Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 1981-06-29


Rosanne Cash: Seven Year Ache (Columbia, 1981) It's a tribute to persistence of something-or-other that somebody should still be getting decent music out of the sterile studio-rock formula. What that something-or-other might be is perhaps indicated by the identity of the somebody, who is second-generation pro rather than a punk revoloo. B+

Alex Chilton: Bach's Bottom (Line, 1981) These 1975 tracks, the best already released on Chilton's long-gone Ork EP, are about as Memphis as a garbage strike. Not only does anarchic equal chaotic equal sloppy equal a mess, but soulful equals spontaneous equals off-the-cuff equals a mess. None of which is to deny that he knows how to mess around. B+

8 Eyed Spy: Live (ROIR, 1981) I've always had my doubts about Lydia Lunch, but this Chris Stamey-recorded tape establishes her beyond doubt as the most promising female novelty artist in the American underground. Unlike Debora Iyall, she makes no apparent distinction between sex and eros, which is why she's a novelty artist, but Iyall should follow her lead in the giving-it-what-you-got department. Pat Irwin's dissenting sax and George Scott's pushy bass are what they got, and where they got it was James Chance. B+

Ellen Foley: Spirit of St. Louis (Epic/Cleveland International, 1981) This well-intentioned side trip from punk postpurism to Weimar-manqué artsong might be less embarrassing if Foley and all her voice lessons weren't such typical backup stuff, but as it is she really bollixes such conceits as "Priests married themselves, using Bibles and mirrors/In China all the bicycle chains snapped at once." Which Joe Strummer, here reduced to strummer and backerupper, might actually spit out with some authority. Producer Mick Jones, dubbed "My Boyfriend," acts as if too many chops are Peter Asher's problem, but it's just the opposite--in studio-rock, every note has to be perfect and then some, which leaves Paul, Topper, Mickey etc. two steps short much of the time. C

Dee Dee Sharp Gamble: Dee Dee (Philadelphia International, 1981) After "Breaking and Entering" and "Let's Get This Party Started" get the party started, Dee Dee torches into "I Love You Anyway," written to a disaffected hub by none other than ex-hub Kenny G. This she brings off with such heartbrokenly matter-of-fact determination--all for show, I hope--that I felt ready for a whole side of slow ones. Which unfortunately I got. B

Gang of Four: Solid Gold (Warner Bros., 1981) Only when a jazz critic uttered the word "harmolodic" in conjunction with this music did I realize why I admired it so. Not for its politics, which unlike some of my more ideological comrades I find suspiciously lacking in charity. And not for its funk, which like some of my more funky comrades I find suspiciously lacking in on-the-one. And certainly not for its melodies. I admire it, and dig it to the nth, for its tensile contradictions, which are mostly a function of sprung harmony, a perfect model for the asynchronous union at the heart of their political (and rhythmic) message. Here Jimmy Douglass's production strategy is to cram everything together. Compare the more spacious versions of the two recorded songs on their 1980 EP, and dig those to the nth as well. A

Grateful Dead: Reckoning (Arista, 1981) I know you're not going to care, but I've played all of this live-acoustic twofer many times and felt no pain. Sure it's a mite leisurely, sure Jerry's voice creaks like an old floorboard, sure there are remakes if not reremakes. But the songs are great, the commitment palpable, and they always were my favorite folk group. B+

Willie Nelson: Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Columbia, 1981) Nelson's best since Stardust isn't quite the rehash it seems to be. The often uptempo music is suffused with Western swing, the standards not all that standard. Which would be great if only Nelson's ecumenicism didn't run in the direction of "My Mother's Eyes," the aforementioned "Over the Rainbow," and a jazzed-up "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." B+

Elvis Presley: This Is Elvis (RCA Victor, 1981) Almost half of this two-record soundtrack comprises previously unreleased live tapes, usually of songs we have in studio versions--some forgettable (the two Chuck Berrys on side three), some historic (the Dorsey-show Joe Turner medley). In any case, the point is documentation, and for once I approve. Even trivia like "Viva Las Vegas" and "G.I. Blues" work in this context--in fact, it makes the context, just like the interviews (try Hy Gardner's) and intros (Ed Sullivan's). In short, buy The Sun Sessions (now midline-priced) and Gold(en) Records first, but this is the overview. A-

Public Image Ltd.: Flowers of Romance (Warner Bros., 1981) J. Lydon's right--rock and roll is boring. And needless to say, so's rock criticism--in a multimedia age I should be able to write my reviews in scratch-'n-sniff. If I could, this one would smell like an old fart. I mean, rock and roll may be boring, but at least it's boring in an engaging way. Bassless Araboiserie is interesting in a boring way. C+

Romeo Void: It's a Condition (415, 1981) Those who find sex and love in the new bohemia a theme that hits home admire this for its literary value, but only one cut kicks it on back: the opener, "Myself to Myself." Until the likes of "Charred Remains" and "Confrontation" attain an equally hypnotic self-absorption, I'll relegate Debora Iyall's alienation tales to my sociology shelves. B

Shoes: Tongue Twister (Elektra, 1981) For three straight albums I've started out resenting the pure pop-rock blandishments of these Ramones of the heartland, and for three straight albums I've ended up clucking appreciatively at every fill. As befits heartlanders, they wear theirs on their sleeves, not just for decoration but because that's where they belong; their formula serves a supple expressionism in which sincerity is a given. Inspirational Liner Note: "No keyboards." A-

Ricky Skaggs: Waitin' for the Sun to Shine (Epic, 1981) Skaggs's taste and technique are impeccable; not one of these ten songs, many of them classics I'd never heard before, falters melodically or lyrically, and the arrangements, snazzy though they are, are so steeped in country tradition they could be from decades ago. Which I guess is my beef, because the only way you'd guess it isn't decades ago is from the faint folk-wimp whine in Skaggs's mountain tenor. B+

Squeeze: East Side Story (A&M, 1981) They're finally beginning to show the consistency that's the only excuse for obsessive popcraft. The songs are imaginative, compassionate, and of course hooky--the warped organ on "Heaven" bespeaks divine intervention. And with Elvis Costello coproducing, the music is quite punchy, though I wouldn't go so far as to say it rocks. B+

Billy Swan: I'm Into Lovin' You (Epic, 1981) Chagrined with Billy's tendency to cope with maturity by hitting himself over the head with violins, I almost didn't give this a chance, which would have been a shame--it's simple and gentle and steadfastly tuneful, mostly domestic with a few winsome courtship songs to prove he's a Nashville pro. Theme: "Not Far From 40." Still loves rock and roll, he says, and I know just what he means. B+

Concerts for the People of Kampuchea (Atlantic, 1981) I'm a permanent skeptic about live albums, compilation albums, and charity albums, so don't call me sucker when I report the sound superb, the arrangements tight, the performances up, and the programming acute (especially on the relentless Pretenders-Costello-Rockpile side). Could do without the Who's "Sister Disco" (they're flaccid in general) and organizer Paul McCartney's 20-member Rockestra (though Wings sounds fine). Graded leniently because with UNESCO in on the deal it seems likely that your bucks will actually buy rice. B+

The Great Rap Hits (Sugarhill, 1980) Well, not exactly. This expedient collection is why Sugarhill changed over from fabrications like Sequence and the Sugarhill Gang itself to street-dance kids like the Funky Four Plus One, half of whose Enjoy debut, "Rappin and Rocking the House," brings up side one. The slight shift of gears is almost startling--the real party people stay a split second ahead of the beat, while such creatures of the sixteen-track as Super Wolf and Lady B. lag cunningly or uncomprehendingly behind. Still, not a one of these six cuts is without charm--by mining the dozens and God knows what else for boasts, insults, and vernacular imagery, Sylvia Inc. could convince anybody but party people that rap is really about words. A-

I.R.S. Greatest Hits Vols. 2 & 3 (I.R.S., 1981) Miles Copeland's philosophy of new wave is simple--sign it cheap and gimme gimmick. So it's no surprise that the hooky (and not so hooky) samplings on this well-chosen twofer tend toward faddish one-liners. A lot of good ones, though--rule-provers from the Cramps, the Damned, and the Stranglers, one-offs by Fashion and Alternative TV, all you need of the Humans, Skafish, and Patrick D. Martin, good bait for the Fall, the Buzzcocks, and (get hooked) Sector 27, and crowning it all Brian James's "Ain't That A Shame," which may not be heard again until the pop archaeologists get to work. B+

The "King" Kong Compilation (Mango, 1981) Greil Marcus compares the late Leslie Kong to Sam Phillips, and as the man who turned ska into reggae he deserves the accolade, but it was already 1969 in the global village by then, so it's no surprise that there's a Jerry Wexler (not Berry Gordy) sophistication to his sound. And Impressions/Temptations/Cooke soulfulness pervades these sixteen tunes as well, although their fervor is more innocent and their sheer chops are less brilliant. None of the less familiar tracks is up to those you know (and perhaps own) by the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, and the Melodians, but Tyrone Evans's newly uncanned "Let Them Talk" and the Pioneers' "Samfie Man" come close. A-

The Secret Policeman's Ball (Island, 1981) Who fans who covet the [Concerts for the People of] Kampuchea set should start instead with this concert for Amnesty International, which is to say for all of us. Reason's musical--the three Pete-Townsend-with-acoustic cuts, including a superb "Won't Get Fooled Again," are his best recorded work since Rough Mix. Also: a Neil Innes Nelson Riddle parody, two selections by classical guitarist John Williams, and two by Tom Robinson, a new one and a chilling "Glad To Be Gay." B+

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