Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Joan Armatrading

  • Joan Armatrading [A&M, 1976] B
  • Show Some Emotion [A&M, 1977] B+
  • To the Limit [A&M, 1978] B+
  • Me Myself I [A&M, 1980] B+
  • Walk Under Ladders [A&M, 1981] B-
  • The Key [A&M, 1983] B
  • Track Record [A&M, 1983] A-
  • The Shouting Stage [A&M, 1988] B
  • Square the Circle [A&M, 1992] *
  • Lovers Speak [Denon, 2003] Dud
  • Love and Affection: Classics (1975-1983) [A&M, 2004]

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Joan Armatrading [A&M, 1976]
It took me a long time to hear that this forthright (not to say stentorian) black Englishwoman was anything more than a postfeminist Odetta, but it's clear in retrospect that Armatrading was reaching for something more colorful and less pompous even on her apparently folky 1973 debut, Whatever's for Us, produced by Eltonian concertmaster Gus Dudgeon. Two years later, on Back to the Night, she had shucked both the portentous prettiness of Dudgeon and the vague portentousness of lyricist Pam Nestor, but only here, with production from Glyn Johns, does she find a context forceful enough to give her own maturing lyrics an edge. Helps that she's more comfortable singing, too. B

Show Some Emotion [A&M, 1977]
OK, I'm convinced. Sometimes funny, always real, and never ever pretentious, she proves that a big, husky voice needn't turn you into a self-important fool. So why don't I have anything more specific to say about this record? Because most of the meaning of the ordinary-plus lyrics is conveyed by stance and nuance. B+

To the Limit [A&M, 1978]
The secret of Armatrading's songs is their plainness, but it's also their drawback. When she hits an image--"I read your letter yesterday/It fell between the covers/And my bare skin"--she lights up a real life. More often, though, she just says what she has to say with whatever unprepossessing idiom is at hand, and her melodies are even less inclined to witticism than her words. This style of candor, engaging in theory, escapes tedium in practice by way of Armatrading's bluntly dramatic singing. Rarely have less tuneful songs so impressed themselves on my mind. B+

Me Myself I [A&M, 1980]
The perennially unclassifiable London West Indian meets Instant Records' Richard Gottehrer for her punchiest and most attractive album--she even comes close to laughing a couple of times. The title tune is to narcissism as "Brown Sugar" is to racism--she doesn't prettify it, but she doesn't forswear its pleasures, either. Suggesting to this white male heterosexual that unclassifiable may be a polite way to say unreachable--and that unreachable may be why even songs as well-realized as these wouldn't take that extra pop leap if Gottehrer weren't motorvating them. B+

Walk Under Ladders [A&M, 1981]
Where Richard Gottehrer is attracted to Blondie and the Go-Go's, Steve Lillywhite's meal tickets are U2 and the Psychedelic Furs. And in a singer-songwriter whose large voice creates a grandiose impression that does less than nothing for her terse habits of speech, the switch from one to the other is the wrong kind of big deal. B-

The Key [A&M, 1983]
Folkies manqué to the contrary, it's not hard rock she's unsuited for, a point she drives home on the side-openers, which are as nasty as this album gets both musically and emotionally, and also as rousing. What she's unsuited for is pop--the way Steve Lillywhite's hooks lockstep with her alto singsong on "The Key," "Drop the Pilot," and "The Game of Love" makes the friendly sentiments expressed therein seem mechanical. And since she's always been a tough broad, maybe they are. B

Track Record [A&M, 1983]
This convenient best-of goes light on her best and biggest album, Me Myself I, dividing neatly between Steve Lillywhite new wave, which means the drums are loud, and Glyn Johns rock, which means she gets to be loud under her own power. She's a little long-winded, but that's mostly because she puts so much thought into her relationships, which in turn is because she puts so much feeling into them; this is one of those rare pop stars who's invariably serious but never pompous, which is why she isn't a bigger star. The best-of format puts her seriousness in musical perspective--makes it seem almost beautiful sometimes. A-

The Shouting Stage [A&M, 1988]
Some faithful decry the bows to pop fashion from lounge to CHR, others hear her fulfilling her destiny. Haven't her fans learned after all these years that beyond raw tunecraft her music is irrelevant? With that proud, brawny voice, she's incapable of pop ingratiation--anything she does is her, and most folks are always gonna think she's weird. P.S.: This time the tunecraft's about average. B

Square the Circle [A&M, 1992]
in her search for love may she record forever ("True Love," "Weak Woman") *

Lovers Speak [Denon, 2003] Dud

Love and Affection: Classics (1975-1983) [A&M, 2004]
This St. Kitts woman from Birmingham, U.K., was never much more than a cult artist in America and is now almost forgotten here except among gay women, although she keeps her private life very private and has never come out. The two CDs are distilled from 10 spotty, sui generis big-rock albums, and they just don't wear down. This music still sounds fresh and muscular two decades later, and conveys so much felt intelligence about human relations it's hard to believe Armatrading's a loner. Forthright voice meets shy heart and no one knows who wins, probably including her. Pray somebody loves her, and vice versa. [Recyclables]

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