Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Tom Robinson [extended]

  • Power in the Darkness [Harvest, 1978] A-
  • TRB 2 [Harvest, 1979] A-
  • Sector 27 [I.R.S., 1980] A
  • North by Northwest [I.R.S., 1982] A-
  • Hope and Glory [Geffen, 1984] B+
  • The Collection 1977-87 [EMI, 1987] A-
  • Love over Rage [Rhythm Safari, 1994] Choice Cuts

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Tom Robinson Band: Power in the Darkness [Harvest, 1978]
Musically this is fairly foursquare, not clever enough for good pop nor unrelenting enough for great rock, and the lyrics are pretty foursquare too, rarely suggesting that politics involves internal contradiction as well as oppression. But at the very least the package exemplifies Robinson's penchant for good works--in addition to a ten-song LP it includes a seven-song bonus record. More important, almost every one of these songs kicks in eventually, and four take no time at all: the instant hit "2-4-6-8 Motorway," the proud, sardonic singalong "Glad to Be Gay," a music-hall number about the rewards and ambiguities of male-to-male friendship called "Martin," and "Winter of '79," in which the epochal repression of that future season is recalled form some further future as a hard but (compare Davie Bowie, Black Sabbath) by no means apocalyptic piece of history. A-

Tom Robinson Band: TRB 2 [Harvest, 1979]
A measure of how good Robinson is at writing his rock and roll protest songs is that you often don't remember them by title--almost every one jogs the memory with an additional catchphrase. Another is that though I know a white man is making it with a black man and I know it's more than all right, I still can't suss out the details of "Sweet Black Angel." A third is that I started singing "Sweet Black Angel" to myself the first time I played the record. And the capper is that since I saw him live every other song here has been ringing in my head as well. A-

Sector 27 [I.R.S., 1980]
This attempt to fuse TRB's music-hall cheer with postpunk postfunk isn't as innovative as its sources, but it comes across better on record. Robinson has always flattened his flair for melody under one-dimensional rhythms and vocal attack, but here the arty touches--that is, Stevie B.'s perverse little guitar parts--serve what I'd call a "commercial" function if only the record were selling better. And who ever said politics and propaganda were the same thing? A

North by Northwest [I.R.S., 1982]
Robinson's bonhomie is rarely seductive--he picks such stiff, strident, perhaps even rigid drummers that his records require effort or at least concentration. But this is where I stop wondering whether he's a fluke. Just about every one of these songs synthesizes his protest-oriented TRB phase with the more cryptic and personal musicality of Sector 27. And though Richard Mazda isn't the collaborator Stevie B. was, after five plays or so nearly every track sinks in deep. A-

Hope and Glory [Geffen, 1984]
With its saxophone parts and enriched vocals, this reaffirms Robinson's affinities with cabaret after two albums of straight rock and roll and two inspired compromises with postmodernism. "War Baby" is a wrenching triumph and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" a great moment in gay liberation, but though it's nice that he sings "Looking for a Bonfire" and "Listen to the Radio" more affectingly than he did on North by Northwest, I'd rather he'd written more affectingly. B+

The Collection 1977-87 [EMI, 1987]
First side's a seven-song Tom Robinson Band best-of more useful than 1982's full-length job, second a chronicle of his non-oi phase that omits anything from the intimate, underrated Sector 27, why I know not but convenient for anyone who can locate the thing. Fans will appreciate the U.K.-only highlights. And those who've always been put off by his tuneless sincerity will learn firsthand that gay rock and roll needn't be arch or confrontational to establish its identity. A-

Love over Rage [Rhythm Safari, 1994]
"Green"; "Fifty" Choice Cuts