Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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As next big folkies, John Prine and Chris Smither released debut albums two decades ago. Smither's last major-label album came out in 1972; the more gifted Prine held on with the bigs until 1980. But by 1985, both men's time seemed past even though they were still producing solid indie product on occasion. Which is why Prine's The Missing Years (Oh Boy) and Smither's Another Way To Find You (Flying Fish) will make their old fans go hmmmm.

Prine compensates for five missing years with 14 songs. Call them subtly melodic, simply produced, and gently sung, only that sounds wimpy and he ain't--his philosophical wit and wacky facility set him apart from Cat Stevens 20 years ago and is proof against mainstream success today. Prine's rueful romanticism is never bitter or self-involved, and at its artiest his sensibility has always remained Middle American. He shoulda been a contender. He wasn't. But he hasn't lost his punch.

Chris Smither is more marginal, but he wants to find you. The Flying Fish album reprises his long-gone major-label repertoire before a studio audience, and sounds brand new. He's good at writing songs--his erotic manifesto Love You Like a Man is a Bonnie Raitt standard--and even better at finding them, partly because he's best of all at singing them. The relaxed voice is rich in blues overtones, and even unaccompanied he's got a beat--he mikes his tapping foot. Tap along.

Short Takes: Marty Brown, High and Dry (MCA): Nashville singer-songwriter sets his sights on Hank Williams's sound.

John Lee Hooker, Mr. Lucky (Charisma/Pointblank): the old man and his young running buddies.

Playboy, Nov. 1991

Oct. 1991 Dec. 1991