Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Turkey Shoot

I'm getting too tolerant in my old age. It's Turkey Shoot time, I'm in there shit-mining as usual, and can I find a meaningful ska album to hate? They all seem utilitarian enough to me. Likewise with the Spice Girls, and the snazzy wallpaper that is drum 'n' bass. And most "alternative" is either halfway decent or of no earthly interest. It's an ominous sign when bad normal pop is our major outrage.

ANOKHA: SOUNDZ OF THE ASIAN UNDERGROUND (Quango) With zip to do with bhangra, and no commitment to drum 'n' bass, here's a travelogue designed to remind us that tabla players (presenter Talvin Singh, for instance!) have been hand-producing something like breakbeats for years. Not exactly like breakbeats, though. Anyway, who buys records solely for breakbeats? (Wait, I don't want to know.) C PLUS

RICHARD BUCKNER: Devotion and Doubt (MCA) "So after all those months we're splitting up, and it had to happen but I'm feeling like shit. We pack the U-Haul, and of course everything in the kitchen is hers except these big jars of oregano and garlic powder I bought in a dollar store to spice up my pizza. It's so late she stays over, and I watch her sleep, you know? God. But she wakes up pretty early and we kiss goodbye and she gets in the car and then what do you think happens? The U-Haul breaks free and there's dishes all over the road. It seemed awful at the time, the mess and the delay had me stressing, but I gotta laugh about it now. And you know the funniest part? Without her noticing I kept some of those dishes--you're eating your pizza off one right now. More oregano?" Well, that's how I'd replot the best song here--in Buckner's version, it's ditches all over the road, and he still thinks the whole thing was awful. And of course, he has just the sensitive baritone to make awful seem awful romantic to sad sacks and the women who love them. B MINUS

PAULA COLE: This Fire (Imago/Warner Bros.) Before anyone knew she'd go platinum, netcrit Glenn McDonald presciently declared Cole the new queenpin of a female tradition he traced from Kate Bush through Peter Gabriel, Melissa Etheridge, and Sarah McLachlan. Although McDonald sanely declared this genre the obverse of male-identified metal, a skeptic with no tolerance for subpeaks in either would like to note that each is beholden to "classical" precepts of musical dexterity and genitalia-to-the-wall expression. Where Kate Bush overwhelms petty biases as inexorably as Led Zep, Cole is just a romantic egotist who can't resist turning ordinary human problems into three-act dramas. Kate Bush fans will love her. C PLUS

DAYS OF THE NEW (Outpost) As marketing, pure genius. Looks like alt-country, no electric guitars even, yet is actually America's answer to Silverchair. And hey, it's sincere--17-year-old heartland frontman Travis Meeks really is depressed, really has immersed in Soundgarden, really does think it's deep to hook your single to the all-purpose trope "abuse." This is why grownups need Hanson. It's also why they need Radish. C

BRIAN ENO: The Drop (Thirsty Ear) Ever the bullshitter, the St. Petersburg (Russia) muso cites as influences Me'Shell NdegéOcello, Fela, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and as an admirer of all three I only wish I could hear the way musos hear. To me it sounds like he got stuck between Music for Airports and Wrong Way Up and spun his hard drive for 74 minutes. He hears melodies whose vagueness he extols, I hear vaguenesses whose attenuation I rue. He hears bass lines, I hear tinkle. He hears "sourness," I hear more tinkle. C

NAS ESCOBAR, FOXY BROWN, AZ AND NATURE: The Firm--The Album (Interscope) After honoring Bernard Herrmann with some keyb-simulated RZA, Dre recedes (none too soon) and the music spares out--Wasis Diop's kora sample today, mbira tomorrow. Foxy's pussycentrism give the finger to the funniest male orgasm on record. And Black Mafia fantasies threaten white male corporate oppression. (Just kidding.) B MINUS

JOHN FAHEY: City of Refuge (Tim/Kerr) "My category is alternative, period," avers the last intelligent person to make such a claim in this millennium. He doesn't want to be folk or New Age, and who can blame him? But if he were, some rich dunderhead might insist that he treat blues and pop rarities to his dolorously deliberate touch, like on those old Reprise albums Byron Coley sneers at. Instead he's encouraged to stagger toward an obscure destination mere mortals would noodle around, dumbfounding bystanders with the scraps of sound that flake off his beard as he goes. Once in a while tunes poke through the refuse, notably that of "Chelsey Silver, Please Call Home." These occasion proud huzzahs from young fools who can only forgive themselves such emoluments after a good cleansing scourge of spare solo indirection. Their self-disgust is our loss and Fahey's ticket to wankdom. Even the meandering Cul de Sac get more out of him. C PLUS

HERITAGE (Six Degrees/Island) I don't know why Darol Anger's name was left off his pet project, but the effect is to conceptualize it. As a result, these "new interpretations of American roots music" seem of a piece with the rest of 1997's folk revival revival, in which the Smithsonian's Harry Smith reissue and Rounder's Alan Lomax exhumation joined the alt-country bubble and the revitalization of Bob Dylan in a single antifuturist countercurrent. But just as there's Americana and then Americana, there's futurism and then futurism--why do you think they call it New Age? And this, by jiminy, is New Age Americana: fiddler Anger is a Windham Hill stalwart long active on the folk-jazz cusp, which has been the worst of both worlds since Marin County learned to swing. Guest vocalist Jane Siberry opens 'er up and brings 'er home, and in between Willie Nelson and Mary-Chapin Carpenter, who outdid themselves on Dylan's Jimmie Rodgers tribute, sink into the intelligent sentimentality that is the bane of each. Ditto for long-winded virtuosi David Lindley, David Grisman, and John Hartford, all of whom can be sharper when somebody jabs them a little. The smug soundtrack to a PBS special about tribulation and survival on the lost frontier. C MINUS [Later]

JANE'S ADDICTION: Kettle Whistle (Warner Bros.) As its current projects crumble from irrelevance to negative cash flow, a band that never made music or money commensurate with its myth bestows upon a shock-sated marketplace outtakes, demos, live tracks, and four proofs of physical reunion. Chutzpah has never been Perry Bernstein's problem. C PLUS

MASTER P: Ghetto D (No Limit/Priority) The title track is noxious and miraculous, hooked to a hectoring male singsong unlike anything I've ever heard. Subject: how to manufacture and distribute rock cocaine. The hit vies in rank sentimentality with "Candle in the Wind," hooked to a male groan also unlike anything I've ever heard. Subject: dead homies, a hard reality turned soft metaphor. The rest is underproduced propaganda for, reflections of, or fantasies about thug life that hold intrinsic interest only for live homies and their wannabes. Question: why aren't crack buyers also victims of this "black-on-black crime" that must stop? And another: why aren't there better things to do with talent? C PLUS [Later]

SARAH MCLACHLAN: Surfacing (Arista) Fearing serial tsunamis of subcosmic truism and womanist gush, I'd always kept away from the edge of this Canadian, such as it was. But between her Lilith Fair counterpalooza and "Building a Mystery" bonanza, I had to dive in, and got less than I'd bargained for. McLachlan isn't a mystic, a sister, even a New Ager--merely a singer-songwriter of monumental banality. Now ensconced in the mature satisfactions that come eventually to many unhappy young women, most of whom don't possess a clear multioctave voice or modest tune sense, she's proud to encase her homilies of succor and self-acceptance in settings that don't call undue attention to her compositional ambitions. Renormalized pop at its most unnecessary. C MINUS

98° (Motown) With Cincinnati a hotbed of racial mishegas from Uncle Tom's Cabin and Stephen Foster to Marge Schott and the Afghan Whigs, why shouldn't these four white boys be the younger generation's answer to Boyz II Men? They're certainly realer than the Backstreet Boys. But no way does that guarantee they're as good. Their mild singing is soulful only because there's no competent pop that isn't anymore. Their goopy hit ballad has nothing on a little something called "Heaven's Missing an Angel." And next time--they promise, assuming like so many young fools before them that there'll be one--they're going to write the material themselves. C MINUS

WILL OLDHAM: Joya (Drag City) "Why are you sad?" inquired the alt-rock mag. "I dunno," replied the former child actor d/b/a Palace and such. "I guess I was born." Admired for his reticence, sexual ambivalence, and general refusal of formal commitment, I mean closure, Oldham lacks neither talent nor originality, and up against some truly lousy competition this is his most melodic record. But to declare him a new avatar of Appalachian purity is absurd, not just because he's a rich city kid who can't sing, but because his purity is a candid affectation--a standard variation on late alt's agoraphobic cultivation of ineptitude as a token of spiritual superiority. Why is he sad? Because sad is easier than happy--almost comforting, in a chickenshit way. C PLUS

ROLLINS BAND: Come In and Burn (DreamWorks) Success doesn't suit this drug addict, who will kick caffeine only when they synthesize rage itself. Since I got big yucks out of 1992's spoken-word twofer The Boxed Life, which recalled a lab-assistant job and other homely pursuits, I am entitled to grouse about the grim star diary that is 1997's spoken-word twofer Black Coffee Blues. And while it's no surprise that this thrash-and-churn is his metalest metal ever, it's amazing that Spielberg-Katzenberg-Geffen made Rollins their flagship rocker--for all his corp clout and cult cred, he was off the charts a month after he muscled on. As pathetic as it is for aging Spinal Taps to fabricate melodrama out of an adolescent despair they remember via groupies and fan mail, it's even more pathetic never to feel anything else. C MINUS

THE ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA: Plays the Music of Oasis (Music Club) Horny minisymphonies with a trap drummer and even, unless my ears deceive me, the occasional electric guitar. Maybe it's a wonderful world after all. C

SUGAR RAY: Floored (Lava/Atlantic) Crude for sure, without anything to say or much to say it with, they nevertheless have some punky life to them, which I say is enhanced by their blatant ska and hip hop rips. What's most depressing about them is that their success makes sense--they're the nearest thing to a fresh young rock band the market or the "underground" has kicked up this year. Not counting Radish, of course. B MINUS

THE VERVE PIPE: Villains (RCA) Although bands like this still offend idealists, you can't call them pseudoalternative anymore, because they don't bother pretending. They're just rockers who crash the album chart, where the money is, from the singles chart, where they're supposedly no longer welcome--in other words, pop bands who can play their axes. There's San Francisco's gold-certified Third Eye Blind, whose little sex kinks are too catchy to get het up about. There's Orlando's double-platinum Matchbox 20, whose breakthrough hit some mistakenly (as is always claimed) believe promotes spousal abuse. But the one I really can't stand is this near-pseudoalternative one, grown men from Michigan who released two indie albums before their major-label debut catapulted to platinum on a soggy prowoman morality tale aimed at frat rats, who are urged not to drive girls to suicide by dumping them. The CD's gone now, but the single has stuck around for nine months, and when Brian Vander Ark finally emotes the chorus, it's like, I dunno, grunge lives. C [Later]

PAUL WELLER: Heavy Soul (Island) Forget the dance comps clogging the top 10 of a land that now believes 1989 was 1977. Never mind who the Lighthouse Family might be. If you want to know how little US and UK share anymore, pull out your cherished copy of Weller's acclaimed 1993 comeback Wild Wood (wha?) and note that in its roots-AOR wake the artist to whom this minor punk is now compared is Neil Young. Don't they get anythingover there? C [Later]

Village Voice, Dec. 2, 1997

Nov. 4, 1997 Dec. 30, 1997