Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

There are fewer A minuses (two) and B pluses (seven) this month than in any Consumer Guide since I reclaimed the franchise in late 1980. You think maybe rock is dying? I doubt it--1982 has been the best year for major ("great," as they're called) albums since 1979. I count four so far--Ornette Coleman (recorded 1979, but never mind), Flipper, Richard & Linda Thompson, Lou Reed--and take the current doldrums as a change in the weather, a statistical aberration, no doubt brought into relief for me by my increasing professional fascination with music that ought to be better than it is, by which I really mean the accelerating fragmentation of the so-called new wave community. You think maybe disco sucks? Wish that were the main problem.


BLONDIE: The Hunter (Chrysalis) After feuding for years with moralists who accused the band of abandoning a lowbrow purity they never claimed in the first place, but this is a lousy record by any standard--the pop, the eclectic, even the arty. That Debbie is writing all the lyrics is only symptomatic--the tragedy is that of an absorptive, synthetic talent trying to find its essence, a doomed project that's doubly disorienting because she's canny enough not to believe in "self-expression" per se. Instead she galumphs about in search of referents, referents she seemed to locate naturally back when she could walk the Bowery without a disguise. C [Later]

THE CLASH: Combat Rock (Epic) Those who (claim to) expect them to improve on Gramsci maintain that this is where they turn bozo once and for all. I counter that they're well ahead of a lot of respectable competition--the babble surrounding Robert De Niro on "Red Angel Dragnet," for instance, may well be the first evidence ever that Taxi Driver has something real to say about urban oppression. Neither their funk nor their tone-poem dub has gained much pizzazz since Sandinista!, where both were easier to avoid. But I guarantee that they're not sinking into the pop slime--they're evolving, and here's hoping that someday they write songs as terse and clear as "Janie Jones" at this higher level of verbal, musical, and political density. B PLUS

GREG COPELAND: Revenge Will Come (Geffen) Producer Jackson Browne has gone after absolutely predictable midtempo studio rock, but with a tough edge that's augmented by Copeland, who sounds like (of all things) Jackson Browne with a tough edge. Propitious--if Copeland can move his mentor's personalist millenarianism far enough left to write protest lyrics that surrender neither psychological dimension nor American mythos, I bet other young rock mainstreamers are thinking the same way. B PLUS [Later: B-]

GANG OF FOUR: Songs of the Free (Warner Bros.) What I love about their records is the very thing that keeps me from playing them much--the guitars are so harsh, the rhythms so skewed, the voices so hectoring, the lyrics so programmatic that they function as a critique of casual hedonism. Their pleasure is like Barthes or forward bends--good for you, in a limited way. So while it's all right in theory for "I Love a Man in a Uniform" to make me think I've been underrating the Human League every time its intro makes me want to get up and dance, I don't find such amenities formally appropriate. And never fear--there are almost as few here as they think they can get away with. A MINUS

RENÉE GEYER (Epic/Portrait) Others marvel that this transplanted Aussie is white; I marvel that she's female. If she recalls Tina Turner it's Tina Turner in her (often overstated) rock mode, covering Lee Michael's "Do You Know What I Mean" and (the real giveaway) Chuck Berry's "Come On." And half the time she could almost be Paul Rodgers essaying a comeback. As if Paul Rodgers could make macho sound so human. B

NINA HAGEN: Nunsexmonkrock (Columbia) Hagen is one of those Yurrupean artistes who consent to perform "rock" because it's vunderful theater. Big of her with her operatic training and all, dontcha think? And she does have a new-wave sense of humor--instead of taking on Maria Callas with her umpteen-octave range she does impressions of Linda Blair and Mercedes McCambridge. Unfortunately for those of us who believe rock is vunderful songs, her drama transcends the form. The exception is the scary antiheroin minidrama "Smack Jack." C PLUS

JOHN HIATT: All of a Sudden (Geffen) Carpers have always claimed there was nothing underneath his gift for the hook, and now that Hiatt's finally gotten his big shot, on David G.'s label with David B.'s producer, he seems intent on proving it. Median cut length is up from 2:55 (on 1979's Slug Line) to 3:31, Tony Visconti has dehumanized Hiatt's uncommercial voice with filters that make him sound like a Hoosier Steve Strange, and even his cover photo has been reduced to benday dots. The veteran up-and-comer as overblown cynic. B MINUS

THE INDIVIDUALS: Fields (Plexus) They're easily the best of En Why's Pop Three on stage, scruffy and forceful and lithe, but as with most postteen modernists their lyrics lack that universal touch, and their records have none of the dB's' lapidary virtuosity or the Bongos' seductive drone. In other words, I had to work too hard at liking this one. B [Later]

RICK JAMES: Throwin' Down (Gordy) James is such a pro I'm sure he didn't even want to top Street Songs. Might give his fans the wrong idea, and soon he'd actually have to work. So there's nothing as visionary as "Give It to Me Baby" or the epochal "Super Freak" here, and no protest numbers either. But all of the fast ones are such bad fun. Stealing his licks from G. Clinton & Co. (or maybe himself, who cares anymore?), he's the nearest thing to a pop musician in the rock and roll sense that today's black charts--not to mention today's white charts--can offer. And in that great tradition he should never sing a ballad again. B PLUS

JUNIOR: Ji (Mercury) The Stevie Wonder surrogate that vocalist-songwriter Junior Giscombe and keyboardist-producer Bob Carter have synthesized in their London studio is certainly England's most impressive recent export, but it does lack the effervescence and spacy lyricism of the real thing. Only on the two hits is the gift for the ordinary bewitching. B PLUS [Later: B]

CURTIS MAYFIELD: Love Is the Place (Boardwalk) With help from Dino Fekaris, Mayfield's best album in years includes his first hit in years, but neither has created much stir, which is fair enough--the single is catchy and nothing more, the album honest and nothing more. Except, except. "Just Ease My Mind," a Mayfield-composed ballad, is a gentle plea for succor so purely country I think I've happened upon some disciple of Stoney Edwards or Jesse Winchester every time it catches me unawares. It shouldn't be lost. B

THE MORWELLS: The Best of the Morwells (Nighthawk) These half-legendary reggae veterans deserve a U.S. compilation, but not every hitmaker on an island of two million is guaranteed to lead us into Zion. Bingy Bunny moans guilelessly, a laid-back Winston Rodney, while Flabba Holt and Style Scott keep the riddims so close to earth you have to figure they don't command any chancier options. B

THE MOTELS: All Four One (Capitol) "Take the 'L' out of Lover and it's over"? "Apocalypso"? "Tragic Surf," for Christ's sake? They've got to be kidding. But Martha Davis torches so enthusiastically that the result is about as funny as Meat Loaf--so "subtle" that nobody naive enough to buy the record will catch on. She has better taste in music than Jim Steinman, though. C PLUS

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Yes It's You Lady (Tamla) He's lost purity on the high end, but the rich grain of his mature midrange more than compensates, and he's never sung with more care, intelligence, or yearning. Unfortunately, he hasn't settled for such ordinary material in years; his equation of love and "irresistible merchandise," for instance, dishonors his penchant for the prepossessing polysyllable, and that's on the title cut. Does he almost get away with it anyway? Yes, he almost gets away with it anyway. B

THE ROLLING STONES: "Still Life" (American Tour 1981) (Rolling Stones) They sound very professional, they also sound big and rough and raunchy, and with Charlie driving and Keith making dirty noises they transform "Let Me Go" from an emotional vacuum to a ready-made classic. But "Twenty Flight Rock" has been done better by Robert Gordon (also Eddie Cochran) and the two Motown covers are disgraceful, primarily because of Mick, who has progressed from aging self-parody to old roué--"Satisfaction" sounded more worldly-wise in 1965 (also fresher), and the same goes for every other remake here. B MINUS

SOUP FOR ONE (Mirage) Hoped this soundtrack might double as a Rodgers & Edwards sampler, but they don't quite mesh with Carly or Teddy, and Sister Sledge's track is a pleasant throwaway. They do better by Fonzi Thornton, who's one of their own, and better still by Chic, on the title tune and a folkish etude called "Tavern on the Green." B

STEEL PULSE: True Democracy (Elektra) Later for adultery, but one reason I've liked them in the past is that they've always steered clear of Rasta misogyny--would they call a man who "says carnal love is a must" a "leggo beast"? Other reasons have included groove, politics, and hooks--groove alone won't do. Best politics: "A Who's Responsible?" and "Worth His Weight in Gold." Best hooks: "A Who's Responsible?" and "Worth His Weight in Gold." B [Later]

DENIECE WILLIAMS: Niecy (Columbia/ARC) Williams's exquisite clarity and thrilling range have always slotted her among the perfect angels for me, but there's a lot more to her work with Thom Bell, who finally challenges Burt Bacharach on his own turf, applying strings and woodwinds and amplifiers with a deft economy that textures rather than sweetens. And Williams's lyrics, while never startling, become increasingly personal as her professional confidence grows--she's wrinkling her brow more and her nose less. Dionne Warwick fans: welcome to the '80s. B PLUS

X: Under the Big Black Sun (Elektra) John and Exene attribute "The Hungry Wolf"'s rather feral view of marriage, in which lifelong mates roam the urban wastes with dripping jaws, to the Sioux, but I think they got the idea from Ted Nugent: they should check out Farley Mowat, who describes wolves as lifelong mates who live on mice and never fuck around. These are good songs bracingly played, but the words hint at a certain familiar down-and-out romanticism. They do it with more style and concision than Bukowski, Waits, or Rickie Lee Jones. They do it almost as well as Richard Thompson, in fact. But this time it's Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake who are putting the songs over. Best lyric: "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes," written in Tin Pan Alley before any of these young bohemians, Billy included, was born. A MINUS

Y PANTS: Beat It Down (Neutral) The notion that women's music should be cute has as little theoretical attraction as the notion that it should be organic, and the notion that it should be arty as well has less. But these three Soho gals get away with it, no doubt because at some level deep beneath the ukelele and toy piano they're willing to be ballbusters. The key is a sweet, a cappella version of "That's the Way Boys Are" that's, er, marred halfway through by the sound of a woman screaming in the middle distance. Every one of these (ersatz-Andean?) melodies will sneak up on you eventually, and just maybe paste you one. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Jim Fouratt, foolishly deposed at Danceteria but more present than ever in New York music, expresses understandable alarm at the reference to "fag hag" and "undercover fag" on Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message," a musical-political powerhouse which is certain to be the single of the summer if not the year. I love "The Message" myself, not least because its protest is so obviously unmitigated by liberal proprieties--its rage and disgust are uncensored, dangerous, and at time swrongheaded, just like real rage and disgust. I'd compare it favorably to a Fouratt fave, the Offs' "Everyone's a Bigot," where the line "Blacks are bigots" occurs 10 times and the line "Whites are bigots" only twice, odd percentages in a nation 80 per cent white. Still, somebody should tell Melle Mel and Duke Bootee that the word "fag" has the same oppressive weight among gays that the word "nigger" does among blacks, so here's my try.

Village Voice, Aug. 10, 1982


July 6, 1982 Aug. 31, 1982