Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 1983-01-25


John Anderson: Wild and Blue (Warner Bros., 1982) Anderson is Ricky Skaggs without Jesus--his voice lowdown rather than angelic, his roots in the honky tonks rather than the mountains, his album wild and blue, a sexier way to say (and sing) highways and heartaches. But his gift for ballads is still a little soft, which means he comes up a touch short on the ones you know and can't quite turn filler into the staff of life. B+

Bad Religion: How Could Hell Be Any Worse? (Epitaph, 1982) Greg Graffin's vocals fall into a naturally musical off-key drone that make him sound at times like a mullah in mourning, which is appropriate--he's not as arrogant about his nihilism as most hardcore kids. On the other hand, he's not as funny about it as the best ones, either. B

Bus Boys: American Worker (Arista, 1982) At first I was no more impressed by this professional black arena-rock than I am by, say, professional lesbian folk-rock. Less, actually--bombast is annoying. But in the end I was disarmed by the audacity, esprit, and sheer versatility--not many arena-rockers are comfortable simulating funk, reggae, and surf music--and won over by the songs themselves, every one informed by the kind of middle-American compassion you might expect from a black band with enough soul to hope to touch the arena-rock masses. B+

Marshall Chapman: Take It On Home (Rounder, 1982) Having failed to connect as a rip-roaring rock-and-roller, she now fails to connect as a Nashville gal. Except on two cuts, that is--"Bizzy Bizzy Bizzy" and "Booze in Your Blood," both of which sound pissed off. Hear me, Marshall? I said pissed off. C+

Clifton Chenier: I'm Here! (Alligator, 1982) Especially in a rhythmically conservative style like zydeco, it's rare that a band can carry an album, but that's the story here. First record I've ever heard hot enough to convince me that all those wild tales about the accordion man weren't so much pepper sauce. Just too bad it happened after he began to lose his strength. B

Devo: Oh, No! It's Devo (Warner Bros., 1982) Because their secret contempt for their cult receded once the cult gathered mass, moral impassivity that once seemed like a misanthropic cop-out (or worse) now has the feel of Brechtian strategy. They've never sounded wimpier, but they've never sounded catchier either, and with this band wimpiness has a comic purpose. "Time Out for Fun" is recommended as both text and music to leisure theorists who reject electropop as a matter of humanistic principle. B+

Dire Straits: Love Over Gold (Warner Bros., 1982) I admit that Mark Knopfler is a classy enough guitarist and producer to entice me into his nostalgic obsessions: at its best "Telegraph Road" sounds like supernal Mark-Almond, and the cheesy organ on "Industrial Disease" betrays a sense of humor. But the portentous arrangements on the other three cuts (right, that makes five, mean length 8:24) suggest nothing so much as ELP with blues roots. And Knopfler's sarcastic impression of a Harley Street M.D. on the very same "Industrial Disease" leaves no doubt that even his sense of humor is pompous. C+

Edi Fitzroy: Youthman Penitentiary (Alligator, 1982) "With the Roots Radics Band," announces a subtitle, and that's the usual good sign. "Featuring his three 1982 top 10 Jamaican hits!" crows a sticker, and I wish I were sure that the third one (after the title track and "First Class Citizen," which gives itself away with a dub) were "Dread Locks Party" and its borrowed sax, not "African Queen" and its stolen Sedaka. "The only new vocal star to emerge this year," inform the notes, and I hope 1983's has more than one trick in his or her gullet. B

Joni Mitchell: Wild Things Run Fast (Geffen, 1982) This is good Joni, for the first time since the mid-'70s, and I suspect it comes too late, because good Joni simply means old Joni, and old Joni is better. I mean, if she'd put "Solid Love" at the very end I still wouldn't believe her, but at least I'd think she'd learned something. Instead she proves her maturity with a climactic hymn to St. Paul's kind of love which is much the worst of the three covers--because to be honest the Al Hibbler and Elvis Presley songs are what kept me listening. B

The Morells: Shake and Push (Borrowed, 1982) These four permanent residents of Springfield, Missouri, and environs unearth minor classics Dave Edmunds would give his doctorate for. New rockabilly doesn't come any more authentic or less purist than "Eager Boy" (he wants to be a senator) or "Ugly and Slouchy" (she won't cheat) or their own "Red's" (eats). But Rockpile, the Blasters, even the Stray Cats fire their roots into the future with an edgy intensity that's missing from the performances and recording here, which makes the difference on a record that might have been a minor classic itself. B+

Musical Youth: The Youth of Today (MCA, 1982) The miraculous "Pass the Dutchie" was originally a fine Mighty Diamonds song called "Pass the Koochie," so even though the arrangement is pure genius and the switch from ganja (a koochie is a pipe) to food (a dutchie is a cookpot) pure social responsibility, they've yet to write their first hit. And with reggae bands, not to mention kid bands (even English bands), one-shots are an old story. So I regret to report that the album evinces neither pop songcraft nor the signature groove with which seasoned reggae artists compensate. And am surprised to add that between young Kelvin's biddle-biddle toasts and the reggae songcraft they do command--check out "Youth of Today" and "Young Generation"--they almost get by and then some. B

Randy Newman: Trouble in Paradise (Warner Bros., 1983) The reason 1979's Born Again took three years to sink in for me was that Newman never pinned down the distance between himself and the creeps he wrote his first-person songs about. Because he's gained control as a singer, his oafish drawl here turns into a unifying voice, and the accompaniments are as eloquently integral as the American-colloquial pastiche of his Ragtime soundtrack. So this time the baffled racist of "Christmas in Capetown" and the happy-go-lucky Disney hero of "I'm Different" and the sentimental pimp of "Same Girl" and the mournfully manipulative patriot of "Song for the Dead" and the unflappably egoistic rock star of the outrageous "My Life Is Good" all seem to be the same guy. And while that guy isn't Newman, Newman does go out of his way to understand his point of view. A-

Orchestra Makassy: Agwaya (Virgin, 1982) Four sweet male vocalists dominate this clear, buoyant fifteen-man group from Tanzania, who like all Tanzanian musicians have to travel to Kenya to record their pioneering East African variation on ur-Cuban Congolese styles. Salsa-shaped (a mere three drums) and calypso-inflected, their song forms will relieve or perplex listeners whose contact with Afropop begins and ends with Sunny Adé--they're much simpler. Those who find Adé too damn pleasant will be relieved to learn that Makassy occasionally cut the lovely flow with soulful grit in a lead vocal or sax solo. Me, I love them because they're lovely. A-

The Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now (Columbia, 1982) It's not band breakdown (Duncan Kilburn's sax replaced, John Ashton's guitar gone) nor pop sellout (Todd Rundgren in for Steve Lillywhite at the board) nor tired songcraft (hookier than the junk-punk debut if more ornate than the powerhouse follow-up) that makes this quite entertaining album less than credible. It's the half-life of cynicism as a public stance. Last time Richard Butler's surprising new emotionality made for a winning world-weariness, but this time it sounds just slightly pat, more or less what you'd expect from a quite likable phony. A-

Rank and File: Sundown (Slash, 1982) As rock concepts go these days, the idea of making like the fourth-best bar band in Wichita Falls is plenty warm-blooded, so that even though I disapprove in theory of the loud, klutzy dynamics of this ex-punk country-rock, its zeal wins me over every time. Helps that they leave "Wabash Cannonball" etc. off the album and explain their excellent motives in their own words, fleshed out with a few of the guitar licks they found lying around that bar. A-

Television: The Blow Up (ROIR, 1982) John Piccarella and I annotated this eighty-five-minute tape because guitar heroes like Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd deserve a heroic live album. While the more word-heavy songs worked better in the studio, on the likes of "Foxhole," "Prove It," and "Marquee Moon," ahem, "Verlaine takes off in directions that even he probably didn't anticipate, indulging a lyrical wanderlust he never permitted himself when he had time to think about it. And Lloyd, always constrained by the necessity of getting his solos and rhythm riffs just right in the studio, goes nuts here--what he wanted to express on `Satisfaction' was so beyond his chops that he would regularly unwind his bottom E string, twist it behind the neck, and tense the guitar like an archer's bow, producing the unearthly noises preserved for posterity on this cassette." You also get two other key covers and a definitive "Little Johnny Jewel." But the sound could have been brighter--cf. Arrow, the bootleg disc where I first encountered the finest of these performances. And so, as with so many ROIR cassettes (and commercial tapes in general), audio makes the difference between a laudable document and living history. B+

The Who: It's Hard (Warner Bros., 1982) Tommy's operatic pretensions were so transparent that for years it seemed safe to guess that Townshend's musical ideas would never catch up with his lyrics. And it fact they didn't--both became more prolix at about the same rate. This isn't so grotesque as All the Blind Chinamen Have Western Eyes, but between the synths and the book-club poetry it's the nearest thing to classic awful English art-rock since Genesis discovered funk. Best tune: "Eminence Front," on which Townshend discovers funk. Just in time. Bye. C

The Nairobi Sound (Original Music, 1982) It's not "primitivism" or "simplicity" that makes African pop so exciting--it's the doubly complex interaction of two sophisticated demotic languages, polyrhythm and technomedia, each with its own style of self-consciousness. Unlike his Africa Dances, however, this John Storm Roberts anthology has a folkloric feel. Very local in origin and outreach and not really intended for dancing, these Kenyan tunes, especially those in the acoustic (and rural) "dry guitar" style, have enormous charm and not much impact, except for those always special moments of inspiration that propel folk music out into the great world--like the soprano duo "Chemirocha," which technomedia fans will be pleased to learn is a tribute to Jimmie Rodgers. B+

Sound d'Afrique II: Soukous (Mango, 1982) "Soukous" is a word understood throughout French-speaking Africa (the source of this album). It simply means: going out, checking the music, dancing and, cool or passionate, having the Best Time." As in juking, say. But also as in the slang term for the Congolese style that dominates the continent's pop--which this features, thus avoiding the eclectic distractions of Mango's first Afropop collection. Salsafied stuff with vocals that sometimes float sweet and high and sometimes twist and shout, none of it by big-name stars. In short, an African disco compilation. Nice. A-

Soweto (Rough Trade, 1982) It's fair to assume that these fourteen crude, tuneful little singles, released six or seven years ago out of a Johannesburg record shop and featuring a writer-producer named Wilbur Dlamini and a backing band of Jo'burg Zulus called the Bamalangabis, are typical of nothing. They're apolitical except by their sheer existence, mostly small-group instrumental, with guitar, sax, and organ leads. Not too clearly recorded, either. And they're delightful. It's possible Dlamini is a lost genius. It's also possible that when I've heard more music from South Africa's hellish black urban work zones I'll find him minor or derivative. But what's certain is that a lot of very talented people are getting lost in black South Africa. Ain't capitalism grand? B+

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