Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Directly across from Consumer Guide this month, if the Divine Typesetter so wills it, you will find the second monthly Pazz & Jop Product Report. It is explained (the DT willing) in italics below the monthly top 10, but additional explication seems appropriate. Basically, the theory of the P&JPR is that a lot of critics formulate opinions that they don't get the chance to write down. This is an attempt to schematize that information. All 10 critics represented listen to many records: in general, rock and roll is near the center of their tastes, but because breadth and eclecticism were prime criteria when I selected my panel, you will find a country record, two new jazz records, and one jazz reissue among their collective favorites this month. Another important criterion is that these critics do not form a clique; most of those who live in New York (six of the 10) know each other, but those few who are close to each other tend to differ sharply in their tastes. I tis my hope that they will study each other's lists and maybe get turned on to records they might otherwise have ignored. I'll do the same; perhaps you will too.

The scoring system is obviously a problem. I set up the strange gaps between permissible point awards because in my experience with the Consumer Guide I have learned that the difference between an A minus and a B plus (roughly speaking, a 7 and a 5) is more pronounced than that between a B and a B minus (a 3 and a 2). And it seemed only right, on the basis of my experience, that an A (an 8) should be worth four times as much as a B minus (a 2). Most critics who do their work hear more than 10 records of at least 1 or 2 quality each month, but some of them just don't seem worth noting (in this month's Consumer Guide, Heart would be an example for me) or so generally overrated that they might excite a negative vote (I would award Ry Cooder a minus 1). That's why mere mentions count for as much as they do.

We've left off most of the labels this month to be sure we have room for the negative votes. It was a painful decision, since I know how hard it is to find obscure records even when they're from major companies. Maybe eventually we'll see a way to squeeze them all in.


RY COODER: Chicken Skin Music (Reprise) The title refers to a Hawaiian expression closely allied to "goose bumps," which has to be the most modest instance of hubris on record--I mean, does Ry really believe this is gonna make my skin prickle? Folk eclecticism is a nouveau-jug commonplace, after all, even if most nouveau jugheads do lack Ry's imagination and musicianship, not to mention the capital to dab color from Honolulu and San Antonio onto the same LP. Too tame. B MINUS [Later: B]

CRACK THE SKY: Animal Notes (Lifesong) Leader John Palumbo's penchant for the disjoint extends to the premeditated shifts of his music, a strategy that recalls the late Beatles when it works and middle Uriah Heep when it doesn't It usually works--songs about Mounties are always preferable to songs about centaurs. But songs about Mounties that carry you along on the music when the lyrical conceit gets boring, which it does, are preferable to art-rock set pieces. Fortunately, for most of this record, the wit and flow of this music work nicely against the satiric crackle of the lyrics, and the melodic and textural quotes on side one will set you to laughing as you hum along. B PLUS [Later: B]

DERRINGER (Blue Sky) This opens with "Let Me In," a rocker of addictive cuteness and intelligence that has already stiffed as a single, despite a Cynthia Weil lyric that applies with equal precision to lost boys and lost men. Can anyone out there come up with another one to rescue it? B MINUS

BRYAN FERRY: Let's Stick Together (Atlantic) A lot of people are crazy about this record, but I find its bifurcation alienating. On the one hand, we have the usual unlikely borrowings, the most effective from Wilbert Harrison and the Everlys. And as usual, these are powerful, strange, and interesting--and often quite compelling. On the other hand, we have unlikely remakes of old Roxy Music material, much of it from the group's very first album. Although Ferry proves that he knows more about making records (and music) than he used to, the songs remain powerful, strange, and interesting--but not quite compelling. Add it all together and you get . . . two separate parts. B

FLAMIN GROOVIES: Shake Some Action (Sire) The mid-'60s ambitions here are so authentic that producer Dave Edmunds has reverted to the muddy mix--kinda like the Byrds or early Flamin Groovies. Actually, what it sounds like is mono electrically rechanneled for stereo and, whereas the early Flamin Groovies (on their Epic LP, a goodun) were late-'60s enough to exploit aural distance in the service of a sly, spaced-out obliqueness, now they get their kicks playing dumb. There are good songs here, but only cultists will ever hear them. B [Later]

AL GREEN: Have a Good Time (Hi) Look, I can't judge this man's records. I think he is far and away the finest popular singer of the decade and, since stability is not one of his virtues, I am gratified just to see him on his feet. I have defended his two most recent LPs, both of which do occasionally descend into formula, for their inspired craziness; I love this one for its renewed confidence and awesome breadth of soul vocal technique. The earlier albums are more unequivocally recommended (Call Me remains a favorite); if you already enjoy those, this will certainly please you. And if you think he's always been wimpy, you may even like it better. A MINUS [Later: B+]

HEART: Dreamboat Annie (Mushroom) As apparently spontaneous pop phenomena go, a hardish folk-rock group led by two women is a moderately interesting one, especially when their composing beats that of the twixt-Balin Starplane, whom they otherwise recall. I said moderately. C PLUS

LARRY HOSFORD: Cross Words (Shelter) A funny country singer-songwriter with complicated emotions and an elusive, strangely ageless vocal persona--mellowed-out Homer and/or Jethro, perhaps, or comic-relief L.A. cowboy gone crackerbarrel. Inspirational Verse: "She called me Daddy when she got sad/Called my bluff when I treated her bad/And then at the end she just called a cab/And went back home to her momma." B PLUS [Later]

ELTON JOHN: Blue Moves (MCA) None of the few rockers on this impossibly weepy and excessive double-LP match anything on Rock of the Westies. Or, as my wife commented in all innocence of who was on: "What is this tripe?" C

GEORGE JONES: Alone Again (Epic) Jones has recorded something like 100 albums, and I've heard no more than 15 of them; this is the only one I know well. But I'm sure it surpasses the rest of his recent work; I'm also sure it's the best country album of the year. I also suspect that I like the over 40 George at least as much as the young honky-tonker, who's impossible to find these days anyway. What's amazing about him is that he doesn't even allow himself the vocal release of honky-tonking: all that pain is held in. The result, expressed in one homely extended trope per song (the only one that's too commonplace is "diary of my mind"), is a sense of constriction that says as much about the spiritual locus of country music as anything I've heard in quite a while. A MINUS [Later]

LED ZEPPELIN: The Song Remains the Same (Swan Song) List price: $11.98. Category: live double-LP masquerading as soundtrack album or vice versa. Full title: The Song Goes on Forever but the Road Remains the Same. C PLUS

LIVE AT CBGB'S (Atlantic) I know these are Our Bands (all eight of them?), and that none of them has ever recorded before. This collection still ain't Beserkley Chartbusters. It's still a live double-LP: the arrangements and recording still tend toward the half-assed (though the presence is better on this new pressing); the programming is still so erratic that only side one is wholly tolerable; the groups are still so erratic that only Tuff Darts can advance to Studio without pausing at Stop and paying dues well in excess of $200. B MINUS [Later]

CHUCK MCDERMOTT AND WHEATSTRAW: Last Straw (Back Door) As befits a Yale dropout, McDermott makes country music with an edge of educated subtlety--the comic sendups of cars and compulsive consumption sound quite a bit more political than Jerry Reed's, the forlorn laments a whole lot more existentialist than George Jones's. Yet Jerry Reed and George Jones are definitely the comparison: McDermott may sound a little like Phil Ochs or Keith Carradine in their country personas, but his voice (a fairly remarkable one) is stronger and more country. The drawback is the ragged backup from Boston's finest, who sound like folkies who have not yet developed any viable equivalent for slickness. This artist needs a competent Nashville producer--nobody snazzy, someone like Jerry Kennedy of Mercury--who can marshal some sessionmen and demand a full and precise vocal performance. An enticing prospect, because he can really sing and write. B PLUS [Later]

THE WALTER MURPHY BAND: A Fifth of Beethoven (Private Stock) What a rip-off. Here I am expecting disco versions of "Claire de Lune," Carmina Burana, and at least three Brandenburg concerti, and what do I get but eight tunes by W. Murphy? Take it from me, Walter--from Beethoven you make great schlock, transcendent schlock even, but from Murphy you just make schlock. D PLUS

THE O'JAYS: Message in the Music (Philadelphia International) The message in the message is inoffensive enough to let the message in the music come through; my favorite lines (not that I don't have unfavorites): "Heaven is just a condition/Hell is a condition too." But the music never peaks; the songs are too medium, if you know what I mean, their pleasures bound up in performance subtleties that ought to be hooked, at least once, onto something obvious. B MINUS

LINDA RONSTADT: Hasten Down the Wind (Asylum) Linda's always wanted to be a Real Country Singer, but RCS put out two or three LPs like this every year. You know--find some good tunes, round up the gang, and apply formula. Like the great RCS she can be, she comes up with some inspired interpretations: the flair of "That'll Be the Day" and "Crazy" do justice to the originals, and her version of the title song almost makes you forget its unfortunate title. But you cover Tracy Nelson's "Down So Low" at your peril even if you believe not one in ten of your fans remembers it, and the three Karla Bonoff lyrics make her (I mean Karla, but Linda too) sound like such a born loser that I never want to hear anyone sing them again. B MINUS

BOB SEGER & THE SILVER BULLET BAND: Night Moves (Capitol) I've never had much truck with Seger's myth--he's always struck me as a worn if well-schooled rock and roll journeyman, good for one or two tracks a year. But this album is a journeyman's apotheosis. The riffs that identify each of these nine songs comprise a working lexicon of the Berry-Stones tradition, and you've heard them many times before; in fact, that may be the point, because Seger and his musicians reanimate every one with their persistence and conviction. both virtues also come across in lyrics as hard-hitting as the melodies, every one of which asserts the continuing functionality of rock and roll for "sweet sixteens turned thirty-one." In one of them, the singer even has his American Express card stolen by a descendant of Ronnie Hawkins's Mary Lou, if not Mary Lou herself. Worrying about your credit rating--now that's what I call rock and roll realism. A MINUS

BUNNY WAILER: Blackheart Man (Island) This isn't what the good-time Charlies mean when they say protest music is boring, but it'll do--oh, to hear Bob Marley sing "Fighting Against Convictions." B MINUS [Later: A-]

BILL WITHERS: Naked and Warm (Columbia) I always find Withers tremendously likable. Everything about him is simple and solid, and the way he gets a hard groove out of five or six instruments has few parallels in black music these days. But this album contains only eight songs, and the one that runs 10:46, a paean to L.A., includes a couplet about Disneyland that even I, a convert to Withers's plainspeech, find embarrassing every time out. Recommended single: "Close to Me." B [Later]

RON WOOD & RONNIE LANE: Mahoney's Last Stand (Atco) Better moaning bottlenecks than singing strings, but soundtrack music is soundtrack music even when the movie remains invisible, and we all have access to more meaningful background noise. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

I see where people think Abba's Greatest Hits epitomizes a delightfully mindless strain of European pop. Personally, I'd rather listen to Kraftwerk--The Golden Years. . . .

I'd even prefer RSO's Bee Gees Gold, a somewhat better programmed remake of Atco's Best of the Bee Gees. Ahh, corporate magic.

Village Voice, Nov. 22, 1976


Nov. 1, 1976 Dec. 27, 1976