Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 1983-03-01


Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow (Virgin/Epic, 1982) Two cuts have no lyrics, one has no music, and guess which your humble wordslinger prefers. Ornette or no Ornette, the Captain's sprung delta atonality still provides surprising and irreducible satisfactions, but his poetry repeats itself more than his ideas warrant. Any surrealist ecologist who preaches the same sermon every time out is sure to provoke hostile questions from us concrete-jungle types. A-

Rosanne Cash: Somewhere in the Stars (Columbia, 1982) That "Third Rate Romance" is the least impressive thing here is proof enough of Cash's continuing growth--"Third Rate Romance" is damn near impossible to ruin, and she doesn't come close. But since I was never much of a Ronstadtian myself, I can't quite make the leap from admiring the assured warmth and easy precision of Linda's de facto successor to inviting her over. B+

The Descendents: Milo Goes to College (New Alliance, 1982) These fishermen don't kid around about what powers hardcore hyperdrive--not simply an unjust society, but also a battered psyche. When they're feeling bad, any kind of power--money, age, ass-man cool, the possession of a vagina--can set off their anarchic, patricidal, "homo"-baiting, gynephobic rage. But their bad feelings add poignant weight to the doomed vulnerability of the last four songs, which happen to be their hookiest--"Marriage" ("I want you to marry me"), "Hope" ("I'm not giving up"), "Bikeage" ("Don't be afraid, it's not too late") and--chillingly--"Jean Is Dead." And you thought there were no more concept albums. A-

Roky Erickson and the Aliens: The Evil One (415, 1982) Never a big Satanism fan, I've resisted this crazed and-you-thought-acid-was-bad testament from the long-wasted leader of the long-departed 13th Floor Elevators. But not one of the West Coast's new psychedelic rockboys has come up with half this many dirty guitar riffs, or anything that holds a candle to "Don't Shake Me Lucifer." And unlike the Flesh Eaters' Chris D., for instance, he seems to mean it, whatever exactly "it" might be. B+

The Fabulous Thunderbirds: T-Bird Rhythm (Chrysalis, 1982) In theory I always appreciated this Texas party band's penchant for understatement--most white bluesboys demean themselves and the music they love by playing it strictly for raunch. But in practice their albums were, if you'll pardon my jargon, boring. So new producer Nick Lowe, who could find a pop hook in a field holler, makes a difference. Both sides open with fetchingly offhand ravers, Kim Wilson works his shoo-fly drawl for gumbo lilt, and the mysterious J. Miller contributes the irresistible "You're Humbuggin' Me," which had me tearing through my Jimmy Reed records in a fruitless search for the original. B+

Grace Jones: Living My Life (Island, 1982) I still don't know why people get hot and bothered about Jones's statuesque if not motionless voice, but that sure is one great disco band, and each album edges her a little closer to her material. "Everybody Hold Still," about getting mugged, moves the New Yorker in me almost as much as Melvin Van Peebles's unblinking urban matin "The Apple Stretching," and three of the five remaining cuts convince me Jean-Paul Goude doesn't know the half of her. B+

Led Zeppelin: Coda (Swan Song, 1982) They really were pretty great, and these eight outtakes--three from their elephantine blues phase, three from their unintentional swan song--aren't where to start discovering why. But despite the calculated clumsiness of the beginnings and the incomplete orchestrations of the end, everything here but the John Bonham Drum Orchestra would convince a disinterested party--a Martian, say. Jimmy Page provides a protean solo on "I Can't Quit You Baby" and jumbo riffs throughout. B+

New Order: 1981-1982 (Factus, 1981) Bargain hunters shouldn't pass up this chance to own "Temptation" plus-four for close to the price of the twelve-inch. But I don't call the twelve-inch "Temptation"/"Hurt" for the same reason I can't remember which of the four is which after playing them all fifteen times. "Temptation" is where Manchester's finest stop hearing ghosts and stake their claim to a danceable pop of unprecedented grimness and power. If it isn't the definition of romantic obsession, it's even richer than I think it is. But it's also the first real song this sharp-cornered sound-and-groove band has ever come up with. B+

Ric Ocasek: Beatitude (Geffen, 1983) They say Ocasek forces it with the Cars, but Shake It Up sounded too relaxed, while this solo effort is tense throughout. And if instrumentally the effect is bracing, vocally it's constipated: only on the avuncular "Jimmy Jimmy" do his affections (not to mention his pretensions) have any roughage to them. B-

Yoko Ono: It's Alright (Polydor, 1982) Supposedly a big shrewdie, Yoko is transcendently simplistic at the core, which in many ways worked better when she was an avant-gardist than it does in her belated pop phase. This somewhat presumptuous message of hope to the world is cunningly devised around the edges--she exploits the studio with fifty years' and countless dollars' worth of childlike delight. but back at the core, the singing and the songs are more one-dimensional than good pop ever is. B-

Lee "Scratch" Perry and the Majestics: Mystic Miracle Star (Heartbeat, 1982) Found the hypnogroove a little flat even for a Clash producer's reggae record until I discovered that the Majestics' bottom was two guys named LaVilla and Schwartz. But if they're more rock than rockers, they're perfect for the legendary Perry, who does a mean Dylan on harp and whose crazed rhyming puns and mystagogical patter sound like Marcus Garvey on Highway 61. Move over Jesu, here come Jah. B+

Robert Plant: Pictures at 11 (Swan Song, 1982) Plant's recreations of Led Zep's sonic feel with more mundane musicians is quite impressive, always the operative superlative with him. It's also more insinuatingly hooky than Led Zep ever was. But the insinuation makes one wonder what's being insinuated, which brings one to the question of meaning, which brings one full circle back to almost nowhere. B

Plasmatics: Coup D'Etat (Capitol, 1982) Now that they've copped to heavy metal tempos, they could last as long as Judas Priest, although since the HM hordes do demand chops, Wendy O. might be well advised to try singing with her nether lips. Not only can't she carry a tune (ha), she can't even yell. Inspirational Thing She Says Backward on Outgroove: "The brainwashed do not know they are brainwashed." Inspirational Message Scratched on Outgroove: "You were not made for this." D-

Shoes: Boomerang (Elektra, 1982) These aging, insulated teen romantics haven't lost their skill at hook construction, but added studio muscle does nothing for their fragile allure. Striving to preserve their male-adolescent prerogatives--"Does he keep you amused between the covers?" is hardly a teen question--they fail to conquer the distinction between girl trouble, a forgivable adolescent malady, and woman trouble, an offensive adult affliction. Maybe they should try out this Inspirational Verse in the first-person plural: "She's losing her tested charms/Any little thing seems hard." B

The Speedboys: That's What I Like (I Like Mike, 1982) Harking back to a time when pop and boogie weren't mutually exclusive, Robert Bobby recalls such unlikely influences as Dino Valenti, Roy A. Loney, Marty Balin, and George Gerdes on tunes that are neither speedy nor boyish enough for '80s cool. Cheerfully regressive in more ways than one, his gift for the pungent phrase is inspired mostly by the Colorado resident celebrated mostly by the Colorado resident celebrated in "Little Bit Nasty, Little Bit Nice." "My baby's mean as she can be/But she's only mean to me," he exults; "I knew something was cooking/When you took your matte knife to my back," he realizes; "Come on home and/Treat me wrong again," he pleads. Guitarist Bobby Blue Blake adds off-color chords. A-

George Thorogood and the Destroyers: Bad to the Bone (EMI America, 1982) Thorogood has added true boogie power to his blues, so his Diddley and Hooker no longer sound like three-quarter-size juke-joint facsimiles. And in a predictable trade-off, he's added true boogie macho to his persona, so he gets his rocks off complaining about the Mann Act. B-

Virgin Prunes: If I Die, I Die (Rough Trade, 1982) If you can imagine mid-'70s Eno hung up on the Flesh Eaters (or a Gaelic counterpart that's somehow escaped my notice) and the Boomtown Rats, you'll get an idea of how these metronomic, exotophile Irishpeople sound, if not of why I enjoy them so thoroughly--which is probably because Eno abandoned the mid-'70s all too soon. B+

Neil Young: Trans (Geffen, 1982) Like almost everybody, I thought this was his dumbest gaffe since Journey Through the Past at first--his Devo buddies at least figured out that robots sound more lifelike if you program in some funkbeats. Granted, good old Joe Lala does add the occasional kerplunkety, but down beneath the vocodered quaver in which Young sings most of these silly sci-fi ditties they belong rhythmically to Billy Talbot, who could no more get on the one than lead a gamelan ensemble. Gradually, however, I figured out that robots also sound more lifelike if they're singing those grade-A elegiac folk melodies Young makes up when he's in the mood, because this is as tuneful as Comes a Time. Also realized that although Young's sci-fi may be simple, it's not silly--or maybe I realized that although it may be silly it's also charming. I'm sure you'll be pleased to learn that his unending search for romantic perfection is under study by an android company. A-

Singles: The Great New York Singles Scene (ROIR, 1982) I'd include Lester Bangs's "Let It Blurt" and Stumblebunny's "Tonight," both in a league with "Piss Factory," "Little Johnny Jewel," and "Blank Generation," which open this tape with a bang it never follows up on. But since neither was by a scene-making band, I understand why compiler Tom Goodkind didn't. And since Goodkind led U.S. Ape, I understand why he chose that one, which in truth sounds better than the Mumps, Speedies, and Student Teachers songs that close the thing. In between we get what sounds in retrospect like a lot of primitive art-rock (Theoretical Girls the savviest) and a lot of primitive pop (Nervus Rex the most polished). Although scenes are often better seen than heard, down beneath the greats this one just about earns its document. But it doesn't make you bewail its wasted genius. And where's "No More Nukes"? B+

Party Party (A&M, 1982) A soundtrack where new-wavers young and old sing rock and roll tunes young and old for dancing pleasure at your party party. Sting covers Little Richard as if he has to and Little Willie John as if he wants to. Modern Romance resuscitates Freda Payne, Dave Edmunds bravely tackles Chuck Berry--why, it's a Moondog Matinee for our time. Pauline Black's "No Woman, No Cry" radiates feeling, Bananarama's "No Feelings" radiates smarts, and Madness's "Driving in My Car" is a worthy "Janie Jones" joke. And oh yeah, the title song is by Elvis Costello. B+

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