Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Two reasons for the double Pick Hit, other than things are looking up. First, the Ornette's no way a rock record, white guitarist and major label notwithstanding. Second, I admit it--I go way back with Bonnie and Neil.


PHIL ALVIN: Un "Sung Stories" (Slash) He loves a good lyric, and if he can't write them or order them up, he has only to ransack his record collection for oldies that are just strange enough. Mixing country blues with Cab Calloway, Peetie Wheatstraw's murderous "Gangster's Blues" with a supremely mournful country song called "Collins Cave," he goes for narrative and gets it. The arrangements range from very spare to orchestral, and never mind Tower of Power--Alvin goes to Sun Ra when he wants Ellingtonia, Dirty Dozen when he wants polyphony. The only exception to all this smart stuff is a perfectly OK "Daddy Rollin' Stone." I hope it breaks AOR, I bet it won't, and I wish he didn't have to bother. A MINUS

BIG BLACK: Atomizer (Homestead) Though they don't want you to know it, these hateful little twerps are sensitive souls--they're moved to make this godawful racket by the godawful pain of the world, which they learn about reading everything from textbooks to bondage mags. This is the brutal guitar machine thousands of lonely adolescent cowards have heard in their heads. Its creators deserve credit for finding each other and making their obsession real. But not for anything else. B PLUS

CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: II & III (Pitch-a-Tent) I was annoyed by all the instrumentals at first--Balkan folk dances as psychedelic cowpunk, a mite précieux, don'cha think? Not really, and plenty catchy in the end regardless. There are too many lyrics aimed at the foibles of acquaintances and potential fans as well. And every last one is a hoot in their dryly absurdist manner. A MINUS

EURYTHMICS: Revenge (RCA Victor) Annie Lennox's rich, lustrous range and diction threaten to overwhelm these stripped-down arrangements, bringing such odious Annies as Haslam and Wilson to mind. But while you'd never call her enthusiasm natural, it's not forced or foolish either--this is rock and roll as sheer performance, its basics paraded with pride and a glint of humor. If only it was all side-openers like "Missionary Man," recommended to Pat Robertson, and the V-8 airmobile "Let's Go." B PLUS

LUCIA HWONG: House of Sleeping Beauties (Private Music) This intelligent if hyper-romantic new-age prestige item would make a nifty soundtrack for Lost Horizon and comes with the blessing of new-age titan (and sometimes soundtrack composer) Philip Glass, who identifies Hwong as one of those select young composers who are equally conversant with Eastern and Western music. Unfortunately, not many Western listeners will hear it as more than high-class chinoiserie--maybe those sopranos derive from Chinese opera, but they sound like Hollywood angels anyway. I trust the artist's decolletage derives from Chinese opera as well. B PLUS

CHAKA KHAN: Destiny (Warner Bros.) Though supervising producer Arif Mardin lends an appearance of unity to the credits, the eight-count-'em-eight coproducers take it away, leaving yet another candid concatenation of crossover wannabees. Those who treasure Chaka's quirkiness will object--the Coltrane snippet's an obvious sop. Those who've always found her unfocused will admire the professional standard of Osborne, LaBelle, etc. while dreaming of a whole album with Scritti Politti. B

THE MEKONS: The Edge of the World (Sin) If the continuing existence of their music doesn't place these anti-American country-rockers squarely among the undefeated for you, the continuing eloquence of their lyrics ought to--whether it's Sally Timms trying to talk to the drunk she's stuck with or Jon Langford downing cat food because he doesn't feel human tonight, they haven't given up on saying their piece. Thing is, the listener has to concentrate to be sure, which despite the lyric sheet isn't so easy this time. That's the problem with making fatigue your great theme--it sounds tired awfully fast. A MINUS

PAT METHENY/ORNETTE COLEMAN: Song X (Geffen) I've always regarded Metheny as a harmless, well-meaning talent whose interests are as far from mine as, I don't know, Nino Rota's. It was nice that he admired Ornette, but his jazz was still way too tame. Well, never mind--this collaboration is the best pure jazz album Coleman's made since I started keeping track in the early '70s. No rock moves, and no funk, harmolodic or otherwise--it's all sweet lyricism, sonic comedy, and headlong invention. Metheny obviously doesn't deserve top billing, but he holds his own, especially on guitar synth, where his duet responses, ensemble parts, and choo-choo noises all fit in. And while rhythm stalwarts Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette make everything swinging, it's Metheny's taming effect that keeps the music in trim. A

NAKED RAYGUN: All Rise (Homestead) Great white hopes they ain't--just anthemic punks with no discernible protofascist undertow, and pretty good at it, too. Which is more than you can say of a lot of white hopes these days. B

TEDDY PENDERGRASS: Workin' It Back (Asylum) Forget platonic love--this is platonic sex. I mean, the man is the best-known paraplegic in America; when he sings songs called "Never Felt Like Dancin'" or utters lines like "The thought of your body has got me erect," their status as mere collections of signs is understood literally by his fans. And thus their status as fantasy can be approached literally as well. Helps that while only "Love 4/2" is up to, let us say, vintage Jerry Butler, just about every cut at least maintains the atmosphere. Also helps that he's transferred his vocal savvy to however much of his body he's got left. B PLUS

PERSIAN GULF: The Movie (Raven) Barking out lyrics loud and clear over an uncommonly forthright groove, Hal Shows led this band to a left-field EP debut two years back, and I wish he'd tried to repeat, because at album length his forthrightness gets out of hand. The world his best lyrics create isn't what the band's music makes it seem--it's an untrustworthy place where being a little crazy can help you get by, full of implicit regrets and sidelong insults and allusions that mean more than they add up to. But when he tries to spell things out in protest or satire, or boil them down into haiku, he seems less than a little crazy. B PLUS

BONNIE RAITT: Nine Lives (Warner Bros.) Sometimes selling out takes courage, and it's heartening in a way that Raitt, who's hardly immune to moldy fig, is willing to adapt her blues-rock to hookarama convention. But her laidback grit doesn't quite mesh with the style, which likes its singers shiny and up-up-up. Either that or she couldn't put her heart into a depressingly conventional set of theoretical singles. C PLUS

R&B CADETS: Top Happy (Twin/Tone) Who out there remembers Stoneground, a buncha hippies who also made quite pleasant, quite forgettable albums rooted in an outmoded black-music groove? And who were also a gas live. B

SONNY SHARROCK: Guitar (Enemy) New thing's answer to Hendrix and McLaughlin circa 1970 and Material's embodiment of creative chaos circa 1980 sits in a studio and plays some tunes--sometimes more than one at a time, either counterpointed or strung together in a suite. Like so many jazz avant-gardists, Sharrock got his start in r&b, and you can tell--with the bullshit cut away he's both funky and beautiful. Tempos are slow to moderate, melodies simple and even lyrical, structures clear, and still he generates enough sonic danger to drive that roommate you can't stand right up the wall. [Original grade: A minus] A

SIMPLY RED: Picture Book (Elektra) I like Mick Hucknall enough to not want to mention that there are only two songs on this album--one by David Byrne, one by the Valentine Brothers, both of which he runs away with. And until the last two tracks--the finale is "Picture Book" itself, which wanders worst of all--he and his Brit soulsters carry it off on mood and groove alone, and with hardly a love song, either. B PLUS

SONIC YOUTH: Evol (SST) By deigning to play a few tunes and eschewing both dirge and breakdown for minutes at a time, these media heroes work up a credible representation of the avant-porn clichés that mean so much to them--you know, passion as self-immolation, life redeemed on the edge of death, and (last but not least) it was only a dream. The deliberately stoopid title, misspelled frontwards and misapprehended backwards, captures the loopy tone they've achieved. In fact, the good parts are so good that for a while there I thought I was enjoying the bad parts. Guess I must have been woolgathering. B PLUS

JERMAINE STEWART: Frantic Romantic (Arista) Here's one princeling who's smart enough to know that the only way to bring off simpering high-life bullshit is flamboyantly, and that's exactly as far as his smarts go: "I'm not a piece of meat/Stimulate my brain," very funny, so buy the single, because he didn't write it. Without Aretha, meanwhile, Narada Michael Walden is just another Sri Chinmoy disciple, albeit one who dabbles in s&m jokes. C PLUS

THE THREE JOHNS: Live in Chicago (Last Time Round) Indies cater to collectors, and collectors will buy any old shit. Yet this verbatim show isn't just specialist product. The impolite patter includes a clarion call for international socialism, and the cover versions are droll if a tad conceptual--T. Rex as the Eagles, "Like a Virgin." There's half a carload of new songs from a writing machine that's already filled two LPs and two EPs since 1985. And if the remakes aren't revelations, most of them are copped from album one, which is now third in line at the checkout counter. B PLUS

THE THREE JOHNS: The World By Storm (Abstract) Doomy politics, detached declamations, Leeds connection--they're the Gang of Three, obviously, and if they're not as smart, so be it. No funk crossovers for them--the drums are sure to pick up pattern and accent, but their genius is for basic (and unnostalgic) rock and roll of a purity rarely heard outside punk, if indeed that's where its located. This time the songs are there, even though the analysis isn't terribly smart either. (That ain't America, lads, it's Capital.) And, considering how much good smarts did the Go4, maybe we should be grateful it's rancor and sarcasm that make them go. A MINUS

NEIL YOUNG: Landing on Water (Geffen) Hidden away on this rock bellyflop (which must be scandalizing 'em in Nashville) are hints that he may still be a crazed genius--the hook on the otherwise more-than-predictable "Drifter," the urban neurosis of "Pressure," and especially the broken yet still encouraging "Hippie Dream." But from straightforward confessional to brand-new drummer, it's the dullest record he's ever made. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

I'm beginning to have my doubts about the EP bonanza I predicted last month, as I trust I'll have time and space to detail next month. One reason I fear a letdown is that a lot of the better EPs don't break new acts--they're from established album artists, like f'rinstance the Three Johns, the Mekons, Sonic Youth, and Big Black. Indie product, anyone? How about a little soak-the-collector? Or is it just sheer creative exuberance? All three, probably. As sheer product, the title track of the Johns' Brainbox (He's a Brainbox) (Abstract import) is the most striking thing they've ever recorded, with a beat that sucks you in, and all three songs on the B (especially "Crazytown") are worth playing twice, which is more than can be said of the B songs on their now extraneous Death of the European EP. The Mekons' Crime and Punishment (Sin import) makes me wish the followup LP reviewed above had included "Beaten and Broken" and "Cut That Child in Half." Big Black's untitled limited-edition collectors' item (Homestead) features a cute bit about some oppressed teenager whose mom makes him kill pigeons. And my favorite of all is the most commercially suspicious of all, which of course I didn't pay for: Sonic Youth's Starpower (SST), which bolsters superior, edited remixes of the two best songs on Evol, "Starpower" and "Expressway," with a Kim Fowley cover. Glad they've finally owned up to their most significant influence.

Village Voice, Sept. 2, 1986


Aug. 5, 1986 Oct. 28, 1986