Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

It seems to me that it's time for a return to first principles. This thing appears on a page of The Voice once a month and there are presumably readers who haven't quite figured out why--or worse, tell themselves fairy tales about big bad critics and their arrogant compartmentalizations. (Who, me?) My basic assumption is that records are, as the promo men put it, product, and that few of you are rich enough to buy every pretty cover that catches your eye. You hear cuts on the radio, but only the good ones; you hear stuff from friends, but what do they know? And what do I know? Well, I listen to just about every record I receive, most of them many times. Some I like, most I don't; those which get B plus or better down below are those I expect to play again when my weary work is through. Consider this gossip. Findings guaranteed only for me, and not always then. But I'll bet you'll love the Eno if you take a gamble and play it 15 or 20 times, the way I did.


THE STANKY BROWN GROUP: Our Pleasure to Serve You (Sire) You can take the Ozark Mountain Daredevils out of the country, but you can't turn them into the Doobie Brothers. D PLUS

PAUL BUTTERFIELD: Put It in Your Ear (Bearsville) Butter has long since achieved an authentic blues style: the modishly far-out rhythms and textures here are so authentic they recall Jimmy Witherspoon or Bobby Bland casting desperately about for a hit. The bluesman fluffs one ballad and sounds a little strange doing romantic patter, and producer Henry Glover has for some reason set his own "Breadline" amid enough instruments to feed a family of four for six months, but once you conquer your suspicion that this is a disaster it sounds pretty good. I don't hear any hits, though. B [Later: B-]

TED CURSON: Tears for Dolphy (Arista/Freedom) Considering how cheap they are to produce, jazz combo records like this one are shamefully rare, and even when they're tightly conceived and not excessively earthbound (not just Grover Washington but Joe Henderson) or ethereal (not just Mahavishnu but Kenny Wheeler) it's rare yet that they're as melodic, economical, and fraught with small pleasures as this one. B PLUS

ENO: Another Green World (Island) Rather despite myself, I've grown to love most of this arty little collection of static (i.e., nonswinging) synthesizer pieces. Played in background, they all merge into a pattern that tends to calm any lurking Liddite impulses; perceived discretely, each takes on a pleasing shape of its own. Industrialism yes. A MINUS [Later: A+]

FREDDY FENDER: Rock 'n' Country (ABC/Dot) Fender is a wonder of nature--I just wish one of his albums was a wonder of human devising. This is his third LP for ABC in ten months, and like the others it doesn't get the essence of a man who can follow an incandescent country version of "What'd I Say" with an incandescent country version of "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window." That's the parlay that opens side two of Are You Ready for Freddy, his most satisfying side for ABC to date; this is his most satisfying whole LP. His tenor is so penetrating, his Spanish lisp so guileless, that it's a pleasure to hear him sing almost anything, but he doesn't transcend himself as often as seems possible; why, for instance, should "Big Boss Man" work so much better than "Since I Met You Baby"? If only there were someone who knew. B PLUS

MARVIN GAYE: I Want You (Tamla) This isn't as disgraceful as would first appear--as disco-identified mood mewzick for light necking it offers nifty engineering, pleasant harmonies, and the occasional snatch of melody. But as a Marvin Gaye record it's a Leon Ware record. Ware is the producer who cowrote every one of these . . . tunes? segments? . . . cuts (which is more than Marvin can claim). But was it Ware who instructed Marvin to eliminate all depth and power from his voice? I mean, if you're into insisting on sex it's in bad taste to whine about it. C PLUS

THE GREAT TOMPALL AND HIS OUTLAW BAND (MGM) Tompall Glaser's slurred, soft-focus baritone might grow on me, I suppose, but as of now he's one more singing legend I'd rather hear about than hear. A touch too sentimental, a touch too nasty underneath, and whether he's playing Stills to Waylon's Young or Nash to Waylon's Crosby, it's all sour goop to me. C PLUS

AL GREEN: Full of Fire (Hi) Green's hook riffs remain in slight decline--for consistent casual listening this doesn't hold up to his great work. But there are compensations for paying close attention. Last time the mind boggler ("Rhymes") had him improvising nonsense poetry at robbers and other interlopers; this time, on "That's the Way It Is," he assumes the persona of God the Son and makes you love it. After all, visionaries are supposed to be a little crazy, and this man is one of the few we've got. A MINUS [Later]

TOM T. HALL: Faster Horses (Mercury) This is the first decent record by my former favorite country singer-songwriter in three years. Its secret seems to be that he took his time writing the songs--his last new collection was a big nine months ago. High point: "Big Motel on the Mountain." Rock stars are forever reviling motels, their readymade symbol of the impersonal rootlessness of life on the road; Hall obviously tore himself away from the soaps and game shows one day and deduced that the premises supported a life of their own. You think that says anything about the relationship between perceived impersonality and egocentricity? I do. B PLUS [Later]

SYL JOHNSON: Total Explosion (Hi) Johnson has tended to disappear in between Willie Mitchell and Al Green, but on this LP he takes his harmonica up to the microphone and stands clear as a lapsed bluesman. Good move. His voice is still shriller, and more strained than Green's, but that can be a satisfying distinction sometimes, although a comparison of his unexceptionably dynamic rendition of "Take Me to the River" to Green's sublime original renews one's understanding of what divine spark might be. I wish the folks at Hi would let him sing just one Junior Wells song, say, but they've they've done him proud enough. Soul nostalgiacs would be ill-advised to let this pass. B PLUS [Later]

ELLIOTT MURPHY: Street Lights (RCA Victor) This time I can't blame the production--if anything, Steve Katz's understated hard rock and adept background voices lend emotional weight to songs that would otherwise sound hopelessly immature. Murphy's voice has always been callow, but whereas two-and-a-half years ago he came across as a compassionate kid who reached out toward the world as a natural function of this self-discovery, now he sounds like an effete young man who strikes out at the world as a natural function of his self-involvement. The distinction is less than clear-cut, and perhaps too sharp to apply to an artist of such laudable moral ambition, but when he praises someone whose "wounds are open for the sake of art" (ugh! what a line!) you wonder whether he's ever heard the one about the heart and the sleeve. C PLUS [Later]

PABLO CRUISE: Lifeline (A&M) You can take the Doobie Brothers out of the country, but you can't turn them into Three Dog Night. C MINUS

TOM PACHECO: Swallowed Up in the Great American Heartland (RCA Victor) Harry Chapin meets Waylon Jennings and guess who cornholes who. Or: I do too love America, that's why I hate what it's become. Or: this land is your land, this land is my land, from the Armadillo to the Rikers Island. C

THE RED CLAY RAMBLERS: Stolen Love (Flying Fish) Like so many unpretentious and unheard-of string/bluegrass/jug amalgams, this one offers a pleasant but rather slight variation on a familiar musical question, to wit: "Do I really want to hear another version of 'Golden Vanity' just because this time the mate is a she?" They also do Bessie Smith, which is a mistake, and a shape-note hymn, which isn't. Noteworthy for uncovering an antifeminist mountain song from the '20s and for reviving the joyful, rather zany emancipation celebration, "Kingdom Coming," which Peter Stampfel singles out as the first truly American melody. B MINUS

SILVER CONVENTION (Midland International) I hedged last time for fear this group would turn into an annoyance if they got big, but they didn't. Instead they persist as an odd classic, instantly identifiable within a notoriously homogeneous genre, replacing soft disco's characteristic baby-oil flow with an endearingly square herky-jerk. Unfortunately, this collection necessitates a more serious hedge, on grounds of material ("songs" seems to arty a term). They should have borrowed "Lady Bump" and "Big Bad Boy" from Penny McLean, whose bland vocalizing is best buried in the mix, as it is here, rather than showcased on a "solo" album. B MINUS

THE SYLVERS: Showcase (Capitol) Carola thinks they're cuter than the Jackson 5. I think their single is cuter than their album. C

JOHNNIE TAYLOR: Eargasm (Columbia) Taylor is a pro with as solid a commitment to the traditional soul style as any hit artist still active, even when he accedes to material as modish as the likable but lightweight "Disco Lady." But to call him traditional is not entirely a compliment--he lacks the kind of aggressive originality that can take a mediocre hook-and-lyric by the ear and drag it out of oblivion. Which is where too much of this album remains. C PLUS [Later]

RICHARD & LINDA THOMPSON: Pour Down Like Silver (Island) I wish there were an American folk duo that combined such engaging music with such committed intelligence. (The McGarrigles don't count--they're Canadian.) But since neither pessimism nor private poetry guarantees profundity, I also wish these lyrics earned their dourness as persuasively as the music does. Irresistible: "Hard Luck Stories." B PLUS

VAN DER GRAF GENERATOR: Godbluff (Mercury) Inspirational Verse (from Peter--note spelling--Hammill, yet): "Fickle promises of treaty, fatal harbingers of war, futile orisons/swirl as on in the flight, this mad chase,/this surge across the marshy mud landscape/until the meaning is forgotten." D PLUS

BILL WYMAN: Stone Alone (Rolling Stones) In which a unsung hero creates an unsung record, manifesting his delight in the pop, the catchy, and the cute even though he doesn't have the voice, or the vocal cunning, to go with it. The result is ingenious frills with no center, quite likeable and quite forgettable. Alternate title: If Ringo Can Do It . . . C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

RCA Victor has just put out the rock reissue of the year, and I don't mean so far--Elvis's Sun Sessions are (together with Chuck Berry's Golden Decade) the font of the music, and have never before been available in the U.S. on one LP. Bonus: the LP is in mono. Just in time for you to check out the analytic veracity of Greil Marcus's "Presliad" in the paperback edition of Mystery Train (Dutton, $3.50). . . .

Rollermania Hah! Some genius at EMI in England decided to reissue some Beatles singles. There are now six in the British Top 50.

Village Voice, Apr. 26, 1976


Mar. 29, 1976 June 14, 1976