Christgau's Consumer Guide
Two introductory notes. First, I didn't play it quite fair with the Pick Hit and Must to Avoid this month--those Beatle clones clutching the latticework to my right are inoffensive enough, and ordinarily I wouldn't pick on them, but given my genuine (if peculiar) fondness for their opposite numbers, I just couldn't resist. Second, I've been listening hard not only to disco albums but also to so-called disco discs, which retail for something over two bucks and usually offer two tracks of at least five minutes, sometimes lengthened and revved up in the bass from the album versions. A ripoff in one way, but given the big cost of 45s, the predominance of long-player technology, and the filler ratio on most LPs, often the only economical source of good old r&b singing. Which I regard as the main reason to pay attention to disco in the first place.
JOAN ARMATRADING: To the Limit (A&M) The secret of Armatrading's songs is their plainness, but it's also their drawback. When she hits an image--"I read your letter yesterday/It fell between the covers/And my bare skin"--she lights up a real life. More often, though, she just says what she has to say with whatever unprepossessing idiom is at hand, and her melodies are even less inclined to witticism than her words. This style of candor, engaging in theory, escapes tedium in practice by way of Armatrading's bluntly dramatic singing. Rarely have less tuneful songs so impressed themselves on my mind. B PLUS
BIG STAR: Third (PVC) In late 1974, Alex Chilton--who had already evolved from America's answer to Stevie Winwood into the inventor of self-conscious power pop--transmogrified himself into some hybrid of Lou Reed (circa The Velvet Underground and/or Berlin) and Michael Brown (circa "Walk Away, Renee" and "Pretty Ballerina"). This is the album that resulted--14 songs in all, only two or three of which wander off into the psychotic ward. Halting, depressive, eccentrically shaped, it will seem completely beyond the pale to those who find his regular stuff weird. I think it's prophetically idiosyncratic and chillingly lyrical. A MINUS [Later]
HANK COCHRAN: With a Little Help from My Friends (Capitol) Another eccentric Nashville songwriter rides after gold with some famous buddies and winds up with another better-than-average country album. This one features vocals from Merle Haggard (two songs), Willie Whozit (one song), Jack Greene (who sounds like Waylon Whozit), and a dusky-voiced old favorite of mine, Jeannie Seely (Jack's singing partner and Hank's wife). Clinkerless, but way too heavy on the lighthearted throwaways. B
ELVIS COSTELLO: Armed Forces (Columbia) Like his predecessor, Bob Dylan, this ambitious tunesmith offers more as a phrasemaker than as an analyst or a poet, more as a public image than as a thinking, feeling person. He needs words because they add color and detail to his music. I like the more explicitly sociopolitical tenor here--"the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and The Times" evokes the conscripts in Her Majesty's Senior Service more directly than any lover he's inclined to pick on. But I don't find as many memorable bits of language as I did on This Year's Model. And though I approve of the more intricate pop constructions of the music, I found TYM's relentless nastiness of instrumental and (especially) vocal attack more compelling. A good record, to be sure, but not a great one. A MINUS [Later]
FIREFALL: Elan (Atlantic) I do too pay attention to mainstream rock product: in fact, I listened to this five or six times without a trace of stomach upset. The group achieves more of that old CSN(Y) feel than any of the decade's country-rock spinoffs; the album achieves more of that old rock and roll feel than any of the decade's CSN(Y) records. Commendable if not quite recommendable--didn't think they had it in them. B MINUS
TOMMY FLANAGAN: Something Borrowed, Something Blue (Galaxy) Decorative flourishes and all, Flanagan's cocktail piano is as intelligent as easy-listening music ever gets--bebop as a received style. I prefer this to the classic Flanagan trio record--Eclypso, on Inner City--because I prefer the tunes (especially Monk's "Friday the 13th"). Also because the less auspicious rhythm section--Smith (Jimmie) ain't Jones (Elvin)--merits fewer solos and breaks. And despite--tsk, tsk--the electric piano on the title cut. B PLUS
TERRY GARTHWAITE: Hand in Glove (Fantasy) I complained about production clutter on her quickly deleted Arista album, but I must admit that David Rubinson injected a brightness that I miss in El Lay jazzman John Guerin's more tasteful work here. That could even be why the songs seem a shade duller this time. But Garthwaite's rhythmic and timbral adeptness remain unique in rock, and I'm grateful these days for any explicitly feminist analysis that is also both heterosexual and antipuritanical. Anyway, the songs are still a lot brighter than most. B PLUS
DAN HARTMAN: Instant Replay (Blue Sky) Too bad one of the few disco albums that out-dollar-for-dollars the corresponding disco single is this super-efficient piece of rock funk, but deserving souls who dally with mechanization can't complain when bested by a real machine. Sole monkey wrench: the slow one, "Time and Space," on which Hartman breaks his own rule by trying to write a meaningful lyric and then triples the misdemeanor by running it through his own larynx. Who does he think he is, Robert Plant? Machines can't sing. B PLUS [Later: B]
TONIO K.: Life in the Foodchain (Full Moon/Epic) Tonio shouts numerous humorous words--his evolution jokes are funnier than Devo's--over the noise made by crack El Lay session men as they revisit Highway 61 at 110 miles an hour. Personal to Warren Zevon: note new speed limit. Inspirational Verse: "Yes I wish I was as mellow/As for instance Jackson Browne/But 'Fountain of Sorrow' my ass motherfucker/I hope you wind up in the ground." B PLUS
MOON MARTIN: Shots from a Cold Nightmare (Capitol) Hook fiends will love these ten catchy little numbers, but me, I'm put off by Martin's pop drawl--"tender" or "excited," he's dispassionate in a way that doesn't suit his musical or lyrical directness. Or maybe it's just that eight songs about treacherous girls are four or five too many. B
MUSIQUE: Keep on Jumpin' (Prelude) Just to reassure anyone pinheaded enough to suspect that I've gone over to The Enemy, I thought I'd mention this disco cult item from 1978, one of those tragedies of amyl nitrite poisoning that so distress sympathetic observers like myself. To start with the worst, half the record is devoted to a stupefying pop melody yclept "Summer Love" for 6:17 on side one and "Summer Love Theme" for 8:00 on side two. By comparison, the serviceable dance mix of the title track shines, and the headliner would be brilliant in any company: 8:20 of spare polyrhythm that never stops jumpin' and might be mistaken for the Wild Magnolias in the age of mechanical reproduction (except that it's faster). The problem is the title, which not surprisingly dominates the lyric. I grant that ("Push, push") "In the Bush" is a phrase that sticks in the mind, but so is "sit on my face." I can imagine dancing to either in the heat of the 8:20. But would we have anything to say over coffee the next morning? C PLUS
PETER, PAUL & MARY: Reunion (Warner Bros.) To turn "Forever Young" into the post-hippie "My Way," the way Dylan does, just means you've become a showbiz reprobate. To turn it into a rinky-dink reggae like these three geezers means you've been middle-aged and liberal since you were 15. D PLUS
SISTER SLEDGE: We Are Family (Cotillion) The disco disc features identical versions (at 8:06 and 6:04) of the two side-openers--the title track, a magnificent, soul-shouting sisterhood anthem that might conceivably set CYO girls and radical feminists dancing side by side, and "He's the Greatest Dancer," a depressingly straight-laced (though seductive) tribute to a fellow who doffs his designer clothes for a different woman every night. (I wonder if I would have been so amused by the boy from New York City in 1965 if I'd known that in 1979 he wouldn't be just an adolescent fantasy any more.) If you buy the album you get "Lost in Musick" that one-in-a-hundred I-love-you-know-what song that illuminates its subject. Plus a couple of useless slow ones and some chic riffs. So I guess the d.d. is your option. B [Later: B+]
DUSTY SPRINGFIELD: Living Without Your Love (United Artists) Fledgling producer David Wolfert doesn't get her voice as subtly as Roy Thomas Baker (or Jerry Wexler) did, but he gives her more good songs than she's had in a decade. Also more good sides: one, featuring a "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" that vies with Smokey's, and "Closet Man," which is about what you hope it's about and very nice indeed. B PLUS [Later]
ROD STEWART: Blondes Have More Fun (Warner Bros.) He used to mean to be meaningful and now he means to be trashy, but that doesn't make him decadent. Decadent is when Carol Bayer Sager writes all your songs for you. B
SYLVESTER: Step II (Fantasy) Side one is fine dance montage: make and remake of a surging new-soul classic (available on disco disc) surround something you can shake your ass to for 5:50 and then forget forever at 5:55. Side two proves that Sylvester cannot impersonate Cissy Houston or Russell Thomkins. B MINUS [Later: B+]
TIPICA IDEAL: Out of This World (Coco) Although I'm told this is an excellent charanga record, I can't swear it's true, because I don't remember ever listening to another. But I know this is the first salsa album I've ever played--and I dutifully put on every one I get--that I turned over as soon as the first side was through. I like its directness--for me, the jazz admixture in most salsa distracts from its basic rhythmic thrust. I also like the way the timbales explode against the steady fiddle line. I even like the flutes. A MINUS
WORKING (Columbia) Broadway is as obsessed with leisure as any other pop bastion, and I have no doubt that one reason this show failed was its subject, which it does justice to at least half the time. The best lyrics describe a character's own peculiar job, rather than generalizing about his or her line of work; whether it's the luck of the draw, the state of the art, or the mortal superiority of women, the actresses have more touching stories to tell than the actors. All the songs flirt with sentimentality, which means the good ones can make you cry. B PLUS [Later]
Additional Consumer News
My two favorite LPs of recent months are not available in domestic release and it pisses me off. So let me recommend once again Pere Ubu's Dub Housing on English Chrysalis, especially to admirers of Captain Beefheart who find themselves attracted by the force but put off by the simplifications of most new wave. Simplification fans should seek out the even more exciting Germ Free Adolescents, by X-Ray Spex on English EMI. Poly Styrene's cheerfully moralistic nursery rhymes sound samey at first, but their melodies soon reveal themselves and the dubiously tuned one-sax horn section provides irresistible color. From a song about suicide: "Did you do it for fame?/Did you do it in a fit?/Did you do it before read about it?" I also recommend the Only Ones' CBS debut to those seeking a harder head for Ray Davies. And wonder when I'll find the Johnny Thunders. . . .
Another treasure is Book-of-the-Month Records' four-disc Fats Waller box. It's worth the 20 bucks or so it'll set you back--which I say as one who's buying it as a gift--and is a far more convincing introduction to this sardonic showman and virtuoso than anything on the RCA recordings it was taken from, including the recent A Legendary Performer, or (God knows) the shamefully stagey Ain't Misbehavin' original cast LP. Send inquiries (not checks) to Camp Hill, Pennsylvania 17012. . . .
Finally, a chance to at least list the most memorable single of recent months: Julie Covington's slick, dirty cover of Richard and Linda Thompson's "Bright Lights" (Ronstadt fans, take notice--and cover), Nervus Rex's hesitant exploratory pop-rock, "Don't Look at Me" b/w "Love Affair," and Keith Richard's "Run Rudolph Run." Also, three supposed B sides: "1-2 Stuck on You," the first Clash love song; Magazine's reinterpretation of Captain Beefheart's "I Love You Big Dummy"; and the Rolling Stones' "Everything's Turning to Gold."
Village Voice, Feb. 26, 1979