Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2012-06-01


The Soul Stirrers Featuring R.H. Harris: Shine on Me (Specialty, 1992) In 1991 I wrote an atheistic gospel piece called "With God on Their Side" that I stand by. As death bears down, I may yet bend again toward the Lord, but I doubt it, and that's not why I returned to this 1992 CD I always admired and never penetrated. It's because I sensed in Rebert Harris a great voice that wasn't just for canary fanciers--a voice connoisseurs of normality could learn to love. I might never be a fan, I thought, but at least I could listen up close. Well, now I'm a fan, and not for the usual reasons. Harris is renowned for a falsetto he claimed incorrectly he'd invented and for an intensity that one way or another is gospel's currency. But what distinguishes both attractions is the restraint with which they're deployed. Yes he took flight, yes he got gritty and sweaty. Even at his most transported, however, he was always mellow--he always conveyed a core spiritual calm. And his time is uncanny, adding polyrhythm to quartet music that was always a cappella. Although a few of the lyrics have charms even for an unbeliever--"Everybody Ought to Love Their Soul," "Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb"--they could be in Akan for all the difference they make in the musical moment. Except, that is, for "Feel Like My Time Ain't Long," about parents dying, which doesn't mention the Lord once. A

Swan Silvertones: Love Lifted Me/My Rock (Specialty, 1991) Especially after ace arranger Paul Owens signed on midway through their 1951-55 Specialty stint, the Swan Silvertones relied on a formula. But so did Motown. The problem with this one is the way it was slicked up melodramatically just afterward, during the group's Vee-Jay peak. The center is always Claude Jeter, direct forebear of Al Green and a more crucial gospel falsetto than Rebert Harris himself. But at Specialty Jeter is in a sense the straight man, and for us secular sinners that's good. What happens around him is the formula: the star holding steady as hard-shouting Solomon Womack and Robert Crenshaw wild out. Anchored by drums and piano, rough sound subsumes sweet song as the Swan Silvertones rock the house. A-

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