Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

One of the privileges of the criticism trade is that when the pickings get thin, you can go for arcana. All three of my A minus reggae albums have been around the house since last fall, and taken together they made my May labors worthwhile. While none of them quite matches the originality of the R.E.M., all three are worth seeking out. Dealers and other seekers: U.S. distributor for Solomonic is Rough Trade.


BANANARAMA: Deep Sea Skiving (London) In some pop convolution, the effectlessness with which these London lasses appropriate various attractive girlgroup epiphenomena may simply signify that they're not an "authentic" girl group. And right, the Dixie Cups (even the Marvelettes) (maybe even the Crystals) had no discernible identity either. But they could sing. B MINUS

THE BLASTERS: Non Fiction (Slash) "Train whistle cries/lost on its own track" could be half a haiku for Hank Williams should these American traditionalists ever turn Japanese, and if "Leaving" is worthy of George Jones, "Bus Station" and "It Must Be Love" pick up where Tom T. Hall left off. None of which is code for countrybilly--this is r&b Jerry Lee could be proud of. It's just that Dave Alvin writes with an objective colloquial intensity that fits the straight-ahead dedication of his cross-racial and -generational band the way James Taylor's ingrown whimsy suited the laid-backs he hung with. In other words, Dave might qualify as the last great singer-songwriter if only he was a singer. And brother Phil is. A MINUS [Later: A]

DAVID BOWIE: Let's Dance (EMI America) Anyone who wanted Dave's $17 million fling to flop doesn't understand how little good motives have to do with good rock and roll. Rodgers & Bowie are a rich combo in the ways that count as well as the ways that don't. But I can't explain the perfunctory professional surface of the result except to wonder whether Bowie-the-thespian really cares much about pop music these days. This is hardly unlistenable, but "Modern Love" is the only interesting new song, the remakes are pleasant and pointless, and rarely has such a lithe rhythm player been harnessed to such a flat groove. Which doesn't mean people won't dance to it. B [Later]

BOW WOW WOW: When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going (RCA Victor) Mike Chapman adds few if any hooks and Annabella Lwin shockingly little verve to their pattering Afrobeats. None of Malcolm McLaren's pubescent sex fantasies was half as dumb or exploitative as "Aphrodisiac." And though I'm glad they're expressing themselves, only the glorious "Rikki Dee" ("I work at the WC") tells me any teenage news I hadn't guessed. C PLUS

CALLING RASTAFARI (Nighthawk) Produced in three days by a Jewish wheeler-dealer from St. Louis, this fundamentalist compilation--roots reggae as a music of militant religious homily--has an irresistible integrity. Its simple determination matches its singsong melodies and solid rhythms, and the singing is crucial: Culture's Joseph Hill hasn't sounded so impassioned since Two Sevens Clash, the Gladiators' Albert Griffiths outgroans Marley on "Small Axe," and the Itals' Keith Porter does "Herbs Pirate" so nice you'll settle for owning it twice. A MINUS

CRUCIAL REGGAE DRIVEN BY SLY & ROBBIE (Mango) The second Taxi compilation broadens its base by including other producers' JA hits--with Dunbar & Shakespeare on groove, of course. But it's not enough. Great pop is a tricky commodity, and this isn't quite tricky enough to make up for received melodies and competent-plus vocals--not even in the groove. B PLUS

EDDY GRANT: Killer on the Rampage (Portrait) There's an expediency to Grant's songwriting--try "Latin Love Affair," or the equally routine "Funky Rock 'n' Roll," or a rhyme like "My heart does a tango/I love you like a mango"--that makes it hard to believe he's a hero. Instead of drawing some Caribbean analogy, I'd compare him to the Isley Brothers--artist-entrepreneurs with good intentions and a good assembly line. Of course, there's a ramshackle quality to the assembly line that saves even its most expedient product from slickness, and this is far from that--except on the hard-to-find Live at Notting Hill import, his good intentions have never been more out front. B PLUS

NONA HENDRYX: Nona (RCA Victor) Charged with curbing Nona's insatiable desire to make rock records, Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn were abstemious enough not to make a Material record instead--just a slightly cerebral who-is-that-singing? funk record, with the cerebration mostly Nona's. As you might deduce, it could be smarter, but you can dance to it without losing your mind. B PLUS

KIDDO (A&M) Michael Hampton's band--Donnie Sterling's, really--is caught midway between P-Funk, where it's coming from, and Zapp, where it wants to go. P-Funk teaches that more is more only when you can carry that weight. Zapp teaches that when you strip down you'd better go all the way. B MINUS

LITTLE STEVEN AND THE DISCIPLES OF SOUL: Men Without Women (EMI America) The lyric sheet makes good reading--the confessions of a working-class teenager who got what he wanted and lost what he had (though he would have lost it anyway by now, and had less money besides). Unfortunately, Little Miami Steve sounds like arena-period Dylan doing the Born to Run songbook, and the E-Streeters in his band blare like Silver Bullets. If the Boss really is driving around El Lay wondering what happened, as one rumor has it, he could do worse than rescue "Men Without Women" and "Princess of Little Italy." Only don't pronounce it "Lily," okay, Bruce? B MINUS

MEN AT WORK: Cargo (Columbia) They call Australia Oz because it's about as exotic as Kansas upside down, and these five sturdy-sounding, fragile-down-under middle-class blokes make the most of it. Ten thousand miles from the heart of darkness they're free to project honest, ordinary, low-level Anglo-Saxon anxiety, with enough transpositions of key and meter and social perception and social perception to establish that they've thought about it some. A touch dour, two touches bemused, and probably way too passive, they're so smashingly unambitious that they're forgettable when they don't strike just the right note, but having won over the rest of America they've sold me. I've always considered democracy more radical than misanthropy anyway. B PLUS [Later: B]

VAN MORRISON: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (Warner Bros.) In this troubled time, rock-and-rollers have every right to place their faith in the Jehovah's Witnesses or even Scientology when they discover that Jackie Wilson didn't say it all. But to follow one with the other appears weakminded, like praising Omar Khayyam in tandem with Kahlil Gibran. A hypothesis which the static romanticism of these reels-for-Hollywood-orchestra and other slow songs bears out. B MINUS

MUTABARUKA: Check It! (Alligator) Is it okay to be impressed by this reggae poet's decidedly unmystical humanist Rastafarianism and still wish his presentation had more of that old-time religion? Though he camouflages his intellectual distance better than Linton Kwesi Johnson, his compassion is less self-effacing, and his dub modernism plays a little too loose with the riddims to suit me. But anyone who values reggae strictly for its straightforward charm should definitely check him. B PLUS [Later]

R.E.M.: Murmur (I.R.S.) They aren't a pop band or even an art-pop band--they're an art band, nothing less or more, and a damn smart one. If they weren't so smart they wouldn't be so emotional; in fact, if they weren't so smart no one would mistake them for a pop band. By obscuring their lyrics so artfully they insist that their ("pop") music is good for meaning as well as pleasure, but I guarantee that when they start enunciating--an almost inevitable move if they stick around--the lyrics will still be obscure. That's because their meaning and their emotion almost certainly describe the waking dream that captivates so many art and pop bands. Which leaves me wondering just how much their pleasure means. Quite a lot, I think. A MINUS

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: Ain't but the One Way (Warner Bros.) I called Back on the Right Track his best since Fresh in 1979, and for what that's worth it was, and this may even be a little better--the aphoristic snap of the songwriting recalls better days, and the mix generates some heat. But where in 1979 it seemed theoretically possible that Sly was on some track or other, there's no way this'll pull him through--often sounds as if he's not even there. Which he wasn't when Stewart Levine finally converted the tracks he'd laid down in 1980 into 1983 product. What a waste. B

THE SYSTEM: Sweat (Mirage) Funk's answer to the Thompson Twins conflate the organic and the electronic more blatantly than Prince. If silent partner David Frank can't quite induce his computerized rhythms to grunt and moan and postsoulful Mic Murphy has the same problem with his guitars and vocals, they more than compensate by making the synthesis grab and hook. Nick Lowe Title Pun Trophy: "You Are in My System." A MINUS [Later: B+]

JOHNNY THUNDERS: Too Much Junkie Business (ROIR cassette) Forced to chose between this Jimmy Miller-coproduced miscellany and the French double-EP-sort-of In Cold Blood, I'd probably dig out So Alone or Live at Max's. The tape costs less and has more new songs, the discs sound better and run a little longer. But neither sustains for more than, say, five minutes at a stretch. Even from JT I expect consistency some of the time. B [Later]

VIOLENT FEMMES (Slash) If Jonathan Richman thought he was as sexy as Richard Hell, he'd come on like Gordon Gano. And if you believe Jonathan Richman damn well is as sexy as Richard Hell, which Gano is counting on, remember that what makes Jonathan's kiddie act so (shall we say) appealing is that he counts on nothing except his fingers and toes. Gano knows his stuff--the barely electric music is striking enough for rock and roll. But for all its undeniable humor and panache the effect is precious, wimp bohemianism so self-congratulatory it'll be sucking its own wee-wee next time we look. B PLUS

BUNNY WAILER: Hook, Line and Sinker (Solomonic) The skanking Memphisbeat Sly & Robbie rolled out for Joe Cocker goes uptempo and downriver here, and Bunny rides it for the entirety of a delightful groove album. Imagine what a reggae-goes-Stax-Volt-second-line tune called "Soul Rocking Party" might sound like. No no no--imagine it done well. Now you've got it. A MINUS

BUNNY WAILER: Tribute (Solomonic) In part because he understands so unmistakably that there'll be no new Marley, Bob's resolutely ital old bandmate is the one Jamaican artist who continues to exercise comparable vision, breadth, and authority in the '80s. These versions of eight songs the leader sang first make clear that Marley was the more gifted vocalist, but they also make clear that Bunny's baritone added rough yearning to Bob's sweet sufferation. Better than Bunny Sings the Wailers, which was just fine. Maybe even as classic as Lefty Frizzell Sings the Songs of Jimmie Rodgers. A MINUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

The Jackie Wilson Story (Epic), a long-overdue overview of r&b's (and soul's) most unjustly legend, deserves to stand as the rock reissue of the year. Nevertheless, the music doesn't quite live up to the legend--that is, I already know the most amazing stuff here from my precious (and long out-of-print) Greatest Hits on Brunswick. Wilson was an artist whose physical gifts outstripped his genius--or rather, they were his genius, in all their indomitable range and power and ebullience. Moreover, though he had the greatest voice to hit pop music between Elvis and Aretha, the true ground of his legend is what he could do with his body on a stage. Listen, gasp, and believe that this wasn't the half of it. . . .

Then gasp and gasp again at Ella Fitzgerald's even more astonishing Duke Ellington Song Book Volume Two: The Small Group Sessions (Verve). If like me you sometimes wonder whether Fitzgerald's physical gifts constituted any kind of genius at all, this 1956 session will convince you. The spectacular voice is pure, mellow, perfectly modulated, and always serves intelligently down-to-earth interpretations are unmarred by cutesy crowd-pleasing. The accompanying combo (which showcases the wonderful Ben Webster) avoids any big band bombast. And the material is by America's greatest composer.

Village Voice, May 31, 1983


Apr. 26, 1983 June 28, 1983