Christgau's Consumer Guide
This is my annual postvacation Consumer Guide, a traditional gold mine that this year yields but three A records, only one of which arouses me to unmitigated enthusiasm, and five B plusses, only one of which (the Gunther Schuller, oddly enough) I've wanted to play in an extra-professional capacity. (One way I decided whether a record is a B plus or a B is to try to figureout whether I'll ever play it again of my own volition. Quite a few turn out to fail this test; their grades will be revised in my collected works.) All of which is to say that the year continues depressing and I do not expect it to change. I have decided that all of this is worthy of more extended theorizing than I have room for in this continuing venue for offhand punditry. And I would suggest that you check out Additional Consumer News (assuming it makes the paper this month) for various bargain collectibles. If they refuse to make good albums for us, all we can do is wait till they get enough fo the hits they're gunning for and hope they have the sense to program them listenably. How sad.
AEROSMITH: Rocks (Columbia) This is the teen crossover of the year, but it ain't the Stones--the resemblance is strictly facial. You should have known. The great mother lode of hard rock in this world is Led Zeppelin, and this is the most convincing American version to date--more fluid and less melodramatic, limited but powerful. Zep's fourth represented a songmaking peak, before the band simply outgrew itself, and the same may prove true here, too, so get it while you can. B PLUS [Later: A-]
JOAN ARMATRADING (A&M) There are lots of reasons to like this forthright black Englishwoman, but interesting music isn't one of them. The world does not need a postfeminist Odetta. C PLUS [Later: B]
ARTFUL DODGER: Honor Among Thieves (Columbia) Conceivably these kids could turn into teen heroes everybody can be proud of. They respect the rock and roll verities, but in a dynamic rather than an arty or nostalgic way; their instrumental wallop is powerful enough to keep them in there with the heavies, but so deft that the lyricism of their songs is left untouched. A lot of bands around CBGB's will spend their lives wishing they could have gotten it together like this. B PLUS [Later]
THE BECKIES: The Beckies (Sire) Michael Brown (the Left Banke, Stories) keeps getting better. The weld between his snazzy European colors and textures and the concise, kinetic pop structures of his American rock and roll is by now totally invisible, and the playing is energetic and expert. But these songs might as well have no words at all--not just that the lyrics don't reward careful attention, but that the vacancy of the vocal tracks simply cannot be filled by the valiantly serviceable singing of Gary Hodgden and Scott Trusty. This failing might be set aright by intensive radio play, but alas, Brown's songwriting is probably a little too sophisticated for that. B [Later: B-]
FANIA ALL-STARS: Delicate and Jumpy (Columbia) I don't know much about salsa, but I know what it means when it says "arranged and conducted by Gene Page." In or out of clave, elevator music is elevator music. C MINUS
JOHN HARTFORD: Mark Twang (Flying Fish) Hartford's come a long way from "Gentle on My Mind," singing about the mighty Mississip (too thick to navigate, too thin to plow) and recording this eccentric river music for a distinctly minor folk label. He's slightly the better for it, too, I'd saye--but not so's he should turn down a gig on the Proud Mary. B [Later]
THE HEPTONES: Night Food (Island) This reminds me that British skinheads were the first white reggae fans--it shares its sexual brutality and rhythmic monotonousness with the most desperate and overbearing heavy rock. Saved by admirably intense and cogent vocal stylings and (I count) three good songs--not enough to really give such styling someplace to go. B [Later]
HIDDEN STRENGTH (United Artists) I get to play this once every two or three months, when it works down to the end of the shelf. I put on side one and enjoy the easeful nonsense chorus of "Happy Song." But nothing else--including "Hustle On Up (Do The Bump)," which UA foolishly slotted for a disco breakout--catches my ear. Someone in a position of authority should listen to "Happy Song." It's nice. C
HI RHYTHM: On the Loose (Hi) Some stickler for detail is sure to point out that the singing on side two is completely out of tune, but that's okay--so is most of the singing on side one, the best side of black pop music to appear this year. It's no coincidence that the main competition comes from Al Green's Full of Fire, out of the same studio; in fact it would appear that his sidemen, disgruntled at Green's unwillingness to record their songs, just got together and cut them themselves. I think they proved something. One of the more carefully thought out tracks features a lyric about Green himself, but it's the eccentricity of the music, which sounds as if it includes a banjo, that does him in. Loose indeed. A MINUS [Later]
DOUG KERSHAW: Ragin' Cajun (Warner Bros.) The lesson of this (paying-attention, Waylon?) is that, given minimal professional competence, those who act macho are more appealing if they also act a little nuts. B [Later]
DELBERT MCCLINTON: Genuine Cowhide (ABC) Texas partisans tout this whoopersnapper as God's own leather-lunged, bicentennial, rockabilly truth, but I can't quite hear it. He's not ravaged enough; his crazy enthusiasm sounds too professional, too glib; there are none of those spaced-out moments that lend such vulnerability, and credibility, to a Billy Swan. Does this mean I'm complaining that Delbert sings too good? Could be. B [Later]
DOLLY PARTON: All I Can Do (RCA Victor) I ask myself, am I a fool in love? Am I getting suckered by this record? It's all pretty formulaic, predictably enough, 10 songs clocking in at only 27:21, a typical country album shortchange. Just how much of a genius do I want to make this woman out to be? But the explanation is simple. This collection succeeds by avoiding greeting card goop for Dolly's perky upbeat side, and if none of the compositions quite matches up to any of those on the must-hear Best of Dolly Parton (APL1-1117), not a one is less than intensely pleasant to hear. B PLUS [Later]
GUNTHER SCHULLER: Country Fiddle Band (Columbia) Why do I love this semiclassicized perversion when country fiddle and bluegrass music that strives for authenticity leaves me cold? It's all in the candor of the striving; as usual, I'm put off by the way so-called folk groups formalize a tradition that had spontaneity and unselfconsciousness at the root of its attraction. This silly symphony is something else. The melodies are fetchingly tried-and-true, the (unintentional?) stateliness of the rhythms appropriately 19th-century, and the instrumental overkill (24 instruments massed on "Flop-Eared Mule") both gorgeous and hilarious. A grand novelty record. B PLUS [Later]
SIR DOUGLAS & THE TEXAS TORNADOS: Texas Rock for Country Rollers (ABC/Dot) For 20 years, Sir Doug has lived the archetypal rock an droll romance: raised on C&W and R&B in Texas, doping in California when that was a good idea, then digging back to his own beginning, by then changed utterly by dope and rock and rol. He almost never writes great songs or makes great albums, but he never never writes bad songs or makes bad albums. The survival of his fatal fuzziness--an LP called Rough Edges, compiled from outtakes after he'd left Mercury, remains one of his aptest and best--is here assured by old mentor Huey Meaux, a producer whose renowned feel has little to do with conceptual or aural clarity. But it's been well over two years since the last one, so the songs are a little richer than usual. Worth having. B PLUS [Later: B]
THE STILLS YOUNG BAND: Long May You Run (Reprise) The album, like the tour, is probably a profit-taking throwaway. Good. Young is always wise to wing it (you like Harvest?) and this session finds him feeling droll. As for Stills, the less he expresses himself the better; several of his compositions are little more than hypnotic chants, there's an exponential advantage in hearing him sing lead on every other cut, and Neil's backup singing and guitar is a nice palliative. Also lest we forget, Stephen is very talented; he belongs on this pleasant nonmasterpiece, the most listenable L.A. rock of the year. A MINUS [Later: B]
TAVARES: Sky-High! (Capitol) In the tradition of the produced group, they make hit singles, not albums. Last year's In the City, done with Lambert & Potter, was apparently a fluke. This time they've switched to Freddie Perren, the Motown alumnus whose affinity for the transcendently awkward lyric, best represented by the Miracles' City of Angels. (Two samples from this outing: "The mighty power of love/It's got more force than any shove" and "Son you gotta give a heck/You gotta promise to give respect.") Three fine tunes, four or five drecky ones. B MINUS [Later]
THE ANDREA TRUE CONNECTION: More, More, More (Buddah) Forget Donna Summer--this is the real disco porn. She's covered on the cover right up to the clavicle, her rhythms sound more binary than her producer's, and she can't sing a lick. But even if you haven't seen her movies, she projects an exhibitionistic suck-and-fuck tractability that links the two pervasive fantasy media of our time, and from such conjunctions Great Art arises. B
WILD CHERRY (Epic/Sweet City) This is regarded by the pure of heart as a racist vulgarization, but although I'll go along with the argument that the hook on "Play That Funky Music" isn't the rhythmic track but the words "white boy," I insist that it's real hard to vulgarize Graham Central Station. Sure the performance is a bit on the crude side, but the relationship is more that of Grand Funk to Cream than of, say, Jim Dandy Mangrum to Sly Stone. C
Additional Consumer News
Thanks to the over-enthusiastic editorial gremlin who decided that the title of Graham Parker's Mercury album just had to be Howling Wind--the correct spelling is Howlin Wind, as in Howlin' Wolf, sort of--I have an excuse to mention that my B plus was too cautious. Howlin Wind won the Seebury Cup in my vacation hideaway, a cabin in a state park where I could put my GE portable up to 10 without disturbing anyone but the chipmunks. . . .
Two groups who make good music but not good albums--War and Bachman-Turner Overdrive--have greatest-hits collections out. The BTO is perfect of its sort, which is imperfect by definition; the War is not quite as transcendent as I'd hoped, but gratifying. Meanwhile--with the possible exception of Station to Station, which I still play a lot--the David Bowie best-of, Changesonebowie, is his most satisfying LP to date (hey, I thought he was a concept artist). You can thank the impetuous Teddy Pendergrass for Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' Collectors' Item, their most satisfying LP to date ("All Their Greatest Hits!" is one concept with staying power). And The Kinks Greatest--Celluloid Heroes suggests that they simply aren't vinyl heroes any more. . . .
Columbia has recently released a 10 song, $5.98 list Bob Wills anthology in its Remembering series. It has a blue cover. Avoid it. The Bob Wills Anthology--two discs, 24 songs, $7.98 list--is still available from Columbia, and every one of those songs is worth owning. . . .
Bethlehem's The Finest of Folk Bluesmen is as good a sampler of the (urban) blues singing out of which rhythm and blues and rock and roll developed as has been available since Columbia cut out its King twofers years ago. . . .
Anyone who can name an LP shorter than Bethlehem's The Finest of Carmen McRae, which clocks in at 21:58 for eight cuts, wins it. . . .
Ron Delsener is to be congratulated on his redecorations at the Academy, I mean Palladium. New paint but it's still tacky. But did I hear that Neil Diamond was going to do eight days there? Even tacky can go too far. . . .
The Band's kickoff show at the Palladium (I saw it Sunday) was ecstatically received by almost everyone but me, which is probably my fault; as usual, I was admiring but cool. This coolness extends to their new best-of, which I almost suspect represents some sort of retribution from Capitol for real or imagined malfeasances, like not wanting to be on Capitol any more. An otiose piece of plastic; new Band fans are advised to begin with The Band and work from there. I'm disturbed to hear, by the way, that the Band's latest tour--even though one had a hunch they were pushing their acceptability slightly past its limit--has been plagued by cancellations. Whenever a quality act suffers reverses, gloom must descend upon the artistically serious people who remain in the biz. And that ain't good. . . .
Some student of oppression at ABC closed an invitation to a cocktail party for John Handy with a touch of cute: "Please come join our chain gang!" To which one can only add: Right off. I trust that Handy, a very decent man, was at least slightly put off--he certainly deserves better.
Village Voice, Oct. 4, 1976