Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (24)

Aesthetically, things are clearing up. A few good records will do that for you. Paul Simon's first solo lp proves once and for all that singer-songwriters don't have to be empty-headed. The two straight soul lps I've confronted here have helped me focus my increasingly idiosyncratic reaction to black music, which seems in better shape than it has for a long time, yet hasn't produced the work to justify that prognosis. Most important to me, however, are some new insights into the hard rock perplex. I sense a reaction to the soft stuff. Maybe it's just that they know my tastes, but I've been struck by how many rock publicists are hyping their new groups as "playing rock and roll." Even more striking, once in a while they do.

As I've said, I have little use for rock and roll traditionalism. J. Geils and the Flamin Groovies are enjoyable enough, and I think they fill a real need, but it's a dead end. For a long time, the only way I could see out of that dead end was heavy rock, as it's called. If that has proven a gratifying prophecy once in a while--I now regard the fourth Led Zeppelin album, which I damned with faint praise when it appeared, as a genre masterpiece--the sad fact is that I don't much like Bloodrock or Humble Pie, because such groups are ultimately dependent on an insulting concept of theatricality, overstated and most often arrantly male supremacist. But there is another way out, and the man who staked the first claim on it was the man who inspired the whole heavy rock tradition as well--Eric Clapton, who began to work with new ideas of rock dynamics on Layla. You can hear similar ideas on the new lps by Blue Oyster Cult, praised as the Soft White Underbelly in one of the first CGs, and Jo Jo Gunne, which in its earlier manifestation, as part of Spirit, was given a C plus for wool-gathering several years ago. On the other hand, Black Oak Arkansas, which has gone the histrionic route, was once praised here as the Knowbody Else, or unassuming, white, Southern rock band. Some mature, others fall by the wayside. Here's to you, Paul Simon.

JEFF BECK GROUP: Rough and Ready (Epic) Despite some superb textures, this is as sloppy and self-indulgent as ever. Bob Tench's singing is mannered-frantic, the compositions are uninteresting, and there's never a full minute that doesn't begin to drag. C PLUS [Later]

BLACK OAK ARKANSAS: Keep the Faith (Atlantic) This group isn't even hawking revival--snake oil, that's all. C MINUS

BLUE OYSTER CULT (Columbia) Warning: this is a critic's band, managed by Sandy Pearlman with occasional lyrics by R. Meltzer. Reassurance: the tightest and most musical hard rock record since--dare I say it?--Who's Next. Well, Detroit, anyway. A MINUS [Later: B+]

J.J. CALE: Naturally (Shelter) After years of combatting pretentiousness we discover that unpretentiousness can be worse. This is so easy on the spirit that even though it doesn't offend with its vapidity (like Cat Stevens) or lassitude (like Sweet Babykins) it invites the scorn of moralizers like myself anyway. Leon Russell should be ashamed--there's too much talent here to justify such slight results--but since it's Good Musically, he won't be, which is what's wrong with Leon Russell. Push a little, fellas, it'll feel so good. C PLUS [Later: B]

CRAZY HORSE: Loose (Reprise) With Jack Nitzsche, Danny Whitten, and Nils Lofgren departed, this is the most disappointing follow-up I can remmeber. Lifeless country-rock. D PLUS [Later]

EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER: Pictures From an Exhibition (Cotillion) This version of Moussorgsky's mouldy oldie has a good new beat, but the instrumentation is below par, and to tell the truth I don't even listen to the original much. D [Later]

JERRY GARCIA: Garcia (Warner Bros.) Side one of the record sounds almost too pleasant and catchy, as if Hunter and Garcia, the most consistent songwriters of the past few years, have settled too deep into their groove, and the other is a musique concrete experiment. The groove sounds good and the experiment succeeds, non-pretention and pretention balancing out more satisfactorily, and I am a certified Grateful Dead freak, but none of it is compelling. B PLUS [Later]

AL GREEN: Let's Stay Together (Hi) Maybe it's just that I'm so tired of the title single, but this is disappointing. Al Green Gets Next to You shows real emotional range--like Marvin Gaye, Green comes on both passive and active. The popularity of his long-suffering, however, has induced him to narrow his persona. Item: the most impressive cut on the lp is "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?"--Green's version is far superior to the Bee Gees' original, but the original is pure glop. Item: the album doesn't include one uptempo song. Green is still the most intelligent male soul singer to emerge in years, and in the context of three or four more albums this one may sound fine. Right now, it's too much of a good thing. B [Later: A-]

MARY HOPKIN: Earth Song/Ocean Song (Apple) My taste for Hopkin's limpid prettiness may be eccentric, but there it is. I find her straightforward role-playing poignant and revelatory, and this is her best album. B PLUS [Later]

JAMMING WITH EDWARD (Rolling Stones) The only reason this two-year-old Jagger/Hopkins/Cooder/Wyman/Watts jam rates so high is that it retails for two bucks below normal list. Okay playing, lousy vocal mix; for fanatics only. B MINUS [Later: C]

JO JO GUNNE (Asylum) A hard rock band that digs structure and texture as well as drumming and amplification. Vaguely reminiscent of Layla and Detroit, this also derives from the best of Spirit--namely, "I've Got a Line on You." Hi-high, American pie. B PLUS

THE MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA FEATURING JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia) No backbeat, no voices, no concessions, but the soaring prophecies and jangled contradictions of this inspired electric music are worth the effort. A [Later]

THE OSMONDS: Phase III (MGM) No, I'm not being perverse. In fact, the first side to this lp--which includes two great singles ("Yo-Yo" and "Down by the Lazy River") and two good white soul-rockers and an acceptable-plus ballad--is such great AM music that I'm tempted to go higher. Unfortunately, the other side is a stinker, from Jesus-rock to studio jollity. One album a year and they might be very good indeed. B

PAUL SIMON (Warner Bros.) I've been saying nasty things about Simon since 1967, but this is the best new record I've heard since Who's Next, the first record I've been evangelical about since Joy of Cooking, and the only thing in the universe to make me positively happy in the first two weeks of February 1972. I hope Art Garfunkel is gone for good--he always seemed so vestigial, but it's obvious now that two-part harmony crippled Simon's naturally agile singing and composing. And the words. This is a professional tour of Manhattan for youth culture grads, complete with Bella Abzug, hard rain, and people who steal your chow fong. The self-production is brilliantly economical and lively, with the guitars of Jerry Hahn and Stefan Grossman and Airto Moreira's percussion especially inspired choices. Masterpiece: "Peace Like a River." A PLUS [Later]

BERNIE TAUPIN (Elektra) I know I'm prejudiced against Elton John, but even if you dig him, I doubt that you'll like this rip-off by his lyricist, which is more of the old doggerel recited to musical accompaniment, just like Rod McKuen, who does it better. E [Later]

TRAFFIC: The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (Island) These guys waste their talent. They're self-indulgent and devoid of intellectual force. They've never figured out what to do with their beloved jam form, and more often than not they use lyrics designed only to fill holes in the music of the meter. In general, they arouse my sporadic suspicions of the whole multi-percussive trend, which recalls a lot of bad precedents in jazz itself. Yet they're onto something. Their music is exceptionally catchy and suggests a nice paradox of relaxation and excitement, and they have figured out how to use horns without destroying the electricity of their music. Sometimes it even sounds as if Winwood knows why he's singing. Worth a try. B PLUS [Later: B]

T. REX: Electric Warrior (Warner Bros.) I probably should like this group more than I do, but I just don't. Even "Bang a Gong" doesn't grab me the way a great single should, and I've gone comfortably for weeks without hearing the other songs I like on this album. Too fey. B [Later]

THE UNDISPUTED TRUTH: Face to Face With the Truth (Gordy) Connoisseurs of Motown nouveau find this impossibly slick and fakey, which is just what I like about it. Admittedly, it's nowhere near as good as good Marvin Gaye, but its failures aren't as bathetic, either. B

DIONNE WARWICK: Dionne (Warner Bros.) I love Dionne so much I keep expecting her to do something as strong as "Walk On By" for her chosen audience, which happens to be upper-middle-class by now, but who cares? Those people have real lives, too, as "Hasbrook Heights," about the genuine pleasures of the suburbs, makes clear. Unfortunately, that's just about the only honest cut on the album. Whether Hal David is dealing liberal pieties or explaining how true love lasts forever, he's selling lies so blatant that even his audience must know it, and Burt Bacharach's music has become every bit as false. How sad--Dionne can project credible emotion, but she is encouraged to play it smooth and slick. Paging Richard Perry. C MINUS [Later: C+]

YES: Fragile (Atlantic) If there must be a rock/classical synthesis, I hope it's in this mode, so much more integral than ELP's flashy chopsmanship. Tricky intros, changes, and harmonies blend organically into a forceful electric framework, and even an excerpt from Brahms works. Incredible technique, yup, but isn't there more to art than great contrivance? B [Later]

Additional Consumer News

One reason I've been a little more optimistic about black music over the past month has been the small rush on truly extraordinary singles. I finally did tire of Al Green's second, Let's Stay Together, but only because it became number one for a while, a strain few singles can withstand. Moving up not quite as far at the same time, and now on their way out, were two records that never did bore me: Joe Simon's "Drowning in the Sea of Love," perhaps the finest Gamble-Huff production yet, and "Clean Up Woman," by Betty Wright. My newest enthusiasm is a remake of a Four Tops song that never excited me very much, "I Can't Help Myself," by Donnie Elbert. Elbert's voice dips and whoops so subtly that sometimes he makes me think there's room for more new male soul stars, in fact, for a renaissance. Significant, too, that Green, Simon, and Elbert are all associated with non-major soul labels (Hi/London, Spring/Polydor, and Avco Embassy respectively).

Not to forget the biggies, Atlantic picked up Howard Tate's contract last spring and commissioned Jerry Ragovoy to do another album with him--the first, on Verve, is an authentic underground soul classic. It arrived too late for this Consumer Guide, but I'm playing it right now and it sounds great. Atlantic has also released a two-record set called Heavy Soul that is worth checking out. Despite the predictable bummers ("Funky Nassau" and, as far as I'm concerned, Aretha's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" "Spanish Harlem," the two hokiest things she's done this side of "Eleanor Rigby," plus Sam and Dave's "Don't Pull Your Love" and a few others) it contains mostly great (and non-album) music, including stuff you've heard on the radio--the two King Floyds, "Clean Up Woman," "Precious Precious"--and stuff you haven't--Brook Benton's "Shoes," for instance. . . .

I never got into Link Wray's album, but he was really terrific at Sam Hood's new music room on the second floor of Max's. Everything from country blues to "Rumble." . . .

Must-miss greatest hits album: the new Moby Grape. Whoever included "Bitter Wind" ought to be left to die in the bowels of a Moog synthesizer.

Village Voice, Mar. 2, 1972

Postscript Notes:

After this, Christgau left the Village Voice for Newsday, which published Consumer Guide reviews as "capsules", often 2-3 at a time. These capsules were subsequently collected into a monthly Consumer Guide column in Creem.

Jan. 20, 1972 August 1972