Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

This gets harder and harder--late March, the postholiday drought been and gone, and I feel like I'll never catch up with all the interesting albums out there, which I won't as long as all the new little (and big old) companies keep putting them out. I said interesting, notice, in tribute to which distinction I offer one of my periodic within-B-plus guides. In descending order: Buckingham, Isaacs, Replacements, Parsons, Pistons, Jackson, Lowe, Jankel.


LOU ANN BARTON: Old Enough (Antone's) She's got a fine little instrument, like a nubile Bonnie Bramlett--the drawl pure cracker, the pitch and rhythm deep blue. But what she's selling with it is tractability. For Glenn Frey she poses as a flapper in the age of Deep Throat, for Jerry Wexler she sings good old songs in good old Muscle Shoals. Sincerely in both cases I'm sure, which makes things worse. C PLUS

THE B-52'S: Mesopotamia (Warner Bros.) For a while I was afraid they were going to get encrusted in their own snot, but they really are an ordinary dance band from Athens, Georgia, which turns out to be no ordinary thing. David Byrne isn't the secret, just the secret ingredient--one more semipopulist with his own bag of tricks, like fellow ingredient Ralph Carney except his bag's bigger. A "party" record that never invokes that pooped word, this six-cut mini lists for $5.98, as good a deal as onion dip. A MINUS

GLENN BRANCA: The Ascension (99) Okay, so he makes hot "experimental" ("serious") ("classical") ("new") music. What we wanna know is whether it's cool rock and roll ("rock"). Not by me. It's great sonically, with ringing overtones that remind me of a carillon or the Byrds, but the beat's overstated and the sense of structure (i.e. climax) mired in nineteenth-century corn. This can be endearing in Pete Townshend or Bruce Springsteen (maybe even opera), but it sounds weak-minded in an artist of such otherwise austere means. B

LINDSAY BUCKINGHAM: Law and Order (Asylum) This fluent, affluent rumination on the price of sin and the wages of success really isn't how they do it in L.A. anymore, which must be why I had such a hassle getting a handle on it. Moral signposts are provided by the covers: rock and roll "It Was I" (love is painful), pop "September Song" (and the most precious thing there is), country "A Satisfied Mind" (so be thankful for what you've got). Now if only Lindsey didn't spend so much time flexing his archness, all this might be perceptible to the naked ear. B PLUS

HUMAN LEAGUE: Dare (A&M) It's not flesh-and-blood chauvinism that puts me off Britannia's hookiest dance-synth monster. I'll boogie to the right machine; I can even imagine fucking a cyborg. But while the cyborg of my dreams would keep it light, not act too impressed with the tricks stored in his/her memory, League spokesman Philip Oakey comes on like three kinds of pompous jerk. The only time I light up is when Susanne Sulley takes her verse on "Don't You Want Me," which I recommend to Quarterflash. B MINUS

ALBERTA HUNTER: The Glory of Alberta Hunter (Columbia) It's a given that octogenarians like Sam Chatmon, Eubie Blake, even George Burns have more vitality than just about any singing war baby you care to name--they prove that by breathing. But life-begins-at-eighty isn't really Hunter's secret, except insofar as it deepens her wisdom, which isn't a given at all. It's not like Bessie Smith raising her voice among us, because Hunter is less titanic. But she spins her blues and gospel and pop with the spontaneous affection not just of somebody who never knew there was a difference between art and entertainment but of somebody who had the heart to leave show business and work as a nurse for twenty-three years. Her raunch ("You Can't Tell the Difference After Dark") is as unforced as her love of God ("Ezekiel Saw the Wheel") and her female indomitability ("I've Had Enough"), and her band plays even better than she sings. A MINUS

GREGORY ISAACS: Best of Gregory Isaacs Volume 2 (GG) Jamaica's reigning crooner is what people mean when they say reggae all sounds the same. Like most great popsters, he has a genius for the disarmingly memorable ditty, but initially he makes Shoes or the Ramones sound like a veritable smorgasbord. And while James Brown is an apter analogy, Brown's rhythmic attack is just that--vocally and instrumentally, he aims to get you up on one leg doing splits, while Isaacs and his band favor the skank, that metasexual trance best described as trucking in place. Me, I think he's kind of great. Prolonged exposure to this collection of mostly recut hits reveals his hooks at their semiglossiest, his usually romantic lyrics at their dreadest, his rhythm players at their trickiest, and his cool, drooning baritone at its most plaintive and hypnotic. A MINUS

GREGORY ISAACS: More Gregory (Mango) All Gregory Isaacs songs sound the same, but some of them sound more the same than others, and for a long time I was ready to relegate his best-distributed LP to the Land of Nod. Turns out there isn't a bad track on side one, though I don't guarantee any great ones. And don't forget side two. B PLUS

MILLIE JACKSON: Live and Outrageous (Spring) Because her dirty mouth is more purely a shock effect than most pop concepts, it's sure to lose its zing for the audience even if Millie stays interested, which according to her last few studio albums she hasn't. But this one-volume follow-up to 1979's live double is also a de facto best-of, claiming the pop classic "This Is It" from Kenny Loggins and the pop throwaway "Passion" from Rod Stewart as well as preserving for posterity at least one rap that makes me squirm, and I don't squirm easy. B PLUS

CHAS JANKEL: Questionnaire (A&M) Eight cuts designed for dancing by Ian Dury's departed keyboard genie, with Dury-penned rhymes that beat Lord Upminster's and sweetly anonymous treated vocals by the auteur. Whenever I play it I forget it, and whenever I conclude that therefore it's worth a B my conscience twitches. I suspect that if I was dancing more these days this predicament would disappear. B PLUS [Later: B]

NICK LOWE: Nick the Knife (Columbia) He's shed one guitar player and no hooks and as a man he's probably better for it: his cool seems more casual, his lust more committed. But the music is tossed off with what sounds like indolence rather than charm, and since Billy Bremner and Terry Williams are still on hand it would be too pat to claim he needs a real band. Hard to make that casual commitment sing, I guess. B PLUS

RITA MARLEY: Who Feels It Knows It (Shanachie) The first analogy is Alice Coltrane, who also trivializes a faith her husband brought miraculously and paradoxically alive with simple-minded music, but though it's just as well Rita doesn't play the harp, Merry Clayton and Patti Austin are more to the point: beware of backup singers' solo albums, no matter how surefire the single or committed the session men. C PLUS

VAN MORRISON: Beautiful Vision (Warner Bros.) After a period of transition, Van has finally achieved the eternal Kansas City--this music is purely gorgeous (or at times lovely), its pleasure all formal grace and aptness of invention. Only "Cleaning Windows," a cheerful, visionary, deeply eccentric song about class and faith and culture, stands among his great tunes. But every one of these songs makes itself felt as an individual piece of music. And every one fits into the whole. A [Later: A-]

GRAM PARSONS AND THE FALLEN ANGELS: Live 1973 (Sierra) I don't know why it took eight years, but after several botches on A&M here it is, a satisfying live-posthumous from the inventor of country-rock, for which he is not to blame. All five A-songs are more forceful on GP, but these versions (recorded in downhome Hempstead, Long Island) have a grace and lightness that for once show off the advantages of folkie roots, as does the new stuff on side two. Emmylou fills her appointed role, N.D. Smart II keeps things moving smartly, and a good time is had by all. B PLUS

PHASES OF THE MOON: TRADITIONAL CHINESE MUSIC (Columbia) Blessed with neither roots nor technical insight, I come to this 58-minute collection of 11 subtle, surprising instrumental pieces--most of folk origin, though three are postrevolutionary and one "a treasure of Chinese classical music"--as a sublime novelty record. That is, I get off on its strangeness, and why not? Though the mood is quiet the total effect is far from ambient, not just because things do get loud at times but because most of these melodies are instantly arresting. They don't repeat as insistently as Western folk tunes do, either. At times I wonder if I'm back in sixth grade memorizing "Minuet in G" and "Hall of the Mountain King" for Mrs. Tully, and I find that the thing can grate if I start playing it two or three times a day. But why do I keep putting it on? What a trip. A

THE PISTONS: Flight 581 (Twin/Tone) There's nothing especially forbidding or avant about these six Minneapolis boys, but chances are they'll never get to Milwaukee and not for lack of talent, though they could use a singer. It's just that they're obviously in it for the art. This is generic rock and roll for the sheer formal pleasure of it--now pop, now punk, now Stones, now nice, now nasty, usually nasty. B PLUS

THE REPLACEMENTS: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (Twin/Tone) A non-quite-hardcore Twin Cities quartet who sound like the Heartbreakers might have if they'd started young and never seen Union Square: noisy, disgruntled, lovable. I mean, with liner notes like "this could have come close to rock-a-billy if we had taken the time," "stole a mess of these words from a guy who's never gonna listen to this record," and "written 20 mins after we recorded it," how bad could they be? Yeah, I know, pretty bad, and anyway, how good could they be? Hearing is believing. Inspirational Verse: "I hate music/It's got too many notes." B PLUS

THE ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA: Hooked on Classics (RCA Victor) I always knew English art-rock would be good for something eventually, and voilà--on one disc the Phils have woven together (well, maybe "strung" would be more accurate) no fewer than one hundred three melodies that have stood the test of time, every one a milestone of European culture. At long last the three Bs get to roll back over on Chuck Berry--there are more catchy tunes here than on a Beatle Weekend. And though I admit that the segue from "Stranger in Paradise" to "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!" is a little abrupt for my tastes, I figure that's the kind of avant-garde épatement that's always made modern art so exciting. Who's in that rhythm section?! And are you listening, Glenn Branca?! B

SKYY: Skyyline (Salsoul) Catchy and functional, but the funny voices don't know any jokes and the lady who sings the hit is about to fuck her girlfriend over. In short beyond the reggae and the kazoos it's neither adventurous nor ingratiating--just catchy and functional. B MINUS

SWOLLEN MONKEYS: Afterbirth of the Cool (Cachalot) I've been a fan of the irrepressible Ralph Carney since Tin Huey, but he doesn't have a bandleader's sense of purpose. Moderately entertaining on stage with its four or five horns and almost as many clever lyrics, his polka-to-salsa "world rhythms" outfit comes perilously close to mess on record, where you can't see how unpretentious their highjinks are. If sidemen are gonna goof around, better they should be smart, nice sidemen. But not that much better. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

I plead not guilty of nostalgia and ennui when I report that my real discoveries (and most-played albums) of the month were recorded in 1955-57 and 1927-34 respectively. Nappy Brown has one side of an otherwise ordinary 1980 Savoy twofer called The Shouters. Shouting and groaning in two distinct voices, fronting swinging rock and roll bands that feature the likes of Budd Johnson (also on the new Albert Hunter) and Panama Francis, his only competition among '50s r&b men is Joe Turner and Roy Brown, and he's more rhythmically ebullient than either. The Memphis Jug Band have an eponymous 27-cut double on Yazoo. (Only) knee deep in the blues, with Jab Jones and others breathing life into their rhythms and mastermind Will Slade adding stolen rags to their repertoire, they may just be the first pop group. . . .

In Memoriam: This brand new Additional Consumer News feature will attempt to mitigate the overload mentioned in the intro. For the debut, a list and a quiz: what three things do the following albums have in common? Bruce Cockburn: Inner City Front (Millennium); Jody Harris/Robert Quine: Escape (Infidelity); Human Sexual Response: In a Roman Mood (Passport); Grace Jones: Nightclubbing (Island); Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (Warner Bros.); Stevie Nicks: Bella Donna (Modern); Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Hard Promises (Backstreet); Iggy Pop: Party (Arista); The Swimming Pool Q's: The Deep End (DB); U2: October (Island); Was (Not Was) (Island/ZE). Answer: one, they're well-respected; two, I've never explained why they don't ring my chimes; three, I never will. . . .

Lots of action on the funk front, which now includes almost all black music except the most shameless treacle (and even some of that if you count Kool and the Commodores). Here are my fave 12-inches, and I don't hear 'em all. In pop, Cheri's "Murphy's Law" (Venture) is "Do It Again" (Steely Dan, remember?) with cartoon gotcha-back glee replacing post-Freudian inwit; "D" Train's "You're the One for Me" (Prelude) builds from easy licks to a choirlike embodiment of the power of love-and-funk. I admit to preferring Mel Brooks's subtly subversive "It's Good to Be a King" (WMOT)--track, backing, vocal content of rap, even execution of rap--to Sylvia's "It's Good to Be a Queen" (Sugarhill), a charmingly self-serving corporation-as-genre history; I also admit to liking both just fine. The Treacherous Three's "Put the Boogie in the Body" (Enjoy) returns them to theme and groove of their deep-deeper-deepest "Body Rock"; Trouble Funk's wonderful "Hey Fellas" (Sugarhill), what the folks in Chocolate City have been screaming about, uses "backstabbers" as a compliment (oh that naive, unironic street culture). I prefer both (I think) to Grandmaster Glash's more experimental "Flash to the Beat" (Sugarhill). This month's funk Pick Hit is the Peech Boys' "Don't Make Me Wait" (West End), whose time balance of computerized noise and human voices will come to be understood in Soho East and Soho West long about 1986. Finally, two genuine Thang byproducts: Xavier's George-and-Bootsy-aided "Work That Sucker to Death" (Liberty), a giggle that whomps and the P-Funk All Stars' Sly-aided "Hydraulic Pump," as monomaniacal as anything they've ever done, which isn't entirely a plus. . . .

Despite worthy sides from Steel Tips, China Shop, and Joe "King" C., the only EP that's been giving me my minutes' worth is Luxury's EP #1 (Angry Young), six sharp, disorienting pop songs from Rick Swan, with the choicer (and more dangerous) ones on side two. . . .

Finally, a few singles, the first seven-inchers to do it to me in quite some time, with more in the wings. Flipper's "Sex Bomb"/"Brainwashed" (Subterranean) is two big juicy chords worth of medium tempo hardcore hynosis-dementia (great sound effects) b/w another song begun and abandoned a dozen times and then left to skip in the middle until you push reject. "So Good to Be in Love"/"Neurotic" (Micatube) is an affected, witty, danceable double A side from the well-named Pop Stress, the first white band to get away with the word "mojo" since Paul Butterfield had a crew cut. The Dragons' "Anarchy in the U.K." (Blitzkreig import), "by (par) No 1 punk ensemble from (de) Canton (Chine)," is the most anarchic version yet--except for the first line, the lyrics are groaned or hummed. There's also an LP, mostly non-covers by a guitar-violin-drums ensemble who sound like It's a Beautiful Day gone no wave, all recorded in two clandestine hours by the same French pioneer/hustler who went in and begged the B side, Kryzys & Deadlock's "I'm on the Top," heavy reggae "by (par) No 1 punk ensembles from (de) Gdansk Warszawa (Polska)." No, I'm not making any of this up, though the pioneer/hustler may be, and yes, I love the single, not least because the Dragons sound like they think anarchy has something to do with gangster movies. Another highly recommended bid for notoriety is Anti-Nowhere League's cheerful, scabrous, utterly lumpish "So What?" (WXYZ import), the banned-in-Britain B side of their laff riot remake of Ralph McTell's "Streets of London." Sad to say, the American release, on Faulty Products, is extended half to death with two oithy heavy punk originals. . . .

After giving Rita Marley what for, I'm happy to add that the 12-inch of "One Draw" (Shanachie), the dope goof that's the album's one notable song, is enhanced by a comic toasting break in which Rita plays--hmm--a schoolmarm.

Village Voice, Apr. 13, 1982


Mar. 9, 1982 May 4, 1982