Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Around the time I decided Eastwood & Saint and Sugar Minott had snuck over the B plus line, I got the bright idea of making this CG all-recommended: no B-or-under record reviewed. This proved a major pain in the ass as too many casual favorites fell to the wrong side, but I can make this guarantee: if a guest were to request any of these titles, I'd listen with active pleasure. I don't expect to be pulling them all down on my own volition, however. Within B plus top-to-bottom, the dividing line falls around the Go-Betweens: Trio, Cray, Speedboys, V-Effect, Latimore, Go-Betweens, Simon, Minott, Walsh, Was (Not Was), Eastwood & Saint.

ABC: Beauty Stab (Mercury) I don't get these complaints that Martin Fry has abandoned his shallow but ingratiating popcraft for a brave/pretentious but/and ill-advised stab at social significance. Except for "The Look of Love," a super-catchy fluke that apparently confused people, instant hooks weren't how the first album worked either, and his shallowness was always more apparent than real. As with the debut, give this one five spins and you'll remember every track, with "She's vegetarian except when it comes to sex" your first but not last aha. Whether you'll enjoy it all as much is another matter--there's a slight loss of verve. But that was then and this is now. A MINUS

GEORGE CLINTON: You Shouldn't-Nuf Bit Fish (Capitol) This isn't as smart as Computer Games, or as soulful either--success will always go to George's head. So be thankful the head is a capacious one, and connected to his rump. Side one leads off with his version of The African King and quickly proves his most irresistible since Motor-Booty Affair, with "Quickie" a riff/groove that gleams like "Flash Light" and "Last Dance" a big fat fart in David Bowie's face. Even the talkover filler on the title track is worth listening to, and Philippe Wynne's lowdown oinks make "Stingy" a worthy heir to none other than the Coasters' "I'm a Hog for You." A

THE ROBERT CRAY BAND: Bad Influence (HighTone) Finally he sounds like the comer they rave about: side one is as engaging a 17:04 of new blues as I've heard in a decade. Ranging from down-and-out aab to lounge-tinged soul cry on the first two cuts, the songwriting had me caring less about the singing, especially given the chop-and-roll guitar. But whenever the material fails to provide its own highs, Cray's inability to reach for extra power or sweetness makes a difference. B PLUS

CLINT EASTWOOD & GENERAL SAINT: Stop That Train (Greensleeves) If this album's enjoyably joky yarns and stoned satire seem to come from backstage while the debut's came from outer space, it's not just because the surprise factor is gone. It's also the settings, devised by Kingston's most dubwise studio astronauts on the first album but assigned here to rude Inity Rockers with ska accents and music hall tempos. B PLUS

EEK-A-MOUSE: The Mouse and the Man (Greensleeves) Neither of this JA original's previous albums evinced much poetry, but the material here is as eccentric, matter-of-fact, and casually associative as his dub-minimalist music and calmly wacko vocal mannerisms. Beginning with an account of Hitler--"This is history and remember this ain't no joke"--and moving on to mix lesser horrors (death occurs in three of the remaining nine songs) with happier reflections, he comes across deeply compassionate, deeply bemused, and perhaps not as modest as you'd first think. Inspirational Verse: "Some of the them may call you a turkey/Some look on you and say you flaky." A MINUS

THE GO-BETWEENS: Before Hollywood (Rough Trade) "I've got a feeling, sounds like a fact/It's been around as long as that," goes my favorite hook of the past few months, which is something of an aberration: in the great tradition of post-modern pop these folky-arty Aussies abjure melody much of the time, though the second side does begin to sing after a few plays, and after much longer the textures on the first assume a mnemonic aura as well. A little static for rock and roll, but as poetry reading goes, quite kinetic. B PLUS

HüSKER Dü: Metal Circus (SST) While Bob Mould isn't quite Ian MacKaye's equal as a front man or Greg Ginn's as a guitarist, Hüsker Dü's reenactments of hardcore's hyperdrive ritual have always matched Minor Threat's and Black Flag's on sheer collective enthusiasm, and this EP translates their heart into song. With Mould molding molten metal into whopper hooks and drummer Grant Hart contributing emotional vocals on two key cuts, they take Minor Threat's trust-yourselves-not-us message seriously. And while I'm a little uneasy with the high-powered fatalism of "Real World" and "Deadly Skies," somehow it doesn't seem final with a band that cares this much. A

WINSTON HUSSEY: The Girl I Adore (Live & Learn) This is the kind of reggae most Americans dismiss as impossibly monotonous: the melodies are simple and often repetitive, the singing plaintive and crude, the words barely literate. I'm not claiming any of these qualities are virtues in themselves, but they can be. Working a shameless variation on Gregory Isaacs, Hussey projects intense innocence of a sort increasingly rare in English-language music; replete with homy references to liniment and parlors and pajamas, his sexual musings and militant pacifism must seem a little uncool even in Kingston. And for those with ears to hear, he's backed by the Roots Radics, who are far from succumbing to the subtler monotony that eventually afflicts great studio bands. A MINUS

THE SOUND OF KINSHASA: GUITAR CLASSICS FROM ZAIRE (Original Music) Much more than his Kenyan and Swahili anthologies, this John Storm Roberts collection makes immediate impact on American ears, first of all because its quarter century of Zairean singles carry a heavy Cuban influence. I prefer the modestly melodic Lingala vocals to their romantic-virtuosic salsa counterparts, and am more than content to follow the music's rhythmic journey across the Atlantic and back again as re-Africanization takes hold in the '70s. But I suspect the main reason I keep listening is that every one of these thirteen cuts began life as a pop dance hit. A MINUS

LATIMORE: I'll Do Anything for You (Malaco) As T.K. was folding in 1980, this after-the-fact soul hero resorted to L.A. session men to define his seriousness, which proved no less schlocky than most pop seriousness. But his 1982 return to his roots on Malaco was only slightly less schlocky, because at least temporarily the man has lost his knack as a composer. Here the title tune and the first three cuts on side one are the hottest soul tracks of a year that saw as many new soul albums as the previous three or four put together, but it isn't just the Mississippi rhythm section that's catapulted him back into the action. It's also the Memphis songwriting stable. Say thank you to George Jackson and Denise LaSalle. B PLUS

SUGAR MINOTT: Sufferer's Choice (Heartbeat) Play this back-to-back with Minott's 1979 Black Roots and then tell me reggae never changes. The progress is subtle, but I promise you'll hear it plenty clear enough. It begins as usual in the rhythms, which Sly & Robbie take over from lesser lights, but that doesn't explain why Minott, a creamy lovers rocker of no special distinction, not only keeps up but adds fillips of his own, fillips that would have been buried in the 1979 recording even if he'd been capable of them then. Sure the songwriting's improved too, but in this kind of music meaning inheres in responsive interaction. If formalism it must be, let it be formalism of the body. B PLUS

P-FUNK ALL-STARS: Urban Dancefloor Guerillas (Uncle Jam/CBS Associated) Though side one shows off songs so tuneful and witty they'd have me doing handstands if they showed up on a Cameo or Gap Band album, their raggedy-ass elan doesn't quite suit the spritz they generate. Anyway, songs aren't George Clinton's gift to the world. Side two is George Clinton's gift to the world. You pump up and down, you pump up and down, you pump up and down, and then you break it down. A MINUS

PAUL SIMON: Hearts and Bones (Warner Bros.) In his deliberately slight way, this fellow could be a comer. Rarely have the quiddities of pushing forty with more brain than heart or bone (or muscle) been explored with such obsessive attention to detail--acute musical touches match involuted lyrics small surprise for small surprise. B PLUS

THE SPEEDBOYS: Look What Love's Done to Me Now (I Like Mike) I don't often wonder what the world is coming to because someone can't get a record contract--after all, life is unfair--but here I'm tempted. A sharp, witty bar-band-blues LP like the first is one thing, but the mid-tempo stuff on this entry could fit in right next to Tom Petty and Bob Seger if only some hotshot producer would oil Robert Bobby's voice up a little. That's no advantage as far as I'm concerned, but uncommercial it ain't. What could be the problem? Surely not the antinuke overtones of "Hearts Like Atoms Split." Maybe somebody noticed the chorus of "Anna": "Anna, anabolic steroid/Oh Anna, you made a man outta me." B PLUS

SWINGRASS '83 (Antilles) "Progressive" folk/country/bluegrass guys and gals are always watering down Western swing that could use some beefing up, and from there their jazzy moves go downhill to various mood enhancers and cocktails for carrot-juicers. But here supereclectic jazz bassist Buell Neidlinger mixes with fiddler Richard Greene and mandolin whiz Andy Statman, both of whom do astute work whenever they're given the chance, and together they play three of the sprightliest Ellington tunes you'll ever hear, as well as three of the drollest Monks. Drummer Peter Erskine is too heavy-handed for the gig, but at least he's a jazzman of sorts, and though tenor player Marty Krystall's solo space impinges on the mood a little, he's got the spirit too. Even Peter Ivers's slightly klutzy harmonica fits in. Left-field instrumental of the year. A MINUS

TRIO: Trio and Error (Mercury) Though their wit is rather dry, it doesn't lack warmth or fun, and their idiot melodies have real charm. But if the joke is economy of means, do they ever tell it deadpan: more than any rock-and-roller, der Sänger's middle-aged monotone recalls Leonard Cohen. Jokes this subtle have to hit dead on if they're to be enjoyable at all. B PLUS

V-EFFECT: Stop Those Songs (Rift) Either Ann Rupel's vocals and David Zonzinsky's vocals and sax got squashed in the machinery somewhere or else their cheerful onstage chutzpah concealed chronic difficulties with breath production. Too bad--few bands anywhere make better rock and roll on the edge of artistic and political struggle. This may be because, as Zonzinsky likes to say, they're "leftist" rather than "political": their clarity of purpose helps them avoid the ingrown cacophony that their supposed comrades consider an improvement on programmatic oversimplification. B PLUS

JOE WALSH: You Bought It--You Name It (Warner Bros.) Joe Walsh's Comedy Album--Finally. Featuring one pop standard gone studio-reggae, the ultimate (last?) video-game song, a cross between "Boobs a Lot" and "Dolly Parton's Hits," "Class of '65" for bathetic relief, and a song called "I Can Play That Rock & Roll" that isn't stupid (though it comes close). B PLUS

WAS (NOT WAS): Born to Laugh at Tornadoes (Geffen) "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 PLUS

WOMACK & WOMACK: Love Wars (Elektra) Though they're more purely soul music than either, this professional couple place closer to Ashford & Simpson than to Delaney & Bonnie on an urban-to-downhome axis, which may be why their soul music avoids not only nostalgia but conservatism: Al Jackson would have turned in his union card before permitting a drum floomph so loosely contemporary. Ace singers and songwriters (as opposed to singer-songwriters), their lyrics about loss and conflict are sharper than those about love and happiness. But "Express Myself" makes a passable "Is It Still Good to Ya" and their lyrics about loss and conflict--especially "Love Wars" and "A.P.B."--clearly come from lovers who wish they weren't fighters. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Finally found some seven-inch 45s I love, and every one is Commie propaganda. About time. Too often the Crass are more didactically unmusical than they intend, but "Sheep Farming in the Falklands" (Crass import), an obscene, hilarious, vituperative, word-chocked punk howl at Maggie & Ron's death machine, expresses my own political rage better than any record in years. Speaking of didactic, there's the Special AKA's "Racist Friend/Bright Lights" (2 Tone import), both more explicitly and sanely radical than anything the Specials ever recorded. Articulate guitar makes the Four Brothers' Zimbabwean anthem "Mokoroto" (Earthworks import) the Afropop single of my 1983. And then two lesser finds: D.O.A.'s "Burn It Down"/"Fuck U" (CD, 1230 Giant Avenue, Suite 531, San Francisco, California 94133), which all anti-punk leftists (and Antileft punks) should read as well as hear, and the Skeletons' (Morells'?) circa-1982 B side "Sour Snow" (Borrowed, 2820 West State, Springfield, Missouri 65802), one of a growing number of slyly devastating anti-nuke ditties.

Village Voice, Jan. 24, 1984

Postscript Notes:

This file pulls the CG reviews from the database, so includes later revisions. They should be replaced with the original reviews. JY provided the ACN.

Dec. 27, 1983 Feb. 21, 1984