Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Is the music junkie raising his tolerance? He wonders himself. Below you will find five A records, the first real bonanza since I caught up with myself post-vacation last fall. My amplifier has been through its annual breakdown, which left me listening desultorily on the old portable and slowing my deadline by a couple of weeks, in which time I discovered the Billy Swan. But it could be that this is going to be a better year for records than last. The only relevant generalization I can add is that of the A performances, all but the Stones (a surprise itself, in a way) come from sources that couldn't have been predicated a year ago, while former A performers like the Aces, Bramblett, Jackson, and Lofgren failed to repeat. What does it all mean? Stay tuned.

AMAZING RHYTHM ACES: Too Stuffed to Jump (ABC) This time the jazzy, boogie-based eclecticism and colloquial cleverness almost never transcend the cute and commercial, a major letdown after a debut album that may have fulfilled more promise than the group has. B MINUS [Later]

GEORGE BENSON: Breezin' (Warner Bros.) Just in case you're beguiled by his Stevie Wonder imitation (I prefer Carl Carlton's, Chaka Khan's, even Buddy Miles's) on "Masquerade" (I prefer Helen Reddy's, Aretha Franklin's, even Leon Russell's), be hereby informed that Benson is not primarily a singer, but rather a jazz guitarist of the taste variety. And that most of what he spices up here is mush. C

RANDALL BRAMBLETT: Light of the Night (Polydor) Bramblett is a genuinely philosophical songwriter, an A student at a first-rate modernist seminary who hasn't lost his taste for the cracker barrel. His pessimism is gentle and good-humored, just like his soulful, pleasantly aimless music. Anybody who can follow a credible song about Karl Jung with another called "The Joke of the Coastal Plain" (that's us, fellow humans) is somebody you'll feel like listening to now and again. B PLUS

DONOVAN: Slow Down World (Epic) If I read my copy of Clive correctly, the eternally youthful Leitch received $250,000 for this LP, on which he (forthrightly) refers to himself as a "well known has-been" and (slowly) thinks up reasons why the planet should adjust to his mental reflexes, thusly: "Slow down world--take a break for God's sake/You just can't stop--your climb, your money-mad climb to the top/Don't just glance at the chance, why waste it?" Saith Clive: "If He's willing to make a few commercial concessions, any album of his could be a major reentry." So I guess these ain't those. C MINUS [Later]

THE DOOBIE BROTHERS: Takin' It to the Streets (Warner Bros.) You can lead a Doobie to the recording studio, but you can't make him think. C PLUS

FOOLS GOLD (Morning Sky) Should this become a million seller, it will provide the most pungent do-it-yourself review since the classic This Is Bull. But it won't be worth it. C MINUS

IAN HUNTER: All-American Alien Boy (Columbia) The concept fails. Hunter isn't even a one-star generalizer, and although I thank him for illuminating one small mystery--"Don't wanna vote for the left wing--don't wanna vote for the right/I gotta have both--to make me fly"--he obviously lacks that rare knack for the political song. Yet the attempt at "protest" seems honest (if confused) and is therefore gratifying; at odd moments the music kicks in to make a line like "Justice would seem to be bored" convincing; and "Irene Wilde," conceptually a throw-in, is a small treasure. So while I can't recommend, I kind of like. B MINUS [Later]

MILLIE JACKSON: Free and in Love (Spring) They tell me the songs are stronger, sound great on the radio, and that may be, but the only ones I hear are "A House for Sale" and "Feel Like Making Love" (Bad Company's, not Flack's--score one for Millie), and I think she's beginning to suffer the inevitable diminution of a concept artist who's running out of concept. one over the line. B [Later: B+]

KISS: Destroyer (Casablanca) Like most hard (not heavy) groups wildly favored by young teens (cf. Alice Cooper, BTO), these guys have always rocked better than adults were willing to enjoy, but pro producer Bob Ezrin adds only bombast and melodrama. Their least interesting record. C PLUS

NILS LOFGREN: Cry Tough (A&M) This one makes me feel shitty. Epic could never break his best stuff and has now topped off the disservice by discontinuing his albums. Meanwhile, over at A&M, Nils begins to sound like a professional next-big-thing, the surprise of his lyrics reduced to a turn or two and his gift for pop melody subsumed by his gift for the one-man rave-up. Crying tough is playing tough, not being tough, and there was always more than toughness to Nils anyway. B MINUS

THE MODERN LOVERS (Home of the Hits) Jonathan Richman (a.k.a. the Modern Lovers) has become a critics' darling, and as a critic I'm proud to say he deserves it. This is worth looking for; it's a Beserkley record, distributed by Playboy. Richman's gift is to make explicit that love for "the modern world" that is the truth of so much of the best rock and roll; by cutting through the vaguely protesty ambience of so-called rock culture he opens the way for a worldliness that is specific, realistic, and genuinely critical. But like so many darlings he can be arch. Sometimes his unmusicianship adds a catch to a three-chord melody and his off-key singing unlocks doors you didn't know were there. But other times he sounds like his allowance is too big, much too old to think it's cute to be naughty, as worldly as Holden Caulfield with no '50s for excuse--the first rock hero who could use a spanking. A MINUS [Later: A]

WILLIE NELSON: The Sound in Your Mind (Columbia) Watch it, Willie--Major Artists can't grind out Product the way Country Music stars do or people'll start thinkin' they're slippin'. C [Later: B-]

FLORA PURIM: Open Your Eyes You Can Fly (Milestone) Shut your mouth and maybe they'll let you land. C

RAMONES: Ramones (Sire) I love this record--love it--even though I know these boys flirt with images of brutality (Nazi especially) in much the same way "Midnight Rambler" flirts with rape. You couldn't say they condone any nasties, natch--they merely suggest that the power of their music has some fairly ominous sources and tap those sources even as they offer the suggestion. This makes me uneasy. But my theory has always been that good rock and roll should damn well make you uneasy, and the sheer pleasure of this stuff--which of course elicits howls of pain from the rock and roll musicianship crowd, e.g. Dr. Feelgood's aficianados at the Bottom Line--is undeniable. For me, it blows everything else off the radio: it's clean the way the Dolls never were, sprightly the way the Velvets never were, and just plain listenable the way Black Sabbath never was. And I hear it cost $6400 to put on plastic. A [Later]

VICKI SUE ROBINSON: Never Gonna Let You Go (RCA Victor) In the great tradition of Gloria Gaynor's Never Can Say Goodbye, you can not only dance to one whole side of this disco album, but listen to it. In the same great tradition, side two is unmitigated crap. Next: Doreen Southern's Never Get Off Your Back. B [Later]

THE ROLLING STONES: Black and Blue (Rolling Stones) I let myself get autohyped on the last two (definitely their worst, I realize now), but even though this is beginning to wear thin I'm encouraged. More blatantly imitative of black music rhythms and styles than any Stones album since December's Children, and also less original (if more humorous) in the transformation, for me this nevertheless suggests genuine risk-taking, as well as a possible way out of their well-polished groove. The key is "Hot Stuff," pure Ohio Players and real good shit, and the high point "Fool to Cry," their best track in four years. Diagnosis: not dead by a long shot. A MINUS [Later]

ARCHIE SHEPP: A Sea of Faces (Black Saint) On a Milanese label distributed stateside by the good folk of Record People (66 Greene Street), this combines more of Shepp's chronic poetry-with-jazz with a nice boppish number on one side while the sax-solo-over-Latin-riff of your dreams flows over some 26 minutes on the other. Simple to execute, but I'm glad somebody bothered. It's danceable, too--but does it have disco potential? B PLUS

BILLY SWAN (Monument) Isn't it wonderful? Here's this guy who really doesn't sing very well at all and not only has he now made more good albums than Three Dog Night and the Morman Tabernacle Choir combined, but they keep getting better. Except maybe for "Blue Suede Shoes" there are no waste cuts this time, and no mediocrities either. The well-meaning optimism and the insecure persona mesh perfectly, and the tunes are pleasurable throughout, whether he stole them from the Sun catalogue or wrote them himself. Inspirational Verse: "Am I Lucky Am I Lucky Son of a Gun." A MINUS

HANK WILLIAMS JR., AND FRIENDS (MGM) Williams moved his country heritage toward rock and roll shortly after a confrontation with death on a mountain, and here the transformation conveys that kind of conviction. In fact, the authority of Williams' voice and persona, plus his good sense writing and choosing songs, focuses an Allman and a Marshall Tucker and the Charlie Daniels into what I'm sure will stand as the best Southern-style rock of the year. No kidding--if you don't find Grinderswitch a suitable replacement for the Brothers, here's yours. A MINUS [Later]

WINGS: Wings at the Speed of Sound (Capitol) The only substantial talent in this group is bassist-producer Paul McCartney, and he's at full strength only on the impassioned "Beware My Love." The best of the rest is "She's My Baby," which sounds like an outtake from the "white" double LP by McCartney's former group, the Beatles. In any case, the supporting cast is disgracefully third-rate. It's my feeling that the vocals of guitarist Denny Laine are even lamer than those of McCartney's wife and keyboard player, Linda, who at least fits in nicely as a background singer. Then again, that may simply reflect McCartney's cunning as a producer. He certainly adds some tricky textures to otherwise forgettable songs, but that can't disguise their triviality. C PLUS [Later: B-]

Additional Consumer News

RCA is currently marketing a new budget LP of old Neil Sedaka hits in its Pure Gold series. Unless sticking "All the Way" in between the original versions of "Oh! Carol" and "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" is your idea of creative programming, skip the iron pyrite and insist on the nonbudget Neil Sedaka Sings His Greatest Hits (APL 1-0928), on which he does.

Village Voice, June 14, 1976

Apr. 26, 1976 July 12, 1976