Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Leon Russell & Marc Benno [extended]

  • Look Inside the Asylum Choir [Smash, 1968] B
  • Leon Russell [Shelter, 1970] B+
  • Leon Russell and the Shelter People [Shelter, 1971] B
  • Asylum Choir II [Shelter, 1971] B
  • Carney [Shelter, 1972] B-
  • Ambush [A&M, 1972] B+
  • Stop All That Jazz [Shelter, 1974] D+
  • Will o' the Wisp [Shelter, 1975] C-
  • Best of Leon [Shelter, 1976] B+
  • Americana [Paradise, 1978] C-
  • One for the Road [Columbia, 1979] B-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Asylum Choir: Look Inside the Asylum Choir [Smash, 1968]
This year-old effort by Leon Russell and Marc Benno, now re-released, got a lot of nice reviews and no sales first time around, which is more or less what it deserved. A nice record to write reviews about: strong studio work with a heavy Zappa flavor, quality of satire ditto. B

Leon Russell: Leon Russell [Shelter, 1970]
This is weirder than what you'd expect from a man whose Phil Spector savvy and slick gospel piano have helped stabilize both Delaney & Bonnie and Joe Cocker. Russell has all of Mick Jagger's whine and shriek and none of his power, so while the singing is distinctive, and valid, it grates--impressive material from "Dixie Lullaby" and "Shoot Out on the Plantation" would simply be more so with other vocals. If not Delaney, Bonnie, or Joe, how about Marc Benno? B+

Leon Russell: Leon Russell and the Shelter People [Shelter, 1971]
Russell knows how to put music together, but he still has trouble putting it across. His Okie-cum-Brooklyn (ersatz Nworleans?) drawl is the outcry of a confused homeboy driven to fuse rootsy eccentricities with masscult shtick and flash, and his meaningfulness clarifies nothing. The Dylan covers here are trying to tell us something, but in the end Russell's newfound (and competent enough) zeitgeistery ("Stranger in a Strange Land") and protest ("Alcatraz") aren't as interesting as the injokey "Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen." Which tells us something else. B

Asylum Choir II [Shelter, 1971]
If the first one was their acid album this 1969 session is their protest album, beginning and ending with advice to a "straight brother" and featuring a revised "Sweet Home Chicago" (for Mayor Daley and his "northern rednecks"), a soppy antiwar song, a scabrous antiwar song, and a confusing anti-smoking song. As well as four love songs that will never make Merv Griffin, one because it advocates "eating salty candy." B

Leon Russell: Carney [Shelter, 1972]
Not the radical falloff some report--just slippage, the first side listenable and the second flaky. Not that I expect "Manhattan Island Serenade" or "Cajun Love Song" to get covered like "This Masquerade." And not that I enjoy anything else as much as "If the Shoe Fits," a cheap shot at hangers-on that says more about the performer's lot than "Tight Rope" and "Magic Mirror" put together. B-

Marc Benno: Ambush [A&M, 1972]
In a lot of ways this is a perfect record--easy studio funk unmarred by a single error of commission. Benno does Boz Scaggs a lot looser and happier than Boz Scaggs has for a while, and Bobby Keys stands out among the sidemen (Radle, Keltner, Utley) only because he's never sounded better. It's divided into a irresistible dance side and a decent enough listening side. Yet I no longer trust such basically unthinking supercompetence to provide lasting pleasure. Anyone who doesn't share my reservations should probably buy this, and even if you do--well, I keep playing it. B+

Leon Russell: Stop All That Jazz [Shelter, 1974]
The bad jokes start with the cover, which depicts Leon in a cannibal stewpot, the joke being that since he's not even tasty any more why would they bother? (Oo-ee.) Leon's version of "If I Were a Carpenter" has a part about rock stars and groupies that is even dumber than the original. (Stop, my sides are splitting.) And the title is a sly reference to the horn riffs which are the only music on this record I ever want to hear again. (Stop anyway.) D+

Leon Russell: Will o' the Wisp [Shelter, 1975]
Last time he played the arrogant layabout and pissed everyone off, so now that he's trying too hard should we feel sorry for him? He knows it's make-or-break, and he obviously wants to do new things. But he just doesn't have the chops, not even conceptually. C-

Leon Russell: Best of Leon [Shelter, 1976]
From "Roll Away the Stone," more iconoclastic than Mott the Hoople's, to "Stranger in a Strange Land," more iconoclastic than Robert Heinlein's, the first side reminds you what an uncommon rock and roller he can be. But on side two, which yokes "A Song for You," "This Masquerade," and "Hummingbird" to three potboilers from Will o' the Wisp, you realize that his iconoclasm was (is?) as accidental as his standards. B+

Leon Russell: Americana [Paradise, 1978]
I never quite got Leon's point back in the days of mad dogs and superstars, so you'll forgive me for having allowed his very first Kim Fowley collaboration to slip off the charts (from a high of 110 in Record World) before it reached my turntable. Turns out to be notable as a real con artists' summit--there's a tribute to "Elvis and Marilyn" that is now being distributed in verse form, a soap opera called "Housewife" that panders so ecumenically it's been covered by Wayne Newton, and a song to Leon's latest agent, Jesus. C-

Willie Nelson & Leon Russell: One for the Road [Columbia, 1979]
As the duo dueted swingingly through "I Saw the Light" and "Heartbreak Hotel" on the first of these four sides, I thought Willie had somehow gotten away with yet another triumphant nonalbum, but the slack B-Western self-parody of "Don't Fence Me In" and "Sioux City Sue" on side two set me straight. And sides three and four, where Leon accompanies Willie through another batch of stardust, are a mistake--even if the music were as good (compare this "Lucky Old Sun" to the one on Sound in Your Mind), it's too soon for a reprise. Frank Sinatra he's not. B-