Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide: Turkey Shoot

It's barf time once again at rock's big table, and I've got a question for the ipecac people. Do all the indie labels in the binge-and-purge below reflect alt's compromised preparation standards? Or has the biz gotten so disgusting there's no place else to eat?

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & HIS MAGIC BAND: Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982) (Revenant) If you have any doubts about needing this handsome $94-list package, you don't. If you're moved to ask pop-friendly me, you don't. Every CD box is larded with marginalia, but the good folks at Revenant--who last year reckoned that Charlie Feathers cut 42 "essential" tracks between 1954 and 1969--live for it. They believe consumers should share the thrill of digging through the crates, palpitating as the voice of genius emanates from a dusty reel. So instead of winnowing out an hour or so of lost songs, jelled jams, and unjust outtakes, they throw in a 13-minute CD of dim studio chatter, a minute of Don Van Vliet playing the harmonica over the telephone, etc. Take it from pop-friendly me--if you've spent more time with the Captain's free sessions than with Ornette Coleman's, you need to get your priorities in order. C PLUS

CHRIS CORNELL: Euphoria Morning (A&M) For years Cornell struggled to claim the class rage and overgrown-adolescent angst that is every metalman's birthright--only in Soundgarden's last years did he find the macho muscle to fully inhabit that role. Now, as if to prove he can't be satisfied, he sets his solo sights on the manly empathy and world-weary remorse of the big-rock balladeer. Here's hoping he never gets there. C PLUS

CREED: Human Clay (Wind-Up) In the year rock died again, what should come storming back but metal--d/b/a "hard" or "loud" rock and, as Syracuse demonstrated, uglier than ever. Yet these God-fearing grunge babies sound falser than rape-inciting Limp Bizkit, abuse-tripping Static-X, party animals Buckcherry, or even world-dance Days of the New. Because their songs address universals they don't debase women, a plus. But their spirituality is as sodden as their sonics. I mean, it's not as if familial oppression isn't real. It's the main thing that turns the hard and loud into truth-seekers and revenge-seekers both. So after years of Marilyn Manson lies, young bands seem to have found a psychic space where such themes open up the musical imagination. By contrast, these guys are still in denial, bellowing regressive circumlocutions to drown out the truth inside. Which is what? Maybe lust. C

LEE HAZLEWOOD: Cowboy in Sweden (Smells Like) Hazlewood is an "interesting" figure, always was. A natural hipster, in the biz but not of it, pop and rock and country and just plain weird--Duane Eddy, Nancy Sinatra, and Gram Parsons is quite a trifecta. Problem is he's never been all that good. There's a nice best-of hiding in his collected works, including the new standards collection. But his vogue transcends crass track-by-track quality controls, combining the usual convolutional one-upsmanship, a visceral distaste for roots-rock's sonic canon, and a generation of aging slackers' discovery that doing bizness needn't deaden your mind or rot your soul. If slick blues licks make you sick, Hazlewood's studio hacks and string-section dreck will be some kind of change. If you like Nancy Sinatra almost as much as Karen Carpenter, thin-piped Nina Lizell will clean away enough Janis-and-Bonnie grit. If you doubt all shows of soul, the flaccid sentimentality of "Easy and Me" will be one more trope as far as you're concerned. But without opening a book I can recall half a dozen unreissued singer-songwriter albums that do more with their varied conventions than this Europe-only 1970 rarity--by Thomas Jefferson Kaye, Nolan Porter, Marc Benno, Hirth Martinez, Alice Stuart, Mississippi Charles Bevel. And I shudder to think of the unreasonable claims to be made when their time comes around again. B MINUS

JAMIROQUAI: Synkronized (Work) Hoping to prepare for future outbreaks of rhythm pap by discovering what put these London clotheshorses over, I found but two clues: acid jazz and Heatwave. Both of these apply only in Britannia. How the band secured its Grammy I defy Fredric Dannen to determine. C MINUS

LENNY KRAVITZ: 5 (Virgin) His racially convoluted formalism having long since come clean as a total absence of original ideas, he grabs the brass ring from the back of a tacked-on Guess Who cover best heard on the far more imaginative Austin Powers soundtrack. Lenny, your work here on earth is done. We've got Derek Jeter now. C

LES NUBIANS: Princesses Nubians (OmTown) Certainly not "Nubian." Biology not being destiny, not "Cameroonian" either. "Princesses" metaphorically if at all. Not "Miriam Makeba meets Wyclef Jean" or any half of same. "Soul II Soul meets Zap Mama" a smidgen. "Sisters" if they say so, "soul" if the "5th Annual Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards" says so. "French" definitely, "hip-hop" forget about it. Coverers of Sade with rhythmic spoken-word interlude indubitably. Blander than their bass lines you bet. French definitely. C PLUS

LIT: A Place in the Sun (RCA) Led by two Orange County lads whose dad was a pop DJ, they like Vegas and old Cadillacs, make too much of their play on "come," "complete," and "completely miserable," and serve as a dull-dull-dull reminder to anyone besotted with Blink 182 that punk in itself guaranteed nothing even in the days of the Real Kids and the Suicide Commandos. C

RICKY MARTIN (C2/Columbia) The boy-group boom is harmless-if-bad. Martin is more like bad-if-not-worse. Since he was already marked for death with Menudo, don't be so sure his rebirth is a one-shot. But don't make him a Latin-pride poster boy either. Slicked-up rhythm workouts and romantic pap were tokens of progress circa Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz. In an America where Spanish is a second language, they're the reactionary strategems of one more crappy pop star. C

MOBB DEEP: Murda Muzik (Loud) "Guns, money, pussy, cars, drugs, jewels, clothes, brawls, killings, buroughs, buildings, diseases, stress, the D's." And then: "Straight reality." Yeah, right. B MINUS

MOGWAI: Come On Die Young (Matador) Young Glaswegians extolled by those weary of verse-chorus-verse as "radical," "beautiful," and other things that would never occur to the rest of us, they mutate the forgettable mess of their debut into something altogether more deliberate and kempt--occasionally tuneful, invariably slow. Only on the oceanbound land mass where acid house was Beatlemania would anyone sit still for such earnest post-rock tripe. C

THE OLIVIA TREMOR CONTROL: Black Foliage: Animation Music by the Olivia Tremor Control (Flydaddy) This division of the Elephant 6 consortium loves tunes, and its soundscaping has few equals in indiedom. When it mixes the two, the result is often kinda beautiful even though the lyrics are avowedly "not going to shed any new light on humanity," and even though the sonics tend toward the perverse--disembodied outtake snippets, mechanical malfunctions, and tape fuckups that their hip hop counterparts would bury in beats or declare inimical to organic life. But as the album goes on (and on), the strategy becomes not noize-toon synthesis, but weird song as reward for unpleasant sound. At its most generous, this may be the music of the young Brian Wilson's dysfunctional dreams. But at its most pretentious it's his bad trip. And bad trips weren't the main reason the psychedelic worldview fell into disrepute. The main reason was that it was full of shit. B MINUS

IGGY POP: Avenue B (Virgin) Unless "A masterpiece without a frame" and "I want to fuck her on the floor/Among my books of ancient lore" are jokes no one gets, the sole compliment one can pay this confessional poetry by a fiftysomething cocksman who Cannot Love is that at least he's willing to look like a fool. But that's been his shtick since he was bleeding himself with broken Skippy jars. Right, Ig, you're "corrupt"--no news there. Unfortunately, blaming "the paranoia of the age" and bitching "I gave em every part of me" is also corrupt. Plus one more thing: until you learn to sing a little better, maybe you'd better say goodbye to Medeski Martin and Wood and put in a call to the Sales brothers. C

PROFESSOR GRIFF: Blood of the Profit (Lethal) Begins with indisputable documentary evidence that race-mixing is a Communist Party plot. Gets worse. D

VIRGINIA RODRIGUES: Sol Negro (Hannibal) Notes by Caetano Veloso, who's clearly stunned at the ability of the daughter of a street vendor to evoke "operas, masses, lieder, and spirituals," a response shared by many Lusophiles and every fan of the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir who's in on the story. The rest of us will be stupefied that such a "celestial" voice can exist at all. She never stretches her rich, Ella-like highs into a scat--though the few midtempo numbers have a nice jazzy lilt (dig that berimbau), her instincts are exceedingly solemn. Veloso is Veloso, which means he "transcends the distinction between erudite and popular" far more vividly than he thinks Rodrigues does. High middlebrows Djavan and Milton Nascimento don't, and their cameos give the game away. B MINUS

SHEDAISY: The Whole Shebang (Lyric Street) Here's something you don't know how much you don't need--Dixie Chicks imitators. I do, because I also played the Lace album. The best-selling Osborn sisters have more jam. But although they swear they "won't wear stiletto heels" (unlike all those hussies at the Wal-Mart?), they definitely make nicer to men than Dolly and Loretta if not Tammy and Reba. Nothing in "Still Holding Out for You," cowritten by none other than Richard Marx, suggests that smart sister Kristyn wouldn't dress like a slut to get him back. Somebody send that lovelorn lass a Victoria's Secret catalogue. C PLUS

SIXPENCE NONE THE RICHER (Squint Entertainment) If you hold your breath and are very good, maybe "Kiss Me" will prove a fluke even though it's been the most durable single of 1999--in the end, only the innocent invitation to making out a deserving teen subdemographic craved. But don't tell yourself stories about biz or fundamentalist plots. Christians not proselytizers, they're an indie-rock success story who come by their limpid sound more organically than the Sundays or the Innocence Mission, both of whom they sincerely admire. Leigh Nash's clear little voice, like a young Natalie Merchant without the neurotic undertow? Her own. Matt Slocum's classed-up minor-key arrangements, like an acoustic Radiohead without the existential foofaraw? His own. They hope to create pretty, well-meaning stuff like this in perpetuity, for the sheer joy of it. Which means they could be nauseating urban skeptics for years. C PLUS [Later]

RICK WAKEMAN: The Art in Music Trilogy (Music Fusion import) You thought he'd died and gone to his reward, and so did the All-Music Guide, where his timeline ends in the '80s but his discography tells a different tale: easily the most prolific "rock" artist of the '90s, manufacturing "instrumental new world ambient music" and God knows what else at a staggering clip. Night Airs, Aspirant Sunrise, Aspirant Sunset, Black Knights in the Court of Ferdinand IV, Phantom Power, Softsword: King John and the Magna Charter (sic), A World of Wisdom, and 2000 A.D. Into the Future get us only to the end of 1991, and he's kept it up--by my count, 35 albums in the decade, including this recent set, all three discs of which I swear I listened to while awake. Brief pieces suffused with the twixt-strings-and-keyboard echoes that are the special curse of synthesizers on today's auriculum, they favor harpsichord over piano and will dabble in anything a synth can, including drums and voices. The first disc, "The Sculptor," is the most soporific, which isn't a dis--"The Writer" gave me insomnia, and not because I blamed myself. D

Village Voice, Nov. 30, 1999

Nov. 16, 1999 Dec. 28, 1999