Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (14)

Those of you who have missed my smiling face on Channel 13 will be relieved to learn that I have left New York of my own volition and am now residing in the fabled San Fernando Valley. Although I miss the lox, Fox locks, and cockroaches of my beloved East Village, there are always compensations--in this case, fresh Chinese vegetables at the local Alpha Beta and the glowing anomie for which the Valley is justly famous. If you're a good American, you can dig on anything, even alienation, and I am nothing if not a good American.

My emigration was not entirely arbitrary, for after several years on the rock critic hustle I have once again taken a real job. I am now a member of the faculty (advanced student, we call it) at the California Institute of the Arts, known to the administration as Cal Arts, to the Xerox underground as CIA, and to cynical local residents as Disney, or Disney Tech. My specialty is listed as Popular Culture. What this means, at least so far, is that I am teaching a course in rock criticism. Right.

The cross-country move has necessitated a lapse of several months in the Consumer Guide. I have elected to limit the Return of Consumer Guide to relatively minor artists so that I can do the big fellas all at once. Even so, the three months have left me with a remarkable stock of good records to rate: 11 B plus or above. This week's hot tip is Johnny Darrell, who has been giving me pleasure for three months. Impress your friends: Darrell is a veteran artist who is unknown outside the country field, yet everyone who hears his record seem to like it. A find.

BLACK SABBATH (Warner Bros.) Bullshit necromancy? Yes, bullshit necromancy. E [Later: C-]

CANYON: High Mountain (Columbia) In the great tradition of the Edison Electric Band, here is a good group almost certainly destined for the cheapo bins. Strong white-soul vocals, memorable melodies, uninspired horn arrangements, and a piano solo from Rachmaninoff that almost justifies itself. B PLUS [Later: B]

MERRY CLAYTON: Gimme Shelter (Ode) There are some good things on this LP--especially the title cut, which she performed originally with the Stones on Let It Bleed--but too often it showcases second-rate material, overproduced and indifferently emoted. C PLUS [Later]

JOHNNY DARRELL: California Stop-Over (United Artists) I have been waiting a long time for this record: 11 previously unrecorded songs interpreted by a top-notch country singer with no writing pretensions of his own. Easily the most successful example of the literate modern-country approach typified by Mickey Newbury. Clarence White contributes some great picking. Especially noteworthy: "Willin'," a road song, and "Freedom in the Yard," which ought to become an anthem for the GI movement. A MINUS [Later: B+]

EXUMA (Mercury) Jive Dr. John? Yes, jive Dr. John. D

THE FIRESIGN THEATRE: Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (Columbia) The Firesign Theatre is a comedy group that uses the recording studio at least as brilliantly as any rock group, and there's really nothing else to say, except that they'd be scary-funny in somebody's living room, too. A PLUS

FLAMIN GROOVIES: Flamingo (Kama Sutra) The work of these sophisticated r&r primitivists has a fairly healthy half-life. I'm not yet tired of the Epic album which preceded this one and despite the superior production values here even prefer it slightly. This one does rock harder. Singer/lyricist Roy A. Loney is full of surprises in both capacities. B PLUS [Later]

FLEETWOOD MAC: Kiln House (Reprise) Despite the departure of Peter Green (who has become an excellent guitarist) this is even better than Then Play On: their blues/rock and roll/modern jazz synthesis is even more varied and original. The instrumentals on side two may bore some of you, and the country-western parody on side one (a clumsily convoluted "Dear Doctor") offends me a little, but these small errors are overbalanced by extraordinary r&r revivals like "This Is the Rock" and "Buddy's Song." A MINUS [Later]

FREE: Fire and Water (A&M) Good noise. B [Later]

GEOFF AND MARIA: Pottery Pie (Reprise) In which the ex-Kweskin Muldaurs continue in the jug-band tradition of fey eclecticism, with predictably unpredictable results: a lot of good electric folky music, some great ideas that don't quite come off, and the best "Chauffeur Blues" you ever heard in your life. B [Later]

ELTON JOHN (Uni) A lot of people out here, and elsewhere, think John (an Englishman) is a future superstar, and they may be right, but I find this overweening and a touch precious. B [Later]

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Devotion (Douglas) McLaughlin seems to derive about equally from Duane Eddy and John Coltrane, which is one way of saying he is a basically free-form electric guitarist, the best there is, going all the places I used to hope Larry Coryell would go. After contributing substantially to the recent recordings of Miles Davis and Tony Williams, he has joined with some interesting sidemen--the great Larry Young on keyboards, the great-this-time-only Buddy Miles on drums--to produce his own variation on the new electric jazz. If you're into that, this is worthwhile and only occasionally tedious; if you're not, "Marbles" or the long title track might be a good place to start. A MINUS [Later: A]

MUNGO JERRY (Janus) The best novelty group since the Coasters, with an album almost as good as the single. More fun than a barrel of monkeys. No kiddin'. B PLUS [Later: B]

FREDA PAYNE: Band of Gold (Invictus) I loved the title cut, too--on the radio--but this is not, as I had hoped, the auspicious debut of a new soul talent. Invictus is the Holland-Dozier-Holland label that represents their breakaway (as producers) from Motown, but this album represents no breakthrough. True, the material is mostly original, but the arrangements aren't, and Payne's emotional range is narrow. C PLUS

LINDA RONSTADT: Silk Purse (Capitol) This imaginative selection of country tunes belted over tasteful rock-flavored arrangements should have resulted in a good record, but I am for the most part unmoved (two brilliant exceptions: "Lovesick Blues" and "Long Long Time") and I think I've finally figured out why: it's forced. There is a touch of honky vulgarity in Ronstadt's strong voice that is reminiscent of Tammy Wynette or Kitty Wells, but the supporting emotion seems to be lacking. Which doesn't mean, by the way, that she isn't great live. B MINUS [Later: B]

JOHN SIMON: John Simon's Album (Warner Bros.) If you can get past Simon's plaintive quaver, which took me three months and at least a dozen plays, this is almost as extraordinary as its reviewers claim. At least two sensibilities involved in the mix: the best pre-WW2 pop (Gershwin, Porter) and post-Pepper studio rock. Highlights: "The Song of the Elves," "Railroad Train Runnin' Up My Back." B PLUS [Later]

CAT STEVENS: Mona Bone Jakon (A&M) Stevens's previous LP (Matthew & Son, on Deram, released three or four years ago) is a rarity: a forgotten record that shouldn't be. Predictably (since it flopped) this one has a nice post-creative trauma feel, intimate and sensitive. Recommended to singer/songwriter specialists. B PLUS [Later: B-]

AL STEWART: Love Chronicles (Epic) A landmark: the first LP to use the word "fuck" ("fucking," actually) at the end of a line, a touch typical of its occasional flaws--the rhyming word, "plucking," is forced--and unrepresentative of its success. The title cut is a decent, serious, and ambitious attempt to deal honestly with sexual growth. For all its male bias, it ought to serve as an example for songwriters who are afraid to start discarding their adolescence. Stewart's approach is folky, but (yes) Jimmy Page plays some incisive lead guitar and the arrangements are excellent. B PLUS [Later]

THE STOOGES: Fun House (Elektra) The Stooges appeal to me intellectually--their monotonousness obviously transcends competence and the introduction of a saxophone on this record represents a nice synthesis with new thing jazz--but I have to be in a certain mood of desperate abandon before I can get on with them musically. Can that be good? B PLUS [Later: A-]

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III (Atlantic) Wainwright possesses what appears to be the most precise and inventive control of language of any young songwriter yet recorded, and his melodies stick with you. He sings and plays with unique authority, and even though this record features only voice and acoustic guitar it is powerful musically. But. The failures of the talented are always painful, and this is very strained. Especially lacking is an emotional maturity consonant with the verbal flair, a sense of kindness and ease. This is an impressive record and I often admire it, but I often dislike it, too. B MINUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

Two of the LPs I've enjoyed playing over the past months are reissues. Mercury's Two Trips, which features one side of early Youngbloods (as good as the first RCA stuff) and one side of select Jesse solos (mannered, but nice if you like him) is as pleasant a country-rock record as has appeared lately. Meanwhile, in one of its endless series of blues reissues, Chess has brought the work of J.B. Lenoir to my attention. The LP, entitled Natural Man, includes a previously unreleased song called "Don't Dog Your Woman" which strikes me as a humane version of "Do Right Woman." Most of these recordings date back to the mid-'50s. The sound is Chicago r&b, and I much prefer it to the more recent acoustic Lenoir recordings which the Polydor/Mayall Crusade label has done.

"Neanderthal Man," by Hot Legs, is the most quintessential single since "Surfin' Bird."

I don't normally go for spoken word recordings, but the Richard Brautigan album on Harmony is very good of its sort and recommended to his fans.

Nota bene: Philip Steinberg, president of Mercury Records, proposed at a recent NARM (National Association of Record Manufacturers) convention that rack jobbers (the distributors who stock big general outlets like discount houses and supermarkets) be put on the European no-return system--in other words, that they be required to pay in full for every record they purchase from the manufacturer, even if they can't sell it to retailers. Understandably, the rack jobbers were a little disturbed at what this might do to their profits, but Steinberg had an equitable solution in mind: the retail price of phonograph records would go up to $5.98. Well, it hasn't happened yet and it isn't about to happen, but be prepared. Record co-ops, anyone? But what good would that do?

Village Voice, Nov. 19, 1970

July 30, 1970 Jan. 7, 1971