Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 1983-11-11


James Brown: Bring It On (Augusta Sound, 1983) The fast side is honorable and dispensable--great title riff plus filler, nothing anyone who owns some early-'70s JB is likely to need or even want, though neophytes will dance to it now. The slow side comprises the three strongest covers Brown's released since he stuck a classic "Kansas City" onto Everybody's Doin' the Hustle in 1975. He still approaches high notes with the caution of someone who's hoarse as indelibly as he's black and proud, but he's emoting like he wants you to believe "Tennessee Waltz" and "For Your Precious Love" and in between comes "The Right Time," which isn't really slow at all and features a Brownette who approaches any kind of note as if she owns it. B+

Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Punch the Clock (Columbia, 1983) Without the sustained melodicism of Imperial Bedroom (first side, anyway) to impart the illusion of meaningful wholeness, this is adjudged a major letdown by Elvis's acolytes. But "Boxing Day" is hardly the first time one of his punderous constructions has failed not just to signify but to communicate. Most of this disparate collection (first side, anyway) does what he's always done--convey an elusive feeling that's half pinned down by the words because that's all the grasp he's got on it. And though the alternate versions of "Shipbuilding" (Robert Wyatt) and "Pills and Soap" (the Imposter) are indeed more gripping, their literalness does place his personal contortions in useful perspective. B+

Howard Devoto: Jerky Versions of the Dream (I.R.S., 1983) In which the nastiest wimp since Ron Mael makes his pop move, sometimes diverting and never positively offensive. That includes the title--Howard knows his audience. Granted, Dreamy Versions of the Jerk would have been more to the point, but accuracy has never been Howard's forte. C+

Eurythmics: Sweet Dreams Are Made of This (RCA Victor, 1983) In theory, synth duos have always been okey-doke with me, especially when the resulting pop is as starkly hooky as what Dave Stewart comes up with here. And you might say Annie Lennox has a bono vox. But like so many with comparable gifts, both these people are fools, and pretentious fools at that. Remember, folks--when they tell you everybody's out to use or get used, make certain you go along for the ride you paid for. B

Marianne Faithfull: A Child's Adventure (Island, 1983) Skilled work, hookful and lithely arranged and sung with a racked grace far more accomplished than the harrowing croaks of Broken English. If I were a woman in search of rock and roll models, I might well dote on it. But model rock and roll it's not--Broken English still got the power. B+

Tom T. Hall: Everything from Jesus to Jack Daniels (Mercury, 1983) Returning from five misspent years at RCA, with his 1982 Earl Scruggs collaboration for CBS a halfway house, Hall delivers his strongest album in a decade and bitterest ever, chock full of death, decrepitude, and disillusion. In fact, T. sounds so down on himself you'd think he was an aging rock star--real truth-sayers rarely get this cynical. "The Adventures of Linda Bohannon," the only yarn in his classic mold, is also the only song here to end with his patented shrug-and-chuckle. Life does go on, just like he's always said, and now that he's decided to give honest music another try he should get out and talk to folks again. B+

I-Level: I-Level (Epic, 1983) New music, if you insist--relaxed white technofunk under Sam Jones's sepia vocals. As product, though, it's an utter throwback. The two first-rate songs, "Minefield" (about dancing in one) and "Give Me" ("What you can't get back"), were both singles. Each leads off a side that passes from the mind before it vacates the ear. Only the surrounding confusion of configurations indicates that the year isn't 1962--the B side of the "Minefield" twelve-inch features a "Give Me" remix plus the very mildly interesting "No. 4." Buy the EP, or twelve-inch, or whatever it is. C+

Indeep: Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life (Sound of New York, 1983) With its nonelectronic JB rhythms and outlandish sound effects (percussion includes a flushing toilet), this terse little sleeper of a novelty-hit spinoff bridges predisco and postdisco funk cannily and unassumingly. Reggie Magloire is a nasty girl who's not just trying to impress the boys, Rose Marie Ramsey's her more romantic counterpart, and with help from writer-producer-arranger-band Michael Cleveland they make street music together. A-

Rick James: Cold Blooded (Gordy, 1983) As his head continues to expand, tricks that once seemed honorably functional begin to smack of expediency, with upwardly mobile cameos throwing his shortcomings into heavy relief. Teena Marie and the latter-day Tempts he could keep up with, but on this album Smokey Robinson shows up Rick's rank sentimentality, Billy Dee Williams his cornball cool, and Grandmaster Flash his roots of clay. And the redeeming social value of "P.I.M.P. the S.I.M.P." trips over his fashion sense--this is not a man who should criticize his peers for dressing funny. B-

Jason & the Scorchers: Fervor (EMI America EP, 1984) Crossing Gram Parsons's knowledge of sin with Joe Ely's hellbent determination to get away with it, Jason Ringenberg leads a band no one can accuse of fecklessness, dabbling, revivalism, or undue irony. The lyrics strain against their biblical poetry at times, but anyone who hopes to take a popsicle into a disco is in no immediate danger of expiring of pretentiousness. And to spice this repackage of the Praxis original, somebody came up with the perfect perfervid gesture--Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan at 180 miles per hour. A-

Bill Laswell: Baselines (Musician, 1983) One thing's sure--this is shitty background music. That's intentional, of course, but if Laswell's/Material's avant-fusion experiments are to prove useful to avant-pop listeners, they'd better reward attention more brilliantly than they do. Pulse or no pulse (and it can be either), the usual interesting-to-inventive, and even though I prefer Laswell's urban, conflict-ridden taste in noise to the ecological romanticism of the ethnojazz school, I don't hear the street or the subway (or my stereo) any better than before I put this on. B

LeRoi Brothers: Check This Action (Amazing, 1983) With Texophiles buzzing these guys up as the roadhouse band of a college cowboy's dreams, I was put off some--that big, brawling sound has never been this honorary pencilneck's idea of Saturday night. More listens later than I would have thought tolerable, while Steve Doerr romped all over "Ballad of a Juvenile Delinquent," I finally got the joke. Remember, the Dictators knocked them dead in Dallas too. B+

Mental as Anything: Creatures of Leisure (A&M, 1983) As benign an evolutionary mishap as the koala bear, this displaced pub-rock band does its level best to act friendly and crazy despite disheartening life experiences. Along the way, keybman Greedy Smith sings Roy Orbison's "Workin' for the Man" like Dave Edmunds couldn't dream it, and headman Martin Plaza enlists his mates in the impossible task of closing the Nick Lowe gap. B+

N.Y.C. Peech Boys: Life Is Something Special (Island, 1983) This is virtually an encyclopedia of N.Y.C. dance music--no microchips anywhere carry so much verve, sex, or grit. Only in N.Y.C., however, do people dance a whole lot to encyclopedias, and I fear that if "Don't Make Me Wait" didn't convert the great out-there then the rest of this is doomed to a life of obscurity. B+

Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers: Jonathan Sings! (Sire, 1983) Like a bit of great modern rock and roll only more so, Richman's surprising return to his senses plays havoc with all notions of artistic maturity. It couldn't have happened if he hadn't finally grown up, but it wouldn't have been half as striking if he'd relinquished his kiddie lyricism in the bargain. "Not Yet Three," "The Neighbors," and the admonitory campfire anthem "That Summer Feeling" have the magical complexity of masterworks without the reassuringly forbidding aura of mastery, generating just enough authority to shore up lesser songs that might have seemed merely eccentric on their own. Granted, without the disarmingly precise backup of Ellie Marshall and Beth Harrington, Jonathan's singing might have seemed merely eccentric as well. It doesn't. A

Stray Cats: Rant n' Rave With the Stray Cats (EMI America, 1983) I love the sound of this record--it's much bigger and rawer, as if Built for Speed's prettification was just to get over. Only an ideologue would deny that these unlikely pop stars tear into rockabilly readymades with twice the gusto of any purists or authentics now recording. And Brian Setzer is the snazziest guitarist to mine the style since James Burton. But he's also a preening panderer, mythologizing his rockin' '50s with all the ignorant cynicism of a punk poser. He's no singer, no actor, no master of persona. And if he can write songs he didn't bother. B-

Jamaaladeen Tacuma: Show Stopper (Gramavision, 1983) There's more to harmolodics than funk, and Prime Time's bassist knows it. Hence the Colemanesque lyricism of a second side any old-and-new dreamer would boast about and many couldn't put together, with the master contributing the theme of an atmospheric solo showpiece and Hemphill, Dara, and Ulmer sitting in. And don't worry, side one has the funk covered--with surprising help from reed player James R. Watkins, who damn near has the master covered. A-

Tom Tom Club: Close to the Bone (Sire, 1983) As a one-off, this band was a delight, with a big push from the riff of the '80s and the help of consistently sly and kooky lyrics. But in rock and roll, delight is a fragile thing, and this codification flirts with the insufferable. The simplistic tunes and sing-song delivery do no service to the coy credos of freedom, equality, and happiness they accompany, and there are times when all this praise of jitney drivers and four-way hips suggests the kind of irresponsible exoticism cynics always suspect when rich white people find the meaning of life in the tropics. C+

The Urbations: Urban Dance Party (Metro-America, 1982) "Goin' to Alpena, Cement Capital of the World," begins the twelve-bar blues that begins this tape, and I wish I could tell you it ever got that good again. Andy Boller and Mr. Dr. Blurt Sandblaster do enjoy their laughs--listen to the roller-rink organ Boller lays beneath the horny "I Need a Job"--but they don't write or sing with the difference that can raise neoclassicist white r&b to the level of necessity. B

Junior Walker: Blow the House Down (Motown, 1983) Walker was always funky in the generic sense, but on this welcome return to his home label eight different producers help him get all fashionably funky as well--without any sense of strain. Won't it be nice to dance to the same old sax without risking '60s nostalgia? B+

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