Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 1981-02-02


John Anderson: John Anderson (Warner Bros., 1980) The songs fade on side two, but not since Hank Williams Jr. fell off his mountain and Gary Stewart fell off his barstool has anybody put so much vocal muscle into unadorned hard stuff. Convincer: Buddy Spicher's fiddle break on the definitive "She Just Started Liking Cheatin' Songs." B+

T-Bone Burnett: Truth Decay (Takoma, 1980) Having put the omega on smarmy Alpha Bandmate Steve Soles (who does show up in the credits, but not--unlike the ever-adroit David Mansfield--as a band member), Burnett produces the best Christian record of 1980 for John Fahey's Buddhist blues label. Of course, you could also call it the best rockabilly record of 1980--something has happened to rockabilly since Sam Phillips talked Jerry Lee into defaming the Pentecost. And since Burnett is equally comfortable with the (divine) "power of love" and a (fleshly) "love that's hot," maybe something's happened to Christianity, too. A-

Change: The Glow of Love (Warner Bros./RFC, 1980) "New and true and gay," this gold album confirms disco's continuing autonomy as a market and as a style. From the Rodgers-&-Edwards rip of "A Lover's Holiday" to the good ole Giorgio Moroder of "The End," here's the complete bag of tricks. Luther Vandross's best Teddy Pendergrass impression doesn't redeem the militantly escapist lyrics and probably isn't meant to. But "It's a Girl's Affair," sung by Jocelyn Shaw, is a softcore treat--and spell that "Girls'" on your next printing, please. B+

Chic: Real People (Atlantic, 1980) As on Sister Sledge's follow-up, Rodgers & Edwards have run out of sure shots--no "Good Times" here. But Risque was more than "Good Times," and this beats Risque. Jumpy, scintillating rhythms fuse with elegantly abrasive textures for a funk that's not light but sharp. Plus postchic words that go with the attention-grabbing heat and invention of Nile Rodgers's postrock guitar. A

Eric Clapton: Just One Night (RSO, 1980) Who needs another live double? A master guitarist whose studio albums have been cited for unfair trade practices by Sominex, that's who. All your AM and FM faves plus, served hot, raw, or both. B+

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+

Devo: Freedom of Choice (Warner Bros., 1980) Hey now, don't blame me--I insulted them every chance I got back when your roommate still thought they might be Important. But now that that's taken care of itself we can all afford to giggle. Robot satire indeed--if they ever teach a rhythm box to get funky, a Mothersbaugh will be there to plug it in. B+

Joe Ely: Live Shots (MCA, 1980) Like a thousand blues and jazz guys before him, Ely is an American whose live album should have seen America first--not a year, a charting studio record, and a major endorsement after touring the U.K. The claim that this injustice was a corporate blunder is boogie bullshit: even prime material acutely performed sounds a little redundant in an artist whose fundamental is songs. Still, this is prime and acute. Let's hope he rides the Clash's tailwind right into downtown Lubbock. B+

Merle Haggard: The Way I Am (MCA, 1980) "Wake Up," a devastating final-night plea that's one of Haggard's few great love songs, is the only original that transcends his usual poses, with "Sky-Bo"--"That's a new kind of hobo for planes"--the most cloying offender. But Haggard's chief value has been vocal ever since "Okie From Muskogee" saddled him with an image, and here his resonant, reflective baritone transforms three Ernest Tubb tunes from standards into timeless pieces of Americana. If Willie Nelson is Bing Crosby, Haggard's Sinatra. B+

Jimi Hendrix: Nine to the Universe (Reprise, 1980) With posthumous Hendrix it's always best to concentrate on the improvisations as if he were a jazz musician, and these relaxed jams are his jazziest contexts to date. Unfortunately, at least in theory, the only jazz player on hand is organist Larry Young, who got pretty far out with Miles and McLaughlin but sounds like Jimmy Smith over the Billy Cox-Mitch Mitchell beat. The result is bracing progressive r&b with Jimi stretching out, and the question is whether tighter structures wouldn't have made him think harder and faster. B+

Alberta Hunter: Amtrak Blues (Columbia, 1980) After the bland Remember My Name soundtrack, John Hammond's gem is a blessing--it would have been tragic if the rebirth of this eighty-five-year-old wonder of nature and history, easily the most authoritative classic blues singer alive, had been documented only in print. A hot rhythm section, anchored by pianist Gerald Cook and jazzed up by hornmen Vic Dickenson, Doc Cheatham, and Frank Wess, pitch in with undeniable verve on material from "The Darktown Strutters' Ball" to "Always" to several worthy Hunter originals. Timing and intonation are as savvy as you'd figure, and though the voice isn't quite as full as it must have been, it packs an amazing wallop--when Hunter gloats about getting her butter churned, the memory sounds quite fresh, like maybe the dairy man poked his head in that morning. More good news--she'll be back in the studio with Hammond soon. A

Michael Hurley: Snockgrass (Rounder, 1980) More songs about dying and food--and rambling, mustn't forget rambling--from the old-timey existentialist, whose oblique wail recalls both Jerry Garcia and John Prine because all three are more obsessed with mountain vocal styles than most mountain vocal stylists. "Jole' Blon," "Tia Marie," and a few others are more or less what you'd expect, but if you ever expected "You Gonna Look Like a Monkey" or "I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop," you're two up on me. A-

The Jacksons: Triumph (Epic, 1980) More cluttered than Off the Wall, partly because Michael's brothers are butting in, partly because Quincy Jones isn't. But most of the clutter is sheer, joyous muscle-flexing--hated the chorale that opens "Can You Feel It" at first, but now I chuckle at their audacity every time it comes on. Anyway, you know about solo albums--the songs do improve when the group butts in. A-

Si Kahn: Home (Flying Fish, 1979) This Carolina-based union organizer--who dedicates his second album to his father, Rabbi Benjamin M. Kahn--is the most gifted songwriter to come out of the folkie tradition since John Prine. His overview is political and his songs personal, their overriding theme the emotional dislocations of working far form home. No doubt part of his secret is that he lives among folk rather than folkies, but his understated colloquial precision is sheer talent. Some will consider the all-acoustic music thin (it's often solo or duet, twice a cappella) and the voice quavery. I find that both evoke the mountain music of the '20s in a way that makes me long for home myself, and I'm from Queens. A-

Robin Lane & the Chartbusters: Robin Lane & the Chartbusters (Warner Bros., 1980) Formally, this is reactionary, from Lane's chesty melismas to the band's fakebook licks, and the songs go on too long. But every one catches, and despite Lane's lady-macho stage moves, her lyrics seem felt in what I can only call a progressive way--autonomous but not anomic or selfish, compassionate but not infinitely longsuffering. B+

Andy Fairweather Low: Mega-Shebang (Warner Bros., 1980) When I heard the funky force-beat of "Night Time DJukeing" I was delighted--sounded like the man had invented DOR all on his own, and in Wales yet. But as I perused the lyrics I began to suspect that his heart--a concept that in Low always includes the mind--wasn't entirely committed. Good fun from an artist who's capable of the best. B+

LPJE: Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1980 (Latin Percussion Ventures, Inc., 1981) Begin with Tito Puente on timbales and Patato Valdez on congas. Add three dedicated young improvisers, making sure that one is as snazzy as electric violinist Alfredo De La Fe. Let them play what they want. Presto--pure polyrhythm rules. Try it. A-

The Suburbs: In Combo (Twin/Tone, 1980) I know it's endearing amateurism that makes middle America's new wave tick, but these Minnesotans think clockwork is fun--their music is glibly witty, even decelerating into a mournful country-rock triad to make a joke. Their scattershot, nasty-to-nutball humor is oblique or tongue-in-cheek enough to convey an undercurrent of empathy most of the time. And when they're comparing cows' feet to those of sheep, little empathy is required. A-

The Undertones: Hypnotised (Sire, 1980) From the opening chorus--"Here's more songs about chocolate and girls/It's not so easy knowing they'll be heard"--the good-kids-of-the-year are as honest as power pop (remember power pop?) ever gets. They're also as powerful, which I bet has something to do with why they're so honest. The improved melodies have something to do with why it's not so easy any more. A-

Wanna Buy a Bridge? (Rough Trade, 1980) Rough Trade has become the biggest British postpunk indie by (or at least while) brooking no compromise politically or aesthetically. Politically this has led to idiot rant like the Pop Group's "We Are All Prostitutes"; aesthetically it's meant rapprochements with incorrigible art-rockers like Mayo Thompson and Robert Wyatt as well as the diddle-prone experiments of Young Marble Giants, the Raincoats, Essential Logic, and Cabaret Voltaire. But it's also provided such classic punk protest as Spizz Energi's "Soldier Soldier" and Stiff Little Fingers' "Alternative Ulster," and none of the above-named diddlers would have been taken aboard without a surefire tune or two in their packet. Hence this superb fourteen-single compilation, Rough Trade's first U.S. LP. Kleenex's "Ain't You" and Delta 5's "Mind Your Own Business," two of the finest postpunk forty-fives anywhere, do help. As do Scritti Politti's arty, political, hypnotic "Skank Bloc Bologna" and "At Last I Am Free," by none other than Robert Wyatt. A

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