Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

It's a hot record time, and I seem to have become a little long-winded--not a single one-liner, aren't you disappointed?--so I'll proceed immediately to the matter at hand. Only four A's this month--would have thought this crop of incoming freshmen was worth more than that.


THE BEACH BOYS: M.I.U. Album (Brother/Reprise) On The Beach Boys Love You, lyrics like those of "Solar System" may have been a little embarrassing, but basically their silliness registered as charming. "Match Point of Our Love" ("Early in the game when you broke me/Just like a serve") and "Belles of Paris" ("There's a chapel 'Sacre Coeur' in quaint Montmarte [sic]/In the open air the painters show their art") are just dumb, and despite a lot of fairly pleasant music and a few passable songs, so is this. C

TONY BIRD: Tony Bird of Paradise (Columbia) Bird hasn't put his strongest material on this record--his debut has more knockout songs (more losers, too), and at the Other End once this native white African performed a paranoid tribute to the C.I.A. that I'd love to hear again. But he remains such an odd and abrasive singer that he has a right to go a little commercial, and producer John Lissauer knows how to set off a singer-songwriter. B PLUS [Later: B]

BLONDIE: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis) As unlikely as it seemed three years ago, they've actually achieved their synthesis of the Dixie Cups and the Electric Prunes. The gift for the AM sureshot continues to elude them, and the lyrics could use a few finishing flourishes, but their third is as solid as pop-rock albums ever get or got. Although as on Plastic Letters the second side is weaker, this time it does justify itself eventually, and Deborah Harry's projection gains assurance every time out. Plus they really New Yawk it up--try the chorus on "Just Go Away." A MINUS [Later: A]

BONEY M.: Nightflight to Venus (Sire) I find myself amused rather than offended by tinkly-shit renditions of such sacrosanct classics as "Heart of Gold" and "King of the Road," not to mention historically relevant lyrics like "Rah rah Rasputin/Russia's greatest love machine." In fact, these folks have now surpassed Silver connection in my Dumb (But Funny) Eurodisco competition. But the amusement palls, and it's not even all that disco. B MINUS

RAY CHARLES: Love and Peace (Atlantic) What a letdown after last year's triumphant True to Life. With covers that range from silly (is that Jack "Riding Thumb," after he hits the road?) to obvious ("We Had It All" is quintessential Charles country adequately rendered), and with filler from his publishing subsidiary at a redundant low, the same old horn charts and obligatory big productions really begin to grate. Ray doesn't hit his stride until the last five words--one word, really--of the final cut, which is about poor people and addressed to the President: "Can you dig it? Amen." B MINUS [Later]

DEVO: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (Warner Bros.) If this isn't Kiss for college kids, then it's Meat Loaf for college kids who are too sophisticated to like Meat Loaf. Aside from music per se, the Kiss connection is in their cartoonishness--Devo's robot moves create distance, a margin of safety, the way Kiss's makeup does. But the Meat Loaf connection is deeper, because this is real midnight-movie stuff--the antihumanist sci-fi silliness, the reveling in decay, the thrill of being in a cult that could attract millions and still seem like a cult, since 200 million others will never even get curious. (It's no surprise to be told that a lot of their ideas come from Eraserhead, but who wants to go see Eraserhead to make sure?) What makes this group worthy of attention at all--and now we're back with Kiss, though at a more complex level--is the catchy, comical, herky-jerky rock and roll they've devised out of the same old basic materials. In small doses it's as good as novelty music ever gets, and there isn't a really bad cut on this album. But it leads nowhere. B PLUS

ARLO GUTHRIE: One Night (Warner Bros.) Sick of going into debt to make exquisitely conceived studio albums that don't sell, Arlo here delivers a mostly live LP--with undistinguished folkie-rockie added by his road band, Shenandoah--that strings together pointless Elvis and Beatles covers, one-dimensional folk songs, and a tall tale that would have trouble making first string guard on a high school basketball team. C PLUS

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: Queen of the Night (Gold Mind) In an era when Donna and Diana and Natalie aim (truly) to reintroduce Josephine Baker to the great American public, this black woman extends the sexy mama tradition of rhythm and blues. Her sweet grit and tough wit are alternately abusive and forgiving, coy and defenseless, and she's got some voice. "I May Not Be There When You Want Me," a Bunny Sigler song that rocks as hard as any black music I've heard this year, is also available as a disco disc, but even the few mediocre cuts on this album are of interest, and it includes a version of "You Light Up My Life" that beats Patti Smith's all to shit. A MINUS [Later]

DENISE LASALLE: Under the Influence (ABC) In the wake of two bad tries for the big label, this perpetually promising, perpetually frustrating singer-songwriter rebounds a little, flattering Millie Jackson sincerely every step of the way. The bleh ballad is more than overbalanced by "Feet Don't Fail Me," a sorrowful, tellingly specific cheating song. But the self-production never finds a groove. Recommended to stubborn old souls. B

JOHNNY MCLAUGHLIN: Electric Guitarist (Columbia) In which the top musicians in fusion are gathered by the man who made it all possible to show the genre off aesthetically--no funk vamps, no one-run solos, no twaddle about the harmony of the universe. The project has a certain stillborn aura--it doesn't swing a lot, there is a reliance on Speedy Gonzalez climaxes, and snatches of such deathless melodies as "Holiday for Strings" and "Mohammed's Radio" are audible. Still, repetitiousness is minimized, and there are good ideas and lots of sensitive interaction. And it didn't sell diddley. B PLUS

VAN MORRISON: Wavelength (Warner Bros.) Unlike A Period of Transition, this is a good Van Morrison record, as up as any he's ever made, but it's certainly not a great one. You might pay attention to side two, an evocative reinterpretation of Van's America fixation, but side one is nothing more (and nothing less) than class programming. B PLUS

RAMONES: Road to Ruin (Sire) Like any great group, this one is always topping itself. Album four alternates definitive high-speed rockers--"I Wanted Everything," "I'm Against It," and "She's the One" are as good as any they've ever done--with more candidly lyrical slow ones that rank with the oldie, "Needles and Pins," as compositions. The lyrics of "I Just Want to Have Something to Do" and "I Wanna Be Sedated" test the barrier between their Queens-geek personas and their real lives as professional musicians without a hint of rocky-road bullshit. Only the "Bad Brain" (a title) theme seems repetitious--personally, I'm glad it's fading. But the guitar breaks bring tears to my personal eyes, and I await Gary Stewart's version of "Questioningly." A

GENYA RAVAN: Urban Desire (20th Century-Fox) She oversings, the band's ordinary, and the lyrics (both hers and those she chooses) often get blowzy; the only grade-A cuts are "Jerry's Pigeons" and (A plus) "The Sweetest One." So maybe I'm soft--maybe I just can't resist a real New York doll. In a woman who combines the hip cool of Lou Reed with the emotionality of Springsteen, a case of Joplinitis--a rare disease these days--is rather endearing. B PLUS [Later: B]

DON RAY: The Garden of Love (Polydor) An exemplary, super-functional version of Eurodisco's electronic dream--synthesizers and power plectrums overlaid with what disco people call rock vocals. This last means you can tell it's a white man singing, and whoever emotes the uptempo stuff sure does sound like Mick Jagger alongside the gigolo imitator on "My Desire." Consistently spacey and sexy, the way this music is supposed to be, and who says it's apolitical? After all, if "It's a shame to complain but we've got to have a lot more loving" isn't a credo, what is? B

LINDA RONSTADT: Living in the U.S.A. (Asylum) This one divides right down the middle. The last four covers on the second side are so clumsy that I may never again hear the opener, Little Feat's "All That You Dream." But I do kind of like the first side, specifically including the forced intensity of the Chuck Berry and Doris Troy remakes. Only on "Alison," though, does she enrich what she interprets. B

SLAVE: The Concept (Cotillion) While pioneering funk groups like Funkadelic and the Commodores, manned by veteran musicians, clearly evolved out of existing black-music formats, the younger ones often resemble third-generation rock groups in concept and spirit. Unless you prefer Kansas to the J.B.'s, this is not a compliment; profound thoughts like "Now will always be forever" might well grace the back of a Starcastle album. This is a Starcastle kind of band, too, right down to its general derivativeness and pretensions to content. But it doesn't make Starcastle music. Despite moderate tempos, the first side of the band's third and best LP chugs by smartly without once pausing to pose--it's fun, and it's interesting, too. Lesson: if the play of rhythms, textures, studio tricks, and vocal techniques constitutes the real content of your music, black is as beautiful as ever. B

ROBIN TROWER: Caravan to Midnight (Chrysalis) Over the years somewhat disappointing sales have convinced Trower that maybe all the people who found themselves stultified by his Hendrix clonings were onto something. On this album, therefore, he's made a point of mixing the vocals way up, so that the Paul Rodgers clonings of lead vocalist/second banana James Dewar can actually be discerned by the casual listener. Yug. C

JOHNNY GUITAR WATSON: Giant (DJM) Okay, John, I understand how you go about things. A week or two in the studio with your guitar Freddie and your drummer Emry and a bunch of electric keyboards and organic percussion devices you can beat on yourself. Get rid of the horn guys, sure, you can do without 'em. Write the songs inside; keep them casual, funny, and of course funky. Ideal formula dance music, I agree--no frills. But even disco artists avoid the word "disco" in titles these days--sounds gauche. Also, why are you fading your voice back? So that no one notices you're singing about having money instead of not having it? And what happened to the hooks? B MINUS

THE WHO: Who Are You (MCA) This is stronger than The Who by Numbers. Every time I concentrate I get off on some new detail in Daltrey's singing or Townshend's lyrics or Entwistle's bass parts--though not in Moon's drumming, and I still don't relate to the synthesizer. But I never learn anything new, and this is not my idea of fun rock and roll. It ought to be one or the other, if not both. B PLUS [Later]

NEIL YOUNG: Comes a Time (Reprise) In which the old folkie seeks out his real roots, in folkiedom. Not only is this almost always quiet, usually acoustic and drumless, and sweetened by Nicolette Larson, but it finishes off with a chestnut from the songbook of Ian and Sylvia--not just folkies, but Canadian folkies. Conceptually and musically, it's a tour de force. Occasionally you do wonder why this thirty-two-year-old hasn't learned more about Long-Term Relationships, but the spare, good-natured assurance of the singing and playing deepens the more egregious homilies and transforms good sense into wisdom. The melodies don't hurt either--Young hasn't put together so many winners since After the Gold Rush. Now that it's been done right, maybe all those other guys will hang up their Martins and enroll in bartending school. A

Additional Consumer News

Sticklers for detail may have wondered why my description of last month's Pick Hit, Willie Nelson's Face of a Fighter, didn't mention that all the music thereon was recorded in 1961. It was because I didn't notice this information on the jacket. Since it's all previously unreleased, though, it still qualifies for the body of the CG and for Pick Hit. . . .

Capitol's Brinsley Schwarz reissues the two country-rockish LPs the pub-rocking source of both the Rumour and Nick Lowe did for their first American label. One of them (the second, originally released as Despite It All) is quite good. A more rock-and rolling Brinsley Schwarz is available on a much better reissue, 15 Thoughts of Brinsley Schwarz, a UA import.

Village Voice, Oct. 30, 1978


Sept. 25, 1978 Nov. 27, 1978