Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Freddy Fender

  • Fuera de Alcance/Out of Reach [Starflite, 1974] B+
  • Rock 'n' Country [ABC/Dot, 1976] B+
  • The Best of Freddy Fender [ABC/Dot, 1977] A-
  • Feliz Navidad: Merry Christmas From Freddy Fender [ABC/Dot, 1977] B
  • Swamp Gold [ABC, 1978] B-
  • Lone Star: The Best of Freddy Fender [Music Club, 1999] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Fuera de Alcance/Out of Reach [Starflite, 1974]
Né Baldemar Huerta, this South Texas legend is a real traditionalist, as he illustrates on the title number, a country song warbled in Spanish over a reggae backing track. Cutting that one inspired him to write a little tune called "Jamaica Farewell" twenty years after Harry Belafonte went pop with it. Time travel is nothing to a man who's done three years for weed, a drug commemorated--along with wine, cocaine, and morphine--on a version of "Junko Partner" that made Dr. John blush as he tickled the ivories in fond support. And "holding his hand and showing him the way is, no other than the great, incredible TV personality, Mr. Domingo Peña known from coast to coast!" B+

Rock 'n' Country [ABC/Dot, 1976]
Fender is a wonder of nature--I just wish one of his albums was a wonder of human devising. This is his third LP for ABC in ten months, and like the others it doesn't get the essence of a man who can follow an incandescent country version of "What'd I Say" with an incandescent country version of "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window." That's the parlay that opens side two of Are You Ready for Freddy, his most satisfying side for ABC to date; this is his most satisfying whole LP. His tenor is so penetrating, his Spanish lisp so guileless, that it's a pleasure to hear him sing almost anything, but he doesn't transcend himself as often as seems possible; why, for instance, should "Big Boss Man" work so much better than "Since I Met You Baby"? If only there were someone who knew. B+

The Best of Freddy Fender [ABC/Dot, 1977]
Alamo diehards claim that stardom's turned Freddy into a Nashville clone, but I prefer this to the Starflite LP he cut as a local hero. It's not just that the horns no longer sound like they're coming in on another station, either--I believe in the material and I think Freddy does too. Like any overworked recordmaker, he's had his share of clinkers, but they're avoided here, and if he has to hug a stuffed (and spineless) cactus on the cover for image's sake, well, that seems authentic enough to me. A-

Feliz Navidad: Merry Christmas From Freddy Fender [ABC/Dot, 1977]
A tough ex-con blissfully unembarrassed by sentimentality, and with a terrific sense of rhythm, Freddy could have made a (bilingual!) Christmas album to rank with Phil Spector's. If only Huey Meaux (producer-svengali) hadn't hogged the copyrights, thus keeping Freddy away from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (his kind of song!) and--even worse--"Feliz Navidad" itself. But I kind of love it anyway, and if it doesn't match UA's rereleased 12 Hits of Christmas or Rhythm and Blues Christmas, it beats hell out of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's White (get it?) (do I have to complete this title?) B

Swamp Gold [ABC, 1978]
There are 15 songs here, most of them, from what I read on the back cover, originally hits for producer Huey P. Meaux, who loves Freddy almost as much as he loves his own catalogue. Nice idea. But Freddy's chronic case of hit-or-miss disease is unaffected by this treatment--of the four cuts I'd consider for the Real Best of Freddy cassette I'm going to compile some day, three do not seem to belong to Meaux. B-

Lone Star: The Best of Freddy Fender [Music Club, 1999]
Fender's catalog will always be a mess--because he recorded too much, because Huey Meaux will license to anyone, because no one will ever compile his deeply felt "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window," because his "Junko Partner" has gone the way of all dope legends. Dot/MCA's The Best of Freddy Fender accesses his late-'70s country-chart phase, whereas this best, while prudently providing alternate takes of "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and "Before the Next Teardrop Falls," lovingly samples the Meaux-produced rest. Included are a regional rock and roll hit from before his just-past-21 1960 drug bust, a creaky Johnny Ace cover, a rollicking "Fannie Mae," a circa-1980 remake of the Who's "Squeeze Box," and a "Chokin' Kind" in which Fender ignores the title apostrophe and sings "If you don't like the peaches walk on by the tree" as if Shakespeare had written it just for him. Though Fender's tenor is sharp rather than mellow, the closest analogy is Aaron Neville, who even when he was good was less innocent, who remains more spiritual if less sublime, and who doesn't break into Spanish for his supper. A-