Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Observant readers may have been piqued by the appearance in the first revamped Voice of something called the Pazz & Jop Product Report (or Pazz & Jop Poll in the revamped table of contents). They may also have noticed a long-haired person ranting about "list freaks" in that issue's Real Life Funnies. Christgau's latest brainchild, designed to complement the "Consumer Guide" in your thankless quest for popular music albums, has been limited to a third of a page by our resident fiscal savants. Hence there was no opportunity to explain what it was, which seemed impolite. Even worse, there was no room for the negative ballots cast by the 10 critics contributing to the feature. So the eagle-eyed may have noted that David Forman, Bryan Ferry, and Linda Ronstadt were credited with one less point than seemed accurate; that's because each received one (out of a possible four) negative point, from Ken Emerson, Susin Shapiro, and John Morthland respectively. The big no-nos of last month, by the way, were Bob Dylan's Hard Rain (minus 11), Gino Vannelli's Gist of the Gemini (minus 7), and Montrose's Jump on It (minus 7). We'll squeeze the nays in somehow in November (the P&JPR will appear in the second or third Voice of each month), though a cumulative negative list will probably have to be omitted. Oh well--there are so many bad records that choices tend to be fairly arbitrary anyway. For more P&JPR news, I suppose you'd better watch this space. I'm available for questioning.

Oh yeah. This is the "Consumer Guide." I think any record receiving a B plus or (God knows) better is pretty good.

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: Wheelin' and Dealin' (Capitol) Now that its musicianship and production values are a given, the album quality of this excellent but marginal band will depend mostly on the song quality. Except for "Miles and Miles of Texas," this LP singles out no really striking nonoriginals, and Leroy Preston has apparently been touring too hard to contribute more than two new compositions. B [Later]

TONY BIRD (Columbia) At his worst, this white Rhodesian is just a folkie--poetry, sententious, and he does go on. But even when he's bad you can hear black Africa in the rhythms and intense intonations of his singing, and when he's good you can hear it in the lyrics too. I wonder how much he steals but consider him an original nonetheless. B PLUS [Later]

PAUL BLEY: Live at the Hillcrest Club 1958 (Inner City) Too bad this'll be catalogued under Bley's name, because it's significant as the earliest recording of Ornette Coleman's great quartet, featuring Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins. Although Bley led the date, the engineering (i.e., where he put the tape recorder) is so involuntarily self-effacing that Bley is hard to hear even when he solos and impossible to hear when he comps. But the blowing comes through loud and clear, looser and closer to bebop than the familiar early Coleman on Atlantic, and I have the feeling that when I want people to understand what free jazz meant, this is what I'll play. A

BLUE OYSTER CULT: Agents of Fortune (Columbia) Just when I figured they were doomed to repeat themselves until the breakup, they come up with the Fleetwood Mac of heavy metal, not as fast as Tyranny and Mutation but longer on momentum, with MOR tongue-in-cheek replacing the black-leather posturing and future games. I wonder how long it took them to do the la-la-las on "Debbie Denise" without cracking up. B PLUS

BOSTON (Epic) When informed that someone has achieved an American synthesis of Led Zeppelin and Yes, all I can do is hold my ears and say gosh. C

R. CRUMB AND HIS CHEAP SUIT SERENADERS: Number 2 (Blue Goose) I call this genre nouveau jug--oddball material done string-band style, most often on tiny folkie labels--and value it chiefly for the way it exposes obscure novelty songs. R. and his boys cultivate an amateurish good humor and bestow upon us "Fine Artiste Blues," featuring this Inspirational Verse: "I'm as good with my paintbrush as I am with my lips/Stick around, honey, learn some ass-thetic tips." C PLUS

DR. BUZZARD'S ORIGINAL SAVANNAH BAND (RCA Victor) I hated this the first time I played it, which (as it sometimes does) turned out to be a good sign: it meant I had encountered a clear and uncompromising expression of a way of life that's foreign to me. I still don't entirely trust the get-thee-behind-me stance toward r&b, and I continue to find fashion-mag disco-sophistico disquieting. But it's a pleasure to admit that the music is a fresh pop hybrid with its own rhythmic integrity, and that its sophistication sounds warmer, brighter, and more lively than a lot of the organic bullshit making it to the rock stage these days. B PLUS [Later: A]

BOB DYLAN: Hard Rain (Columbia) The only reason people are disgusted with this record is that they're sick of Dylan--which is understandable, but unfair to the record. The palookas who backed him on this tour sure ain't the Band, and the music and arrangements suffer accordingly--these guys are folkies whose idea of rock and roll is rock and roll cliches. But the songs live again even when Dylan sings them indifferently and, on a few occasions--I gravitate to "Oh Sister" and "Shelter From the Storm"--he sings them very well indeed. But I remember this more fondly than Desire--now there's a record that makes me wanna vomit. B MINUS [Later]

DAVID FORMAN (Arista) Comparisons are odiferous, and this one--David Forman/Randy Newman--is commonplace as well. Sorry. At least I don't mean the words; except for the unconvincing "Rosalie" and one or two others, these employ evocative metaphor, in the manner of Jackson Browne, rather than evocative social detail. It's the r&b-based singing and precise, manneristic arrangements, both (unintentionally?) redolent of Newman, that bother me. Even Jackson Browne knows that groupings of associative metaphors hold together best along a groove, and since Forman, unlike Newman, has the pipes to bring off the sweeter soul modulations, you'd figure he'd go that way. Instead, he sets each song--like a jewel, or a loose tooth in a denture. Many-faceted though they may be, these songs are neither gemlike nor biting, and the settings, unlike Newman's, too often sound readymade. B

PETER FRAMPTON: Frampton Comes Alive! (A&M) All right, Peter, you've made your point. I'll rate your fucking album. Now, will you please leave the top five. B MINUS [Later]

ARLO GUTHRIE: Amigo (Reprise) When you wrap one good-but-not-great album a year around a voice so frail and a sensibility so quirky, you're liable to find yourself pigeonholed--as a miniaturist, an odd duck if not a small fry. On the other hand, if just a few of those LPs are a little better than anyone has a right to expect, people might start thinking you're an auteur or something. I don't go for that frog talk myself, but this release has me pulling out my old Arlo albums and discovering how ideally the limitations of his voice have always suited his wry and complex understanding of things. Side one is his best since the "Coming In to Los Angeles" side of Running Down the Road in 1969, and there's been a lot of good since then. Especially recommended: "Guabi Guabi," an absurdly cheerful African ditty that ought to be a novelty hit, and "Victor Jara," the most painful protest song in recent memory (including "Hurricane"). A MINUS [Later]

JADE AND SARSPARILLA (Submaureen) If this record weren't by two women who sing love songs to each other, I'd quickly dismiss it as long on melodrama and short on melody. But the built-in societal conflict faced by two women who sing love songs to each other not only makes the melodrama more credible--conflict is the stuff of drama, right?--but is also interesting in itself, and if I were a woman who loved women I'm quite sure I'd be playing it all the time. B MINUS

AL JARREAU: Glow (Reprise) This man has the looks and voice and technique and support of an instant superstar. So why isn't he? Maybe because he neither writes nor interprets songs with the soul to match his freeze-dried facility. C PLUS

THE MANHATTAN TRANSFER: Coming Out (Atlantic) As the memory of the way they demean their material onstage fades, I find I can admire and even enjoy their second album. Richard Perry augments their expert renderings commodiously, and the scatter-shot eclecticism of the first LP has been aimed--especially on side one, which I much prefer--at the kind of novelty tunes, rock and nonrock, that everyone who listened to pre-Beatle radio loved. The anonymity of the oldies Tim Hauser here unearths--it took me weeks to remember that Roy Hamilton (he of "Unchained Melody") came back with "Don't Let Go"; I still can't place "Zindy Lou," and even the Motown remake is from Kim Weston--makes a case for the theory that pop music is a delightful but essentially inexpressive industrial product. But the newer songs, several of which are inexpressive only in spite of themselves, destroy the illusion. B [Later]

MANFRED MANN'S EARTH BAND: The Roaring Silence (Warner Bros.) Side two is so slavish in its heavy-metal pretensions that it sounds like a parody that doesn't come off. Which is why I'm inclined to give up on this band and describe side one as two worthy songs stretched out of shape on a synthesizer. If this is what the audience Mann has found on tour wants, he should retreat to the studio. C

RINGO STARR: Ringo's Rotogravure (Atlantic) This fellow definitely sounds like he could use a band. You think Leon might organize one for him? C [Later]

STREETWALKERS: Red Card (Mercury) The genius here is Roger Chapman, who has one of those voices that can kill small game at 100 yards; he here combines the best of his old art-rock troupe, Family, with some former Jeff Beck bruisers. The result is Aerosmith for adults, with nasty urban lyrics to match. Both of their LPs are recommended to anyone who's given up searching for good hard rock; this one is slightly better. B [Later]

THE TRAMMPS: That's Where the Happy People Go (Atlantic) As a nonorgiast, I resent the seven prolonged (rather than 10 tight) (remember 12?) tracks here but, taken together, they comprise as forceful and unpretentious a mainstream disco statement as has yet appeared and have the additional virtue of keeping the harried hard-soul vocal style very much alive. B PLUS [Later]

GINO VANNELLI: The Gist of the Gemini (A&M) Is the man whose most profound couplet (I'm not being sarcastic) goes "And now whether our hair's short or long/The issue is not really whether it's right or wrong but as long as it's clean" fit to deploy a 128-track console and the combined musico-philosophical wisdom of Neil Diamond, the Moody Blues, the Vanilla Fudge, Barry White, and Barry Sadler on something called "War Suite"? I give you one guess. D

MARTHA VELEZ: Escape From Babylon (Sire) This Marley-produced reggae venture suffers from the fatal reggae monotony, but she's a warm, accomplished singer in a solidly intelligent groove, and her seriousness is established. If you're looking for women artists to relate to, this is a hell of a lot better place to start than Wendy Waldman. B

Additional Consumer News

Not only do I admire the Billie Holiday of the '50s, when her voice was beginning to wear down but her musical intelligence was at its keenest, I prefer her. For a sample, try Verve's Billie Holiday: The First Verve Years, one of the finest twofers in recent memory. . . .

Capitol's Raspberries Best Featuring Eric Carmen, obviously designed to capitalize on the noxious solo career of the ex-leader, performs a needed service by compiling cuts from the group's first two (flawed) albums. Also included are two cuts from the third album, Starting Over, which is still in catalogue and worth seeking out--more than Raspberries Best, in fact. . . .

ABC/Dot has just reduced its list prices on country albums from $6.98 to $5.98, for the excellent reason that country product is not much discounted. How about that? CBS also sells some country LPs for $5.98, but, as usual, puts a $6.98 price on them wherever it seems likely to get away with it.

Village Voice, Nov. 1, 1976

Postscript Notes:

The original photocopy here was clipped on the top, the left, and the bottom, but has been corrected thanks to Google.

Oct. 4, 1976 Nov. 22, 1976