Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Two Pick Hits [Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Minutemen] for the third month in a row, and this time I'm looking about rather than catching up: I already have three albums ready for this year's top 10. Granted, all three came out in 1985--Rum Sodomy and the Lash (due for U.S. release) and The Indestructible Beat of Soweto in Britain, the Minutemen between Christmas and New Year's. But like I was saying, years are arbitrary; what matters (especially adding Pere Ubu and the Jesus and Mary Chain, neither remotely marginal by my reckoning) is new stuff to listen to. If only it were more generously capitalized.


A DIAMOND HIDDEN IN THE MOUTH OF A CORPSE (Giorno Poetry Systems) I've always felt guilty about ignoring Giorno's self-promotions, which combine name avant-rockers with name artist-artists, so when this one led off with Hüsker Dü and David Jo I listened forthwith. And found myself returning--to hear Giorno and his buddy Bill Burroughs. The bait is perfectly okay. But compilations are usually less than the sum of their parts anyway, and I don't get the feeling Giorno's rock allies save their best songs for him. Giorno himself, on the other hand, is making a pop move. And Burroughs knows he's the star of both shows. B

KATE BUSH: Hounds of Love (EMI America) Just as her music says she hopes everyone does, I respect and like this woman. Though it's tempting to slot her with Laura Nyro, you never get the sense she's a fool--she's more circa-Hejira Joni Mitchell. Her best songs can't match their best, but sonically she's magnificent, out-stripping her art-rock mentors, and it would be churlish to deny her to audiophiles and/or young women seeking independent role models. Nevertheless, to be a Romantic with a capital R in 1986 is to be a Victorian like Tennyson, who provides Bush her epigraph. It is deliberately to cultivate a sensibility whose time you know perfectly well has passed. B

CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: Telphone Free Landslide Victory (Independent Project) Some believe "Take the Skinheads Bowling" makes these pranksters a one-joke band, but there are loads of jokes in that song alone, most of which they don't bother to tell--for instance, do you bowl with the skinheads or with the skinheads' heads? So count them a seventeen-joke band, one for each cut, including instrumentals. If only Brave Combo could relax like this, the world might yet dance (and fall all over itself) to world dance music. Existential indecision lives. A MINUS

THE CELIBATE RIFLES: Quintessentially Yours (What Goes On) All right, they do lash out with a nice, nasty buzz--reminds me of those long-lost speed boys the Vibrators. But no pretenders who take most of their 1985 Yank debut from their 1983 Aussie debut and none of it from the follow-up are getting any rock and roll future awards from me. B PLUS

OTIS CLAY: Soul Man--Live in Japan (Rooster Blues) Clay is obviously no Al Green. He's no Syl Johnson either. He's not even O.V. Wright. He's not James Carr or Howard Tate or Jimmy Lewis or Benny Latimore or McKinley Mitchell or Z.Z. Hill. Having never cracked the r&b top twenty, he made one half decent album for Hi in 1973, and his broad delivery has gained no discernible acuity since. In short, he's a journeyman, and no matter what adoring Japanese innocents think, he's dull and overstated both. I know he's got Hi Rhythm behind him, but would you buy an Eddie Floyd album for Booker T. & the M.G.s--especially with Teenie Hodges taking an endless organ solo? Those whose answer to the above question is a proud yes are making this an exhibit in their Soul Forever campaign. I say it's evidence for the opposition. C PLUS

ALBERT COLLINS/ROBERT CRAY/JOHNNY COPELAND: Showdown! (Alligator) Collins gets top billing not just because he's Alligator's man but because this is his album. He takes a solo on all nine cuts where Cray and Copeland are vouchsafed a total of seven, and shares vocals about equally with his costars, both of whom cut him. Not that they're trying--if they were, this would live up to its title. As it is, whether the problem's will or conception or ability, you'll get more fireworks from Lonnie Mack w/Stevie Ray Vaughan. B

FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS (I.R.S.) Andy Cox and David Steele aren't quite up to Beat-quality tunes or the post-Caribbean funk that might compensate, and some will find Roland Gift's Brit-soul strain affected. Me, I knew he was singing about something real long before I checked out the lyrics, which testify as does all too little black crossover these days to an ordinary life of hard choices--a lot harder than whether to believe that woman, which rest assured does enter into it. B PLUS

JUSTIN HINDS AND THE DOMINOES: Travel With Love (Nighthawk) Conservative rhythmically and conventional lyrically, this is the reggae equivalent of Otis Clay-style soul, yet it'll come this close to getting you: the style is so modest that the singer has no trouble burnishing up the requisite patina of sweet belief. B

HOODOO GURUS: Mars Needs Guitars! (Big Time) This is tuneful enough if you give it more of a chance than it deserves, but it's no fun because it's not funny. Without a few sly laughs they're just a macho pop band, which is less than you can say of the Fleshtones, the Nomads, presplit Squeeze, or prime Mental as Anything, to name just four. B MINUS

THE INDESTRUCTIBLE BEAT OF SOWETO (Shanachie) At once more hectically urban-upbeat and more respectfully tribal-melodic than its jazzy and folky predecessors, marabi and kwela, the mbaqanga this compilation celebrates is an awesome cultural achievement. It confronts rural-urban contradictions far more painful and politically fraught than any Memphis or Chicago migration, and thwarts apartheid's determination to deny blacks not just a reasonable living but a meaningful identity. Like all South African music it emphasizes voices, notably that of the seminal "goat-voiced" "groaner" Mahlathini, who in 1983 took his deep, penetrating sung roar, which seems to filter sound that begins in his diaphragm through a special resonator in his larynx, back to the studio with the original Mahotella Queens and the reconstituted Makgona Tsohle Band. But with Marks Mankwane's sourcebook of guitar riffs hooking each number and Joseph Makwela's unshakable bass leading the groove rather than stirring it up reggae-style, it's also about a beat forthright enough to grab Americans yet more elaborate than the r&b it evokes. The defiantly resilient and unsentimental exuberance of these musicians has to be fully absorbed before it can be believed, much less understood. They couldn't be more into it if they were inventing rock and roll. And as a final benison, there's a hymn from Ladysmith Black Mambazo. [Original grade: A] A PLUS

THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN: Psychocandy (Reprise) Pistols comparisons are Anglocentrism--from fuzzy vocals to minimalist tunes, from hard-and-fast surface to sweet-and-chewy center, the formal coups that have made this such a sensation are pure Ramones. My favorite parts are the cheapest; when the feedback wells up over the chords in perfect pseudomelodic formation I feel as if I've been waiting to hear this music all my life. And when the fuzzy lyrics hint half-decipherably at a luxuriant doom impervious to democratic device, I worry that maybe Ian Curtis knew more than I gave him credit for. A MINUS

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: Ulwandle Oluncgwele (Shanachie) How does one distinguish between this album of a cappella Zulu gospel music and the other album of a cappella Zulu gospel music available in discriminating record stores? Well, this one came out first back home, which may mean it's purer and may mean it's less advanced and probably means nothing. On this one, they wear choir robes instead of tribal garb and say amen and hallelujah, which may be why it's not as much fun. The easiest way to tell them apart, though, is that the other one is called Induku Zethu. Write it down. They're both pretty good, believe me. A MINUS

RICHARD LLOYD: Field of Fire (Mistiur) In crucial ways he predates punk, and formally this is more Warren Zevon or Tom Petty than Tom Verlaine. What makes it go isn't songwriting--please, kids, never ever rhyme "fire" and "funeral pyre." It's Lloyd's concentration, plus of course his guitar, which I'll take over Mike Campbell's or even Waddy Wachtel's nine tries out of ten. B PLUS

MINUTEMEN: 3-Way Tie (for Last) (SST) Since their uncompromising reach always exceeded their fairly amazing grasp, I tried to cut myself a little critical distance in the wake of a rock death that for wasted potential has Lennon and Hendrix for company. Sure they never sounded better, I said, but they're still a little naive here and conceptual there. Only that wasn't distance--it was denial. D. Boon's singing, writing, and playing here are all infused with a new lyrical lift that adds unexpected buoyancy to a band that was generous at its most cynical and confused, and as a result their zigzag rhythms and interesting conceptualisms get the songful relief they need. After seven fairly amazing years he was just getting started. Shit, shit, shit. A

PERE UBU: Terminal Tower: An Archival Collection (Twin/Tone) Side one is the long unavailable Datapanik in the Year Zero EP, itself comprising two indie singles and a compilation cut and as powerful a sequence as side one of Dub Housing nevertheless. Side two collects the kind of oddments that rarely cohere on LP, yet here the outtakes and B sides and stray singles come together as a record of David Thomas's slide or progress from willed optimism to blessed whimsy. In short, this is a gift from God--a third Ubu album from the former Crocus Behemoth's pre-God period. A MINUS

JANE SIBERRY: No Borders Here (Open Air) "Canada's most critically acclaimed new artist" says the sticker, but you know Canadians--they lose their heads when a native evinces the merest soupcon of originality. She's even been compared to Laurie Anderson, I guess because she's abstract sometimes. I'll say. How thoroughly she's transcended what I'm sure was a careful upbringing is summed up in a statement of aesthetic principle that I swear is unsullied by the tiniest smudge of irony: "Symmetry is the way things have to be." B MINUS

SIMPLE MINDS: Once Upon a Time (A&M) Pittsburgh DJ in Billboard: "The term `superstar' is used too loosely. Simple Minds are a superstar to [A&M's] Charlie Minor, but a lot of my listeners have never heard of them." That's how bad things are, and that's not the half of it. Because you know damn well Charlie Minor thinks Simple Minds are "artists," too. B MINUS

TELEVISION'S GREATEST HITS (TVT) Ignorant of (not altogether uninterested in) television and resistant to (not dead set against) camp, I didn't think this collection of sixty-five TV-show themes would get to me, and I'm happy to report I was wrong. I mean, total immunity to such a document would be counterproductive, like total immunity to Ronald Reagan; you fight the power better if you feel it sometimes. Not that anything so grave is involved here--just corn and cuteness so concentrated they make your teeth hurt. You get plot summaries and program music, jingle singers and cartoon characters, pseudocountry and pseudoclassical. Also great tunes (dja know Gounod wrote the Hitchcock theme?), memories you didn't know you had, memories you didn't have, and Don Pardo for continuity. Love it or leave it. B PLUS

RICHARD THOMPSON: (Guitar, Vocal) (Carthage) Thompson was once the most scandalously unavailable English artist in America. Now he not only has a cult that sells compilation cassettes to fanzine subscribers, he has a cult that includes a small record company. Which in addition to compiling this not unpleasing two-record set of outtakes and live stuff keeps all his real albums in print. That's a hint. B

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: I'm Alright (Rounder) Last time he was complacent in defeat, his irony all sarcasm and his permanent postadolescence an annoying bore. This time he's facing up--not to anything existential or absurd, that stuff comes too easy, but to what it might mean to make an alright career (and life) out of "unhappy love." The result is discernibly superior to the perfectly enjoyable one-liner miscellanies of the late '70s and not quite there even so. Just rooting for the Rangers and having his doubts about bell-bottom pants once made him a (very minor) prophet; now they make him normal. My suggestion: a concept album about having kids. B PLUS

Village Voice, Apr. 1, 1986


Mar. 11, 1986 Apr. 29, 1986