Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Albert Collins/Robert Cray/Johnny Copeland [extended]

  • Ice Pickin' [Alligator, 1978] A-
  • Frostbite [Alligator, 1980] B+
  • Who's Been Talkin' [Tomato, 1980] B
  • Copeland Special [Rounder, 1981] A-
  • Frozen Alive! [Alligator, 1981] B+
  • Make My Home Where I Hang My Hat [Rounder, 1982] B
  • Bad Influence [HighTone, 1983] B+
  • Don't Lose Your Cool [Alligator, 1983] B+
  • Showdown! [Alligator, 1985] B
  • False Accusations [HighTone, 1985] A-
  • Bringin' It All Back Home [Rounder, 1985] B+
  • Cold Snap [Alligator, 1986] B
  • Strong Persuader [Mercury, 1986] A+
  • Don't Be Afraid of the Dark [Mercury, 1988] A-
  • Midnight Stroll [Mercury, 1990] **
  • I Was Warned [Mercury, 1992] A-
  • Shame and a Sin [Mercury, 1993] A-
  • Some Rainy Morning [Mercury, 1995] Dud
  • Sweet Potato Pie [Mercury, 1997] Neither
  • Heavy Picks: The Robert Cray Collection [Mercury, 1999] A-
  • Take Your Shoes Off [Rykodisc, 1999] *
  • Shoulda Been Home [Ryko, 2001] ***
  • Time Will Tell [Sanctuary, 2003] ***
  • Twenty [Sanctuary, 2005] ***
  • Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm [Jay-Vee, 2017] *

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Albert Collins: Ice Pickin' [Alligator, 1978]
Like Otis Rush, Collins has always been one of those well-respected bluesmen whose records left agnostics unconvinced. But this is the most exciting blues album of 1978. Collins's guitar is clean, percussive, vehement, breaking into unlikely rivulets on the trademark shuffle climaxes, and while his voice is thin his delivery is savvy and humorous. So are his words--unlike most of his colleagues, he seems to know a lot more about sharing life with another person than "Honey Hush." A-

Albert Collins: Frostbite [Alligator, 1980]
In its way, this is as formulaic as a Linda Ronstadt album--pick good tunes, gather good musicians, identify good takes. But in blues the Good is simpler, more satisfying, and harder to come by than it is in superpop, and while I wouldn't say Albert plays better than Linda sings, I wouldn't argue if you did. Albert sings OK, too. B+

The Robert Cray Band: Who's Been Talkin' [Tomato, 1980]
Hailed by the ever tightening knot of blues loyalists as the next . . . Son Seals?, Cray can recite his catechism without kowtowing to orthodoxy--guitar like Albert Collins only chillier and more staccato, voice like B.B. King only cleaner and, well, thinner. Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf songs lead for good reason, but both artist and producers write with uncommon acidity (try "Nice as a Fool Can Be" and "The Score" respectively) and country-soul cult hero O.V. Wright adds the right kind of historical perspective. A little more vocal muscle and he might compete with . . . Son Seals. B

Johnny Copeland: Copeland Special [Rounder, 1981]
It's the stellar horn section (led by George Adams, Byard Lancaster, and Arthur Blythe) that calls attention to this album, but anybody who buys blues albums for horn sections has missed the point. Copeland boasts better-than-average chops as both singer and guitarist, not such a common parlay (especially among debuting 44-year-olds), but anybody who buys blues albums for chops has really missed the point. The point is conviction, more palpable here than on any new blues to come my way since Johnny Shines's 1977 Too Wet to Plow. Put across by those chops, of course. And quite probably inspired by that stellar horn section. A-

Albert Collins: Frozen Alive! [Alligator, 1981]
Simply by putting him in a studio with songs and sidemen worthy of the genre, Bruce Iglauer got the best album this Texas legend ever cut, 1978's Ice Pickin', but faced with the blues producer's eternal what-next he settled for a record on which a full horn section jostled uncomfortably against Collins's down-home wit. Fortunately, the next next goes for the bare live bones, with the classic "Frosty" establishing a bite and authority that are never relinquished. I miss that down-home wit, though--giving your bass player room for a hornpipe is the kind of dumb joke that's afflicted live albums for years. B+

Johnny Copeland: Make My Home Where I Hang My Hat [Rounder, 1982]
At the outset Copeland identifies himself as a "Natural Born Believer," then applies himself to the bluesman's dilemma of making that belief come just as naturally to us. On his debut album, an all-star horn section and a quarter century of pent-up ambition put him over, but here he opts for the homey (and perhaps overfamiliar) spontaneity of his road band and instead gets horns and songs that sound half-dead until he mixes in some covers overdisc. B

The Robert Cray Band: Bad Influence [HighTone, 1983]
Finally he sounds like the comer they rave about: side one is as engaging a 17:04 of new blues as I've heard in a decade. Ranging from down-and-out aab to lounge-tinged soul cry on the first two cuts, the songwriting had me caring less about the singing, especially given the chop-and-roll guitar. But whenever the material fails to provide its own highs, Cray's inability to reach for extra power or sweetness makes a difference. B+

Albert Collins: Don't Lose Your Cool [Alligator, 1983]
Kicking off with a blistering boogie, borrowing wisdom from Percy Mayfield and wit from Oscar Brown Jr., and played with an edge throughout, this is everything you could ask of a blues album except--except that it isn't quite not just another good blues album. A must for aficionados and a fine introduction for novices, but inbetweeners can live rich and meaningful lives without it. B+

Showdown! [Alligator, 1985]
Collins gets top billing not just because he's Alligator's man but because this is his album. He takes a solo on all nine cuts where Cray and Copeland are vouchsafed a total of seven, and shares vocals about equally with his costars, both of whom cut him. Not that they're trying--if they were, this would live up to its title. As it is, whether the problem's will or conception or ability, you'll get more fireworks from Lonnie Mack w/Stevie Ray Vaughan. B

The Robert Cray Band: False Accusations [HighTone, 1985]
After several metastases worth of bar smoke, Cray's voice has finally changed: his singing is strong and unashamed, adorned only by his waste-free guitar. But what makes Cray a major artist in an obsolescent style is the songs, the sharpest often written by his producers. Dennis Walker is the obsessed sinner ("Porch Light"'s guilt-as-pleasure, "I've Slipped Her Mind"'s month after), Bruce Bromberg a/k/a D. Amy more the all-purpose pro, though "Playin' in the Dirt" certainly feels lived in. And Cray, who has a credit on that one, gets all of "The Last Time (I Get Burned Like This)." Not since Moe Bandy was an honest man has anyone laid out the wages of fucking around with such unflagging precision. A-

Johnny Copeland: Bringin' It All Back Home [Rounder, 1985]
"It's the same music, the same old beat," Copeland reports on this largely instrumental blues album, the first ever recorded where it all sort of began. Fortunately, that's not what his guitar says, nor his continentally integrated band, which finds a groove somewhere between an airborne Congolese rumba and a Gulf Coast shuffle with some tricky dance figures thrown in. And who knows, maybe all concerned were capacitated by the illusion of unity. When wise guys like Yusef Lateef and Stewart Copeland visit Africa in search of la différance, they come back with albums that are neither here nor there. B+

Albert Collins: Cold Snap [Alligator, 1986]
In which Bruce Iglauer shoots for a Grammy by setting up his big man with a big band--Jimmy McGriff, Mel Brown, Uptown Horns, the works. They do work, too. But nobody ever mistook Albert for Jimmy Witherspoon, much less Jimmy Rushing--he doesn't have the kind of built-in bullhorn essential to that big effect. As if NARAS will care. B

The Robert Cray Band: Strong Persuader [Mercury, 1986]
At thirty-three, Cray is a mature multithreat talent: fearless formal innovator, brainy bandleader, terse yet fluent guitarist, and--amazingly, given where he started--the most authoritative singer to emerge from blues since Bland and King. Add an array of gems as perfectly realized as Randy Newman's 12 Songs and you have not just a great blues album but a great album. Cray's sexual roles range from the good-time man of "Nothing but a Woman" to the cuckold-turned-predator of "New Blood" to the suspicious schmuck of Dennis Walker's outrageous "I Guess I Showed Her," who bests the woman he caught "having lunch with some new guy" by abandoning her to the house, the car, and no him. But it's the remorseful lust of the title character, who sits listening impassively through thin apartment walls as the woman he's just chalked up breaks with her husband, that dominates a cold-eyed country-influenced record occupying uncharted territory on the blues side of soul--full of feeling, yet chary of soul's redemptive promise. A+

The Robert Cray Band: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark [Mercury, 1988]
Yeah, I could live without David Sanborn myself, but if you leave it at that you're refusing to hear a major artist who bends blues tradition to his own artistic ends as surely as Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page, a suave cool motherfucker obsessed with the male sex roles blues defined for rock and roll. No shit--his determination to bring his tradition into the pop present equals his determination to escape the cultural residue and/or primal urge that compels him to pitch woo, talk murder, and make obscene phone calls. Because this life-project can never end, a continuing tension stretches and strengthens his music. The songs here aren't as consistently amazing as Strong Persuader's, but all that means is that Cray and his writers are mortal. Summing up is Bruce Bromberg's "Night Patrol," in which a laid-off streetstalker, tortured quote unquote by his bad habits quote unquote, joins the homeless legions whose ways he knows so well. A-

The Robert Cray Band: Midnight Stroll [Mercury, 1990]
few if any soul men play better, not many write better, plenty arrange better, almost all sing better--a formula for the blues ("These Things," "My Problem") **

The Robert Cray Band: I Was Warned [Mercury, 1992]
Where the misguided soul strategy of Midnight Stroll emphasized undigested horn arrangements and vocals Cray couldn't handle, this aims for AOR guitar hooks--every solo stings, and with producer Dennis Walker foregrounded again, every song catches. But the biggest difference is that the two have abandoned their evil ways--the part of the mean mistreater is invariably played by one of the women traditionally handed that role in blues culture. There's no point calling this a sexist sellout when it makes sense developmentally--the pain and cruelty of Cray's and Walker's songs always made you fear for their personal lives, and I bet their lovers (and ex-lovers) think it's about time they dealt in straightforward bull like "I'm a Good Man." The mood is penitent, full of pleas for time to work things out and summed up by "A Whole Lotta Pride"'s "Do you have to leave me baby/Just to even up the score?" There's room for Walker's Nashvillian expertise in tragic marriage, too. But connoisseurs may well prefer the perverse kick of the band-written "Our Last Time," in which an impassively disconsolate Cray watches his latest conquest dress after "the sweat begins to dry," certain without a word from her that she'll never come back for seconds. A-

The Robert Cray Band: Shame and a Sin [Mercury, 1993]
Out from under Dennis Walker, Cray sounds less twisted, his thwarted-love compulsions a species of good old-fashioned blues suffering. He shuffles and slides like he's been studying up on his Chess reissues, and the directness carries over into his good old-fashioned soul exhortations. He even fools around a little, as if finally convinced that his guitar ain't no joke. A-

The Robert Cray Band: Some Rainy Morning [Mercury, 1995] Dud

The Robert Cray Band: Sweet Potato Pie [Mercury, 1997] Neither

The Robert Cray Band: Heavy Picks: The Robert Cray Collection [Mercury, 1999]
You want proof of greatness, stick with Strong Persuader. You couldn't care less, this expedient survey documents his staying power as a songman. The opener literally cuts to the chase: He's just gotten to Chicago with a dime to his name, which he invests in a number on a phone booth wall. A-

The Robert Cray Band: Take Your Shoes Off [Rykodisc, 1999]
T-Bone Walker as Jerry Butler, only not as good ("There's Nothing Wrong," "What About Me"). *

The Robert Cray Band: Shoulda Been Home [Ryko, 2001]
pushing 50, on the road, and "afraid to let this one go" ("No One Special," "Baby's Arms") ***

The Robert Cray Band: Time Will Tell [Sanctuary, 2003]
"Real" bluesman or not, he writes subtler songs than blues boosters can hear ("Up in the Sky," "Survivor"). ***

The Robert Cray Band: Twenty [Sanctuary, 2005]
"I wanna see you burn all the way down/I wanna see your ashes all over the ground" ("My Last Regret," "Twenty"). ***

Robert Cray: Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm [Jay-Vee, 2017]
Al Green's band is the concept for a blues reviver who's always written even better than he played and played rather better than he sang, with focus tracks by the late great Lowman Pauling and the Trump-despising blues reviver himself. ("I'm With You," "Just How Low"). *