Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

As you notice, things ain't as good as one might hope--ahh Gary, Phoebe, Bobby, Lou, couldn't you have done just a little better?--but there is an alternative. Unfortunately, the medium I'm writing for is caught in the same mediocrity squeeze as the one I'm writing about, which means that there's no room for Additional Consumer News for a second (third? I forget) consecutive month. So, very briefly, a few recommended best-ofs: on Buddah, a new Isley Brothers twofer (catch up on pre-disco 'cause it sounds great; maybe disco will some day); on Sire, Greg Shaw's excellent Del Shannon package; and on Smithsonian ($9.00 from P.O. Box 5774, Terre Haute, Indiana 47802) Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines 1928.

End of intro. I want to make sure They get all 20 of my current ratings in this month.

BACHMAN-TURNER OVERDRIVE: Head On (Mercury) The bad-mouthing finally reached even a bemused admirer like myself, so that I was all ready with an alternate title--Flat Tired; pretty funny, eh?--until I listened one last time. Which is when I noticed that "Average Man" is a well-above-average song, a typical paradox for this obstreperously ordinary group and album. Clomp on. B MINUS [Later]

BURNING SPEAR: Marcus Garvey (Island) The most African- (and political-) sounding reggae LP yet to crease the U.S.A. The songs are basically chants, the rhythms are basically polyrhythms, and the horns hint at the highlife--if climaxing your own U.S.A. LP with cries of "give me what is mine" isn't high life enough. B PLUS [Later: A-]

CATE BROS. (Asylum) These Southern brothers relate to soul rather than boogie, with a nice gain in structure, but they could use some surface flash to highlight all that sincerity, which is a lot more profound in the vocalization than the verbalization in any case. B MINUS

BOB DYLAN: Desire (Columbia) In the great tradition of Grand Funk Railroad, Dylan has made an album beloved by tour devotees--including those who were shut out of Rolling Thunder's pseudocommunitarian grooviness except via the press. It is not beloved by me. Although the candid propaganda and wily musicality of "Hurricane" delighted me for a long time, the deceitful bathos of its companion piece, "Joey," tempts me to question the unsullied innocence of Rubin Carter himself. These are not protest songs, folks, not in the little-people tradition of "Hattie Carroll"; their beneficiaries are (theoretically) wronged heroes, oppressed overdogs not unlike our beleaguered superstar himself. And despite his show of openness, our superstar may be feeling oppressed. His voice sounds mucid and so do his rhymes, while sisters Ronee and Emmylou sound distinctly kid, following the leader as if they're holding onto his index finger. More genuinely fraternal (and redeeming) are the pained, passionate marital tributes, "Sara" and "Isis." Upgraded for the past achievements of the artist. B PLUS [Later: B-]

FOCUS: Mother Focus (Atco) In which art-rock frankly abandons all pretense of both art and rock for tongue-in-cheek mood mush. Which is a relief, if only because you know George Melachrino would never record a tune called "I Need a Bathroom." C PLUS

JANIS IAN: Aftertones (Columbia) Ian here establishes herself as the most technically accomplished popular vocalist of her (post-rock? post-folkie? pre-Vegas?) generation. She's even managing to curb the melodrama, as well as permitting herself unaccustomed glints of humor. But if you want to glimpse the crippling intellectual limitations of this sort of accomplishment, just get a load of her library, thoughtfully depicted on a cover that also features an open aerogram and an enigmatic mirror-as-window through which peers the artiste. There they stand, all her sources: a Modern Library Camus, The Second Sex, The Greenwich Village Bluebook, How to Survive in the Woods, and that encyclopedia of secondhand angst, Colin Wilson's The Outsider. How existential. One thing, though--mirrors are good windows only when surviving in the woods isn't something you ever have to think about. B MINUS

SI KAHN: New Wood (June Appal) I was put off at first by the indifference to sales claimed in the booklet that accompanies this. Such smug anticommercialism usually betrays mixed motives in a purportedly political artist, and I associated this smugness with Kahn's willfully austere Appalachian music. But the songs soon shone through, correctives every one (despite an occasional baldness of instructional intent) to the romanticizations of Southern pastoral individualism that are currently so profitable. Kahn is an aficionado of poor-white virtues, but not at the expense of his vivid understanding of the labor, sadness, frustration, and small-mindedness that go along with them. Recommended to the curious. B PLUS [Later]

BARRY MANILOW: Tryin' to Get the Feeling (Arista) Inspirational Verse: "I've been alive forever/And I wrote the very first song/I put the words and melodies together/I AM MUSIC/And I write the songs." You've heard that one, eh? It figures. But do you know who wrote the song? Bruce Johnston. C MINUS

KATE & ANNA MCGARRIGLE (Warner Bros.) A folkie apotheosis--dry and droll, tender, sweetly mocking its own sentiment, unfailingly intelligent. With melodies that are fetching rather than pretty (thank Jean Ritchie) and lyrics that are not above a certain charming, even calculating, vulgarity (thank Loudon Wainwright III). A MINUS [Later: A]

HAROLD MELVIN & THE BLUE NOTES FEATURING THEODORE PENDERGRASS: Wake Up Everybody (Philadelphia International) The sustained dynamics of the title track get me past its muddle-headed lyrics--Gamble-Huff sometimes act as if "hatred, war an' poverty" came along just as they were running out subjects--and I can hear why Teddy Pendergrass makes 'em ooh and ahh. But to me his strength sounds insecure; he tends toward bluster and chest-pounding, and his grunts are uncomfortably close to coughs. Anyway, he's gone, and you know this group will never be billed as Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes featuring Sharon Paige. Can there be any other reason for Harold to groom her so lovingly? B MINUS [Later: B+]

BETTE MIDLER: Songs for the New Depression (Atlantic) It's going too far to claim that she's taken on a corporate personality--a very unusual individual does definitely peek out through the curtain of groupthink that hides these songs from the singer and from us. But that individual seems to have taken on so many advisers because she's afraid of herself, and such fear is not attractive in an artist of Bette Midler's power. No matter what your voice teachers tell you, wackiness is not something you modulate. C PLUS

NILSSON: Sandman (RCA Victor) Subtler than Dr. Hook, more soulful than 10cc, and sexier than Henny Youngman. Includes a new interpretation of "Jesus Christ You're Tall" and a new theme song: "Here's Why I Did Not Go to Work Today." B MINUS

PHILIP & LLOYD (THE BLUES BUSTERS) (Scepter) Anybody who thinks Jamaican music is all ganja and so-Jah-seh should check out this not-bad collection of soul remakes, produced by Kingston's answer to Herb Alpert, Byron Lee (whose own American LP, Disco Reggae, includes a slinky version of "Shaving Cream"), and showcasing an accomplished duo of long popularity. Not bad, like I say, but nothing to make you jot down WLIB's Caribbean hours on the door of your refrigerator. Exceptions: "Baby I'm Sorry" and (especially) "Keep on Doing It," both of them, oddly enough, reggae originals. B MINUS [Later: C+]

QUEEN: A Night at the Opera (Elektra) This is near enough to the reported mishmash to make me doubt that it sells for what's good about it. Which is that it doesn't actually botch any of a half-dozen arty-to-heavy "eclectic" modes--even something called "Prophet's Song" sounds okay--and achieves a parodic tone often enough to suggest more than meets the ear. Maybe if they come up with a coherent masterwork I'll figure out what that more is. Maybe if they come up with a coherent masterwork they'll figure out what that more is. B MINUS

LOU REED: Coney Island Baby (RCA Victor) At first it's gratifying to ascertain that he's trying harder, but very soon that old cheapjack ennui begins to poke through. Oddly, though, most of the cheap stuff is near the surface--this record tends to sound better when you listen close. So maybe he really is trying harder. B PLUS [Later]

DEE DEE SHARP: Happy 'Bout the Whole Thing (TSOP) This is touted as the current Gamble-Huff sleeper, which means that not only does it include two good songs, but that they come one right after the other at the beginning of a side. Side two, in case you're interested. C PLUS [Later]

PHOEBE SNOW: Second Childhood (Columbia) I have been a fan of this artist ever since her first album arrived in the mail. But I insist that the rumors of a major new artist that began after her success with "Poetry Man"--her sappiest song to date--originated with fuzzy-minded mongers. I'm pleased to report that her trademarked melismatic quaver hasn't degenerated into a gimmick, and I acknowledge that this is quite a good record of its type. But I have my doubts about how good a jazz-folk mood-music record can be. B PLUS [Later: B]

GARY STEWART: Steppin' Out (RCA Victor) Well-produced for sure, more country and more rock and roll all at the same time. But it sounds as if the craziness has been rationalized right out of him. B

DONNA SUMMER: Love to Love You Baby (Oasis) Did you come yet? Huh? Did you come yet? C PLUS [Later: B-]

TANYA TUCKER: Livin' and Learnin' (MCA) This is an impressive piece of plastic by the artist who seems destined to dominate country pop like a nubile Charley Pride. The gain in assurance and excitement should put to rest all narrow-spirited suspicions that only Billy Sherrill's cracker acumen can shape Tanya's voice. But the voice remains a dirty one, which means that those songs that broaden her appeal by forcing her to play the ingenue tend to unfocus the persona behind subtler lyrics like Sterling Whipple's "Makin' Love Don't Always Make Love Grow." Highlights: two rockers, one from Fats Domino, the other from the Eagles. B [Later]

Village Voice, Mar. 1, 1976

Feb. 2, 1976 Mar. 29, 1976