Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (22)

Periodically, I try to keep my followers abreast of my prejudices, as if they didn't know them already. My newest discovery, or fancy rationalization, has to do with singer-songwriters. When I was a lad in Queens my relationship with rock an droll was troubled briefly by an infatuation with folk music. Not very heavy--the Weavers, Josh White, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, a neat little singalong instead of the college players' musical at a homecoming weekend--and it didn't last. By the time of Joan Baez, I was into jazz, and the only acoustic singer-songwriter who turned me on at all was Bob Dylan--honest, him I liked. Out of college and back to some decent radio in 1962 and it was the path of righteousness once again. By this time I regarded folk music as a sentimental abomination--my reaction to folkie self-righteousness was one reason I didn't think politically until Vietnam made it unavoidable. Then Dylan and the Byrds, not to mention the Beatles, seemed to lay them all to rest. Everyone was full of pop fun and populist youth politics, and when the singer-songwriters began to proliferate again I was tolerant. A nice, quiet change, I thought and didn't take them seriously. What a fool I was.

I don't dislike all singer-songwriters, but I sure find most of them hard to take, and I think that as prejudices go this is a just one. Most rock lyrics work because of the way they complement the music--that is, the aesthetic charge of a good rock lyric inheres at least partly in the juxtapositions of verbal intelligence and chaotic body music. Even the few lyricists who have the wit, depth, and breath to write words that are interesting in themselves are usually careful to vary their music with more than an occasional piano solo and change of tempo. The only major exceptions that occur to me are Leonard Cohen (whose monotonous tone is an ironic play) and Joni Mitchell (who because she is recording the relatively uncharted regions of female reality has something extra going for her), although I do have some idiosyncratic favorites among the quiet ones--Alice Stuart and Al Stewart come to mind. In short, most of the new folkies just don't engage me musically, because I am engaged by body music. Melody schmelody--nobody can make up that many good ones. When I want words, I read.

But there's an extra dimension: class. Many of the new folkies, like the old, are in this for status. They want to raise themselves above the crass, grimy reality that rock an droll--with its harsh noise, its freaking greasers, its explicit sexuality--continues to embody. Mark Farner's father is a tradesman in Flint, and his two much-maligned partners come from assembly-line families. Carly Simon comes from Simon & Schuster. I don't feel much identification with Grand Funk Railroad, even though my political friends tell me I should, but I sure the fuck want something better in my life than Park Avenue or a Woodstock retreat. And that's why I still love rock and roll.


DAVID BOWIE: Hunky Dory (RCA Victor) A singer-composer with brains, imagination, and a good idea of how to use a recording console comes up with a quick change tour de force that is both catchy and deeply felt. A MINUS [Later]

COMMANDER CODY AND HIS LOST PLANET AIRMEN: Lost in the Ozone (Paramount) A lot of people I love love this group, but despite my taste for weird country music I don't get it. Maybe you have to see them live. B MINUS [Later: B]

DETROIT (Paramount) Mitch Ryder's new group--comprising one Detroit Wheel, two Catfish, and three other guys--emerges as the tightest and hardest new rock band of the year, with arrangements that pile on the good ideas instead of stretching them out. As always, Ryder's voice gives away timbre and definition for power and emotion, which may not be entirely appropriate to his new approach, but on the whole this is an exciting surprise. A MINUS [Later: B+]

THE DOORS: Other Voices (Elektra) This record has some terrific moments--the first hook riff is a grabber--and the musicians deserve their reputations, but even a good singer couldn't do much with a line like "To wander is my affection," and this band could use a good singer. C PLUS [Later]

JONATHAN EDWARDS (Capricorn) A better-than-average--which is to say, moderately entertaining--singer-songwriter with a catchy hit single that means he's doing something right. Vocally, Steve Stills without the prophetic overtones; instrumentally, the usual cooled-out shit. B [Later: C]

FACES: A Nod Is as Good as a Wink . . . to a Blind Horse (Warner Bros.) Rod Stewart fans should be warned that their man only sings lead half the time here, and then assured that Ronnie Lane is a beauty--in fact, his "You're So Rude" is my favorite cut on this album. Humor, detail, energy, warmth. Rock and roll. A [Later: A-]

GRAND FUNK RAILROAD: E Pluribus Funk (Capitol) The usual competent loud rock with the usual problems--melodramatic vocalizations and lack of detail. B MINUS [Later: C]

CAROLE KING: Music (Ode) Initially this record sounds like a remake of Tapestry, so similar that there's little temptation to play it again. Then you notice the subtle variations and the great back-up, especially from guitarists Danny Kootch and James Taylor and saxophonist Curtis Amy, and begin to hum tunes like "Song of Long Ago." Then you realize that it's really just a remake of Tapestry. I love Carole King, but her value is as limited as it is intense, and her lyrics are humdrum even when she doesn't write them. Unless you like everything she does ("Writer," say) don't mess with this. Your friends will buy it anyway. B [Later: C+]

JIM KWESKIN: Richard D. Herbruck Presents Jim Kweskin's America (Reprise) I approve of any revitalization of the American democratic tradition, but Kweskin seems to have given up his old good-timey life, and the main thing this record communicates is decrepitude. If you doubt me, listen to the last three cuts. D PLUS [Later: B-]

NILS LOFGREN AND GRIN: 1 Plus 1 (Spindizzy) This is what Paul McCartney might be like if Paul were a wunderkind: the same combination of romantic balladeer and raucous rocker, only wondrously innocent instead of self-consciously cloying. Lofgren has a lot to learn about love and life and such, but observing the process will be a pleasure. A MINUS [Later: A]

DON MCLEAN: American Pie (United Artists) The title cut is the great novelty that may be about the death of rock and roll. On the other hand, it may be about its refusal to die. The other songs here indicate that McLean believes the former, but since they also indicate that he didn't compose "American Pie"--he just took dictation from the shade of Buddy Holly--you might as well judge for yourself. I judge the lp to be exceptionally artsy. McLean is a cautious and precious singer, and he has even written a song about how nobody understood Van Gogh, if you can believe that. Novelty-lovers should buy the single. D PLUS [Later: C-]

MELANIE: Gather Me (Neighborhood) I have always liked the idea of Melanie--Edith Piaf as Brooklyn waif--but often found the reality mawkish. Now she has grown up just enough. "A Brand New Key" is one of those impossible delights that renew my faith in AM radio, "Steppin'" is the best broken-affair song since "It's Too Late," and except when they religiositize the less exceptional songs are entertaining at least. B PLUS [Later]

HARRY NILSSON: Nilsson Schmilsson (RCA Victor) You probably know by now whether you dig Nilsson's whimsy and vocal pyrotechnics. If so, the two-and-a-half years since his last real lp (Harry) have been worth it--this is his best, a real demonstration of his studio mastery. If only every artist could learn to mark time until a good record was ready. A MINUS [Later: A]

@ & * 0 (Atlantic) That's not really the name of this mystery group's mystery album, but it's as close as a mere Underwood can get. Vocally, the music is reminiscent of Grand Funk, but the rhythms are sprung and the dynamics are subtle. If Atlantic is really looking for a packaging gimmick, maybe this group should be given its own label. How about Yardbird? Or S & M? B [Later: A]

WILSON PICKETT: Don't Knock My Love (Atlantic) Pickett's variation on the New Pretentiousness in Black Music is to discard the simple soul horn riffs for cluttered imitations of James William Guercio. As an idea, it's better than most, but in practice it's just about unlistenable, and Pickett's spiritless interpretations of inappropriate material ("Mama Told Me Not to Come"?) don't help. His worst. C [Later: C+]

BONNIE RAITT (Warner Bros.) A singer-guitarist (and occasional composer) who renders all the Collins/Baez dramatizations superfluous. Easy, adult interpretations from an eclectic country blues based repertoire, supported by a nice rolling back-up. B PLUS [Later: A-]

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: There's a Riot Goin' On (Epic) Even Sly's admirers concede that his previous lps (except Greatest Hits) are marred by jive cuts, but after dozens of listenings, my enjoyment continually building, I'm convinced this one works as a whole. The precedent that occurs to me is Plastic Ono Band: on both records, subtle production techniques and jarring song compositions reduce immediate pleasure because such pleasure would be inappropriate to the personal crises that underlie them. Sly is obviously having trouble keeping it together--his recent concert appearances have been disappointing--but for once the wait was worth it. A MINUS [Later: A+]

ROSALIE SORRELS: Travelin' Lady (Sire) Though it's reminiscent of many I-gotta-move-babe male precedents, this is the most independent female persona yet to emerge, but that plaintive country quaver begins to wear after a while. B

LAURIE STYVERS: Spilt Milk (Warner Bros.) Normally, I ignore records as rightfully obscure as this, but Laurie Styvers is the kind of person who makes me like junkies--you know, the baby you want to steal candy from, so trite and pretty-poo in her fashionably troubled adolescence that you hope she chokes on her own money. One line says it all: "There just aren't words for the songs of the people who really feel." Then oh shut up, Laurie. E [Later]

GARY WRIGHT: Footprint (A&M) Like his mentor, George O'Hara, Wright seems to both think and produce in that great echo chamber in the sky. Side two is vapid, but side one is very cosmic-commercial, and I wouldn't be surprised if it yielded a memorable single or two. A comer. B [Later]

Additional Consumer News

I would like to announce the first (and maybe last) annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. Any bona fide critic (whatever that means, but don't think I won't weed out the ringers) who wants to send me a 10 best list of albums and a selection of the best musicians, musician of the year, album of the year, song of the year, etc., will be gratefully compiled, and if it's practical I'll try to list individual selections. It would probably be best to follow the old Jazz & Pop formula and divide 100 points among 10 albums, with no album getting more than 30. . . .

Atlantic has come up with yet another reissue series, but this one is special. The first six artists are Chuck Willis, Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, the Drifters, the Clovers, and the Coasters. Whoever decided not to rechannel the mono recordings deserves special thanks--it's about time companies figured out how ruinous that can be. My special discovery in the set is LaVern Baker, and I also like the Turner very much. . . .

I'm not too crazy about the new J. Geils album, but the single, "Looking for a Love," sounds really great on the radio. . . .

In the course of an interview with Guitar Player, an interesting little magazine published at 348 North Santa Cruz Avenue, Los Gatos, California 95030, Jerry Garcia reveals that he has no middle finger on his right hand. The following dialogue ensues. GP: "How did that happen?" Garcia: "When I was a little kid my brother cut it off with an axe. That's why I'm not a piano player. Otherwise I probably would have played the piano." GP: "Has the missing finger affected your approach to playing?" Garcia: "No. It's not a handicap for the guitar, and it's not a handicap for the pedal steel particularly. Although, sometimes it would be handy to have another finger for the steel because of voicings and stuff like that. But I can get around it. It never bothers me, never ever." GP: "Have you ever been asked about the finger in an interview?" Garcia: "No. I've often wondered why nobody's ever asked me about it before."

Village Voice, Dec. 30, 1971


Dec. 12, 1971 Jan. 20, 1972