Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Periodically, I try to remind you all that I think criticism is basically subjective. This is especially true where choice of genre is concerned. Not that such choices are meaningless--far from it. But usually it's a waste of time to pick fights about them. Me. I'm a rock and roll fan, so I have more to say about rock and roll than about opera, or sculpture. But I also like paintings and novels and movies and comedy, not to mention many different kinds of music. Which is why I don't write exclusively about rock and roll in Consumer Guide. People send me records, and I listen to them; I pay more attention to rock and roll records, and hear them with a sharper ear but quite often a record from some other genre will capture my imagination. Sometimes a jazz or country or disco or "avant-garde" album will offer me the same kind of pleasure I seek in rock and roll: the moment of wit or emotion, formal or conceptual audacity, kinetic possession. Sometimes one will open me to other kinds of delight. When either happens, I try to write about it, not as an expert but as a rock and roll fan with ears. I love jazz, but I make no pretense of writing about every worthwhile jazz record to come my way, and I rarely bother with the mediocre ones; about country and disco I'm a little more comprehensive, although not as well-attuned as I might be, about "avant-garde" much less so (and about salsa, I'm ashamed to say as a chauvinistic New Yorker, I'm almost totally ignorant). All of which is to introduce four of the six A records this month, three of them jazz of varying styles, one "avant-garde." Not to mention two disco finds and a country disappointment. Happy horizon-broadening.

AMAZING RHYTHM ACES: Burning the Ballroom Down (ABC) Just figured out why I've always been attracted to Russell Smith's sly, sincere songs and lethargic though hardly shiftless phrasing--he's a kind of laid-back Ronnie Van Zant. Which must be why I don't like him as much as I liked Ronnie Van Zant. B MINUS

ROBERT ASHLEY: Private Parts (Lovely Music) I cannot tell a lie. On each side of this record, the composer reads an abstract prose fiction over "settings for piano and orchestra by 'Blue' Gene Tyranny," and that's it. The vocal style is a kind of hypnotic singsong; the quiet settings are dominated by piano, tabla, and what sounds like a string synthesizer. I like it more than Discreet Music, less than Another Green World, and about as much as A Rainbow in Curved Air. I suppose I prefer side one, "The Park," because I like the verbal content more, although in fact I perceive the reading as music, just like I'm supposed to, and have never managed to follow the words all the way through. A friend who's done yoga to this record--not an arty type, incidentally--is reminded of going to sleep as a child with adults talking in the next room. Then again, a rather more avant-garde friend who made me turn it off is reminded of the spoilsport who used to read the rosary for five minutes just before his favorite radio program. A MINUS

THE ATLANTA RHYTHM SECTION: Champagne Jam (Polydor) You can tell these guys are from Atlanta--it says so right in the name. So why do they sound like lazy Eagles? Why have they concocted a title that is the rock and roll equivalent of "cocktail jazz"? And when are they going to change their name officially to ARS, as in AWB? C

BELLE EPOQUE: Miss Broadway (Big Tree) The 7:25 title cut features a simple and familiar bass hook together with a refreshingly harsh female vocal hook, which, added to the sour gypsy strings, make for a piece of disco this rock and roller likes as much as anything on Saturday Night Fever. I like it so much, in fact, that I find the 4:10 single version a little scant--not enough strings, fancy that--and I'm sorry to report that the specially mixed disco disc is a promotion only item. Oh well--the rest of the first side is OK, which is more than I can say for the second. B MINUS

JIMMY BUFFETT: Son of a Son of a Sailor (ABC) Buffett is very good at what he does, and it says a lot for his composing that the two changes of pace by Keith Sykes are the least memorable cuts on the album. But Buffett's band can't quite cut the funny, intelligent good-time music that is his forte. Anyone who gets up and boogies to rock and roll as routine as "Livingston Saturday Night" has been shaking ass to whatever came off the bandstand since he or she reached drinking age. On record, there happens to be better and more functional music available. B

CHEAP TRICK: Heaven Tonight (Epic) I liked this much less than In Color--an album I admire but rarely put on--after four or five casual plays, and the live show didn't convert me either, although I approved of the way Rick Nielsen bombarded the audience with guitar picks. So when I gave the weak side a final spin, I was quite surprised to recognize four hooks with pleasure. Since the strong side begins with a wonderfully funny anti-parents song and includes a Move cover and a sarcastic ditty about suicides, I might even play that one again. Am I to conclude that I really like this power-tooled hard rock product? Guess so. B PLUS [Later]

FREDDY FENDER: Swamp Gold (ABC) There are 15 songs here, most of them, from what I read on the back cover, originally hits for producer Huey P. Meaux, who loves Freddy almost as much as he loves his own catalogue. Nice idea. But Freddy's chronic case of hit-or-miss disease is unaffected by this treatment--of the four cuts I'd consider for the Real Best of Freddy cassette I'm going to compile some day, three do not seem to belong to Meaux. B MINUS

STEPHANE GRAPPELLI: Parisian Thoroughfare (Arista/Freedom) This sprightly, elegant jazz violinist from the days of Django Reinhardt records all the time, in general quite nicely, which is confusing. After all, one's need for sprightly, elegant jazz violin is not unlimited. But this is a good one. For the straight stuff, swinging and serene, I like his Prestige twofer with Oscar Peterson. Here, Monkian pianist Ronald Hanna darkens the textures and jangles the rhythms for a modernistic effect that works as well on Chopin as it does on Bud Powell. A MINUS

ETTA JAMES: Deep in the Night (Warner Bros.) In her effort to escape a blues identification, Etta has really gone in for some musical froth, and though this seems appetizing on a cut-by-cut basis, 30 seconds after each one begins I find myself hungry for something more. B [Later]

KEITH JARRETT: Bop-Be (ABC/Impulse) Unspiritual clod that I am, I can live my life content without ever going along on one of Jarrett's endless solo pilgrimages, but I love this collection of circa-1976 quartet material. Ah, ain't theme-and-improvisation grand, especially when Dewey Redman is showing so much control and heart on the saxophone that dominates what is nominally a pianist's record. Redman also contributes two angular compositions and a desultory one that I like anyway, and Charlie Haden chips in another two. I don't even mind when Jarrett plays soprano sax, or sounds--appropriately enough--like Brubeck on the final cut. Ah, ain't group creation grand. A

ROBERTA KELLY: Gettin' the Spirit (Casablanca) One good thing about disco manufacturers is that they'll try anything. Here the gimmick is Jesus, invoked by name over unusually bright, bouncy, and consistent dance tracks flavored with gospel piano and some Jerry Jumonville saxophone. For me, this conjunction adds a perverse fillip to an already attractive record--I'm sure the folks at Studio 54 can use any kind of salvation that comes their way. Mary Magdalene would no doubt approve. B PLUS [Later]

JOHN PRINE: Bruised Orange (Asylum) In the title tune, Prine reports that he's transcended his anger. He sounds happier, it's true, and I'm happy for him, but not for his music, because he's unsuited to the softer settings provided by friend and producer Steve Goodman. Common Sense often seemed agitated to the point of incoherence, but its craziness took on an obsessive logic of its own. This one is so simple and straightforward that only the Phil Spector collaboration--which boasts a lyric worthy of its title, "If You Don't Want My Love"--stands out as a song. B MINUS [Later: B+]

PROCTOR & BERGMAN: Give Us a Break (Mercury) In which the funny half of the Firesign Theatre regresses from mini-dramas to blackout bits. It figures that comedians who were so funny stoned should have trouble when they stand up. C

THE ROLLING STONES: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) The Stones' best album since Exile on Main Street is also their easiest since Let It Bleed or before. They haven't gone for a knockdown uptempo classic, a "Brown Sugar" or "Jumping Jack Flash"--just straight rock and roll unencumbered by horn sections or Billy Preston. Even Jagger takes a relatively direct approach, and if he retains any credibility for you after six years of dicking around, there should be no agonizing over whether you like this record, no waiting for tunes to kick in. Lyrically, there are some bad moments--especially on the title cut, which is too fucking indirect to suit me--but in general the abrasiveness seems personal, earned, unposed, and the vulnerability more genuine than ever. Also, the band is a real good one. Real good. A [Later]

ROOT BOY SLIM & THE SEX CHANGE BAND FEATURING THE ROOTETTES (Warner Bros.) This band satisfies the first requirement of rock and roll comedy--they play their simplified Little Feat funk well enough to make fun of it. Inspirational Verse: "Hey look out buddy/Get off my wig/Oops I didn't realize/You was quite so big." B

BOB SEGER & THE SILVER BULLET BAND: Stranger in Town (Capitol) This isn't just an honest, rough-and-ready craftsman reverting to form, because he's trying to repeat an inspired, uncharacteristically precise success. So he sounds phony at times, desperate to inject drama into run-of-the-mill material that might work in a more fluid, less fraught-with-meaning live setting. Exception: "Feel Like a Number," in which the banal critique of quantification is renewed by Seger's measured intensity. B MINUS

SHAM 69: Tell Us the Truth (Sire) On the "studio side," where the marginal differentiations are nicely tricked up, Jimmy Pursey comes across as a thoughtful eccentric with his own ideas about punk dilemmas both musical and social. Turn the record over and he devolves into a passionate blur in the most faceless English punk mode. Anyone naive enough to structure a song around a repeated shout of "George Davis Is Innocent" can be charming for a while, but not for 11:31, which is how long it takes the "live side" to self-destruct. B [Later]

ARCHIE SHEPP: Steam (Inner City) You'd think records on which world-class saxophonists think on their feet in an inspired rush for 20 minutes a side would be as plentiful as John Coltrane reissues, but they're not, and this is one of them. Drummer Beaver Harris has a lot to do with how powerfully things flow. A MINUS

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia) "Promised Land," "Badlands," and "Adam Raised a Cain" are models of how a limited genre can illuminate a mature, full-bodied philosophical insight. Lyrically and vocally, they move from casual to incantatory modes with breathtaking subtlety, jolting ordinary characters and details into a realm charged with meaning. But many of the other songs remain local-color pieces, occasionally wonderful ones, and at least two--"Something in the Night" and "Streets of Fire"--are oppressive, turgid, all but unlistenable. An important minor artist or a very flawed and inconsistent major one. A MINUS [Later: B+]

BONNIE TYLER: It's a Heartache (RCA Victor) Maybe the title smash doesn't deserve to end up a one-shot--Tyler's songwriters, Ronnie Scott and Steve Wolfe, show a gift for the Nashvillian pain-of-love lyric. But if there's another hit hidden away on this album, it's gonna bore us all stiff inside of two weeks. C

Additional Consumer News

The best rock and roll best-of in recent memory is MCA's all-mono, 20-song, one-volume Buddy Holly--not as complete or as daring as his aficionados would hope, but the finest Holly album ever available in the States. It anticipates the forthcoming movie (an absurd film with an extraordinary performance--perhaps even impersonation--by Gary Busey, although reports on the soundtrack LP, which I haven't heard, are quite dismal), so you'd best look around while the looking's good. . . .

Import of the month is by an American group, Pere Ubu, three of whose all-but-unavailable single tracks are included on a five-song EP, Datapanik in the Year Zero, on Radar. Also featured is an entrancing avant-rock reggae that I don't recall hearing before.

Village Voice, June 26, 1978

Postscript Notes:

The Freddy Fender record was originally listed as Swamp Music, but all other references cite it as Swamp Gold.

May 29, 1978 July 31, 1978