Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Arlo Guthrie

  • Alice's Restaurant [Reprise, 1967] B-
  • Running Down the Road [Reprise, 1969] A
  • Washington County [Warner Bros., 1970] B-
  • Hobo's Lullaby [Reprise, 1972] B+
  • Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys [Reprise, 1973] B
  • Arlo Guthrie [Reprise, 1974] B+
  • Amigo [Reprise, 1976] A-
  • The Best of Arlo Guthrie [Warner Bros., 1977] B
  • One Night [Warner Bros., 1978] C+
  • Outlasting the Blues [Warner Bros., 1979] B

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Alice's Restaurant [Reprise, 1967]
The only sin of the title tale is kindness, but even in that, Arlo presents a fetching argument for hippie unsentimentality--for he's also funny, sly, intensely moral, and quite unmoralistic. The six tunes on the other side aren't bad as tunes, but they were recorded before Arlo learned how to sing. One-sided masterpiece. B-

Running Down the Road [Reprise, 1969]
Easily his best and most musical album, thanks to production-of-the-year by Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks. Contains two absolutely superb cuts: "Running Down the Road," which features a guitar freak-out by some studio musicians who ought to send 20 white blues bands scampering back to the tars of India, and "Coming into Los Angeles," which embodies almost perfectly what it means to be young, hip, and temporarily on top of it in 1970 Amerika. A

Washington County [Warner Bros., 1970]
Basically, Running Down the Road was about what it said it was about. As such, it was a little scary, which I liked but Arlo apparently didn't, because now he's busy finding "a place to dwell" and learning about Jesus. Or, to turn his only joke on this record around, putting his foot in his mouth and telling it where he wants to go. The Woody cover exposes the dark underside of cattle drives, but mostly it's roots and fenceposts--in short, the good earth. Which may be why he sounds sodden. B-

Hobo's Lullaby [Reprise, 1972]
If somebody's gotta make exploring-the-folkie-mind-set records, oh Lord let it be somebody with a strong sense of history as well as a weakness for nostalgia. "Ukelele Lady" sounds positively intelligent backing one of Woody's heaviest antiscab ballads, and if the new ones about trains and booze seem slightly outmoded, well, that's part of the point, right? B+

Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys [Reprise, 1973]
That the folkie mind set dwells in the recording studio these days is a truth only new folk-rock songs as original as "City of New Orleans" can make me like. Instead, the best new tune here, Arlo's celebration of the Guthries' fiddling tradition, sounds suspiciously like a traditional fiddle tune. And I never had much use for "Gates of Eden" in its, er, authentic version. B

Arlo Guthrie [Reprise, 1974]
This odd little record comes on like Arlo VII, which might rightfully excite semi-coma among the unconverted, but it's not. For once, Lenny Waronker's expertise produces music--playing and especially singing, not aural quality--that flirts (a little coyly) with amateurishness. Plus the record is political in a consciously oblique and sometimes fuzzy smart-hippie way. Arlo's Watergate song does justice to Tom T. Hall. And the two spirituals that make you wonder why he's fooling around with the Southern California Community Choir turn out to be about Israel. B+

Amigo [Reprise, 1976]
When you wrap one good-but-not-great album a year around a voice so frail and a sensibility so quirky, you're liable to find yourself pigeonholed--as a miniaturist, an odd duck if not a small fry. On the other hand, if just a few of those LPs are a little better than anyone has a right to expect, people might start thinking you're an auteur or something. I don't go for that frog talk myself, but this release has me pulling out my old Arlo albums and discovering how ideally the limitations of his voice have always suited his wry and complex understanding of things. Especially recommended: "Guabi Guabi," an absurdly cheerful African ditty that ought to be a novelty hit, and "Victor Jara," the most painful protest song in recent memory (including "Hurricane"). A-

The Best of Arlo Guthrie [Warner Bros., 1977]
A best-of with a theme: The Rehabilitation of a Smart-Ass. Side one leads with "Alice's Restaurant Massacre," retrieved from Arlo's otherwise amateurish debut, and then reprises two tuneful if soggy religious numbers. Side two leads with "Motorcycle (Significance of the Pickle) Song," rescued from Arlo's unnecessary live collaboration with Uncle Pete, follows with the hippie-desperado anthem "Coming Into Los Angeles," and then "progresses" into the reconciliation and nostalgia of Arlo's mature period. I have nothing against his mature period, but it's represented more cogently and unpredictably on Arlo Guthrie and Amigo. This would be more listenable, albeit less educational, if all the folk-punk stuff were on the same side. B

One Night [Warner Bros., 1978]
Sick of going into debt to make exquisitely conceived studio albums that don't sell, Arlo here delivers a mostly live LP--with undistinguished folkie-rockie added by his road band, Shenandoah--that strings together pointless Elvis and Beatles covers, one-dimensional folk songs, and a tall tale that would have trouble making first string guard on a high school basketball team. C+

Outlasting the Blues [Warner Bros., 1979]
These reflections on God, love, and death are substantial and obviously earned, but too often they're just not acute. The problem isn't his religious overview, either--think of T-Bone Burnett. Guthrie simply goes soft aesthetically at crucial moments, and although most of the material is creditable enough, only once--on "Epilogue," Guthrie's "Under Ben Bulben"--is the enormous emotional potential of the project realized. B

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