Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Those who detect a certain lack of enthusiasm in even my most positive album reviews should refer immediately to Additional Consumer News, which inspired me to make the following tape: "Skintite," "Homosapien," "New Life," (Devo's) "Working in a Coalmine," (Kevin Dunn's) "Nadine," "To Hell With Poverty," "Change," "Louie Louie," "Six."

CHANGE: Miracles (Atlantic) Where their debut took off from its moments of raunch, this is pure fantasy fare--the you-can-work-it-out advisories "Hold Tight," "Your Move" and "Stop for Love" never get down (to details), and "On Top," "Heaven of My Life," "Paradise," and "Miracles" aren't what you'd call realistic (note titles). But what a terrific fantasy--so bright and casual and full of life. The hip punch of Mauro Malavasi's keyboards puts the dream in motion, and Diva Gray's lithe, modest vocals bring it to bed. B PLUS

GUY CLARK: The South Coast of Texas (Warner Bros.) Clark is hardly the last surviving singer-songwriter, but so much of the competition has gotten into rock auterism or pop demos that those who miss the old ways pay him more mind than they used to. This is his best since 1975's aptly titled Old No. 1. The "Rita Ballou" lets us know he's singing easier, and turns like "her breath's as sweet as chewing gum" and "the road to good intentions/Is paved with the fools I've been" remind us of his vernacular knack. But only on "New Cut Road," real bluegrass canon-fodder, does the music add meaning as well as tangibility. Which is why the competition is into rock auteurism and pop demos. B

ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ATTRACTIONS: Almost Blue (Columbia) Put this on the shelf behind Bowie's Pin Ups and Lennon's Rock 'n' Roll, which also seemed "important" when they appeared. Take it from me, EC fans: start with the Flying Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace of Sin, then try 24 of Hank Williams' Greatest Hits, then George Jones's All-Time Greatest Hits: Volume 1, and Merle Haggard's Songs I'll Always Sing. And then start exploring. B MINUS

RODNEY CROWELL (Warner Bros.) Speaking of pop demos, I remember when this boy came on like a rock auteur. Traded it all for a prime single, and got gypped. C PLUS

THE DANCE: In Lust (Statik import) You'd think a band obsessed with sex as both physical and meaningful would make records with more touch and depth (not to mention thrust). Instead they're naggingly hypnotic at best and blandly tentative at worst. Must have been something to do with their other obsession: "survival." B MINUS

ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN: Heaven Up Here (Sire) Word was these erstwhile-and-futurist popsters had transcended songform, so I gritted my teeth and tried to dig the texture, flow, etc. Almost took the enamel clean off. I hold no brief against tuneless caterwaul, but tuneless psychedelic caterwaul has always been another matter. Ditto for existential sophomores. And Jim Morrison worship. C

JOE JACKSON'S JUMPIN' JIVE (A&M) Put this on the shelf in front of Bowie's Pin Ups, Lennon's Rock 'n' Roll, and Costello's Almost Blue. Granted, Jackson doesn't sing as well as any of them, not to mention Cab Calloway or Louis Jordan, who originated most of the '40s r&b novelties here revived. But he obviously gets a kick out of this stuff, and that counts for something. What ought to count for more is that MCA has slipped three budget compilations on Louis Jordan into better record stores. B

RONALD SHANNON JACKSON AND THE DECODING SOCIETY: Eye on You (About Time) There may be drummers who can cut Jackson, but nobody else moves so fluidly from free-time to on-the-one. I only wish he'd indulge himself with a drummer's record. The music is never less than dense and jumpy, and he's keeping things compact--11 cuts total. But handing your themes over to (guitarist) Bern Nix and (violinist) Billy Bang is no way to show off your composing. Stanley Crouch has a word for this kind of thing: eso, as in esoteric. Pretty good eso, sure. But even in my head I don't dance to it. B PLUS

SHANNON JACKSON & THE DECODING SOCIETY: Nasty (Moers Music import) "Small World," featuring the unison horns of Lee Rozie, Charles Brackeen, and Byard Lancaster, is the most fiercely swinging track in all avant-fusion. After that Jackson carries rhythm and melody on his kit for 10 minutes as the vibes swirl around him, and then there's a haunting harmolodic blues. But overdisc it's back to eso. The title piece is okay if you can't get enough Ornette homages, but "When We Return," which takes up almost a third of the record, is your basic freebie-jeebie noisemaking session, more accomplished than "Radio Ethiopia" but less endearing conceptually. By now, Jackson's supposed to know better. A MINUS

GARLAND JEFFREYS: Rock & Roll Adult (Epic) Jeffreys and his band (four cheers for the Rhumour) are on top of this live material. But such concert faves as "Matador" and "35 Millimeter Dreams" were too stagy on record to begin with, and now, returned to plastic, they're even stagier--without the stage. Shticked to death: "Cool Down Boy." B

KILLING JOKE: What's This For . . . ! (Editions EG) Not so strange that these heavy-metal mutants should turn up on the ambient-music label. In fact, their all-over sound is a plus--better echoey vocals and flash-free guitar than the stupid doomsday strut of their forefathers. But I rarely crave ambient technohorror, even when it has lead drum parts--prefer my immolation with lines around it. Which is why I bought "Change" as a single, and hope to do the same with "Tension." B

MEDIUM MEDIUM: The Glitterhouse (Catchalot) "Hungry So Angry" is so much their greatest moment--the drop-dead riff that's their entrée to the Funk Club--I'm tempted to recommend the EP, which offers two versions of the thing. But in the context "Hungry So Angry" sets up, the more abstract music they prefer comes across not only raw and spatial but also danceable, and you hardly notice their arty vocal dementia. Which isn't to say you shouldn't go for the EP. B PLUS

MOFUNGO: End of the World (unlabeled cassette) These young no wave stalwarts have outgrown the blinding headache approach without giving up their stubbornly untrendy belief that you play music for love (with some well-aimed hate thrown in). "End of the World" could pass for early Television, and "El Salvador"--all of the title, half of the lyric--is the political song of the year. Perhaps because the final 10 tracks weren't mixed by Chris Stamey, this 14-song, 30-minute tape does cry out for aspirin as it proceeds. But by the end I'm still playing it for love. A MINUS [Later: B+]

MEREDITH MONK: Dolmen Music (ECM) Monk has classical voice training, but I expect it was her folk and rock experience that taught her how to make these almost wordless songs sound so demotic, so literally unrefined--they obviously don't merely "express" emotion, but they don't merely distill it either. On record, the ostinato structures mean that the four shorter pieces composed between 1972 and 1975 come across better than the title work, which lasts 23:39 and features six voices with intermittent accompaniment. But anybody who wants to go further than Lora Logic and Pere Ubu will listen to it all. A MINUS

PRINCE: Controversy (Warner Bros.) Maybe Dirty Mind wasn't a tour de force after all; maybe it was dumb luck. The socially conscious songs are catchy enough, but they spring from the mind of a rather confused young fellow, and while his politics get better when he sticks to his favorite subject, which is s-e-x, nothing here is as far-out and on-the-money as "Head" or "Sister" or the magnificent "When You Were Mine." In fact, for a while I thought the best new song was "Jack U Off," an utter throwaway. But that was before the confused young fellow climbed onto the sofa with me and my sweetie during "Do Me, Baby." A MINUS

SLAVE: Show Time (Cotillion) For those as can take their funk straight, this is the brawny beast in all its callipygean glory, complete with jokes (could use more) and slow one (could use less). The "Snap Shot"/"Funken Town" 12-inch does boil it down conveniently to kickoff and touchdown, but the ball keeps moving throughout. Leading ground-gainer: Mark L. Adams, who in real life plays . . . (starts with B, ends with S, and ain't bongos). A MINUS

THE TIME (Warner Bros.) The Bugs Bunny-gets-down voice that's been a funk staple since the Ohio Players is death on ballads--cf. Slave, Rick James. These Princeoid punks are slyer--"Oh Baby" can pass as a mock seduction in the manner of "Cool," which is a mock boast, though I wouldn't be sure about "Big Stick" (mock metaphor?). And that's only side two. But it's also half the tracks, and while the others are fun, I wouldn't call them funny--especially the ballad. B PLUS

UB40: Present Arms (DEP International import) These eight black-and-whites from Birmingham don't play no ska, but they're not about to revolutionize JA, either--not by carpentering the bass lines, horn charts, and dub effects of the reggae of yesteryear (1975, say) into indigenous pop r&b. As I haven't visited JA since 1973 myself, though, I'm hooked. Relegating all but one of the instrumentals that dragged their debut to a bonus 12-inch, they're songsmiths in a deep groove, and their conscience is catching--I know, because I fell for "One in Ten" on Radio Luxembourg despite my objections to its merely liberal message. Doubt it'll break the DOR barrier here--what passes for mild protest in England these days might sound dangerous Stateside. Hell, it might even be dangerous. A [Later: A-]

THE UNDERTONES: Positive Touch (Harvest) "Here's more songs about chocolate and girls/It's not so easy knowing they'll be heard"? No, that was last time. Here's still more, and it's even harder--not being sure whether they'll be heard or not (at least in the land across the sea) is worst of all. Nevertheless, the boys are equal to the task--just about every one of the 14 is catchy and felt. Almost inevitably, though, the arrangements are a little fancier, to no special avail, and the same goes for the subjects. Good luck, lads. B PLUS

LUTHER VANDROSS: Never Too Much (Epic) In music as tactful as this, where so much of the meaning is carried on the skip and flow of rhythm and timbre, songwriting doesn't matter all that much. So Vandross can attach tropes like "sugar and spice" and "she's a super lady" to undistinguished melodies and make me like them. But when his touch is just a little off, the great hit single you've just heard (or at least the good one that's sure to follow) seems almost as forgettable as the loser he's singing. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

It's been four or five months since I last made the attempt, so it's no big news that I've found some singles--the seven-inch kind, most of them by actual white people on adventurous independent labels! But given the vagaries of configuration these days, it's mete that I start with an EP, which goes here because it's a seven-inch (albeit 33-rpm) that sells for only $2. Propellor Product is a sampler of four of that Boston cooperative label's keener tunes: the Neats' transfixing, organ-washed "Six," CCCP-TV's candidly sexophobic "Fear That Mindless," Wild Stares' scary "Moving Targets," and People in Stores' politically correct "Factory." The tempos are unfast and the songing beats the singing, but "Six" is aces and all the rest are picture cards (21 Parkvale Avenue, Apartment 1, Allston, Massachusetts 02134). Then there's one of those three-song seven-inch 45s that may or may not qualify as EPs, by the Jetsons, hardcore idiots who have replaced the Panics as the best band in Bloomington (Gulcher, Box 1635, Bloomington, Indiana 47402). And speaking of idiots, Black Flag have finally fulfilled themselves, not with their "Six Pack" three-pack on SST (Box 1, Lawndale, California 90260), which I'd recommend more unreservedly if it didn't duplicate cuts on their just-released SST LP, but with the brilliant, demented "Louie Louie"/"Damaged I" (Posh Boy, Box 38861, Los Angeles, California 90038), which I'll take over the Pistols' "No Fun" any day. The most idiotic English single I've heard is Chron Gen's unrelenting "Reality" (Step-Forward import), a fast remake of Chelsea's "Right to Work" that's one of the two 45s I brought home from vacation and actually played. Old cocks and electropopsymps will be pleased to learn that the other is Pete Shelley's scintillatingly humane "Homosapien" (Island/Genetic import). I should mention that Scritti Politti's six-minute mock-pop post-Marxist tour de force "The 'Sweetest Girl'" is now available on domestic disc as well as on Rough Trade's glorious C81 cassette. Finally, El Futuro's "Rikers Island" (Poilish, 250 West 57th Street, NYC 10019) is an insistent piece of garage punk that for some reason reminds me of "Gloria."

Moving up a few inches we find my unforgivable electropop indulgence: Depeche Mode's "New Life" (Mute import), in which Eno lives after science. More correctly, I'm also a fan of Gang of Four's "To Hell with Poverty" (EMI import). Two reggae 12-inches are also getting play at my house: Bits & Pieces' (Sly & Robbie's) crazee Jamaicafication of "Don't Stop the Music" (Mango) and the Twinkle Brothers' bright, impattioned "Rasta P'on Top"/"It Gwine Dread'a" (Twinkle import). And so is Bohannon's raucous yowsah-yowsah "Let's Start II Dance Again" (Phase II, 9 Peachtree Street, Newnan, Georgia 30263).

To ease the transition, I'll suggest that Mission of Burma's "That's When I Reach for My Revolver"/"This Is Not a Photograph" (Ace of Hearts, Box 579, Boston, Massachusetts 02115) is as great a single as any of these, only it doesn't exist; instead it's a disappointing EP called Signals, Calls and Marches. The Lyres' AHS 1005 (Ace of Hearts) is a lot better: four very hard-rocking, rather Dollsish (more Johanesnish, actually) tracks which don't quite convince me that Jeff Conolly makes up for his bad rep with inspired madness. I prefer the inspired craftsmanship of Love at 1st Sight by former La Peste vocalist Peter Dayton (Shoo-Bop, no address). The B side offers the okay-plus title tune and a semithrowaway instrumental. But on the A, the very Carsy "Skintite" (Ric Ocasek produced) and the modestly Velvetsy "Stuck on the Same Refrain" share hum-of-the-month honors with "Homosapien" and "New Life" and rock harder than either.

Last but definitely not least--Christmas is coming--a consumer tip that's saved the biz's ass and can save you money. It's called midline pricing, in which the major labels resuscitate their catalogues by listing old "product" at $5.98, which means four bucks at a decent discounter. At Warner Bros., this product includes Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols and Bonnie Raitt's Home Plate, which just went gold in gratitude. At Mercury, both New York Dolls albums have finally been let out. Liberty has just reissued Brinsley Schwarz's Silver Pistol and Nervous on the Road. And these are only the tip of the iceberg, though finding out what's available will take some digging. (I'd check out stores with exhaustive stocks like J&R, Record City, King Karol or--even better--ask my local little guy to get catalogues from all the companies. If you'd like an idea of what '70s albums to catch up on you might consult the newly published Christgau's Record Guide, available at better bookstores from Ticknor & Fields.) And there are compilations as well as simple reissues. The most ambitious program here is MCA's. The Louis Jordan album Joe Jackson likes so much is Greatest Hits Vol. 2 1941-1947; if you were to obtain the Best of Louis Jordan twofer, you'd have no need of Louis Jordan's Greatest Hits, the one-to-buy collection it doubles. I've also been listening to great MCA twofers on Brenda Lee and Ernest Tubb, as well as Sonny Rollins and Charles Mingus collections in MCA's new Great Moments series. The programming isn't always as passionate as it might be, but with the Decca and Impulse vaults at its disposal, the least daring of the majors (rejected a Black Flag album as "anti-family," like that) can operate as a treasurehouse.

Village Voice, Nov. 30, 1981

Nov. 2, 1981 Jan. 12, 1982