Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Was (Not Was)

  • Was (Not Was) [Island, 1981] B-
  • Born to Laugh at Tornadoes [Geffen, 1983] B+
  • What Up, Dog? [Chrysalis, 1988] A-
  • Are You Okay? [Chrysalis, 1990] A-
  • Boo! [Rykodisc, 2008] **

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Was (Not Was) [Island, 1981]
Brains galore, as both lyrics and horn charts trumpet. But if that ain't all, half the time it's too damn close--complementing the full complement of conceits is a grand total of three songs the way I count them. Which must make the omission of the rock-and-rolling "Wheel Me Out," and for that matter A Christmas Record's "Christmas Time in the Motor City," the kind of hubris the brainy can't resist. B-

Born to Laugh at Tornadoes [Geffen, 1983]
"Nietzsche died a lonely madman--Jerry Lewis has his own telethon," concludes the back-cover "prologue." Not that their displacements achieve the depth of either artist, of course--that's the point, and the self-deflation is a relief after the hyperconscious waking nightmares of the debut. Won't get them a telethon, but it's worth five minutes on David Letterman, and they no longer sound as if they regard displacement as their own nutty-professor-turned-ubermensch joke on the world. B+

What Up, Dog? [Chrysalis, 1988]
Smooth has never been their forte--in fact, they've never given a shit about it. So this comes on as scattered as the literary art-funk you dimly remember. It's not, though--they relax a little, write real tunes, groove the overelaborate rhythmic attack, and add lyrical reach and purpose without softpedaling their ruefully cynical leftwing misanthropy. Which is their message to the world whether we (and they) like it or not. Since a little goes a long way, it's encouraging that two of the grotesque one-night stands have happy endings. As for the prodigal malcontent who tells his dad he wants to stay in jail and the good old goon who uses his pit bull as a credit card, they're just misanthropic fun. A-

Are You Okay? [Chrysalis, 1990]
With soulful Sweet Pea Atkinson fulfilling their authenticity quota and sarcastic David Was rapping like he thinks Stanard Ridgway is Kool Moe Dee, they diddybop nasty as they wanna diddybop along the edge of racial presumption, certain of their right to give "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" to papa's number-one son and to feel "better than James Brown" (whatever that means in 1990) even though they know they're gonna sideswipe his sexism two tracks later. Sure they're shallower than they wanna be half the time, in geopolitics especially. But even then they're sort of funny. A-

Boo! [Rykodisc, 2008]
Their sardonic funk would be even benter if Sweet Pea Atkinson was still on the mellow, but believe me--the times are bent enough to compensate ("Semi-Interesting Week," "It's a Miracle"). **