Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (17)

As any of your professors will tell you, mass culture is a concatenation of fakes and imitation fakes. As soon as one of its purveyors comes up with a formula (all formulas are artificial, you understand) half a dozen others jump on the labwagon with their own variations. Why, rock and roll itself is a perfect example of this process, which CG 17 attempts to combat with some marketing hints. Each of this week's candidates falls into one of four categories. The Band Imitation (BI) is a group which derives from the vocal style, subject matter, and folkie-rocky sensibility of the Woodstock Wonders. Actually, it could be said that most mainstream middle-brow (non-improvisatory) rock fits that description, but I've tried to keep it more specific than that--these guys really seem to be ripping off, you know? The Secret Sideman (SS) has his roots in the supersession but really became a factor with the emergence of Leon Russell as a Genius Who Has Been There All Along. Russell's own label, Shelter, provides us with two additional examples of this phenomenon (which also must prove that secrets talk to each other. The Soul Chick (SC) is often a distaff version of the Secret Sideman--one of those doo-wah doo-wah singers (usually but not necessarily black) who is trying to fill a gap that does not yet exist; black (or anyway, soulful) sex symbol for white audiences. Repeat, while black women singers packaged for the black audience--Margie Joseph is the most successful current example--are nowhere near soulful (read dirty, emotional, nasty, funky) enough, for a Soul Chick's job, which does not call for much gentility, and instrumentation tends to be loud and electric. Finally, a somewhat cheesier category: the Olde Engliyshe Groop (OEG), inspired by the surprising re-emergence of several cheddar chestnuts and the more successful reconsitution of another.

These categories are not perfect. Not only can an SC occasionally be taken as an SS, but several SCs can be detected going doo-wah doo-wah behind their sisters. I have by no means exhausted the possibilities. Several have been through previous CGs (SC Merry Clayton, BI Grinder's Switch). The supply of SCs, especially, seems endless. Soon Richard Perry may be asking Barbra to give "Can I Get a Witness" a try, just in case.

It is my sad duty to remind you that the CG still docks records that run less than 30 minutes one notch. Will sin never cease?


BEE GEES: 2 Years On (Atco) OEG1. A good commercial group which has toppled from the tightrope to become a bad commercial group. This is a little better than the lps the Gibb brothers produced during their separation (Cucumber Castle and Robin's Reign). It does include a bizarre and memorable juxtaposition of a Jerry Reed imitation with singing strings. But the hit single, "Lonely Days," sounded more distinctive on the radio than it does in this context, and their vibrato is really annoying. C MINUS [Later]

BLUE MINK: Real Mink (Philips) This is a collaboration between Madeline Bell and Roger Cook. Bell and Doris Troy, whom see, are queens of doo-wah in London, and Cook is one half of Greenaway and Cook, the top commercial songwriting team in Great Britain, responsible for material as good as the Fortunes' "You've Got Your Troubles" and as bad as White Plains's "My Baby Loves Lovin'." This is a solid white soul record, marred by a couple of drab instrumentals. Madeline sounds good. B [Later: B-]

CARP (Epic) BI1. For those of you who are really into Americana, here's an album with songs about Calamity Jane, a circuit preacher named Brown, and firehouse dogs. For those of you who are really into bands that have paid their dues, this one formed at the University of Oklahoma five years ago. And you won't catch Carp imitating Jefferson Airplane or Bessie Smith either. C

RY COODER (Reprise) SS1. Cooder is everyone's favorite studio bottleneck and (according to his own complaints, which may well be true) the man from whom Mick and Keith stole "Let It Bleed." As a solo, however, he is distinctly minor, never managing to turn his lack of a voice into a virtue. For members of the Warner fan club only. Docked a notch for time: 28.48. B MINUS [Later: B]

RITA COOLIDGE (A&M) SC2. A lot of my advisers find this disappointing, but I like it despite the seeming lack of lustre and have the feeling that the Coolidge voice, which resembles the Bramlett voice without the bravura, could grow on me the way Tracy Nelson's did. B [Later: C+]

CRAZY HORSE (Reprise) SS2. Neil Young's backup band, as this group used to be called, here delivers music sufficiently consistent, original, and versatile to throw a scare into the man who hired them. A rock and roll record that is literate and witty, both verbally and musically. Four members, including old Jack Nitzsche, can sing lead, and they play their own instruments, and three of them compose, and every song is good, and for old time's sake there's even some phasing. The kind of group that will produce SS of its own all too soon. A [Later: A-]

JESSE DAVIS (Atco) SS3. Perfunctory funk from Taj Mahal's lead guitarist. His own songs are forgettable, his cover versions flat, and despite an embarrassment of studio help (Eric, Leon, Merry, Gram, etc.) the music never gets off the ground. C PLUS [Later: C-]

FACES: Long Player (Warner Bros.) OEG2. The Faces, you recall, were once Small and sang "Itchycoo Park" with whine and phase, lovely stuff in its time. With the considerable help of Rod Stewart, they have really re-grouped, gained a new identity. I think this is the best of Stewart's records, not on the basis of song selection--both Mercury albums reach higher peaks--but because the instrumental groove is so vital and, yes, funky. A minor triumph. A MINUS [Later: B]

THE GREASE BAND (Shelter) SS4. Joe Cocker's former band is the chief source of that wonderful '50s r&b emanating from other English groups like Fleetwood Mac and Argent. Why, then, do they sound like a BI here? Sad. B [Later: C+]

THE HOLLIES: Moving Finger (Epic) OEG3. Suddenly, for no discernible reason--Graham Nash has been gone for years, after all--the Hollies have domesticated their schlock to become the Sonny and Cher of slick harmony. The Bob Dylan failure, after all, was redeemed by its silliness, but this is too crass for giggles. Their worst. C [Later: C+]

CISSY HOUSTON (Janus) SC3. The sharpest pleasure afforded by the Sweet Inspirations, Cissy's old group, was the juxtaposition of her melodramatic gospel voice against genteel arrangements and material. The voice is almost as interesting as it used to be, but the juxtaposition no longer works, maybe because the production (by Koppelman and Rubin) is more banal than usual, maybe because the novelty is gone. Time: 28:46. C MINUS [Later: C]

ELTON JOHN: Tumbleweed Connection (Uni) BI2. Did somebody say Grand Funk Railroad was a hype? What about this puling phony? C PLUS [Later: B-]

CLYDIE KING: Direct Me (Lizard) SC4. Gabriel Mekler's SC has a voice that's more sly Diana than robust Martha. She also sings with a ubiquitous back-up group called the Blackberries. I not so eagerly await solo lps from Venetta Fields and Shirley Matthews, having been convinced by all this nonsense to read fine print on the back of super session jackets. C PLUS [Later]

THE KINKS: Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround (Reprise) OEG4. My disillusionment with the Kinks began when Tom Smucker wrote a piece called "Rock & Roll () I)," for Fusion over a year ago. His putdown was devastating because it was so obviously reluctant--they just no longer, er, spoke to his condition. To which I could only reply: right on. "Lola" was an astounding single, but the only thing astounding about this album is its consistent self-pity. The evolution of Davies's singing from raunchy to plaintive is now complete: he has elevated his whine into art. Self-conscious aestheticism at its worst. C PLUS [Later: B-]

LITTLE FEAT (Warner Bros.) BI3. This took me months, but then, I've never dug Music From Big Pink, to which it bears a strong vocal resemblance. The sensibility is freakier, though. Includes a convincing Howlin Wolf imitation. B PLUS [Later: B]

MARK-ALMOND (Blue Thumb) SS5. I find this mostly instrumental effort by John Mayall grads Jon Mark and Johnny Almond a little confusing. Despite a few jarringly saccharine choral bits and some dumb screeching, it's relaxing, but that's just the problem--it provides neither excitement nor intellectual substance. Contrast, for example, to Miles Davis's pleasant-on-the-surface In a Silent Way, or to good Booker T. B MINUS [Later: C+]

DOROTHY MORRISON: Brand New Day (Buddah) SC5. Except for a strange "Spirit in the Sky" (she does it straight, whatever that means) and a few other stirring renditions of white people's music (who besides BS&T can ruin "Hi De Ho"?) this attempt by and with the young woman who sang lead on "Oh Happy Day" succeeds only moderately. B MINUS

DON NIX: In God We Trust (Shelter) SS6. This is passable musically, despite a few bizarre insertions by septuagenarian bluesman Furry Lewis which constitute a kind of in-joke characteristic of musicians who've been around too long, but its abiding interest is as an almost unfathomable example of down-home anti-religious irony. B [Later: B-]

HAPPY AND ARTIE TRAUM (Capitol) BI4. A thank you card from folk music to the B. B MINUS [Later]

DORIS TROY (Apple) SC6. All in all, the best of its type. Like most of her competition, Doris lacks vocal identity, but she's strong and decisive enough, and most of the songs are both original and memorable, with writing credits going to names like Stills, Harrison, Starkey, and Troy. Superior production, too. B PLUS [Later: B-]

Additional Consumer News

A rash of double-lp resurrections, most of them good. Little Richard's Cast a Giant Shadow, on Epic, repackages the two albums he recorded for Okeh in the mid-'60s: the famous "live studio" album (Little Richard at the Club Okeh) plus a more conventional soul record. Assuming you own Little Richard's 17 Original Grooviest Hits and Well Alright!, both on Specialty, this is worth a try, which is to say it's better than the Little Richard you'll find on Buddah, Vee-Jay, or Reprise. Vanguard's Mississippi John Hurt set is a previously unreleased live recording of a 1965 Oberlin concert, and it's very nice. Vanguard also has more conventional Best sets from Ian and Sylvia--Volume II, a bummer--and from Richard and Mimi Farina. Finally, MGM has released 24 of Hank Williams's Greatest Hits, which appears to this non-expert the most definitive collection out of the bewildering array of Williams reissues MGM has thrown on the market in the past decade. The Vanguard and Epic records are priced down; needless to say, the MGM isn't. . . .

Due to continuing political confusion I've never written about the three-lp Woodstock album even though I often played it for pleasure. I will say, however, that Woodstock Two is worth missing unless you happen to love Jimi Hendrix, who is exceptionally well-represented. Apparently, the great Grossman holdout continues: Joplin and the Band are absent once again. So's the Dead. . . .

Shelby Singleton's Plantation Records, which first hit with "Harper Valley PTA," is getting a lot of c&w airplay for "The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley," written and performed (execrably, by the way) by non-professionals and published, no kidding, by Quickit Publishing Co. I won't regale you with morality, but I do have one question: Why didn't Jerry Rubin think of this? . . .

Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" is one of the great singles of all time.

Village Voice, Apr. 22, 1971

Postscript Notes:

For the BI/SC/SS/OEG notations, see the introduction. These were all dropped from the book, and are ignored when checking for later versions. Wonder whether the eleven eponymous albums here is some sort of record.


Mar. 11, 1971 June 10, 1971