Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Steve Arrington

  • Dancin' in the Key of Life [Atlantic, 1985] A-
  • The Jammin' National Anthem [Atlantic, 1986] B

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Dancin' in the Key of Life [Atlantic, 1985]
Unless you count Amy Grant, pop doesn't get more explicitly Christian--not only does the back cover thank Jesus Christ rather than the usual God, but the record invites us to convert. Granted, Arrington's a Jesse Jackson-type Christian--remembers that petroleum is still a finite resource, takes pains to acknowledge the right to choose in a song where the abortion isn't done. But his positivity theology doesn't sell the music any more than some other ideology would. The music sells the theology, and augments it: for the first time he's making like a songwriter, designing hooks for his vital rhythms, and mellifluous vocal cartoons. The title track lives up to its dreams of Stevie, both songs about babies are choice, and it all comes together with the goofy yet spiritual scat coda to "Stand With Me (which means stand up for Jesus, children). A-

The Jammin' National Anthem [Atlantic, 1986]
Here we come up against the perils of Christianity as a political matrix in black music (and life). I don't doubt the goodness of Arrington's heart any more than I do his Stevie-cum-Bootsy vocal and rhythmic dexterity. But last time he was brimming with charity and full of fun, where now the anxiety that besets anyone who sticks to "old-fashioned" values in a time of upheaval erodes his tolerance. So he sounds a little frightened--of gays, of teen violence, of a "new age" that won't look like his dreams no matter how many anthems he writes. He misses Martin Luther King a lot. So do we all. B