Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Rather than indulging my baser self by slamming a Must To Avoid on Let's Active, I've decided to make this second Pazz & Jop cleanup (with yet more to come) another double Pick Hit month. Both albums are imports, both by Americans nevertheless, both likely to get lost in teh rock and roll shuffle without more support than they're likely to get.


LES AMBASSADEURS (Rounder) Though it's billed as "dance music from West Africa" (these folkie labels, anything for a buck), what you notice is more for the ears than the feet--the emotional range of Mali tenor Salif Keita, a far more stirring singer than the renowned Rochereau, and the way Kante Manfila's guitar anchors synth here and horns there. Gorgeous. And if you wonder what Keita's emoting about, read the notes. He doesn't much like war, prefers past leaders to present, hopes the poor man's prayers will be answered but que sera sera, praises not just cops but also informers for combating the drug scourge, and passionately opposes the newfangled practice of men marrying women older than themselves. Oh well. A MINUS

BIRDSONGS OF THE MESOZOIC: Magnetic Flip (Ace of Hearts) I have no idea how hard this music might have been to conceive or execute, and at times I catch it slipping into bombast or soundtrack, but it's definitely good for a nice postmodern version of the kick vintage fusion or art-rock used to provide (very) occasionally. I pigeonholed their EP as atmospheric because it was less directional--and as not loud because I thought Roger Miller really wanted to save his hearing. A MINUS

RUBéN BLADES Y SEIS DEL SOLAR: Buscando America (Elektra) The claim that only racism and lousy promotion denied Blades's Maestra Vida diptych the attention this major label debut has received is half truism and half one-upping guff. Nor do I miss the horns that helped make Siembra, his most renowned Willie Colon collaboration, an international phenomenon. The seven-man rhythm section he sings with here encourages conversational intimacy and renders irrelevant the high romanticism classic soneros drown in and Blades doesn't have the voice for. It also accents the narrative details which Blades the writer provides in such abundance. Nor must you know Spanish (or follow the crib sheet) to enjoy his rhythmic, melodic, and dramatic subtleties--they're right there in the music. Which vagues out only once--behind the pious generalities of the eight-minute title track. A MINUS

THE BUTTHOLE SURFERS: Live Pcppep (Alternative Tentacles) At first I detected an emotional power signifying something more than an arty posthardcore band whose outrageousness was truly original. But soon I noticed that one of the three new songs--striking statistic in a band whose recorded output comprises two longish EPs--was a noise interlude. So now I'm wondering whether they mightn't be an original posthardcore band whose outrageousness is truly arty, or whose emotional power is truly a fake. Oh well--at least they'll evolve toward big-beat no wave (performance art?) rather than heavy metal. [Original grade: A minus] B

JOE "KING" CARRASCO & THE CROWNS: Bordertown (Big Beat) Problem with King's pared-down Tex-Mex party-up has always been that it leaves him nowhere to go--got away with baroque jokes for an elpee, but when he tried to pop it up he schlocked it up. Yet now he comes bursting out of his dead end with his spunkiest music ever, and the secret--I didn't believe it either--is politics. "Who Buy the Guns?" ("That kill the nuns yea yeah") and "Cucaracha Taco" ("When they drop el bomb on everyone") are only the most successful experiments on an album that manages to be silly/cautionary and harmless/seditious as well as hedonistic/humanistic and stoopid/smart. A MINUS

JACK DEJOHNETTE'S SPECIAL EDITION: Album Album (ECM) Like so many of the best-liked new jazz albums, this one pays heartfelt respects to the carnivalesque--if you really wanted to, you could dance to it. But you'd probably rather listen, because at the same time it's highly composed, often dividing tunes into several distinct sections, and superbly played--John Purcell and Howard Johnson damn near keep up with master saxophonist David Murray. And beneath it all, tipping the balance between rowdy and civilized, is a Manfred Eicher mix that makes the record sit more like chamber music than DeJohnette could possibly have intended. A MINUS

THE EVERLY BROTHERS: EB 84 (Mercury) They're singing as good as ever, but not the same as ever--with the harmonies more luxurious and soulful, they can finally pass for grown men as they approach fifty. Unfortunately, maturity doesn't suit them any better than Dave Edmunds's lacquered, interpretation-enhancing production, because mature interpretation will never be their forte. They may sound like grown men and they may sound soulful, but that doesn't mean they sound like soulful grown men--a certain emotional complexity eludes them. Of all these hand-tailored comeback-special songs, only Paul Kennerly's "The First in Line" and Don's own "Asleep" are simple enough to fit. C PLUS

THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS (Warner Bros.) Gospel music without Jesus? Sounds like heaven on earth, doesn't it? Well, though I feel like a sorehead saying so, the formalization of ritual in both Greek drama and choral gospel can be a little distancing in its grandeur, or maybe grand in its distancing. That's probably just what Lee Breuer and Bob Telson want, but I'm greedy enough to prefer my pleasures and my truths a little more direct, as in the Thom Bell rip, or every time Clarence Fountain steps up front--especially on "Stop Do Not Go On," which has a hook. B PLUS

GEORGE JONES: You've Still Got a Place in My Heart (Epic) This not-great George Jones record should reassure anybody who was worried he'd never make another decent one without hitting the bottle again. First side leads off with messages to wives of various periods, second with a Jones-penned chestnut that happens to be the title of his new bio, a great pseudofolksong (or maybe it's real, which is what makes it great), and a very cheerful explanation of why he'll never hit the bottle again. We believe you, George. B

RICKIE LEE JONES: The Magazine (Warner Bros.) I'm glad for her sake that she's taken the beatnik indulgences out of her life, but they're not gone from her work. A mediocre poet is one whose imagery doesn't tempt you to figure out what he or she is saying. Even when he or she is backed up by studio musicians who hang upon his or her every word. Real song: "The Real Thing." B MINUS

CHAKA KHAN: I Feel for You (Warner Bros.) Physically, her voice is as splendid as the rest of her, and as usual she's coasting on it, A classic single for the second year in a row and almost all the musical interest (as opposed to attraction) on the album-of-the-same-name is provided by John Robie, Melle Mel, etc. Feel for her? C PLUS

THE LEAVING TRAINS: Well Down Blue Highway (Enigma) Side one does honor to the straight (nonhippie/nonhardcore/nonbiz) bohemianism of X, the Gun Club, and Chris D. Cruder and sloppier than X, as you'd guess if not hope, and a lot less pretentious than the other two, with songs that stay with you long enough to make you ponder Falling James's unhistrionic take on impending doom. That's side one. Side two is neopsychedelic drone. B

LET'S ACTIVE: Cypress (I.R.S.) If only they'd had twenty-four-track consoles in the '60s, maybe Byrds albums would sound as great as their legend. And if only Mitch Easter had something to say, maybe Let's Active albums would sound as great as Byrds albums--although even Michael Clarke provided more forward motion than this. C PLUS

DAVID MURRAY: Morning Song (Black Saint) No concept here, and not much composition. Just three days in the studio with John Hicks, Reggie Workman, and Ed Blackwell, and not until the 11-minute version of Murray's only ordinary tune does it descend to the high level of convention you'd expect of such personnel. Murray ranges from terrific to transcendent (on Butch Morris's frenzied "Light Blue Frolic"), and during one passage Hicks turns into Cecil Taylor without surrendering any of his Hicksness. "Jitterbug Waltz" is the closest this comes to carnivalesque, but its driving swing and aural warmth should be all the body language you need. A MINUS

JOHN PRINE: Aimless Love (Oh Boy) Prine's reappearance on his own label suggests that the reasons for his absence were more corporate than personal. The songs suggest that he's not reading True Love on the back cover for solace or satire. Only "The Bottomless Lake," copyrighted in 1977, falls into his wild-ass whimsy mode, and only the musically retiring "Maureen, Maureen" gets any more acerbic than that. B PLUS

THE REDUCERS: Let's Go! (Rave On) Suspiciously generic though they may seem, nobody can name the genre--the attack of speed boys like the Vibrators yoked to a Stonesish but very American "honky imitation of the blues." You know, rock and roll like you dream about it. Their cross-class sniping isn't as sharp as their what-the-fuck-are-we-doing-in-New-London? because no matter how you strip them down and speed them up, blues and country sources still put a premium on personal expressiveness. Thus the Reducers' satire is straightforward rather than deadpan, their anger their own. For cartoony affectlessness they substitute contained, rapid-fire soul; for chordal roar, licks and even quick, clipped, vaguely Claptonesque solos; for ur-pop hooks, a honky imitation of the blues. A MINUS

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Essar (Tamla) The one about how much he wants to get next to a young thing who's been almost family since she was a baby is as convincing as "Shop Around." But with Smokey convincing doesn't necessarily have anything to do with factual. Which is the only reason "And I Don't Love You" (who else would begin a song "The whippoorwill--whippoor won't"?), "Gone Forever," and the agonizing "I Can't Find" don't have me worried (much) about him and Claudette. Sure there's filler, some of it written by Essar himself--he would try and get away with "Close Encounters of the First Kind" in 1984. But one thing you can say about Smokey's filler that you can't say about anybody else's--Smokey's singing it. B PLUS

CHRIS SMITHER: It Ain't Easy (Adelphi) Unless you're a genius on the order of John Hurt, who's remembered in a medley here, it's damn hard to make a consistently interesting album out of your voice and an acoustic guitar. Smither comes within a dud original and a few extraneous covers of bring it off, and they're all on side one. Overdisc the two originals are for real and the way he wraps his voice and fingers around "Maybelline" and "Glory of Love" makes them sound not brand new but old as truth. B PLUS

STAPLE SINGERS: Turning Point (Private I) This is indeed a spiritual return to their commercial heyday on Stax a decade-plus ago, which for those who don't remember was sometimes clumsily (sometimes even comically) uneven in tone and achievement. "That's What Friends Are For" is a sermon that'll keep you awake, but "Bridges Instead of Walls" would tempt the marginally pious to play pocket pool or peruse the weekly bulletin. And Mavis is more convincing as David Byrne than as Millie Jackson. B

WHODINI: Escape (Jive) Like all aspiring popmeisters, producer Larry Smith and head rapper Jalil Hutchins turn out ingratiating variations on a formula. Fortunately, the formula isn't tired yet--it was a great singing synth riff that put "Haunted House of Rock" over, not the novelty concept. Even the putative follow-up "Freaks Come Out at Night," dumber lyrically than "Escape" and "Friends" and dumber musically than the irresistible "Five Minutes of Funk," is five minutes of fun. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Sure I'm a fan of U.T.F.O.'s "Roxanne, Roxanne" (Select), but I'm simply crazy about Roxanne Shanté's "Roxanne's Revenge" (Pop Art), as great a piece of naive rock and roll as "The Loco-Motion" or "Angel Baby." And without going into all the rival versions, I'll swear you can't go wrong with the original mixup of "Set It Off," by Strafe (Just Born), as great a piece of left-field street music as "Heartbeat" or "Beat Bop," and no, it doesn't sound remotely like either, or like anything else you can think of.

Village Voice, Feb. 26, 1985


Feb. 5, 1985 Mar. 19, 1985