Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • Signing Off [Graduate, 1980] B+
  • Present Arms [DEP International, 1981] A-
  • The Singles Album [DEP International, 1982] A-
  • 1980-83 [A&M, 1983] A-
  • Labour of Love [A&M, 1983] A-
  • Geffery Morgan [A&M, 1984] A-
  • Little Baggariddim [A&M EP, 1985] A-
  • Rat in the Kitchen [A&M, 1986] B+
  • UB40 CCCP--Live in Moscow [A&M, 1987] B
  • UB40 [A&M, 1988] B+
  • Labour of Love II [Virgin, 1989] B
  • Promises and Lies [Virgin, 1993] Dud
  • The Best of UB40, Vol. 1 [Virgin, 1995] ***

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Signing Off [Graduate, 1980]
Eight black-and-whites from Birmingham who named themselves after the dole card they know so well, they don't play no ska--they're songsmiths in a deep reggae groove. Like good reggaeheads (and unlike punk/mod ska speeders), they take their time instead of pressing on to the next one, and more than one instrumental outwears its welcome. But when they're singing "Tyler is guilty" or "King where are your people now?" or "I'm a British subject, not proud of it" or--guess who--"Madame Medusa," patience is rewarded. B+

Present Arms [DEP International, 1981]
They're not about to revolutionize JA--not by carpentering the bass lines, horn charts, and dub effects of the reggae of yesteryear (1975, say) into an indigenous pop r&b. And though they have their own DIY label, they're not about to revolutionize their native U.K. either. But their conscience is catching--I know, because I fell for "One in Ten" on Radio Luxembourg despite my objections to its merely liberal message. Their toasting is pretty infectious too. And they relegate the instrumentals to a bonus twelve-inch. Still, I doubt they'll break the DOR barrier here--what passes for mild protest in England these days might sound dangerous Stateside. It might even be dangerous. A-

The Singles Album [DEP International, 1982]
As satisfying as their albums are once you surrender to their steady state, certain characteristic devices--the sax obbligatos, the calm ache of Ali Campbell's vocals--do eventually cry out for some kind of change. Hits are designed to meet the need for some kind of change, and since unlike so many Brit bands this one isn't above putting hits on LPs, their compilation is a best-of in the American sense. I miss "Madame Medusa," I miss "Sardonicus." But the Randy Newman cover is here, and "King" and "Tyler." The other albums won't disappoint. But this is a worthy consumer service. A-

1980-83 [A&M, 1983]
Only Bunny Wailer's inventions have anything on the deep consistency of this integrated English world-class reggae. And if Ali Campbell's sufferating vocal leads are tamer than the outcries of such rootsmen as Winston Rodney and Keith Porter, they certainly don't lack for soul or expressive reach, except perhaps on the upful side, where the fast-talking Astro comes to the rescue before any serious tedium is done. Repeating only three tunes from their U.K. best-of, eschewing long-winded dub, this overdue U.S.-debut compilation is where to get hooked. A-

Labour of Love [A&M, 1983]
Slightly annoyed at Ali Campbell's low pain threshold, I was about to dismiss these classic covers as a reggae Pin Ups when I noticed Astro's toasts and the U-Threes' backups saving the two Harder They Come remakes. A week or two thereafter it hit me once again that reggae tunes can take a long, long time to hook in. And by then, guess who I was suffering along with. A-

Geffery Morgan [A&M, 1984]
Seemed dull even for reggae first time through, and even for the soulfully monochromatic Ali Campbell well after that. I persevered only because an Afrosax instrumental kept taking me by surprise. Then the lilting "Seasons" won my heart. And then--presto!, or at least lento . . . --I was focusing in on almost every cut, and admiring the jumpy depth of the production throughout. Could be their strongest ever, I swear. Still there's reason to worry about how long the first impression will last. A-

Little Baggariddim [A&M EP, 1985]
The speeded-up "One in Ten" is just like "I Got You Babe" with Chrissie Hynde as Cher--an unabashed and possibly unprincipled bid for the red wine audience from reggae men who've always been political by choice rather than racial destiny. And the statistical metaphor it draws does seem a little less grim now. But good politics are rarely grim, and though I've loved "One in Ten" since the first time I heard it, this is the version I'll put on, if only because Chrissie makes such a soulful Cher. Also, two of the five tracks are toasts, which seems about the right proportion to me. A-

Rat in the Kitchen [A&M, 1986]
One way you know they're a real reggae band is that you always think they've run out of songs until you play the album one last time. But they're a pop band, too--you don't perfect such seamless effects on a reggae budget. It would be puritanical to refuse the salves and ointments of this kind of intelligent political product. But it would be utopian to claim it cures anybody's ills. B+

UB40 CCCP--Live in Moscow [A&M, 1987]
To the usual concert-album flaws of redundancy (Labour of Love and Rat in the Kitchen revisited) and speedup (what do Russians know of deep grooves?), UB40 adds a presumably well-intentioned attempt to cram an hour of music onto one vinyl disc. As a result, the vocals are even hollower and duller than you'd expect--on vinyl. The CD, wouldn't you know, is markedly richer and clearer. But for sheer audio I still prefer Little Baggariddim. B

UB40 [A&M, 1988]
This is such an uncommonly steadfast band--the same eight musicians pursuing the same reggae-protest since 1980--that I'm willing to believe the love songs signify a break not in dedication but in "macho bravado," as they claim. And as usual, everything hooks in after a long eventually. But what'll get to you eventually is a neoclassic instrumental, a Chrissie Hynde oldie duet, and one of the protest numbers. B+

Labour of Love II [Virgin, 1989]
The differences are subtle, like everything with this band--rather then being dashed, your high hopes for the sequel succumb to a lingering illness. The beat glides a little too much, the synth washes a little too much, Ali Campbell sings the prize covers a little less and runs them through his voice a little more. And maybe, just maybe, the covers themselves aren't quite as prize. B

Promises and Lies [Virgin, 1993] Dud

The Best of UB40, Vol. 1 [Virgin, 1995]
what shall it profit a great white reggae band if it should gain the world and sell its own soul? ("One in Ten," "Rat in Mi Kitchen") ***