Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Neville Brothers

  • Fiyo on the Bayou [A&M, 1982] B+
  • Neville-ization [Black Top, 1984] A-
  • Treacherous: A History of the Neville Brothers [Rhino, 1986] A-
  • Uptown [Capitol, 1987] B+
  • Yellow Moon [A&M, 1989] A
  • Brother's Keeper [A&M, 1991] Dud
  • Family Groove [A&M, 1992] B-
  • Walkin' in the Shadow of Life [Back Porch/EMI, 2004] *

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Fiyo on the Bayou [A&M, 1982]
Unlike their Jack Nitzsche-produced flop, this one sounds like gumbo--the spirit is willing and the flesh can't resist. Unfortunately, the tunes are so surefire that I long ago memorized the way other Nworlins stalwarts (and Jimmy Cliff) do 'em--in a word, better. An enjoyable way for neophytes to get into the most universal rock and roll style--and a lazy way for oldtimers to convince themselves that the world isn't changing. B+

Neville-ization [Black Top, 1984]
Every once in a while an album comes up from New Orleans that captures the seemingly timeless spirit of the place as if by magic. But it's fun to figure out the tricks. The novelty of the Mardi Gras Indians made the Meters doubly infectious on The Wild Tchoupitoulas. Subtly hyped-up arrangements nudged Professor Longhair on Atlantic's live double. And here the secret isn't just the ever more exquisitely articulated harmonies of the city's definitive band, but also the unpressured live setting that instead of positing pop potential (the Capitol album) or archival integrity (the A&M) presents them as the lounge-act-gone-to-heaven they are. How often does an improvisation improve a classic original like Aaron's "Tell It Like It Is"? How many bands can get away with both "Caravan" and an antinuke ditty? If only they thought it was okay for women to wear pants. A-

Treacherous: A History of the Neville Brothers [Rhino, 1986]
Except for Aaron, they're journeymen rather than geniuses, neither as major nor as pure as they're made out to be. Art and Cyril have never sung better than their material, often rendering it soulfully generic, and Art's keyboards were less integral to the ass-busting complexities the Meters worked on New Orleans's Latin tinge than Leo Nocentelli's guitar, George Porter's bass, or, God knows, Ziggy Modeliste's drums. This two-disc career summation is less essential than the Meters' Sophisticated Cissy, not to mention The Wild Tchoupitoulas, which it cribs from. But it does isolate four thoroughly enjoyable Art tracks (two more than you'll find on his own Mardi Gras Rock 'n' Roll), and sum up in two sides everything that's most winning about the slightly showy, uniquely unoriginal New Orleans rhythm synthesis their cult craves. A-

Uptown [Capitol, 1987]
Contrary to rumor, the drums are almost all live, but they so rarely venture an offbeat that it's a solecism to call the result commercial funk. It's not crossover because the Nevilles have no black/"urban" base to cross over from, and no one's claiming it's New Orleans. Nope--between adult themes, solidly insinuating tunes, uncommonly grizzled vocals, and faint indigenous lilt, what we have here is a pretty damn good CHR album. Too bad "Whatever It Takes" and "Midnight Key" will never prove the durability of their old-love-rekindled and night-lust-unloosed in the crucible of high rotation; too bad "Shak-a-Na-Na"'s second-linish Brit imagism and "Old Habits Die Hard"'s Tops-Tempts-Tavares homage aren't gimmicky enough to push some gatekeeper's everything-old-is-new button. Because this risks the unknown just the way the crass dance-fad novelty "Mardi Gras Mambo" did in 1954. There's aesthetic tension in its craft and blind ambition, and reason to think it'll sound quirkier and realer than Fiyo on the Bayou another 23 years down the line. B+

Yellow Moon [A&M, 1989]
Daniel Lanois's production is so subtle that at first this seems like a return to mighty-kootie-fiyo, but in fact it's the modernization they've been chasing since the Meters were history. Whether isolating rhythm-makers, adding electronic atmosphere, or recontextualizing "natural"-seeming instrumental effects (the un-New Orleans bottleneck that grounds "The Ballad of Hollis Brown," the Dirty Dozen horns that rescue "Wild Injuns" from generic throwaway), Lanois isn't afraid to go for drama, and while drama does have a way of palling eventually, the songs are worth the risk. The expansive "My Blood" and the educational "Sister Rosa" are their finest millennial-political originals ever, and though "Hollis Brown," "With God on Our Side," "A Change Is Gonna Come," and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" may seem like an obvious bunch of covers, their total effect is audacious instead (one '64 Dylan OK, but two?). Add Art's singing lessons (from Aaron) and Charles's horn lessons (from Lee Allen, say) and you have their masterpiece. Even the languours of "Healing Chant" seem apt and premeditated. A

Brother's Keeper [A&M, 1991] Dud

Family Groove [A&M, 1992]
On a braver album, "Fly Like an Eagle" might be a coup, freedom fighters seizing the '60s-are-over sentimentality of a pop tune about a revolution Steve Miller wasn't so sorry we lost. On this record it's a reproach--the hook no song doctor can sell. Socially conscious, romantically ardent, or trading on their good name, their material just sits there waiting for you to like it. Where on the notorious Uptown they were a confused CHR band who deserved more airplay than they got, here they're a second-rate commercial funk band who get more than they deserve. At least Aaron's Ronstadt outing had the courage of her aesthetic convictions. B-

Walkin' in the Shadow of Life [Back Porch/EMI, 2004]
Funk meets junk in the real nitty gritty ("Kingdom Come," "Rivers of Babylon"). *

See Also