Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Labelle

  • Labelle [Warner Bros., 1971] C
  • Moon Shadow [Warner Bros., 1972] C
  • Pressure Cookin' [RCA Victor, 1973] B
  • Nightbirds [Epic, 1974] A-
  • Phoenix [Epic, 1975] C
  • Chameleon [Epic, 1976] B-
  • Back to Now [Verve Forecast, 2008] Choice Cuts

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Labelle [Warner Bros., 1971]
I find this group's mystique mysterious. Unlike most girl groups they boast a lady-soul front woman, but so do the Sweet Inspirations. They can trade leads like the Temptations, but rarely bother. They have their own songwriter, but she hasn't written any good songs. And though I too prefer their style of upward mobility to the Supremes', it's mostly aura--a matter of costuming and melodrama. I like what they do with "Wild Horses"--maybe the way to save that overstated metaphor is to overstate it some more. But too often they change the beauty of the melody until it sounds just like an op-e-ra. C

Moon Shadow [Warner Bros., 1972]
Nine songs--six by Nona Hendryx, one by Sarah Dash, and one each by Peter Townshend and Cat Stevens. The latter two lead off each side. And are easily the pick of the record. Cat Stevens. C

Pressure Cookin' [RCA Victor, 1973]
This certainly is a drastic improvement, although because Nona Hendryx still has trouble writing discernible melodies it demands more concentration than it's worth. What's changed is the arrangements--the backing musicians, especially keyboard honcho Andre Lewis (although each of the others puts a mark on at least one cut), achieve a jazz r&b that gives the voices (all of them) room to groove. Patti LaBelle pulls out all the stops dynamically, but she also puts them back in--there's drama as well as declamation here--and on "Hollywood" and "Let Me See You in the Light" Hendryx gives her some lines. The covers don't hurt either--whoever had the idea of segueing from Thunderclap Newman to Gil Scott-Heron did justice to this noble group concept, and Stevie Wonder proved himself a true friend. B

Nightbirds [Epic, 1974]
Not all pretentious records are even difficult and many fewer are worth the trouble. This is both. In the past I've found myself unmoved by Patti LaBelle's high-nosed histrionics, but Allen Toussaint grounds her (and Nona and Sarah) in a funk that's just right, more modernistic and mechanical than he usually favors. And for once there are songs. Three of Nona Hendryx's four could be called tunes, Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan's "Lady Marmalade" is great synthetic French-quarter raunch, and Toussaint's own "All Girl Band" is unautobiographical and more charming for it. A-

Phoenix [Epic, 1975]
Maybe if Patti came a little more like the falling rain and a little less like a water main these songs about quasars and amazing birds wouldn't sound so gushy. Exception: "Far As We Felt Like Goin'" which Nona Hendryx didn't write. C

Chameleon [Epic, 1976]
Patti emotes from up on the roof, David Rubinson masterminds some heavy funk, and Nona climaxes each side with a motto--"Nobody seems to care when they've got their share of the pie" and "Going down to your river." You guess whether "pie" or "river" refers to pussy. B-

Back to Now [Verve Forecast, 2008]
"Roll Out" Choice Cuts