Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 1980-04-28


Pat Benatar: In the Heat of the Night (Chrysalis, 1979) Where some "eclectic" rock and rollers brim with sheer experimental joy, Benatar is sodden with try-anything-once ambition. From showbiz "hard rock" ("Heartbreaker") to big-beat "cabaret" ("Don't Let It Show") to received "futurism" ("My Clone Sleeps Alone") to fake-Blondie "Eurodisco" ("We Live for Love"), she shows about as much aesthetic principle as Don Kirshner. Though she does have a better voice than Kirshner. C+

The Brides of Funkenstein: Never Buy Texas from a Cowboy (Atlantic, 1979) Every previous album by the Brides and Parlet has ended up pretty quickly on my reference shelves--P-Funk was obviously expending ts collective energy elsewhere. But since George Clinton's current master plan involves sharpening his sidekicks' profiles, he put out on this one, and I prefer it to Gloryhallastoopid or Uncle Jam Wants You. It's gratifying to hear women asserting themselves in what has always been a sexist setup. Dawn Silva, Sheila Horn, and Jeanette McGruder generate funk power and cartoon stoopidity--next to Philippe Wynne, they're the best voices George has. Heroine of title cut: Mother Wit. A-

Buzzcocks: A Different Kind of Tension (I.R.S., 1980) I suppose people call them a pop band because they still write about love, but that they say "I can't love you" rather than the usual does make a difference. Not in profundity--one sentiment is as banal as the other--but in a mood that suits a sound as bright and abrasive as new steel wool. Pete Shelley articulates his truisms with insight as well as flair, especially in "You Say You Don't Love Me" and "I Believe." My favorite, though, is Steve Diggle's "You Know You Can't Help It," about sex, which I'm happy to report he likes--although he does observe that "love makes war." Hey, does it? B+

Cheap Trick: Heaven Tonight (Epic, 1978) When I gave the weak side a final spin, I was quite surprised to recognize four hooks with pleasure. The strong side begins with a wonderfully funny parents song and includes a sarcastic ditty about suicide. Am I to conclude that I'm once again seduced by this power-tooled hard rock product? Guess so. B+

The Cure: Boys Don't Cry (PVC, 1980) The sound is dry postpunk, with touches of Wire's spare, arty melodicism, more Pink Flag than 154. Never pretty, it's treated with a properly mnemonic pop overlay--scan the titles and you'll recall a phrase from all but a few of these thirteen songs. Intelligent phrases they are, too. Yet what are we to think of a band whose best song is based on Albert Camus's The Stranger, a book that was holy writ for collegiate existentialists before Robert Smith was even born? The last thing we need is collegiate existentialism nostalgia. B+

The Fall: Live at the Witch Trials (I.R.S., 1979) After dismissing this as just too tuneless and crude--wasn't even fast--I played it in tandem with Public Image Ltd. one night and for a few bars could hardly tell the difference. Of course, in this case the heavy bass and distant guitars could simply mean a bad mix, but what the hell--when they praise spastics and "the r&r dream" they're not being sarcastic (I don't think), and in this icky pop moment we could use some ugly rebellion. How about calling it punk? B+

Ijahman: Are We a Warrior (Mango, 1979) Still wish there were some rudimentary verbality here, but the music has won me over--the title track is the most gorgeous reggae crooning I've ever heard, and the rest of the album follows in its sweet wake like one of those half-remembered dreams that makes you glow the next day. B+

John Jackson: Step It Up and Go (Rounder, 1979) Jackson is a fifty-six-year-old gravedigger who's been on the folk blues circuit since 1964 and has three albums on Arhoolie, though I'd never heard of him till this one. His guitar style is eclectic, as befits a man who got his best songs from Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Blake 78s but who also played in a country band in the early '40s. His voice is gutteral yet well-defined. No innovator, and not as arresting through a whole side as he is at the outset, he's nevertheless responsible for the most pleasing (and well-recorded) new country blues record I've heard in years. B+

Mighty Diamonds: Deeper Roots (Back to the Channel) (Virgin International, 1979) Most of these songs confidently cross jingle and chant, and Donald Shaw sings in his chains like a true son of Smokey. But never once do the riddims become anthemic. For advanced reggae students only. B

Wilson Pickett: I Want You (EMI America, 1979) I'd like him back too, but wishing won't make it so. Half straight disco, half soft--for Pickett--soul, this is a mildly enjoyable album that hasn't broken pop or disco or added a "Lay Me Like You Hate Me" to his legend. N.b.: the four (out of seven) best songs are the ones he helped write. Also n.b.: the best of them all is on the disco side. B-

Professor Longhair: Crawfish Fiesta (Alligator, 1980) Why is this record better than all other Professor Longhair records? Well, the backup is more sympathetic (sweet and sour horns) and the songs well-chosen (rhumbafied blues from Muddy Waters and Jay McNeely and Walter Horton) and Fess's tendency to waver off pitch on the vocals is turned to advantage (cf. Dr. John). Also, there aren't that many Professor Longhair records--two U.S. LPs total for the man who invented modern New Orleans piano. And now he's dead. A

Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island, 1980) In which former three-chord savage J. Lydon turns self-conscious primitivist, quite sophisticated in his rotten way. PIL complements Lydon's civilized bestiality by reorganizing the punk basics--ineluctable pulse, impermeable bass, attack guitar--into a full-bodied superaware white dub with disorienting European echoes. Much of the music on this double-LP version of the exorbitant three-disc, forty-five r.p.m. Metal Box is difficult; some of it fails. But the lyrics are both listenable and readable, and thanks to the bass parts even the artiest instrumentals have a leg up on, to choose a telling comparison, Brian Eno's. Don't say I didn't warn you, though--it may portend some really appalling bullshit. No matter what J. Lydon says, rock and roll doesn't deserve to die just because it's twenty-five years old. J. Lydon will be twenty-five years old himself before he knows it. A-

Ray, Goodman & Brown: Ray, Goodman & Brown (Polydor, 1979) Resistant though I am to the seductions of falsetto romanticism, the reincarnated Moments generate a Persuasions-like formal intensity with a few simple gimmicks--studio patter, apparently impromptu acappella codas, fast songs. Their thematic range is still hopelessly narrow--responsible sexual love, pedestal included. But they sing better than the Persuasions. And they're not just a falsetto group any more. B+

Linda Ronstadt: Mad Love (Asylum, 1980) I had hopes for this album--Linda's always been underrated as a rocker--but it falls way over on the strident side of powerful. The songs could be sharper, although except for "Justine" those from Richard Perry's prefab Cretones are more than adequate, but the real problem is the basic fallacy of L.A. punk--Linda doesn't understand that the idea is to use a sledgehammer deftly. This is how Ethel Merman would do Elvis Costello, only Ethel Merman has a better sense of humor. And though the other covers sound pretty good, only "I Can't Let Go" fits in conceptually, and I'd rather hear them from Little Anthony or Young Neil or Ye Olde Hollies. B-

Sister Sledge: Love Somebody Today (Cotillion, 1980) Both here and with Chic, Edwards & Rodgers are progressing toward fillerless albums, and though I could do without the tautological directions to "Easy Street" (you simply catch "the bus of opportunity") I'm delighted that only one of these eight songs is a throwaway. But none of them is as meaty as any of the three good cuts on We Are Family, which isn't how they did it with Chic. B+

Rachel Sweet: Protect the Innocent (Stiff/Columbia, 1980) Breasts barely budding beneath her rugby shirt on the back cover of Fool Around, she was a young sweet sixteen, but two years later she's no innocent--black leather jacket half unzipped, gauntleted hands over the face of her younger charge, she's seen one too many photos of Siouxsie Sioux. Only Siouxsie Sioux has a lousy voice--and Siouxsie Sioux knows what to do with it. A longtime pro if the truth be known, Sweet never quite connected as a new-wave ingenue, but there were nice tensions in the gaps. As a new-wave Linda Ronstadt--she covers Graham Parker, she covers Lou Reed, she covers the goddamn Damned--her only interesting song is one she wrote herself: "Tonight Ricky," about how they're finally going all the way. It seems like an old memory. C+

Irma Thomas: Safe With Me (RCS, 1979) I assume they reprised the title song because they thought it was a sure shot, but they miscalculated, which is too bad--this album could use a sure shot. Thomas is deep, the material intelligent, and the mix of soul and disco disarmingly offhand. I like every cut except the gris-gris-for-tourists "Princess La-La." But I don't love a one of 'em. B+

The Whispers: The Whispers (Solar, 1979) They've been around forever because they're real pros, but that's all they are. Vocal-group fans will probably enjoy--check out these titles--"Lady" and "I Love You" and "Welcome Into My Dream," though I hope they stop at the sanctimonious "Song for Donny" and the pallid "My Girl." But what makes this a breakthrough is the three dance tracks. The great one, "Out the Box," was written and coproduced by Leon Sylvers. In the great Sylvers tradition, you could almost mistake it for something you missed on Destiny or Off the Wall. B

The Wipers: Is This Real? (Park Ave., 1979) Three guys from Portland (Oregon, but it might just as well be Maine) who caught on to punk unfashionably late and for that reason sound like they're still discovering something. Which hardly makes them unique--there are similar bands in dozens if not hundreds of American cities, many of whom send me records. What distinguishes this one is Greg Sage's hard-edged vocals--detached but never silly, passionate but never overwrought--and economical one-hook construction. B+

Fast Product--Mutant Pop (PVC, 1980) The Edinburgh indie's compilation is heartily recommended to those who don't own the Gang of Four EP; "Love Like Anthrax" is on the album (soon come from Warners), but "Damaged Goods" and "Armalite Rifle" are just as sharp and the import 45'll cost you half as much as this whole domestic LP. Those who don't own the Mekons' "Where Were You" (an old fave) and Flowers' "After Dark" (a new one) should also invest, because with one exception everything else is at least interesting: a single by 2-3 (they call it pop), another Flower (woman-group), the first Human League single (promising but thin), the first Mekons single (crude but promising), and the only Scars single (I trust). B+

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