Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 1985-10-22


The Butthole Surfers: Psychic . . . Powerless . . . Another Man's Sac (Touch and Go, 1985) Truly repulsive music imposes the most stringent of aesthetic standards--who wants to listen if it's just good? So while I'm sort of impressed by the (relative) accessibility of their first full-length LP--guitar that might actually win over some wayward metal freak seeking X-rated thrills--I must report that only "Lady Sniff," punctuated by perfectly timed gobs, pukes, farts, belches, and Mexican radio, lives up to "The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey's Grave." B+

Conjure: Conjure (American Clavé, 1984) Ishmael Reed or no Ishmael Reed, to hear Taj Mahal, David Murray, and Allen Toussaint playing not alongside but with one another is really something. Thank Murray for his virtuosic atavism on the smartly paced blues side, and Mahal for his progressive heart on the more desultory jazz side. Thank Steve Swallow and Billy Hart for their humble shuffles. And then hail Ishmael Reed, whose pan-Afro-American modernism was the occasion of these miracles. Nothing like an oral tradition to make written words sing. A-

Dire Straits: Brothers in Arms (Warner Bros., 1985) "Money for Nothing" is a catchy sumbitch, no getting around it, and the first side moves with simple generosity, not a virtue one associates with this studio guitarist's ego trip. But it's too late for the old bluesboy to suck us into his ruminations of the perfidy of woman and the futility of political struggle, and "Money for Nothing" is also a benchmark of pop hypocrisy. We know Mark Knopfler's working-class antihero is a thicky because he talks like Randy Newman and uses the same word for homosexual that old bluesboys use, a word Knopfler has somehow gotten on the radio with no static from the PMRC. I mean, why not "little nigger with the spitcurl" instead of "little faggot with the earring," Mark? And while we're at it, how the hell did you end up on MTV? By spelling its name right? B-

Fat Boys: The Fat Boys Are Back (Sutra, 1985) Novelty moves never stay fresh for long, but the Run-D.M.C. rip here is pretty extreme--"Don't Be Stupid" is a gimpy copy of the stalwart "You're Blind," "Hard Core Reggae" a lame copy of the gimpy "Roots, Rap, Reggae," "Rock-n-Roll" a paraplegic copy of the powerhouse "Rock Box." The only sparks come off their surviving novelty moves--Human Beat Box and gluttony boasts. C+

Glenn Frey: The Allnighter (MCA, 1984) If there's a new way to go Hollywood, Glenn'll find it. His latest solo album had died a just and speedy death when the Beverly Hills Cop blitz reached "The Heat Is On," a more Eagle-worthy song, than anything on this smarmy piece of sexist pseudosoul, and who ever thought Eagleworthy would someday be a compliment? Then Miami Vice keyed an episode to "Smuggler's Blues," the album's only non-DMSR track--the anti-Soviet "Better in the U.S.A." doesn't count, because the main thing that's better seems to be making out. Bingo, certified gold. C

Full Force: Full Force (Columbia, 1985) Beats being what they are to street music, these guys were the brains as well as the muscle behind the two most unstoppable street records of the year, and a major-label debut is their reward. Good beats abound, of course, and with the help of major muscle one of the great ones--if not "Alice, I Want You Just for Me!" maybe "Half a Chance"--might make it down to the streets. But like the seduction manuals say, brains and muscle combined have nothing on personality. B-

Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam With Full Force: Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam With Full Force (Columbia, 1985) Lisa got to sing "I Wonder If I Take You Home" because she sounded like the kind of amateur who might put words to the tune of yah-yah yah-yah-yah. At album length her musical comedy training comes to the fore. A Rosie & the Originals for our more pretentious time. C+

John Cougar Mellencamp: Scarecrow (Riva, 1985) Having long wondered what gave this longtime Bowie stablemate the right to speak for the average guy, I've decided it's his talent, which is pretty damn average. That's okay, because the success ratio here, a nice average fifty-fifty or so, just goes to show you what sincerity, hard work, and modest ambitions can do. Mellencamp has half outgrown the fatalism that always underlined the predictability of his Stonesish bandmates, who've gotten tougher with age, an encouraging sign in rich musicians. I wish I knew (I wish he knew) exactly what "Justice and Independence '85" is trying to say. But I'll take "You've Got to Stand for Something" at face value. B+

The Micronotz: The Beast That Devoured Itself (Fresh Sounds, 1985) Haven't heard an indie album with this kind of unaffected formal integrity since Hüsker Dü's Land Speed Record. Lots of garage bands craft their songs more cannily, but these kids have the spirit. They believe their basic guitar riffs will provide all the melody their rush-and-roar needs, and they're right. B+

Van Morrison: Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast (Mercury, 1985) Where you file this de facto best-of from Van's slackest and most spiritual period depends on whether you mourn Astral Weeks or Moondance. I'm putting it in the reference library. B

Willie Nelson: Me and Paul (Columbia, 1985) Nothing like a concept to nudge an interpreter's near misses closer to direct hits, but not any concept will do. On 1984's City of New Orleans, Willie added less than nothing to the self-consciously distanced sentimentality of country songs manqué that had their own integrity coming from Arlo Guthrie, Danny O'Keefe, even Dave Loggins. Here the album is dedicated to his hellraising longtime drummer Paul English and the self-conscious distance is from himself. Backed by his road band and singing three Billy Joe Shaver sure shots and nine mostly pre-CBS songs of his own, many of which you'll be certain you know but fail to locate in your record collection, he comes up with his most unassuming and inevitable album since the ten 1961 demos of 1978's Face of a Fighter. A-

Willie Nelson & Hank Snow: Brand on My Heart (Columbia, 1985) If you're tempted by Willie and Double K's Songwriter soundtrack, go on to the next graf. Best thing about his mucho pusho duet compilation with Hank Williams, Julio Iglesias, Lacy J. Dalton, and so forth is its title: Half Nelson. Highwaymen, featuring Johnny Cash on every track plus Waylon and Double K on many, is Outlaws III (or V, who's counting?), with Cash's "Committed to Parkview" providing a therapeutic shot of contemporary realism. Angel Eyes, backed by the Nashville-gone-jazzer guitar of Jackie King, is Nashville-gone-jazzy. The Faron Young collaboration Funny How Time Slips Away is almost on a level with Willie's Ray Price album, but Young's timbre has thickened so moistly you'd swear the Hank Williams he's now imitating is Jr. And so. I've always been put off by Snow's up-north propriety, more Vernon Dalhart than Jimmie Rodgers, but after 70 years his baritone is finally beginning to crack, providing Willie just the opening he needs to loosen the old pro up: without sacrificing a diphthong of his famous enunciation, Snow sounds completely relaxed. The tossed-off serendipity of so many Nelson records translates here into a casually engaging, deftly eclectic bunch of classics and obscurities, Willie's best album since he and Webb Pierce cut In the Jailhouse Now on a long coffee break in 1982. A

Nightmare Alley/Bop Ramboe and the Ratbags: Victim Turns Blue/Ratbags on Parade (Weatherproof Stew, 1985) Ramboe used to be Nightmare Alley's rhythm guitarist, and since his Ratbags comprise bass and drums from his old band, I suggest he return to that position with expanded responsibilities. His postliterate wit ("When you got 'em by the balls you got their hearts and minds") and referential rock and roll ("Give My Regards to Broadway"?) are cut from the same cloth, and maybe if he and Frank Ruscitti traded vocals, making this an album instead of a double EP, they'd achieve that mysterious simulation of musicality that induces radio's overseers to program wise guys. Then again, maybe they wouldn't--Ramboe is pretty tuneless, Ruscitti pretty tense. B+

Graham Parker and the Shot: Steady Nerves (Elektra, 1985) "I'm not exactly into humor," he observes in "Canned Laughter," and truer words were never spoken--unless you count "Mercury Poisoning," I don't think he's cracked a joke in ten years. So maybe he should give it a try. I know sensitivity didn't work. But squeezing out one more round of angry hooks doesn't work either. B-

Phranc: Folksinger (Rhino, 1985) You don't come back to a singer-songwriter w/guitar-and-harmonica for music no matter how winning her "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." You come back because you really like her. As a "life-loving" jock who can do without female mud-wrestling and people who crash handicapped parking spaces, Phranc is familiar enough as a general type. But little things like her name and her flattop set her off from the Olivia separatists, and so do big things, like her sweet sense of humor and her two-newspapers-a-day habit. After all, you can do without female mud wrestling and people who crash handicapped parking spaces yourself. A-

Professor Longhair: Rock 'n' Roll Gumbo (Dancing Cat, 1985) Everybody should own a Longhair album, and this exceptionally consistent 1974 session--which adds two tracks and a hotter piano mix to the sporadically available French version--won't disappoint. It's got Gatemouth Brown on guitar and fiddle and makes an excellent companion piece to Alligator's peakier Crawfish Fiesta, with which it shares a tough uptempo edge and zero songs, not even "Bald Head" or "Tipitina." It does, however, duplicate a lot of material on Atlantic's endlessly seductive double live Last Mardi Gras. So cogitat emptor, and kudos to none other than George Winston for making such reflection possible in the good old U.S.A. A-

Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers: Rockin' and Romance (Twin/Tone, 1985) It's a thin line between ooh and ick, and when he starts saying bum for ass (butt, buns, behind, backside, rear end, tush, I'll even settle for bottom) you can figure the feybirds have flitted off with another album. I like Walter Johnson myself, but Jonathan should realize that maybe Vincent van Gogh deserved to be called an asshole. B-

The Roches: Another World (Warner Bros., 1985) "Love Radiates Around" has a once-in-a-lifetime melody and was written by a pal of theirs, but its blissful sentiments don't suit this depressing compromise of a "rock" record any better than it would one of their Robert Fripp jobs. Even turning out songs on deadline they're sardonic weirdos, and though the material could be stronger, the monkey wrench is the received irrelevancy of the synthbeats and guitar solos furnished by three strangely indistinguishable production teams. "Gimme a slice" is one thing, "with everything on it" another. B+

Koko Taylor: Queen of the Blues (Alligator, 1985) This is definitive only in the sense that any good Chicago blues album is. But she does sink her chops into some exceptionally well-conceived songs on the A, and on the B she's got Albert Collins, Son Seals, and Lonnie Brooks sprucing things up guitarwise. Also, not a slow one anywhere. B+

X: Ain't Love Grand (Elektra, 1985) After five years of wresting art from commerce and/or vice versa, John and Exene try to have it both ways. Satisfying their bohemian urges with the neofolk Knitters on the art label Slash, they appease their major mentors and keep Billy in the band by taking X to the same producer as Christian heavy metal boys Stryper. Only just as you'd figure, Michael Wagener can't make John and Exene (or even Billy) sound commercial enough to convert anyone. On the first side he has trouble making them sound like anything at all. B

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