Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 1981-10-05


Au Pairs: Playing With a Different Sex (Human, 1981) For months I struggled to get with the commendable postpunk feminism and accessible quasifunk rock and roll of this gender-balanced quartet, and for months I failed. Only in person did I notice that gender symbol Lesley Woods had about as much to say now as Grace Slick did in 1967--more than you'd predict and less than you'd hope--and that on the whole they sounded like a bored Gang of Four. Dozed off during the climactic "It's Obvious." Which I found rousing anyway. Ditto for the album when I got home. B+

Ronnie Barron: Blues Delicacies, Vol. 1 (Vivid Sound, 1980) The erstwhile Reverend Ether, who worked as Paul Butterfield's sideman after declining Dr. John's shingle, here adds a respectfully raunchy collection of standards to the modest store of first-rate New Orleans rock and roll LPs. This is no Wild Tchoupitoulas or Fats Domino or Crawfish Fiesta, but it sure holds its own against Mac Rebennack's Gumbo or Lee Dorsey's Yes We Can. A minor delight for the aficionado and a revelation for the uninitiated. Problem is, it'll cost you 15 bucks as a Japanese import, if you can find it. Rounder, Alligator, Flying Fish--help! Warners--oh never mind. A-

Gary U.S. Bonds: Dedication (EMI America, 1981) This is impressive and good-hearted. Not only did B. Springsteen get a record deal for the rock and roller whose oldies have been topping B.'s show since whenever, he got him a hit. Featuring the voice of none other than B. Springsteen, who comes more naturally to these impressive, good-hearted, new B. Springsteen songs (as well as the Dylan and Browne and Lennon-McCartney oldies) than the rock and roller. For one thing, B. has more soul. C+

The Commercials: Compare and Decide (Eat, 1980) In the tradition of Jon Tiven, another bad rock critic turned good bandleader, Loyd Grossman doesn't let details like not being able to carry a tune get in the way of his small-minded, hooky little songs. So why should we? Only an ex-crit would put out an album with titles that damn near write the reviews: "Ramona" and "She Said She Said" and an Abba cover for influences, "I'm So Heavy Metal" and "El Disco Es Cultura" for satiric breadth. Best song: "X-Girlfriend" (serves him right). Message (from "Bongo Party"): "Don't bring a bottle/Don't bring a friend/Don't bring your favorite tape." 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-

Dave Edmunds: Twangin (Swan Song, 1981) With Nick Lowe butting out, Edmunds wheels into his leather-boy fantasy with all the delicacy of a Harley 1000 on diesel fuel. He digs a thirteen-year-old version of "Baby Let's Play House" out of the basement, ignores Guy Mitchell's whistled hook on "Singing the Blues," and acts as if George Jones left something out of "The Race Is On." Topper: Lowe-Carter-Edmunds's "Living Again If It Kills Me," which happens to be a slow one. B

The English Beat: Wha'ppen? (Sire, 1981) David Wakeling shows more character (and timbre) than Terry Hall, Ranking Roger could rub his dub in a pedigreed reggae band, and the rhythms aren't solely riddims. So as two-tone grays out, the Beat follow their chops into the world-beat sweepstakes, where snaky grooves are worth their weight in yen. The Afrobeats and studio spaces and steel drums are as seamlessly colloquial as the depression politics and depressed romances, so it would be a shame if its sinuous midtempos dismay fans of its predecessor's hectic pace. I hear not resignation or compromise but a stubborn, animated adaptability. Unity rocker: "Doors of Your Heart," in which love means eros and agape simultaneously, and Wakeling finds that dread blocks the way to both, and Roger advises him to stop his fighting. A

Robert Fripp: The League of Gentlemen (Polydor, 1981) Much as I admire Karen Durbin, Chip Stern, Terre Roche, Richard Goldstein, and Ellen Willis, to list only those commentators whose spoken overlays I recognize from personal conversation, I'm just as glad none of them was theorizing in my ear during last year's League of Gentlemen gigs at Irving Plaza, where Fripp's "dance band" sounded somewhat less dinky. And that goes double for J.G. Bennett. B

Robert Fripp: Let the Power Fall (An Album of Frippertronics) (Editions EG, 1981) I admit to having sat mesmerized as Fripp spun out his austerely lyrical guitar loops, but having examined a set at my leisure I can only assume that the fine distinction between the trance and the nod took me in again. Always have trouble with that mystical stuff. B-

Funkadelic: The Electric Spanking of War Babies (Warner Bros., 1981) His embattled empire/utopia in pieces around if not against him, George Clinton reaches into the disgusting depths of his drug-addled mind and comes up with the solidest, weirdest chunk of P-Funk since one nation gathered under a groove. Featuring icky sex, Sly getting stronger, and an on-the-one reggae about digging "the first world" that should make his brethren and sistren (way) down south splank their spliffs. In short, chock-a-block, for which we can thank the baddies at Warner Brethren, who forced him to reduce a projected double-LP down to this supersaturated single. A-

The Go-Go's: Beauty and the Beat (I.R.S., 1981) Unlike so many groups who live and die by the hook, this one's got hooks, and when you pay attention to the lyrics it seems possible that they don't live and die by the hook at all--"Tonite" and "Skidmarks on My Heart," to choose but two unprepossessing examples, work subtle twists on teen fatalism and obsession, respectively. When you don't pay attention to the lyrics, which isn't hard, you begin to think they live and die by the hook after all. And you're probably right. B+

Buddy Guy: Stone Crazy! (Alligator, 1981) With or without Junior Wells, Guy hasn't put so much guitar on an album since A Man and the Blues in 1967, and if anything this is wilder and more jagged. Which is great if you like your blues straight, without Otis Spann stitching a groove. I prefer mine on the rock. B+

Pearl Harbour: Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost Too (Warner Bros., 1981) The rockabilly that Clash/Dury factotum Mickey Gallagher gets out of Pearl's anonymous sidepeople is crude and often a little leaden. But beyond the rare genius singer (Elvis, Jerry Lee) or player (Charlie Burton, Jerry Lee), rockabilly was always more attitude than fillip anyway, and for all their slap-bass oomph and sly guitar modernisms, I think the main reason the oft-praised Stray Cats like the style is that it lets them cover the borderline-racist "Ubangi Stomp." It's a little different when this half-Filipino woman--that's g-u-r-l, boys--resurrects "Filipino Baby" and "Fujiyama Mama" and then adds her own songs about sex manuals, fear of dentists, and "Everybody's Boring but My Baby." I mean, I do believe that's a punk chip on her shoulder, which in 1981 is the kind of wood I want to knock on. B+

The Kinks: Give the People What They Want (Arista, 1981) Hook-laden and hard-rocking, this is the best-crafted Kinks album in over a decade, which means that for someone who's found Ray Davies's world-view increasingly mean-spirited and mush-brained, it's also the biggest turnoff. Back when he was chairing the Village Green Preservation Society, Ray's dotty lyricism put his nostalgia in appealing and appropriate musical perspective; his current clean-cut arena style makes him sound smug and strident, as well it should. Opening with a piece of radio pimpery in which a deejay becomes not just a benefactor (lie enough these days) but a hero of modern mythos, it moves on to songs about paranoids, battered wives, murderers, and dirty old men that reveal minimal charity for either side of the interactions they put down. Giveaways the self-fulfilling "Predictable" and the misanthropic title tune. C+

Linx: Intuition (Chrysalis, 1981) The funk of these two black Brits is so light you could mistake it for 3-in-One oil at thirty yards and Pablo Cruise at fifteen. Well, don't. They're sly devils from the doorslam drums of "Throw Away the Key" to the slick antiliberal militance of "Don't Get in My Way," and that's only side two. On side one they make clear that they've thought more about love than Pablo Cruise, who wouldn't know what to do with a steel drum if they got shipped home in one. A-

Mary McCaslin: A Life and Time (Flying Fish, 1981) When I fail for a fourth time to listen to a title song all the way through, I stop blaming myself and start blaming the singer-songwriter. Whose best original here, a passionately reserved exploration of the limits of gotta-move-on-babe, was written in 1969, and whose best cover, a passionately tender lesson in the limits of I-can't-trust-babe, copies an arrangement by the Dirt Band. Side-openers both, which is why I bothered with the title song. B-

Ray Parker Jr. & Raydio: A Woman Needs Love (Arista, 1981) Parker's mild-mannered description of what happens to those stingy with, er, respect--"You might come home early and get your feelings hurt"--typifies his understated autofunk. Playing guitar, synthesizer, piano, and drums as well as his home bass, which doesn't sound like a lead instrument either, he serves up eight tunes that bump and/or swoon into ear and/or ass with undeniable and virtually unrecallable effectiveness. I like every one, really. But don't ask me which is which--or why it matters. B+

The Psychedelic Furs: Talk Talk Talk (Columbia, 1981) Don't let Richard Butler's heartfelt snarl and Vine Ely's pounding pulse stun you into thinking that this merely recapitulates a great formula. It's richer melodically, texturally, and emotionally: Butler's '70s-'60s mind games have evolved into the bitter double nostalgia of a reluctant romantic who half-believed in 1967 and then half-believed again in 1976. And if commitment gives him problems, at least he's passionate about sex. I loved the first Furs album because it seemed so disposable; I love this one because it doesn't. A

Ramones: Pleasant Dreams (Sire, 1981) I know number six comes off corny compared to the aural rush and conceptual punch of their first (or third) (fourth even). But song for song it sure beats the fifth, and in future centuries it's not gonna sound all that different from Ramones Leave Home--less focused, maybe, but fun anyway. And I want to know what future centuries will make of American rock having left its first anti-KKK song to an announced Reaganite. A-

Muddy Waters: King Bee (Blue Sky, 1981) Can an old man rock the blues? Watch your mouth, punk. His toughest since Hard Again, and his softest. And it rocks like a mother. A-

Lucinda Williams: Happy Woman Blues (Folkways, 1980) Having pledged allegiance with an album of traditional material that won't give anybody new insights into Robert Johnson, this guileless throwback to the days of the acoustic blues mamas follows through with an album of originals that won't give anybody new insights into men, solitude, or making music. But here's something to mull over--you'll love it. Partly because she means what she says and says what she means, and partly because she has a way of flatting key lines that's as fetching as the dimples on your bedmate's ass. But mostly because contemporary doesn't mean hip, cool, or fashionable--it means knowing what time it is. A-

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