Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 1982-04-13


Lou Ann Barton: Old Enough (Antone's, 1982) She's got a fine little instrument, like a nubile Bonnie Bramlett--the drawl pure cracker, the pitch and rhythm deep blue. But what she's selling with it is tractability. For Glenn Frey she poses as a flapper in the age of Deep Throat, for Jerry Wexler she sings good old songs in good old Muscle Shoals. Sincerely in both cases I'm sure, which makes things worse. C+

B-52's: Mesopotamia (Warner Bros., 1982) For a while I was afraid they were going to get encrusted in their own snot, but they really are an ordinary dance band from Athens, Georgia, which turns out to be no ordinary thing. David Byrne isn't the secret, just the secret ingredient--one more semipopulist with his own bag of tricks, like fellow ingredient Ralph Carney except his bag's bigger. A "party" record that never invokes that pooped word, this six-cut mini lists for $5.98, as good a deal as onion dip. A-

Glenn Branca: The Ascension (99, 1981) Okay, so he makes hot "experimental" ("serious") ("classical") ("new") music. What we wanna know is whether it's cool rock and roll ("rock"). Not by me. It's great sonically, with ringing overtones that remind me of a carillon or the Byrds, but the beat's overstated and the sense of structure (i.e. climax) mired in nineteenth-century corn. This can be endearing in Pete Townshend or Bruce Springsteen (maybe even opera), but it sounds weak-minded in an artist of such otherwise austere means. B

Lindsay Buckingham: Law and Order (Asylum, 1981) This fluent, affluent rumination on the price of sin and the wages of success really isn't how they do it in L.A. anymore, which must be why I had such a hassle getting a handle on it. Moral signposts are provided by the covers: rock and roll "It Was I" (love is painful), pop "September Song" (and the most precious thing there is), country "A Satisfied Mind" (so be thankful for what you've got). Now if only Lindsey didn't spend so much time flexing his archness, all this might be perceptible to the naked ear. B+

Human League: Dare (A&M, 1981) It's not flesh-and-blood chauvinism that puts me off Britannia's hookiest dance-synth monster. I'll boogie to the right machine; I can even imagine fucking a cyborg. But while the cyborg of my dreams would keep it light, not act too impressed with the tricks stored in his/her memory, League spokesman Philip Oakey comes on like three kinds of pompous jerk. The only time I light up is when Susanne Sulley takes her verse on "Don't You Want Me," which I recommend to Quarterflash. B-

Alberta Hunter: The Glory of Alberta Hunter (Columbia, 1982) It's a given that octogenarians like Sam Chatmon, Eubie Blake, even George Burns have more vitality than just about any singing war baby you care to name--they prove that by breathing. But life-begins-at-eighty isn't really Hunter's secret, except insofar as it deepens her wisdom, which isn't a given at all. It's not like Bessie Smith raising her voice among us, because Hunter is less titanic. But she spins her blues and gospel and pop with the spontaneous affection not just of somebody who never knew there was a difference between art and entertainment but of somebody who had the heart to leave show business and work as a nurse for twenty-three years. Her raunch ("You Can't Tell the Difference After Dark") is as unforced as her love of God ("Ezekiel Saw the Wheel") and her female indomitability ("I've Had Enough"), and her band plays even better than she sings. A-

Gregory Isaacs: Best of Gregory Isaacs Volume 2 (GG, 1981) Jamaica's reigning crooner is what people mean when they say reggae all sounds the same. Like most great popsters, he has a genius for the disarmingly memorable ditty, but initially he makes Shoes or the Ramones sound like a veritable smorgasbord. And while James Brown is an apter analogy, Brown's rhythmic attack is just that--vocally and instrumentally, he aims to get you up on one leg doing splits, while Isaacs and his band favor the skank, that metasexual trance best described as trucking in place. Me, I think he's kind of great. Prolonged exposure to this collection of mostly recut hits reveals his hooks at their semiglossiest, his usually romantic lyrics at their dreadest, his rhythm players at their trickiest, and his cool, drooning baritone at its most plaintive and hypnotic. A-

Gregory Isaacs: More Gregory (Mango, 1981) All Gregory Isaacs songs sound the same, but some of them sound more the same than others, and for a long time I was ready to relegate his best-distributed LP to the Land of Nod. Turns out there isn't a bad track on side one, though I don't guarantee any great ones. And don't forget side two. B+

Millie Jackson: Live and Outrageous (Spring, 1982) Because her dirty mouth is more purely a shock effect than most pop concepts, it's sure to lose its zing for the audience even if Millie stays interested, which according to her last few studio albums she hasn't. But this one-volume follow-up to 1979's live double is also a de facto best-of, claiming the pop classic "This Is It" from Kenny Loggins and the pop throwaway "Passion" from Rod Stewart as well as preserving for posterity at least one rap that makes me squirm, and I don't squirm easy. B+

Chas Jankel: Questionnaire (A&M, 1982) Eight cuts designed for dancing by Ian Dury's departed keyboard genie, with Dury-penned rhymes that beat Lord Upminster's and sweetly anonymous treated vocals by the auteur. If only I was dancing more these days. B

Nick Lowe: Nick the Knife (Columbia, 1982) He's shed one guitar player and no hooks and as a man he's probably better for it: his cool seems more casual, his lust more committed. But the music is tossed off with what sounds like indolence rather than charm, and since Billy Bremner and Terry Williams are still on hand it would be too pat to claim he needs a real band. Hard to make that casual commitment sing, I guess. B+

Rita Marley: Who Feels It Knows It (Shanachie, 1982) The first analogy is Alice Coltrane, who also trivializes a faith her husband brought miraculously and paradoxically alive with simple-minded music, but though it's just as well Rita doesn't play the harp, Merry Clayton and Patti Austin are more to the point: beware of backup singers' solo albums, no matter how surefire the single or committed the session men. C+

Van Morrison: Beautiful Vision (Warner Bros., 1982) After a period of transition, Van has finally achieved the eternal Kansas City--this music is purely gorgeous (or at times lovely), its pleasure all formal grace and aptness of invention. Only "Cleaning Windows," a cheerful, visionary, deeply eccentric song about class and faith and culture, stands among his great tunes. But every one of these songs makes itself felt as an individual piece of music. And every one fits into the whole. A-

Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels: Live 1973 (Sierra, 1982) I don't know why it took eight years, but after several botches on A&M here it is, a satisfying live-posthumous from the inventor of country-rock, for which he is not to blame. All five A-songs are more forceful on GP, but these versions (recorded in downhome Hempstead, Long Island) have a grace and lightness that for once show off the advantages of folkie roots, as does the new stuff on side two. Emmylou fills her appointed role, N.D. Smart II keeps things moving smartly, and a good time is had by all. B+

The Pistons: Flight 581 (Twin/Tone, 1981) There's nothing especially forbidding or avant about these six Minneapolis boys, but chances are they'll never get to Milwaukee and not for lack of talent, though they could use a singer. It's just that they're obviously in it for the art. This is generic rock and roll for the sheer formal pleasure of it--now pop, now punk, now Stones, now nice, now nasty, usually nasty. B+

The Replacements: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (Twin/Tone, 1981) A non-quite-hardcore Twin Cities quartet who sound like the Heartbreakers might have if they'd started young and never seen Union Square: noisy, disgruntled, lovable. I mean, with liner notes like "this could have come close to rock-a-billy if we had taken the time," "stole a mess of these words from a guy who's never gonna listen to this record," and "written 20 mins after we recorded it," how bad could they be? Yeah, I know, pretty bad, and anyway, how good could they be? Hearing is believing. Inspirational Verse: "I hate music/It's got too many notes." B+

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: Hooked on Classics (RCA Victor, 1982) I always knew English art-rock would be good for something eventually, and voilà--on one disc the Phils have woven together (well, maybe "strung" would be more accurate) no fewer than one hundred three melodies that have stood the test of time, every one a milestone of European culture. At long last the three Bs get to roll back over on Chuck Berry--there are more catchy tunes here than on a Beatle Weekend. And though I admit that the segue from "Stranger in Paradise" to "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!" is a little abrupt for my tastes, I figure that's the kind of avant-garde épatement that's always made modern art so exciting. Who's in that rhythm section?! And are you listening, Glenn Branca?! B

Skyy: Skyyline (Salsoul, 1981) Catchy and functional, but the funny voices don't know any jokes and the lady who sings the hit is about to fuck her girlfriend over. In short beyond the reggae and the kazoos it's neither adventurous nor ingratiating--just catchy and functional. B-

Swollen Monkeys: Afterbirth of the Cool (Cachalot, 1982) I've been a fan of the irrepressible Ralph Carney since Tin Huey, but he doesn't have a bandleader's sense of purpose. Moderately entertaining on stage with its four or five horns and almost as many clever lyrics, his polka-to-salsa "world rhythms" outfit comes perilously close to mess on record, where you can't see how unpretentious their highjinks are. If sidemen are gonna goof around, better they should be smart, nice sidemen. But not that much better. B-

Phases of the Moon: Traditional Chinese Music (Columbia, 1981) Blessed with neither roots nor technical insight, I come to this 58-minute collection of 11 subtle, surprising instrumental pieces--most of folk origin, though three are postrevolutionary and one "a treasure of Chinese classical music"--as a sublime novelty record. That is, I get off on its strangeness, and why not? Though the mood is quiet the total effect is far from ambient, not just because things do get loud at times but because most of these melodies are instantly arresting. They don't repeat as insistently as Western folk tunes do, either. At times I wonder if I'm back in sixth grade memorizing "Minuet in G" and "Hall of the Mountain King" for Mrs. Tully, and I find that the thing can grate if I start playing it two or three times a day. But why do I keep putting it on? What a trip. A

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