Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

I am in my post-Christmas doldrums, but I'll not subject you to any prattle on that subject when the record manufacturers have offered all you consumers (if we didn't read the trades, us consumer guiders might never know) such a dandy little post-Christmas present: a new list price. It began with WEA (that's Warners-Elektra-Atlantic to you non-Billboard subscribers) announcing that the suggested retail on the long-awaited (by some; I'm boycotting) new Queen album was $7.98. In some disarray, other record manufacturers have followed, although the pattern isn't clear yet; WEA claims its rise is only on special product, but wait till we find out who's special, while other manufacturers--like CTI, whose market is primarily black, and you know what kind of capitalism that is (the same old kind)--have gone all the way with what they believe the market will bear. A special category was created for this month's Must to Avoid: I refer to its list as "pricey" below, but "extortive" might be a more appropriate term for $8.98. It has just gone platinum.

THE ATLANTA RHYTHM SECTION: A Rock and Roll Alternative (Polydor) If these guys actually sounded as if their studio were located (as it is) in a Georgia industrial park--fluorescent light through the pines and so forth--the general improvement in clarity and inventiveness might be interesting. But it's industrial only in the most predictable sense--more product. Even Charlie Daniels obviously has something to sing about; the vocalist here--why should I bother to look up his name?--might just as well be cuttin' another dog-food spot. C PLUS

BLONDIE (Private Stock) Ahh, New York. I remember Debbie Blondie when she was singing with nursery-rhyme breathiness for a group called the Wind in the Willows. Now she sounds flatly cynical against a very funny aural montage of girl-group and original-punk usages from the pre-psychedelic era--less blithe, certainly, but more, you know, together. Which is what new-punk posturing is all about. Special award: best use of trash organ since "Light My Fire." B PLUS

DAVID BOWIE: Low (RCA Victor) I find side one's seven "fragments"--since the two that clock in at less than 2:45 are 1:42 and 2:20, the term must refer to structures rather than length--almost as powerful as the "overlong" tracks on Station to Station. "Such a wonderful person/But you got problems" is definitely a love lyric for our time. But the movie music on side two is so far from hypnotic that I figure Bowie, rather than Eno, must deserve credit for it. I mean, is Eno really completely fascinated by banality? B PLUS [Later]

JACKSON BROWNE: The Pretender (Asylum) I've been hating and admiring this record for months; my grade is an average, not a judgment. Clearly Jon Landau has gotten more out of Browne's voice than anyone knew was there, and the production jolts Ol' Brown Eyes out of his languor again and again. But languor is Browne's best mask, and what's underneath isn't always so impressive. His philosophical shallowness--the kitschy doomsaying and sentimental sexism--is well-known, but I'm disappointed as well in his depth of craft. How can men of wealth and taste mistake a received metaphor like "sleep's dark and silent gate" for interesting poetry or gush over a versifier capable of such rhyming-dictionary expedients as pairing "pretender" and "ice cream vendor" (the colloquial term, JB, is "ice cream man")? Similar shortcomings flaw the production itself--the low-register horns on "Daddy's Tune" complement its somber undertone perfectly, but when the high blare kicks in at the end the song degenerates into a Honda commercial. Indeed, at times I've wondered whether some of this isn't intended as parody, but a sense of humor has never been one of Browne's virtues. B [Later]

GONG: Shamal (Virgin) Since the nicest melody on the second-nicest cut on this pastiche of pastiches, "Cat in Clark's Shoes," is lifted in a much inferior version from Thelonious Monk's "Brilliant Corners," I wonder where I can find the superior version of the theme of "Wingful of Eyes." B MINUS

EMMYLOU HARRIS: Luxury Liner (Reprise) Not content with her corner on the wraith-with-a-twang market, some folks' favorite folkie manque has added funk and raunch and echo and overdub to her voice. The result is a record I play a lot, perhaps out of sheer surprise. Song selection also helps--an unforgettable Townes Van Zandt melody is unearthed, and the two Gram Parsons selections don't automatically shame themselves by recalling the originals. B PLUS [Later: B]

JUSTIN HINES & THE DOMINOES: Jezebel (Island) Homey lyrics ("Jah-jah will spank you") and artful instrumental touches--I like the gentle calypso-styled horns and decorative guitar licks--may mean this is a great reggae album. But they may mean it's only a subtle one, and in such an understated genre subtlety risks extinction. B PLUS

BILL HOLLAND & RENT'S DUE: If It Ain't One Thing . . . (Adelphi) Despite the decline of the genre, I still hear a lot of singer-songwriter records, most of which sound smoother than this--both Holland and his band lack polish in the vaguely jazzy style mature folkies fall into. They have plenty of bounce, though, and something about the tender yet skeptical common sense of Holland's lyrics suggests that he doesn't much care for smooth stuff anyway. Not that his raggedness is a plus. But if I were an a&r man and heard some unknown put across songs as out-of-the-ordinary as "This Fourth Year" and "Do the Mambo" I'd say the hell with the cracked voice and sign him. B PLUS

THE JACKSONS (Epic) This dream just didn't come true. Even Michael and his brothers weren't high-powered enough to rev up Gamble & Huff's faltering music machine. Or is it vice-versa? C PLUS [Later]

MAX'S KANSAS CITY 1976 (Ram) If the musicians at CBGB like to pose as punks, then those at Max's wish they smelled like flowers of evil. This smells like week-old all-you-can-eat instead. Emcee Wayne County begins by naming seven mythic (or at least recognizable) New York bands on the title cut, but they're not the seven who follow. In ascending order: Cherry Vanilla (pickles and ice milk), Harry Toledo (Bert Akron), Suicide (the two stooges), the John Collins Band (terrific name), Wayne County (cute lisp), the Fast (good for a laugh), and Pere Ubu. Pere Ubu actually evoke the Velvets, and I'd like to see them sometime. Unfortunately, they live in Cleveland. C [Later]

JONI MITCHELL: Hejira (Asylum) Album eight is most impressive for the cunning with which Mitchell subjugates melody to the natural music of language itself. Whereas in the past only her naive intensity has made it possible to overlook her old-fashioned prosody, here she achieves a sinuous lyricism that is genuinely innovative. Unfortunately, the chief satisfaction of Mitchell's words--the way they map a woman's reality--seems to diminish as her autonomy increases. The reflections of a rich, faithless, compulsively mobile, and compulsively romantic female are only marginally more valuable than those of her marginally more privileged male counterparts, especially the third or fourth time around. It ain't her, bub, it ain't her you're lookin' for. B PLUS

NEW YORK SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL: Threepenny Opera (Columbia) No matter how little use you have for musical theatre--I have very little myself--this score must be the exception. Even in translation (the only way I know them) Brecht's fifty-year-old lyrics retain an ironic fervor that makes tough-minded moderns like Randy Newman or Fagen-Becker sound attenuated and cerebral, and Weill's discordant music carries its own charge. Without attempting to compare the accuracy of the Blitzstein and Manheim-Willett versions, I'd give Blitzstein's Theatre de Lys recording (on MGM) an edge over this one: of the current cast, only Raul Julia's Mack the Knife is clearly preferable to his predecessor, and Ellen Greene's egotistical "stylizations"--in Lotte Lenya's part!--are barely tolerable. But the new sound is better, and while Manheim and Willett don't approach Blitzstein's poetry (or prosody), their sexual and political explicitness is an attraction--when's the last time you heard the verb "to oppress" used appropriately in a song? I'm glad to own both: you should sample at least one. Docked a notch for Ellen Greene. A MINUS

TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS (MCA) Addicts of updated nostalgia and rock and roll readymades should find this a sly and authentic commentary on the evolving dilemma of Harold Teen. The songs are cute, the riffs executed with more dynamism than usual, and the singing attractively phlegmy. And like they say at the end of other cartoons, that's all, folks. B PLUS

RAMONES: Ramones Leave Home (Sire) People who consider this a one-joke band aren't going to change their minds now. People who love the joke for its power, wit, and economy will be happy to hear it twice. I myself think it sounds a little duller and heavier than need be. Hint: read the lyrics. A MINUS [Later: A]

RED SHADOW: Live from the Panacea Hilton (Physical) When I heard that a bunch of Marxist-Leninists from Cambridge had made a satirical rock and roll record, I couldn't wait to hear it, but believe me, you can. Only Marxist-Leninists from Cambridge would spend so much time mocking elitist academics while their own distance from working-class experience, typified by the lack of conviction in their folk-rock, remained so palpable. Exceptions: "Hunger," recommended to Harry Chapin, and "Movement Lovers," which because it is about left politics qualifies as genuine socialist realism. C

MAX ROMEO: War Ina Babylon (Island) Romeo has long been a professional rude boy ina the Anglian outposts of Babylon, and this career training is reflected in the brightness of his reggae, refreshingly explicit and immediate (both musically and lyrically) in the wake of second-rate Toots and Marley. In fact, I find this album more attractive than all but two reggae LPs released stateside in 1976--the Mighty Diamonds and the first Burning Spear. But I won't argue with anyone who finds it tediously close in spirit to the foregone conclusions of Peter, Paul & Mary. B PLUS

AL STEWART: Year of the Cat (Janus) Rather than gothics or sci-fi, Stewart goes for historical novels, and as long as he keeps the Nostradamus to himself I say good for him. Well, actually the historical note is limited this time out to one song about Lord Grenville and references to Leonardo, phantom harlequins, etc. The prevailing tone is more spy-novel. I ask you, did Eric Ambler have an ear for melody. B MINUS [Later]

STREISAND/KRISTOFFERSON: A Star Is Born (Columbia) Due largely to Kristofferson, whose recording career will soon be as vestigial as George Segal's, the movie isn't quite the ripoff you'd figure, but the album, which lists as a pricey $8.98, most certainly is. As with all soundtracks, you get the stars' voices but not their chests, and Rupert Holmes and Paul Williams have ended up with the kind of rock and roll cliches that real rockers assume. What else could I expect? Neither Barbra nor Kris has made a listenable album, much less a stellar one, in the history of Consumer Guide. D PLUS

ZZ TOP: Tejas (London) They say Tejas and I say caxones--touring the way this band does tears you up by the roots, until the digs at Rolling Stone assume an authenticity lacking in the tales of the Pan-Am Highway. But I must add that this raw trio--the first I recall to hark back to country music as well as blues--sounds a lot brawnier than most of what comes out of Austin. You think Kinky Friedman will cover "Arrested for Driving While Blind"? C PLUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

When Phil Ochs was alive I valued the person and the public figure more than I did the music; now that he's dead, I find the four sides of A&M's Chords of Fame, compiled by Phil's discophile brother Michael, all but irresistible. People complain about off key and out of tune, but I could give a shit. My only objection is that there is no discographical information to complement Ed Sanders's extensive liner notes. . . .

Those whose familiarity with female jazz singers stops at Billie and Ella are directed to two recent twofers--Dinah Washington's The Jazz Sides, on EmArcy, and Betty Carter's What a Little Moonlight Can Do, on Impulse. Despite Washington's slightly more sophisticated musicality, I confess I prefer the Carter--something about the warmth of her timbre.

Village Voice, Feb. 14, 1977

Dec. 27, 1976 Mar. 21, 1977