Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Math whizzes will note that this month's CG reviews 23 records instead of the usual 20. That's because last month's had only 17. Usually we cut Additional Consumer News, but my encomium to WPIX was adjudged (by me) an inviolable expressive entity. A prize to anyone who guesses which of the three below were written last month. (Village Voice employees, their confidants, and consorts are not eligible for this contest.)


THE A'S (Arista) People say they take after the Dolls, but I hear the Boomtown Rats. At its best, their burlesque on a "teenage jerk off" (a title) who still gets "grounded" (another) is funny and a little nasty. At its worst it's boring and a little too nasty. In between it's got verve and you've heard it before. B

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: Served Live (Capitol) Side one is playable, although "God Bless the Child" was born under a bad sign, and the hot live performances don't suit the living room as well as the more delicate studio versions available on three out of five songs. Side two, however, sounds terribly forced. Not only does John Nicholas's overstated, bloozey original make clear that Leroy Preston's songwriting is going to be missed, but his duet with Chris O'Connell is too close to Peggy Scott and Jo-Jo Benson to remain so far away. And "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" might just as well be "Saints," or "Send in the Clowns." C PLUS

CHUCK BERRY: Rockit (Atco) Well I'll be. The inventor of rock and roll hasn't made an album this listenable in fifteen years--no great new songs, but he's never written better throwaways (or covered "Ozymandias," either). Both Berry and Johnny Johnson--the piano half of his sound for a quarter of a century--have tricked up their styles without vitiating or cheapening them, and the result is a groove for all decades. Minor for sure, but what a surprise. B PLUS

DEVO: Duty Now for the Future (Warner Bros.) Side one, with its not-funny-enough instrumentals and evasive satire, was dire enough to make me suspect they'd made their arena-rock move before there was an arena in the world that would have them. But "The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprize" and "Secret Agent Man" are as bright as anything on the debut, and the arrangements offer their share of surprizes. Bet they never make the arenas, though. B MINUS [Later]

BOB DYLAN: Slow Train Coming (Columbia) The lyrics are indifferently crafted, and while their one-dimensionality is winningly perverse at a time when his old fans will take any ambiguity they can get, it does serve to flaunt their theological wrongheadedness and occasional jingoism. Nevertheless, this is his best album since Blood on the Tracks. The singing is passionate and detailed, and the pros behind him--especially Mark Knopfler, who has a studio career in store--play so sharply that his anger gathers general relevance at its most vindictive. And so what if he's taken up with the God of Wrath? Since when have you been so crazy about the God of Love? B PLUS [Later]

FLASH & THE PAN (Epic) In which Australian power-pop producers Harry Vanda and George Young choose a nom de studio and turn into an instant cult item. Since the singing makes Rex Harrison sound like Mario Lanza, it's tuneful in only the most abstract sense. (Already the fanzines are paying attention.) Without the usual vocal surges it's also quite static. (Veddy interesting.) What hooks there are inhere in the chord changes. (Sounds more like art all the time.) And V&Y's ruminations on sociopolitical realities are worthy of a second-rate caper movie. (Bingo.) C PLUS

PHILIP GLASS/ROBERT WILSON: Einstein on the Beach (Tomato) I'd skip the Rolling Stones to witness this five-hour maximalization of minimalism again, but on record--condensed to four discs running about three hours--I find that its operatic conceit justifies itself all too well. This is "great," all right, but without Wilson's spectacular visuals it's also, to these pop-happy ears, tedious and sometimes even pompous. In short, I'm glad to own it, but it didn't cost me twenty-five bucks, and I don't know when I'll find time to play it again now that I've done so twice. B PLUS

JOHN HIATT: Slug Line (MCA) This hard-working young pro may yet turn into an all-American Elvis C. He's focused his changeable voice up around the high end and straightened out his always impressive melodies, but he has a weakness for the shallow (if sincere) putdown, e.g.: "Now that you're finally an adult in America/You're too dumb to have a choice." Or else he'd get chosen, do you think he means? Lene Lovich: should cover "You're My Love Interest." B PLUS [Later]

RICK JAMES: Bustin' Out of L Seven (Gordy) Funky, sure--he's fairly funky, although not on the slow ones. But if this is 'delic, so was the Strawberry Alarm Clock. B MINUS

GARLAND JEFFREYS: American Boy and Girl (A&M) Jeffreys has never shown much knack for love songs, and he's not getting any better with melodies either, which means that half of this encouraging comeback gets by on his acumen as a singer and bandleader. But as you might expect from somebody who rhymes "you know what it's like" with "Wilhelm Reich," he retains his feeling for cafe society and his sense of the street, which synthesize into his eternal theme of making it. And while you might suspect him of sentimentalizing the street kids on the cover, he doesn't--he just cares about them, that's all. B PLUS [Later: B]

DAVID JOHANSEN: In Style (Blue Sky) Johansen is equal to his more soulish musical concept--no "disco," just slower tempos, subtle be-yoo-ty, and some reggae--but he doesn't have the chops to get on top of it, and while this is solid stuff, the best of it tends to thin out a little. Although the problem isn't how often you think "that's bad" but how often you don't think "that's great," the record is summed up for me by "Big City," the most banal lyric he's ever written. Until now, you see, he'd never written any banal lyrics at all. Now he's got three or four. B PLUS

B.B. KING: Take It Home (MCA) The Crusaders' songwriting doesn't peak the way it did on B.B.'s 1978 collaboration with the L.A. topcats, but that's OK because it doesn't dip either. The Crusaders jam, B.B. jives and raps, and the result--give or take some background vocals and a few overworked horn charts--is the topcat equivalent of the kind of wonderful blues-bar album Bruce Iglauer of Alligator has been getting out of less accomplished musicians throughout the '70s. A small delight. B PLUS

NILS LOFGREN: Nils (A&M) If Lofgren's early mini-Western, "Rusty Gun," was the modestly laconic offering of an up-and-comer who remembered, then "No Mercy," the boxing melodrama now getting airplay, is the rodomontade of a shoulda-been-a-contender. I bet cocomposer Lou Reed wrote the best line, but Nils sings it with indubitable bitterness: "I thought you were being ironic when you ripped your jeans." C PLUS

JONI MITCHELL: Mingus (Asylum) Okay, okay, a brave experiment, but lots of times experiments fail. There's more spontaneity, wisdom, and humor in the 2:25 of Mingus "raps" than in all her hand-tooled lyrics, and her voice isn't rich or graceful enough to flesh out music that gains no swing from a backing band a/k/a Weather Report. C PLUS

VAN MORRISON: Into the Music (Warner Bros.) The rockers are a little lightweight, the final cut drags halfway through, and that's all that's wrong with this record, including its tributes to "the Lord." You might get religion yourself if all of your old powers returned after years of failed experiments, half-assed compromises, and onstage crack-ups. Like that other godfearing singer-songwriter, Morrison has abandoned metaphorical pretensions, but only because he loves the world. His straightforward celebrations of town and country are colored and deepened by his musicians--especially sprightly violinist Toni Marcus (feh on Scarlet Rivera)--and by his own excursions into a vocalise that has never been more various or apt. The only great song on this record is "It's All in the Game," written by Calvin Coolidge's future vice-president in 1912. But I suspect it's Van's best album since Moondance. A

MUTINY: Mutiny on the Mamaship (Columbia) In which former P-Funk drummer Jerome Brailey--a/k/a Him Bad, Bigfoot--leads a noisy revolt against "George Penatentiory," who stands accused of faking the funk. The charge isn't fair, but Brailey proves he's no clone (and earns his sobriquets) with a boomingly bottom-heavy LP that's more lowdown powerful than anything the muthashippas have ever tried to do. And if his lovey-dovey moves are received--unlike George, Brailey never led a great harmony group--his horn and guitar parts are far out indeed. Hope there's an answer record. A MINUS

TEDDY PENDERGRASS: Teddy (Philadelphia International) Whether he's flexing his chest at Madison Square Garden or inviting the (presumably female) listener into his shower, Teddy has a self-deprecating sense of humor that his obsessive male posturing tends to obscure. Call him butch rather than macho and be thankful for small favors. B

THE PERSUASIONS: Comin' at Ya (Flying Fish) The least "contemporary" record they've ever essayed--except for "Love Me Like a Rock," all the material dates back to when their acappella style was a genuine urban folk response to what was on the radio--is uniformly listenable. It's also their first for this bluegrass-centered Chicago label, and thanks--here's what folkies are for. B PLUS

THE RECORDS (Virgin) "Starry Eyes" is a great single, but it's all hook, and hooks like that don't grow on albums. Which is why only two of the songs that fill in the blanks, "Teenarama" and "Insomnia," transcend pop professionalism. Really, it takes more than obedience to the Byrds--the foreboding cool of the Cars, the grabby propulsion of the Knack, anything. B MINUS

THE RUMOUR: Frogs Clogs Krauts and Sprouts (Arista) If it's true they wanna be the Band, then what's with the Donald Fagen imitations? (Bob Andrews sings!) And who's doing Walter Becker? (My guess: Brinsley Schwarz.) Expert, quirky, and arresting at first. Then expert and quirky. And do I have to tell you what comes next? B MINUS

TALKING HEADS: Fear of Music (Sire) David Byrne's celebration of paranoia is a little obsessive, but like they say, that doesn't mean somebody isn't trying to get him. I just wish material as relatively expansive as "Found a Job" or "The Big Country" were available to open up the context a little; that way, a plausible prophecy like "Life During Wartime" might come off as cautionary realism instead of ending up in the nutball corner with self-referential fantasies like "Paper" and "Memories Can't Wait." And although I'm impressed with the gritty weirdness of the music, it is narrow--a little sweetening might help as well. A MINUS [Later]

DWIGHT TWILLEY: Twilley (Arista) Twilley's first two albums were marginally fascinating because of how obsessively he synthesized the Southern and British pop-rock traditions--like a cool Alex Chilton, or (only we didn't know this yet) a Nick Lowe who worked too hard--and because so few bands were bothering with the kind of catchy '60s-AM songs that Twilley turned out by the half dozen. Well, scratch the catchy part--both the Records and the Knack, to stick to the lightweights, have songs on the radio that cut anything on Sincerely, which is a lot catchier than this. And while you're at it, scratch Phil Seymour, Twilley's former rhythm section and harmony group. And add Jimmy Haskell doing Paul Buckmaster imitations. And think dark thoughts about the Raspberries and Eric Carmen. C PLUS

TOM VERLAINE (Elektra) In which he deploys backup choruses and alien instruments, the kind of stuff that bogs down all solo debuts, with modest grace and wit. And continues to play guitar like Captain Marvel. Neater than Television, as you might expect, but almost as visionary anyway, and a lot more confident and droll. Inspirational Verse: "My head was spinning/My oh my." A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

The sad fact is that I haven't heard a single in months--including those by the Specials and the Pop Group, both of which I had hopes for--that has compelled me to play it again, although I do love the Flying Lizards' "Money," which I hear a lot on the radio and in dance places. Their debut, "Summertime Blues," was recommended here early in the year; I suggest they follow up with "I Fought the Law" and blow that one into oblivion for a while. Disco discs have been especially dire, although I find the 12-inch of Ian Dury's "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" a lot more suitable to Ian's new dancey pretensions than the seven-inch. I'm also pissed off at the way disco discs are being marketed. Not only have the companies upped the list price to $4.98, but they're often pressing limited quantities, so that consumers will try to buy and then resort to the LP when they fail. Consumer advocates call this kind of thing bait-and-switch and consider it sleazy. Count me among them. . . .

One marketing device I do approve of is stunningly original--it's called lower prices. Capitol, MCA, RCA, and A&M are among the companies to cut the list on selected catalogue (i.e., non-current) albums. So has CBS, but with a switch--they're refusing to accept returns on catalogue, which means many retailers won't stock it at all. Check with your local mom-and-pop store for details.

Village Voice, Oct. 8, 1979


Sept. 3, 1979 Oct. 29, 1979