Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

As I keep insisting here and there, it's been a great year for pop music--but only on the radio. You can be sure none of the five A albums I've come up with this month will be heard on Z-100 in the foreseeable future. Four of them aren't even in English, and not everybody's so sure about the fifth.


KING SUNNY ADE AND HIS AFRICAN BEATS: Aura (Island) Three albums into this world-class popmeister's American career, his U.S. debut begins to seem like the compromise purists claimed it was--not because it's too American, but because it's not American enough. Now when I want something subtly polypercussive I'll choose one of his Nigerian LPs rather than Juju Music. And when I want a heavier, hookier groove I'll pull out Synchro System--or more likely, this one. With Martin Meissonnier back behind the glass and Stevie Wonder's earthbound harmonica on native ground, it's every bit as consistent as The Message and--by (Afro-) American standards--considerably more propulsive. At times it's even obvious, regular. Next time I assume they'll go all out for a dance-chart hit. And I can't wait to hear it. A

JOHN ANDERSON: Eye of a Hurricane (Warner Bros.) In which Anderson exercises his rights as a major country star and does nothing but show off the reason he's a major country star--his tonsils. As distinguished from, say, labelmate Gary Morris, he's blessed not just with a great instrument but with what'll pass for a great natural instrument--its intensity seems completely informal and rarely even hints at mannerism. I prefer him a little less doleful for sure. But I respect his rights. B PLUS

SOLOMON BURKE: Soul Alive! (Rounder) With the "Bishop of Soul" backed by Brenda Bergman's Realtones, this live double from America's premier folkie label looks like an irrelevance, but the D.C. audience signifies otherwise. Burke's singing has lost subtlety rather than power, and since all but two of the twenty-four songs he sets his voice to are relegated to medleys, his reading of specific lyrics aren't the issue so much as the preacherly context he creates for them--the way his monologues connect musically acute texts like "If You Need Me" and "Hold What You've Got" and "Down in the Valley" and "Gotta Get You Off of My Mind" to the facts of love in a world where women sign their own welfare checks. B PLUS

THE CARS: Heartbeat City (Elektra) With hooks recurring as predictably as zebras on a carousel or heartbeats in a city, the glossy approach the Cars invented has made this the best year for pure pop in damn near twenty, and it's only fair that they should return so confidently to form. They still don't have much to say and they're still pretty arch about it, but that's no reason for anybody to get unduly bothered, and neither is Greg Hawkes's Fairlight. B PLUS

MILES DAVIS: Decoy (Columbia) Like so many groove albums, this one is now-you-hear-it now-you-don't. But once you learn to live with the synthesizer colors of Robert Irving III, the only weak link in the band the leader's been forging since his comeback, you stop worrying about why he's making a conventional fusion record and realize that between his own muscle-mouth and John Scofield's sweet-and-sour licks and the quite audible Jones-Foster pulse he's made a pretty damn good conventional fusion record. B PLUS

HOODOO GURUS: Stoneage Romeos (A&M) "Tojo" and "Leilani" and "Zanzibar." "Death Ship" and "I Was a Kamikaze Pilot." Hiccups from Lux Interior and counterpoint from the Pink Panther and attitudes from Mental as Anything and rhymes from Danny & the Ramones. Those with no use for trivial pursuits can ignore this one, but if you enjoy the game when the fun isn't forced, these cheerfully maladjusted Aussies certainly beat what's been coming out of the bat-garages of L.A. and London these past two-three years. And if you want to read meaning and feeling into "Arthur" (who dies) or "I Want You Back" (which like "My Girl" isn't a cover) or even "Zanzibar" (a secret masterpiece, sez I), they--by which I mean the songs, not the band--won't spit in your eye. B PLUS

HüSKER Dü: Zen Arcade (SST) I'll swear on a stack of singles that "Turn on the News" could rouse as much rabble as "London Calling" or "Anarchy in the U.K." I play side three for pleasure and side two for catharsis. And I get a kick out of the whole fucking thing, right down to the fourteen-minute guitar showcase/mantra that finishes it off. But though I hate to sound priggish, I do think it could have used a producer. I mean, it was certainly groovy (not to mention manly) to record first takes and then mix down for forty hours straight, but sometimes the imperfections this economical method so proudly incorporates could actually be improved upon. It wouldn't be too much of a compromise to make sure everyone sings into the mike, for instance, and it's downright depressing to hear Bob Mould's axe gather dust on its way from vinyl to speakers. Who knows, put them in the studio with some hands-off technician--Richard Gottehrer, Tony Bongiovi, like that--and side two might even qualify as cathartic music rather than cathartic noise. A MINUS

INTI-ILLIMANI: Palimpsesto (Redwood) Exiled in Italy since the 1972 coup, these Andean traditionalists from Chile have softened their conception just like so many other folk professionals--compare this to the austere 1971 Canto Para una Semilla. So it's not surprising that the lead cut here is an original composition that sounds like French soundtrack music played on exotic flutes and strings. What is surprising is that it makes you want to see the movie--and that except perhaps during "Danza," the instrumental which opens side two, the group's romanticism is somewhat less winning when expressed more "authentically." B PLUS

LENNY KAYE CONNECTION: I've Got a Right (Giorno Poetry Systems) "I've Got a Right" is an anti-Falwell anthem that ought to ring from every corner of this great land, and the next four songs hold up. But they aren't concise enough to justify such flat production, and Lenny doesn't sing powerfully or credulously enough to put their slightly overwrought emotions across. Then there's "Record Collector" and "As I Make Love," which Patti herself couldn't put across--I don't think. B

LITTLE STEVEN: Voice of America (EMI America) I deeply respect Steven Van Zandt's brave translation of rock and roll libertarianism into internationalist antiwar propaganda, and I don't think he's done badly by the songwriting--somebody cover "Fear," or "Justice," or "Among the Believers." But please, please, please don't make me listen to him sing them anymore. His voice is devoid of dynamic or dramatic zip. When he's not bellowing, he's plodding. And he's got a band to match. C PLUS

MEL MCDANIEL WITH OKLAHOMA WIND (Capitol) A rugged old pro who's hewed a path between outlaw grease and countrypolitan silicone, McDaniel here enters a Nashville studio with his road band, a mild act of defiance that produces an album sensible folks can listen to clean through without Bromo-Seltzer--though the overly tough-minded may want to keep a Tum or two at hand. B

THE PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE: Leading Horses (Bozi Mlyn) Though it was the grim everyday comedy of Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned that made it not just a stirring document but the ultimate bootleg album, somehow they've gone and lost their sense of humor. Must have to do with their leaders going to jail and their concert sites getting torched. Yet through it all their sound has remained their own, just about the only "European"-"rock" synthesis that never stinks of sentimentality, of pretentiousness. And the aura of dour mockery around Vratislav Brabanec's saxophone on side one gives the odd turns of the lyrics (printed in Czech with translations on the inner sleeve) a significance they couldn't generate on their own. Unfortunately, side two is so dirgelike it'll attract only those with an established appetite for stirring documents. Upped a notch for staying alive anyway. A MINUS

ROBERT QUINE/FRED MAHER: Basic (Editions EG) Though he does like to play as well as think, Quine's solo work reminds me of somebody. His two-guitar experiment with Jody Harris had the spiraling arty-rocky trippiness of Eno's ill-fated LPs with Cluster, but this time he's chosen to write tunes and add a drummer, and the result is as tough and weird as Eno's classic Jon Hassell collaboration. Just because it's more specific, changing mood and color decisively from track to track, it doesn't exert the same kind of generalized ambient hold, but it sure does have its own gestalt: the avant-garde equivalent of the great album Duane Eddy never made. A MINUS

RAP 1 (Profile) With the serfs fleeing Sugarhill, the honest disco independents at Profile head rap central, but despite four or five good tracks and a consistent electrohop sound, their compilation isn't as convenient as it might seem. The Disco Four's "School Days" was hipper paired with the less didactic "Throwdown," and the unavoidable "Sucker M.C.'s" cuts deeper on both the 12-inch and the estimable Run-D.M.C., where you'll also enjoy "Jam-Master Jay." "Gettin' Money" proves once again that Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde are as crassly conceited as racists and old fools think all rappers are, and Fresh 3 M.C.'s still sound like a novelty act to me. Which leaves Rammelzee vs. K-Rob's laid-out, wacked-back "Beat Bop," so one-of-a-kind it's a single by definition, and Pumpkin's electrohop lesson "King of the Beat," the only track that turns this house into a home. B

RUBBER RODEO: Scenic Views (Mercury) Shooting straighter than I'd expect of the Tubes or Orchestra Luna, these art-schoolers look at the Wild West and see laundromats, tourist attractions, and hand-tooled footwear. And shooting even lower than I'd hoped, they hear synth-pop with dobros and steel guitars. Commerciality--it's so campy. C

SCANDAL FEATURING PATTY SMYTH: Warrior (Columbia) The ryffs keep the treadmyll moving with nary a twytch, not once does a lyric offer a detail of behavior or decor, or even a real metaphor--the sexist twaddle of Nyck Gylder's "stereo jungle child" in the title chartbuster, now transmogrified into lyberated twaddle because a woman is singing, is as hot as it gets. C

THE SPECIAL AKA: In the Studio (Chrysalis) There's miraculous rhythmic progress from the polkafied chug-along of the Specials' ska to the suave Caribbean lilt here, which makes Jerry Dammers's most reclusive flights functional. But Dammers (together with mouthpiece Stan Campbell) never convinces me that the anomie he evokes so stubbornly has the public dimension that its proximity to "Bright Lights," "Racist Friend," and "Free Nelson Mandela" implies. Not often that the political songs on an album seem most down-to-earth. B PLUS

THAT'S THE WAY I FEEL NOW: A TRIBUTE TO THELONIOUS MONK (A&M) At first this ambitious two-disc multiple-artist memorial to the greatest composer of the post-World War II era left me cold--be nice if a few kids got pulled in by Joe Jackson or Todd Rundgren, but I'd been a Monk fan since the '50s. And indeed, I still prefer Monk's Monk to anybody else's, so much so that the discography here has me expanding my collection. But only Donald Fagen's synthesizers and John Zorn's weirdnesses approach the level of desecration jazzbos discern, and more often the extravagantly good-humored (NRBQ) or carnivalesque (Dr. John) or obvious (Chris Spedding) rock interpretations are instructive alongside the subtler, more reverential readings of Steve Lacy, Barry Harris, Sharon Freeman. In short, when I feel like Monk, occasionally I may play this. A MINUS

BARRENCE WHITFIELD AND THE SAVAGES (Mamou) Though I really don't believe that Esquerita and the Seeds, say, loom larger in rock history than, say, Gamble & Huff and the Grateful Dead, this time I have to grant dumb-ass obscurantism its due. Whitfield isn't a genuine throwback, but he is a genuine historical oddity--an acceptable Little Richard substitute, with a band that doesn't fake it. He's not crazed or rubber-piped enough to go all the way with a frantic groove, though "Mama Get the Hammer" and "Ship Sails at Six" come close. But when everybody lets up a little, especially on semi-instrumentals like "Walking With Barrence" and "Cotton Pickin'" and the steady-spreading "Go Ahead and Burn," Art Rupe would be proud. Time for thirteen tunes: an authentic 27:52. B PLUS

YABBY YOU: One Love, One Heart (Shanachie) Like many a serenely anonymous Rastafarian tuneweaver, the former Vivian Jackson could almost be a muezzin (or three) chanting nursery rhymes, most of which concern the end of the world as we know it, a prospect which cheers him considerably. With the help of many justly famous Rastafarian session-men he's produced a typical reggae sleeper--no surprises (the end of the world is hardly news), but considerable cheer. B PLUS

Village Voice, Sept. 25, 1984


Aug. 28, 1984 Oct. 30, 1984