Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (49)

Pushing '75 and I keep hearing the same thing I was hearing in '70: Music, at least pop music, is boring. Ho hum. I'm bored with hearing that meaningless criticism; given the choice, I'd rather listen to my records. I know former rock fans, as all of us used to call ourselves, who now subsist on jazz or country or classical or even pre-'69 rock, but for me the flow of nourishing pop seems to continue. Perhaps it's only nourishing in bulk; since it's my profession to be glutted I can't prove the contrary. But I know that when I listen to records for pleasure, I tend to concentrate among those one year old or less. And I insist that there are records out there for those ears so inclined.

Admittedly, finding them isn't as easy as it used to be. The congruence between mass popularity and aesthetic worth has become almost random, and the number of good records that pass virtually unheard is more shocking than ever. Some generalizations that seem to be valid at least for this batch of 20 is that the most interesting records--even the failures and rip-offs worthy of attention--tend to come from performers who mix black and white directly and consciously. Whether it's Randy Newman singing about crackers in a honky drawl or Esther Phillips going down on a Chris Smither tune, the secret is to celebrate American music in all its miscegnated glory.

The Consumer Guide, of course, is designed to aid you the listener in separating the listenable from the (potentially) boring. No imputation of ultimate worth should ever be attached to any device as arbitrary as a letter grade. Of course not. Those are just there to help you buy and ignore. A and A minus records are highly recommended, most often because they provide an unduplicated pleasure. A B plus album can be expected to offer less accessible or consistent rewards. B is where competence begins: extreme discretion should begin there as well. And now.


ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL (Epic) Reportedly, this band has stopped trying to straddle West Virginia (original home of the band and their variation on Western Swing) and Berkeley (where each found fellowship). Now comes the straight country push. The losses, in sprightliness and fantasy, aren't fatal, but do inspire the obvious question: Why not just listen to Bob Wills? B [Later]

AVERAGE WHITE BAND (Atlantic) Scottish Soul, Contemporary Division. The passionate expertness of this harmony group's sound does not quite compensate for the banality of its songs. (Admittedly, that may be my problem, but it's also a problem of the form itself.) Yet in the end, the passion almost suffices. B [Later: A-]

BROWNING BRYANT (Reprise) Thought I'd pan this, the worst of the current Allen Toussaint production jobs, just to prove I was nobody's fool (see Labelle, Frankie Miller's Highlife, Bonnie Raitt). Actually, I find it rather pleasant, folkie voice and all. I think I could enjoy Toussaint's songwriting, harmonies, horn voicings, and piano--and piano--behind George Burns, Lynn Anderson, Jack Bruce, Paul McCartney, anybody. C PLUS [Later]

GOOD RATS: Tasty (Warner Bros.) What can you say about a band admirers claim is the best to emerge from Long Island since the Vanilla Fudge? That even Shadow Morton isn't so foolish? C MINUS [Later]

HERBIE HANCOCK: Thrust (Columbia) Switched-on Herbie jazzes it up one more time for all the Con Edison fans. C PLUS

LABELLE: Nightbirds (Epic) Not all pretentious records are even difficult and many fewer are worth the trouble; this is both. I've always found Labelle's histrionics unforgivable, especially when applied to the asininities of Cat Stevens, Bernie Taupin, et al., but this time Allen Toussaint's groove carries the melodrama, and what's more, the lyrics often justify it--when you get around to paying attention. Unusual talent and ambition finally finds its proper concept. A MINUS [Later]

JOHN LENNON: Walls and Bridges (Apple) There's no question that this doesn't make it, but figuring out why--on a level more complex than the songs aren't very good, which they aren't--isn't easy. It has to do with disorientation and lost conviction, as if the only reason we believed in Lennon's singing was that he did. What can it be like for this ex-Beatle to trade harmonies with Elton John (who sings backup on "Surprise, Surprise," just as Lennon does on Elton's new single) in the inescapable knowledge that it's Elton who's doing him the favor? C [Later: B-]

TAJ MAHAL: Mo' Roots (Columbia) In which Taj branches into reggae, a natural extension of his lazy, sun-warmed blues. As attractive as ever, but that always bothersome something missing, that failed semblance of purposefulness, is more missing than ever. B [Later: B+]

FRANKIE MILLER'S HIGHLIFE (Chrysalis) Scottish Soul, Historical Division. Miller attempts to do for Otis Redding what Joe Cocker did for Ray Charles, and I mean "for," not "to." Allen Toussaint helps, a lot, but Miller's own songs show growing power. B PLUS [Later]

TRACY NELSON (Atlantic) Even at her peak, Nelson risked sluggishness: you wondered whether that was placidity or metabolic malfunction. Now her voice has thickened, its seriousness become leaden. It takes her a minute longer to finish "Down So Low" than it did six years ago. Literally tedious: "tiresome because of slowness, continuance, or prolixity." C MINUS

RANDY NEWMAN: Good Old Boys (Reprise) Despite my immense misapprehensions--Newman's political sensitivity, a useful attribute in one conceptualizing about the South, has never impressed me--I'm convinced that this is Newman's second-best album. (The competition is 12 Songs; this lacks the doleful, cockeyed inspiration of apparently uncoverable flights of fatalism like "Lucinda" and "Uncle Bob's Midnight Blues.") It also rights a career that was threatening to wind down into cheap sarcasm. Contrary to published report, the white Southerners Newman sings about/from are untainted with contempt. Even Newman's psychotic and exhibitionist and moron show dignity and imagination, and the rednecks of the album's most notorious songs are imbued by the smart-ass Los Angeles Jew who created them with ironic distance, a smart-ass's kindest cut of all. There is, natcherly, a darker irony: no matter how smart they are about how dumb they are, they still can't think of anything better to do than keep the niggers down. A [Later]

ESTHER PHILLIPS: Performance (Kudu) Those who worry about the black audience for blues should study the Phillips variation, a jazz-pop blues which carries Dinah Washington's torch into the present and beyond. Phillips's adventurous taste in material sometimes gets her into trouble, but here she almost gets away with Eugene McDaniels's "Disposable Society," and eight-minutes-plus of Chris Smither's "I Feel the Same" seems just about right. A MINUS [Later: B+]

RICHARD PRYOR: That Nigger's Crazy (Partee) Whether a white Voice writer has the right to enjoy a black comic mocking the desperate inadequacies of black junkies, chickenshits, and comedy fans ("You can't land here, nigger--this is Mr. Kramer's property") is a troublesome question. Meanwhile, I bust my gut. There hasn't been a stand up comedian funnier since you-know-who, and Pryor is funnier, if less solid. A

BONNIE RAITT: Streetlights (Warner Bros.) Best cut: Allen Toussaint's "What Is Success," about the "so necessary" spiritual expenditures entered above a record company's bottom line. Whereupon Raitt pays her tribute to schlock four times over. Typically, she can uncover a stirring moment in the most stillborn possible-single, but the limits of her integrity have already been defined by three flexible, often playful, yet obviously uncompromising albums, and when the strings and woodwinds rise up, they dispossess her. Even "What Is Success" suffers a setback when Raitt accedes to Toussaint's impersonal "he." That's no "he," Bonnie--that's you. B

DOUG SAHM: Groover's Paradise (Warner Bros.) I always thought Sahm was too repetitious and derivative for a great rock and roller, but maybe now I understand his genius--this record, his most unambitious in many years, is the one I'll play whenever I feel like hearing Sir Doug's Tex-Mex. No coincidence that Stu Cook and Doug Clifford, the rhythm section that supposedly held Creedence in thrall, have found a master even simpler than John Fogerty. A MINUS [Later: B+]

JOHN SEBASTIAN: The Tarzana Kid (Reprise) It's nice to know California John isn't doing this for money. He's so warm he never has to sing for his supper--he can always get work as a chafing dish. C MINUS

JOHNNIE TAYLOR: Super Taylor (Stax) On Taylor's previous lp, the best cuts were undistinguished, squashing all the really undistinguished stuff into the sludge. On this one, "It's September" (a you're-due-home lyric finished off with a sharp question mark of a guitar riff) and "I've Been Born Again" (testifying so ebulliently for monogamy that it's credible) are inspired enough to brighten the competent-to-better material that follows. B [Later]

TOM WAITS: The Heart of a Saturday Night (Asylum) There might be as many coverable songs here as there were on his first album if mournful melodies didn't merge into neo imagery in the spindrift dirge of the honky-tonk beatnik night. Dig? B MINUS [Later: C+]

STEVIE WONDER: Fulfillingness' First Finale (Tamla) Stevie's survival and subsequent consensus have been deeper and more satisfying than his last two albums. Catch up with Talking Book--or Signed, Sealed and Delivered. B PLUS [Later: A-]

ROY WOOD'S WIZZARD: Introducing Eddy and the Falcons (United Artists) Wood always seemed to have something on the ball besides English, but this collection of iron pyrite oldies is the most pointless British import since the bowler. C MINUS [Later: B-]

Additional Consumer News

Since it's my rule to exclude reissued material from the Consumer Guide, I haven't written about what may be my favorite record of the year--Duke Ellington's Flaming Youth, 1927-28 recordings in the RCA Victor Vintage Series, which first a Betty Boop cartoon and then Steely Dan's version of "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" turned me to. There's no quick description of this music--the Steely Dan version, sweet as it is, doesn't even suggest the suppleness, mystery, and humor of the original. But I can say that the sound quality is superb--Ellington, I am told, wrote for the studio when he was going to record--and that anyone who loves American music should make Flaming Youth his or her next purchase. When I learn more, I'll pass it on. . . .

In CG (48) I suggested that a lot of posthumous Coltrane was rip-off, attributing this to unnamed experts. Both experts, Gary Giddins and Peter Occhiogrosso, differ violently. Much of Coltrane's best work, they say, was unreleased before his death. Occhiogrosso does believe that some of the posthumous stuff might never have been release had its creator lived; Giddins is very happy to have it all (except for most of Atlantic's Coltrane Legacy); I apologize. . . .

The nicest thing I've had to say about Paul McCartney in years is that the Yankees used to play "Band on the Run" before every game. Any better suggestions for next year? . . .

The Copacabana is alive and well in Brooklyn. For openers, Tony Orlando and Dawn.

Village Voice, Oct. 24, 1974


October 1974 Nov. 21, 1974