Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Two of the month's four A minuses are '60s rehabs, the two others local semipros who've been gigging around this burg since 1978. There've gotta be youngbloods somewhere, and I promise to keep my ears perked.

BLACK UHURU: Brutal (RAS) Junior Reid joins the group ululating in much the way Michael Rose did before he developed into a singer, and the big loss is even more crucial: politics, some rudimentary specificity. But up against the run of ridmic rhetoricians, they do fine. Both Reid and Duckie Simpson have a knack for rhetoric, and while Sly and Robbie should have pushed Simpson's "Reggae With Me" out on the dancefloor where it belongs, this is their most pyrotechnic production yet--they've brought Babylon back home. B PLUS

CHARLIE BURTON AND THE HICCUPS: I Heard That (Wild) The Hiccups make with good old guitar, bass, and drums while Charlie fakes some rockabilly up front, and when it works it's quite catchy in an utterly received sort of way. The conservatism isn't annoying or boring because although Charlie loves this music--listen to "One Man's Trash"--he doesn't give a damn for roots or form. He just wants to write some songs. I'm not sorry he doesn't share my liberal respect for Vietnam and world hunger, and when he diddleybops through his parents' coronaries I know why. Inspirational Verse: "Water's thick, but blood is thicker/Daddy (Mommy) had a bum, bum ticker." B PLUS

THE BUTTHOLE SURFERS: Rembrandt Pussyhorse (Touch and Go) I respect these guys, really--their dedication to dementia is a rare and wondrous thing. But their claque's idea of accessibility is Iron Butterfly on bad acid digging deconstruction, yet another version of the touching avant-garde truism which holds that the proper study of incoherence is incoherent. Upped a notch or two for concept, attitude, hype, bullshit, somewhere in there. B MINUS

EL DEBARGE (Gordy) Especially since Eldra, to honor the name his mama gave him, has shown something like genius as both writer and producer, the plethora of outside help is a double down. But though you can be sure this projected crossover is expected to produce a run of peppy crossover singles, starting with El's second straight meaningless movie theme, it has the flow of an album, even the personal stamp. This is provided not by what they're selling, the boyish clarity and indomitable sweetness of a voice a just God would have bestowed on a braver guy, but by the outside help, most of it sufficiently skillful and second-rate to mimic his rhythmic and melodic quirks. With lyrics adding hints of maturity to his customary show of naiveté and hooky beats fattened with the plush keybs of big-league pop, he almost passes as one more ingratiating opportunist. [Original grade: B plus] B

ROKY ERICKSON: Don't Slander Me (Pink Dust) A garage rant about blues theology that built from blues readymades and accelerated on the kind of mad thrust you don't hear much from revivalists or anybody else, the now rerecorded title single was all natural timing and spirit possession, a paradise regained of rock and roll cliché. The album exploits this miracle--sounds like a bunch of would-be old farts (with genuine article Jack Casady lending a touch of authenticity) latching onto the old wildman for the kind of magic carpet ride other music lovers only collect. It's too precise, too forceful, too showy. And if you can bear the protracted tributes to Erickson's private gods, it'll rock you out anyway. Try "You Drive Me Crazy." Or "Crazy Crazy Mama." Or "Bermuda," about the triangle. B PLUS

THE FEELIES: The Good Earth (Coyote) Coproducer Peter Buck is occasioning harrumphs about how suddenly they sound like R.E.M., but if anything R.E.M. sounds like them with excess baggage: aching lyricism, gorgeous hooks, mumbled poetry--in a word, corn. The Feelies, in turn, sound a lot like a classic band called the Velvet Underground. And like themselves, unmistakably, even though six years and Peter Buck have rounded off their gawky corners and filled out their sound. A MINUS

PETER GABRIEL: So (Geffen) Gabriel's so smart he knows rhythm is what makes music go, which relieves him of humdrum melodic responsibilities but doesn't get him up on the one--smart guys do go for texture in a pinch. Like his smart predecessor James Taylor, who used to climax concerts with the clever macho parody "Steamroller," this supporter of good causes reaches the masses with "Sledgehammer," which is no parody. Where is "Biko" now that we need it more than ever? B MINUS

MARVIN GAYE: Motown Remembers Marvin Gaye (Motown) These "never before released masters" were rejected for good reason--they lacked both the hooky spark that spelled hit to Mr. Gordy and the show-tune gentility he thought appropriate to the upscale LP market. The result is a groove album Motown wouldn't have risked back in 1965, by which time seven of these twelve tracks had been laid down, though not so sparklingly engineered. As much a showcase for the Funk Brothers band as for the jazz-tinged pop-gospel phrasing of the label's pet matinee idol, it's a chance to hear Motown's music unalloyed, without the distraction of sweet memory. And damned if I can tell what flaw Gordy descried in Smokey's "Just Like a Man," Ashford & Simpson's "Dark Side of the World," or Cosby & Stevenson's "That's the Way It Goes." A MINUS

MARVIN GAYE: Romantically Yours (Columbia) The sad testament of a tormented weirdo who longed to redeem himself in the world of middle-class convention. On side one he covers "standards" that are beneath him ("More"), beyond him ("Fly Me to the Moon"), or beside the point ("Maria"). On side two he attempts to write his own. The singing isn't bad--was it ever? The strings are godawful. C PLUS

GENESIS: Invisible Touch (Atlantic) For a while I was tempted to buzz Phil Collins over his former fearless leader. He's a warmer singer, God help them both, and the formerly useless Tony Banks proves adept with the keyb hooks. But in the end I couldn't tolerate the generalization density--not just of the lyrics (where Peter Gabriel's personal and geopolitical details offer some evidence that he's been there) but of the hooks, which end up feeling coercive, an effect unmitigated by Collins's whomping instrumental technique. And just to prove they're still Genesis, we get solos. C PLUS

RICK JAMES: The Flag (Gordy) I generally ignore charges that political content is commercially motivated, but with James I buy 'em. The Real Rick was the moist romantic fop of Glow, and when his self-expression didn't get over he churned out some lines on the Bomb, honing his craft by the by. C PLUS

MOFUNGO: Messenger Dogs of the Gods (Lost) Things fall apart--that we know. The question is what to do about it. Pop craftsmen combat this truth, or lie about it, by fashioning antientropic modules within which a salutory dose of abandon can do its work, while keepers of the avant-garde tradition walk into a collapsing building and plug in their amps. An infinity of further choices awaits both camps, and most of them are wrong. Mofungo's are right: pride rather than self-congratulation, anger rather than loathing, struggle rather than despair. Both funny and witty, unassumingly compassionate, glancing fondly off the folk musics they look to and the rock they play, they sound less weird and inchoate the more you listen. Some avant-gardists would tell you that's their problem. What do you think? A MINUS

JEFFREY OSBORNE: Emotional (A&M) I'm trying to figure out what it means to say I kind of like this record, a big-budget multiproducer job of the sort suddenly standard in crossoverland. It's not just that I'm impressed with all the heavy equipment, from Osborne's dolomite voice to the usual phalanx of hitmen turning out materiel. I respond--that's one thing kind of liking it means. And though the response feels synthetic, it's not unreal. Which is just what I'd say of the emotions on display, from be-mine to Soweto-must-be-free. B

JOHN PRINE: German Afternoons (Oh Boy) Just in case you were wondering, this relaxed, confident album is where Prine comes out and admits he's a folkie, opening with an A.P. Carter tune he's been performing for a quarter century and commandeering sidemen from New Grass Revival and suchlike. The songs are straightforward and homemade, their great theme the varied love life of a man whose wife Rachel plays bass and sings harmony here and there, though not on the extended beer commercial "Out of Love," nor on "Bad Boy," about "how to be guilty without being Catholic." B PLUS

DAVID LEE ROTH: Eat 'Em and Smile (Warner Bros.) With everybody from Patti to Belinda to Peter to Eldra kissing pop's ass, Roth gives it a pinch and keeps on trucking. Maybe because he lived out his wimpier fantasies on last year's EP, here he's free to mastermind his own piece of multiplatinum potential. Sure he covers "That's Life," but he also assembles a metal band that'll cut old buddies: Maynard Ferguson drummer, cult heaven bassist, and on guitar former Zappa and Lydon sideman Steve Vai, who splits the difference between parody and virtuosity. I mean, Vai is funny without opening his mouth. And of course, so is our voluble auteur, who makes Miss Liberty a burlesque queen and neither lady a whore. B PLUS

SKATALITES: Stretching Out (ROIR) Recorded live in 1983 on a two-track TEAC and God knows what else by a reconstituted bunch of originators, some of whom hadn't seen one another in a decade and wished it was longer, this forty-eight-minutes-a-side retrospective sounds better than the '60s studio rarities Top Deck compiled a few years ago and is a lot of fun to boot. We're talking party soundtrack for lazybones, the universal polka hop-and-shuffle of a thousand folk dances. Bump bottoms to "Confucius," "Fidel Castro," "Lee Harvey Oswald." B PLUS

UTFO: Skeezer Pleezer (Select) Some of their sketches and tall tales--especially the cheerfully amoral anticrime versifying of "Just Watch"--sound observed. But too often the gimmicks are received and the generalizations fabricated. And they can not "sing a little bit." B

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: VU: Another View (Verve) One objective part of me knows that these barrel scrapings are for fanatics and archivists. But another objective part of me knows that the barrel scrapings of a seminal, protean, conceptually accomplished band are their own reward. From the raw power of the instrumental "Guess I'm Falling in Love" to the dry lyricism of the instrumental "I'm Gonna Move Right In," from the tight studio "We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together" to the intense early "Rock and Roll," you don't have to know jackshit about the band to enjoy the music--on the contrary, you have to put aside your preconceptions. Because nobody experimented more successfully than these folks. A MINUS

WHODINI: Back in Black (Jive) They're not just ladies' men, they're the big brothers every B-boy wishes he had. Or so they hope. Autobiographical examples make their stay-in-school and one-love advice more convincing than most, though just to cover all the bases they don't stint with the etiquette tips ("That's Dom Perignon, it's supposed to bubble"). But nowhere are they catchier than on the "tag team sex" of "I'm a Ho" or more realistic than on "The Good Part": "But I keep going for it and I won't stop/Because I don't believe there is a good part/Because I been searching and lurching and looking real good/Because if there is a good part it ain't in my neighborhood." B PLUS

STEVE WINWOOD: Back in the High Life (Island) This is the fate of a wunderkind with more talent than brains: after two decades of special treatment, he derives all the self-esteem he needs just from surviving, as they say. So he's confident that the veracity and unpretentiousness of his well-wrought banalities make them interesting, when in fact they're exactly as interesting as he is. C

Additional Consumer News

It's my as yet unfinalized impression that there are a whole lot of good records in the supposedly moribund EP form out there, but one I'm sure about: the Royal Crescent Mob's Land of Sugar (No Other), white funk that by some alchemy not only generates an irresistible groove, which is rare enough in the subgenre, but combines it with the irrepressible fun that every garage band pretends to think it's having.

Village Voice, Aug. 5, 1986

July 1, 1986 Sept. 2, 1986