Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 1984-05-29


Steve Arrington's Hall of Fame: Positive Power (Atlantic, 1984) Arrington's bass does pop now, but whether you really get his funk depends on how well you connect with the way he turns the style's loony-toon vocals into pear-shaped tones. Me, I jump only for the synthesized-kalimba hook of "Young and Ready," and he chants that one. B

Aswad: Live and Direct (Mango, 1984) These black Brits' considerable commercial success in their non-Ethiopian homeland guarantees no more than any other band's commercial success; though they're avowedly more roots, their songs for lovers ("Your Recipe") and rhythmic extensions ("Soca Rumba") are as serviceably undistinguished as those of Third World, a commercially successful band indeed. And I'm sure they could have made their U.S. introductions more winningly than with a year's dub album followed by a live job. Inspirational Intro: "You know what live and direct mean? It mean live and direct." C+

Elbow Bones and the Racketeers: New York at Dawn (EMI America, 1984) With a new Dr. Buzzard in the works and Kid Creole still August Darnell's principal outlet, it's amazing that he's found time and songs for yet another project--or so I thought until I heard the project. Only the declaration of infidelity "Other Guys" is more than a skillful black-music genre exercise, and though other singers might pull it out, Gichy Dan and Stephanie Fuller don't. B-

Joe Ely: Hi-Res (MCA, 1984) I have no theoretical objection to the man's hard rock move--it's the dumb-ass conventionality of the actual hard rock in question that gives me a pain. Where Lloyd Maines and Ponty Bone were aces on their country-identified instruments, Ely's new guys are arena dorks in their dreams. You remember the tunes and licks after a while only because they're so similar to thousands of others you soon forgot. And where Ely's own songs have always worked best as change-of-pace, here they're expected to carry the shebang. Except for the febrile "Imagine Houston," buried on side two, and maybe "Cool Rockin' Loretta," a find of a throwaway but no more, they sink it instead. C+

Eurythmics: Touch (RCA Victor, 1984) Physical gifts and technical accomplishments tempt a singer to overdramatize--Annie Lennox makes altogether too big a deal of punching the sofa. But even if she isn't, well, "cooler than ice cream" (really), I'm glad she's normal enough to want to be. If it's high-grade schlock you seek, this'll do as well as early Quarterflash. And Lennox has better hair. B

Imagination: New Dimension (Elektra, 1984) This sensuous trio still enjoy their work, but though they get off some insinuating touches, it's hard to remember any single one when the act is through. I don't believe that's how sex should be. C+

Joe Jackson: Body and Soul (A&M, 1984) Jackson's done it again--fabricated a creditable facsimile of somebody else's music, not jump blues this time but a brassy, Broadway pan-Gotham pastiche, sort of like West Side Story if you correct for talent differential and years elapsed. And because the new-wave Billy Joel is a role model, it's likable enough. But I prefer West Side Story, and I prefer jump-blues more. B-

Linton Kwesi Johnson: Making History (Island, 1984) For a while I thought the light-handed fills, tricky horn parts, and swinging rhythms went against the artist's hard-hitting message, not to mention my own hard-hitting tastes. Only after seeing him live did I recognize those embellishments for what they were--hooks. Dennis Bovell's arrangements take the natural lilt of LKJ's self-conscious patois to a new level of musicality. He may not be quite the man of the people he wants to be, but he comes a damn sight closer than most leftists (not to mention most semipopular musicians), which is why he puts so much care into the pleasure of his propaganda. And he's as smart as anyone could want to be, which is why he puts so much care into his analysis. A

Meat Puppets: Meat Puppets II (SST, 1984) Alone with various strange gods (is there another kind?) in the wide open spaces of his psyche, Arizonan Curt Kirkwood has stumbled upon a calmly demented country music that does more to revitalize the dubious concept of "psychedelic" than California suburbia's whole silly infatuation with the late '60s. He conflates the amateur and the avant-garde with a homely appeal bicoastalists would give up their nonexistent roots for. Rarely if ever has incipient schizophrenia sounded like such a natural way to go. A-

Oh-OK: Furthermore What (DB EP, 1983) Last year's seven-inch Wow Mini Album comprised four toy songs totalling 6:42 in which two girls--definitely the word--with tiny little voices and sharp little minds dissected such subjects as sibling narcissism, personhood, and the impermanence of waves. This is a slight letdown, threatening to cross the line from unflappably fey to oneirically arty. But the Linda Hopper-Linda Stipe tunes allude to half-remembered melodies in much the same way the lyrical catchphrases do, and Georgia boys contribute Georgia guitar and Georgia drums. So in the end it's as charming and sexy as it intends, which is plenty. A-

Van Dyke Parks: Jump! (Warner Bros., 1984) Parks is a naughty choirboy and Kathy Dalton is auditioning for the Broadway lead, but theatrical preciosity is all you can expect from a musical comedy concept album anyway. What you don't expect from musical comedy is exotic Americana like Parks's irrepressible arty vernacular verbal and musical puns, which combined with his rich melodies compensate for the annoyances. B+

R.E.M.: Reckoning (I.R.S., 1984) This charming band makes honestly reassuring music--those guitar chords ring out with a confidence in the underlying beauty of the world that's all but disappeared among rock-and-rollers who know what else is happening. As befits good Southerners, their sense of necessity resides in their drummer, which is why the Byrds analogies don't wash (who ever noticed Michael Clarke?) and why they shouldn't get carried away with the country moves (slow ones really are supposed to have words). B+

Tabu Ley Rochereau: Tabu Ley (Shanachie, 1984) Comprising six recent full-length dance tracks by the bandleader whose clarion baritone has made him the biggest singer in Zaire for twenty-five years, this is a well-designed compilation documenting Africa's dominant pop style. Most of the cuts have real tunes, with French lyrics accessible to a wide range of high school graduates, and two feature his female protegee M'bilia Bel. But Rochereau is a showbiz pro because he always goes for what he knows works, and outsiders may well find his up-up-up propulsion steady-state if not a little wearing. B+

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (MCA, 1983) I know nothing about Japanese music and missed the movie, so for me these Japanese-style synthesizer atmospheres are just exotically ambient background noise, and I'll take them home, thanks. They even have content--a catchy theme, a few discreet climaxes. Marred only by three soundtrack-verité songs in English, including a skillfully segued hymn and an irritating closer from David Sylvian, who demonstrates once again how little Japan-the-group has to do with Japan-the-nation. B+

The Smiths: The Smiths (Sire, 1984) Morrissey's slightly skewed relationship to time and pitch codes his faint melodies at least as much as Johnny Marr's much-heralded real guitar. What's turned him into an instant cult hero, though, is his slightly unskewed relationship to transitory sex--the boy really seems to take it hard. If you'll pardon my long memory, it's the James Taylor effect all over again--hypersensitivity seen as a spiritual achievement rather than an affliction by young would-be idealists who have had it to here with the cold cruel world. B-

Steel Pulse: Earth Crisis (Elektra, 1984) David Hinds has always signed his music by swinging the beat a little more than is normally advisable, and this time, subtly but tellingly, his jazzbo tendencies catch up with him. Where in the past he'd add a subliminal tension to the groove by extending syllables slightly, here his phrasing sometimes goes slack--at one point he even adds a "now" that would do Joe Piscopo proud to the line "As long as Babylon is my foe." So despite strong material, this lacks the requisite steely edge. And whether the confusion of "laboratory" with "lavatory" is simple ignorance or one of those deep Rasta puns, it sums up his wit and wisdom on "these times of science and technology" all too neatly. B+

Trouble Funk: In Times of Trouble (D.E.T.T., 1983) MacCarey's timbales and Dyke Reed's synths give these loyal D.C. homeboys more instrumental distinction than most of their major-label competition, but on the studio half of this double-LP you'd almost forget what sharp rappers they can be. The crowd on the live disc reminds you. B+

XTC: Mummer (Geffen, 1983) Having retired full-time to the studio, the definitive English art-poppers sound more mannered and arid than ever, which is no less bothersome just because it's one way they have of telling us something. By now, there are hints of guilt-tripping in Andy Partridge's awareness of what he isn't, and while "Human Alchemy" ("To turn their skins of black into the skins/Of brightest gold") and "Funk Pop a Roll" ("But please don't listen to me/I've already been poisoned by this industry") are notably mordant takes on two essential rock and roll subjects, Partridge deliberately limits their reach. The eccentric dissonances that sour his melodies and the fitful time shifts that undercut his groove may well bespeak his own sense of distance, but art-poppers who command both melody and groove are rare enough that I wish he'd find another way. B-

Paul Young: No Parlez (Columbia, 1984) Unlike the interpretive singers of an earlier generation, Young projects a concern with emotion rather than emotion itself--an idea or a value rather than a passion. Where Joe Cocker and Maggie Bell played it hot, Young's take on the slightly archaic black singing styles he admires so candidly is cool and synthetic. while this aligns him neatly with urban contemporaries in the Jeffrey Osborne mold and helps him steal away with "Love Will Tear Us Apart," it puts a heavier burden on his powers of analysis than any rock-and-roller should risk. Fortunately, his delight in state-of-the-art production and arrangement, as well as in his own vocal resources, provides the underpinnings of authenticity any second-hand man needs. B+

Footloose (Columbia, 1984) Since the idea of this deeply cynical movie is to assure teenagers not only that AOR equals youth rebellion but also that they can dance to it, and given AOR's enduring commitment to racial segregation, it seems appropriate to note that the two first-rate songs on this offensively glitzy, offensively hyper soundtrack are by black people. Deniece Williams and Shalamar, in case you didn't know, both available as singles and a good thing too. C

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