Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

I know I promised Hüsker Dü and the Replacements this time, but one of them I didn't like enough and the other I began liking a whole lot, so I decided to give both another month. Instead, Consumer Guide celebrates a red, green, and gold Christmas--after a long drought there's been lots of noteworthy reggae in the mail, with more soon coming.


A-HA: Hunting High and Low (Warner Bros.) Quite aware that I don't qualify as a pubescent female, I tried to be understanding. It's not their fault they're blond, after all--they're Norwegian. But though they'd clearly have been better off raised closer to the blues--in Wales, say--the gutturals of fellow Scandinavians from Gasolin' to the Nomads suggest that their precious Yes-gone-Europop accents are chosen freely. Over music they probably exerted less control. C MINUS

ARTISTS UNITED AGAINST APARTHEID: Sun City (Manhattan) Each side closes with a well-meaning failure: "Revolutionary Situation"'s collage of indistinct South African voices over Keith LeBlanc humdrum is an object lesson in political correctness that might have made a collectible B, and Bono's country blues is simply ignorant. And now, with my sorehead credentials in order, I'll add that Gil Scott-Heron's superrap is as astute and moving rhythmically as it is ideologically and that Peter Gabriel's largely instrumental "No More Apartheid" is a worthy successor to "Biko." What's more, each side begins with the title tune, which can grow on you in a big way, although I don't think its failure to break pop is cause for special indignation--had the programmers cooperated, it would have been a case of politics (and hype) overcoming musical taste as much as the opposite. So it goes. As a cultural materialist, I admire Little Steven's strategy anyway--with his medium-saturation outreach, he's preaching to potential faithful, which is always the idea. Sometimes raising consciousness does as much good as raising money. Which can be forwarded to the Africa Fund, 198 Broadway, NYC 10038. A MINUS

THE FALL: This Nation's Saving Grace (Beggars Banquet) If the sentimental fallacy of good American rock and roll is roots, the sentimental fallacy of good British rock and roll is amateurism. Not that these veterans distinguished themselves from themselves before Yank guitarist Brix E. Smith righted husband Mark E.'s feckless avant-gardishness. Still, what they've arrived at now is cunningly sloppy, minimally catchy Hawkwind/Stooges with each three-chord drone long enough to make an avant-gardish statement but stopping short of actual boredom. And yeah, it beats roots by me. B PLUS

GOD AND THE STATE: Ruins: The Complete Works of God and the State (Happy Squid) They played a typical minimalist grunge-funk in L.A. in 1983. The guitarist now studies philosophy in Toronto, the bassist architecture in Italy; the drummer has sold his kit. And on the cover they're considerate enough to provide their own review: "The record was produced in ten hours, for $200 (US). There are a lot of jokes in the songs; but some listeners don't think they're funny, and others don't even think they're jokes, rather symptoms of spiritual decay. There is an intended message of hope, of finding power in yourself against domination and power's corruption; but some find the songs cynical and as glib as the clever people they occasionally denounce." B PLUS

THE GOLDEN PALOMINOS: Visions of Excess (Celluloid) As formal experiments go, this packs quite a wallop, and not just because a drummer supervised the mix--Anton Fier clearly loves and understands that much-mocked arena-rock megawattage. But a formal experiment it remains, because neither guitars not voices carry meaning of their own. Jody Harris has always had a weakness for the genre exercise (as has Mike Hampton, for that matter), and the five stellar singer-lyricists sound like they were brought in to finish the tracks. Even in arena-rock that's not how it's done. B PLUS

HOOTERS: Nervous Night (Columbia) Just when you thought there was no more AOR, this overwrought Philadelphia-brand hookarama goes gold on MTV--Love cover, revolutionary propaganda, and all. And about that blond--he may be Finnish (-American), but I bet he dyes his hair. C PLUS

GREGORY ISAACS: Private Beach Party (RAS) After sinking into ever more unctuous hits-plus-filler formula for most of the decade, JA's love king hied to producer Gussie Clarke, who put contract songwriter Carleton Hines on the case. Despite some icky moments, notably a duet about feeling irie, the move is for the good: there's a light touch to this music--Isaacs whispering and murmuring around diffident horn-section filigrees--that I'd call sexy. Maybe even irie, who knows. B PLUS

L.L. COOL J: Radio (Def Jam) Rick Rubin's thwonging minimalism and Cool J's proud polysyllables are fresh, def, and so forth. From the daring little piano hook of "I Can Give You More" to Russell Simmons's motormouth prevarications on "That's a Lie" to the humble love-man details of "I Want You," this is the most engaging and original rap album of the year. But the post-Run-D.M.C. school does betray a penchant for what you might call bourgeois individualism. Laying off messages is one thing, but the Hollis crew rarely projects much community or solidarity either. Which sometimes leaves a solo artist alone with his DJ and his swelled head. B PLUS [Later]

THE LONG RYDERS: State of Our Union (Island) "Looking for Lewis and Clark" is some anthem, but like "Start Me Up" it may reveal more than it intends. These guys seek the explorers rather than the wilderness for the same reason they name Gram Parsons and Tim Hardin as forefathers, rather than Hank and Lefty. The self-conscious distance may be healthy--whatever drove Parsons and Hardin to their roots also turned them into dead junkies. But it's got to cut into the immediacy of the music, and for all the informed intelligence of songs like their tribute to black Memphis superstation WDIA, the album does come to a point at "State of My Union," which aggravates the honest chauvinism of Ronnie Van Zant's reflections on the same subject with the gratuitous self-righteousness of Neil Young's. B PLUS

NICK LOWE AND HIS COWBOY OUTFIT: The Rose of England (Columbia) For five years Lowe has marked time without ever quite losing the beat, and his most mild-mannered album of the decade is also his most consistent. I admit I missed the trademark sarcasm at first--until I realized that the most remarkable cut was a straightforward band-composed instrumental best described as mild-mannered Duane Eddy. Then I decided that the wimpy "I Knew the Bride" remake was deliberate--old beau Nick in the throes of fond regret--and went on from there. Will anybody notice this stirringly minor achievement? Probably not. Will I remember it myself a year from now? I wouldn't stake my job on it. B PLUS

REBA MCENTIRE: Have I Got a Deal for You (MCA) By eschewing backup choruses, newfangled keyboards, and bedroom lyrics, this longtime up-and-comer capitalized on post-Skaggs neotraditionalism and waltzed off with the Country Music Association's artist-of-the-year award in her gender division for 1984's My Kind of Country. So now she gets to co-produce more of the same with her label's Nashville honcho, and compared to the hot-to-trot Janie Fricke types she's an improvement. But though occasionally McEntire defeats country's sex-role divisions--the self-composed I-never-actually-cheated song "Only in My Mind" is so proud and virtuous and deeply regretful it could give a fella bad dreams--it's hard for a female country singer to rebel neotraditionally. Especially with men providing the material. B [Later]

MELODY MAKERS: Play the Game Right (EMI America) Ziggy Marley owes Bob for his voice and his band, and he's not just whistling "I Shot the Sheriff" when he thanks him for "spiritual inspiration" as well--without it this record would be empty, voice and band notwithstanding. What's still missing is not only his father's genius but his father's experience. Here's hoping the spiritual inspiration is potent enough to keep the kid from trying to substitute musical experience for the life kind. B MINUS

JUDY MOWATT: Working Wonders (Shanachie) The positivity of reggae's most autonomous woman isn't rendered any more credible by her brightly idealistic delivery--sounds like she's leading the community sing at Camp Nyabinghi. Her genteel Rastafarianism partakes of the usual fundamentalist delusions--she ignores Babylonian propaganda about Ethiopia, and she's sufficiently protective of her wonder worker's masculinity to insist that unlike those other women she's "not up to any tricks"--without the saving grace of fundamentalist conviction. If you're going to be unreasonable, you might as well get all possessed and transported about it. C PLUS

RAS MICHAEL & THE SONS OF NEGUS: Rally Round (Shanachie) Lifelong Rastafarian Michael Henry does Jah's work by reclaiming pop music for the folk, slipping a line from Wilson Pickett here and Bob Marley there into hymns and chants whose elemental melodies invoke the most high on rivers of funde drums. Not that the beat is more sinuous than mainstream reggae. If anything it's more direct--Michael is a primitivist's primitivist, and thus he overpowers reggae's all-sounds-the-same dilemma. Some feel that this brightened and clarified compilation foreshortens his hypnotic scope. I say it renders him suitable for outside consumption. A MINUS

THE SILOS: About Her Steps (Record Collect) Nobody would have thought twice if this unknown band had debuted with an EP, especially the complete winner they had in them. Imagine The Velvet Underground as country-rock, fragile lyricism colored with fiddle (or viola) and pedal steel and toughened by a commitment to the everyday. The five (out of eight) songs I'd have chosen are the five longest--since sharp and tight aren't where their gifts are, they don't do anything special with terse little rockers. Though they might yet. B PLUS [Later: A-]

GEORGE STRAIT: Something Special (MCA) Heretofore the man in the white hat has been a little too bland to open up the honky tonks or bring off any but the most perfect extended metaphors. This time he sings with such an ache that it was five plays before I noticed that one song equated "redneck" and "hillbilly" and the next was lifted from How to Pick Up Girls. No such peccadilloes sully the tearjerking glory of "Haven't You Heard" or "I've Seen That Look on Me (A Thousand Times)." And thus George earns "Lefty's Gone." A MINUS

THE STYLE COUNCIL: Internationalists (Geffen) One reason Paul Weller's rock and roll never convinced non-Brits was his reedy voice, which he has no trouble bending to the needs of the fussy phonographic cabaret he undertook so quixotically and affectedly after retiring the Jam. I'm sure the move has cost him audience, but the new format suits the specifics of his socialism. A self-made Fabian rather than a would-be demagogue, he hopes to inspire militance with description and analysis. And he keeps getting better at both. B PLUS [Later]

BUNNY WAILER: Marketplace (Shanachie) First "Stay With the Reggae," then "Jump Jump," then "Dance Hall Music," so you figure it out. Right--it's got a good beat and you can skank to it. But you'll have to slow down when you get to the love songs. B MINUS [Later]

JANE WEIDLIN (I.R.S.) All you cool folks who thought the Go-Go's were airheads, not to mention all you airheads who thought the Go-Go's were cool, will find these troubled relationships and geopolitical concerns very educational. I thought the Go-Go's were more educational pretending to be airheads, not to mention sisters. C PLUS

YABBY YOU: Fleeing from the City (Shanachie) Shanachie's 1983 collection of the "greatest works" of this crippled country man and religious recluse, whose unkiltered voice and gentle faith are eccentric even by Jamaican standards, proved him a gifted arranger of millenarian ditties. It also inspired him to record for the first time since 1977. Remarkably, he just got better during his long, impoverished layoff: without sacrificing roots harmonies or compact tunes, this music leaves room for embellishment and comment. What was once eccentric now sounds almost strong. A MINUS

Village Voice, Jan. 7, 1986


Dec. 24, 1985 Jan. 28, 1986