Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Despite my small hopes at Pazz & Jop time, I found two of them--albums that would have made my 1975 top 30 if I'd done my listening right. Beserkley Chartbusters simply slipped past me--it's sort of a sport as product, anyway, kind of like The Harder They Come in its collective identity--and the Sonny Rollins I might just have declared rock by fiat on account of it uses an electric bass, which would be no sillier than any other definition. Rock and roll diehards, however, will note that three of the bounty of five As this month would normally be classified as jazz, and then nod regretfully over the lost faith they've been foreseeing for years before getting down to penning their hate letters. Not true. I've been listening to jazz diligently for the past year and these are the first albums made in this decade that have earned an A from me. I hope there are more, but just like those berserk chartbusters I am a structure fan beneath my manic exterior, and very few jazz records satisfy my need for that.

You know the game. As are recommended, B plusses (four neat ones this month, an improvement) on the borderline, and B if you get the notion. Go thee and consume some more--it's an election year and that's what that extra cash in your pocket is for.


BESERKLEY CHARTBUSTERS VOLUME 1 (Beserkley) The Berkeley rock underground? Featuring Earth Quake, a failed heavy boogie band from A&M and Jonathan Richman, reputed to have wasted hundreds of thousands of Warner Comm bucks studioing with the Modern Lovers yet here sounding as if he prefers to record in the WC? I played this sampler twice and shelved it. But a more sympathetic listening suggests that maybe rock and roll undergrounds are the same everywhere--tough-minded, spare and loud, and committed to an eloquent simplicity of form no matter what the embroidering tastemakers in the biz consider art. This shared commitment makes the four artists exhibited here sound as if they're all on one album, instead of a bunch of cuts, and the album is a good one. A MINUS [Later]

ELVIN BISHOP: Struttin' My Stuff (Capricorn) Usually, when someone tells you an album ain't nuthin but good old rock and roll, that means it ain't nuthin. This is the exception. After singing (and of course playing) the blues for 10 years, Elvin makes like he was born to boogie. Completing his Marin-to-Macon switch by recording at Criteria in Miami instead of the Record Plant in Sausalito, he here provides Capricorn with enough hooks to keep the Brothers gone fishin for the next decade. All very debrained, of course, but the first side never stops, and if the title cut isn't the label's first top-ten song since "Ramblin' Man," either my name ain't Juke Box Johnny or "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" got there first. B PLUS [Later]

DAVID BOWIE: Station to Station (RCA Victor) Ziggyphiles will protest the robotness of this, but if like me you happen to believe that Aladdin Sane is his best just because it's so mechanical, then here's number two. All of the six cuts are too long, I suppose, including the one that originated with Johnny Mathis, and David sounds like he's singing to us via satellite. But spaceyness has always been his shtick, and anybody who can merge Lou Reed, disco, and Dr. John--the best I can do with "TVC 15," my favorite piece of rock and roll in a very long time--deserves to keep doing it for five minutes and 29 seconds. A MINUS [Later: A]

JOHN CALE: Slow Dazzle (Island) In which Cale integrates his unsingerly voice into a valid musical whole, but Lou Reed he ain't. That is, he still sounds unsingerly. This record has nice pop ambitions--on "Mr. Wilson," the Velvets meet the Beach Boys for discreet, sophisticated, adult enjoyment. But it remains a haunting oddity. B PLUS [Later: A-]

GUY CLARK: Old No. 1 (RCA Victor) I liked Clark's laconic vocal presence at first, although I eventually began to feel that it flattened this material more than it deserved--as does the agreeably glopless Nashville production. But I count at least five A-rated songs here, and I'm not converted to "Desperadoes Waiting for the Train" just yet. A must for Western-mythos fans. B PLUS [Later]

CRACK THE SKY (Lifesong) If it's gonna be art-rock, it might as well be existentialist fables rather than tales of Atlantis or concept albums about the last cowboy. At least you can bet the music will be a little more angular. But why should it be mannered? B MINUS [Later]

RICHARD DIGANCE (Mercury) If God is just, why doesn't He or She grant this lyricist a melodic gift? Or at least a melodist? B MINUS

DUDES: We're No Angels (Columbia) The Consumer Guide Raspberry for 1975 is awarded posthumously to this Zombies tribute, which died almost immediately upon release, dismissed on name alone by everybody except diehard Wackers fans, an exclusive grouping that does not include your reviewer. Dudey it's not. There's a lovely pre-Pepper feel to it, although the bite of the Raspberries' Starting Over or Big Star's Radio City is missed, and a nice ripoff eclecticism operates as well--not so easy to evoke all the young hooples while borrowing a catch from Rod Argent. Anybody who can tell me where Brian Greenaway stole the little bit that goes "oh Lylee lady" wins a prize. B PLUS

DUKE ELLINGTON AND RAY BROWN: This One's for Blanton (Pablo) That the man played with such lithe ambition in his seventies is a challenge not only to the senescent theory of youth culture but to all lingering truisms about youthfulness. That is, this is alive, and what else matters? I wish the movements of the suite that occupies side two were as attractive in themselves as each of the songs on side one is. But any pianist who can suggest the severe understatement of a Basie or Monk and the rather juicy extravagance of a Tatum or Garner in successive phrase has obviously earned the right to make big big statement--as if that's not obvious already. A MINUS

SONNY FORTUNE: Awakening (Horizon) I'd better watch out or I'm gonna turn into a fan of this guy. No great innovations, as I mentioned in conjunction with his Strata-East LP (shame on A&M for calling this "his debut as a great leader"; what's the catch, the last one wasn't great?), but plenty great synthesis. Shades of hard bop and late-'50s Miles in a more modal setting, so lyrical and tough-minded that the 12-minute flute-and-congas thing (the title cut, wouldn't you know) becomes quite credible, even listenable. A MINUS

EMMYLOU HARRIS: Elite Hotel (Reprise) This flows better than the first, but it also makes clear that Emmylou is just another pretty voice, a country singer by accident. I mean, Linda Ronstadt has the best female voice in country music, and even she doesn't satisfy the way an original like Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn does. And since there's not a cover version here that equals its prototype, all she accomplishes with her good taste in material is to send you scurrying for the sources. I prefer Donna Fargo. Not Lynn Anderson, though. C PLUS

HOT TUNA: Yellow Fever (Grunt) For almost as long as there's been a Consumer Guide, I've listened dutifully to each of this band's albums, only to put each away, not with anger or even dislike but in the simple absence of anything interesting to say. When a group maintains such a level for five years, however, its uninterestingness becomes noteworthy in itself. Think of it--kozmic blooze and negative vocals boogieing on into a countercultural time that knows no past or future, outracing the Starship on automatic pilot. Quite impressive, actually. B MINUS [Later]

THE MIRACLES: City of Angels (Tamla) Tom Smucker, explaining why this was included on his Pazz & Jop entry: "Motown moves to L.A. and likes what it finds. It's very important that in an era when people don't like cities some people can still find them romantic. And that L.A. is the city. And that Motown are the people." This is sweet and true, but it ignores the point, which is that this record is a riot. In fact, its achievement is so complete, so true to itself, that the possibility lurks that it is a put-on. The sheer silly eccentricity of the thing is barely suggested by Inspirational Verse like "Oh I love you, L.A./Please don't go away/Will you fall into the sea/And forsake me?" or "Charlotte was rushed to the top of the hill/She had taken too many pills" or "Homosexuality/Is a part of society/Well I guess they need more variety." You have to hear the intonations, the falsettos, the backups, the orchestration. All this plus: the first soul song ever devoted to an underground newspaper. B [Later]

THE O'JAYS: Family Reunion (Philadelphia International) In which Jesse Jackson (or is it Reverend Ike) goes disco, proving that the words do too matter. The self-serving, pseudopolitical pap Kenny Gamble sets his boys to declaiming here underlines the way the overripeness of this vocal and production style can go mushy, which it does. Apologists defend the nonmessage side--comprising an ill-observed working-class party anthem, some play-her-like-a-violin soft-core and the unspeakable (would it were unsingable) "I Love Music"--but they've let the L.A. (or is it Philadelphia) hustle go to their heads. Moral: The rich and the superrich, shit--the nouveau riche can fuck you over too. C MINUS [Later: C]

SONNY ROLLINS: Nucleus (Milestone) Eat your heart out, Grover Washington (Archie Shepp) (yeah, King Curtis too). This is as rich an R&B saxophone record as I know, combining repetition and invention, melodies recalled and melodies unimaginable, in proportions that define the difference between selling out and reaching out. This man says more with his tone than most musicians do with a full set of chops (which he also has, of course). If you really believe you don't like "jazz," this is as good a place to start as any. A [Later: A-]

SPINNERS: Pick of the Litter (Atlantic) I've never quite gotten this group, which I take to be my own quirky distaste for their particular variation on mixmasterization, and although this always sounds good when I get around to it it hasn't really kicked in either. But at least I can imagine wanting to hear it at some time int he indefinite future, which distinguishes it from almost everything else coming out of Disco City these days. B [Later: A-]

SLY STONE: High on You (Epic) The lyrics haven't regained their punch, and neither have the melodies--when he does try to say something, you barely notice. But the old rhythmic eccentricity, both vocal and instrumental, makes this more interesting to listen to than the run of dancey goop. Let's not give up on him yet. B MINUS

JOEL ZOSS (Arista) As an unmistakably genuine artist who is unmistakably limited and unmistakably easy to dislike--his manipulative moan reminds Carola that "there are worse things in men than machismo"--Zoss raises the question of whether nice, bright product isn't sometimes preferable to realized art. Personally, I'll take good Anne Murray any day. C PLUS

Village Voice, Feb. 2, 1976

Postscript Notes:

The Dudes review originally said "borrowing a catch from Sly Stone," changed in the CG '70s book (and above) to Rod Argent. Presumably this was a typo in the original column, not worth repeating here.


Dec. 22, 1975 Mar. 1, 1976