Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

This feature is supposed to appear in the last issue of each month, which given our dating and deadline system means it's usually complete before the 15th. Last time I was a week late (because of vacation, if you can call listening to the Sgt. Pepper soundtrack a vacation), so this time I've had only three weeks to prepare. And considering, it's a good month--two of the four A minus records, the Pendergrass and the Crowell, were marginal, but both were exciting discoveries in any case. I feel guilty about not reaching a decision on Blondie and the Who, both of which sound a lot better to me now than they did at first. And then there is that Ramones tape I secured that isn't due for release as a disc until September 22. Looks like October won't be bad either.


DAVID BEHRMAN: On the Other Ocean/Figure in a Clearing (Lovely Music) On Discreet Music and the Fripp collaborations, Eno taught me to appreciate this kind of semi-improvised, semi-electric, semi-minimal trance and/or background music, but I think Behrman, a Soho/California composer who uses computers for chance input and builds his own synthesizers, does it better. Certainly his textures are more interesting, without any hint of unseemly lushness--or of Glass-type climaxes, for that matter. Steady as she goes. A MINUS

RODNEY CROWELL: Ain't Living Long Like This (Warner Bros.) He's smart, he's soulful, he's got that tragic sense of life--yes, folks, Gram Parsons lives on in spirit, right down to Emmylou on harmony. If only the tempos were a little snappier, there might be more than four songs on side two, and chances are that anything extra would be as good as the rest. From "California Earthquake": "You're a partner of the devil and we ain't afraid of him/We'll build ourselves another town so you can tear it down again." Talk about inspirational verse. A MINUS [Later]

DETROIT JR.: Chicago Urban Blues (Antilles) Jr. languished in a byway of my shelves for over a year, which is the way it is with laid-back piano blues--hard to tell one record from another without trying. This broke through--insinuating, witty, midnight music with loving respect for the verities, a flawless exposition of the conventions of the form. B PLUS

GREASE (RSO) The Sha Na Na cuts document the group's deterioration from an affectionate, phonographically ineffective bunch of copycats into a repellent Vegas oldies act. The Casey-Jacobs stage songs are entertaining and condescending takeoffs on '50s readymades, a little too good for Manhattan Transfer. And the updates provided for the movie by the Stigwood combine--Valli's "Grease" (written by Barry Gibb) and Travolta and Newton-John's "You're the One That I Want"--are two of 1978's better hit singles. That's probably how they should be bought, too, but this is far from a disgrace. C PLUS

LYNYRD SKYNYRD: Skynyrd's First and . . . Last (MCA) I'm glad to own this album, cut at Muscle Shoals in the pre-MCA days and overdubbed for possible release before the plane crash ended their career. I'm impressed by both the packaging (44 photos, many terrific) and John Swenson's notes (extensive, acute), and I like the music fine. But I don't think this is where I'll go to hear Skynyrd. Even if I wanted to disregard the two song-poems by long-departed drummer-vocalist Ricky Medlocke and the less than essential alternate version of "Things Goin' On," I expect more from Skynyrd than good white funk and second-rate message songs. And "Was I Right or Wrong" ain't it. B

METRO (Sire) Chansons de l'amour esquinté--très chic, très sophistiqué, et plutôt ennuyeux. Un Alpha Band Européen avec sexe, peut-être, ou un Roxy Music pour le cabaret. A propos en Anglais, et tant pis. C PLUS

WILLIE NELSON: Face of a Fighter (Lone Star) It's been four years since Nelson put together an album of the mournful country love songs that earned him an outlaw's independence, and even that was a concept job, Phases and Stages. This is just 10 slow ones--maybe six special, no clinkers--and the music is wonderful. Nelson's voice has never come on more fragile or deliberate--you can almost hear him figuring out what commonplace he's going to illuminate next--and his bland sounds equally sure-footed. Rarely is there a lick you haven't heard somewhere before, but the lick always seems just a leetle different, which may be because it's so exquisitely timed and may be because it's just a leetle different. A MINUS [Later]

THE O'JAYS: So Full of Love (Philadelphia International) If the title's true--I've never considered Eddie Levert one of the great romantics--it's sure not all they're full of. Exception: Bunny Sigler's "Strokety Stroke." C PLUS

PABLO CRUISE: Worlds Away (A&M) This group hit my enemies list somewhere on Interstate 95. Hook glut, it's called--hear David Jenkins sing "once you get past the pain" fifty times in a day and the pain will be permanent. This guy is a one-man Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds, and to hell with his sense of rhythm. Even if the next hit is the title cut, a genuine rocker, the band is the '70s Grass Roots, and if Orleans and the Doobie Brothers are the obvious forerunners, that's their cross to bear. It don't mean a thing if it's studio swing. C [Later]

TEDDY PENDERGRASS: Life Is a Song Worth Singing (Philadelphia International) Okay, I'm convinced. I still find his stuff with the Blue Notes inconsistent--forced, cluttered, unfocused--and his solo debut still sounds like a quickie. But this is a formidable album, romantic schlock at its sexiest and most honest. Pendergrass is in such control of his instrument that the more commonplace of the Sigma Sound orchestrations never spoil the mood, while the good ones--let's hear it for the sax break on "Only You"--accent it the way they're supposed to. The key is that he's not belting much--except for one dull party number, everything is medium-tempo or slower. Pendergrass has a tendency to bluster when he belts, to come on too strong. The slow stuff--these aural seductions are hardly "ballads"--plays up his vulnerability and gives his vocal textures room to breathe. A MINUS [Later: B+]

WILSON PICKETT: A Funky Situation (Big Tree) This is Wicked's disco move, and though I don't think it'll go over at the Loft, I do think it's his best album of the '70s. "Changed my clothes, but I didn't change my soul," he assures us, and that's it exactly. The production (by Rick Hall and Don Daily) and especially the horn arrangements (by Harrison Calloway, Jr.) are dense and eventful rather than overblown and crowded, the way so much of Pickett's later music was, and unlike so much disco they're designed only to boot ass, never to engulf and wash over. What's more, Pickett is singing again--rarely does he resort to the random scream. His own "Lay Me Like You Hate Me" is a startling distillation of what he's always really been about, and though most of the other songs are just ordinary-plus, they've been chosen with obvious care--no song-factory seconds here. B PLUS [Later: B]

PLASTIC BERTRAND: Ca Plane Pour Moi (Sire) French rock and roll is French rock and roll--good for a novelty, maybe, but that's it. Anyway, I can't understand the words. C [Later]

THE SAINTS: Eternally Yours (Sire) "Private Affair" is the perfect punk-cum-early-Kinks song, "International Robots" invents a Jonathan Richman clone, and Chris Bailey should dub in the vocals on Seymour Stein's Wild in the Streets remake. But the lyrics are received protest, the tempos have slackened, and if those horns are somebody's idea of a joke I am not amused. The very idea. C PLUS

LEO SAYER: Leo Sayer (Warner Bros.) The wee hitmaker covers "La Booga Rooga," which means admirers of Andy Fairweather Low should be pleased. We'd be even more pleased if Leo didn't do the same favor four times over for admirers of Tom Snow. C PLUS

THE SHIRTS (Capitol) Driving through the Bronx on my way from South Caroliina to Maine, I heard "Lonely Android" on the radio and wondered for a moment if the Ramones were making an art-rock move. This gaffe was probably a symptom of homesickness, but it does indicate that on record, where Annie Golden's Broadway proclivities are invisible, this becomes a vaguely interesting (or at least eccentric) band--Focus gone CBGB without chops, kind of. C PLUS

NINA SIMONE: Baltimore (CTI) Carried along on David Matthews's uncharacteristically infectious arrangement, Simone's version of one of Randy Newman's more perfunctory American-names songs is a glorious fluke on the order of Baez's "Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." I'm glad, though, that it's available as a single, because unlike owner-annotator Creed Taylor I don't find that Simone's "magnificent intensity . . . turns everything--even the most simple, mundane phrase or lyric--into a radiant, poetic message." On the contrary, her penchant for the mundane renders her intensity as bogus as her mannered melismas and pronunciation (move over, Inspector Clouseau) and the rote flatting of her vocal improvisations. There are several good cuts here; the song selection is often inspired (Hurley-Witkins's "The Family," perfect). But a woman who not only avoids coming out with the "bitch" in "Rich Girl" but hobbles the rhythm as well has real problems. B MINUS

GARY STEWART: Little Junior (RCA Victor) This is a likable album because Stewart is a likable artist, secure by now in his good-humored bad-old-boy persona. But only once--on a version of Ry Cooder's "I Got Mine" that ranks with the greatest Jerry Reed novelties--does he give that persona a shot in the arm. This isn't uptight, like his sophomore-jinx effort, Steppin' Out. But it doesn't kick as consistently as last year's Your Place of Mine, either. B [Later]

KOKO TAYLOR: The Earthshaker (Alligator) Taylor's voice has deepened and roughened so much that her 1971 debut on Chess, which at the time seemed to epitomize the kind of music made by people with Big in front of their names, sounds girlish by comparison. She has no gift for the slow ones, always a crippling flaw in Chicago blues, and two or three cuts here really drag. But the uptempo stuff is exemplary--most of the songs are fun as songs, and the guitar on "Wang Dang Doodle" is a killer. B PLUS [Later]

O.V. WRIGHT: The Bottom Line (Hi) With its unabashedly country (i.e., rural) singer and its back-to-basics Willie Mitchell production, this one has soul nostalgiacs hot and bothered, but I find the material thin and like it mostly for its oddities: the tribute to Guy Lombardo; the sexy mama who refuses to go, as opposed to get, down by declaring, "I don't do windows" (what???); and the old man who defines love as "a misunderstanding between two damn fools." B [Later]

TAMMY WYNETTE: Womanhood (Epic) In which Billy Sherrill performs (or permits) a miracle: five good songs on one side. (Nobody ever accused Billy of thinking big.) On side one, we learn about virtue sorely tempted, the limits of sisterhood, music as emotional communion, virtue abandoned, and the limits of professionalism. On side two, Tammy confuses Wolfman Jack with John the Baptist and then retreats into the commonplace. With country albums, you take what you can get. B

Additional Consumer News

This month's most exciting compilations almost qualify as new LPs--not only are there two-record sets put together with an artfulness that goes beyond conventional programming, they include material never previously available on album. Disco Party ($8.98 list), on T.K.'s Marlin subsidiary, was conceived by Ray Caviano and blended by Tom Savarese; Steppin' Out: Disco's Greatest Hits ($9.98 list), on Polydor, was compiled by Vince Aletti and Ritchie Rivera and blended by Ritchie Rivera. Both rank a little higher than Saturday Night Fever and Casablanca's Get Down and Boogie and far surpass the other disco party collections I've heard. (All I've heard of Salsoul's TV twofer, which Aletti tells me inspired his and Caviano's sets, is rumors. But I can warn you against Salsoul's new Saturday Night Disco Party, ruined by three useless Salsoul Orchestra Bee Gee remakes.) Both use disco-mix versions where appropriate, and both simulate the fadeover segues of the live disco deejay. The Marlin collection is funkier, laced with the Miami rhythms popularized by K.C. & the Sunshine Band, but I find the Polydor's enticing samples of spacey, lush-but-not-sentimental Eurodisco even more impressive. My favorite side on each is the second; discoveries (for me) include "Love Chant" by Eli's Second Coming, "Jungle Fever" by the Chakachas, and Roy Ayers's "Running Away." This is disco the way it should be heard--as pure dance music, complete with risky changes. . . .

Highly recommended in the same general area is the Trammps album I've been waiting for, The Best of the Trammps. Mad uptempo meaninglessness from first to almost last, last being reserved for the deplorable wimp ballad "Seasons for Girls."

Village Voice, Sept. 25, 1978


Sept. 4, 1978 Oct. 30, 1978