Consumer Guide (31)
Despite the proliferation of A records this month--three of them--I have settled on a depressing thesis: I don't believe artists are trying to make good albums any more. The basic reason is a lack of material. Every time a group breaks up or a leader goes solo, not only does a lot of collaborative experience go out the window, but the songwriting talent thins out. The record companies don't care, though, because they know that albums have been established as the basic "artistic" units of the music. This once seemed like a useful idea, but it has turned into a commercial fiction, just like the autonomous power of the "artist"-star. All the companies want is product. An artist with a lot of charisma--which is to say, an artist who is willing to break his ass touring a couple of times a year--can count on a core of fans who will buy three or four mediocre albums before they wise up. All that is necessary is two or three cuts that are good programming, AM or FM, and a moderately intriguing stage act that can be reduced by plastic. Shades of payola and the fabulous fifties, and where does it all lead? Into the shit. Tune in next month for more depressing prognostications.
Eric Andersen: Blue River (Columbia). I was ready to discard this, but because it was so pretty I suffered second thoughts, which is too bad for both of us. In 1967 Andersen sounded like early electric Dylan, so now he sounds like . . . James Taylor. He's honest enough to back himself with a girlie chorus, but that's as far as his honesty goes. If I'm liable to run into noodleheads like Andersen walking down some country road, I'll have more fun in Central Park. C.
Marc Benno: Ambush (A&M). In a lot of ways this is a perfect record--easy studio funk unmarred by a single error of commission. Benno does Boz Scaggs a lot looser and happier than Boz Scaggs has for a while, and Bobby Keys stands out among the sidemen (Radle, Keltner, Utley) only because he's never sounded better. It's even divided into a dance side and a listening side. Yet I no longer trust such basically unthinking supercompetence to provide lasting pleasure. Anyone who doesn't share my reservations should probably buy this, and even if you do--well, I keep playing it. B plus.
Roy Buchanan (Polydor). Yes, he really is a hell of a guitar player, and no, he doesn't have any idea what to do about it. C.
Chi Coltrane (Columbia). A remarkable percentage of female singer-songwriters resemble movie stars, at least on their album jackets, which makes me wonder whether companies sign them because they sing and write. There's a hit single to go with the flowing blond hair here. It's a humdrum r&b rip-off that's about as catchy as the Buffy Sainte-Marie imitation, which makes it better than the rest. C minus.
Crazy Horse: At Crooked Lake (Epic). A lot better than the second but not as good as the first and different from both. Anyone who misses circa-1966 Byrds will be pleased to learn that this country-rock album features songs about spaceships, the brotherhood of man, and singing in a rock and roll band. B.
John Fahey: Of Rivers and Religions (Reprise). Fahey is immersed in country blues, from which he drives his own unique guitar music--eerie, funny, stately, and incredibly calm. The best tranquilizing music I know, because instead of palming off a fantasy of sodden deliverance it seems to speak of real reserves of self-control inside the American psyche. Not for everyone, but I think this is his best. A.
Grand Funk Railroad: Phoenix (Capitol). I guess I turn in my Free Grand Funk button, because I think their records have been getting steadily worse--or less interesting--since Closer to Home. The most annoying problem is Mark Farmer's singing, which combines the worst of Jack Bruce with the worst of Eddie Fisher, but the instrumentals and arrangements aren't exactly dynamic, either. Sorry, really, but . . . . C minus.
Al Green: I'm Still in Love with You (Hi). Easily the most consistent soft-soul LP of the year, anchored in with an impressive collection of unforgettable background themes. I'm happy to own it. But I still remember that less than a year ago Green looked like me might turn into the Compleat Soul Man rather than Black Smoothie of the Year, and I make the following request: Remember Otis Redding. Okay, Al? A minus.
Tom T. Hall: Tom T. Hall . . . The Storyteller (Mercury). Counting a disappointing greatest-hits album, this is the fourth LP from Hall in about a year, and the workload must be getting him down. This time even the title is a mistake--for the second straight album, the most impressive song is a romantic ballad. How about picking up some new yarns on a long vacation, T.? C.
Mickey Hart: Rolling Thunder (Warner Bros.) In which the ex-Dead drummer compounds Alla Rakha, Shoshone chants, a water pump, big-band jazz, and electronic music, not to mention Paul and Gracie and Jerry and other Our Gang regulars. More original than your typical Marin County special, and I really don't like it much. C plus.
Waylon Jennings: Ladies Love Outlaws (RCA Victor). Waylon lets you know he has balls by singing as though someone is twisting them. C.
Al Kooper: A Possible Projection of the Future/Childhood's End (Columbia). I know, what could be worse than a sci-fi concept album by Al Kooper, who hasn't been good for a whole LP since early electric Dylan. Only it's really solid, without one bad cut. Kooper's melodies stick to the ribs, and his lyrics are adequate or better, and does he do a job on some oldies from Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson. Recommended. B plus.
Labelle: Moon Shadow (Warner Bros.). When you think about it, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles weren't such hot stuff either. C minus.
Martin Mull (Capricorn). Firesign Theater/Cheech & Chong equals Randy Newman/Martin Mull. B minus.
John Renbourn: Faro Annie (Reprise). Mixing country blues with old English ballads, this became my folk record of the month when it tempted me to listen to something called "Willy O'Winsbury" all the way through, which is more than Pentangle could do. B.
Boz Scaggs: My Time (Columbia). Scaggs has finally come out with it and recorded a making-out album for ex-hippies. Side one is the usual hokum--laid back and overproduced at the same time--although not bad if you overlook a few doodly-dodly-boops. But there's nothing on side two that Johnny Mathis didn't do better fifteen years ago. C plus.
Valerie Simpson (Tamla). Look what Valerie has done--discovered that Motown is only plastic. I was so happy believing it was human, or something for people to dream on. The previous two sentences paraphrase one of Simpson's songs, called "Genius." Genius, isn't she? No. C minus.
Loudon Wainwright III: Album III (Columbia). In which the genius relaxes with a pleasant folk-rock band and sees fit to steal a song from Leiber and Stoller and a melody from "Sweet Little Sixteen." Admitting that the chief use of epigrammatic wit is humor, Loudon consents to be funny right out and also allows himself a few moments of genuine lyricism. The misanthrope grows older. Very encouraging. A minus.
Wolfman Jack (Wooden Nickel). An out-and-out rip-off, which is fine--the Woofman has always been more extreme than human dee-jays--but still costs you money. Remember, the radio is free. E.
Yes: Close to the Edge (Atlantic). I only started listening to Yes with Fragile, which I liked, I thought, but I suspect that if I'd started with the first one, I never would have gotten there. At the level of attention they deserve they are a one-idea band, and every time I switch this off in frustration I remember that someone in the Eagles called them "sissies." Can anything that induces me to quote an Eagle be good? C.