Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
Books
Writings:
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Playboy
  Blender
  Rolling Stone
  Billboard
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
  Recyclables
  Newsprint
  Lists
  Miscellany
Bibliography
NPR
Web Site:
  Home
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell
CG Search:
Google Search:
Twitter:
Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough Cover

Consumer Guide to Consumer Guides:
The Dean's List: Blessed and Cursed, Pissed and Worse

By Milo Miles

A couple of these Consumer Guide entries alterted my ears to styles of music that nourish me to this day. A couple others, more important, helped me understand my perceptions, articulated what my art passions meant about myself. As a personal Greatest Hits, this commentary is neither intensive nor haphazard. A measure of the source material's richness is that I feel if I just went through the '70s, '80s and '90s Consumer Guide collections one more time, I'd find my lost supreme favorite. Some are treasured examples of journalistic concision. Some are definitive summaries of albums, eras and artists. Some are small joys that glisten every time I pick them up. Many don't appear because I ran out of space and time.

Bull: This Is Bull (Paramount '71). Speak for yourself, Ferdinand. D

The readymade, auto-review classic. A CG entry that has consumed the record it judges. The review was all I thought of the one time I came across the cutout: heavy bearded dude posing on his souped -up chopper. Wow, it's a fat Bull on a big hog, yuk yuk, but there's his perfect slice of unaware goofiness preserved for ages past his shelf life. An understaffed and overheated adolescent music industry throwing stuff against the wall faster than anyone could keep track of. Nobody would make this marketing mistake today. Or was it intended to be provocative? The silent "shit"? He can't be too lonely a Bull--limbo is so crowded--but this affectionate demolition is his legacy. A+

Africa Dances (Authentic '73). What The Harder They Come does for reggae, this sampler attempts to do for the American-influenced urban music of Africa. Its scope is necessarily broad, but only once does an alien-sounding rhythm (Arabic tarabu) interfere with its remarkable listenability. The mood might be described as folk music with brass, for although the horn techniques are familiar from big-band jazz, r&b, and especially salsa, the overall effect is much less biting than that would imply. There's something penetratingly decent, humorous and even civil about this music, as if the equanimity of tribal cultures at peace at least with themselves has not yet been overwhelmed by media-nourished cross-cultural complexities. If this is my misapprehension, perhaps it is reinforced by the fact that the lyrics aren't in English, although I don't get anything similar from salsa. Anyway, a find. A

A prophetic anthology that everybody else either missed or got wrong. Compiler John Storm Roberts was in fact trying to do for his book Black Music of Two Worlds what The Harder They Come did for reggae, but putting it the way Xgau did clicked with pop omnivores in 1973. Telling observations include "American-influenced urban music" and "something penetratingly decent, humorous and even civil about this music." The first still needs to be pondered more by everyone who hears or, especially, writes about Afropop. The second comment includes the seed of the misapplied organic-music devotion that has saved Afropop (that is, given it its market niche) and cursed it (by inoculating it against popfan appreciation). The brilliance is that the devotion is identified, but not misapplied. Perversely docked a notch for not getting anything similar from salsa. A-

Jackson Browne: The Pretender (Asylum, '76). This is an impressive record, but a lot of the time I hate it: my grade is an average, not a judgment. Clearly Jon Landau has gotten more out of Browne's voice than anyone knew was there, and the production jolts Ol' Brown Eyes out of his languor again and again. But languor is Browne's best mask, and what's underneath isn't always so impressive. The shallowness of his kitschy doom-saying and sentimental sexism is well-known, but I'm disappointed as well in his depth of craft. How can apparently literate people mistake a received metaphor like "sleep's dark and silent gate" for interesting poetry of gush over a versifier capable of such rhyming-dictionary pairings as "pretender" and "ice cream vendor" (the colloquial term, JB, is "ice cream man")? Similar shortcomings flaw the production itself--the low-register horns on "Daddy's Tune" complement its somber undertone perfectly, but when the high blare kicks in at the end the song degenerates into a Honda commercial. Indeed, at times I've wondered whether some of this isn't intended as parody, but a sense of humor has never been one of Browne's virtues. B

Put-downs can save your sanity, too. My bones knew J. Browne was a passing fancy. He so looked the part he played, right? More vexing was that smart people--some in the media, some I knew--smothered him with love that made my reservations sound like nebulous nattering from a lowbrow punkoid. This CG, though--this was refutation on which to build a temple. Xgau's entry has the cadence, momentum and a rocker's irreverence (underneath mandatory coatings of wit and anger) missing from The Pretender. Incidentally explains why Browne turned to compassionate-leftist politics as a source of values and underscores why art-rock pomp and singer-songwriter pout were closer than the sensitive set realized. A

Nirvana, In Utero (DGC '93). "How 'bout some Nirvana?" you'll say. "Oh yeah, great band," the reply will go. "Really had their own sound. What do you wanna play?" It doesn't matter that much, any of the first three." "You Mean Bleach?" "Nah, the Geffen albums--not that outtakes thing, but Nevermind or Bluebaby or . . . what did they call the Steve Albini one?" "You mean the really hard one. In Utero. The guitar one." "What do you mean guitar? It had songs on it." "Well, so did the outtakes thing." "The Albini one had better songs, actually. And it was real cadmium besides. Toxic." "You have to play it loud, though. And aren't you supposed to crank the treble too? I liked Nevermind better." "I liked Bluebaby a little better too. But that was a good album. Go ahead. Once Madonna conks out, she sleeps through the night. She's a good baby that way--nothing wakes her up. Come on, let me relive my youth." "I hope you don't regret it in the morning." "These days, I never regret anything in the morning. I'm too fucking tired to bother. Let her rip." A

Of course, the dialogue will go nothing like that, even mutatis mutandis. A fiction-review that cuts deeper today precisely because it posits a now-prevented future, this also preserves a moment that death and chaos made hard to recall: the anticipation that Cobain's crew would scale another peak or two, no problem. Bluebaby was a given, though now a broken fancy far more precious than Lester Bangs' Carburetor Dung by Count Five. Along with Charles Perry's soft killing of Burton Greene's Presenting Burton Greene, my favorite piece of concise slant-critique. A

Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band: Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band (RCA Victor, '76). I hated this the first time I played it, which turned out to mean that I had encountered a clear, uncompromising and dangerously seductive expression of a vision of life that was foreign to me. Call it disco-sophistico: a version of post-camp nostalgia that celebrates the warmth (OK) and class (ugh) of a time irretrievably (and safely) past. Since they're not white, the Savannah Band never make you feel they love the '40s because there were no uppity muggers back then, though I still wonder about their get-thee-behind-me dismissal of hard r&b, not to mention their fashion-mag potential. But it's a pleasure to admit that their music is a fresh pop hybrid with its own rhythmic integrity, and that its sophistication is a lot brighter and more lively than most of the organic bullshit making it to the rock stage in the mid-'70s. Original grade: B plus. A

I loved this album from the first time I played it, but it drove me nuts because I couldn't figure out why. Those who accepted my obsession with the New York Dolls and Iggy Pop also couldn't figure it out. Of the albums I regularly call masterpieces, Dr. Buzzard's draws the most blank stares. Even pop mavens who remember the hit "Whispering/Cherchez La Femme/Se Si Bon" don't hear any more depths than in its wan imitators like Odyssey's "Native New Yorker." This consumer guide about the uses of the past in pop, not only how this record did it, but the standards needed to look back in every case. Bette Midler took smothering reactionary blankets off pop revival; Dr. Buzzard inverted nostalgia into a vision of the future, a partytime society that never came to pass. The male and female revelers were happy chameleons who tried on cultures, romantic roles, and historic attitudes with childlike insouciance. Darnell sassed his lovers constantly, but he was such a layabout scamp that he never seemed brutish. And Cory Daye demolished every trouble with a smile, a sigh, or a shrug. She's such a joyful, confident ironist that it can be heartbreaking to hear the old sides, because now Dr. Buzzard's is just the fairest faded bohemia of all. Brilliant: "uppity muggers." A

Debarge: In a Special Way (Gordy '83). When first I fell in love with the austere lilt and falsetto fantasy they've pinned to plastic here, I thought it was just that I'd finally outgrown the high-energy fixation that's always blocked my emotional access to falsetto ballads. So I went back to Spinners and Blue Magic, Philip Bailey and my man Russell Thompkins Jr., and indeed, they all struck a little deeper--but only, I soon realized, because the superior skill of these kids had opened me up. I know of no pop music more shameless in its pursuit of pure beauty--not emotional (much less intellectual) expression, just voices joining for their own sweet sake, with the subtle Latinized rhythms (like the close harmonies themselves) working to soften odd melodic shapes and strengthen the music's weave. High energy doesn't always manifest itself as speed and volume--sometimes it gets winnowed down to its essence. Original Grade: A. A+

Included here partly because I would have outright missed the album without this CG recommendation, partly because it does the demanding job of telling the truth about a crucial work whose appeal cannot be articulated entirely. The five DeBarge siblings were gifted mortals (with an extra helping for Eldra) on a genius roll with In a Special Way. Romance that is both sensuous and gorgeous and then sustained track after track is the most elusive prize in pop. Amazing that this is still the least-known triumphant Motown album. This entry also drove me to one of the rare-for-Boston concerts by the original DeBarge lineup and it turned into the sort of secret-garden party from which soul legends grow. The DeBarge guide to the elusive prize is clear: Be hard on love. Spit on the cheap sentiment. However fleeting, the blessed release will come just the same. Hope some wise ears are there to alert the rest of us when it happens. A+

Honorable Mention: The entire '70s run of Ohio Players entries.

Makes me laff like a bald bitch.

Dud: Black Sabbath (all releases through 1975)

If they are worthless--a proposition I am perfectly willing to entertain--they are worthless in a way Bob Christgau has not identified. He was correct that the Sabs are crypto-Christians, not phony Satanists, and sure Ozzy has bilge for brains, but Osborne's animal-instinct grasp of sullen teenage (un)manhood cut through generations of druggy haze so well that scores of imitators failed to displace him. I tried to sustain the idea these guys were no more than a "dim-witted amoral exploitation" as I resisted them for 15 years, but nowadays they are planted in the landscape like a menhir. Slow tempos, tubby riffs, world's clumsiest connection to the blues--and the Sabs with their Eurogloom are still rock and roll in a way Grand Funk could never imagine. Bob Christgau's dismissal of Black Sabbath was so fervent that, though I no longer believe it, no one's ever defended them in a way that satisfies me. Grade: Incomplete.

Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough, 2002


Simon Frith Tom Hull