Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Since the Consumer Guide is designed to function, at least in theory, as just that, it's dominated by records that are, at least in theory, available for consumption--recent releases from major companies. If your retailer doesn't stock James Talley, say, he or she can, in theory, order it easily enough from Capitol. I choose that example because Talley's first and best album has always been very difficult to purchase in Manhattan. Theory has its limits, as do record stores and major companies, which is why weird LPs like David Grisman's have been showing up in the CG lately. These are records from one of the proliferating specialty labels; most of them are distributed by Record People of 66 Greene Street (save that address) and can be mail-ordered at a discount from Disconnection, though you're better off trying one of the independent Village retailers or perhaps Sam Goody's.

I've been reluctant to get into imports, which tend to be even more expensive than special-order small-label items. But since it's obvious that good semi-popular music has to be searched out these days--and since I couldn't stand to see all that British New Wave stuff listed in the Pazz & Jop Product Report without hearing it myself--I've made a stab at some imports in Additional Consumer News this month. The best distributor in the field is probably Jam, Box 362, South Plainfield, New Jersey 07080.

BALCONES FAULT: It's All Balcones Fault (Cream) Three excellent songs on one side from this Austin-based unit--a New Orleans shuffle with country-rock vocal, a Jamaican polka, and a remake of the theme from Busby Berkeley's 42nd Street. But somehow nothing coheres. This is eclecticism pushed over the brink of shtick, as if Dr. Hook bought out Asleep at the Wheel and got turned into Manhattan Transfer as punishment. B MINUS

THE BEATLES: Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany, 1962 (Lingasong) I don't know exactly how you rate documentary value, especially with a subject as interesting as this one, but I do know that nothing I had read prepared me for the abysmal sound quality of this record, especially how far down (and away) the voices are. Nor for the occasional listlessness of the performances themselves. I've got nothing against rawness--in fact, I love it--but there's no excuse when it doesn't cook. C [Later: B-]

THE BROTHERS JOHNSON: Right On Time (A&M) I once tagged Earth, Wind & Fire as black MOR, but these guys straightened out my categories. EW&F is more like Elton John or early Supremes--formularized music worked out with undeniable verve. This is more in the area of Foreigner or Firefall--pop professionalism reduced to a concept in which all annoyances and other signs of life are eliminated. Funk is often automatic, but it must take some heavy discipline to make it bland. C PLUS

CHUNKY, NOVI AND ERNIE (Warner Bros.) Their conga player looks like a male stewardess, and he serves them right. C [Later]

COMMANDER CODY: Rock 'n Roll Again (Arista) In which a mastermind whose own best songs were eccentric oldies and whose energy and charm were identical to his irresponsibility pens all the tunes for a slickly produced and woogieless boogie album. How the flaky have fallen. C

RITA COOLIDGE: Anytime . . . Anywhere (A&M) This was gonna be her annual sultry cornpone, unobjectionable except for the Neil Sedaka tune and not without its soulful moments, when A&M prexy Jerry Moss told Rita how to become worthy of Kris. You'll get more sales, Jerry opined, if people Recognize Your Material. Try a Motown revival, one of Boz's lesser songs, a Bee Gees number, maybe that wonderful Sam Cooke classic the Stones did once--and who can lose with "Higher and Higher"? It seems to have worked, too, except that those of us with fond memories can still hear the originals. Rita is now halfway to becoming Andy Williams with cleavage. It takes a very special kind of stupidity to slow "Higher and Higher" into a down--I mean, you don't go on the nod when that silly version of "Da Doo Ron Ron" comes on, now do you?. C [Later]

MILES DAVIS: Water Babies (Columbia) Double whammy. Not only isn't this new Miles, as people were quick to figure out despite the pseudo-streetwise On the Corner-style cover, but it isn't quite vintage Miles, either. Recorded in the late '60s, these were outtakes, and one of them--"Dual Mr. Tillman Anthony," a thirteen-minute piano ostinato showcase without even the justification of a heavy funk beat--should definitely have remained one. The rest is better, but I thank CBS's marketing whizzes for sending me back to Davis's great work with the same group--like Sorcerer and Nefertiti, both still in catalogue. B PLUS

THE DICTATORS: Manifest Destiny (Asylum) Their offensiveness is typified quite nicely by their name and the name of their album--anyone smart enough to fool around with such terminology ought to be decent enough not to. Their excuse is that their galumphing beat, their ripped-off hooks, and their burlesqued melodrama are funnier than ever, and I admit that after dozens of playings I like this almost as much as I did their first. But I liked their first instantly, which is the way dumb jokes should work, and anyway, no one has answered my big question: do they play their own instruments? B

THE EMOTIONS: Rejoice (Columbia) They still sing real pretty, and their hit sounds pretty good on the radio, but too many of the songs that fill out this album prove how lazy you can get when you rely on how pretty you sing. C PLUS

ROBERT GORDON WITH LINK WRAY (Private Stock) I've gotten to where I enjoy almost all of this a little, even the original compositions by Wray, who on every evidence except that of his guitar ought to retire to the Fools Hall of Fame. But it's nowhere near as exciting as Gordon's Tuff Darts album would have been; it's nowhere near as exciting as "Red Hot," the only cut that jumps out at you the way this good ole rock 'n' roll is presumably supposed to; and it's nowhere near as exciting as the Gordon-Wray band on a good night, which is really the point. I've run into that confluence of events several times; if you haven't, you won't find this worth your time. B

GRATEFUL DEAD: Terrapin Station (Arista) Although this may be the Dead's best studio album since American Beauty, it runs a distant second, just nosing out the likes of Wake of the Flood, and will convert no one. In fact, it's a good thing Weir-Barlow's "Estimated Prophet" and Lesh-Monk's "Passenger" are the band's best originals in years, because Donna Godchaux's singer-songwriting debut is a disgrace; similarly, it takes a terse, jumping arrangement of "Samson and Delilah" to cancel out (and then some) a questionable "Dancing in the Streets." A confusion of quality also pervades the Garcia-Hunter title suite on side two. It works pretty well musically; for a while, I was ready to turn in the kazoo on "Alligator" for Paul Buckmaster. Then I listened to the lyric, a fable so polite it sent me hustling back to the verbal, vocal, and musical crudities of Anthem of the Sun, which "Terrapin Station" recalls formally. Amazing how all the hard-won professionalism of a decade disintegrates in the face of the sporadic, irresistible inspiration of their lysergic youth. B

THE DAVID GRISMAN QUINTET (Kaleidoscope) Initially, I took this jazzy Western bluegrass concoction for an acoustic variant on one of those session superstar instrumental LPs. But where it's the tendency of a band like the Section, for instance, to sound self-satisfied, as if getting stuck that deep in a groove were a spiritual achievement, this music is always sprightly, inquisitive, and surprising. Lightweight stuff, you say--I say it's airy. A find. B PLUS [Later]

HOT (Big Tree) Vocally, this group can't match the Emotions, and the music for some of these songs is undistinguished, but I'll take their hit ("Angel in Your Arms," not to be confused with "Undercover Angel") for its modestly articulate modern moralism, a virtue many of the lyrics here share. Recommended: "Mama's Girl," "You Can Do It." B

THE JAM: In the City (Polydor) Here we find an English hard-rock trio who wear short hair, narrow ties, dark suits, and dirty sneakers, and also say "fuck" a lot. But in addition they sound rather like The Who Sing My Generation, even mentioning James Brown in one song. They also claim a positive social attitude--no police state in the U.K., but no anarchy either. Is this some kind of put-up job, pseudo-punk with respect for the verities? Could be. When they complain that Uncle Jimmy the "red balloon" (or is it "reveloo"?) never walks home at night, they've got his number, but when they accuse him of sleeping between silk sheets they're just blowing someone else's hot air. In the end, they could go either way--or both. In the meantime, though, they blow me out. These boys can put a song together; they're both powerful enough to subsume their sources and fresh enough to keep me coming back for more. A MINUS [Later]

KEN MCINTYRE: Home (Inner City) I'm not proud. I know damn well that one reason this quartet recording (issued in Europe in 1975 but unavailable here until recently) is my favorite new jazz release of the year is that it features 10 distinct tunes, only one of them a ballad. That's at least three bonus melodies, almost all in jumpy African bred meters. McIntyre plays reeds in the eclectic, jagged-to-lyrical modern manner, and his support--Jaki Byard on piano, Reggie Workman on bass, Andrei Strobert on drums--is as good as it gets. A MINUS

TOM NEWMAN: Fine Old Tom (Antilles) Tom seems to have recorded this far across the sea in 1975, but more than that even my Anglophile sources can't tell me. Analogies: Dave Edmunds (studiomania and general non-esoteric musical orientation, although Newman isn't interested in overpowering anyone), Ray Davies (vaguely but persistently, for both eccentricity and vocal approach), Eno (more precisely, not only for eccentricity and vocal approach but also for style of smarts, although Newman isn't so blatantly avant-garde). Pretty catchy. B PLUS

THE RUMOUR: Max (Mercury) Because Graham Parker's songs take so long to kick in, I worried about coming down on his band too soon--until I realized that their songs already had kicked in, without my noticing or caring. The singers don't help the lyrics, the lyrics don't help the singers, and this is depressing. C PLUS

LEO SAYER: Endless Flight (Warner Bros.) Warners has now broken three big singles off this album, which makes 1977 the year of Leo Sayer the way 1976 was the year of Fleetwood Mac? Not quite as gratifying, is it? Still, Elton having lost the knack of topping himself, I'll settle for a clone. B [Later]

THE STRANGLERS: Rattus Norvegicus (A&M) These guys combine the sensitivity and erudition of ? and the Mysterians with the street smarts of the Doors and detest the act of love with a humorless intensity worthy of Anthony Comstock. You can tell by the way they discreetly bring up subjects like musicianship and education in interviews that, just as they claim, they don't belong to anybody's new wave. Too dumb. C

ULTRAVOX: Ultravox! (Island) "I want to be a machine" is this group's suggestively post-Velvets slogan, and with Eno producing one would hope for the best. But except for one cut ("My Sex") it never meshes. Eno helps them sound like a machine, all right, but unlike Eno they don't seem to enjoy it much. Which calls their humanity into question, if you ask me. C PLUS [Later: B]

Additional Consumer News

The imports that most impress me come from Stiff and (since I haven't heard the Damned yet, as if seeing them wasn't enough) qualify as post-pub rather than punk, as it is called. The compendium, A Bunch of Stiff Records, is as delightful and consistent in its way as Beserkley Chart Busters, while My Aim Is True, by Elvis Costello--who looks like the old Buddy Holly, writes lyrics the way a new one might, and sounds something like Graham Parker--is clearly the work of an eccentric genius. Surprisingly lame is the EP called Bowi, by Nick Lowe, formerly of Brinsley Schwarz and, I would guess, the genius behind all of this. Bowi, however, may be the only Stiff music that will remain permanently unavailable here, as the label seems almost certain to land U.S. distribution eventually. I am disappointed by the Clash's album (also quite likely to be released here before Christmas) and not as impressed as I'd like to be by New Wave singles in general. Of those I've heard--featuring artists like Eater, the Stranglers, the Boys, Squeeze--the only ones I'd go out and replace if stolen are "Can't Stand My Baby" b/w "I Wanna Be Your Man" by the Rezillos, on Sensible--kind of Pavlov's Dog meets the Ramones Merseyside--and "Television Screen" b/w "Love Detective" by the Radiators From Space, on Chiswick, the only strong two-sided single in the bunch. The Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" b/w "No Fun" is a bit of a comedown, but might sound good on an album, which I eagerly await; in fact, I'd also listen to Eater's album as soon as it came out.

Village Voice, Sept. 5, 1977

Aug. 1, 1977 Oct. 3, 1977