we hoped would next re-create herself as a visionary entrepreneur. C

SHEILA CHANDRA: The Zen Kiss (RealWorld) The mysterious young beauty who once fronted U.K. Indipop hitmakers Monsoon has long since become a woman, and a drone-backed or a cappella mélange of cross-cultural vocalisms is how she expresses the universality accruing to that exalted state. Although I hope her tabla impressions get sampled and guess that her so-called ragas are as Zen as any, she's a paternalist's dream, slaking Real World's endless thirst for dark-skinned people willing to exoticize progressive opinions. Nothing too vulgar or entertaining, please--we must mind our manners. C PLUS

COLLECTIVE SOUL: Hints Allegations and Things Left Unsaid (Atlantic) I swear these tuneful blandos were hands-down winners of the REO Speedwagon eight-track earmarked for the Least Alternative "Alternative" of 1994 before I ever read their bio. I swear I didn't know the front man studied guitar at Berklee and took his band name band from The Fountainhead. C MINUS

HARRY CONNICK, JR.: She (Columbia) Junior calls this career move funk to avoid conceding that the antirock rhetoric of his swang thang was pure micromarketing guff. But no matter how many beats he cops or Meters he runs, his New Orleans band plays with all the elasticity and panache of the Billy Joel aggregation. With lyricist Ramsey McLean dumbing up for the occasion, here's hoping (and predicting) Harry will sell back in once he accepts that there's an upper limit on how many units he can move. C PLUS

GIN BLOSSOMS: New Miserable Experience (A&M) Even if you hate weak guys a lot more than I do, you can't deny that "Hey Jealousy" is a classic--Peter Buck himself would kill (or at least steal) for that gold-plated guitar hook. But though the guy who came up with it is now dead, the group and its handlers jangle on through mediocre follow-ups programmers wouldn't have played twice before "Hey Jealousy" softened them up. Released in 1992, the album is now double platinum, on the charts a year and a half after it broke. And I wouldn't put it past them to sell the next one too. The marketplace--what mere journalist can fathom it? C PLUS

GRANT LEE BUFFALO: Mighty Joe Moon (Slash/Reprise) Grant Lee Phillips doesn't sing subtly enough to pine so lyrically or forcefully enough to suffer so unremittingly. That folkloric drawl may be the way he talks, but it sounds like he picked it up at the movies along with the rest of his ideas. It's pointless to suggest he stick in a few laughs because there's no chance they'll be funny. I do recommend, however, that he abandon his quest for the meaning of John Wayne Gacy. C PLUS

GUIDED BY VOICES: Bee Thousand (Scat) On most of these 20-tracks-in-36-minutes, the tunes emerge if you stick around, but they're undercut by multiple irritants. The lyrics are deliberately obscure, the structures deliberately foreshortened, the vocals a record collector's Anglophilia-in-the-shower; the rec-room production is so inconsistent you keep losing your bearings, as befits resident art-rock fan Robert Pollard's boast (which echoes Lou Barlow's, what a coincidence) that some recordings aren't just first takes but first plays, of songs he'd dreamed up since the last time the band came over. In short, this is pop for perverts--pomo smarty-pants too prudish and/or alienated to take their pleasure without a touch of pain to remind them that they're still alive. B MINUS

THE REVEREND HORTON HEAT: Liquor in the Front (Sub Pop/Interscope) Not counting the belch-enhanced Scott Joplin closer, their best joke got lost on the way to the rack jobber: the title was Liquor in the Front, Poker in the Rear before somebody (the major label, mayhap?) took the punch line off the cover. This leaves us with a supposedly humorous male chauvinist trio playing rock-enhanced rockabilly Very Loud. College radio dogs find their mess authentic and postmodern all at once. Me, I listen in vain for a "Dixie Fried," a "One Hand Loose," even a "Ubangi Stomp"--hell, even a "Rock This Town," by the fabled and short-lived Stray Cats, who tried something similar in the dark ages of MTV. B MINUS

R. KELLY: 12 Play (Jive) In a year when the big rappers have either repeated tired outrages or outgrown them, Kelly's crude, chartwise new jack swing is black pop's most depressing development. An effective singer in the post-Stevie new-soul mode whose way with a beat is confirmed by an impressive catalogue of bestselling productions, he aims his common denominator straight at the solar plexus. He has no apparent interest in tune--the Spinners' "Sadie" sounds positively angelic after "Summer Bunnies" and "I Like the Crotch on You." And despite a few moments of class consciousness, he displays far less human decency in his quest for booty than such unaltruistic competitors as Jodeci and Boyz II Men. But lest anyone suspect he lacks moral acuity, he offers this Inspirational Liner Note: "To all those women out there when I step off in a club--don't treat me like I'm just anybody because you end up treating me like I'm nobody and that's wrong." C PLUS

ANGELIQUE KIDJO: Ayé (Mango) The queen of world music isn't merely a big voice--she's also a compact body. Plus, terrific Afro-Parisian clothes sense. And to top it all off, a crew cut. In short (five-one, maybe five-two), she's a disco queen with a gimmick--earthier than Ya Kid K, maybe, but less grounded. And the follow-up doesn't even have "Batonga"'s synth riff to jolly you past the guitar solos. (Well, actually it does--it just doesn't have another one.) C PLUS

THE LION KING (Walt Disney) The Afropop Fund has less of a beef than do parents and plain old pop fans--better secondhand mbube jive (Mbongemi Ngema simulating pan-Africana) than thirdhand razzmatazz (Elton John and Tim Rice dusting off the big themes, dull hooks, and Jungle Book shtick). With half an exception for Nathan Lane's meerkat, the voices are even more negligible than the songs, which number five in all--it takes three Elton versions plus four Eurocentric instrumentals to bring a lousy EP up to 12 tracks. C

LUSCIOUS JACKSON: Natural Ingredients (Grand Royal) These four estimable women exemplify the limitations of scene loyalty and good intentions. Only a killjoy would piss on their project--a friendly alternative funk that stands as a confident reproof to the usual sexual and racial caricatures. I like them fine as people, and I wouldn't even say I don't like their music. It's just that I don't, well, like their music. The ear food it provides is so scant that all you want to know about "Energy Sucker"'s hook riff is where they found the sample, and I find it hard to believe they pack an irresistible aural buzz even for those who experience their project as a cause. B MINUS

TIM MCGRAW: Not a Moment Too Soon (Curb) McGraw draws his phony drawl so tight he sounds like a singing penis--one of those guys who can make his prepuce mime the Pledge of Allegiance when his boner is right. He got interested in country when he heard about farmer's daughters, and learned everything he knows about Choctaws and Chippewas from Chief Nokahoma. Still hasn't outearned his daddy, though. C PLUS

MELVINS: Stoner Witch (Atlantic) I know why they retain their aura of hip. It's because the drummer comes from Aberdeen and used to play in Nir . . . no no, that can't be it--oh, I remember, it's that they're pure. They're always slow, always ugly, always protodeath, always protoindustrial. And always slow. Faster here, actually, up to Sabbath speed at times, with nine minutes of din at the end to shore up their cred. If you're young and depressed and too bright or not too bright, this sound may speak to your condition, and far be it from me to suggest volunteering for Rock the Vote instead. The rest of us can read about them. C

SINÉAD O'CONNOR: Universal Mother (Chrysalis/EMI) I confess this has grown on me. The quiet, stunning "All Apologies" is only the latest proof of the vocal gift--part physical (clarity, texture, amplitude), part spiritual (openness, commitment)--that makes her our greatest cover artist whenever she gets a decent arrangement. Her lullaby is a stroke, and her signoff love song arrives at a nicely unreadable tone. But from Germaine Greer's great mother of a prologue (performancewise, Farrakhan's got the sister beat) to the weeper that could tempt Bruno Bettelheim to trot out the moron jokes (just precisely who does "scorn" the little retard, anyway?) to the instructional rap that'll catch your ear so fast you'll waste scarcely a second pushing the next-track button (no famine OK, "post traumatic stress disorder" blarney), the framing could be a parody conceived by son of Eire P.J. O'Rourke, and it renders the album essentially inaccessible. This isn't risking foolishness, it's flaunting it, and it does her music and her issues the inexcusable disservice of making them look as dumb as she does. B MINUS [Later]

JON SECADA: Heart Soul and Voice (SBK/ERG) Cute, right. Not offensive like Michael Bolton or Celine Dion, of course. But also a lot less fun than his buddy Gloria Estefan. In fact, the most unlistenable recent exponent of the "soul"-inflected American variant on the international pop ballad style. Just in case you're keeping track. C

TRAFFIC: Far From Home (Virgin) Leave those silly Rolling Stones be, children--you're an old-fart virgin until you've done the deed with this slab of eternal life, created in a mere eight months by two well-heeled boys farting around the Irish countryside. Jim Capaldi's drums are mixed like a tribute to the disco of yesteryear, but Stevie, I mean Steve, enters the CD age on his own terms--where ordinary old farts jack their releases up to an hour by unloading 14 or 15 songs, he stops at 10. Title tune takes a full two-and-a-half minutes of overdubbed overture to get to the lyric. Which begins . . . oh, you don't want to know. C MINUS

YANNI: Yanni Live at the Acropolis (Private Music) Affluent spirituality cum cornball romanticism from a florid New Age keyb maestro, his guitarless yet oddly rockish band (dig those drum solos), and one of those symphony orchestras that'll hook up with anyone who leaves enough cash on the night table. Given the august location of this "event of a lifetime," it seems only appropriate to cite pseudo-Plutarch, the Roman protomusicologist who summed up the Greek "new wave" composers of the fifth century B.C.: "Crexus, Timotheus and Philoxenus . . . displayed more vulgarity and a passion for novelty, and pursued the style nowadays called `popular' or `profiteering.' The result was that music limited to a few strings, and simple and dignified in character, went quite out of fashion." Whether you're a diehard punk or a self-actualized higher being who got lost on the way to the futon ads, there's much to ponder in this ancient wisdom. And f.y.i.: Timotheus was the premier composer of his age, kind of a cross between Chopin, Wagner, and Andrew Lloyd Weber. If Yanni had any idea who he was, even Yanni would acknowledge that he had more to say to his time than Yanni does to his. I think. D PLUS

Village Voice, Nov. 29, 1994

Oct. 18, 1994 Dec. 27, 1994