Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Yes, yes, I know--11 more B pluses this month. So I'll begin with yet another within-B-plus guide, from top to bottom: Wyatt, War, Sound d'Afrique, Kahn, Burton, Bongos, Strait, Big Youth, Bad Brains, Police, New Order. What it all means is just what I've been telling you it all means--with the market in splinters (all but three of the above-named are indies or imports) there's a lot of interesting minor work being done if you listen for it. Just which interesting minority happens to interest you I can't say. I keep waiting for them to turn compelling, as we say--like James Booker, who took some getting used to and was definitely worth it.


BAD BRAINS: Bad Brains (ROIR) Turn a fusion band into hardcore propheteers and you end up with fast heavy metal. The best kind for damn sure, especially since they turn their rage into Positive Mental Attitude. I like it fine. But great punks give up more than a salubrious blur. B PLUS

BIG YOUTH: Some Great Big Youth (Heartbeat) Youth's first official U.S. release after a dubwise decade of JA stardom features the five best cuts from 1981's Rock Holy and two good ones from 1980's Progress, which may be his idea of progress but isn't mine. Like countless rockers before him, Youth is proud of his hard-won evolution from make-do genius to able pro. Me, I'd rather hear him chant over exotic brass and sistren than almost-sing almost-songs with or (as in this case) without them. B PLUS

THE BONGOS: Drums Along the Hudson (PVC) Although these casually lapidary popsongs sounded slight as singles, they gain authority laid down seven or eight to a side. But for all their jumpy originality they're still slight, and Richard Barrone's lyrics are so oblique you have to wonder what his angle is. Growing up isn't that confusing--or that personal. B PLUS

JAMES BOOKER: New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live! (Rounder) Booker's legendary prestidigitation put me off at first--this is the most ornate piano style ever to escape New Orleans, and I prefer my boogie sans soupcons of Chopin and Tatum. Eventually, though, his arpeggios, harmonies, and insidious timing create an irresistible roller coaster effect--I even started to groove with the dips and slides of his singing. Believe me, "On the Sunny Side of the Street" was never like this before and will never be the same again. A MINUS

CHARLIE BURTON & THE CUT-OUTS: Is That Charlie Burton or What?!?! (Wild) Burton's only competition among nouveau rockabilly composers is the Blasters' Dave Alvin, and like almost anyone with a knack for song form in 1982 he's flexible. In fact, his only remaining link to pure rockabilly is a fondness for novelty numbers like the factual "Rabies Shots" and the utterly heretical "Breathe for Me, Presley!," and in the end his sense of humor is his limitation. In rock and roll of any kind you have to sing better than Robert Klein. B PLUS

EVERYTHING NEW IS OLD . . . EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW (Ambient Sound) Like all formalist art, doowop is a cultist's calling. Not only is its view of romance willfully adolescent, its view of adolescence is willfully romantic, inspired in the face of irrefutable evidence by a few freak singles, most of them slow (which is a snap to duplicate) and preternaturally beautiful (which isn't). Even its oft-heralded vocalism serves this vision--doowop tenors are supposed to be mild, as moony as "a teenager in love." But by unerringly selecting the two best cuts from five brand new doowop albums, this sampler escapes cultdom. In the great indie-label tradition, it concentrates on the catchy and programmable, including five ingenious covers, so that most of the slow songs sound beautiful, though rarely preternatural. A MINUS

FEAR: The Record (Slash) I know why Belushi liked this band--Lee Ving sings like a Punk Brother. And in the tradition of Belushi, who was such a great actor he convinced me he really was a childish glutton, Ving convinces me that he really does hate (and fear) "queers," "sluts," etc. As a moralistic square, I protest--especially given music that at its most original echoes either Mars or the Dead Kennedys. Time: 26:36. C PLUS

FLIPPER: The Generic Album (Subterranean) I love 'em, you may hate 'em, and that's the way Flipper planned it. Live, they play the same two chords until everybody who doesn't want to have fun goes home, then reward those delighted/mesmerized by their synthesis of the Stooges and the Grateful Dead by throwing in an extra chord and revving up half a step. The record somehow manages to achieve the same effect about eight times in forty minutes. For this they're classified as hardcore, but Jim Fouratt (leaning toward hate-'em as their set passed the two-hour mark) calls the band art-damaged and that's more the idea. The playing is crude ("Everybody start at the same time, ready"), unremitting ("Sex Bomb" has seven words and lasts close to eight minutes), and immensely charitable and good-humored (Iggy with Jerry's soul, I'm not kidding). The lyrics are existential resignation at its most enthusiastic. Inspirational Verse: "It's Life! Life! Life is the only thing worth living for." A

THE HARPTONES: Love Needs (Ambient Sound) With their serious tempos and platonic quest, the Harptones are archetypal doowop purists: even 1953's "A Sunday Kind of Love," an acknowledged classic, failed to crease the national r&b (or pop) charts. On this uncompromising album they almost get away with it because Willie Winfield, now fifty-three and a professional funeral director, retains the virtually characterless sapling tenor of a half-formed youth. Absolutely lovely--too absolute, in fact. Only on Jackson Browne's "Love Needs a Heart," its lyric, melody, and vocal harmonies all touched with an uncharacteristically complex pain, do they achieve the transcendence they long for. Inspirational Verse: "Take this for what it's worth/I am yours, you are mine." B

THE JIVE FIVE FEATURING EUGENE PITT: Here We Are! (Ambient Sound) Won over by their yearning cover of Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen," which for once encompasses all the ironies of middle-aged acolytes singing teen music in a world whose teens are beguiled by almost middle-aged pop pros, I developed an addiction to side one, then checked out their Relic/Beltone best-of. A find, that one, not only unpretentious but fun (oh those pop impurities), and the beauty part is that on their mature album they've bettered themselves. Pitt's doowop has absorbed soul usages without getting soggy, and he writes (and rewrites) originals which neither abandon the style's romanticism nor turn it into a silly lie. Also, somebody up there knows how to pace and program an album. And isn't above fishing for hooks. A MINUS

JANIS JOPLIN: Farewell Song (Columbia) The title tune, the last she recorded with Big Brother and the best original here, is tamer than the dullest cut on Cheap Thrills, which like all her Big Brother music thrived on sheer hippie far-out get-down weirdness. Four of the five other Big Brother tracks are Cheap Thrills rejects, while "One Night Stand" and the rap that interrupts a quite decent "Tell Mama" are predictable crows of sexual pragmatism. Verdict: deceased. B MINUS

SI KAHN: Doing My Job (Flying Fish) Not one of these fifteen skillful pieces of work is narrowly ideological, and several sound like exceptionally useful organizing tools--the three funny ones plus "Detroit December" ("Eight hours a day to draw my pay/And overtime to see me through") and "Go to Work on Monday" (with Old King Brown Lung). But Home's subtlety, originality, and sheer conceptual elegance are missed--only "Five Days a Week" and "Doing My Job" do more than the job. B PLUS

NEW ORDER: Movement (Factory) For months I've sworn to concentrate on the lyrics and be done with this goddamn record, but it ain't gonna happen. The singing isn't literally inaudible, but it is literally unprojected, much less noticeable than the surrounding drum, guitar, and synthesizer rhythms/effects. Very atmospheric--the spaceship as sepulcher, with a beat. And as long as I literally don't have to hear their doomy doggerel, not a bad way to go. B PLUS

THE POLICE: Ghost in the Machine (A&M) It's pointless to deny that they make the chops work for the common good--both their trickiness and their simplicity provide consistent pleasure here. But with drummer, manager, and booking agent all scions of a CIA honcho, I have my doubts about their standing as a progressive force. Whether you're following in the old man's footsteps, offing the motherfucker, or striving for a livable compromise, roots like that leave you twisted, if only to the tune of a middlebrow cliché like Sting's "There is no political solution." In the kindest construction, say their politics are as astute, liberal, and well-meaning as those of Pete "Won't Get Fooled Again" Townshend, who also needs reminding that we're not just spirits in the material world--we're also matter in the material world, which is why things get sticky. B PLUS

BONNIE RAITT: Green Light (Warner Bros.) On The Glow the present-day female interpreter refused to die, and now she does even better by the suspect notion of good ol' you-know-what. The strength of this album runs too deep to rise up and grab you all at once, so you might begin with "Me and the Boys," arch as usual from NRBQ but formally advanced pull-out-the-stops (with all postfeminist peculiarities accounted for) when Bonnie and the boys get down on it. Other starting points: "I Can't Help Myself," in which she takes more helpings than she can count, and "River of Tears," in which Eric Kaz rocks one more once. A MINUS

SOUND D'AFRIQUE (Mango) It's my suspicion that this unannotated compilation of six pop (?) dance (!) tracks from Francophone Africa is only the beginning, and though it's good to my ignorant ears and feet--can't ever resist that sweetly chattering rhythm guitar style--it's also my suspicion that we'll be hearing better. Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, Fela, Africa Dances--all that music makes demands on my time just like Flipper or Al Green. This just sounds good. B PLUS [Later: A-]

GEORGE STRAIT: Strait Country (MCA) This isn't so much hard country as quiet honky tonk, which I don't hold against Strait, a handsome and discerning fellow whose pleasant baritone, though not designed to swallow whole cans of corn (cf. John Anderson, Ricky Skaggs), boasts a subtle, built-in catch. But he's so unassuming I'm afraid he's destined to remain a minor pleasure--one more lonely tiller in fields left fallow by Billy Sherrill and Eddie Rabbitt. B PLUS [Later]

TALKING HEADS: The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (Sire) Live albums by essentially nonimprovisatory artists who do definitive work in the studio are always slightly extraneous, but the choice songs and prime performances compiled on this twofer (one disc 1977-79, the other 1980-81) may turn out to be definitive themselves. David Byrne seems more outgoing and somehow normal in this context, yet also more eccentric--his collection of animal cries is recommended to Van Morrison. Five years and not a misstep--think maybe they're gunning for world's greatest rock and roll band? A MINUS

WAR: Outlaw (RCA Victor) The pan-Afro-American groove is sharper and the tempos often approach medium fast, but the music sounds almost vintage anyway and that's the big surprise--why should they make their best album nearly a decade after their prime? Professionalism is its own reward--for once. B PLUS [Later: B]

ROBERT WYATT: Nothing Can Stop Us (Rough Trade import) In which the C.P.U.K. turns the unwary art-rocker into Pete Seeger. Long convinced that there's no percentage in soft-soaping the masses, Wyatt is more candidly propagandistic than, say, the Weavers--no "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" (the Raincoats would never speak to him again), two tracks praising Stalin Foiler-of-the-Fascist-Foe. And his modernized concept of the folk enables him to transform a Chic song into a hymn. But internationalist sentiment still prevails--from Bangladeshi folk-rock to a stirring "Guantanamera"--and so does the shameless lust for killer melodies. In fact, if Wyatt had a freak voice as universal as Pete Seeger's he might move the left-wing masses quite nicely. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Pruning my shelves I came across two of the three most notable best-ofs of 1981 (in addition to Gary Stewart's on RCA): Diana Ross's All the Great Hits (Motown) shtick and The Best of Phoebe Snow (Columbia). Both do what best-ofs ought to do--pick the good stuff off uneven albums. Except for her Billie Holiday and maybe "Last Time I Saw Him," only aficionados will remember anything else Diana recorded solo for Berry that they want to hear again--there's even a 15-minute Supremes medley that's not at all offensive, kind of nice in fact. And Snow, who has always sung better than she wrote, is represented by a record that's more than half cover versions, including her seismic renditions of "Shakey Ground" and "Don't Let Me Down."

Village Voice, May 4, 1982


Apr. 13, 1982 June 1, 1982