Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Having nothing better to do, I decided to give USA for Africa its due, going back to albums by a few superstars whose line or two had piqued me. I did finally learn to hear Jeffrey Osborne, but doubt that any of my other findings will surprise those savvy readers who know a priori what self-serving fat cats superstars are. There is nothing like a context, nothing in the world.


DON CARLOS: Just a Passing Change (RAS) Although Carlos isn't as consistent as ranking romeo Gregory Isaacs, his peaks--the title tune, in which he glimpses Selassie's ghost from behind modest dub and haunting horns, and "I Just Can't Stop," in which he flees Babylon till the break of dawn--bliss out the way true spiritual pop should. They lift the gracefully ordinary tunes way up even if three generically anonymous closers drag side two back down. B PLUS

THE CUCUMBERS: Who Betrays Me . . . and Other Happier Songs (Fake Doom) I used to assume they were just a good little band who'd latched onto a great little song, but while their new white-funk rhythms are superfluous and none of the tunes is "My Boyfrield," I'm beginning to think they could go national. Depends on how the world takes to Deena Shoshkes. She makes some sophisticates cringe, but the more I hear of her vivid sweetness the more sexy and unprecedented it seems. B PLUS

FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI: Army Arrangement (Celluloid) I've never had complete confidence in Fela's myth. By both African and Euro-American standards, his arrangements are repetitive, his singing and playing nothing special, and his political ideas ill-informed and grandiose. But as pop pros of any culture go, he's an original and a radical, and even if he weren't his music would deserve our attention and his imprisonment our abhorrence. Let's hope this Bill Laswell remix proves propitious. Rather than bedizening it with aural gee-gaws, Laswell imports sympatico cousins to beef up the groove--Bernie Worrell (on Hammond B-3!), Aiyb Dieng (on five different percussion devices), and, most spectacularly, Sly Dunbar, whose Simmons pulse could make a skinhead dance once foot at a time. Fela's best album--wonder if they'll let him hear it. A MINUS

THE FLIES: Get Wise (Homestead) Do dirty guitars, readymade chords and bass lines, and straight four-four make this now disbanded trio garage-rock? I suppose so, though rock and roll would be a better way of putting it. Either way I'm a sucker for guys who can turn a Carl Perkins chestnut into a Velvet Underground dirge and begin something called "Jesus Christ" with talk of aerosol sprays--which gets us to Mace, not to mention the ozone layer, in case you were wondering. B PLUS

THE FUGS: Refuse to Be Burnt-Out (New Rose) Rarely has an aging hippie lost his sense of humor with more grace than Ed Sanders, who could be wild-ass and even a little nasty on what looked like the brink of cultural triumph but turned careful and considerate once he realized the struggle might never end. Instead of degenerating into a "bitterly bickering bitter-shitter," he's put his youthful idealism front and center. His laughs are gentle, word choices rather than jokes; with special help from Steve Taylor, latest in the proud line of folkie-Fugs, his lyricism is resilient, reedlike; and he preaches with sounder grounding in moral philosophy than Holly Near and Johnny Rotten combined. As for Tuli Kupferberg, who was in his forties when it all began, praise the Lord--he hasn't lost a bit of his youthful sarcasm. B PLUS

MARVIN GAYE: Dream of a Lifetime (Columbia) Like a lot of rock and roll geniuses, Gaye was also a nut (or jerk, if you prefer). One reason he worked so assiduously in the studio was that he was loath to let us see all the way inside him, which means that these posthumously consummated outtakes and private jokes are by his own best standard too unmediated to carry much aesthetic weight. By my own best standards, too. On "Ain't It Funny (How Things Turn Around)," the only track that bears Gaye's rhythmic and harmonic signature rather than Gordon Banks's or Harvey Fuqua's schlock-it-to-'em, and "Savage in the Sack," a joke he knew enough to find funny, his wit and charm shine through. Elsewhere he's just letting off guilt in heavenly visions or sexual fantasies out of control. Maybe bondage freaks will find "Masochistic Beauty" a turn-on--what do I know? I know what I infer from "Sanctified Lady" (formerly "Sanctified Pussy")--that this man found himself despising women for doing the kinky things he forced them to do. And there's no way that's a turn-on. C PLUS

SCOTT GODDARD: Your Fool (Enigma) Though the former Surf Punk is in it strictly for laughs, "I know it's been done before/All my songs about boring stuff" is as close as these six tracks some to a quotable joke. Though he varies his singing comedian's monotone with the occasional inflection or preverbalism, delivery isn't his secret either. And though the generically catchy, vaguely apt arrangements can make me smile all by themselves, I couldn't tell you why. Maybe there's something intrinsically funny about Southern California. B PLUS

STEVE GOODMAN: Santa Ana Winds (Red Pajamas) Recorded shortly before Goodman died in October, this is a fitting testament to a likable artist who often went soft around the edges. Goodman's intelligence never quelled his appetite for bathos, be it honest ("I Just Keep Falling in Love"), parodic ("Fourteen Days"), or stupid ("The Face on the Cutting Room Floor"). He liked to laugh ("The Big Rock Candy Mountain"), but though he was a clever satirist ("Hot Tub Refugee"), his targets were rarely original ("Telephone Answering Tape"). And oh yeah--he did love music ("You Better Get It While You Can (The Ballad of Carl Martin)"). Since he never made an altogether convincing album, now would be the ideal time for the indie label he founded when the majors said bye to put together a big fat compilation. Wanna help out, Asylum? Buddah? Yeah sure. B

DARYL HALL & JOHN OATES: Big Bam Boom (RCA Victor) What makes these guys so depressing is their definitive proof that instinctive musicality insures no other human virtue. Rival popsters, Bruce and Cyndi included, don't do nearly as much for Arthur Baker's hip-hop dub, which in this context is sly and graceful and goofy and catchy and thrilling, and they even have the good taste to like, you know, soul. Yet if in the end you think the music doesn't connect, you get a gold star--the affluent anomie I wish were only a pop-sociology cliché pervades not just the lyrics but the mix itself. And you want to know something even more depressing? Millions of record buyers either don't notice or like it like that. B

THE JOHN HERALD BAND: The Real Thing (Rooster) Fallible though he may be, I'll take this bluegrass-based traditionalist over Ricky Skaggs any day. Maybe his transported singing honors George Jones and Jerry Lee Lewis along with Red Allen and Bill Monroe because his long experience in folkiedom taught him something new about authenticity. Or maybe it's just that he's not above sinning. B PLUS

JASON & THE SCORCHERS: Lost and Found (EMI America) It's the punk side of country punk that takes imagination for a Nashville boy, so unlike his bicoastal brethren he throws himself into rocking out and doesn't think awful hard about words or tunes. This is rarely the most effective way to rock out. He gets by this time, but he's running on attitude, and attitude has a way of running thin. B PLUS

JESSE JOHNSON'S REVUE (A&M) "I had to do something different," the former Time guitarist revealed to his press agent sometime after the Time broke up. At around the same time he fired off a warning to rival Prince/Time imitators: "If you don't know the formula, you should leave it alone." Different? Formula? You figure it out. B MINUS

KENNY LOGGINS: Vox Humana (Columbia) "My goal was to transform my music into a more and more personal medium," says this harmless case study in contemporary pop of his first self-produced album, so he must think a lot about "love," a word which appears in seven of the nine songs. The subject is all-important for sure, but tricky to make new, as they say. Loggins succeeded in 1979 with the put-up-or-shut-up epiphany "This Is It." Here he hopes his rhythmic savvy and supple falsetto prove epiphany enough for Contemporary Hits Radio. Which given the promotional budget and catchy arrangement of the confidently entitled title tune, they already have. C PLUS

TEENA MARIE: Starchild (Epic) Ballads aren't Teena's problem--self-expression is. Marvin and Aretha are so abundantly endowed they can afford to meander occasionally, but neither would dare stretch "Out on a Limb" to 6:38. Better Teena should make like Maya Angelou and design her slow ones for the page. On the other hand, Teena's fast ones need no apology, which she may finally have learned doesn't mean they need no hooks. And when she's riding a hit she can take Marvin and Aretha to the bank. B

VAN MORRISON: A Sense of Wonder (Mercury) By marrying r&b usages to Celtic mysticism in an art that honors both and then some, Morrison proved there was more to r&b than even Ray Charles had dreamed. But when inspiration fails him, he's left with uninspired art. At his most automatic, Charles still has r&b. C PLUS

ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK: Junk Culture (A&M) Now that they've come down a little I can take their sad tales of hard days seriously. Even on "Junk Culture" proper, which stirs up memories of their direct atmospherics, they do their best to cheese things up, and elsewhere hurdy-gurdy synths and android girlies emitting no-no-nos do right by the title, a title anybody who once dubbed an album Architecture and Morality had damn well better earn. B

JEFFREY OSBORNE: Don't Stop (A&M) Osborne proves that the secularization of black pop needn't mean the end of a great vocal tradition, only of its church roots, and he doesn't sing as if he learned how at Performing Arts, either. Instead he sounds like what he is--a son of the most uncompromised black secular music, funk. The slightly herky-jerk bent of his phrasing and pronunciation is geared to the rhythm, and when he bears down into a ballad he sounds fresher than more conventionally soulful singers. Of course, he also sounds stranger if you're not prepared, which is why the uninitiated will take more readily to the somewhat stronger material on Stay With Me Tonight. Me, I just got the message, and I've been playing both. B PLUS

STEVE PERRY: Street Talk (Columbia) The head Journeyman's USA for Africa cameos were so discreetly intense and discreetly tossed off they made me wonder what I'd been missing. Now I know--musical gastroenteritis. Pat Boone didn't understand, so why should Steve Perry--oversinging signifies not soul and inspiration but will and desperation. Upped a notch for good intentions, and just in case Sam Cooke has finally taught him a lesson. C

FENTON ROBINSON: Nightflight (Alligator) Is he the real thing? Yes. Does he play better than Michael Bloomfield? Yes. Does he play better than Elvin Bishop? Yes. Does he play better than Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop put together? Depends on what you mean by better. Does he sing better than Paul Butterfield? Probably not. Not even Paul Butterfield? Right. Is it 1965? No. Is he the real thing? Depends on what you mean by real. Doesn't it always? B

TEARS FOR FEARS: Songs from the Big Chair (Mercury) Never one to pay much mind to the plaints of English lads with synthesizers, I got duly annoyed at the surface and let it go at that. Imagine my surprise when I discerned substance underneath--uncommon command of guitar and piano, Baker Street sax, synthesizers more jagged than is deemed mete by the arbiters of dance-pop accessibility. Even found a lyric that went "We are paid by those who live by our mistakes," not bad at all. Yet in the end the surface is still annoying--not so much pretentious as portentous, promising a depth and drama English lads have been falling short on since the dawn of progressive rock. B

Village Voice, May 28, 1985


Apr. 30, 1985 June 25, 1985