Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

It's the time of year when I start going back over marginalia looking for A records, often to no avail--you'll notice that the only "surprises" are in African music (where I try to limit myself, by the way, to newish releases that can be purchased in the States). The Morells, John Anderson, and Music Youth all came close, though, and you can be sure to encounter more relatively obscure genre artists next month about the time the 1982 Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll is due.


JOHN ANDERSON: Wild and Blue (Warner Bros.) Anderson is Ricky Skaggs without Jesus--his voice lowdown rather than angelic, his roots in the honky tonks rather than the mountains, his album wild and blue, a sexier way to say (and sing) highways and heartaches. But his gift for ballads is still a little soft, which means he comes up a touch short on the ones you know and can't quite turn filler into the staff of life. B PLUS

BAD RELIGION: How Could Hell Be Any Worse? (Epitaph) Greg Graffin's vocals fall into a naturally musical off-key drone that make him sound at times like a mullah in mourning, which is appropriate--he's not as arrogant about his nihilism as most hardcore kids. On the other hand, he's not as funny about it as the best ones, either. B

BUS BOYS: American Worker (Arista) At first I was no more impressed by this professional black arena-rock than I am by, say, professional lesbian folk-rock. Less, actually--bombast is annoying. But in the end I was disarmed by the audacity, esprit, and sheer versatility--not many arena-rockers are comfortable simulating funk, reggae, and surf music--and won over by the songs themselves, every one informed by the kind of middle-American compassion you might expect from a black band with enough soul to hope to touch the arena-rock masses. B PLUS

MARSHALL CHAPMAN: Take It On Home (Rounder) Having failed to connect as a rip-roaring rock-and-roller, she now fails to connect as a Nashville gal. Except on two cuts, that is--"Bizzy Bizzy Bizzy" and "Booze in Your Blood," both of which sound pissed off. Hear me, Marshall? I said pissed off. C PLUS

CLIFTON CHENIER: I'm Here! (Alligator) Especially in a rhythmically conservative style like zydeco, it's rare that a band can carry an album, but that's the story here. First record I've ever heard hot enough to convince me that all those wild tales about the accordion man weren't so much pepper sauce. Just too bad it happened after he began to lose his strength. B

DEVO: Oh, No! It's Devo (Warner Bros.) Because their secret contempt for their cult receded once the cult gathered mass, moral impassivity that once seemed like a misanthropic copout (or worse) now has the feel of Brechtian strategy. They've never sounded wimpier, but they've never sounded catchier either, and with this band wimpiness has a comic purpose. "Time Out for Fun" is recommended as both text and music to leisure theorists who reject electropop as a matter of humanistic principle. A MINUS [Later: B+]

DIRE STRAITS: Love Over Gold (Warner Bros.) I admit that Mark Knopfler is a classy enough guitarist and producer to entice me into his nostalgic obsessions: at its best "Telegraph Road" sounds like supernal Mark-Almond, and the cheesy organ on "Industrial Disease" betrays a sense of humor. But the portentous arrangements on the other three cuts (right, that makes five, mean length 8:24) suggest nothing so much as ELP with blues roots. And Knopfler's sarcastic impression of a Harley Street M.D. on the very same "Industrial Disease" leaves no doubt that even his sense of humor is pompous. C PLUS

EDI FITZROY: Youthman Penitentiary (Alligator) "With the Roots Radics Band," announces a subtitle, and that's the usual good sign. "Featuring his three 1982 top 10 Jamaican hits!" crows a sticker, and I wish I were sure that the third one (after the title track and "First Class Citizen," which gives itself away with a dub) were "Dread Locks Party" and its borrowed sax, not "African Queen" and its stolen Sedaka. "The only new vocal star to emerge this year," inform the notes, and I hope 1983's has more than one trick in his or her gullet. B

JONI MITCHELL: Wild Things Run Fast (Geffen) This is good Joni, for the first time since the mid-'70s, and I suspect it comes too late, because good Joni simply means old Joni, and old Joni is better. I mean, if she'd put "Solid Love" at the very end I still wouldn't believe her, but at least I'd think she'd learned something. Instead she proves her maturity with a climactic hymn to St. Paul's kind of love which is much the worst of the three covers--because to be honest the Al Hibbler and Elvis Presley songs are what kept me listening. B

THE MORELLS: Shake and Push (Borrowed) These four permanent residents of Springfield, Missouri, and environs unearth minor classics Dave Edmunds would give his doctorate for. New rockabilly doesn't come any more authentic or less purist than "Eager Boy" (he wants to be a senator) or "Ugly and Slouchy" (she won't cheat) or their own "Red's" (eats). But Rockpile, the Blasters, even the Stray Cats fire their roots into the future with an edgy intensity that's missing from the performances and recording here, which makes the difference on a record that might have been a minor classic itself. B PLUS

MUSICAL YOUTH: The Youth of Today (MCA) The miraculous "Pass the Dutchie" was originally a fine Mighty Diamonds song called "Pass the Koochie," so even though the arrangement is pure genius and the switch from ganja (a koochie is a pipe) to food (a dutchie is a cookpot) pure social responsibility, they've yet to write their first hit. And with reggae bands, not to mention kid bands (even English bands), one-shots are an old story. So I regret to report that the album evinces neither pop songcraft nor the signature groove with which seasoned reggae artists compensate. And am surprised to add that between young Kelvin's biddle-biddle toasts and the reggae songcraft they do command--check out "Youth of Today" and "Young Generation"--they almost get by and then some. B PLUS [Later: B]

THE NAIROBI SOUND (Original Music) It's not "primitivism" or "simplicity" that makes African pop so exciting--it's the doubly complex interaction of two sophisticated demotic languages, polyrhythm and technomedia, each with its own style of self-consciousness. Unlike his Africa Dances, however, this John Storm Roberts anthology has a folkloric feel. Very local in origin and outreach and not really intended for dancing, these Kenyan tunes, especially those in the acoustic (and rural) "dry guitar" style, have enormous charm and not much impact, except for those always special moments of inspiration that propel folk music out into the great world--like the soprano duo "Chemirocha," which technomedia fans will be pleased to learn is a tribute to Jimmie Rodgers. B PLUS

RANDY NEWMAN: Trouble in Paradise (Warner Bros.) The reason 1979's Born Again took three years to sink in for me was that Newman never pinned down the distance between himself and the creeps he wrote his first-person songs about. Because he's gained control as a singer, his oafish drawl here turns into a unifying voice, and the accompaniments are as eloquently integral as the American-colloquial pastiche of his Ragtime soundtrack. So this time the baffled racist of "Christmas in Capetown" and the happy-go-lucky Disney hero of "I'm Different" and the sentimental pimp of "Same Girl" and the mournfully manipulative patriot of "Song for the Dead" and the unflappably egoistic rock star of the outrageous "My Life Is Good" all seem to be the same guy. And while that guy isn't Newman, Newman does go out of his way to understand his point of view. A MINUS

ORCHESTRA MAKASSY: Agwaya (Virgin import) Four sweet male vocalists dominate this clear, buoyant fifteen-man group from Tanzania, who like all Tanzanian musicians have to travel to Kenya to record their pioneering East African variation on ur-Cuban Congolese styles. Salsa-shaped (a mere three drums) and calypso-inflected, their song forms will relieve or perplex listeners whose contact with Afropop begins and ends with Sunny Ade--they're much simpler. Those who find Ade too damn pleasant will be relieved to learn that Makassy occasionally cut the lovely flow with soulful grit in a lead vocal or sax solo. Me, I love them because they're lovely. A MINUS

THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS: Forever Now (Columbia) It's not band breakdown (Duncan Kilburn's sax replaced, John Ashton's guitar gone) nor pop sellout (Todd Rundgren in for Steve Lillywhite at the board) nor tired songcraft (hookier than the junk-punk debut if more ornate than the powerhouse follow-up) that makes this quite entertaining album less than credible. It's the half-life of cynicism as a public stance. Last time Richard Butler's surprising new emotionality made for a winning world-weariness, but this time it sounds just slightly pat, more or less what you'd expect from a quite likable phony. A MINUS

RANK AND FILE: Sundown (Slash) As rock concepts go these days, the idea of making like the fourth-best bar band in Wichita Falls is plenty warm-blooded, so that even though I disapprove in theory of the loud, klutzy dynamics of this ex-punk country-rock, its zeal wins me over every time. Helps that they leave "Wabash Cannonball" etc. off the album and explain their excellent motives in their own words, fleshed out with a few of the guitar licks they found lying around that bar. A MINUS

SOUND D'AFRIQUE II: SOUKOUS (Mango) Despite a misleadingly tribal (though hardly unpop) lead cut from Mali, Mango's second French African compilation avoids the eclectic distractions of the first by concentrating on the Congolese dance style that dominates the continent's music if anything does. Hard, salsified stuff with vocals that twist and shout, recommended to unreconstructable urbanists. A MINUS [Later]

SOWETO (Rough Trade import) It's fair to assume that these fourteen crude, tuneful little singles, released six or seven years ago out of a Johannesburg record shop and featuring a writer-producer named Wilbur Dlamini and a backing band of Jo'burg Zulus called the Bamalangabis, are typical of nothing. They're apolitical except by their sheer existence, mostly small-group instrumental, with guitar, sax, and organ leads. Not too clearly recorded, either. And they're delightful. It's possible Dlamini is a lost genius. It's also possible that when I've heard more music from South Africa's hellish black urban work zones I'll find him minor or derivative. But what's certain is that a lot of very talented people are getting lost in black South Africa. Ain't capitalism grand? A MINUS

TELEVISION: The Blow Up (ROIR cassette) John Piccarella and I annotated this eighty-five-minute tape because guitar heroes like Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd deserve a heroic live album. You get three new cover versions, too. But as with so many ROIR cassettes (and nonchromium tapes in general), audio makes the difference between a laudable document and living history. That the sound could have been brighter is more than clear on Arrow, the bootleg disc where I first encountered the finest of these performances, still available at Rock's in Your Head. You pays your money--the tape is 35 minutes longer for the same bucks--and so forth. B PLUS [Later]

THE WHO: It's Hard (Warner Bros.) Tommy's operatic pretensions were so transparent that for years it seemed safe to guess that Townshend's musical ideas would never catch up with his lyrics. And it fact they didn't--both became more prolix at about the same rate. This isn't so grotesque as All the Blind Chinamen Have Western Eyes, but between the synths and the book-club poetry it's the nearest thing to classic awful English art-rock since Genesis discovered funk. Best tune: "Eminence Front," on which Townshend discovers funk. Just in time. Bye. C

Additional Consumer News

Suddenly I'm feeling overwhelmed by singles again, and not just because I'm catching up. The last three months of 1982 were definitely a hot time. . . .

Tops is definitely Musical Youth's "Pass the Dutchie" (MCA), which I bought after one hearing in England last October, which between BLS and MTV may actually break Stateside, and which David Johansen, bless him, is already covering. Album's fine too (see above), but a record as bright as this (or "Sexual Healing") (or "I Want You Back") is what I call a single. My other raves are B sides: both the Pretenders' "My City Was Gone" (Sire), a piece of radical patriotism that's an even more telling vehicle for Billy Bremner's rhythm-comp riffs than "Back on the Chain Gang," and Prine's "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" (Warner Bros.), a spare gospelish vocal workout designed to shut up the fools who accuse him of soullessness, will be in my top 20. Devo's "Find Out" (b/w "Peak-n-Boo") (Warner Bros.) si non-LP advice that's worth a listen. I also prefer the B of Dangerous Birds' two-sided "Alpha Romeo"/"Smile on Your Face" (Propeller), certainly the U.S. indie single of the year with its mix of strums, funks, and avant harmonies. (White) New York indie of the year is also two-sided and probably a fluke: the Stripesearch's "Hey Kid" is pissed-off, undeniable tenement punk of the sort that rarely comes off any more, and it's b/w "Who Shot Sadat?" by Emily XYZ, a daughter-of-Patti poetry reader whose beat, boosted by just the right sheet metal percussion, reminds me more of Anne Waldman (Vinyl Repellant). Flipper's "Get Away"/"The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly!" (Subterranean) is power-drone black-comic bohemian-realist paranoia-common sense that would probably gather even more momentum as an album, b/w one of the great p.d. covers of all time, and even nonbuyers should check out the sleeve, on which the old lady works on the cat while the dog, the minister, and the rhinoceros wait their turn. I also admire Robert Wyatt's version of Elvis Costello's "Shipbuilding" (Rough Trade import), a typically oblique and chilling take on the Falklands adventure: the 12-inch mix of Altered Images' "I Could Be Happy" (Epic/Virgin), all of Clare Whatzername that history will ever need; Soft Cell's "Where the Heart Is"/"It's a Mugs Game" (Phonogram/Some Bizarre import), the A a sob story about why kids can't stay home and the B a laff riot about what happens to them when they go out; and Billy Idol's "White Wedding" (Chrysalis), a 12-inch worth buying only at seven-inch prices, especially as Billy now allows as how it's sarcasm rather than best wishes. . . .

The Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men" (Columbia 12-inch) si proving unusually controversial for a dance novelty (three minus votes in the Pazz & Jop Product Report are the tip of the iceberg). It's the ultimate gay disco song, in which four hefty-voiced black women are set loose on what is much more a gay than a women's fantasy, and I love it--for its humor and for its uncompromising extravagance, from lyric to singing to orchestration to arrangement to beat. Another lovable novelty is Captain Sensible's "Wot" (A&M import 12-inch), a/k/a Son of the Damned Meta Great-Grandson of Another One Bites Good Times, if the video doesn't convert you you're cathode immune, and the B is Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Happy Talk," which went number one you know where. Melle Mel & Duke Bootee's "Message II Survival" (Sugarhill 12-inch) obviously isn't the equal of the record of the year but it's a brave and worthy follow-up lowering the tempo into a rhythmic, ominous synth texture you'll want to hear again. The Treacherous Three's "Yes We Can-Can" (Sugarhill 12-inch) brings the South Bronx (and Englewood) to the Crescent City, funking with Lee Dorsey's lassitude and Allen Toussaint's positivity, with the B-side instrumental the finest ur-Meters record in years. The Cold Crew's "Rappin' Christmas" (Profile 12-inch) begins by announcing that "Santa Claus is a black man," then mugs him and goes on from there. Also recommended are Indeep's no-kitchen-sink-but "Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life" (Becket 12-inch), in which the percussion includes a flushing toilet, and I Level's "Give Me" (Virgin/Epic), the best plea to a virgin since "Tonight's the Night." . . .

Three African 12-inches are also on my turntable (well actually I've hometaped them 'cause cassettes are easier than big 45s on my system, but what the hell, they're all imports anyway): Orchestre Jazira's "Love"/"Devedi" (Earth Works), midway between the gentleness of juju and the brass of soukous; Kabala's "Voltan Dance"/"Ashewo Ara" (Red Flame), bass-heavy and getting disco play; and (an indulgence) the slightly shortened, remixed version of Sunny Ade's "Ja Funmi" (Island). . . .

Joe Piscopo's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll (Medley)" (Columbia), in which a Hoboken old waver modernizes, in an even funnier parody than Bruce Springstone's Live at Bedrock (Clean Cuts). Springstone's "(Meet the Flintstones" and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," while good for a few chuckles, don't live up to the promise of his tape-spinning introductory rap about Fred and Wilma. On the Piscopo record almost everything--intonation, ad libs, arrangements--might make you laugh, including the three-in-the-morning rendition of "Born to Run," by his good friend Bruce Springstine. My only cavil is that CBS is pushing a 12-inch; the seven-inch is more cost-effective, though you'll miss out on "I Know What Boys Like" and (perfect) "Life During Wartime."

Village Voice, Jan. 25, 1983


Dec. 28, 1982 Mar. 1, 1983