Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Though it's Brits who've put me in a better mood this month, with more pending, Americans occupy all three Pick Hit slots. Sometimes naked quality counts for more than thematic visuals. Truth be told, R.E.M. would have gotten the nod over Pet Shop Boys or Housemartins anyway. Though there's something to be said for Dury over Pretenders in the Christmas best-of rundown.


AGE OF CHANCE: One Thousand Years of Trouble (Virgin) At their strongest these Leeds lads have the postsituationist aggro down. Slogans like "Take It!" and "Don't Get Mad . . . Get Even!" are presented literally, yelled over loud funk beats that combined with their wall of noise makes them white rap the way Led Zep were white blues. Advocating insurrection ain't planning revolution, but it ain't surrender either. B PLUS

AZTEC CAMERA: Love (Sire) Not only is this Roddy Frame's solo debut in disguise, it's the worst kind of solo debut, replete with electronic everything and hacks/pros like Marcus Miller and Tommy LiPuma. Yet even after three straight slow ones on side two, the kid is putting over his own style of hit-factory romance the way he once put over his own style of schoolboy verse. The voice still gives off that sincere ache. And strummed or picked, the guitar lifts off every time. A MINUS

CHUCK BERRY: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (MCA) This wasn't the great Chuck Berry concert if only because his voice is half shot--all those cracks don't ruin the fun, but they don't expose unexpected nuances in it either. Though Julian Lennon and Linda Ronstadt are less obtrusive when you can't see them trying to look like they belong, most of the cameos are still only adequate-to-embarrassing: the sole triumph is Eric Clapton's "Wee Wee Hours," with a typically miraculous solo from the omnipresent Johnnie Johnson. And so what? It's still the best live album the man ever made. I mean, what do you want? B PLUS

ALPHA BLONDY: Apartheid Is Nazism (Shanachie) Reggae from a multilingual Ivory Coast star who puts message up front, this probably wouldn't get over on words even if you understood Mandingue or Dioula--in French and English, the politics are naive and toothless. As usual in West African pop, the voice is too mild, and as usual in West African reggae, the rhythm section is too buoyant. But glancing off such dance tunes as "Idjidja" and "Kiti" and, yes, "Come Back Jesus" (not to mention the base-covering "Sébé Allah Yé"), the singing completes an eloquently transatlantic groove--Afropop dread, a fast-flowing stream whose depth can't be fathomed. This achievement is also very West African. B PLUS

MARSHALL CHAPMAN: Dirty Linen (Tall Girl) So finally she gives up, living modestly if that off songwriting royalties, and after four or five years self-produces a ten-buck, ten-song tape that gets vinylized in West Germany, the disposable-income capital of the world. Naturally it's her best record by a mile and a half, because she's not trying to prove anything--just putting her songs on the table in front of the perfect little rock and roll groove of her non-name band. The singing is relaxed and aware, the writing sharpest when it means to cut a little, as on "Bad Debt" (rhymes with "You haven't taken out the garbage yet") and "Betty's Bein' Bad ("She's not mad/She's just gettin' even/Betty's bein' bad/It's her way of leavin'"). May she glorify her Pignose amp forever. A MINUS

BOBBY DURHAM: Where I Grew Up (HighTone) In the Nashville pattern, Durham provides the twang, and his producers provide the material. Only this is California, where Durham's been a mainstay of Bakersfield honky tonk since the '60s and his producers feed gritty, well-turned country lyrics to their label's bluesmen. So, no neotraditionalist bullshit--just traditionalism pure and simple. B PLUS

GEORGE HARRISON: Cloud Nine (Dark Horse) "Gettin' old as my mother," right on and why not. "Feel more like Big Bill Broonzy," not so fast. For one thing, the Other Beatle should know better than to risk comparison with his betters. For another, he's not ready to settle for Broonzy's audience share. B MINUS

THE HOUSEMARTINS: The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death (Elektra) Pop this venomous constitutes a formal leap way beyond the reach of spewing "postmodernists" who can't distinguish between their own ugliness and the world's. Telling the farmer that Jesus hates him or begging Johannesburg not to make any fuss on their account, they're Christians after my own heart: they nurture a righteous rage, and aim it at the right targets. Couching their invective in choirboy cute or lacing their quiet melodies with sulphuric acid, they're subversives after my own heart as well: oppression hasn't sapped their lyricism. They're telling us they're indomitable. Wouldn't it be amazing if they turned out to be right? A MINUS

LESS THAN ZERO (Def Jam) Despite the execrable title song and Poison's attempted "Rock and Roll All Nite," this is one tough and imaginative soundtrack. I love the way the Bangles schlock up "Hazy Shade of Winter" (sounds like the Grass Roots song it should have been) and Slayer revs up "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" (a great tune cut down to size). Even better are a debut by the Black Flames, a def and jamming answer to the Force M.D.'s, and a Public Enemy track that finally lives up to their fierce political rep (they like Farrakhan and dis critics, but nobody said you had to agree with them). "Are You My Woman"/"Bring the Noise," the resulting twelve-inch is called. Those who never trust a soundtrack should buy one. B PLUS

MADONNA: You Can Dance (Sire) Only two of the seven songs on her best LP haven't surfaced on an earlier album, but it's no best-of, and not just because she's saving her radio hits for yet another compilation. The effects, repeats, breaks, and segues added by a star crew of remixers headed by Jellybean Benitez and Shep Pettibone amount to new music--this time the songs don't surface, they reach out and grab you. Reminding us that her first and probably truest calling was disco dolly--before she stormed MTV, she had an audience that loved the way she sounded. A MINUS

GEORGE MICHAEL: Faith (Columbia) As everybody but avant-bigots knew from hearing Wham! on the radio, Michael can prove that photogenic and popwise aren't mutually exclusive while combing his hair with his left hand. Substance, depth, simple human decency--that kind of stuff is more problematic. So the show of soul, in the grain of the lyrics as well as the voice, makes a difference. But let no one forget that the vulnerability and compassion here purveyed are staple commodities of the truly popwise, and that the album's only conceptual coup, "I Want Your Sex," stands as an ambiguous publicity stunt worthy of Madonna herself. B PLUS

PET SHOP BOYS: Actually (EMI-Manhattan) Calling Neil Tennant a bored wimp is like accusing Jackson Pollock of making a mess. Since the bored wimp is his subject and his medium, whether he actually is one matters only insofar as the music sounds bored and/or wimpy--and only insofar as that's without its rewards and revelations. From Dusty Springfield to hit Fairlight to heart beats and from insider shopping to kept icon to Bowiesque futurism, this is actual pop music with something actual to say--pure commodity, and proud of it. A MINUS

PINK FLOYD: A Momentary Lapse of Reason (Columbia) "One Slip," which provides the title at just the moment the singer is so "decadent" as to copulate with a woman, is no less sexist than the rape-fantasy cover of Roger Waters's Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking. "The Dogs of War," ID'd with blues bottom, could almost be the tin soldiers of Waters-as-Floyd's The Final Cut. In short, you'd hardly know the group's conceptmaster was gone--except that they put out noticeably fewer ideas. C

PUSSY GALORE: Right Now! (Caroline) All these postdadaists want is to provide the forbidden visceral thrill of rock and roll at the moment they snatch it away as an impossible fake--to be the-thing and not-the-thing simultaneously. How much more could they ask of life? They have fair success, too, commanding an impressive palette of horrible noises and effectuating a pretty good beat for art-rock. But what you remember in the end is the snatch; you're left to mull over a concept that will thrill only those whose lived experience verifies it. Me, I don't find Route 66 has run out of kicks quite yet. B

A.C. REED: I'm in the Wrong Business (Alligator) Title boast to the contrary, Reed has a commercial knack--he knows how to distinguish himself from competing bluesmen, more gifted ones included. His specialty is novelty lyrics like the title boast, here augmented by "Fast Food Annie" and "Don't Drive Drunk." Reparations from Stevie Ray Vaughan don't hurt either. B PLUS

R.E.M.: Document (I.R.S.) Their commercial breakthrough eschews escapism without surrendering structural obliqueness, and after six years of mushmouth I wouldn't have thought it possible either. Maybe they finally figured out that intelligibility doesn't equal closure (can't, actually). Or maybe they just wanted to make sure everyone knew how pissed off they were. In any case, these dreamsongs are nightmares of a world in flames, the kind you remember in all their scary inconsistency because you woke up sweating in the middle. How it will all end I couldn't say, but it's a healthy sign that their discovery of the outside world has sharpened their sense of humor along with everything else. Inspirational Title: "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." [Original grade: A minus] A

ROBBIE ROBERTSON (Geffen) Once established as an icon of quality, he always took himself too seriously, and age has neither mellowed him nor wised him up. So now, casting about for a contemporary context, he hooks up with the two most sententious young artists of quality on the charts. Took some guts for such an unrepentant Americana-monger to risk Anglophobe wrath, but unfortunately, the mesh didn't take. Because whatever you think of Peter Gabriel and Bono Vox, you have to admit that unlike the old man they're a) idealistic, b) singers, and c) at no loss for context. C PLUS

SONNY ROLLINS: G-Man (Milestone) The live soundtrack to Robert Mugge's Saxophone Colossus is jazz for rock-and-rollers to cut their teeth on. It's exciting, fun, a gas, all that stuff great rock and roll is supposed to be and so rarely is these days. Title track is fifteen minutes of Rollins at a peak--a showman who never shows off, a virtuoso who's never pretentious or (in this situation) even difficult. It's like what some teenager might imagine both "free jazz" and "a honking session" sound like from reading LeRoi Jones or John Sinclair--riffs jumping and giving long past their breaking points, notes held so long it's a wonder Rollins hasn't passed out. Elsewhere are ten-minute workouts on two proven flag-wavers, "Don't Stop the Carnival" and "Tenor Madness" (the latter CD-only although the vinyl runs under thirty-five minutes, my only objection to the package). Everyone else in a quintet accelerated by the amazing Marvin Smith feels the spirit, although their inventions are more strictly harmonic and rhythmic where Rollins's are always sonic as well. Free jazz and honking sessions rarely get this good. I haven't enjoyed a record so much all year. A PLUS

ROGER WATERS: Radio KAOS (Columbia) In which Waters's wheelchair-bound version of the deaf, dumb, and blind boy learns to control the world's computers with his cordless phone, then simulates impending nuclear holocaust just to scare the shit out of the powers that be. I have serious reservations about any record that can't be enjoyed unless you sit there reading the inner sleeve, but this is not without its aural rewards--a coverable song or two and some nice comping on shakuhachi as well as the deep engineering that made Floyd famous. As pretentious goes, not stupid. B

STEVIE WONDER: Characters (Motown) Nine lines in, he assumes the voice of God to assure sufferers that everything's gonna be all right, and instantly you lose heart. But then his chronic self-importance disappears--the worst it gets is spacy, and Stevie can make spacy a trip when he's on. Which he definitely is--melodically, rhythmically, emotionally, politically, sonically. Erupting in anti-Reagan rhymes or imagining a nasty joint or keying a love ballad to his own recorded bodily rhythms or whomping a groove with Michael Jackson or finding the balance between black-pride lyricism and antiapartheid militance, he sounds like he's got something to prove again. Ronald Reagan can do that to a black hero. So can Prince. [Original grade: A] A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

In a year when laser beams have reawakened the music industry to the joys of catalogue, the best-of has made a comeback of sorts itself. Now if only the best was good enough. This year my Christmas rundown won't bother genrefying. High-end to low-end, with a few oddments appended, sesms more useful and appropriate. The Pretenders' The Singles is the only great album of the bunch. In a pop environment where even honest artists make a virtue of fabrication, Chrissie Hynde expresses herself, so radio is good for her--it keeps a lid on her instinctive independence, her spontaneous sense of structure, and her bad sense of humor, and the only reason you can't call this her testament is that she's tough enough to hang in there a while. Johnny Cash's Columbia Records 1958-1986 (Columbia) makes clear he was always a folkie at heart and as a young man a great one: the whole first side was recorded in his first seven months with the label, only one cut between February '71 and March '79 (and the purest proof extant that Bruce Springsteen is Woody Guthrie in 1984). The Best of Reba McEntire (MCA) marches her best songs past chronologically, two-by-two from each of her first five MCA albums, and since for all her reach and technique her singing is a mite too contained, she benefits from the distillation. The Best Part of the Fat Boys (Sutra) is a label-changing ceremony that cannibalizes half their debut and earns the-one-if-you-want-only-one status by spicing up leftovers from their depressing gold follow-up--who would have thunk their ersatz reggae would outlast Run-D.M.C.'s? Ray Stevens's Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (MCA) avoids all everything-is-beautiful and will please those who appreciate a fella who imitates a chicken singing Glenn Miller and thinks his gal should love him because he can fart with his armpit. Culture Club's This Time: The First Four Years--Twelve Worldwide Hits (Epic/Virgin) establishes once and for all that Boy George is best when he puts a vaguely dishy edge on his female-identified pansexual humanitarian niceness; it beats Colour by Numbers because it includes "The War Song" and hit filler. Bruce Cockburn's Waiting for a Miracle (Gold Mountain) is two discs worth of well-wrought politics and suspect poetry, enough and not too much. Billy Idol's Vital Idol (Chrysalis) is ace DOR that approximates his cartoon essence by pixilating the pseudosex with every remix effect known to applied science. Mel McDaniel's Greatest Hits (Capitol) doesn't get all his best moments but does justice to the mild raunch that is his commercial specialty, most rousingly on "Stand Up." Once you get over your irritation at the slipshod cynicism of The Original Soul of Michael Jackson (Motown) you admit that it's superior to his "real" 1975 best-of and praise Berry for releasing "Twenty-Five Miles" as you wonder who the hell stuck on those fraternal nonhits. At its worst Steve Wariner's Greatest Hits is likably generic, an achievement in MOR country these days; at its best it puts sins of omission on the genre's conjugal hit list and concentrates all the genre's nostalgia on one overburdened woman from back home. Elton John's Greatest Hits, Volume III, 1979-1987 (Geffen) announces that the bitch is gone, presumably forever; it also proves that he's infinitely preferable to Barry Manilow, whom he's replaced on the radio. The lackluster professionalism of George Strait's Greatest H its Volume Two (MCA) seems like the fulfillment of his overly modest gifts and ambitions. History Never Repeats (The Best of Split Enz) (A&M) makes their pop compatriots in Squeeze seem like heavyweights on spritz and detail alone. The Boomtown Rats' Greatest Hits suggests that the best (musical) idea Bob Geldof ever had was pretending to be a punk. Frank Tovey's The Fad Gadget Singles (Sire) is the best of a Robyn Hitchcock type who's lucky Britain has a dance-synth scene--otherwise he's have to emigrate and script horror comics. 38 Special's Flashback (A&M) is what Molly Hatchet only wished it could be. The ballads that dominate The Best of Rose Royce (Omni) makes you wish Norman Whitfield had been content to concoct a disco trademark. The radio-ready arrangements, hired lyrics, and funk borrowings of Steve Winwood's Chronicles (Island) are hallmarks of the most venal pop music of the age. Translator's Everywhere That I'm Not--A Retrospective (Columbia) is two good songs and guitars that jingle-jangle-jingle. Blotto's I Wanna Be a Lifeguard (Performance) never gets better than its top-40 bar-band parody for a reason.

Oddment category one we'll call redundancies. Ian Dury's Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (Demon import) isn't really a best-of--it compiles nonalbum singles plus one ringer--and is a virtual reissue of Stiff's Juke Box Dury to boot. But where else am I going to put it? If I tell you it's not as good as Juke Box Dury that's only because the earlier version's programming is now imprinted on my memory--it's one of my favorite records of the decade. Wry, crazed, compassionate, and deep into a sound that turns Americana into music-hall, songs like "Razzle in My Pocket" and "There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards" are high points of our epoch. Buy 'em any way you can get 'em. A redundancy of a different ilk is Paul McCartney's All the Best (Capitol), markedly less consistent than 1978's 12-cut, 54-minute Wings Greatest. Four of the 10 undeniably super tracks on George Jones's Super Hits (Epic) are on Epic's essential Anniversary--Ten Years of Hits, two more on Epic's near-essential All-Time Greatest Hits: Volume 1 (and what the hell happened to 2?). Avoid. Only one of the songs on Tammy Wynette's misleadingly entitled Anniversary: Twenty Years of Hits (Epic) was recorded in this decade--1980, to be precise. Greatest Hits, Greatest Hits Volume 4, and George & Tammy's Greatest Hits are still where to go.

Country fans should also be aware that the following records exist, but I know too much now to say any more: Gary Morris: Hits (Warner Bros.); Janie Fricke: Celebration (Columbia); Charly McClain: Ten Year Anniversary (Epic); Dan Seals: The Best (Capitol); Crystal Gayle: The Best of Crystal Gayle (Warner Bros.); Waylon Jennings's grossly mistitled The Best of Waylon (RCA Victor); John Schneider: Greatest Hits (MCA).

Art-rock fans don't deserve to know that The Best of the Alan Parsons Project Volume 2 (Arista) is also on the racks.

Why There Is a Jesse Jackson: Two veteran acts checked in with their strongest singles in some time and most political singles ever in late 1987--Earth, Wind & Fire's "System of Survival" and Stevie Wonder's "Skeletons." Gee, sez I to meself, just the kind of crossover radio needs. Then I checked the charts and learned that Wonder never came near the pop top 10 and EWF failed to crack top 50. On Billboard's black chart December 5, however, they ran one-two.

Village Voice, Dec. 29, 1987


Dec. 1, 1987 Jan. 26, 1988