Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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New York Dolls

  • New York Dolls [Mercury, 1973] A+
  • In Too Much, Too Soon [Mercury, 1974] A+
  • Lipstick Killers [ROIR, 1981] C+
  • Red Patent Leather [Fan Club, 1984] C+
  • Live From Royal Festival Hall, 2004 [Attack, 2004] ***
  • One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This [RoadRunner, 2006] A+
  • 'Cause I Sez So [Atco, 2009] A-
  • Dancing Backwards in High Heels [429, 2011] *

Consumer Guide Reviews:

New York Dolls [Mercury, 1973]
At least half the white kids who grow up in Manhattan are well off and moderately arty, like Carly Simon and John Paul Hammond. It takes brats from the outer boroughs to capture the oppressive excitement Manhattan holds for a half-formed human being the way these guys do. The careening screech of their music was first heard in the Cooper Union station of the Lexington IRT, and they don't stop there. Mixing early-'60s popsong savvy with late-'60s fast-metal anarchy, they seek love l-u-v from trash and bad girls. They go looking for a kiss among the personality crises. And they wonder whether you could make it with Frankenstein. A+

In Too Much, Too Soon [Mercury, 1974]
Like so many cocky songwriters, David JoHansen overloaded his debut with originals and then found that record promotion wasn't a life activity that inspired new ones. But his stock of golden oldies is so private--Leiber & Stoller's "Bad Detective" could have been written to order, and he steals "Showdown" from Archie Bell--that this expresses his innermost self and locates him in history simultaneously. It also avoids such mundane follow-up perils as excess ambition, minimal material, and instant tedium. Follow-up producer Shadow Morton has psyched him into recutting the vocals until his full talents as an impersonator shine through. He's also added gongs, gunshots, and girlie choruses to JoHansen's usual slew of sound effects. Greatest sound effect: Johnny Thunders's buzzsaw, destined to vie with heavy-metal fuzz in the hearts of rock and rollers everywhere. Greatest non-JoHansen song: Johnny Thunders's mewling "Chatterbox." A+

Lipstick Killers [ROIR, 1981]
Nine great songs, three of them covers, including the previously unavailable "Don't Mess With Cupid." If I knew no other versions, I'd recommend these 1972 demos, but as it is Johnny sounds tame, doomed drummer Billy Murcia halting, Arthur out of tune (shocking!), and David perhaps halfway to the wit and assurance that brought this great band together. C+

Red Patent Leather [Fan Club, 1984]
Featuring the original lineup plus a tactful second bass and full of unavailable originals and covers, this live recording from their 1975 fling with Malcolm McLaren looks like a gem and sounds like shit. Literally: audio is maybe a notch above Velvets-at-Max's or Beatles-at-Star-Club, with David undermiked and the guitars buried behind Arthur & Friend. What's more, the originals are all Syl's, highlighted by "Teenage News," which he improved on his generally forgettable solo album four years later. For documentarians only. C+

Live From Royal Festival Hall, 2004 [Attack, 2004]
They haven't slowed down, the world's speeded up, but though it's good they're more together, it's bad they're more dead ("Human Being," "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory/Lonely Planet Boy"). ***

One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This [RoadRunner, 2006]
David Johansen is no longer 24, so this reunion album surprises by revealing the dirty little secret beneath the '70s Dolls' playful pansexuality: religious emotion. Sure they're still into slapstick and noise. But even the orgiastic "We're All in Love" and the comic "Dance Like a Monkey" have metaphysical dimensions. "Dancing on the Lip of a Volcano" is explicitly pagan; "Take a Good Look at My Good Looks" begins "Spirit slumbers in nature and awakens in mind" before asking "So what if this old world is just artifice?" Everywhere Johansen mourns mortality and celebrates contingency in the most searching lyrics of the year--lyrics deepened by how much fun the band is having. A+

'Cause I Sez So [Atco, 2009]
The fourth Dolls album and second of their second life is the first one that's less than epochal. Not all the tunes are surefire. Its garage-rock derivative is several degrees bluesier than the permanently exploding protopunk they reprise on the closing "Exorcism of Despair" just in case you forgot the thrill. And the Buddhism is more overt: post-flagellant culture, existence as a temptation, "Offering the modern crowd an absolute/Worthy of its nothingness." Just in case you forgot the frame of reference, however, there's also a skanking remake of "Trash." And in the end David Johansen's lyrics somehow combine extreme skepticism, metaphysical despair, romantic agony, rock-solid agape and luv l-u-v. How should he call his lover girl? Would she settle for "My baby, got mystical frenzy/Tempered by an irony/Verging on blasphemy"? Let's hope so. A-

Dancing Backwards in High Heels [429, 2011]
Weary blues from trying ("Talk to Me Baby," "End of the Summer") *

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