Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

This is my annual search-for-the-good-uns CG, in which I try my damndest to hear every possible A I'd skipped in the course of the previous year and come up with a lot of Bs and B pluses. I always pay a lot of attention to genres when I do this, since that's the stuff I tend to shortchange when I'm running on automatic. This year revealed no genuine finds--all the As below are of relatively recent issue, or at least acquisition. But have no fear--the search will continue.


JOHN ANDERSON: I Just Came Home to Count the Memories (Warner Bros.) He's smart, he's honest, but what makes him a country comer is the edge on his husky baritone, too indistinct and decorative to be called a vibrato or even a burr. His instinctively sentimental reading of "Don't Think Twice" establishes the limits of baritone, smarts, and honesty all at once, and I spent enough time pondering whether this was worth a B plus to conclude that I'd have known in a jiffy if I was as familiar with the Frizzell and Delmore covers as I am with the Dylan. Which should tell you what kind of B plus it's worth. This kind: B

BOHANNON: Alive (Phase II) Indifferent to concepts like "content" and "originality," this casual dance-hit rip cycles (and recycles) about three basic riffs and some raucous yowsah-yowsah into an album that divides into irresistibly inspired A side and delightfully tossed-off B as surely as any New Orleans novelty or rockabilly romp. If you're tired of getting your rhythmic jollies from well-meaning art students, give this natural Afro-American a try--he's never sounded looser, and loose is how he's got to sound. A MINUS [Later: B+]

CHIC: Take It Off (Atlantic) Despite their best efforts, this projected dancefloor comeback is a lot less songful than Real People. Almost as artful, though. The telegraphic precision of the lyrics, the wary solicitousness of the singing, and the spare, nervous overload of the rhythms all bespeak a black-bourgeois modernism that is of a city most blacks don't even dream about--that alien power center where even the best times seem to go sour. A MINUS

SWAMP DOGG: I'm Not Selling Out/I'm Buying In (Takoma) One problem with pinning your hopes on eccentrics is that they're hard to tell from cranks. He's right about El Salvador and baby formula, wrong about abortion and loud dance music, boring about natural foods, the media, etc. And only when Esther Phillips pitches in does his beloved soul music get over. B MINUS

MARIANNE FAITHFULL: Dangerous Acquaintances (Island) More conventional than Broken English, which isn't to say it's less feminist. On the contrary, Faithfull is even writing her own lyrics instead of letting some man do it, and coming up with universal truths like "where did it go to my youth" and "looking to find my identity" in the process. And singing in such palpably broken English that she almost gets away with it. This time. B PLUS

RICHARD "DIMPLES" FIELDS: Dimples (Boardwalk) Except for Betty Wright's backtalking one-upwomanship, the prime originals here--"I Like Your Lovin" and "She's Got Papers on Me"--are standard-issue love-man come-ons, but "Dimples"'s appropriation of the two greatest doowop oldies is self-aggrandizing sentimentality at its most audacious. And "I've Got to Learn to Say No!" leaves no doubt as to just what he gets from his earth angel in the still of the night. B PLUS

AL GREEN: Higher Plane (Myrrh) Meek and mild, The Lord Will Make a Way was Green's sincere attempt to bend to gospel tradition, but on this record it's tradition that bends. He exerts himself with such fervor that I don't even mind when he and Margie Joseph (a lame pop singer anyway) desecularize "People Get Ready." I've always believed angels should sing like they still have something going down below. And if there are rhythm sections like this in Heaven (praises be to new drummer Aaron Purdie), the place may be worth a stopover after all. A

Z.Z. HILL: Down Home (Malaco) No relation to Top, Hill is an old pro who's never been able to decide whether he's a soulful blues man or a bluesy soul man and has never found the material to make anyone care for more than a single or two. Now that the question is commercially moot, he's somehow scored eight out of ten pungent, basic songs on an LP cut in and for Jackson, Mississippi. A bluesy soul man, in case you were wondering. Inspirational Verse: "Bop doowop/Baby I'd chop/Off my right arm for your love." A MINUS [Later]

JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: I Love Rock 'n' Roll (Boardwalk) Covering the Dave Clark Five and "Little Drummer Boy" on the same side is a great schlock yea-saying move, but a move is all it is--makes me want to hear the originals rather than play the side again. Maybe if I knew the real "Nag" I'd feel the same about that. As it is, "Nag" has a spark that's lacking in all of Jett's originals except the complementary "You're Too Possessive." And I love rock 'n roll for its spark. B PLUS

GEORGE JONES: Still the Same Ole Me (Epic) Dumb title, appropriately enough, and every word true--just like his lies about lifetime troth in the title number, one of those inane stick-to-the-medulla-oblongata tunes no one will ever do better. And side-openers, the man has side-openers--a brand-new honky-tonk classic and a brand-new wages-of-honky-tonk classic. Nothing else stands out except for the intrusion of young Georgette Jones (Wynette?) (surely not Richey?) on "Daddy Come Home," which even George can't get away with. But it all stands up. B PLUS

DENISE LASALLE AND SATISFACTION: Guaranteed (MCA) Leading off with the irritating "I'm Tripping on You" (he's also "a contact high"), side one is more of the utterly ordinary dance music this self-starting singer and songwriter has been wasting herself on for years. But side two puts three of her sexual autonomy specials around the best hook on the record, which is connected to something called "E.R.A. (Equal Rights Amendment)." The subtitle's to let you know she's not singing about earned run averages or the Economic Recovery Administration--she's singing about the Amendment, the piece of paper itself, and she knows it spells more than sexual autonomy. Ideal for dance-party fund-raisers. B

STACY LATTISAW: With You (Cotillion) As I hope his guru tells him, Narada Michael Walden is always better off Helping Others, and who better than this going-on-fourteen cross between Teena Marie and Michael Jackson, whose natural cuteness absorbs the sickly-sweet aftertaste of Walden's jumpy little tunes? But she can't do much more with dumb ballads than sing her heart out on them, always a misuse of good young flesh. B PLUS

LET THEM EAT JELLYBEANS! (Virus import) This anthology of seventeen U.S. indie singles isn't all hardcore, but with Jello Biafra doing the compiling side one will pass, from Flipper's classic-if-a-bit-slow "Ha Ha Ha" to the Subhumans' at-last-it-can-be-told "Slave to My Dick." Postliberal racism from the Offs and "faggot"-baiting from the Feederz is balanced by surprising L.A. anthems from the Circle Jerks (antiwar), Geza X (antinuke), and Christian Lunch (anti). And even San Fran arties like Wounds and (especially) Voice Farm come up with engaging stuff. Plus lyrics, addresses, band lists, and much, much more! A MINUS

DAVID LINDLEY: El Rayo-X (Asylum) Jackson Browne's sideperson extraordinaire (plays eight instruments and actually sings in French) is an El Lay weirdo like you thought they didn't make anymore (until you remembered Lindsey Buckingham), with a folk-rocking tree surgeon's sense of root systems (country-reggae, as in country-rock) and irony (cf. Ry Cooder). Does only passably by the golden oldies (compare ye golde Everlys, Tempts, Isleys/Beatles), comes up with middling-to-good "originals" (by one Bob "Frizz" Fuller except for the aptly titled "Pay the Man"), and knocks you dead with the obscure covers (cf. Ry Cooder). B PLUS

THE STEVE MILLER BAND: Circle of Love (Capitol) You whippersnappers want catchy pop tunes, this high-tech cornball's got 'em with blues changes--four nifties on side one. You want hypnotic electro-groove, he's got that with blues changes too--eighteen minutes of it, complete with muddled attack on the military-industrial establishment. Both sides offer sound effects at no additional charge, and Steve would like everyone to know that he's been doing this shit since 1968. B

DOLLY PARTON: 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs (RCA Victor) How you respond to this quasi-concept album about (of all things) work, which offers exquisitely sung standards from Mel Tillis, Merle Travis, and (I swear it) Woody Guthrie as well as Parton originals almost as militant as the title hit, depends on your tolerance for fame-game schlock. I'd never claim Johnny Carson's damaged her pipes or her brains, but that doesn't mean I have to like Music City banjos and Las Vegas r&b. B PLUS

PENGUIN CAFE ORCHESTRA (Editions E.G.) Not since Another Green World has ambient music sounded this rich. The big difference is that the instruments are mostly acoustic--Simon Jeffes does count electronic organ and ring modulator among his fourteen, but he runs more toward ukelele and pennywhistle, and the ensemble includes violin, cello, and oboe. The tempos are poky, the playing tender, impulsive, and a bit ragged, and the mood nostalgic--although it's my bet that melodies this minimal were unheard of in fin-de-siècle pop. A MINUS

GIL SCOTT-HERON: Reflections (Arista) "'B' Movie," his smartest political rap ever, is also his first airplay hit since "Angel Dust," maybe because black radio cherishes no expectation of crossing over to Ray-Gun. Hooray. But no less than four cuts--the jazz and reggae tributes as well as the Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye covers--are diminished by the mere serviceability of Scott-Heron's post-Brian Jackson musical conception (execution?), because each invokes the power of music that only becomes truly powerful when it's more than serviceable. That's not to say each of them isn't of service, though. B PLUS

SUGARHILL GANG: 8th Wonder (Sugarhill) Although the Gang harmonize professionally enough to make you wonder what their gig was before they discovered talking, professional is as good as they get, and in the absence of vaguely interesting words the singing tracks are funktional dance music at best. The rap words aren't any more meaningful (this group never had better material than on its first, worst, and biggest single), but their rhythmic significance makes that irrelevant. You've heard of talking drums? Rappers are walking talking drums. B PLUS [Later: B]

TANTRA: The Double Album (Importe/12) Alternate title: The Last Eurodisco Album. Travelogue esoterica, Africanisms to shame Brian Eno, guitarisms to shame Earl Slick, and a chorus of Grace Jones clones singing "Don't really know what to do/I think I'll kill myself." Plus a whole side (or maybe two) of meaningless, enervating throb, the kind of stuff that makes people believe the real Grace Jones is a "peak." Graded leniently for conceptual perversity. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Caveats about live EP ripoffs don't apply to the Gang of Four's Another Day/Another Dollar (Warner Bros.), which adds the militantly dialectical "History's Bunk!" to "To Hell With Poverty"/"Capital (It Fails Us Now)" on one side and debuts in-concert versions of "Cheeseburger" and "What We All Want" on the other. Those who find Solid Gold arid should taste-test these juicy, powerful remakes. Time: 20:01. . . .

A confusing but invaluable reissue project is the Ocean Drive series, which comprises three 24-song double-LPs (with a fourth rumored) of "beach music," fast shuffle r&b oldies that funlovers "shag" (dance) to on the South Atlantic coast. Some of the songs were big hits you may well own, some local breakouts that never went national for a reason, but most fall in between, and I find the light pop-soul of these compilations more interesting than, for instance, either of Stax's postclassic 15 Original Big Hits discs. People who don't own much r&b should start with the Atlantic-dominated Volume I. I prefer III (two long-lost Chairmen of the Board goodies), though those who've always wondered about the Showmen's legendary "It Will Stand" will have to go to II, which also offers the original "Anna" and "Sixty Minute Man." $9.98 from Record Bar, Box 8744, Durham, North Carolina 27707. . . .

While I delve into my growing hardcore collection, two indie singles--R.E.M.'s "Radio Free Europe"/"Sitting Still" (Hi-Tone) and Richard bone's "Digital Days"/"Alien Girl" (Rumble). The R.E.M. is raw pop, folk-rock changes and guitar attack atop punky drums and spirited, incomprehensible vocals. Lacks definition, but damn good. The Bone is one of those whispery dance-synth things I hate except when they're as super-catchy as those sides, with the B funny (and unwhispery) to boot.

Village Voice, Feb. 15, 1982


Jan. 12, 1982 Mar. 9, 1982