Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

The Chantels: The Best of the Chantels [Rhino, 1990]
Fifties groups live on in their voices, not their material. And Arlene Smith's was unbreakable if not immortal. Smith went public at 15, quit the biz of her own accord before she reached 21, and now teaches school in the Bronx, with music on the side. Her Richard Barrett-designed vehicles vary minimally in tempo, arrangement, chord structure--as compositions, they're numbing. But her unaffected outpourings--never cute, never tough, yet right off the street--retain their power and complexity through a shrill remix: she hurts, she yearns, she wonders, but even on "The Plea" she never begs or feels sorry for herself. Smith always traced her self-possessed emotionality to Gregorian chant, which is perfect. Clearly God has touched her, yet only the size of her instrument hints at the soul music to come. And not until she moves on, for the last three cuts, can Barrett get the other Chantels to act like a girl group. A