Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2011-05-20


Etta James: The Essential Modern Records Collection (Virgin, 2011) With awe for the atypical Arlene Smith and respect to the late-breaking Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee, Jamesetta Hawkins had the most physically remarkable female voice of the '50s. "So gritty it was filthy and so sweet it was filthier than that" is what I came up with to promote 2000's Chess Box. But on these 15 pre-Chess tracks, the first recorded when she was 15 and the last before she was 20, the grit is sometimes a gurgle in a soprano on its way down to alto, a serration in an instrument she used to cut--quite a weapon for jailbait whose flirty ways survived well into her long junkie decades. Relieved by straight novelties like "Shortnin' Bread Rock" and "The Pick-Up," where Harold Battiste's tenor sax plays the part of the mack, the material tends boilerplate r&b, and half a century later, Leiber-Stoller's "Tears of Joy" doesn't sound all that much craftier than Davis-Josea's "Good Lookin'." There's too much of the same on Flair's 25-year-old R&B Dynamite, which omits "Shortnin' Bread Rock" and adds only the very early "Be My Lovey Dovey" to her A list, though it includes all the obvious keepers. I prefer this in part because it's shorter. Makes the voice easier to treasure. A-

Wall of Sound: The Very Best of Phil Spector 1961-1966 (Phil Spector/Legacy, 2011) This one-CD Philles comp reflects the murderer's loss of his mad grip on his overrated legacy and brings its limitations front and center. Of course there are great records among these 19 oddly sequenced selections--by a generous count, as many as a dozen. But there are also three Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans tracks, including the regrettable "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah." Especially given the Crystals classics here that feature La La Brooks or Barbara Alston, these should be enough to convince you to skip the simultaneously released Darlene Love best-of. The Ronettes songs are the only ones in which the lead singer is personable enough to carry material less inspired than "He's a Rebel," "Uptown," and "A Fine Fine Boy." Sometimes, anyway--their much better best-of is spotty nonetheless. Too often, Spector's wall of sound was a miasma. Respect him as a girl-group maestro even more gifted than the Shirelles' Luther Dixon. The great exception isn't the Righteous Brothers, who have worn poorly. It's "River Deep Mountain High." A

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