Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (18)

The time has come for me to redefine my prejudices. The point of the CG, lest you forget, is for me to record my out-front biased opinion and let you make the adjustment. The problem is, my like and dislikes have been changing radically. I won't go into why--you really can never be sure, although it's a lot of fun to construct rationalizations--but I want to state how. Two years ago, when all this started, I told you I had an unnatural affection for soul music. Actually, that was a kindness. I have always believed that white rock fans who don't like black music--which means most of them, I'm afraid--suffer from either cultural deprivation or some spiritual deficiency, and I've done my best to include black albums in my survey. I've finally begun to give up hope, however, for reasons that the current CG will indicate, and even though I still get off on WWRL I think the prospects for soul albums are so bleak that my prejudice has probably turned in the other direction. The same goes for a genre that I've always disliked but didn't think dangerous enough to mention two years ago--namely, folkie music. Whew, was that a mistake. We are under invasion by sensitives, and even though I like to think of myself as open minded on the subject--and do in fact enjoy a lot of related soft-rock bands, to a point--I have to acknowledge that no sissy with an acoustic guitar and a few poetrittic lyrics is going to get much shrift from me. Finally, I can't stand horn bands. Dreams, Ten Wheel Drive, BS&T, Chicago, If, Ball 'n' Jack, and on and on and on, they all sound alike to me, with their singers trying to imitate saxophones trying to imitate trumpets and their trumpets trying to imitate steam whistles. I still tolerate soul horns, sometimes, and I remain quite sympathetic to jazz, but rock horns just turn me off and I will try to resist telling you so any more.

There's one more thing. I like white blues.

BIG BROTHER AND THE HOLDING COMPANY: Be a Brother (Columbia) This has been growing on me for six months--it would have been a B last fall. With the obvious exception, all the original members are here, plus third guitarist David Schallock and Nick Gravenities singing. Gravenites is the auteur, so there's less feedback and more funk; this is the fine album he's always had in him. Sam Andrew also contributes vocals and compositions. Every cut, including the two instrumentals, is solidly exciting. Highlight: "Heartache People." A [Later: A-]

ALICE COOPER: Love It to Death (Straight) The singles ("Caught in a Dream" and "I'm Eighteen") are fantastic, but the album is freighted with post-psychedelic garbage, the kind of thing that's done better by the heavy metal kids down the block. Maybe next time. B MINUS [Later]

DAVID CROSBY: If I Could Only Remember My Name (Atlantic) This disgraceful performance inspires: the first in an unpredictable series of Consumer Guide competitions. The test: rename David Crosby. The prize: one Byrds lp of your choice. The catch: you have to beat my entries. Which are: Rocky Muzak, Roger Crosby, Vaughn Monroe. D MINUS [Later]

MILES DAVIS: Jack Johnson (Columbia) This isn't as exciting as Bitches Brew at its best, but as a considered piece of recording I like it better than anything he has done since Milestones and Kind of Blue a decade ago--all those flashy ideas coalesced into one brilliant illumination. A PLUS [Later]

DELANEY & BONNIE & FRIENDS: Motel Shot (Atco) I don't suppose I've retained any credibility about D&B, since I admire everything they do, but I really think this is their best since the Elektra album. Each side is an acoustic jam of the sort that actually takes place in musicians' motels and dressing rooms. The country blues side is seamless perfection; the most unflawed listening music I've come across this year. The gospel side, however, contains some doubtless authentic but nonetheless painful down-home caterwauling that will appeal only to more specialized tastes. A [Later]

FANNY (Reprise) Burbank's entry in the Ladies' Day Derby, attempting to emulate the circa-1965 AM sound of groups like the Hollies and (says here) the Beatles. I tried hard with this one but it definitely don't make it. execution is competent--especially the zippy version of "Badge"--but original material weak. C MINUS [Later: C]

PETER GREEN: The End of the Game (Reprise) Fleetwood Mac fans beware: meandering bullshit. D [Later]

DONNY HATHAWAY (Atco) Jerry Wexler and Atlantic, who would seem to know more about this sort of thing than I do, are pushing this refugee from the production booth as the Man Who Will Revitalize Soul Music. Could be, as I say, but if having soul means digging on all this supper-club melodrama and homogenized jazz then I'm content to be sterile, square, and white. Yeah yeah yeah. D MINUS

ETTA JAMES: Losers Weepers (Cadet) Anyone depressed (as I am) by the confusion of soul music--phony psychedelica, upwardly mobile social protest, second-generation Nancy Wilson--should listen to this strong, humorous, sensual singer who has recorded 11 lps for Chess, because she's boring. The same old horn riffs, the same old ASCAP flights, the same old mannerisms--even a singer as good as Etta James can't make it work. Only the title cut and the strings on "Look at the Rain" offer any excitement. No wonder they're trying new stuff. C PLUS [Later: B+]

CAROLE KING: Tapestry (Ode) Carole King has done for the female voice what countless singer-composers achieved long ago for the male. She insists on being heard as the is--not raunchy and hot-to-trot or sweet and be-yoo-ti-ful, just human, with all the cracks and imperfections that ought to imply, but with all the self-acceptance, too. Note, however, that her talent is as a melodist; a few of the lyrics here (especially the title song) are vapid and/or overblown. A MINUS [Later]

MOTHER EARTH: Bring Me Home (Reprise) What can I say? A [Later: B+]

PROCUL HARUM: Broken Barricades (A&M) The underground hype on this one makes it out to be some sort of triumph for good old rock, which is absurd. I find it so muddy and pompous I can't even hear the lyrics. I hope I'm never induced to play it again. C MINUS [Later]

BIFF ROSE: Half Live at the Bitter End (Buddah) Those who want something besides the Firesign Theatre to make them laugh when they're really stoned might try this goofy, well-edited tribute to the short-circuit synapse. A warning, though: I've always liked Rose on Johnny Carson. Some don't. B PLUS

STAPLE SINGERS: The Staple Swingers (Stax) Don't be put off by the title--the Staples haven't been a gospel group for years, and now that they're admitting it they can turn their two extraordinary assets--Mavis's voice and Pop's riff--into a new soul sound that would undoubtedly sound schlocky if anyone else tried to imitate it but somehow works for them. The hit single, "Heavy Makes You Happy," comes from the same pen that gave us "Sugar Sugar." B PLUS [Later: B]

CAT STEVENS: Tea for the Tillerman (A&M) Maybe it's just my galloping ennui, but this sounds distinctly inferior to Mona Bone Jakon--repetitive, uninteresting melodically,a nd lacking Stevens's former dry delicacy. B MINUS [Later]

BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'S: Melting Pot (Stax) This is recommended despite the tasteless intrusion of a Vegas-jazz boop-de-doo chorus on the second side because the group has finally shed the somewhat mechanical, boxy rhythms that always made their albums boring even though the individual cuts were unexceptionable. (Exception: "Uptight," which had vocals.) I don't think this is due to a change in the rhythm section so much as it is to a new concept in which Booker lays back on organ and allows the melody to be carried by the band as a whole. Unbelievably smooth but never slick--except on those damned boop-de-doos. A MINUS [Later: B+]

ALEX TAYLOR: With Friends and Neighbors (Capricorn) I figure it's time I come out with it. I hate James Taylor and I don't trust any of his damn family either. When Warners sent me a poster of James I ripped it to shreds and hung one shred on the wall with some magic marker . . . B [Later: B-]

JAMES TAYLOR: Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (Warner Bros.) . . . stuff about running dogs of capitalism on it. That's how he makes me feel. I think the basic problem is everything I know about him plus his vapid songs plus that lazy, conniving, self-pitying voice. Even his admirers don't like his latest . . . C MINUS [Later: C+]

KATE TAYLOR: Sister Kate (Cotillion) album and of course I concur. Kate's a more difficult case: good song selection over-produced to conceal the basic characterlessness of her pleasant voice. But for some reason I like Alex--he sounds a little bluesy, like he's in it for money. C MINUS [Later]

OTIS WILLIAMS AND THE MIDNIGHT COWBOYS (Stop) The old r&b pro here provides black America's answer to Charley Pride. A sly and passionate union of two disparate but parallel modes. Recommended to country heads just as a curiosity, although the music (produced by Pete Drake) justifies itself. B PLUS [Later: B]

Additional Consumer News

There is a good new rock magazine to look for--Creem, out of Detroit, which has recently abandoned newspaper for magazine layout and is publishing the most ambitious writing in the field. The issue on the stands contains Greil Marcus's monumental "Rock-a-Hula Clarified" and a brilliant put-on by Lester Bangs that takes the form of Lester as an old man telling his grand-chillun about the Yardbirds. Also something by someone called R. Christgau. . . .

Another of my favorite rock mags is the snapily-titled National Enquirer. In a recent issue I picked up enough tidbits about my faves to put Rolling Stone to shame. Did you know that Elvis Presley's parents recently paid funeral costs for a 16-year-old boy from Gleason, Tennessee, who died of a brain tumor, and also bought his family a used station wagon. Did you know that John Lennon's favorite picture of himself was taken when he got a bicycle at the age of 12? Or that Christie recently refused to receive an award from Prince Charles for "Yellow Rover" because they didn't want to wear formal clothes? Or that Theo Bikel favors ethnic variety and Buddy Rich believes in UFOs? Really. . . .

A special award for offensive pressmanship to RCA Victor, which publicized an all-white group called the Third World with a medium-elaborate press kit--silver box complete with decal, red-white-and-black three-finger flag, photo, and last but not least copy, such as "The crashing crescendo of cacaphonous cadences" or if you prefer, "The Third World is just that. Confused, and angry. Petulant and aware." Need I add that this Third World eschews violence? . . .

The most creative corporation in the music business has been not Warners but Capitol, which has released a remarkable number of intelligent and even courageous (as with the humpbacked whale lp) records. Recently, Capitol's parent company, EMI, fired all of Capitol's top management. Profits were down, you see.

Village Voice, June 10, 1971

Apr. 22, 1971 Aug. 19, 1971