Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Consumer Guide (16)

The humblest form creates its own imperatives, even the lowly Consumer Guide. This abstract, which began as sensible conservation of energy, has gathered its own inertia, until now it has changed my listening habits and perhaps my taste itself. As I've explained before, reviewers share the occupational hazard of ennui and for that reason tend to flatter work that is idiosyncratic or formally elegant. In an effort to combat this prejudice--not that I could ever hope (or want) to conquer it entirely--I listen to certain records more and more. These are mostly efforts that seem competent but undistinguished on the surface yet nevertheless (usually due to some sort of hype, to be honest, although a word from one of my far-flung advisers or some quirkish detail will also suffice) offer some hope of quality. After all, I say to myself, the guy who pays cash for an album isn't going to give up after one or two tries, so why should I? Often I find myself getting into stuff I dismissed at first, which is all right except that it tends to flatten my response simply because I spread it so thin. Even the pattern of my pleasure-listening changes. I often find myself playing records I kind of like, even for visitors, and eventuallyI kind of like them more. All of which balls up my trusty rating system and spoils my fun. After all, who wants to give eight A's out of twenty records. Not nasty old me.

As I keep insisting, I do believe there is an objective correlative, as we used to say. That is, music is getting better all the time, and only a few labels release a consistent stream of crud. There is still quite a bit of crud, of course, some of it well received by all the fools who don't agree with me, most of it ignored by everyone. What's getting harder and harder is to distinguish between good, better, and best, and I'm no longer sure the Consumer Guide helps much. Well, what the hell. You just read it for yocks anyway, right? So here's another.


Bull: This Is Bull (Paramount). Speak for yourself, Ferdinand. D.

Eric Burdon and War: The Black-Man's Burdon (MGM). On the front cover of this album is a black man in silhouette. On the back cover Eric, looking paunchy, rests his head in the crotch of a black woman straddled above him. He also holds her ankles. Inside the jacket seven men, presumably the band, occupy the background of a full-length photo of a grassy field. Six of the men are black; five are bare-chested. In the foreground recline two naked blondes who obviously belong in a centerfold. The left hand of one is thrown back to reveal a clean-shaven and possibly airbrushed underarm, so that her right does not quite conceal her pubic hair. Her companion hides her sex with both hands. The only man who is standing appears to be walking toward the women. He has removed the belt from his pants. D plus.

The Byrds: (Untitled) (Columbia). I'm sorry. I love them--or do I mean him?--too, but it finally seems to be ending. The new songs are unarresting, the harmonies weak or just absent, and the live performance . . . well, I'm sure you had to be there. I was, lots of times, and I guess I will be again, but as always it will be more to demonstrate my devotion than to get off, and such events don't transfer very well to vinyl. I'm sorry. C plus.

Canned Heat: Future Blues (Liberty). I miss Alan Wilson more intensely than I ever enjoyed him. The pitch of involvement Joplin and Hendrix could demand at their best made their deaths seem proper and even--and this is a still more outrageous way of putting it--metaphorically correct: the only way to finish the act, so to speak, after all that power had begun to run down. However much sense Wilson's death meant in his life, which was never happy, it was inappropriate to his art, which continued vital to the end. On this record his creative force, never imposing but always there to be enjoyed, is at a peak, and the rest of the band coheres alongside him. Bob Hite finally sounds like himself, and Harvey Mandel and the rhythm section really cook together. The original material (most of it by Wilson) is excellent, and the rest is perfectly apropos. I never much liked their previous LP's, but I'm sorry there won't be more like this one. A.

Jesse Davis (Atco). Perfunctory funk from Taj Mahal's lead guitarist. His own songs are forgettable, his cover versions flat, and despite an embarrassment of studio help (Eric, Leon, Merry< Gram, etc.) the music never gets off the ground. C.

Derek and the Dominoes: Layla (Atco). Reviewers (myself included) tend to be hostile toward double albums because they mean double listening work--it is almost always feasible, after all, to put the best of a set on one superrecord--but even though this one has the look of a greedy, lazy, slapdash studio session, I think it may be Eric Clapton's most consistent recording. The high-keyed precision of his guitar contrasts nicely with the relaxed rocking of Whitlock/Radle/Gordon, and Duane Allman's overdubbing is unbelievable. Much better than his solo LP, one of those rare instances when musicians join together for profit and a lark and come up with a mature and original sound. A.

The Guess Who: Share the Land (RCA Victor). Having encountered the versatility, strength, and honest ambition of this AM group, we now confront its limitations, which appear almost fatal. The replacement of guitarist-composer Randy Bachman by Heavy Greg Leskiw doesn't help. Their most unflawed and uninteresting record. C.

Jimi Hendrix: The Cry of Love (Reprise). I was never a Hendrix freak, so perhaps my suspicion that this is his best LP is irrelevant. As usual, the individual compositions are nothing special, but the tone of the whole is superb. All the pretensions have been loosened just a little but not (as on Band of Gypsies) abandoned altogether. An excellent testament. A minus.

Elton John: Tumbleweed Connection (Uni). Did someone call Grand Funk Railroad a hype? What about this puling phony? C plus.

Janis Joplin: Pearl (Columbia). I'm sorry to say that at moments this lags a little, especially because the potential of Janis and Full Tilt Boogie was, by this evidence, enormous. Great anyway, of course. A minus.

Mashmakhan (Epic). Gene Lees says: "I like Mashmakhan first of all because it swings. There is an enormous difference between swinging and pounding. Most rock music does the latter: it just jumps up and down in one place, with no sense of rhythmic propulsion. Sadly, people who dig it are incapable of hearing real swing when it occurs." And on and on, every word bought by Epic, concluding: "This is a hell of a good group." I dare you to spend money to decide which of us is right. D.

Curtis Mayfield: Curtis (Curtom). My grade reflects a certain cultural relativism; that is, I don't approve of these essentially middle-class guides to black pride, but a lot of black people do, so I feel obliged to qualify my judgment. Mayfield is a more trustworthy talent than Isaac Hayes, say, so that the two long cuts are better than might be predicted. I still prefer the old Impressions. B.

Mother Earth: Satisfied (Mercury). Tracy Nelson doesn't touch everyone, but once she does, she carries you away. She can be sexual and spiritual not successively but on the same note and breath; she seems to suffer and to transcend suffering simultaneously. Vocally, Mother Earth is now Tracy Nelson, and although in theory I miss the male voices--especially Robert St. John's--I'm not really complaining. Yet this record is a slight disappointment. I love it, but I know that my prejudices are strong and that only once--on her own composition, "Andy's Song"--does Tracy burst calmly into free space as she does so often on the two previous Mother Earth LPs and on Tracy Nelson Country. Recommended unequivocally to her cadre and equivocally to the benighted. A minus.

Anne Murray: Snowbird (Capitol). An honest pop country album from the Canadian singer who had a well-deserved hit with the title song last summer. A corny and superfluous "Get Together" is more than made up for by a draft-dodging song called "Running" and (believe it or not) the best cover version of "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" I know. B.

Mike Nesmith and the First National Band: Loose Salute (RCA Victor). Nesmith has turned into a kind of middlebrow Gram Parsons, somewhere between a countrified Monkee and the Jimmy Rodgers of Sunset Strip. This is a wonderful amalgam of gimmicks and mannerisms and good songs, long vowel articles and near-yodels and electronic excursions and whatever else might happen. His first album with this group, Magnetic South, is equally sublime schlock. B.

The Osmonds (MGM). The most heart-warming thing to happen to the wonderful world of pop music since Georgia Gibbs recorded "Dance with Me, Henry." Mike Curb strikes again. D plus.

Emitt Rhodes (Dunhill). Like Paul McCartney, from whom he is occasionally indistinguishable, Rhodes has done a true solo album by multiple-tracking his own accompaniment and engineering the result himself. Only Rhodes does it better. Why, then, did I give McCartney a B plus? Because I was taken, that's why. B minus.

Leon Thomas: The Leon Thomas Album (Flying Dutchman). I've got to admit it: if anything like a Great Artist--a concept I by no means entirely approve--has arisen in popular music since the first great days of rock, Leon Thomas is probably it. He has literally expanded the musical possibilities of the human voice. He is as powerful a jazz/blues singer as Joe Williams or Joe Turner, both of whom he occasionally resembles, as inventive a scatter as Ella Fitzgerald. But that's just the beginning, for despite the generation lag, Thomas beats Turner and Williams in their mode even while singing his own, and he turns scatting from a virtuoso trick into an atavistic call from the unconscious. So even though I think Oliver Nelson's arrangements here don't suit the material; even though I'm slightly embarrassed by the inflation of a Thomas composition like "I Am"; even though I'm not sure all of Thomas's explorations in black consciousness are apropos; despite all this, I have to suspend my disbelief and recommend this record unreservedly to anyone with the slightest fondness for jazz. A.

The Velvet Underground: Loaded (Cotillion). I presume anyone who saw the guys at Max's this summer has already bought this, which is to Manhattan what Time Peace is to New York. That is, this is really "Rock & Roll" (a title), but it's also really intellectual and ironic. Lou Reed's singing embodies the paradox. A.

Stevie Wonder: Signed, Sealed and Delivered (Tamla). Sometime in the past (can it be?) eight years Little Stevie became Big, and so did his frantic one-smash-a-year style--wheezes, shrieks, and all. Consistent Motown albums are rare, and this has its weak moments, but it's still the most exciting LP by a male soul singer in a very long time, and it slips into no mold, Motown's included. A minus.

Additional Consumer News

Since MGM prexy Mike Curb declared himself the moral guardian of youth culture, I have been keeping an especially sharp eye on his releases. MGM has released a series of forty reissue albums, including music by artists like Freda Payne and Don Gibson, who did none of their important work for MGM, and the Velvet Underground, which also no longer records for him. You remember Curb's stand on drugs? Well, on the first Velvets LP thee is a song called "Heroin." It is not a prosmack song by any means, but then, "Street Fighting Man" isn't a prorevolution song either. Reportedly, Lou Reed is reluctant to perform the song because of the way it is often misconstrued. "Heroin" is the first song on side two of the Golden Archive Velvet Underground. MGM has also released an album called The Best of Marcel Marceau, which consists of thirty-eight minutes of silence and two minutes of applause, a singing Marine, and Heintje, Holland's fourteen-year-old answer to Oedipus, right down to the charming little bulge in his pants. . . . Consumers will be interested to note that Capitol Records is raising the list price on its records one dollar, which is proportionally equivalent to Chevrolet raising its prices six hundred dollars. Get them while you can--or don't get them at all. Record coops, anyone? . . . Due to continuing political confusion, I never wrote about the three-LP Woodstock album, even though I often play it for pleasure. I will say, however, that Woodstock Two is worth missing unless you happen to love Jimi Hendrix, who is especially well represented. The great Grossman holdout apparently continues: Joplin and The Band are absent once again. So's the Dead. . . . Shelby Singleton's Plantation Records, which first hit with "Harper Valley PTA," is getting a lot of c&w air-play for "The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley," written and performed (execrably, by the way) by non-professionals and published, no kidding, by Quickit Publishing Co. I won't regale you with morality, but I do have one question: Why didn't Jerry Rubin think of this? . . . Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" is one of the great singles of all time.

The Village Voice, 1970
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


Consumer Guide (1) Rock 'n' Revolution