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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1996 Pazz & Jop: Don’t Believe the Gripe

Let’s see now. Hem, haw. It was the worst year for music since, er…1995.

Guess that won’t do, will it? Well, how about — gripe, mumble — it was the worst year for guitar bands since… That’s a peg, I suppose. Since when, though? Make it 1990. It was in 1990, according to a widely cited Billboard article, that for the first time in the post-Beatle era not a single “rock” album hit No. 1, although due to the failure of vaginas to remind Billboard of Jimi’s axe, appropriately arranged efforts by Bonnie Raitt and Sinéad O’Connor failed to qualify. Not coincidentally, 1990 was also the year the groundbreaking rappers M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice enjoyed their long, silly No. 1 runs. And soon an unknown band from Seattle would usher in a new boom cycle for both the music business and electric guitars. Which brings us to the 1996 bust. Which was real. Right?

Right. The 1996 Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll extends the 1995 trend in which the disruptive mix-and-match sampling techniques originally naturalized by hip hop made more waves than the guitar-powered aftershocks of grunge. And this aesthetic development had a commercial correlative. As the Times was so shocked to report, 1996 was indeed the year in which new rock product by such designated sure shots as R.E.M., Pearl Jam, and Hootie & the Blowfish failed to attract consumers in the vast numbers the industry had projected, or wished, inspiring much millenarian blather in its retail sector. Of course, as anyone who read Billboard was aware, retail was showing signs of pie-eyed overexpansion and overdue shakeout even during the boom. Moreover, the headlined downturn wasn’t in revenues per se, which continued to rise slightly, but in the steep growth curve of recent years, an unnatural trajectory many attribute to recycled CD catalogue. And anyway, plenty of voters would argue that what’s bad for the music business is good for music. Still, I take the slumplet seriously, not just because I suspect that the diminished seed money it portends is a bad thing, but because after working all my life to get respect for popular music, I believe popularity is a good thing. Decades of Iron Butterflys, Osmonds, Journeys, and Celine Dions have yet to spoil my delight in the risk and mess it entails.

Pazz & Jop generally takes a healthy interest in sales, honoring hits of quality more often than not, and although Johnny Huston huffs that the widely acclaimed winner of our 23rd or 24th poll isn’t “the King of America,” merely “the 100th-highest-selling album artist of the year,” the going-on-platinum sales of Beck’s Odelay put it in the black even by today’s advance-bloated standards. Nevertheless, we believe we’re onto something that abides after profits have turned to fertilizer: truth and beauty, justice and pleasure, Art, the Mattering. Few of us are disquieted by the far scanter sales of the 1995 winner, PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, or the drastically lower 1993 numbers of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, and we’re kind of proud that Hole’s now-platinum Live Through This had barely reached gold when the ballots went out in 1994. So whether or not Polly Harvey’s music is ever taken up by the so-called mass audience, we believe it will be remembered as intensely as that of her superstar stablemates in U2, who are also admired by a good chunk of the electorate (and will still be after their designated sure shot, hopefully entitled Pop, fails to save Strawberries from Chapter 11 in 1997). And we know from experience that the poll is an excellent if hardly foolproof indicator of potential fan appeal.

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Yet if some sort of sea change toward soundscape feels like what’s happening, when I got all right-brained and examined the numbers, what they presaged for guitar bands began to seem pretty complicated. To start with, definition is tricky. We clearly can’t limit the concept to “alternative” when artists like Guns N’ Roses and Richard Thompson live off it. [File Under Prince] has to count even if Guy and Tony Toni Toné and the once seminal guitarist Curtis Mayfield do not; latter-day honky-tonkers like Dwight Yoakam and Jimmie Dale Gilmore qualify even if Rick Rubin–era Johnny Cash is as folk as Ani DiFranco and The Ghost of Tom Joad. Amy Rigby counts the way Bonnie Raitt does, and so does Iris DeMent, by just a hair this time; austere Gillian Welch does not. And folkie-with-a-sampler Beck, resented in some quarters for putting new juice in a white fanboy form, obviously presents a big problem. But if I’m wrong to rule that Odelay and Mellow Gold aren’t guitar-band albums, for reasons I’ll explain later, that has no effect on my conclusion, which is that Gibson and Fender needn’t downsize quite yet.

In this decade, the worst poll year for guitar bands was the aforementioned 1990, which was also a good one for rappers somewhat more durable than Hammer and Ice — the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, 18th that year and 87th this, and Digital Underground, whose best-remembered contribution to the hip hop weal will probably end up Tupac Shakur, two crews now victimized as much by their audience’s appetite for fad and progress as by any dropoff in their own abilities. But ironically, as the saying goes, 1990’s 19 sets of axemen — sole women: the Kims Gordon and Deal on bass, Georgia Hubley on drums — were led by a triumphant Neil Young & Crazy Horse, whose Ragged Glory inspired our cover line: “Guitars: Live and Memorex.” Subsequently, guitar bands have charted a high of 27 finishers, in 1992, and a low of 23, in all three Pazz & Jops since 1994, which was also the year of Green Day and Soundgarden and a top five that went Hole-Pavement-R.E.M.-Nirvana-Young. And the numbers remain stable when you focus on futures. Narrowing the definitions to favor classic garage-band configurations, filtering out the varied likes of Rigby, the Mavericks, and the eternal Alanis Morissette, you find that seven previously uncharted guitar units made our top 40 in ’94, nine in ’95, and eight in ’96.

This bean-count bears out what ought to be obvious: not only won’t the dominant musical sound of the second half of the 20th century disappear overnight, but that magic twanger is likely to enjoy a maturity so active it will seem oppressive to the prophets of electronica, already impatient for a historical moment that’s sure to take a form they can’t predict. The gender barrier is permanently breached; for the nonce, it’s much higher in techno. And partly as a result, although the simple pressure of history (including technological change) is the biggest factor, the guitar band’s aural profile will continue to expand and evolve, just as the horn section’s did between Sousa and Ellington, and just as guitars themselves have since 1955, when Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and not so many others turned Chicago blues into pop, through the ’60s, when guitars actually took over, through metal and punk and more metal and grunge and, whatcha wanna bet, more metal after that. And through plenty of other stuff, too.

But a closer look at the beans reveals that the electronicats aren’t just whistling “Born Slippy.” For starters, there’s funny stuff going on with Pazz & Jop’s rookies. Anomalously in an era when baby bands hone their skills with indie farm teams before going national, most of 1995’s scored with debut albums, as the irrepressible biz-wise opportunists of Foo Fighters, Garbage, and Elastica concocted professional pop from the grunge aesthetic/moment and Uncle Tupelo bifurcated into down-to-earth Wilco and miasmic Son Volt. Maybe the opportunists are career artists, as they say over in A&R. But the careers in question seem pathologically dependent on catchy singles, a malady almost as fatal (you die of the cutes, humming uncontrollably, Day-Glo puke, it’s awful) as the dread Alternian texturitis (for those who desire a dignified death). And in 1996, with our singles chart sporting a fresh crop of alternanovelties, Eels and Primitive Radio Gods where once Filter and the Presidents of the U.S.A. stood, all but two of our album newcomers reversed the pattern of the previous years by squeezing in on the low end, 24-29-34-35-38. This suggests some combination of diminished critical interest and attenuated talent pool. Whatever you think of Robert Schneider’s weirdo brainchildren, you have to admit that Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control lack the ambitious sweep of the opportunists. Don’t you?

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So then. Perhaps it’s time to ac-cent-tchu-ate the progressive. Having debuted at No. 2 in 1995, the bummed-out mixmaster Tricky wasted no time placing a still bleaker follow-up and his Nearly God guest-victim project in the top 20. Easier on the soul and meatier for the right side of the brain was Endtroducing…DJ Shadow, U.S.-released mid-November by a young Californian so out of step Stateside that he had to go to London to get a rep, which finished all the way up at fourth after barely creasing premature competing polls. With Goldie polishing his Metalheadz and L. T. J Bukem shunted over to a P&J compilation chart I hope isn’t embryonic forever, these two artists represented the legible edge of soundscape in 1996. Tricky was felt and phantasmagoric, Shadow in control of the kind of macrostructures rarely noticed by the voters, who end up depending as much on songs as Alanis and Gwen — a pop predilection that is the secret of their oracular powers. Whether Tricky and Shadow have a growth curve in them remains to be determined. But simply by taking electronica to a recognizable formal conclusion, they gave lots of nonspecialists the touch of strange they craved while preparing them for further developments.

And after that there’s, well, there’s Stereolab seventh and Everything but the Girl 12th. These finishes thrilled my advisers, and I was gratified if hardly surprised by the forward motion they signified. I just wish I was convinced it wasn’t lateral motion. Early proponents of the alternaesthetic in which texture fills in for tune, EBTG have been around longer than, I don’t know, Screaming Trees, and Ben Watt’s drum ’n’ bass doesn’t enliven Tracy Thorn’s sad croon any more decisively than his protoloungecore used to. So it isn’t that history has caught up with them, it’s that they’ve finally found their retro-with-a-twist niche, and could they have cocktail onions with that? As for the blithe Marxists of Stereolab, I’m down with their newfound knack for splitting the difference between class war and Wrigley commercial, but weightwise it turns them into Fountains of Wayne with a chick singer and longer songs. Once again no future, except perhaps in its synthy wink at the triviality it embraces with such post-Fordist savoir-faire, a fun quality few of us would call — and though I hate to put it this way, what else can I say? — revolutionary. P.S.: Something similar goes for their culture-bending sisters in Cibo Matto, who signify their commitment to innovation by hanging out in the right neighborhood.

It’s not my (primary) purpose to make fun of an honorable record I don’t happen to care for and a likable one that wears its limitations on its insert. I’m just trying get a grip on the latest death-of-rock rumor, which I’ll call the fifth — 1959 (“the day the music died”), 1968 (nobody believes me now, but it was the talk of the town; Esquire assigned a story, then axed me when I came up with the wrong answer), 1977–79 (disco), 1990 (see above), and 1996. This is a conservative count, of course— every year, every month, artistic malcontents broadcast obituaries for whatever genre isn’t ringing their chimes or providing the wealth and fame they know to be their due. So at this late date I trust my skepticism is understandable. It could actually be, as is oft conjectured, that mindless pop pap — not the Cardigans, but poor Gwen Stefani — has already replaced dire pseudoalternative bellyaching in the hearts and minds of the 18–24s the biz dotes on. But that isn’t what we care about. If Nirvanamania was a fluke, well, who expected anything better after Kurt died? Having survived Journey and Michael Bolton (on the same label, yet never seen on the same stage at the same time!), we can certainly survive No Doubt, and even Celine Dion. The question is what music will get us through — if any.

As it happens, I haven’t been much of a “rock” guy myself of late. Looking over a decade’s worth of top 10s, I find that, up till this year, only in 1994, with grunge rampant and hip hop and Afropop losing savor, did more than half my faves qualify; usually the figure has been three or four. Although this year’s six-by-just-a-hair — Rigby, Fluffy, Sleater-Kinney, DeMent, Los Lobos, Nirvana — all got to me immediately, the basic guitar-band format has become so familiar that even the ones I end up enjoying (Girls Against Boys, Sebadoh, the glorious Imperial Teen) can take forever to show me their tricks. Since I disdain the marginal differentiations fanzines are created for, demanding nothing less than true sonic distinction — which often just means astutely produced tune-and-voice combos like Sebadoh’s or Fluffy’s, but sometimes inheres in interplay like Imperial Teen’s, and when the right lyric grabs me by the earlobe I come back for more — you’d think stuff would sink in faster. But for me as for most people, diminished expectations do turn into self-fulfilling prophecies over time. And it’s that formal satiety — often combined with the nervous compulsion to maturity that afflicts not-so-recent college grads as their liaisons turn into relationships and their jobs evolve willy-nilly into careers — that leaves smart young-adult rock and rollers hungry for new. Thing is, this is as true of artists as of fans. Sometimes they’re merely worried about their continued marketability. But they didn’t become musicians to get bored.

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With that in mind, ask yourself how many of P&J’s 23 rock acts seem comfortable with the accepted parameters of the form. Musicmeisters R.E.M. and tastemeister Joe Henry working New South neotraditionalism; guitarmeister Richard Thompson on his half-acoustic little double-CD and songmeisters Wilco claiming every parameter they can think of on theirs; reformed country phenom Steve Earle and unretiring grande dame Patti Smith; Sheryl Crow cognizing aural dissonance; Rigby and DeMent with bigger fish to fry; and grunge patriarchs Soundgarden and Screaming Trees, whose big-rock moves are the most conventional pieces of music in this year’s top 40. And while quite a few of these artists mean to break molds (with virtuosity, passion, whatever), the list of those who already have only starts with [File Under Prince]: Sleater-Kinney storming the castle like Nirvana before them; Sebadoh and Imperial Teen playing Marco Polo in the moat; Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control throwing poop on their toy songs; arena-ska Sublime and rap-metal Rage Against the Machine; Jon Spencer avant-travestying da blooze; popmeisters Pulp reigning over a United Kingdom in which dance beats come as naturally as wanking; and the magisterial old cross-culturalists of Los Lobos sampling rhythms and styles live as well as sounds and atmospheres DAT. Obviously these groupings array themselves on a continuum, not in polarity, with the daring of individual transgressions subject to dispute. But to me they make clear that as it generated the inevitable epigones and deracinations, Nirvanamania opened things up even further than outside forces would have opened them up anyway.

And then there are the artists for whom a received form is a shot in the arm, mother’s milk, life itself. Distinguishing between emergent culture, the shock-of-the-new malcontents crave, and residual culture, the old-fashioned staples they resent, Raymond Williams pointed out that the residual is often antihegemonic, affirming values the arbiters up top have cost-cut to pieces. This mechanism is regularly activated when the disenfranchised seize their expressive destiny, as in the P&J counterpart to all the women who took over Billboard’s charts in 1996: the three lesbians and one housewife who staged two of the most startling rushes in P&J history — third-place Sleater-Kinney and eighth-place Amy Rigby, who handicapped to come in around 20th and 35th on their tiny labels. Compared to Nirvana’s, Sleater-Kinney’s moldbreaking seems midcontinuum, their less disruptive chops knocking down everything in the music’s path on the strength of a resolve whose steadiness never diminishes its intensity; while all Rigby wanted from her producer was articulate settings for her naturalistic lyrics and tunes, which is all he provided. People who just don’t get these records attend to the instrumentation and say what’s the big deal. But rather than political correctness or some such canard, what propelled them so high was reliable usages imbued with new needs — an urge to grow up without blowing up, an urge to hold fast without getting stuck to the floor. And each of these was conveyed by the one musical element no inanimate device has yet generated: the human voice.

Voices are almost as personal in the reception as the production, and on both ends too many alt types so detest Michael Bolton that they’ve learned to do without what are narrowly designated strong ones. Voice is why Iris DeMent improved her 1994 showing on a robust album cynics found preachy, and because it’s so personal, it’s also why devotees love Cassandra Wilson’s midnight drift and I don’t. The poll honors a few great voices — [File Under Prince] again, and having wearied of poor Eddie Vedder, some would now add Mark Lanegan — plus, as always, a great many canny singers. But it’s our two dark horses who make me wonder whether pipes could be making a comeback with a constituency deeply suspicious of their penchant for corn. Corin Tucker’s power contralto (underpinned by Carrie Brownstein’s power screech) is why so many skeptics quickly get Sleater-Kinney, and as a guy who kept playing Rigby’s record well after he could sing along with the year’s sharpest lyrics, I can attest that it isn’t her words that carry the music, but how warmly they quaver around proper pitch.

What strikes me about Rigby and Sleater-Kinney is that they resist the trend in which four of the five top albums (counting Los Lobos’s Tchad Blake connection) are sample-dependent: the most purportedly direct musical-emotional expression up against self-consciously recombinant bricolage. I wish I wasn’t obliged to point out that such alternatives aren’t mutually exclusive: Shadow topped my list, Rigby ran a strong second. And the finest thing I can say about our sweeping winner is that he doesn’t think anything excludes anything. I don’t count Beck as guitar-band, even though he fronts one on stage and plays the appropriate instruments in the studio, for the simple reason that he wants out the way [File Under Prince] wants in. His legal ID says folkie, but he manifests no more and no less fealty to that niche than to alt-rock, hip hop, or avant-garde — or, let us not forget, biz.

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Beck won big, not spectacularly. Only the third victor to earn more points than the Nos. 2 and 3 albums combined, he was also the third straight — as critics’ polls proliferate, a certain lemming effect sets in. His 47 per cent mention on 236 ballots (with the Voice between music editors, our turnout was the lowest of the ’90s) hadn’t been equalled since the ’80s, when Prince and Bruce batted over .500 and Michael J. came close, and I know because several letters said so that a few fans who counted him a shoo-in threw their support to beloved longshots instead. There is an obverse, however. Calculated lowballing is no doubt one reason for how few points Odelay amassed from all those voters, only 10.3 per mention, a dropoff of a full half-point from the previous low, Arrested Development in 1992 (which I trust is now recognized as a duty pick, a suggestion that outraged its supporters at the time). But by way of comparison, 1994 sure shots Hole averaged 12.8 points per mention, 1995 sure shot PJ Harvey 12.4, and both inspired outpourings of hyperbole, while (as with Arrested Development) Beck’s written support was surprisingly querulous. Since Odelay ended up sinking to 16 on my list, sounding pretty cold up against the goofy glow and slacker specificity of Mellow Gold — not to mention the funny flow and pan-African seriousness [of] the Fugees, who confounded duty and pleasure so sweetly and militantly that troubled hip hop ideologues still don’t know what to make of them — I infer that, like myself, many of the winner’s more detached supporters wondered whether there was enough there there. Protean and incandescent cut by cut, Odelay means by not meaning — it fetishizes indirection, which becomes simultaneously rational and huggable when couched in its song forms. For the old alternakids who love the record this strategy is mother’s milk, soy milk, malted milk, and a shot of good Scotch combined. But it makes mere admirers itch.

Yet because I respect Beck, enjoy Beck, and like Beck, I have little doubt that he’s humane enough to rectify this absence. I know the prophets among us think his samples are far too jokey and catch-as-catch-can, a rockist insult to the whole-universe soundfields they can hear with their body’s ear in the latest techno subsubgenre, and they’re onto something — hearing, seeing, feeling Spring Heel Jack spin in October was a trip I hope to repeat. But the predictive power of the utopian folderol rock and roll has been fending off since the ’60s is so risible by now that I refuse to waste space on the argument. Extreme states of consciousness are for extremists, and one reason popularity is such a good thing is all the mad visions and overpowering emotions ordinary music lovers get to put to ordinary use. I hope Tricky and Shadow’s growth curve leads us all the way up the mountain, where wizards unknown await. But most of those you read about in the funny papers are apprentices at best.

I began 1996 with dire predictions about the future of music, and I take exception to (or maybe just don’t get) much of this year’s top 40 — e.g., the pleasantly pleasureless Gillian Welch; the politely literary Joe Henry; the archly boho Cibo Matto; Maxwell expiring of Afrocentric texturitis in that midway spot on the poll reserved in past years for such dance/r&b as Lisa Stansfield, Seal, En Vogue, Tony Toni Toné, and (here’s a clue) D’Angelo; the Roots proving that good intentions aren’t enough even if you throw in a human beatbox; and, saints preserve us, future Sleater-Kinney tourmate Jon Spencer. But many of these are what I call Neithers rather than Duds, and it could have been a lot worse. The deadly Tortoise foundered in a 41–50 that went Lovett–Dr. Octagon–Reed-Chesnutt-Germano–Girls Against Boys-Tortoise-Metallica-Cardigans-Fluffy (!). Aimee Mann was 74th, Dirty Three 87th; there were only two votes for Grant Lee Buffalo. The winner in the sadly unenthusiastic singles balloting was at least a dance ditty as dumb and wondrous as “Macarena” itself. And with the inability of the biz to repackage its history in perpetuity causing as much financial distress as Pearl Jam’s refusal to make videos, at least the uncanonical surprise winner of our reissues ballot is a galactic titan. Thank heavens for Sun Ra — he could have been Esquivel.

I was encouraged too by the return of political complaint — Iris DeMent and Zach de la Rocha, Lauryn Hill and Corin Tucker — and note once again that the quality and effectiveness of the ideas matter less than the felt need to express them. This is Art, folks. One would like it to have social consequences and is certain that one way or another it will, but Art is where those consequences begin. That’s why, in the end, I find I don’t much care whether the biz booms or busts. If it booms we get some kind of ’60s-style mass mess, with crazies and communicators expanding and compromising their reinvested emotions and their glimpses of the next world; if it busts a narrower subculture addresses the same issues in much the same way Amerindie did in the ’80s. There’s worthy music down both forks — a futurism that isn’t suckered by folderol counterbalanced against an eagerness to reconstitute traditions it would be dumb to throw out with the bongwater. Not what I dream, not what you dream, but what is? For a holding action in what could have been a dismal time, it will definitely keep me hanging on.

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Top 10 Albums of 1996

1. Beck: Odelay (DGC)

2. Fugees: The Score (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Sleater-Kinney: Call the Doctor (Chainsaw)

4. DJ Shadow: Endtroducing…DJ Shadow (Mo Wax/FFRR)

5. Los Lobos: Colossal Head (Warner Bros.)

6. Steve Earle: I Feel Alright (Warner Bros.)

7. Stereolab: Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra)

8. Amy Rigby: Diary of a Mod Housewife (Koch)

9. Tricky: Pre-Millennium Tension (Island)

10. Pulp: Different Class (Island)

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Top 10 Singles of 1996

1. Quad City DJs: “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)” (Atlantic/Big Beat)

2. (Tie) Beck: “Where It’s At” (DGC)
Smashing Pumpkins: “1979” (Elektra)

4. (Tie) Oasis: “Wonderwall” (Epic)
Pulp: “Common People” (Island)

6. Busta Rhymes: “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check” (Elektra)

7. The Chemical Brothers: “Setting Sun” (Astralwerks)

8. (Tie) Beck: “Devils Haircut” (DGC)
Blackstreet: “No Diggity” (Interscope)
Primitive Radio Gods: “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” (Ergo/Columbia)

—From the February 25, 1997, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

 

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OVER THE HILL

Ms. Lauryn Hill is more than just a singer, she is the very definition of an artist. Her lyrics are gorgeously composed and are even more powerful when delivered in her lovely voice. Clearly, a talent like hers can’t be contained by just one classic album. She claims two releases — hip hop essential The Score with her former group The Fugees and solo effort The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill — to her esteemed name. Unfortunately for us, Hill hasn’t released a full album of new work since that 1998 solo debut, though rumors have been swirling for some time about the possibility of a new collection arriving sooner rather than later. In the interim, Ms. Hill continues to influence new crops of R&B and soul singers, reasserting her relevance with every new voice she inspires. Let’s see how many new stars are born after her Homecoming Concert Series in Brooklyn this week.

Mon., July 28, 7 p.m., 2014

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SPLISH SPLASH

tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus is back with a new album that is, among other fantastically genre-subverting things, more grammatically off the grid than 2009’s BiRd-BrAiNs and w h o k i l l in 2011: Nikki Nack. Inspired by the Haitian drum and dance lessons she took in fall 2012, Garbus’s new record sparkles with ingenuity: There’s a song-poem about Tupperware and eating tots, the percussive anthem “Water Fountain,” and “Wait for a Minute,” a slinky, Fugees-reminiscent ballad. No matter which direction she goes with her inspired take on African polyrhythms, Garbus always puts on a magnificently raucous show it’s impossible not to move to.

Wed., May 7, 9 p.m., 2014

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Wyclef Jean

Three days after closing his Haitian relief charity, Fugees ‘fugee Wylcef Jean comes to City Winery to promote his new memoir Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story. VIP packages include a bottle of their Wyclef Jean Special Reserve Wine. How many mics will rip on the daily? Hopefully as many, many, many as ever.

Thu., Oct. 18, 9 p.m., 2012

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Where’s the Beef?

I am not a very good vegetarian anymore. There, I said it. Sure, I still like to veg out. Be still like vegetables. Lay like broccoli. But I used to be an exemplary vegetarian. A few years ago The New Yorker ran a cartoon of one woman explaining to another during a meal: “I started my vegetarianism for health reasons, then it became a moral choice, and now it’s just to annoy people.” Four people sent me that cartoon, including my parents. Who faxed it to me. At work. I grew to accept that my refusal to eat anything that once had the will to crap was funny for others. As part of my acceptance, I had to laugh at veggie jokes that were never very funny. The upside was I got to have (vegetable) stock answers prepared for queries about my diet.

For example: Most of your shoes are made of leather or suede. Why is that?

“Because I’m not going to eat my boots, that’s why. There’s a big difference between stepping on something and making it a part of you. I’m not going to eat sidewalk either.”

What do you mean “no meat”? No chicken? No lobster?

“Just venison.”

The problem now is I’m not sure I have the right to slyly defend myself in this manner, not anymore. What follows is a roughage exposé, if you will.

The first thing to understand is that being a vegetarian is actually a pretty private matter. I am still taken aback by the question “Then what do you eat?” and am embarrassed as I struggle to produce the week’s food diary. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I eat, but it’s none of anyone’s business. I imagine I would have a similar feeling counting up how many pairs of underwear I went through in a week (OK, nine). It’s strange to be interested in something so basic that I barely register it as an activity. The only reason opening someone’s refrigerator is more socially acceptable than opening someone’s medicine cabinet is that people keep beer in their refrigerator. (And what’s really socially unacceptable is drinking alone.)

In this way—something once between a select few now coming out of the freezer—being a vegetarian in this city is not unlike being gay. Vegetarian restaurants and options abound. I have the same number of veggie friends as I do gay friends. Because it’s so common and sometimes even hip to be a vegetarian, it’s become socially acceptable to poke fun of us. Being a vegan, of course, is more like the dietary equivalent of being a transsexual. Acceptance isn’t quite as contagious as it should be.

I tried being a vegan once. Six months of tempeh and kale and I cracked like a rice cake and inhaled an entire box of fluorescent mac and cheese. It was just too hard for me to keep up the charade of a dairy-free existence. The surprising part was how easy veganism was to enter into. You read enough books that make The Jungle look like Goodnight, Moon and you wake up one day to find yourself a recycled-paper-card-carrying member of the tofu mafia. And I knew which books to read, all right.

My own private Idaho potato went like this: When I was a teenager a renowned South African acupuncturist moved in next door to my parents. He and his wife (who pronounces lime like lamb, thus leading to the infamous pie recipe debacle) are still the hippest couple my parents know and single-handedly responsible for introducing them to Whole Foods and the Fugees. One day I told the acupuncturist I wanted to be a vegetarian. I wish I could remember why I wanted to stop eating meat, but this was high school and I also wish I could remember my motivation for drinking Zima and wearing flannel in public. I met with a nutritionist in the acupuncturist’s office on Fifth Avenue. She took my whim far more seriously than I did. She talked about tahini, how to cook vegetables properly, and the semi-apocalyptic idea that you could soak almonds for days to make “milk.” That I never tried. But I did buy a cookbook called The Single Vegan, not because I was single at the time but because this was the only vegan cookbook available. Looking back, I should have taken it as a cosmic hint to be less of a high-maintenance eater—the soy cheese always stands alone. Instead I saw myself as this nutritionist woman saw me: a power vegan. I juiced things. Lots of things.

For a while anyway. Damn you, delicious powdered cheese.

So that’s my story of how I became a veggie—because I couldn’t hack it as a vegan. Except the problem now is I can’t hack it as a vegetarian either. What can I say? New York is sushi city, and sushi is the one thing I’ve consistently craved over the past decade (besides the secret craving of every vegetarian: bacon). My education about the moral and environmental impact of eating meat is thorough, but my response to all the statistics has developed a major fissure called “sashimi.” At first I started with gateway fish: salmon and tuna. I think it’s because when I pictured them, they were in massive schools where, going against the current of every crunchy article I had ever believed in, I reasoned: Would they really miss just one? Probably more convenient with one less car on the road. And wham: Now I’ll eat eel.

In my lame defense, it’s very hard to be a girl and say you won’t eat something. Refuse one plate of bacon-wrapped pork rinds and you’re an anorexic. Accept them and you’re on Atkins. Excuse yourself to go to the bathroom and you’re bulimic. Best to keep perfectly still and bring an IV of fluids with you to dinner.

I tell other vegetarians that I started eating sushi because I developed an iron deficiency. This is a total lie. But it’s a lie that works. Contrary to popular belief, vegetarians aren’t holistic Nazis or New Yorker cartoons. They will accept medical betrayal. What they won’t accept is that I got lazy, that I decided fish were yummy and didn’t have nervous systems complex enough to register pain, that Edward Furlong is a freak for trying to free the lobsters and David Foster Wallace thinks too hard about our acquaintances of the sea.

So what’s to become of me now? Like anything that begins on the fringe, vegetarianism is dominated by older adherents who will kick you out of the veggie club faster than you can say “grilled vegetable terrine.” With raw and organic food available in every zip code, we have it easy compared to them. Back in their day they had to walk five miles, uphill both ways, until their Birkenstocks were bloody, just to get a slice of polenta. They are quick to judge and would rather break bread with a veal eater than a nouveau fad vegetarian. I eat with the fishes so life is easy for me all of a sudden. Thus I have kept my mouth shut about my dirty sushi secret until now.

The truth is I’m not particularly sure why I don’t eat meat anymore. Any well-educated carnivore could easily thrash me in a debate on the subject—but not dissuade me. Meat (cows, pigs, Bambi) is the final frontier and I can’t bring myself to cross it. Alas, I will continue to attend weddings where I have to politely pull the waiter aside and explain my situation. Without fail the exact same plate returns 10 minutes later—a couple of string beans rolling in the juicy outline of a steak. Yes, my proclivity for the chickpea has staying power. And why? Habit. Habit and a penchant for snarky anti-carnivore comebacks.

Except now I have to be careful not to make them in the company of hardcore vegetarians. I still consider myself a vegetarian, but after this little confession the tofu mafia will cast me out. It’s more acceptable to tailor your own religion (see this first-date classic: “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in something bigger than ‘us’ “) than it is to tailor your own vegetarianism. My one hope is that if vegetarianism really is some urban faith, this is me throwing my hearts and my palms together and renewing my vows to vegetables. The words are secondary to the sentiment. Praise be to wheatgrass. Artichoke me with okra and baptize me in beet juice. Juices saves.

That’s what counts, right? It better be . . . or else my fellow vegetarians will eat me alive for it.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Educating Lauryn

A Critical Confab on the Year’s Most Ambitious and Multifaceted Debut

Sound, Style, and Steel

Lauryn Hill has given birth once more. This new child may be more lament and redemption song than soft skin and baby chuckles, but it is a child of Lauryn’s soul nonetheless. Perhaps the point seems obvious. Perhaps not. But Lauryn’s children are inextricably linked because her literal child served as a catalyst for her metaphysical one, resulting in a record that may make the rest of pop culture’s denizens her creatures as well.

Lauryn has long kept most of her demons and delights bottled away from our greedy, public perusal. Her work with the Fugees, for the most part, had a service agenda. She was a soldier in a wearisome, albeit successful, war against hip-hop status quo, a fighter determined to maintain a place for thought, political consciousness, and good-time urges. Rewarding work, yes. But work that left little room for a young woman to be, well, a young woman.

So if The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill seems urgent and overpowering, that’s okay. And if the excruciatingly personal nature of songs like the dynamic “Ex-Factor” make you squirm, or grin with voyeuristic glee, that’s okay too. Lord knows I’d normally be the last one to evoke that tired exhale metaphor, but Lauryn’s been drawing breath for a while now. She’s due.

Miseducation is part confessional, part celebration, and part act of defiance, with all the thematic power that such juxtapositions suggest. And it is at least as significant for what it is as for what it’s not. A record that redefines hip-hop without a focus on rhyming, that most hip-hop of signifiers. A record that opts to take a more personal, and ultimately more satisfying, lyrical approach than the didactic, weighty, change-the-world course you might expect from an artist of Lauryn’s sociopolitical sensibilities.

Miseducation also possesses a distinctive and potent triple threat: sound, style, and steel. Sonically, this record is like nothing you’ve heard, not recently anyway. Its tapestry of warm, live bass, energized drum play, and horn, guitar, and keyboard ornamentation utterly refuses the hi-gloss production sheen favored by many a big-time act. And don’t let the soulful palette fool you — this here is a ghetto thing. Just check the album’s mix — resounding low end, unadorned vocal tracks — and composition: the stuttered use of Raekwon’s “Ice Cream” on the Mary J. Blige assisted “I Used To Love Him,” the gut-shifting bassline from Wu-Tang’s “Can It All Be So Simple” on “Ex-Factor.” Ironically, Lauryn’s record may be the truest representation of the Fugees’ original “Booger Basement” steez, an aesthetic that reveled in blunt, basic soundscapes.

The summation of style is simple: she sings like she rhymes and rhymes like she sings. That means unexpected phrasings that dip and bend. And if technical perfection ends up sacrificed for feel and emotive content, so be it. But the steel of this record remains its most captivating factor. That steel can be tungsten-like in strength, as with the resilient “Nothing Even Matters.” But it can also cut with a serrated edge, like the chilling evisceration that occurs on “Lost Ones”: But if a thing test me run fi me gun/Can’t take a threat to me newborn son. Hello? Don’t be lulled by the I’ve-been-so-hurt-but-now-I’m-all-good talk. This is a fierce woman. –Selwyn Seyfu Hinds


Dream-girl Disenfranchised

You’d call your own grandma a bitch before you’d call Lauryn Hill one, meaning no one quite knows what to make of Ms. L-Boogie. Over the past few years, women-in-hip-hop dialogue has stalled in the “Foxy & Kim: Post-Feminist Geniuses or Stank Hos?” debate. We’ve grown accustomed to teenage rappers in fright wigs and furry pink bikinis throwing irons at hotel maids; we love them for their fallibility, for their gilded gladiator outfits, for the feeling that girls just-like-us (albeit 4.7 times freakier) got over big. In a tradition in which rap stars (like altrockers) are worshipped because of, not in spite of, their contradictions and Achilles’ heels, Hill is an anomaly — the elegantly beautiful, musically gifted class brain, the stern voice over your shoulder telling you to put those booty shorts and Bee Gees samples down, you low-expectations-having-muthafucka. She’s almost forbiddingly perfect, but so thanks-to-god about it that it’s impossible to begrudge her genetically engineered superiority over your press-on nails self.

Which makes the sense of dream-girl disenfranchisement on her solo debut more affecting than alienating. Ostensibly a song-cycle about love in the time of bluntedness, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill also chronicles the coming-of-age of a golden girl who’s always outshone everyone else, who’s had her own table at the hip-hop boys’ club, and who sold 18 million Fugees records only to find out that the same old gender traps still apply. “My emancipation don’t fit your equation,” she raps on the opening song, “Lost Ones.” Like, if she can’t have the most cake, who can? She still gets dissed by men who treat their Timberlands better, still finds guys “playing young Lauryn like she dumb,” or at least “trying to pull strings like Geppetto.” Lest she be perceived as yet another shrink-wrapped diva robot, she insisted on writing, producing, and arranging her record herself (like special guest D’Angelo) — and faced someone-ghost-
produced-her-songs rumors (Kurt, maybe?) just the same.

“Music is supposed to inspire/How come we ain’t getting no higher,” she sings on “Superstar.” With Wyclef and Pras gettin’ jiggy with their Puffinator songwriting machine (and what’s up with Clef’s Clintonian Blaze gunwaving denial?), Hill is left guarding the vault of the Fugees original ideals. “My rhymes is heavy/Like the mind of Sister Betty [Shabazz],” she raps, a new mom audaciously aiming for — at only 23! — the kind of Righteous Universal Mother iconhood which Queen Latifah first hinted at. Such a persona allows for no cracks in her armor; she must be an invincible moral machine. That can lead to didacticism at times, and it’s probably not a great idea to chastise the ladies for “showing off they ass cause they thinking it’s the trend” (from “Doo Wop”) if you’re planning to pose in nothing but metallic paint for Details. Then again, when was the last time a catchy pop song broke down 20 years of fucked-up gender politics, and cared enough to wonder “how you gon’ win when you ain’t right within?”

Hill’s lyrics are at their detailed best when she’s angry, or indulging in Biblical-scale ego trips (“taking over areas in Aquarius/Running red lights with my 10,000 chariots”). You can hear tangible crushed-bug pain in her voice in break-up songs like “Ex-Factor,” but “tried/lied/died/cried” cliches keep you at arm’s length, like Hill can only bear to show so much vulnerability, so much of the drama deep inside. By the last song you realize you’ve heard her entire life story, from childhood to childbirth, but you don’t really know her at all. –Sia Michel


Separating Soul

There is one song that moves me on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: “I Used To Love Him,” a self-explanatory duet with Mary J Blige. That Lauryn, like Mary (fuck it, like me, like my sister K., like a lot of us), natural goddess, superior rhyme stylist, she possessed of too many talents and God-given blessings to list, should have experienced the kind of deep pain she has, speaks volumes about men. Or rather a particular kind of man. All right, a very specific kind of behavior found in this particular kind of man.

Have you ever fallen for a thief? The kind of masked man who, as sister Alice Walker put it, eats hearts. “Finds heart meat delicious, but not rare.” Lauryn knows of whom I speak. He was the ocean — she was the sand. After your senses have been dulled, your vision blurred, after sacrificing too much and giving all your power, after making attempts to close wounds so deep and wide they threaten to bloody your very life, you’re left with but one question: How could I let this happen? I like to lie about it. When a new friend asked the other day if I’d ever been in love, I said without hesitation, No. Cuz you know? Fuck him. And his fucking mirrors and smoke. Does he deserve a place in my history? Lauryn wrestles with her home invader’s not-so-distant ghost on practically every track. How could I have been so naive, she asks? After I took your abuse, played your mind games, wrote your rhymes (“…now you get it”), spun the press… After all that what I get is a blade in the back?

Because she truly seems to try to live in truth she is constantly praying aloud for the ability to become forgiveness. The evolutionary resolution on “I Used To Love Him” is about giving her life back to the Creator. And it’s a return that’s neither insincere nor sacrificial. “I don’t now!” she shouts convincingly over Mary’s vocals. And you want to believe her. But you’re mad all over again at this brotha, the one with all the potential, the one who indeed betrayed his very self in betraying her. Because Lauryn, being all the woman she is (even at 23) could have helped him actualize who it is she has to believe he really wanted to be.

That Lauryn in this very personal solo debut should use her work to work this love affair out is justice. Though I love “You Just Lost One” and “Final Hour,” straight hip-hop joints that remind us she’s one of the nicest MCs ever, period, and like very much her song with D’Angelo, the sexy “Nothing Even Matters,” the album as a whole is a little heartbreaking. Lauryn exercised an enormous amount of control over this album. And I’m for that Patrice Rushen kind of control coming from a sister. But Hill doesn’t have the musical ability of a Patrice Rushen, and some of her best ideas are only semi-realized. Perfection from people capable of perfection is a fair thing to want. Wanting less would make them less. But as I pray for L, and her name is beneath a white candle on my altar, I will pray that she not only find the kind of happiness the one with blood on his teeth promised her, but that she find a producer, a musical partner from whom she will take direction, someone in whose hands she can put the most true part of herself, a collaborator she can trust, the way she once trusted Clef. –Dream Hampton


Hip-hop Soul Merchant

A handful of modern soul musicians exist who, per KRS One’s maxim, aren’t doing hip-hop but are hip-hop. To these digital holyrollers we owe the best parts of D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, Erykah Badu’s Baduizm, Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s Plantation Lullabies and Peace Beyond Passion, and Lauryn Hill’s “The Sweetest Thing” and her long-awaited, deeply anticipated solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

But Hill is a further rarity: a singer who can rhyme competently enough to satisfy subcommercial hip-hop’s ghetto realness gatekeepers; an MC who wouldn’t have to lip-synch her way out of an appearance with your church choir. Her curriculum vitae — Fugees superstar, community activist, undergraduate Columbia history major, and child actor (see Sister Act 2) — insures we’ll soon be seeing her on the cover of the Rolling Stone, and with one bambino out the oven, and another seven months along the way, her future as fertile progenitor of the Robert Nesta Marley bloodline seems secure.

The Miseducation‘s title does prepare you for Hill’s sometimes nasty pedantic streak, but not for those precocious and unriveting classroom skits that make continuous play a chore for those who prefer their hip-hop without homilies. We read PC Hill as antidote to Foxy Brown and Li’l Kim: hardworking, kinky-headed Mother of Civilization to their sleazy, fried-died Whores of Babylon. Except Hill now seems the badder girl by tabloid-feminism standards, if only by virtue of being way pregnant at album-release time, nearly a taboo state of affairs here in professional Hoochieville.

Hill wouldn’t be a true hip-hop soul merchant if she didn’t deal in a little mercenary star-currency trading, but inviting D’Angelo on board for the duet on “Nothing Even Matters” is roughly equivalent to requesting Miles Davis’s upstaging presence on your Porgy and Bess album. This in light of Hill’s overemoting to compensate for the erotic leakage she allowed the butta-man to spill on the track. And Carlos Santana is vastly underutilized on the tear-jerking “To Zion,” where Mama Hill magically wrings pathos and affirmation out of celebrity mommyhood. (The pitiful but lengthier Santana imitation that precedes on “Ex-Factor” damn near screams dis.)

And Hill wouldn’t be hip-hop if she didn’t have an enemies list: the feud-fomenting suspected swipes at Foxy Brown (check out “Lost Ones,” where her madcap raggamuffin flow should come with a neck brace) and Wyclef Jean (see “I Used To Love Him”), for example. Of the straight-up hip-hop tracks here, my favorite is “Every Ghetto, Every City” if only because it’s got that prolix urgency MC’ing was made for and because I’m a sucker for slangily knowing songs about the old neighborhood — from Hill’s to Raekwon’s to the desaturated Bronx of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. The is-it-live-or-is-it-Eventide-Akai-Pro-Tools production wickedly splits the difference between old-school funkmanship and now-school cloning devices.

Not without provocation, but mostly because she’s black, female, and be-atch-on-heels rich, race-woman Hill will probably be accused of being too serious, or a two-babies-out-of-wedlock goody-two-shoes calling the kettle loose, and not much fun, qualities we all admire in bitches with dicks, but y’all need to just dead that, alright, because you and I both know how loudly you’ll applaud when The Miseducation‘s soulful hip-hop goes quadruple titanium, breaking up, however temporarily, the carnivalesque and patriarchal stranglehold Mr. Combs and Mr. Jean now have over your MTV, your BET, your poor, tired masses struggling to stay tuned. –Greg Tate


Could “Every Ghetto, Every City” be a greater song? I don’t think so. Though it has one of the simplest shapes on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it’s got much action. My favorite part is how, while she waxes nostalgic about back when ” ‘Self Destruction’ record drops/And everybody’s name was Muslim,” a background track is busy annotating: “children playing, women producing,” it says, crazy high-pitched. And therein lies the beautiful doubling: we see her as the playing child within the song and the woman producer outside the text, all at once. Even as “Every Ghetto” grooves through its stoopside reminiscing, it catches up the political and musical history that got us all to this spot. And blows it up.

The history goes deeper. “I try to keep it civilized like Menelik,” she drops in the midst of “Forgive Them Father.” Sheesh — I guess reports of her miseducation have been greatly exaggerated. But it can’t be mere check-me-outism, any more than the 19th-century Ethiopian honcho in question was a mere proto-Selassie. Harnessing whirlwinds of force and reason, Menilek I (I’m assuming she means big poppa) unified an array of culturally segregated groups whose historical relationships were so complex that unification should by all rights have been impossible. He was the synthesist of northern Africa.

Lauryn I (she loves it when we call her big momma) deserves the same respect in music — she’s a queen hell unifier. It was Missy’s breakthrough: before her, years of r&bÐhip-hop confluence had always more or less mimicked the blunt graftwork of Jody Watley & Rakim’s “Friends.” Supa Dupa Fly was the first record I can remember where you just couldn’t tell if it was r&b or hip-hop or whatever, and you didn’t really care. But Lauryn’s freak flag flies over more peoples than Missy’s, melting in reggae and funk and ’70s soul. This isn’t country music; it’s a goddamned nation state.

What makes The Miseducation majestic is the seamlessness with which she travels her realm within any given song — none of that “here’s my rap song, here’s my soul song” clank which makes a lot of records (the Fugees’ included) sound stupidly incoherent. On tracks like “Lost Ones” and “Doo Wop,” the motion itself becomes a whole new flavor in your ear: the sound of anything-can-happen. The mercuriality of shape, its turn from tired structures, breeds new forms — not Roni Size’s but KISS radio’s, the first soulful response to the anti-narrative flux of electronica, with plush melody and home-brewed rhymes to boot. L’s boogie is complicated.

And for the most part, she’s best that way. I forgive how “To Zion” goes gaga over goo-goo, but the one-dimensionality of its stylings is still pretty dull, and the joke of the rhythm track (Little Drummer Boy — d’ya get it?) doesn’t survive retelling. If anything can bring Lauryn Hill down it’s this very God Bless the Childishness. As organic as she makes it sound, it must be a struggle to embody so many traditions. At the end of the record, as she slips into “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” and “Tell Him,” you can feel her yearning for the simplicity and clear emotional timbre of yesteryear’s jazz/pop standards — the same urge that brought her to Roberta Flack back in the day. Like a lot of Lauryn fans, I’m happy to have Pras and Wyclef shut up. But I also want Billie Holiday to stop calling her name, to leave her be as a brilliant synthesist of black music, a one-woman anti-diaspora for the post-millennial funk. –Jane Dark