Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

The only future the Consumer Guide claims to predict is its own. That is, I try not to write about records until I'm sure what I think of them--over the short haul of a few months or even years, my response to a record shouldn't change of its own accord. But in 1985 I found myself jumping the gun. I overrated first Richard Thompson, then Goonies, then (I now suspect, still not sure) Joni Mitchell, underrated Mofungo and Jimmy G. Big deal, you may say, but that's not how things are supposed to be done around here, and when I made out my 1985 A list a few weeks ago things got worse: I included a couple of African records that haven't survived closer scrutiny: Ebenezer Obey and Fela's No Agreement are both reviewed below. As compensation, find a juju record I'd completely overlooked and--what's this?--an Amerindie debut.


DELE ABIODUN: Adawa Super Sound (Shanachie) Sunny Adé aside, this is the best-conceived juju album ever released in the U.S. One half is specialty items to engage the untrained ear--dub here, funk there, out harmonies somewhere else, all integrated unobtrusively into the basic weave. The other half is tipico medley, like on a real African juju album, which oddly enough is the first time that self-evident ploy has ever been tried out on the American public. A MINUS

ANGST: Lite Life (SST) These three guys are smart enough to know they have a problem--they can't sing. They're also smart enough not to let that stop them. After declining the Most Inappropriate Cowpunk Band Name Lariat Twirl and qualifying for the Eklekticism Rools Speed Trials, they enter the Music Machine Memorial Songwriting Contest and do all right--you'd swear "Just to Please You" (or was it "Never Going to Apologize"?) was the track that caught you humming on Pebbles VI. B

THE ROBERT CRAY BAND: False Accusations (HighTone) His singing is strong and unadorned, except by his waste-free guitar, but what makes Cray a major artist in an obsolescent style is songs, the sharpest often written by his producers. Not since Moe Bandy was an honest man has anyone laid out the wages of fucking around with such consistent precision. A MINUS [Later]

THE DEL FUEGOS: Boston, Mass. (Slash) This is the story of Dan Zanes--his passion, his pain, his steadfast refusal to hire a synth player. Its real location is Anywhere, U.S.A. "I Still Want You" would make some garage band a nice slow one. B MINUS

FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI: No Agreement (Celluloid) Like all groove artists, Fela benefits mightily from marginal differentiation, which on this 1977 outing with Afrika 70 is provided by the blats, splats, and tuneful snatches of Lester Bowie's trumpet. The 15:36 title side is distinguished from its 15:48 companion by a few minutes of Fela mouthing off and a catchier keystone ostinato. B PLUS

GILBERTO GIL: Human Race/Raça Humana (WEA International) How readily songs breach the language barrier varies inversely with how verbal they are. As engaging as Gil's vocabulary of trills, growls, whoops, keens, and discretionary phonemes may be, he's also a careful wordsmith, and listeners who don't know Portuguese feel an absence unallayed by universalist title or Jamaican rhythm section (though a printed translation might help). Which makes the relative legibility of Um Banda Um all the more miraculous--though it's worth noting that that title sounds like discretionary phonemes to this English speaker. B PLUS

AL GREEN: He Is the Light (A&M) It's not that Al's reunion with Willie Mitchell makes no difference--the difference is fairly striking when you listen for it. What's striking when you think about it, though, is that you have to listen for it. Leroy Hodges's famous bottom keeps the record flowing like none of Green's other Jesus LPs, but it's still songs that make or break--and in this case do neither. B PLUS

CHRIS ISAAK: Silvertone (Warner Bros.) Like his East Coast counterpart Marshall Crenshaw, Isaak comes to his sources as a professional musician, not a bohemian dabbler. This is attractive, only his sources aren't as rich as Crenshaw's, and neither is his talent. Reflective modernized rockabilly played for echoing atmosphere. B

LIFEBOAT (Dolphin) Though one can't help wishing this Boston quartet's popcraft were a little less earnest, its straightforward mechanics have their appeal in a genre pervaded by ingratiating wooziness and glossy manipulation. And so does the thought behind the mechanics--always a pleasure to encounter the term "ruling class" in a song traveling at less than 150 miles per hour. Time: 19:29. A MINUS

THE LOUNGE LIZARDS: Live 79-81 (ROIR cassette) Before they were a mediocre jazz group or a hot fusion band they were a mordant postpunk concept, the avant-Raybeats: Ornette Coleman hires Henry Mancini to score Slaughter on Second Avenue. More than their antiseptic Editions EG album, this captures their raw sleaze, not to mention John Lurie's reptillian embouchure and (on three cuts) Arto Lindsay's cool-defying guitar. B PLUS [Later]

THOMAS MAPFUMO: The Chimurenga Singles 1976-1980 (Meadowlark) If you want to know what revolutionary music might sound like, put aside the translations and just listen. Sounds like regular music, doesn't it? In plain English, Mapfumo's expressive and rhythmic authority are all the meaning you need. And the translations from the Shona suggest other virtues. He has sufficient respect for his listeners' intelligence (and his own life, though he was jailed for a while anyway) to couch his messages in innuendo. And unlike so many African pop stars, he's not afraid to take on traditional wisdom when traditional wisdom is impeding history. A MINUS

THOMAS MAPFUMO: Ndangariro (Carthage) No crib sheets accompany these six circa-1983 tracks, but I gather they're less propagandistic than the wartime output of this rock-influenced Zimbabwean singer turned Mugabe partisan, which given his main man's Shona chauvinism is probably a good thing. What I'm sure is that they generate a ferocious groove--the rhythm guitar attack of Mapfumo's Black Unlimited band never slacks off, maintaining the indomitable uprush of great African pop well past its usual fading point. You think music "transcends" politics? Then get this sucker. A

EBENEZER OBEY: Juju Jubilee (Shanachie) I didn't pay much heed to complaints that this album cheated Nigeria's other big juju star by fading his hot tracks early. After all, juju isn't supposed to begin and end the way mbaqanga or Europop does--songs are designed to segue together for nonstop dancing. And there are notable themes and spectacular sounds throughout. But since they never assert a collective identity, cheating Americans of the wholeness they look for in African music, I have to assume the fades are at least partly at fault. B PLUS

PHEZULU EQHUDENI (Carthage) Pretoria restricted black musicians to "tribal" topics in 1975 just as it does today, so it may be for the best that we can't understand the Zulu lyrics on this classic umbaqanga album: it frees us to concentrate on the content of the music. There's nothing folkloric about the firm yet intricately catchy bass-and-guitar rhythms of the Makgona Tshohle Band--like so many rock-and-rollers before them, these are country people permanently displaced to the city. And if Boer culture has produced a singer with half the intrinsic humor and spirit of Mahlathini, an early exponent of the intensely projected frog-voiced style you hear on so many South African records, I assume he or she is thinking seriously about exile. A MINUS [Later]

THE POGUES: Rum Sodomy and the Lash (Stiff import) Having been left tepid by Irish music from the Chieftains to Clannad, I filed Red Roses for Me after a token try--drumbeats or no drumbeats, I figured it was just beyond me. Wasn't until the last track that I suspected this one might be different, either. "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" comes from Australian folkie Eric Bogle, one of the least commanding singers in any hemisphere you care to name, but its tale of Gallipoli is long as life and wicked as sin and Shane MacGowan never lets go of it for a second: he tests the flavor of each word before spitting it out. I associate this technique with producer Elvis Costello, who probably deserves credit as well for the album's clear, simple musical shape. But none of it would mean much without the songs--some borrowed, some traditional, and some proof that MacGowan can roll out bitter blarney with the best of his role models. Try "The Old Main Drag," about Irish lads tricking, or "The Sick Bed of Cuchulain," about Irish heroes dying. A [Later]

PREFAB SPROUT: Two Wheels Good (Epic) Paddy McAloon is a type we've met many times before--the well-meaning cad. Expressing himself with a grace befitting an intimate of Faron Young and "Georgie" Gershwin, he's sweet enough to come out on the losing side sometimes, but in the end he'll probably "let that lovely creature down," because he can't resist a piece of ass. J.D. Considine calls this music "Steely Dan Lite," which suggests the crucial contribution of producer-sideman Thomas Dolby but misses its pop-folk roots. Reminds me more of the justly obscure, unjustly forgotten Jo Mama--or of Aztec Camera if Roddy Frame were a cad. B PLUS

THE RATTLERS: Rattled! (PVC) Led by Joey's little brother Mitch (Leigh), this is the terrific little pop band the Ramones never convinced anybody they wanted to be. The Ramones' conceptual smarts earned them an aura of significance even when they made like sellouts. The Rattlers are neater--sharp formally and technically, terse and tuff. The KKK didn't take their baby away, just some radioactive mutant, and they cover "I'm in Love With My Walls" as if Lester Bangs wrote it just for them, which he half did. A MINUS

THE RAVE-UPS: Town and Country (Fun Stuff) Near as I can tell, the main thing country-rock does for Jimmy Podrasky is let him sing his songs in a drawl. The drawl doesn't pass--when it comes to Appalachia, Podrasky's native Pittsburgh is close but no corncob pipe. The songs, however, are pretty hip, a credit to Podrasky's lit-major fondness for Dylan and Twain. This being country-rock, they generally take a chugging freight-train rhythm. And Podrasky being a closet popster, they generally have hooks. A MINUS

THE REDUCERS: Cruise to Nowhere (Rave On) Less bracing than the nonstop Let's Go!, with only a few tunes--the miniature ("Fistfight at the Beach") even more than the metaphor ("Cruise to Nowhere") or the final statement ("Sound of Breaking Down")--that bite hard enough to break the skin. But on "Pub Rockin'" they cop to their roots' roots, and you have to be amazed at how good punk was for these guys. They're devoid of Ameriphilia--of Dr. Feelgood's raunchy role-playing or Ducks Deluxe's mud-bottom romanticism. And if they don't write with the panache of Nick Lowe, they sure get to the point faster than Sean Tyla. B PLUS

ZEITGEIST: Translate Slowly (DB) I don't want to alienate my target audience or anything, but I can't contain myself: from their offhandedly opalescent songpoetry to their hints of social commentary to their chiming pop polytechnique to their better-name-than-Angst-at-least-only-these-fools-try-and-live-up-to-it, this is one collegiate band. There's hope, though--if they get picked up by Elektra and break through on a fluke video, they may start writing about cocaine and Holiday Inns. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Those who scanned the lower reaches of my 1985 EP and singles lists may well have spotted items of which they were previoussly unaware--or previously thought I was unaware, anyway. And although almost all of them are marginal in all too typical 1985 fashion, all are worthy of note. . . .

Aaron Neville's Orchid in a Storm (Passport) tells it like it is for a love man who never grabbed his chance. Eschewing the overstated ridiculousness of the Russell Thompkins mode for something a little more classic, he embraces the Penguins, the Moonglows, Johnny Ace, Jerry Butler, Gene & Eunice, and Robert & Johnny, albeit a little wanly. On Good and Gone (Big Beat import), the Screaming Blue Messiahs work the same kind of not fully convincing changes on neogarage rock--it may sound great on college radio, but it seems a little too perfect over the long haul. Dipping deeper into marginalia, we have Undercurrent's Rockin Asunder! (Double Image cassette), by a collegiate band who caught me with their hooks and won me with a song beginning "Aaarghhh, my term paper's not done." Then there's the Psychotics' Mass Insanity Destroying Civilizations (Olive Tree), the sanest piece of punk-funk crazy glue to bridge the ancient cultural gap between straight and bohemian in many a moon. Full Time Men (Coyote) is a pleasantly unkempt three-song collaboration between Fleshtones guitarist Keith Streng, who plays almost everything, and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, who plays guitar. The Descendents' Bonus Fat (New Alliance) adds two forgettable, surprisingly poppish pre-Milo songs and the notable post-Milo "Global Probing" to their great seven-inch 1981 Fat E.P., which you now get a second chance at (so take it). The Nomads' horny version of "She Pays the Rent" (Homestead), which sums up everything the average neogarage band knows about love, will probably beat the Lyres' original onto the neogarage-nostalgia Microchips compilation, due out early in 2001. Texas Instruments' "Queen of Chiba" (on Longhead's More Texas Instruments!) is set for Microchips IV. . . .

Cheech & Chong's "Born in East L.A." (MCA) is the perfect misuse of "Born in the U.S.A.," such an effective antidote to the song's unintentional chauvinist overtones that Springsteen seems to have lent them the melody without hesitating. Fela's circa-1977 "Shufferng and Shmiling," on which the Nigerian political prisoner raps throughout about the limits of God (sometimes in outrageous mock Arabic), has only one drawback: Celluloid is marketing the 12:21-minute song plus 9:47-minute version as an $8.98-list LP. The Special Guests' "Paul Cezanne" (Special Guests) has something I always like in an art-pop band: it's about art (and it's pop, too). Nonfiction's "Dead Into West Virginia"/"Speak the Same to Everyone" (Proud Pork) has something I always like in a roots-rock band (especially with such a name): a gift for narrative. Wiseblood's "Motorslug" (Wax Trax) sounds like a faster version of the song name rather than a more mechanical version of the band name and goes the distance on overdrive. And Trouble Funk's "Still Smokin'" (4th & B'way) gives a kickinger (and more current) account of the go go kings than their Saturday Night Live! From Washington D.C., the live half of an old double-LP originally released on D.E.T.T. . . .

Joel Whitburn's Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits is a $14.95 goldmine of fundamental trivia. Consisting mostly of the chart positions that pros like me have purchased from Whitburn at $10 a pop for years now, it's what I pull down before consulting the annuals, and amateurs (especially amateurs with thoughts of committing their enthusiasms to print) should invest in a copy. For madder trivia hounds: Fred Bronson's Billboard Book of Number One Hits. . . .

Village Voice, Mar. 11, 1986


Jan. 28, 1986 Apr. 1, 1986