Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

It's like a love affair after the infatuation has worn off--having accustomed myself to the idea that this year is going to provide me with musical pleasure like I haven't felt since whenever, now I'm beginning to get worried. I mean, is Johnny Guitar Watson really a B plus; he sounds so dumb sometimes. And Harry Edison--just how long do I think that's going to last? In fact, beyond Gary Stewart and the Beach Boys--which have been good for more kicks on a pure emotional discovery level than anything else mentioned below except maybe Blind Willie Johnson--almost every one of these records rated toward the bottom of its grade range. So the month isn't as good as the raw statistics might suggest. But not bad, not bad.

ABBA: Arrival (Atlantic) Since this is already the best-selling group in the universe, I finally have an answer when people ask me to name the Next Big Thing. What I wonder is how we can head them off at the airport. Plan A: Offer Bjorn and Benny the leads in Beatlemania (how could they resist the honor?) and replace them with John Phillips and Denny Doherty. Plan B: Appoint Bjorn head of the U.N. and Benny his pilot (or vice versa) and replace them with John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Plan C: Overexpose them in singing commercials. Plan D: Institute democratic socialism in their native land, so that their money lust will meet with the scorn of their fellow citizens. Plan E: Blast from the past: dynamite. Plan F: Blast from the future: plastique. C [Later]

THE BEACH BOYS: The Beach Boys Love You (Brother/Reprise) Painfully eccentric and painfully sung this may be, but it is also their most inspired record since Wild Honey, not least because it calls forth forbidden emotions. For a surrogate teenager to bare his growing pains so guilelessly was exciting, or at least charming; for an avowed adult to expose an almost childish naivete is embarrassing, but also cathartic; and for a rock and roll hero to compose a verbally and musically irresistible paean to Johnny Carson is an act of shamanism pure and simple. As with Wild Honey, the music sounds wrong in contradictory ways at first--both arty and cute, spare and smarmy--but on almost every cut it comes together soon enough; I am especially partial to the organ textures, and I find the absurd little astrology ditty, "Solar System," impossible to shake. As for the words, well, they're often pretty silly, but even (especially) when they're designed to appeal to whatever Brian imagines to be the rock audience they reveal a lot more about the artist than most lyrics do. And this artist is a very interesting case. A MINUS [Later: A]

THE BEATLES: The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl (Capitol) A tribute not only to the Beatles (which figured) but to George Martin and Capitol (which didn't necessarily figure at all). The sound rings clearly and powerfully through the shrieking: the segues are brisk and the punch-ins imperceptible; and the songs capture our heroes at their highest. Furthermore, though the musicianship is raw, the arrangements are tighter (faster, actually) than on record; Ramones-haters should note that the thirteen tunes take less than twenty-nine minutes, including patter. A

GEORGE BENSON: In Flight (Warner Bros.) Upon reflection, it seems to me that what Benson does these days isn't a sellout but an apotheosis--this kind of palaver has been the soul of jazz guitar since the '50s. Turn those amps up!. Let's hear some distortion! C PLUS

BONEY M.: Take the Heat Off Me (Atco) As in so much German disco, a nice tart detachment undercuts the lush vacuousness here. It's not just that the rhythms are candidly mechanical; even the stiffness of the string playing sounds calculated, as if produced by some fantastic cuckoo clock. Who else could put "No Woman, No Cry" and the Peggy Lee version of "Fever" belly-to-belly except some European who thinks that whatever crosses the Atlantic is similarly funky and exotic? B

CERRONE: Love in C Minor (Cotillion) Catchy tracks, a remake of "Black Is Black," and a new standard in disco porn--the protagonist brings three women to simultaneous orgasm while keeping one finger on the "Door Close" button. B PLUS

MARSHALL CHAPMAN: Me, I'm Feelin' Free (Epic) I can't figure out whether this tough, alert Nashville rebel fails to reach me because I'm uncomfortable with a woman who comes on like a good old boy or because I'm uncomfortable with anybody who comes on like a good old boy, but I like her enough to hope it's neither. B

EDDIE AND THE HOT RODS: Teenage Depression (Island) This is "punk" for old-time rock and rollers frightened by the concept; these guys even claim to snort coke, and do speeded-up homages to Peter Townshend, Van Morrison, Mick Jagger, and even Bob Seger. Ordinary. C PLUS [Later]

HARRY EDISON: Edison's Lights (Pablo) Unlike most of Norman Granz's endless succession of low-cost jamming LPs, this prebop small-group session caught my ear; the solo work sounded sharp and rambunctious, the ensemble work prudent and witty. Everyone I play it for enjoys it; I like side two which features a West Coast postbop session pianist named Dolo Coker, as much as side one, where the somewhat better known William "Count" Basie sits in. Cut a little over a year ago, this is another of those reassuring demonstrations that musical styles don't obsolesce as long as their practitioners live on--which means that their practitioners don't obsolesce either. A MINUS

ERNIE KOVACS: The Ernie Kovacs Album (Columbia) Kovacs could make me laugh very hard when he was alive, but that was 15 or 20 years ago, and like a lot of comedy his material doesn't age well, at least not for me. I mean, a lisping poet who complains to Brooth about his martini? (Compare Bob and Ray's "Charles the Poet, on RCA's sadly deleted Golden Age of Comedy.) As with the TV revivals the record is not without laughs, but they come about once every five or 10 gags, wan little chuckles that feel forced even when they're involuntary. C PLUS

LORETTA LYNN: I Remember Patsy (MCA) This seemed like the perfect thing for Loretta to do while her copyrights remainedin dispute; I had hopes it might take its place beside one of my favorite country albums, Lefty Frizzell Sings the Songs of Jimmie Rodgers. But legend or no, Patsy Cline doesn't belong in the same concept with Jimmie Rodgers, and the seven-minute spoken reminiscence at the close is an indulgence. B [Later: B+]

TAJ MAHAL: Music fuh Ya (Musica para Tu) (Warner Bros.) I don't understand why this album gets put down so hard. The songs aren't very exciting, but the conception--which combines country-blues vocal phrasing and jazz-voiced horns with street drums and a pervasive calypso beat--has finally achieved an appropriate smoothness. If you gotta listen easy, you might as well relax with this; it sure beats soundtracks, including Taj's own. B [Later]

MINK DEVILLE (Capitol) Those who believe "underground" rock means a return to basics and nothing more will cheer this sleek, friendly white r&b record, because they'll understand it. Those who insist on learning something new about the basics will continue to prefer the Ramones and Blondie, or Springsteen and J. Geils. B MINUS [Later: B]

VAN MORRISON: A Period of Transition (Warner Bros.) "It Fills You Up" and "Heavy Connection" work on chant power alone, but even they go on a little too long, and in general this is an unexciting record--but not definitively. It's full of the surprising touches--the (borrowed) instrumental intros to the blues that opens side one and the jump tune that opens side two, a throw-in couplet about Amsterdam that might as well have Van's fingerprints on it, and even the can't-always-get-what-you-need chorus on "Eternal Kansas City"--that signify talent putting out. I don't know; maybe that's depressing proof that this isn't just a warmup. But after three years, let's say it is. B

DOLLY PARTON: New Harvest . . . First Gathering (RCA Victor) Aficionados complain that her sellout has become audible, but while I admit that the cute squeals on "Applejack" are pure merchandising, she's always been willing to sell what she couldn't give away. I think Dolly has made the pop move a lot more naturally than, say, Tanya Tucker. The problem here afflicts every genre: material. Try Best of Dolly Parton (not The Best of Dolly Parton) first. Then investigate. B MINUS [Later]

THE PERSUASIONS: Chirpin' (Elektra) David Dashey, the group's in-it-for-love manager producer, dubs this record definitive, but despite the acapella anthem "Looking for an Echo" I'd just call it their most spirited since We Came to Play, which makes it a must for devotees and a possible for everyone else. Special: "Papa Oom Mow Mow" and "60 Minute Man." B PLUS [Later]

GARY STEWART: Your Place or Mine (RCA Victor) A strong comeback--Stewart's tendency to get mired in mannerism remains, but to hear him spit out "Ten Years of This" ("this" being a marriage) or change Guy Clark's "I'm looking to get silly" to "I'm looking to get sloppy drunk" is to be reminded that Jerry Lee Lewis has always lived off his mannerisms. Undomesticated hard country. B PLUS [Later: A-]

TANGERINE DREAM: Stratosfear (Virgin) I respect their synthesizer textures, at least as subjects for further study, but these guys should leave the accessibility to Kraftwerk. When they program in received semiclassical melodies and set the automatic drummer on "bouncy swing," the result is the soundtrack for a space travelogue you don't want to see. C [Later]

JOHNNY GUITAR WATSON: A Real Mother for Ya (DJM) Hey hey, I think I've found my own easy-listening funk. The riff-based tracks go on for too long but go down easy and the lyrics have an edge. Granted, Watson can't match George Benson's chops, but he does his Lou-Rawls-without-pipes impression as well as Benson does his Stevie-Wonder-ditto. Anyway, in music these unpretentious, modest chops are a kind of virtue. B PLUS [Later]

JESSE WINCHESTER: Nothing But a Breeze (Bearsville) One reason Winchester disappointed after his first album is that he was conceived as a singer-songwriter, expected to deliver a couple of gems and five or six semiprecious stones a year. Finally seeing him live with his cheerful, competent band was a revelation--suddenly he became a country singer who made pretty damn good country records. That said, it must also be admitted that this particular LP is a little short on semiprecious stones and is also entirely gemless, although "Gilding the Lily" turns a cliché the way only a popular song can and the foolishness of "Rhumba Man" borders on brilliance. Graded leniently because after all this time he deserves it. B [Later]

Additional Consumer News

In this era of the $7.98 list, budget best-ofs are a welcome profit-taking ploy. The $4.98-list ABC Collection features highly recommended compilations of Lloyd Price and Curtis Mayfield, a Junior Parker that many admire, and progressively more dubious product from Steppenwolf, the Grass Roots, Count Basie (look for the MCA and Verve twofers), and Della Reese. The less laudable London Collection Series, which lists for $5.98, includes early Thin Lizzy, most-mediocre-of Savoy Brown, and previously quarantined John Mayall along with a quite listenable Tom Jones and the previously unreleased Story of Them, which Van Morrison fanatics love. . . .

The possessed intensity of the title track on Blind Willie Johnson's Praise God I'm Satisfied (Yazoo) makes up for the necessarily scratchy rerecording, so that the other 13 tracks are just a bonus. Johnson was a folk-gospel original and bottleneck master, and this music is distinguished by a vivid presence all the more surprising because it was recorded 50 years ago. . . .

Disco Bucks: A disco disc of Television's "Marquee Moon" has reportedly sold upward of 50,000 copies in England and is now an import. . . .

This Is Reggae Music Vol. 3 is a useful sampler of the Island reggae stable beyond Hibbert and Marley--if you like the Max Romeo, Justin Hines, or Burning Spear cuts, you may well like their albums. But Island is marketing it as an album itself, and it doesn't quite work as one. Island's Greater Antilles Sampler, on the other hand, sells for 99 cents, and contains 18 helpings of out-of-the-way music on Island's $5.98 list Antilles label. Worth an investment. . . .

Although the music on MGM's 24 Great Hits by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys is encouraging enough, it was recorded in the mid-'50s, long after his peak; Columbia's Bob Wills Anthology is still the first to get. Also more highly recommended is The Tiffany Transcriptions; high-quality Wills radio tapes from 1945-48, on a Pasadena label called Tishomingo.

Village Voice, June 6, 1977

Apr. 25, 1977 June 27, 1977