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CRITIC UNPLUGGED

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Okay, let’s admit it: Reviewing records for a living is a cushy gig. You get free albums in the mail, throw them on the stereo, and, between listening and staring numbly at the credits, toss off a few thoughtful or smart-assed comments. And, in certain publications, you top it off by slapping a grade ) onto the review. A snap. Well, not always. Unlike movies or TV shows, pop music can age in unexpected ways. What seemed fresh and innovative can, six months later, sound contrived; what came off as superficial and glib can resonate with unanticipated depth. Other factors-an argument with a friend or loved one, hearing the songs in a concert setting that makes them sound strikingly different, or simply not being in the mood to listen to that kind of music on the first few plays-can also significantly affect the process of absorbing pop. Which is, I hope, an elegant way of saying it’s time to eat a little humble pie-and it took Barbra Streisand to feed me my first heaping spoonful. Recently, I was filing away records at home and came upon a copy of her 1991 boxed set, Just for the Record . ”Never play that thing again,” I cracked-and then recalled, much to my chagrin, that I had given it an A- in this very publication. At the time, I was enthusiastic enough about the idea of a career-spanning Streisand compilation that I overlooked the awards-show speeches and studio outtakes that pad it. Replaying portions of this monolith 18 months later, those very elements now make it unlistenable. The Streisand experience led to other revelations: On return listenings, for instance, I was overly benevolent to Tracy Chapman’s third album, Matters of the Heart (gripping title song, but the rest of it, which I gave an A-, escapes me now), Little Village’s Little Village (a gracious B for this roots- rock self-indulgence?), and Mudhoney’s B-rated Piece of Cake (commendable as noise-grunge, but do we need noise-grunge?). And a B- was too kind for the uninspired hodgepodge that is Bruce Springsteen’s Human Touch (although the far superior Lucky Town remains a solid, workmanlike B). My love of British pop singer Cathy Dennis’ hit-packed debut, Move to This, led me to overrate its weak follow-up, Into the Skyline. And as much as I still admire parts of Hammer’s unfashionable pop-rap quilt Too Legit to Quit, I never play the damn thing. Then there are those albums that, much as I hate to admit it, sound better with time and distance. Given only one day to absorb Madonna’s Erotica before a deadline, and in the context of the hype that accompanied her fall album, book, and movie, I slapped it with a harsh C+. Playing it again, I realized how much I like the first 9 of its 14 songs; few artists are able to match such a mesh of chilly dance beats and pop smarts. Now I’d give it a B. Neneh Cherry’s introspective Homebrew got a high B+, but the fact that it keeps sounding better with each listen surely makes it an A: a distinction that may matter only to a critic, but there you go. And, okay, parts of the Beastie Boys’ disjointed Check Your Head aren’t as atrocious as I thought when I slammed it with a D, especially after seeing them in concert with a friend who helped turn my head around. I’d bump it up to a C or C +. Two other 1992 albums I didn’t review at the time-country singer Mark Chesnutt’s lean Longnecks and Short Stories and the Roches’ A Dove, one of their loveliest and most emotionally expressive records-have become two of my favorites from last year. With any luck, this essay will not be the first in a recurring series. But then, critics are people too, a fact that may not be always obvious from our self-important analyses. And, on second thought, ”Ordinary World” is a pretty catchy single-even for Duran Duran. Pass the fork.*

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