Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 1981-06-08


Terry Allen & the Panhandle Mystery Band: Smokin the Dummy (Fate, 1980) Juarez, this sculptor-painter cum singer-songwriter's 1975 debut, was pretentiously half-assed mock mythopoeia; Lubbock (on Everything), his 1979 double, was genuwine laugh-a-minute highbrow-lowbrow. This time Allen's satire is a little thinner, and he undercuts his more sincere songs by playing them for comedy, the only vocal trick he knows. "Texas Tears," "The Night Cafe," and "Redbird"--plus some funny ones--are recommended to sideman Joe Ely, whose band has always mystified the Panhandle. B

John Anderson: 2 (Warner Bros., 1981) In the right's first flush of power, as Nashville nostalgia merges revoltingly with El Lay schlock, Anderson's modest regard for the verities becomes not just a virtue but a treasure. Unlike, let us say, Eddie Rabbitt, he knows the difference between traditionalism and conformism, sentiment and bathos, makin' love and makin' out, fiddles and strings; he has the guts to attack "the power of the almighty dollar." A-

Robert Ashley: Perfect Lives (Private Parts)/The Bar (Lovely Music, 1980) Ashley's previous recorded excursion into pulse-plus-words quasi-rock was appealingly hypnotic, but I thought it inauspicious that when I heard and saw this piece live early in 1980 I had a hard time staying awake. No such omens with the album, which is like a state-of-the-art update of the Velvets' "Murder Mystery." One improvement is that you can follow the words, which offer both hook phrases ("We don't serve fine wines in half-pints buddy") and literary satisfaction (dialogue/confrontation between white common-sense-materialist bartender and black cocktail pianist of mystical mien). Also gratifying is the ironic poppish context Ashley finds for the avant-MOR blandouts of such Soho luminaries as producer-arranger Peter Gordon and keyboardist-arranger "Blue" Gene Tyranny. A

Basement 5: 1965-1980 (Antilles, 1981) Second Edition fans take note: Every time I hear ex-PiL drummer Richard Dudanski and reggae-pro guitarist J.R. hit their groove, I think maybe The Flowers of Romance was just a dream I had. The lyrics are stupidly militant at times--England's problem isn't "female rule," it's Thatcher's rule, and not even that--but when things get this boom-boom-boom I can ignore the words if need be. B+

Big Youth: Rock Holy (Negusa Nagast, 1980) Seeing Youth live gave me new insight into why they call it toasting--he's a toastmaster, a Rastafarian George Jessel, complete with carry-a-tune crooning, name-dropping tributes, and shuffle-off-to-Babylon stage routines. All of which were wonderful--the enthusiasm was that unmediated. His evolution into a roots Mr. Entertainment has changed his records, which now include songs. Not great songs, either, as I would say. But "Get On Up" is a great chant, "Bang Dibo" a great goof, "Many Moods of Big Youth" a great mélange, "We Can Work It Out" a great cover (by anybody). And he outsings Kurtis Blow. B+

Bow Wow Wow: Your Cassette Pet (EMI, 1980) Only two great songs on this eight-selection shorty--all the rest is Antmusic. It's certainly true, though, that Adam's old backup boys display a lot more verve and cheek and high good humor than the new ones. Not only that, "Sexy Eiffel Towers" and the sly, loving, brazen "Louis Quatorze" almost justify Malcolm McLaren's dubious project of inventing a sex life for his fourteen-year-old Galatea. B+

Joan Jett: Bad Reputation (Boardwalk, 1981) Fans of Slayed?, Fanny, "Rock and Roll Part Two," and Arthur Kane before he hurt his thumb should give thanks that nostalgia has finally come this far, and then check for lines around the eyes. Producers Kenny Laguna and Ritchie Cordell make the old glitter formula of readymade riffs 'n' blare sound suitable for albums, and they get plenty of help from reformed Runaway Jett, who has writing credit on four of these twelve tunes and comes on tuffer than any gurl in history. A-

Lakeside: Fantastic Voyage (Solar, 1980) Surprise--the fast ones are fun, the slow ones aren't. Fast ones might be even more fun if this weren't a band that praises Toto (the dog, but I think they're funning) in the same stanza with James Brown. Slow ones might be some fun if the singers had the style (skill's not the problem) to convey why they bother. B

The Lounge Lizards: The Lounge Lizards (Editions EG, 1981) John Lurie has a real gift for night-crawling high-kitsch themes, but to hear him improvise alongside Arto Lindsay is to learn how hard it is to make music out of noise. After all, it's the precisely timed cut-'em-up verve with which Arto skronks and gweezes into the themes that gives the Lizards their edge. But for some reason--weak takes? rushed mix? Lurie's sense of posterity? vanity, perhaps?--he's all but inaudible on many cuts here. Result: Slaughter on Tenth Avenue Goes to the Mudd Club--fun, but not the real fake. B+

David Murray: Ming (Black Saint, 1981) Murray's dazzling technique hasn't yet won him a style, it's true. But he's only 26, and the committed eclecticism [ . . . ] it easy to achieve an instant voice. This record documents that sensibility superbly. Classic and cacophonous, it swings at its artiest, inspiring reassuringly down-to-earth performances from the likes of George Lewis and Anthony Davis as well as the superbly balanced stuff you expect from Henry Threadgill, Olu Dara, and Steve McCall. A

Esther Phillips: Good Black Is Hard to Crack (Mercury, 1981) No longer the blueswoman slipping into a more fashionable rhythm, Phillips has made that light, guitar-accented dance beat her own, and here she pursues it without compromises--no violins or fancy horns, just the groove. Only occasionally is the material more than adequate, but to hear her twist a song's natural shape against the smooth pulse and background harmonies is to wonder which is going to crack first. B+

Spandau Ballet: Journeys to Glory (Chrysalis, 1981) Thoughts while hearing "To Cut a Long Story Short" at Hurrah the week before it closed: (1) Eighteen months ago, any "rock" DJ who spun a disco disc replete with kick-drum, syn-wash, and voice-pomp would have risked a lynching. (2) "Question," the title of the Moody Blues' best (only good) song, is the catchword of Spandau's best song. What is the answer? C

Split Enz: Waiata (A&M, 1981) They're still hyped as "avant-garde." Probably because they mix their twitty, intermittently tuneful art-pop with Nino Rota homages and stereo effects that go back to the house of Gary Usher. C+

Stampfel & Weber: Going Nowhere Fast (Rounder, 1981) Seventeen years after the original Holy Modal Rounders first recorded for Prestige, the same two voices and three stringed instruments actually sound better. Well, Weber doesn't--check out "Junker's Blues." But I've never heard anyone--anyone--sing with the sheer enthusiasm for singing that Stampfel puts out here, and where he once channeled his passion for song into folk material, now he'll take on anything from Shakespeare, with Antonia collaborating, to Phil Phillips's newly atonal "Sea of Love." A-

Bunny Wailer: Bunny Wailer Sings the Wailers (Mango, 1980) You'd think these remade rude-boy hits would hook in quick, since for most of us they're not haunted by the ghosts of the originals. Only they don't--the Third Wailer's somewhat ethereal vocal presence, as well as the intractably relaxed groove that rockers studio flash is heir to, assure that. But after too many plays hook in they do, especially on side one, where "Burial," "I Stand Predominate," and "Walk the Proud Land" form a gently triumphant triptych. A-

The Who: Face Dances (Warner Bros., 1981) If nothing else, Keith Moon's death seems to have delivered Pete Townshend of his obsession with the band he created--and with his own mortality. His new sex songs are stylish and passionate, the strongest he's written for the Who in a decade. Problem is, his pretty-boy mouthpiece sounds like he's forcing the passion. Which reminds me that sex always has to do with mortality--and that mortality catches up with pretty boys faster than with the rest of us. B+

Jesse Winchester: Talk Memphis (Bearsville, 1981) For some reason I'd hoped that Jesse's meet-up with Willie Mitchell would inspire both of them to get funky--so much so that at first I mistook tuneful for a substitute. Then I recalled that these days tuneful demifunk is a working definition of pop. And realized that this isn't all that tuneful. B-

Steve Winwood: Arc of a Diver (Island, 1980) Winwood hasn't been a song artist since Dave Mason left Traffic, but at least here he takes responsibility for his own atmospherics. Instead of consorting with Ijahman or Stomu Yamashta, he's laid down this lulling British-international groove all by himself. Overdubbing, the technique is called. Very up-to-date. B-

X: Wild Gift (Slash, 1981) Hippies couldn't understand jealousy because they believed in universal love; punks can't understand it because they believe sex is a doomed reflex of existentially discrete monads. As X-Catholics obsessed with a guilt they can't accept and committed to a subculture that gives them no peace, Exene and John Doe are prey to both misconceptions, and their struggle with them is thrilling and edifying--would the Ramones could cop to such wisdom. Who knows whether the insightful ministrations of their guitarist will prove as therapeutic for them as for you and me, but I say trust a bohemian bearing gifts. How often do we get a great love album and a great punk album in the same package? A+

C81 (NME/Rough Tapes, 1981) This special-price 24-artist sampler, dominated by Rough Trade artists and poppified by the likes of Linx (slick, tough-minded funk), the Beat ("Twist and Crawl" dub), and the Buzzcocks (bye), is proof the Brits ain't been blitzed yet. Although I'm still no fan of noise bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Furious Pig, and the Virgin Prunes, they do provide an appropriately urban-meditative environment when interspersed with more songful material from such unlikely sources as Scritti Politti (slick, tough-minded schlock), Red Crayola (Lora Logic sings), and Subway Sect (hi). A-

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