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CRITIC UNPLUGGED

MUSIC EITHER GROWS ON YOU OR YOU OUTGROW IT. PITY THE POOR REVIEWER WHO MUST MAKE DECISIONS TOO FAST FOR EITHER TO HAPPEN. HERE ONE PAUSES TO EAT CROW.

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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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