Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Keeping No Flame

Rarely have I heard an album so surely destined for unjustified critical opprobrium as the Neville Brothers' Uptown, on EMI America. Produced mostly by one Jim Gaines, who claims immortality as Huey Lewis's engineer, it's their fourth album and fourth label in a recording career that dates back to 1978's The Neville Brothers, on Capitol--or their fifth album and fifth label if you include 1976's The Wild Tchoupitoulas, on Island, or their umpteenth album and umpteenth label if you go back to the Hawkettes' "Mardi Gras Mambo" in 1954 and try to count reissues and Meters LPs. Uptown also culminates a comeback that began with the stiffing of 1981's Fiyo on the Bayou, on A&M.

Returning to the local bars that have always provided them sustenance and putting together what national tours the market would allow, the Nevilles spent the mid-'80s solidifying and then broadening their reputation as--to quote the notes to Rhino's two-disc Nevilles anthology, Treacherous--"the first family of New Orleans R&B," the "keepers of the traditional flame." They recorded the fine live Neville-ization for Rounder-distributed Black Top. They spent a month opening for Huey Lewis a full decade after the Meters put in similar service with the Rolling Stones, and did r&b duty in last year's Amnesty International campaign. They switched management to Bill Graham. And they readied another assault on the charts.

Nobody will claim Uptown is a great record, but lots of folks will claim it's a disgraceful record, for the simple reason that hardly anyone will claim it's a New Orleans record. It serves no duty, keeps no flame, and that is the obligation the Nevilles have incurred: with their street-chant lyrics, gritty harmonies, and acrobatic syncopation, they're definitive neoclassicists in a city that seems to breed neoclassicism (cf. Wynton Marsalis), so any deviation is perceived as a betrayal. Uptown deviates plenty--the respectful rock moves of Jack Nitzsche's 1978 production are as purest gumbo by comparison. Contrary to rumor, the drums are almost all live, but they so rarely venture an offbeat that it's a solecism to call the result "commercial funk," as I did when recommending their May 9 Ritz gig. It's not "crossover," because they have no black/"urban" base to cross over from--their cult hangs out mostly in the white 18-to-34 demographic. Yet Uptown also eschews the shows of guitar that helped break the not altogether dissimilar Robert Cray AOR. No, I'm afraid this is a down-the-middle CHR pop album, replete with synth hooks and lyrics for every occasion. And I'm happy to add that between its adult themes, solidly insinuating tunes, uncommonly grizzled vocals, and faint indigenous lilt, it's a pretty damn good down-the-middle CHR pop album.

Not a great one, as I said--what is? Thriller is too universal, She's So Unusual too eccentric, Born in the U.S.A. too principled for true CHR, Thriller and She's So Unusual and Private Dancer too spotty for true greatness. But at least all were validated by the airplay Uptown will likely be denied. In the world of contemporary megapop, where good doesn't guarantee commercial and catchy doesn't guarantee either, the Nevilles need an irresistible smash or a shameless gimmick to break out of the hooky pack and onto the playlists. "Whatever It Takes" and "Midnight Key" just aren't immediate enough to prove the durability of their old-love-rekindled and night-lust-unloosed in the crucible of high rotation. And while "Shak-a-Na-Na," a second-linish piece of Brit imagism, and "Old Habits Die Hard," a newly contrived Tops-Tempts-Tavares homage, might conceivably push some gatekeeper's everything-old-is-new buzzer, the Nevilles find that long shot demeaning. As 49-year-old Art Neville told a radio tipsheet. "We're not gonna force nothing old. I want to be up with these young people. I want to keep that youth flowing." The live-at-Mardi Gras video on Aaron's synthy midtempo "Forever . . . For Tonight" (songwriter: Pablo Cruiser Cory Lerios) might conceivably start the chain reaction, but where would it go from there? It takes more than will and craft and talent to go pop in a big way these days: it takes guile and grease and some kind of miracle.

This isn't a world tragedy, but no matter what the Nevilles' disloyal fans suspect, neither does it serve them right. It's just business as usual. The Nevilles have never been as major or as pure as they're made out to be--except for Aaron, they're journeymen rather than geniuses, with one eye on I-yam-what-I-yam and the other on the bank. Up through Fiyo on the Bayou, they never cut anything they didn't hope and somehow expect would be a hit. In 1987 "Mardi Gras Mambo" may sound authentic as all get-out, but in 1954 it was a dance-fad novelty, and Aaron's paean to sincerity on "Tell It Like It Is," the million-selling ballad that defined his signature style, shouldn't be taken to mean he liked the song when it was brought to him--by all accounts, he just hoped it would sell. Even the Tchoups' Indian costumes were imagined to be commercial. And while the Nevilles' regional loyalties have cost them customers, so have their personal limitations. Art and Cyril never sing better than their material and often render it soulfully generic, which is one reason the Meters' vocally oriented Warners albums never sold like the spare instrumentals they scored at Josie. What's more, Art's keyboards (not to mention Cyril's belated congas) didn't do nearly as much for the ass-busting complexities the Meters worked on New Orleans's Latin tinge as Leo Nocentelli's guitar, George Porter's bass, or, God knows, Ziggy Modeliste's drums.

Treacherous is a knockout. It isolates four thoroughly enjoyable Art Neville tracks, two more than you'll find on his vintage Mardi Gras Rock 'n' Roll (Ace import), and sums up in two sides everything that's most winning about the slightly showy, uniquely unoriginal New Orleans rhythm synthesis their cult craves. Yet it's less essential than the Meters' Sophisticated Cissy (Charly import), and demonstrates by stealing from The Wild Tchoupitoulas that it can't compare with that still-available classic either. In fact, it's considerably less remarkable than Aaron Neville's Humdinger (Stateside import), which documents his lost early work with Allen Toussaint, and Make Me Strong (Charly import), which documents his lost late work with Allen Toussaint. Whether exercising his unsung midrange on clever rock and roll trifles or trying now something slow and now something fonky in pursuit of the ever-elusive follow-up, Aaron is one of those singers who with the aid of a reasonably skillful producer can make almost any song endure. As with early James Brown or the Spaniels' Pookie Hudson, his nonhits of long ago are far more striking now than they were at birth. Though he's renowned for the eerie, quavering shimmer and imperturbable naturalness of his "angelic" falsetto, Aaron can kill all the way down to high baritone. Moreover, his producer wasn't just reasonably skillful. For a long time Toussaint's uncanny tact and sweet piano roll put him up there musically with Berry Gordy Inc., and only Lee Dorsey (forget Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas) did him prouder than Aaron Neville.

Aaron Neville. Allen Toussaint. Ziggy Modeliste. Even Uncle George Landry, a/k/a Big Chief Jolly, the mentor for whom the Nevilles conceived The Wild Tchoupitoulas, which with crucial help from Toussaint and Modeliste stands as the most sheerly likable album in all of history. Together they remind us that neither high competence nor bacchanalian neoclassicism produces consistently great music unless somebody adds a magic ingredient. At the Ritz Saturday I was struck by how adroitly drummer Willie Green emulated Modeliste. But his beats sounded freshest up behind the Clovers' "Lovey Dovey," where nobody had been tricky enough to stick them before; on the "Big Chief" and "Iko Iko" finale, I found time to get just slightly annoyed with his crowd-pleasingly one-dimensional dynamics (not to mention Art's keybs where my mind could almost hear Fess's or Mac's or Toussaint's ivories). Now, I too believe New Orleans rock and roll is, or was, the bestest. And except for Aaron's amazing takeout on the presumed dead "Drift Away"--I mean, at his solo-with-piano concert at St. Ann's the next night he breathed life into "Tammy" and "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," though not "Vincent"--the radio-customized Uptown material sounded stiff and wrong live. But while the Nevilles have too much talent and pedigree to be dismissed as mere revivalists, they're not wizards and they can't defy history. Their live show is a good time and calls up a better one, but it's quite explicitly a show--there's something pat and even educational about it. Just by pitting their journeyman grit against Huey Lewis's engineer in what they believe is cooperative pursuit of a rationalized and delocalized masscult goal, Uptown risks the unknown the way "Mardi Gras Mambo" did. There's aesthetic tension in its craft and blind ambition. And there's reason to think it could sound quirkier and realer than Fiyo on the Bayou another 10 years down the road.

Village Voice, May 19, 1987