Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Though I had to force myself, I figured four double Pick Hits in a row would be stretching it, so I made the hard choice. Two hard choices, actually--Sammy Hagar, you deserve worse.

AEROSMITH: Done With Mirrors (Geffen) Their knack for the basic song and small interest in guitar-hero costume drama always made them hard rock that deserved the name, not to mention an American band. Still, with almost a decade of bad records collective and solo behind them, there was no reason to expect a thing from this touching reunion. And against all odds the old farts light one up: if you can stand the crunch, you'll find more get-up-and-go on the first side than on any dozen random neogarage EP's. B PLUS

RUBéN BLADES Y SEIS DEL SOLAR: Escenas (Elektra) From loud syndrums to choked-up harmonies to generalized lyric, the Linda Ronstadt duet points up the risk Blades runs of falling into a modernist version of salsa's romantic overstatement. But the risk has a payback--whether he's synthing up la melodia or cataloguing international freedom fighters, his ability to skip along the shores of schlock without ruining his best pair of shoes helps distinguish him from middlebrow popularizers. It might even be what makes "The Song of the End of the World" a gleeful blowout rather than some stupid satire. A MINUS

THE COSTELLO SHOW (FEATURING ELVIS COSTELLO): King of America (Columbia) The Attractions always betokened Elvis's punk integrity--his commitment to collective creation, his rejection of the International Pop Music Community's expedient playing around. And the last time they were fully equal to his music was on This Year's Model in 1978. So finally he ditches them for T-Bone Burnett and a bunch of studio pros Steve Stills himself could get behind, one set anchored by Elvis I-approved L.A. rockabillies James Burton and Ron Tutt, the other by New Orleans-gone-L.A. drummer Earl Palmer and Modern Jazz-gone-L.A. bassist Ray Brown. And they all collaborate with their paymaster on that incommensurable token of collective creation, a groove. The wordplay is still too private, but the music has opened up: the careworn relaxation of Elvis's live vocals fits the uncompromised careerism of this groove as simply as 1978's raging tension did the angry young speed-rock of This Year's Model. Good show. [Original grade: A] A MINUS

CROSSOVER DREAMS (Elektra) Good flick or no, Rubén Blades is subject to the iron law of soundtracks just like crasser mortals, and though salsa atmospherics beat Dave Grusin by me, this one bogs down in reprises, living-room music, and the song Blades's character sells out with. Nor does featured vocalist Virgilio Marti prove legendary enough to compensate. B

THE DEL-LORDS: Johnny Comes Marching Home (EMI America) By saving "Heaven" for Pat Benatar's producer they assure its standing as an unmatched distillation of rock and roll's utopian thrust. Elsewhere their politics are sentimental and misconceived, with the Pete Seeger reference the giveaway and the bad TV movie "Against My Will" the nadir. Despairing or hopeful, the love songs are more tough-minded. That's the way it is with rock and roll's utopian thrust. B PLUS

STEVE EARLE: Guitar Town (MCA) "I was born in the land of plenty now there ain't enough." "I gotta two pack habit and a motel tan." "I admit I fall in love a lot." In other words, he's like ten thousand footloose rock-and-rollers before him, only he's got new ways to say it. Even makes the road seem like a hardship worthy of Scarecrow, if not Born in the U.S.A.. An American yes, a fool no, and Phil Alvin could do worse than give him a call. A MINUS

ED GEIN'S CAR: Making Dick Dance (EGC) Like any hardcore band with the money, they include a lyric sheet. Unlike most, they don't need one--their work is admirably recognizable, words and music both. Which doesn't make it admirable. You can be sure these guys don't shoot "screwdriver boys"--that's Bernie Goetz. And they don't "beat up gays"--that's their dog. They're not steamed because they're "feeding legions of wogs"--that's some middle-aged protofascist. They wouldn't rape anybody--that's the "sick fucker" who's on the street because "the courts don't care." But they do "want to fuck a girl like you." Funny fellows. Docked a notch for their taste in personas. B

GRANDMASTER FLASH: The Source (Elektra) Their original-is-still-the-greatest message might seem more original if they weren't still using some of the rhymes they introduced back when they and their brother Mel were number one. Imagine Wings getting back at John for "How Do You Sleep?" with a concept album and you'll have some idea of how thoroughly they waste these beats. C

ALBERT GRIFFITHS AND THE GLADIATORS: Country Living (Heartbeat) There's nothing progressive and plenty idiosyncratic about Griffiths's quest for naturality, which is fine--in reggae, idiosyncrasy makes all the marginal difference. The interested will thrill to the sweetness of the gutturals, the placement of the harmonies, the shifting center of the groove. The bored will remain so. B PLUS

MERLE HAGGARD: A Friend in California (Epic) Just when I decide he's gonna lay back forever he ambles into this. No Nippophobia, minimal love pap, a touch of Mexico, and lots of swing--except for one Freddy Powers pledge it keeps going till the obligatory sentimentality of the last two cuts. But though Merle's writing is rolling the prize is Floyd Tillman's "This Cold War With You." I vote for a tribute follow-up. B PLUS

HüSKER Dü: Candy Apple Grey (Warner Bros.) Grant Hart breaks up with the love of his life, Bob Mould can't shake off a bad trip, and hand in hand they sell out to the big bad major with the most disconsolate record of their never exactly cheerful career. Of course, between the swelling melodies that are supposed to give them pop accessibility and an attention to recorded sound that does some justice to their humongous musical details, the overall effect is more inspirational than depressing--this is the album that combines the supersonic soar of Flip Your Wig with the full-grown vision of New Day Rising. As for pop accessibility, we shall see. A

AARON NEVILLE: Make Me Strong (Charly) Produced between 1968 and 1975 by Allen Toussaint, every song here stiffed if it got released at all, yet taken together they constitute a classic singer's album as well as the ideal testament to Toussaint's spacey romanticism. The unhurried tempos often do without Toussaint's piano, but Neville's buttery tenor captures the spirituality that Lee Dorsey's waggishness obscured and Toussaint's bare vocal competence doomed to limbo. A MINUS

PRINCE AND THE REVOLUTION: Parade (Paisley Park) Musically, this anything but retro fusion of Fresh's foundation and Sgt. Pepper's filigrees is nothing short of amazing. Only the tin-eared will overlook the unkiltered wit of its pop-baroque inventions, only the lead-assed deny its lean, quirky grooves, both of which are so arresting that at first you don't take in the equally spectacular assurance with which the singer skips from mood to mood and register to register. I just wish the thing weren't such a damn kaleidoscope: far from unifying its multifarious parts, its soundtrack function destroys what little chance the lyrics have of bringing it together. Christopher is Prince, I guess, but nothing here tempts me to make sure. I'd much rather find out whether the former Rogers Nelson really takes all this trouble just so he can die and/or make love underneath whatever kind of moon, or if he has something less banal in mind. A MINUS

THE REPLACEMENTS: The Shit Hits the Fans (Twin/Tone) This slop bucket of shit-aesthetic covers from Lloyd Price to X with lotsa BTO/Foreigner/Skynyrd in between was "recorded live at the Bowery, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 11.11.84" without the band's knowledge: "Our roadie pulled it out of some enterprising young gent's tape recorder toward the end of the night." Sound is more than adequate considering, songs mostly good-to-great, overall effect a little unrealized for my taste. I might want to hear them do "Misty Mountain Hop" twixt "God Damn Job" and "I Will Dare," but twixt "Iron Man" and "Heartbreaker" I'll take Led Zep's. B

SADE: Promise (Portrait) Even when it's this sumptuous, there's a problem with aural wallpaper--once you start paying attention to it, it's not wallpaper anymore, it's pictures on the wall. And while as a wallpaper these pictures may be something, they can't compete with the ones you've hung up special. That's why I prefer my aural wallpaper either so richly patterned you can't see past the whole (Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians) or so intricately worked you can gaze at the details forever (Eno's Another Green World). In between I'll take Julie London. B

BOB SEGER & THE SILVER BULLET BAND: Like a Rock (Capitol) The songwriting's sharper, but he's not. Whether their focus is personal ("Like a Rock"), social ("Miami"), or personal-as-social ("Tightrope"), all his evocations of this rock and that hard place add up to is high-grade soap opera. Between John Robinson's measured arena beat and Craig Frost's Bittanesque semiclassicisms, Seger comes on as a world-weary elder statesman, which is to say an incurable cornball. Transcending all this is "The Ring," the tale of a good marriage that didn't get it all, and too bad Bruce won't cover it. B

VAN HALEN: 5150 (Warner Bros.) Wonder how the guitar mavens who thought Eddie equalled Van Halen are going to like his fireworks displays and balls-to-the-wall hooks now that video star David Lee Roth has given way to one of the biggest schmucks in the known biz. No musician with something to say could stomach responding to Sammy Hagar's call, and this album proves it. C PLUS

WILMA (Subterranean) Some of their songs do well by such old staples as poststructuralism ("Life Without Adjectives") and fuck-men ("Love Vaccine"); others don't. Their idiot-avant instrumentals (cf. the Residents, Toiling Midgets) are never as oppressive as Frightwig's generic hardcore, Salem 66's slave-pop, Throwing Muses's muse, etc. And their cover of "Georgy Girl" blows away such monumental precedents as the Raincoats' "Lola" and Y Pants' "That's the Way Boys Are." A sarcastic rollick through a song you never knew meant so much or so little, it's interrupted by a futuristic dream sequence in which Georgy joins a punk band and utters the following Inspirational Verse: "I suppose you're thinking/We're a little queer/Well my boy I suggest you suck another beer/The bottle's warmyfru/It's got a foamy head/It doesn't cry it doesn't bleed it doesn't wet your bed." B

ROBERT WYATT: Old Rottenhat (Rough Trade) Set your political statements to unprepossessingly hypnotic music and you'd better be sure your politics are spot on--astute, clear, epigrammatic, correct. Don't deploy a slur like "aryan" anachronistically or attribute a phrase of Harold Rosenberg's to Noam Chomsky. Don't insult the genocide in East Timor with minimalist obscurantism. Don't preach to the converted until you've made more converts. B MINUS

DWIGHT YOAKAM: Guitars Cadillacs Etc. Etc. (Reprise) As seems retrospectively inevitable in the neoclassicist era, a major finally gave this bluegrass-tinged hardshell a shot, expanding his generous indie EP of the same title (on Oak, if you care to look) into a skimpy album. Even first time around his twang-power purism was more retreat than reclamation. Add two superfluous covers, a duet with Maria McKee, and a title tune in which all those et ceteras turn out to be "hillbilly music" and you get Ricky Skaggs for sinners. B

Additional Consumer News

Solid as A Friend in California is, the over-40 Hag is even more stalwartly represented on a first-ever compilation from MCA, which he deserted for Epic in 1981. His Best, it's called, and though the title's an overstatement you just start with side two and tell me this lifelong rambling fever victim ever recorded a more convincing heartbreak song than "Wake Up." Reason the title's an overstatement is that MCA was saving some (not enough) best for the label's new Songwriter series. Another recent winner is the only Gap Band you need own (including 1984's ill-programmed Best of): The 12-Inch Collection (Mercury), six dance-length remixes, stratoliner funk all the way. Then there's the laid-back funk of--who's this?--James Brown. Dead on the Heavy Funk 74-76 (Polydor) performs the near impossible feat of redeeming the low years when the popcorn man was trying to dance the hustle--and on this evidence getting it down. Lesser notables: The Best of Elvis Costello (Columbia) consists entirely of songs you like so much you think you understand them; T. Rextasy: The Best of T. Rex, 1970-1973 (Warner Bros.) convinces me that Marc Bolan deserves more history than half a side of Glitter's Greatest Hits; City Lights does an impressive salvage job on Lou Reed's Arista period, with minimal Street Hassle and a whole side of Take No Prisoners.

I'm beginning to regard 1986 as the Year of Pookie Hudson, an unknown name to me until I reviewed the two then extant Spaniels compilations for Christmas. The most recent of the half dozen random praisesongs I've come across since that time was in a Wavelength interview with the above-mentioned Aaron Neville, who like half the unjustifiably obscure r&b singers in the world now shares a label with Pookie. The Spaniels' Stormy Weather (Charly import) is definitely number three (after Rhino's romantic 16 Soulful Serenades and Charly's energetic Great Googly Moo), and ought to assures this limber tenor's (and his group's) elevation into the pantheon--if the Clovers recorded this much ace music, let Atlantic release it. Another aspirant is guitarist-composer-bassman Lowman Pauling of the Five Royales, whose The Roots of Soul (also on Charly) has a sharper groove than the no longer available 17-cut anthology that King/Gusto put out in 1978; though the songs are less distinctive (I sometimes think Charly is basically a rhythm label), it does include Pauling's "Think," which as James Brown could tell you beats hell out of the lamentably absent "Dedicated to the One I Love." More thanks to Charly for making the Meters' three Josie albums available on two discs, Second Line Strut (not a bad substitute for Island's long gone Cissy Strut) and now Here Come the Metermen. Ziggy Modeliste and Co. were the great backup band of the '60s, funk pioneers as surely as JB himself.

Playing catch-up on singles, I want to mention a few of the departed, including three major club (and minor chart) hits that I missed altogether during my Central American sojourn last summer. Definitely tops is Skipworth & Turner's captivating mastergroove "Thinking About Your Love" (4th & B'way), and then we have two matched bookends: Madonna's brazen "Into the Groove" (Sire) and Tramaine's righteous "Fall Down" (A&M). Also three answer raps: Ralph Rolle's totally tasteless "Roxanne's a Man" (Streetwise), Pebblee Poo's nasty "A Fly Guy" (Profile), and Super Nature's really fresh (impertinent?) "The Show Stoppa (Is Stupid Fresh)" (Pop Art). And two rap 12-inches that seem to have gone nowhere but your local bargain bin: Smash's "Bite the Beat" (Sugarhill), the ultimate ('cause anti) TV-theme rip, and Mixmaster Gee and the Turntable Orchestra's "Like This" (MCA), a basic beat lesson. Moving into the present--briefly, given how hopelessly crossed over O'Chi Brown, Cherelle, and (oh yes) James Brown are--I'll put in a good word for Nu Shooz's "I Can't Wait" (Atlantic) and the Flirts' "You and Me" (CBS Associated), both frivolous enough to pass. But the crossover prize goes to Sly Fox, comprising one (black) Bootsy cohort and one (white) Levi's model--their "Let's Go All the Way" is a heavy beat worthy of Sly and George themselves.

Amid the recent spate of stupid/self-serving "political" 12-inches--hisses for M.C. Shan, Pretty Ricky & Boo-ski, Calypsos for Africa, etc.--Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's 11-year-old "Johannesburg" (Arista), released in the wake of "Sun City," sounds more necessary than ever. Park Avenue's totally overlooked "Tear Down the Rock House" (Sugarhill) is recommended to the Reaganites-by-association responsible for the useless antidrug disc "Stop the Madness." And a specially pressed version of the Coasters' "Little Egypt" b/w Alice Cooper's "Dead Babies" to the Patriots for their oh so hilarious "Feel the Heat (Khadafy)."

Personal to Chuck Eddy: I came up with the word "schmuck" all by myself. As the great D.L. Roth might say, great minds think alike.

Village Voice, Apr. 29, 1986

Apr. 1, 1986 June 3, 1986