Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (21)

A lot of old rockheads (including me, sometimes) confuse the idea of progress in art with the idea of change. In my glum conservative moments, I often wonder why they can't just make music like, oh, some minor genre examples, Carl Perkins and the Marvelettes and the Hollies and Chuck Jackson. This isn't just nostalgia, either--I'm relatively content to be going on 30, getting older and losing my hair not many years from now but now. No, it's deeper than that, a matter of conscious aesthetic preference. The examples I just cited all embodied certain virtues. Their music was compact and pleasingly structured. It was simple and accessible. It simultaneously demanded attention and survived inattention. It revitalized old musical and lyrical clichés rather than trafficking in ideas just obscure enough to escape identification as new clichés. Above all, it was unpretentious.

That last is crucial and I don't see how it can continue in the near future. Just about any music made by longhairs is pretentious, because long hair is pretentious. With a few exceptions, everyone who identifies with the so-called youth movement believes himself to be of some special value in the great flow of events, and the growing reaction against that new fatuosity is (speaking aesthetically) only pretentious on a new level of sophistication. That's one reason I like a group like Three Dog Night, which cheerfully exploits young people's self-importance while sticking to the old aesthetic--the idea is so empty that I have more confidence in its exploiters than in its true believers. (Chicago, on the other hand, inflates both a bad idea and its music at the same time.) To a lesser extent, a similar self-consciousness has overtaken black music, and is even beginning to show up in country music, although there it often has a certain charming "Yakety Yak" as incipient youth rebellion quality.

So repeating the old music is culturally impossible, as groups which try it prove often enough. Most group revivals (see the Ms below) fail because inspiration has been lost. The old ideas just don't occasion exciting music any more, and exciting music is still what it's all about. That continues to appear in spite of the difficulties, and it transcends everything. If all of Marvin Gaye's drawnout new stuff was as good as "Inner City Blues," I'd be glad to withdraw my reservations. And if there's a bunch of longhaired middle class adolescents out there who can make me believe that the Summer of Love was more than a silly dream, more power to them. Not this time, though.


BLACK SABBATH: Master of Reality (Warner Bros.) As a spearhead of the Grand Funk Railroad revival--in case you missed the switch, the new Rock Critic position on GFR is that it's a 1971 good old-fashioned rock and roll band, although I don't know anyone, myself included, who actually plays the records--I feel entitled to put this down. Grand Funk is like an American white blues band of three years ago--dull Black Sabbath is English--dull and decadent. I don't care how many rebels and incipient groovers are buying. I don't even care if the band members believe in their own Christian/satanist/liberal muck. This is a dimwitted, amoral exploitation. D [Later: C-]

CHICAGO: Chicago at Carnegie Hall (Columbia) I'm not claiming actually to have listened to this four-record set--you think I'm a nut?--but the event is too overwhelming to ignore altogether, and Chicago is a C-minus group if ever I heard one. C MINUS [Later]

JOHN ENTWISTLE: Smash Your Head Against the Wall (Decca) Entwistle is an important source of the fucked-up Calvinism that has always added that peculiar note of constraint to the Who's vision, and if you dig that, you'll dig this. Just remember where Townshend turned up when he wanted a song about Uncle Ernie. B PLUS [Later: B]

FIRESIGN THEATRE: I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus (Columbia) This is everything you would expect from the Firesign Theatre except funny, which is something like saying the Stones had a great session only Bill and Charlie stayed home. B MINUS

MARVIN GAYE: What's Going On (Tamla) Works of genius that are pure schlock are the standard anomaly of rock and roll, but my stated weakness is for lowbrow schlock, which this ain't, or should I say isn't? B [Later: B+]

AL GREEN: Al Green Gets Next to You (Hi) My choice for soul record of the year. With Bill Black performing the Booker T. function, Hi of Memphis seems to be a pocket of naivete (or reaction) (or tradition) on the confused black music scene. Green is a smooth Otis or maybe an assertive Smokey, and if you liked his single ("Tired of Being Alone") you'll like this too. A [Later]

TOM T. HALL: In Search of a Song (Mercury) This is the fifth album from a Nashville-based songwriter who cuts arty pontificators like Kris and Mickey to shreds. Hall is arty, too, in his way--the title is representative of his style of self-consciousness--but his writing and vocal style are direct and unpretentious to a way that can't be faked or even imitated. He has a few things to say, he says them, and that's it. The dull sentimentality that is the downfall of so much country music has flawed his previous albums, but this is bright throughout. Jerry Kennedy's production complements perfectly. A MINUS [Later: A]

JO MAMA: J Is for Jump (Atlantic) A weird one. I hate this band's stance--it's one of those outfits that's ready and willing to shove its idea of "good music" down the audience's collective throat--and I don't think many people would like this record, but I do, a lot. Danny Kootch's songs are wry, just the way I like 'em, and even the phony cocktail jazz song framed by pseudo-Chick Corea piano excavations sounds good. The record exudes a subtle sexuality that's hardly original with vocalist Gale Harness--it goes back to June Christie, at least--but it still turns me on. Recommended, but only to those whose sensibilities are very like my own, and with the added warning that it doesn't jump much. B PLUS [Later]

JOY OF COOKING: Closer to the Ground (Capitol) Joy of Cooking's first record is one of my favorites not just of the year but of all time. I play it continually, even now--it's so intelligent and lively and adult, and it continues to communicate spontaneity even after hundreds of listenings. This is intelligent and lively and adult, too, but there's something too cerebral about it. The arrangements are too tight, and don't convey the Joy of Cooking flow--the comparison that comes to mind is between Fresh Cream and Disraeli Gears. In addition, several of the songs--notably "New Colorado Blues"--fall on the wrong side middlebrow. But I would buy it just for "Humpty Dumpty" anyway. B PLUS [Later]

THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS: People Like Us (Dunhill) It's not just that we've changed--so have they. The songs are nowhere near as good as those on John Phillips's solo lp and the overall effort is startlingly sappy. C MINUS [Later]

MOBY GRAPE: 20 Granite Creek (Reprise) Yeah, I used to love them, too, but that was before the days of drabness and kotos. B MINUS [Later: B+]

VAN MORRISON: Tupelo Honey (Warner Bros.) Morrison seems to be turning into some machine, but what a machine--you haven't heard do many hook lines on one record since The Shirelles' Greatest Hits. Not especially substantial, but super bouncy. A MINUS [Later]

RICK NELSON AND THE STONE CANYON BAND: Rudy the Fifth (Decca) It's reassuring to learn there are constants in this changing world. A dozen years ago, Nelson was a better than average fake, and he's still a better-than-average fake. This is a pleasant record and I would go see him in a club in Denver any time--country-rock at least as good as, shall we say, Poco. B MINUS

JOHN PRINE (Atlantic) Ultimately humdrum. Prine is touted as the next great singer-songwriter, and since he has a brain he would certainly be a welcome replacement for Cat Stevens. But that someone who transcends the usual let's-get-together vacuities with a certain verbal knack and some minimal cross-generational compassion can generate such eager speculation only proves how empty the new folk scene really is. Just by demonstrating his rather kitschy ambitions Prine sets up expectations he can't fulfill, because both his facility and his vision are limited--he has nowhere near as much to convey as the few good arty types (Joni Mitchell, for instance) and foresakes the charm of a more natural talent like Tom T. Hall. The only compelling song here is "Pretty Good," and it's compelling because Arif Mardin has supplied it with one good rock guitar riff. B [Later: A]

RIO GRANDE (RCA Victor) This is a perfectly competent-plus mod-country band which has gone virtually unacknowledged in print, led by a Texas music man named Ronny Weiss whose name you might file. B

SMOKEY ROBINSON & THE MIRACLES: One Dozen Roses (Tamla) Because I only recently got on Motown's list, I'm not familiar with too many of Smokey's 20 or so albums, though I did buy last year's What Love Has Joined Together, which I found unnecessarily ambitious. In any case, this one is a joy and Smokey freaks tell me it's no better than most of the others. It's thin, occasionally--the Motown weakness--but at least half the cuts are typically first-rate, sweet and smooth and tinged with pain. A MINUS [Later: B+]

SIR DOUGLAS QUINTET: The Return of Doug Saldana (Phillips) Sir Doug's albums are every one of them good '50s based rock, dominated by Doug Sahm's wonderful vocal style, and there hasn't been a song I remember on any of them since Mendocino. This one is a little more distinctive, although the haunting "Stoned Faces Don't Lie" doesn't quite hold up to close listening. B PLUS [Later: A-]

THREE DOG NIGHT: Harmony (Dunhill) Next to Grand Funk, they're the country's top touring act, and they sell singles in the multiple millions besides. They're slick as Wesson Oil. And when they choose the right material and go light on the minstrel-show theatrics, they're great--next to "Maggie May," "Joy to the World" is the most durable single of the year. I think this album is their best, and even if you're hostile, you'll have to concede that any group that can string together great-but-obscure songs from Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, and Moby Grape without inspiring a rush back to the originals has something going for it. Wish they'd stop the poetry reading, though. A [Later: B+]

HOWLIN' WOLF: The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions (Chess) These recordings with Clapton-Winwood-Wyman-Waits live up to their instrumental reputation, but Wolf's voice doesn't threaten to shatter your bones the way it once did. A MINUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

ABC has just released a collection of 36 songs called A 25th Anniversary in Show Business Salute to Ray Charles: His All-Time Great Performances. It is definitive, including 18 of his great recordings from Atlantic, and 18 from his more baroque ABC period. Anyone who owns no Ray Charles should put this number one on the buy list. If you're already invested in one of the many Atlantic compilations, check out the titles on the cover and think about it, anyway. . . .

RCA has put together an lp called Spike Jones Is Murdering the Classics, for its Red Seal classical line, of course. Jones, who died in 1965, may not really be classical, but he is a classic, in a mainstream of American slapstick. Forget P.D.Q. Bach and remember what Little Bessie said: "I can't take the way he sings but I love to hear him talk." . . .

RCA has also come up with an all-time dummo package on a group called Swampwater: an Ivy Duopak (some Unipak imitation) with the front flap divided into three vertical sections, almost guaranteed to tear the first time you pull it out of the shelf. . . .

Yet and on the other hand, RCA has also come up with a great package, this one for its Vintage series of blues and early jazz. The old Victor label is revived, authoritative liner notes are included, and even the inner sleeve is classy-looking. So far I've listened to Arthur Crudup, Elvis's inspiration, who impresses me as never before, and to the fabled Washboard Sam, deservedly the most popular black recording artist of the late '30s. . . .

There is yet another J.H.C. Superstar package, this one dubbed, hmm, Truth of Truths. Sounds like it was composed by Enoch Light, but with one winner touch: God is played by Mr. Magoo himself, Jim Backus.

Village Voice, Dec. 12, 1971


Oct. 14, 1971 Dec. 30, 1971