Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Even with extra space allotted my EP report has eaten up most of my inches, so not only will I have to get to the real (seven-inch, some with big holes) singles next time (which is Christmas, so pray), but all I can do up here is point out that I have returned to my judgmental ways. Are the Musts to Avoid "new wave"? I'd say so.


KING SUNNY ADE: The Message (Sunny Alade import) All I know about Ade is that he's the (or a) king of Nigerian juju. His voice is gentle, his rhythm insinuating and very poly, his guitar graceful and faintly Hawaiian. Also, he comes up with good hooks--"Ma J'Aiye Oni" was on my interior jukebox for weeks. I play this a lot, and even at that don't think it matches the one with the orange cover that I lost at Charing Cross six weeks ago. When I went back to buy a second copy at Stern's, 126 Tottenham Court Road, London WI, I was told I'd never see it again and advised to plunk down another six quid for this substitute. I'm glad I did, but anyone who knows where I can find the one with the orange cover please advise. A

LESTER BANGS AND THE DELINQUENTS: Jook Savages on the Brazos (Live Wire) This gets over on music--Velvets meet Voidoids in Austin. But anybody who thinks the music isn't Lester should check out the Delinquents' adequate-at-best surf-punk LP--he gets great ideas out of his band, just the way he did on "Let It Blurt" with the already great Robert Quine. The singing is adequate-at-worst (his drawl no longer recalls Eric Bloom), and the lyrics celebrate one man's victory of nihilism with suitably disengaged enthusiasm. B PLUS

JAMES BROWN: Nonstop! (Polydor) Titles like "Popcorn 80's," "Love 80's," "Super Bull/Super Bad," "I Go Crazy," signal a contract-fulfilling rehash, but this time he's rehashing the right stuff in the right way--the horn charts and rhythm arrangements are as tricky and on the one as in any newfangled funk you want to name. Most of the sweet ache has disappeared from "I Go Crazy" since 1960, and I'm not going to claim that the successfully renegotiated tempo makes up for it. But it is a consolation. B PLUS

JOHN CALE: Honi Soit (A&M) After a mere eight months of diligent listening I've concluded that Cale's fans were right--his songwriting has regained its adroitness. And after a mere eight minutes of random thought I've concluded that I was right too--his singing hasn't. B PLUS

THE FLESH EATERS: A Minute to Pray a Second to Die (Ruby) Brainchild of sometime Slash editor Chris D. and featuring a saxophone and an X-rated rhythm section, this eschews the no-speed-limit egoism of El Lay punk convention for a more matoor view of the world, based on the idea that horror movies are worth taking seriously. Not bad for a laff. B PLUS

ARETHA FRANKLIN: Love All the Hurt Away (Arista) This is her best pop album since Young, Gifted and Black because it's her best groove album since Spirit in the Dark. The swinging, streaming, Quincy Jonesish dance pulse of (no getting around it) Toto (though Arif Mardin did have the smarts to add Jacksons vet Greg Philinganes) even helps her through jivy remakes of "Hold On I'm Coming" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" on side one. But side two is, as Aretha puts it in her candid "Whole Lot of Me," the "cream de la cream": for once her voice is as rich and confident as it always has every right to be, and Aretha asserts her needs and prerogatives as if they go with the flow. Which they do. A MINUS

AL GREEN: Tokyo . . . Live! (Cream) You can tell when Green is bad live because he doesn't sing, often deserting mike or even stage for emphasis, which would be hard to render on disc. So his in-concert double had to be pretty strong. Like Otis's Live in Europe, it captures a sensitive soul man at his toughest and most outgoing. But unlike Live in Europe it offers no ecstatic epiphanies to make up for the forced crescendos--"I Feel Good" is louder in this version but wilder on The Belle Album. And speaking of loud, somebody fucked up the drum mix. B PLUS

DEBBIE HARRY: KooKoo (Chrysalis) Blondie plus Chic sounded like a natural--charming klutz confronts the meaning of grace. But in the world of surfaces that both inhabit so intensely there are no naturals, and the kind of spiritual heat that might have made the bond take is rare at any depth. Lots of sharp little moments are intermittently arresting, and if both artists establish themselves as classic the strain may sound noble eventually. Right now it sounds klutzy. B MINUS

KLEEER: License to Dream (Atlantic) I started with side two, where the light funk of "Get Tough" got lost (soulful John Wayne impression and all) between the inspirational title cut ("Speculate positivity don't turn around") and the smarmy slow one. Turns out there's a light funk tour de force on the A--a mild one, but that's the only way they come. Highlights: "Running Back to You"'s congas-and-timbales interweave, "Hypnotized"'s Latin accent, and the sexy slow one. B PLUS

KRAFTWERK: Computer World (Warner Bros.) I once convinced myself to enjoy this band--if there had to be synthesizer rock, I thought, better it should be candidly dinky. And this is their funniest to date--every time I hear that machine intone "I program my home computer/Bring myself into the future," I want to make a tape for all those zealots who claim a word processor will change my life. But fun plus dinky doesn't make funky no matter who's dancing to what program. Funk has blood in it. B

OINGO BOINGO: Only a Lad (A&M) Ahh, El Lay. With hysterically catchy vocals and spoiled overarrangements shoring up Ayn Rand-style lyrics that glorify the "Nasty Habits" they pretend to satirize, these guys combine the worst of Sparks with the worst of the Circle Jerks. Inspirational Verse: "You don't believe what you write." Would it were true. C

OI! -- THE ALBUM (EMI import) This precedes and outstrips the notorious Strength Thru Oi!, suspected by cultural determinists of helping to spark the Southall riots. Both albums have been hastily deleted, but a search might be worth it. Though the style tends toward tuneless football-cheer monotony and undiscriminating bully-boy dynamics, the best oi songs (by the Cockney Rejects and the Angelic Upstarts especially) recall the anthemic power of good Slade and early Clash. And though the skinheads who are oi's core audience have always been associated with random racial brutality, the politics of these lyrics is strictly pro-working-class and anti-authoritarian. What's more, the misogyny of El Lay punk is all but absent, if only because these boys hardly sing about girls at all. A MINUS

PERE UBU: Ubu Live: Volume 1: 390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo (Rough Trade) Recapping the Hearthan and Blank Records period that a born-again Crocus Behemoth will never look in the eye again, this is a find for fans who missed the early singles and the Datapanik EP (source of four songs, with another previously unreleased and seven more from The Modern Dance). Material and performance are fine, with variant lyrics and new guitar and synthesizer bits mitigating (though not eliminating) the redundancy factor. But most of these recordings were intended for reference only, and that's how they sound--devoid of aural presence. For demo addicts, tape traders, and incorrigible cultists like me. B PLUS

PRETENDERS: Pretenders II (Sire) Even though "The Adultress" comes off as an empty boast, I find Chrissie Hynde more memorable when she's dishing than when she's wishing--her tough surface has more depth than her heart of gold. Anyway, it's always the words I remember, not the melodies. I mean, I never thought they were such hookmeisters to begin with, but at times this relies so much on texture and flow it sounds like a punk Hissing of Summer Lawns. B [Later: B+]

RED CRAYOLA WITH ART & LANGUAGE: Kangaroo? (Rough Trade) What the hell is it with radio anyway? A great concept album elucidating Marxist aesthetics and does AOR give it a shot? Nah--all we get is Stevie Nicks and AC/DC. So take my word for it. Not only could John Berger have written "A Portrait of V.I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock"--"They say it's art killed Pollock/As if that could be/In fact he missed a bend/And drove his Ford into a tree"--but he'd approve of the triumphant pseudo-operatic warble with which Lora Logic stretches out that last word (and no, Berger doesn't like the Essential Logic album either). Also instructive are "The Milkmaid" and "The Tractor Driver," twin parodies of capitalist idealism and socialist realism. And the Au Pairs and the Gang of Four are directed to the side-closers, both of which are dubious about romantic love and one of which is entitled "The Principles of Party Organization." Does it rock? Not much. Does it work? You bet. A MINUS

THE ROLLING STONES: Tattoo You (Rolling Stones) There's no denying it, unfortunately--this is a damn good record, a great band showing off its mastery, like Muddy Waters (just as a for instance) getting it up one more once. But where Some Girls had impact as a Rolling Stones record, a major statement by artists with something to state, the satisfactions here are stylistic--harmonies, fills, momentum. And the lead singer isn't getting any less mean-spirited as he pushes 40. A MINUS

MAX ROMEO: Holding Out My Love to You (Shanachie) You get a reggae pro who's always shown good pop sense, you get producer Keith Richards doubling on gittar, you get Sly & Robbie &c., and what do you get? You get the Kingston equivalent of an ordinary Philly International album, which is better than ordinary Motown, not as good as ordinary Stax. B MINUS

SAN FRANCISCO BLUES FESTIVAL VOL. 1 (Solid Smoke) Festival compilations are a bad bet--added to the usual live-album pitfalls (one-take recording, bum mixes, wasteful arrangement, wasted talk) is the statistical unlikelihood of a single weekend affording great shows by the slew. I put my time in on this one because it offered a whole side of Roy Brown, who when he died a few months ago was the most powerful original r&b performer working. But though his sweet, piercing, subtly lubricious voice comes through intact, his command of the stage doesn't translate to stereo (another live album pitfall). And on the B is Lowell Fulson, always the creature of his context even back when he didn't make his living on the revival circuit. B MINUS

FRANKIE SMITH: Children of Tomorrow (WMOT) "Double Dutch Bus" having mixed Wolfman Jack, ghetto pig Latin, kiddie chorus, and a critique of Philadelphia's municipal transportation system into a long overdue great-grandchild of Shirley Ellis's "The Name Game," the title announces Smith's reluctance to jump rope for an entire album. But the recurring little synthesizer part makes you doubt his strength of purpose, and the title tune makes you regret it. Despite a welcome slizang lesson and other modest diversions, I recommend the single. B [Later: B-]

TOM VERLAINE: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.) A pop boho and an ecstatic mensch, an exalted lead guitarist who loves to chunka-chunk that rhythm, Verlaine is a walking, cogitating rock and roll contradiction. Granted, the solo-with-backup hierarchy does constrict his wild gift a little. But Ritchie Fliegler's Richard Lloyd simulations get the job done, and anyway, this is Verlaine's best batch of songs since Marquee Moon--two years' worth, 10 in all if you count the one that goes "Hi-Fi." Elsewhere, Verlaine evokes the touchy ironies of urban love--passion and detachment, adoration and despair--with deftness and soul. A [Later: A-]

Additional Consumer News

The hot new medium is the 12-inch EP, 33 or 45, devoting between 10 and 15 minutes to four or so songs. A deejay I know waxes pollyanna about them, forseeing an end to waste cuts and all manner of other miracles. I'm more skeptical, especially since reading that a rise in the list price from $4.98 to $5.98 was making them more, er, viable (that's vinyl with a bad nose). If you can sell an LP on three cuts, you can sell an EP on one (or zero, which is another problem). Billy Idol's Don't Stop (Chrysalis), f'rinstance, is hooked on his "Mony Mony" cover and "Dancing With Myself" remake. I say buy "Dancing With Myself" as a (domestic) seven-inch and look around for The Best of Tommy James & the Shondells. Can't get excited over the Specials' "Ghost Town"/"Why"/"Friday Night Saturday Morning" (Chrysalis), either, although I kind of like all three songs and admire the hell out of anybody who can make a go of antifascist pop. Even less exciting (in descending order, and sticking to the ones you're likely to be curious about): Scars, Reverse, Bongos, Method Actors, Raybeats, Pigbag, ESG, Naughty Sweeties, China White, Jef Left. But four have not only caught my ear but held on to it for more than three minutes. In its own category is A Taste of DNA (American Clave). L. Bangs says it's horrible noise; I say it's skronk and I say it's funny as hell and just as gut-wrenching. Top of the pops is the Unknowns' Dream Sequence (Sire). Georgia-rooted, L.A.-based, and produced by Liam Sternberg, who was Rachel Sweet's svengali back when she was new wave. Offbeats and echoed guitar stretch six loose-limbed tunes; my only reservation is leader Bruce Joyner's arch-to-nasty moues on the cover. Almost as impressive is Bebe Buell's Covers Girl (Rhino), in which everybody's favorite girlfriend gets production from Rick Derringer and Rick Ocasek on material originating with Love, Tom Petty, Iggy Pop, and (my fave) the Nightcrawlers, whose "The Little Black Egg" was a local hit in L.A. in the mid-'60s. Can I say she sings with a courtesan's confidence? Hope so. More marginal but recommended is The Side Effects (DB), four solid, even funky hard-pop songs from the Athens axis. . . .

The best thing happening on the real funk front is Slave's "Snap Shot"/"Funken Town" (Cotillion), two of those overwhelming tracks that make me wonder why the white boys bother. But there's lots of other stuff. After the disappointing Sugarhill Gang/Furious Five "Showdown," the great Sugarhill house band has scored two more all but irresistible rap winners: "Spoonie Is Back," by S. Gre, and Sequence's revival of P-Funk's "Tear the roof off the mothersucker" chant. If that's still Doug Wimbish on bass, he'd better get insurance before he puts somebody's back out. Meanwhile, Teletron's "What Time?" (Express) pits hypnotic lead against ticky-tock chorus and synth against bass against congas in a time-boggling experiment that ought to send Pigbag back to art school (and no, I don't say that cause it was written by Barry Michael Cooper). "Hungry, So Angry," by Nottingham's own Medium Medium (Cachalot), is why the white boys bother--straightforward, catchy, and pissed, it achieves true 12-inch dimensions on an EP that stretches out the seven-inch version with a spare "version." And J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz' "Shoot the Pump" (Zoo York), like "Double Dutch Bus," is a 12-inch that earns the term "street music" by being about as well as of the streets; it celebrates the joys of liquid under pressure (in hydrants and spray cans) with an irreverent associative glee that altogether obliterates competing tributes to boxes and basketball. Art by Ali, who Rough Trade and Factory should check out. . . .

Since last month's report on James Brown's Solid Gold, the 30-song Polydor import double-LP that I would put on any list of all-time albums, Polydor and Solid Smoke have come out with domestic 11- and 10-song compilations. Both are markedly inferior, but if you really can't find (or spring for) the import, go with Solid Smoke's Can Your Heart Stand It!!, which includes "Prisoner of Love" and two other cuts not on the import double. And don't figure to buy both domestics--they share five cuts. . . .

You should pardon my oversight in re Wild Thing, the 28-song original punk compilation released for $9.98 by Warner Special Products early this year. Only six duplications with Lenny Kaye's classic Nuggets, and it includes the originals of "96 Tears," "Louie Louie," and "I Fought the Law." Some of these groups (Love, the Rascals, Steppenwolf, Sir Douglas Quintet) are album-worthy in themselves, but at the price it can serve as a sampler. . . .

Finally, an unpaid commercial anouncement. Subscribe to New York Rocker. Over the past year the Rocker has become what a "new wave" mag ought to be--partisan but never uncritical, anti-corporation but not anti-commercial, and increasingly biracial. As we used to say in the '60s, er, far on.

Village Voice, Nov. 2, 1981


Oct. 5, 1981 Nov. 30, 1981