Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Now that it's finally happened, I'm telling myself it was inevitable--the Big Breakthrough of 1984. This month's CG sports four A records, doubling the year's total instantaneously, and adds five A minuses to go with them. As for the next month, wait till next month.

AZTEC CAMERA: Knife (Sire) Given the putrefaction potential of the straightforwardly literary romanticism Roddy Frame affects, it's amazing he did so brilliantly with it even once. In fact, it's fairly amazing that second time out he gets away with it three songs' worth--three songs whose verbal lyricism sharpens the consistently winsome music, which is the kind of unlikely feat critics expect of straightforwardly literary types. Silly though it seems, Frame may be right to worry that his youth is passing at twenty-one, unless you want to blame the five merely winsome songs on producer Mark Knopfler, who probably thought "Here lies the essence of my peers" a deep line and certainly cheered "Knife" on to nine minutes. B PLUS

THE BANGLES: All Over the Place (Columbia) Definitely reduces the nostalgia-cum-nausea factor that it's women who execute these familiar heart-stopping harmonies, and thank God there's not a trace of Liverpool or even Britannia in the accents. But the value of these songs isn't merely negative--they're thoroughly realized in both the writing and playing. Though the style is as derivative and even retro as on EP, they don't seem to be dabbling any more. Maybe they project such confidence because they know exactly what they want to say: don't fuck me over. A MINUS

BEAT STREET VOLUME 2 (Atlantic) The other half of what might be a great single disc. Jazzy Jay's scratching captures the movie's virtues a lot more eloquently than Melle Mel's words, Tina B divas all over Jenny Burton, and the two novelty raps tell you their producer knows something even if he is David Belafonte. B

BLACK UHURU: Anthem (Island) Uhuru's three U.S. releases after Red were so disappointing that I ignored this when it came out in England late last year, but I understand why those who didn't resent the dub/disco effects now mixed into "What Is Life?" and "Botanical Roots" and "Try It." All the songs are so strong and catchy and righteous--so anthemic--that it seems perverse to distract from them in any way. But they're also so strong they stand up to the treatment. The plus on the U.S. version is the cover--Rufus's "Somebody's Watching You" was an interesting choice competently rendered, while Steve Van Zandt's "Solidarity" is a very interesting choice that turns wishful thinking into dream come true. A

KURTIS BLOW: Ego Trip (Mercury) After declaring for revolution, always a good move, Kurtis slips in a sidelong "to the next phase," and he's clearly trying to get there. But unlike his cut buddies in Run-D.M.C., he's a little too headlong to make much music out of the shifts and starts of spare synths, and his political rhymes don't evince the acuteness of observation and fellow feeling one values in a revolutionary. B MINUS

ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE ATTRACTIONS: Goodbye Cruel World (Columbia) In these changing times it's good to know there are things we can rely on, so here's another solid if unspectacular effort from this thoughtful, hard-hitting, surprisingly tender singer-songwriter. Highlights include the lilting country cover "I Wanna Be Loved," the straight-to-the-point "Inch by Inch," and--who says there are no great protest songs any more?--"Peace in Our Time," which almost got him booed off Carson. B PLUS

DR. BUZZARD'S ORIGINAL SAVANNAH BAND: Calling All Beatniks! (Passport) Disinclined though I am to blame music on engineering, I reluctantly decided that what ailed this five-years-awaited fourth album wasn't just uncharacteristically inelegant arrangements and lyrics unworthy of Stony Browder but a fuzzy, cavernous mix that at times turned Cory Daye into another background element. Then I remembered that I'd gotten an advance last spring, and when I compared the two I was shocked. Remix engineers Gary Hellman and Rob Paustian--abetted I'm sure by schlock svengali Sandy Linzer and possibly Browder, credited with coproducing the new version--have ruined a crisp, spare, inelegant-on-purpose rock and roll album, smothering a great singer in artificial fog along the way. They've also deleted two songs, each strong enough to lead a side of the advance, neither (hmm) produced by Linzer. And you know what else? The little subhead that says "featuring Cory Daye" on the original cover is gone as well. Docked a notch or two to encourage boycott. C PLUS

DUMPTRUCK: D Is for Dumptruck (Incas) These smart young depressives not only work their variation on the garage-guitar Amerindie vernacular, they make it signify: the sludgy stasis of the rhythms and offhand density of the textures reinforce ruminative, overheard lyrical commonplaces. Their commitment and concentration are the best argument for pop formalism since the Shoes, and if one key difference is that they never try to be tuneful, another is that they never try to be cute. Instead, they get so into being down they convince you it's interesting. A MINUS

GRANDMASTER MELLE MEL AND THE FURIOUS FIVE (Sugar Hill) When he's most original, Melle Mel's political chops are startling: "Hustler's Convention" closes with a right-on analysis, "World War III" resists thanatos and reminds Vietnam vets that they were dumb to go. But with Rahiem and Creole and Flash gone, idealism and romance are totally perfunctory, and original clearly ain't where they're heading: from the Prince rip to the Run-D.M.C. rip--both expert, enjoyable, even a little innovative--they come off as 1984's answer to the Sugarhill Gang, pros whose aim in life is to make more than chump change off whatever's on the street. Also, they can't sing. B PLUS

MUTABARUKA: Outcry (Shanachie) The man has his merits: "Rememberance" rallies consciousness around the grim history of black oppression, and "Sisters Poem" goes a healthy halfway toward opposing Rastafarian sexism. But too often he's just smart enough to be dumb. What he has in mind for the sisters is the pious pedestal of "Black Queen." Those pondering the Palestinian conundrum may be surprised to learn that "Canaan Lan" will revert to the sons of Ham come millennium time. And any well-meaning white lefty who wonders why U.S.-born blacks don't always rush into common cause with West Indians, not to mention well-meaning white lefties, should check out "Blacks in 'Merika," yet another vague, patronizing, moralistic, ignorant tract imposed from yet another outside. B MINUS

THE NOBODYS: No Guarantees (Capitol) In which Tonio K. conceives a band based on A Flock of Seagulls. The tunes are catchy, the vocals (by one Safeway Goya) appropriately anonymous, the lyrics knowing, satiric, and just a little off. Inspirational Verse: "They promised me the altar/ They promised me the moon/ They promised me Gibraltar/ But they didn't promise me you." B

RAMONES: Too Tough to Die (Sire) Who would have thunk it? With Tommy producing again after five years, these teen-identified professionals (mean age: thirty-three) make a great album, with the cleansing minimalism of their original conception evoked and honestly augmented rather than recycled--just like their unjudgmental fondness for their fellow teen-identifieds. This time the commercial direction is more metal than pop, but satanists they ain't: just as Joey came up with punk's most useful anti-KKK song, here Dee Dee comes up with punk's most useful anti-Reagan song. Dee Dee also imitates Bugs Bunny on steroids on two well-placed hardcore parodies and provides the first single's salutory lyrical hook: "I want to steal from the rich and give to the poor." A

THE REPLACEMENTS: Let It Be (Twin/Tone) Those still looking for the perfect garage may misconstrue this band's belated access to melody as proof they've surrendered their principles. Me, I'm delighted they've matured beyond their strange discovery of country music. Bands like this don't have roots, or principles either, they just have stuff they like. Which in this case includes androgyny (no antitrendie reaction here) and Kiss (forgotten protopunks). Things they don't like include tonsillectomies and answering machines, both of which they make something of. [Original grade: A] A PLUS

SONNY ROLLINS: Sunny Days, Starry Nights (Milestone) Not owning any Sonny Rollins records is like not owning any Aretha Franklin records--his sheer physical presence is something no aural sensualist should live without. Not that the sound hasn't proved malleable and even protean, but its direct, expressive warmth and raspy power is unmistakable even to noninitiates like me. His most accessible and uncompromised album in more than a decade is soaked in the swinging pan-Caribbean "calypso" that's been his special pleasure since the '50s; despite drummer Tommy Campbell's elaborations it moves the rock and roller in me. A

SPARROW: King of the World (B's) Though one distinction between calypso and soca is that the earlier style wasn't geared to phonographic reproduction, I much prefer the two hard-to-find calypso compilations I've recently gotten to know (More Sparrow More!! on Recording Artists, Hot and Sweet on Warner Bros.). And though the greatest of the modern calypsonians claims right here that he's not a "Soca Man," the album's dance groove is compulsive enough for disco. But Sparrow remains a supremely resonant singer with a taste for resonant lyrics: "Grenada" lays into Cuban accommodations without letting Reagan off the hook, "Marahjin Cousin" satirizes racial complexities unimaginable in our polarized land. The reason he works variations on the same few melodies is that they're all classics. And his groove is worth a go. A MINUS

DONNA SUMMER: Cats Without Claws (Geffen) The mildly compelling steady-hooks-all-in-a-row construction suggests that Michael Omartian knows his Ric Ocasek, and it will do just fine for those who get a glow just hearing her rare back and sing. But what made the last album was two undeniably singular singles. This time she leads with a cover. Which Ben E. King rared back and sang better a quarter-century ago. B

TALKING HEADS: Stop Making Sense (Sire) Always skeptical of live albums, I note that this is their second in a four-year period that has netted only one studio job while establishing them as a world-class live band. Number one was a useful overview; number two is a soundtrack, albeit for the finest concert film I've ever seen, that repeats three songs from the overview and four from the studio job. Buy the video. B PLUS

TOM VERLAINE: Cover (Warner Bros.) Anglophobes and wimpbashers won't hear it, but Verlaine's light touch constitutes a renewal and an achievement. Synthesized ostinatos and affected vocals are deplorable in themselves only when they're ends in themselves. Here they're put to the service of tuneful whimsy that has brains and heart, a sense of beauty and a sense of humor. Goofy romanticism at its driest and most charming. A MINUS

THE WOMAN IN RED (Motown) Since Stevie Wonder has become one of those pleasure artists I rarely enjoy of my own free will, I was dubious about this water-treading soundtrack, but after a while the rhythm parts--even the deja entendu synth patterns and bass lines--began to get me. Though Dionne Warwick's solo turn is more Manilow than Bacharach, the two duets are her most winning music since the Spinners. And "Don't Drive Drunk" soars high as a kite. B PLUS

ROBERT WYATT: 1982-1984 (Rough Trade) Wish there were English cribs for the two Spanish songs on this rather skimpy eight-cut compilation, because Wyatt's way with a lyric is one of the things that makes his hypnotic quaver so musical. But his arrangement of "Biko" for harmonium and percussion is so dumbfounding that I listen right through Victor Jara and Pedro Milanos anyway, and the melodies are growing on me. Side one surrounds Thelonious Monk and Eubie Blake with two pieces of communist propaganda, one by Elvis Costello and one by Wyatt himself. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

As you've probably noticed, James Brown is in the news again, and though I thought his rediscovery had happened for good five years ago, I'm not complaining. Brown's "comeback" of 1979 was designed to revive his stock in the disco market, and it failed twice over--a year after The Original Disco Man sold even worse than 1978's Jam/1980's, disco itself had shrunk back down toward cultdom. By 1981 Brown was off U.S. Polydor and recording one-offs for various indies. Soon French Polydor began reissuing his King albums; since I own most of the originals, I haven't investigated these collector's items, though some claim the pressings are an improvement. But the latest spate of compilations, so far comprising four single discs and a double with five-plus of the six featuring music originally on King/Federal, appeal to the selector in me. In a way what's most amazing is how few duplications they require. The James Brown Story: Ain't That a Groove 1966-1969 and The James Brown Story: Doing It to Death 1970-1973, midlines compiled by Cliff White for U.S. Polydor, are designed to complement White's magnificent 30-track compilation of basic Brown, Solid Gold, released in 1977 on U.K. Polydor. The first documents Brown's evolution from soul brother to predisco man as undeniably as side two of Solid Gold, while the second does as well by his funk glory years as side three. White also compiled U.K. Polydor's Roots of a Revolution: 32 cuts chronologically arranged from 1956 through mid-1964, plus 16 well-appointed pages of notes. I don't know how to describe this set briefly except to say that it epitomizes rhythm-and-blues at its rawest. With its deep gospel roots and increasingly acute rhythmic attack, it doesn't give an inch to Joe Turner or Little Richard or early Ray Charles or for that matter Howlin' Wolf--it's that gritty. And for those as taken as I am with the sampling from the '50s, when Brown cut dozens of sides for the company he was eventually to own, imitating everybody from Hank Ballard to the Coasters in a frustrating quest that netted him only three hits, there are The Federal Years Part 1 and Part 2 from Solid Smoke. These aren't as original or consistent as White's collections. But Brown was so rich and protean a vocalist that they're the retrospective equal of, for instance, the terrific 20-cut Hank Ballard best-of that Gusto issued from the King vaults in 1977. Ballard (who ended up doing Brown's tour intros) was a major r&b artist, but he was rarely stronger than his material. JB was always stronger than his material. Back in 1978, when Pablo Guzman was trying to persuade me that I'd been seriously underrating Brown, he used to claim the man was the greatest ever. Though by then I was relistening with some awe, I scoffed. Now I'm not so sure. As big an egomaniac as Elvis or Little Richard or Mick Jagger or even Glen Frey, a bootstrap reactionary whose lyrics were often little more than assertions that he was somebody, Brown has left a body of work that may eventually sound as important and just plain good as any in the music, and there's more excavation work to come. Start listening now.

"Missing You" (Chrysalis) is one of those singles that bypasses the critical faculties. Classic AOR crossover fodder from John Waite, who used to front the definitively meaningless Babys, it adds an exploitative pop-metal hook to the chords of "Every Breath You Take," which always sound sweeter unstung. First time through it left me gaping at its cynicism; third time it had me. Aztec Camera's "Jump" (WEA import 12-inch), on the other hand, is aimed at those same faculties. The "All I Need Is Everything" B covers a tune you might know in a somewhat faster version by a heavy metal band who've enjoyed some CHR success of late. Roddy Frame slows it down into a poignant ballad, then adds a noise guitar coda as spectacular as Eddie V. H. on its own drolly anarchic terms.

Other 12-inches, with no pretense to timeliness or exhaustivity. Afrika Bambaataa & James Brown's "Unity" (Tommy Boy) is probably JB's best 25 minutes of the decade, with Bam (thank G-d) taking care of the politics. Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers' "We Need Some Money" (T.T.E.D.) is go-go a-go-go with an economist premise every bit as basic as that of Chuck's fondly remembered 1979 "Bustin' Loose." Donald D.'s "Don's Groove" (Elektra) is a Grandmaster Flash production that matches everything 'cept the two great cuts on Melle Mel's LP. Gil Scott-Heron's "Re-Ron" (Arista) is words we need this fall, and if Gil doesn't cut a whole album with Bill Laswell his head's too big. M&M's "Black Stations/White Stations" (RCA) is words we need in 1984 (and 1985, too), and the track will pass. Kid Creole and the Coconuts' "My Male Curiosity" (Atlantic) is one of August Darnell's greatest rhythm devices, and the words sure beat "Against All Odds." Yellowman's "Strong Me Strong" (Columbia) is Material's greatest reggae number to date. Grandmaster Funk's "Don't Stop" (Black Market) is idealized internationalist hiphop. And X's "Wild Thing" (Elektra) is wild enough if not as wild as it wants to be.

Village Voice, Oct. 30, 1984

Sept. 25, 1984 Nov. 27, 1984