Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

To, er, get right to the point, this is the most long-winded CG I've ever written. One-liners just didn't come to me (two-liners either), and Additional Consumer News kept going and going. So even though I've been granted an extra half-page, it's only discreet to get on with it.


KING SUNNY ADE AND HIS AFRICAN BEATS: Juju Music (Mango) The Message, the unavailable-in-the-U.S. Nigerian LP that precedes this made-for-export overview conceptually, actually comes closer to pop--it's brighter, edgier, more tuneful. The music here is all flowing undulation; even the experimental synthesizer interjections, while recalling the startling syn-drums of great disco, seem somehow rubberized, springing suddenly outward and then receding back into the slipstream. It's almost as if Chris Blackwell, aware that it was absurd to think AOR, aimed instead for a kind of ambient folk music that would unite amateur ethnomusicologists, Byrne-Eno new-wavers, reggae fans, and hip dentists, just for starters. But never fear--not only do these confident, magical, surpassingly gentle polyrhythms obviate the organic and the electronic, the local and universal, they also make hash of distinctions between background and foreground. I can imagine somebody not loving Sunny Ade; I can't imagine somebody disliking him. A PLUS [Later: A-]

PAUL CARRACK: Suburban Voodoo (Epic) These songs are catchy and apt ("Don't want no washed-up dishes soft-soaping me," eh?), and unlike his pop mentors in Squeeze (he was on board for East Side Story) and Noise to Go (bandmate Nick Lowe produced and helped compose), Carrack seems to Mean It--he's soulful in the manner of somebody like Allan Clarke (of the Hollies, how could you forget?). In fact, I bet his sincerity is the envy of his compulsively ironic co-workers. Unfortunately, it leaves me wondering whether he's a con man or just a little single-minded--musically and every other way he's too straightforward to cover all the angles. B [Later]

JOE COCKER: Sheffield Steel (Island) No, his voice isn't shot, though it's certainly lost a lot of soft edges and warm crannies--a lot of phlegm. Partial compensation provided by the decline of L.A.: there are more good songs lying around than at any time since Cocker and Three Dog Night invented interpretive rock way back when. And Sly & Robbie's loud, fast Memphis beat is the toughest backup of his life. B PLUS [Later: B]

ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE ATTRACTIONS: Imperial Bedroom (Columbia) I admit it--I love the lyric sheet. Helps me pay attention, though not always, and persuades me absolutely that "The Long Honeymoon" and "Kid About It" are as great as songwriting ever gets. But it also shores up my impression that he can be precious lyrically, vocally, and musically, and gnomic for no reason at all--in short, pretentious. And while I'm glad he's got soul, too often he invests emotion in turns of phrase he should play cool. B PLUS

THE CURE: Pornography (A&M) "In books/And films/And in life/And in heaven/The sound of slaughter/As your body turns . . ."--no, I can't go on. I mean, why so glum, chum? Cheer up; look on the bright side. You got your contract, right? And your synthesizers, bet you'll have fun with them. Believe me, kid, it will pass. C

ARETHA FRANKLIN: Jump to It (Arista) Luther Vandross is a great singer, and he's gotten a great singer's album out of Aretha. But he's not a great songwriter, and great singers do their greatest work with great songs. Sometimes great singers don't even know what a great song is, which is why we get to hear Aretha perform artificial respiration on Sam Dee's "If She Don't Want Your Lovin'" and the Isleys' hoary "It's Your Thing." And sometimes great singers are also great songwriters, which is why Aretha and Luther thank their stars for Smokey's "Just My Daydream." B PLUS

GENIUS OF RAP (Island import) Even granting Sugarhill's unavailability, this compilation of six minor hits (plus bonus do-it-yourself 12-inch) could be badder. Why T-Ski Valley rather than Count Coolout or Love Bug Star-Ski? Why so Brother D.? Why the hell no Treacherous Three? Indeed, I filed three of these selections away unremarked simply because they weren't worth four bucks. That said, it's my pleasure to add that two of them--Afrika Bambaataa's "Jazzy Sensation" and Bop Rock & the Rhythm Rebellion's "Searching Rap"--are definitely worth two or three, especially since they flank Grandmaster Flash's "Superprappin'," an absolutely classic James Brown rip that more than makes up for Lenny White's "Twennynine (The Rap)" (why no Mel Brooks?). The Sugarhill best-ofs are still where to catch up. But once you're hooked you'll want this too. B PLUS

THE GO-GO'S: Vacation (I.R.S.) Bizzers will no doubt rend their overpriced garments when this fails to follow Beauty and the Beat into Platinum City, but all its failure will prove is that you can't build a wall of sound (much less an empire) out of tissue paper. The uniform thinness of the non-Kathy Valentine songs here does clear up the mystery of why virtual non-writer Belinda Carlisle gets to play frontwoman--her voice fits the image. B MINUS

AL GREEN: Precious Lord (Hi/Myrrh) Couldn't figure out why I found myself basically unmoved by this exquisitely sung collection of hymns, four of them familiar to me since my days in the First Presbyterian Church of Flushing. Then I realized that the Memphis groove of Al's first two Myrrh albums had somehow turned into rote tent-gospel timekeeping. Then I read the back of the album and learned that it was cut in Nashville, with all that implies. Which may also be why I know the material from First Pres. Going "sacred" on us, Al? Crossing over to the other side? How great who art? B [Later]

TED HAWKINS: Watch Your Step (Rounder) Cut 10 years ago by a street musician and jailbird who sings like Sam Cooke and strums acoustic guitar like Bob Dylan, these 14 songs--especially the four backed by Philip Walker's humdrum blues band--wouldn't have seemed so remarkable had they been released back then, in the late soul era. But they are remarkable, because Hawkins is a true folkie hero, by which I mean that his lyrics are his own. These little dramas of passion, tenderness and betrayal are stamped with the sin-and-redemption of a lived life. And if the musical conception is excessively elementary, the singing is distinctive--derivative or not, the voice is expressive and earned. A MINUS

BONNIE HAYES WITH THE WILD COMBO: Good Clean Fun (Slash) "They got a word for girls like me," she begins, and don't go guessing "pop-tart" just because she never lets on what it is. Though she hides her "penchant for the printed" page behind arrangements that are "dum fun" and a guitarist who digs Larry Carlton, she comes off smarter, surer, and more sisterly than just about any new rock and roll woman I can think of. After all, a girl who can seduce Larry Carlton into dum fun is working on a lotta levels. A MINUS

BILLY IDOL (Chrysalis) Even in punk's heyday he obviously wanted to be a teen idol, but back then he couldn't very well admit that his hero was Elton John. Yet here he is with Kiss's manager and an album that rocks as hard as the first side of Caribou--for three cuts, including a hit single and "White Wedding," a call to innocence regained as desperate and persuasive as "Start Me Up." If he could keep it going I'd be happy to buy my pop from a phony, but neither Burundi beats nor overzealous voice practice do anything but accentuate the jaded professionalism that takes over. B

GREGORY ISAACS: Mr. Isaacs (Shanachie) From "Sacrifice," in which spirituality and even beauty itself follows inevitably from the comprehension of oppression, side one establishes the subtle power and grace of Isaacs' rather urban reggae, not least because it stops off at Billy Vera & Judy Clay's "Storybook Children." Side two establishes his willingness to settle for product, not least because it leads off with Smokey Robinson's "Get Ready." B PLUS

THE ITALS: Brutal Out Deh (Nighthawk) Took this for yet another of JA's hookless wonders until Bob Palmer advised me to concentrate on the singing, at which point I realized that the precise harmonies framing Keith Porter's Marleyesque tenor were fine gospel music. Except for a perfunctory nod to lovers rock and a "thou shalt not steal" for ganja pirates, every one of these dauntless outcries of tribulation and deliverance could be sung comfortably (with a few modifications of terminology) by African Methodists on a Sunday morning, and in a few cases I bet they'd know the tunes. A MINUS

PERE UBU: Song of the Bailing Man (Rough Trade) In his Jehovah's Witness phase--which could last the rest of his life--David Thomas is just like any other eccentric "progressive." With Mayo Thompson and Anton Fier replacing Ubu's two committed rockers on guitar and drums, the group can't carry him along on populist pulse anymore, which means that although Thomas's compositional ideas may be "original" and "interesting"--and unlike most art-rock, this music deserves both adjectives--how compelling you find the gestalt depends on the power of Thomas's private obsessions. Once again the man outdoes himself--some of these lyrics actually read as poetry. But it's minor poetry for sure--his musings on the ineluctable wonder of the natural order go deeper than, say, Peter Hammill's damn fool doomsaying, but they're long on whimsy and short on tension. As Christian rock goes, it's smart stuff, but as Christian art goes I'll take Graham Greene. B PLUS

WILLIE PHOENIX (A&M) Phoenix knocked me out on sheer pizazz fronting a raw, Beatley band called Romantic Noise at Max's three or four years ago; here he surfaces as a Springsteen convert and almost does it again, although after a dozen plays I wonder whether Romantic Noise's songs matched its pizazz. God knows Phoenix doesn't go for ersatz John Cougar epics--his tribute is all musical style, which since his voice outrings Springsteen's can be pretty impressive until the drama calls your attention to the words. B [Later: B-]

PROFESSOR LONGHAIR: The Last Mardi Gras (Atlantic/Deluxe) Recorded live in two nights in 1978 by the odious Albert Goldman, this full-price double-album has a look of crass class--how many "Tipitina"s does the world need? And indeed, a few of the new tunes are genre exercises and many of Fess's vocal deviations fail to qualify as the jazzy fantasias Goldman palms them off as. Nevertheless, his Longhair is better performed (as well as much better recorded) than Nighthawk's Mardi Gras in New Orleans oldies and a lot steadier than Harvest's Live on the Queen Mary. And though the hard, punchy drive of Alligator's Crawfish Fiesta makes for a more consistently exciting record, the lazy insouciance of the tempos and horn parts here sure feels like New Orleans to me. A MINUS [Later: A]

TOM ROBINSON: North by Northwest (I.R.S.) Robinson's bonhomie is rarely seductive--he picks such stiff, strident, perhaps even rigid drummers that his records require effort or at least concentration. But this is where I stop wondering whether he's a fluke. Just about every one of these songs synthesizes his protest-oriented TRB phase with the more cryptic and personal musicality of Sector 27. And though Richard Mazda isn't the collaborator Stevie B. was, after five plays or so nearly every track sinks in deep. A MINUS

THE SUBURBS: Credit in Heaven (Twin/Tone) A band takes a chance when they follow up an offbeat but well-received debut with a double-LP and a lyric sheet--gives strangers the chance to get to know them. My considered conclusion is that for all his presence Blaire John Chaney is rather more affected than his quota of mother wit makes altogether seemly. His arch cynicism looks gratuitous up close, as arch cynicism usually does. Talented? Mais oui. Not talented enough to fill a double album and a lyric sheet, though. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

As the music industry flounders through a panic that makes the death-of-disco scare of '79-'80 seem like an adjustment for profit-taking, WLIR-FM of Hempstead, always far from the worst local AOR outlet, has contemplated its ratings and turned into "the station that dares to be different": New York's first commercial new wave radio since PIX went to the pricks. Of course, in Manhattan LIR's signal at 92.7 is often blotted out by KTU's at 92; I only get it in the car myself, and not on the West Side. In a way, this serves LIR right for not playing contemporary black music, a shortsighted policy that has already led to a bitter domestic dispute in which my wife insisted on hearing out Barry White's KTU oldie after I'd switched from BLS. But there's no more crap on LIR than on BLS or KTU (or FMU or NYU, whose signals are even fainter)--the good stuff ratio runs around 50 per cent. I'm willing to subject myself to some feckless Anglopuce and strident pseudopop if it means hearing "TV Party" or Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy) or learning that Bananarama isn't entirely hopeless. Good radio is like that, of course--it surprises you, and it puts you in touch with the tastes of people who are allies even if they do like Duran Duran. I'm told the format has goosed record sales on the Island, too. Let's hope it lasts. Ain't symbiosis swell? . . .

For 10 years people have been asking me what it means to be an aging rock critic, and finally I have an answer--around 40 your knees begin to go. Suffering from torn cartilage, and with my wife sidelined after pulling a tendon at Lester Bangs's wake, I skipped Blue's renowned rap-and-break shows at Negril, Danceteria, and now the Roxy until Ed Ward came in from Texas and dragged ms there a few weeks ago. A wonderful scene--if Soho folk are dnacing alongside black teenagers just to be trendy, gimme faddism. . . .

And what should be playing as we entered the Roxy but the most exciting single I've heard all year, the Fearless Four's "Rockin' It" (Enjoy), a staggered-rhythm beat-box w/synth rap-chant that finally made me hear what they're doing with Kraftwerk uptown, so much so that for two weeks I've also been playing Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" (Tommy Boy), now a major black hit nationally and potentially as influential as "Rapper's Delight." . . .

Two other 12-inches that have me dancing and singing are Eddy Grant's "Time to Let Go"/"California Style" (Ice import), two-sided Caribbean disco by the Guyanese veteran with lyrices that show a surprising ironic edge, and (who could escape?) Stacy Lattisaw's "Attack of the Name Game" (Cotillion), in which Shirley Ellis, Frankie Smith, and Steve Spielberg conspire to drive adults crazy. . . .

The most impressive seven-inch indie I've heard all year is Mofungo's "El Salvador" (Rough Trade import). It and half the two-song B side ("Just the Way" and "Gimme a Sarsaparilla" are drawn from the End of the World cassette, which will cost you no more than the 45 but the clear, powerful, tortured sound, as well as the convenience, might well be worth it. Runner-up is Husker Du's "In a Free Land"/"What Do I Want?"/"M.I.C." (New Alliance), best proof yet that this Minneapolis hardcore band ranks with Black Flag and Minor Threat and probably has more sense than either (though not a lot more). The late Marc Bolan's "You Scare Me to Death" (Cherry Red import), overdubbed on demo tapes by Simon Napier-Bell, has an off-center infectiousness pop postmodernists would give their M.F.A.s for. As for A.A., note this hook: "You scare us to death/With your awful breath." The Roentgens' "Atomic War"/"Chatter" (Austown) combines an unusually coherent punk protest song ("I may not know what I'm living for/But I know I don't want that") with a nice piece of garagey Farfisa that like the A is fast, punky, and much too r&r for hardcore. The Dead Kennedys' "Nazi Punks Fuck Off"/"Moral Majority" (Subterranean) are yowling bulls-eyes that are much too hardcore for r&r. Permanently unconquered by Willie Alexander's permanent crusade (just made sure by checking out two current LPs, of which the live double was actually better), I took two years to play "Gin"/"Close Enough" (Varulven), thereby missing one of those soft-edged lyrical ballads he pulls off every year or two b/w a tune whose absolutely accurate title continues with the line "For rock and roll." The Crackers' "Be Smart"/"Tired of You" (no label) are two deceptively gentle- (and simple-) sounding love songs about boredom, struggle, and reciprocity recommended to fans of Jonathan Richman, Gilbert O'Sullivan, and the first Shoes album. The B-Minors' "From Night" (Ikon) is an ironic tale of adolescent deceit and lost virginity that's rueful rather than snide, which together with the tune is what gets it across. The Beautiful Americans' "The Beautiful Americans" (Compact Organization import) is a Brit novelty that states its parodic animus clearly for once, and what's more, you can't dance to it--unless the fox trot is coming back, which no doubt it is. And Portsmouth Sinfonia's "Classical Maddly" (Springtime import) is a crass attempt to cash in on "Hooked on Classics." . . .

Don't say I didn't warn you about EPs. For the majors, they've turned into a dandy way to test-market less than half an album of dubious music at more than half the price, from pop metal (Radio's Hellcats) to pop funk (Capitol's Space People) to pop schlock (Columbia's Scandal) to, cripes, pop new wave (Liberty's Talk Talk) as well as take fliers on putatively worthy crap (Bowie Sings Brecht, Tonio K. Has Been). On the indie side the problem is the same as with singles only bigger--there are few enough bands with one song sharp enough to break out of a coterie, much less four. In descending order, and with reprieves for the Neats, the Brains, and R.E.M., here's damn near a year's worth of what's caught my ear. The Replacements Stink (Twin/Tone) showcases a young, snotty rock an droll band that thinks fast and short but plays it too loose for hardcore and manages to make getting pissed off sound both funny and fun, which is always the trick. Meat Puppets (SST) are three Phoenix boys who make L.A. punk's no wave proclivities explicit with 14 brief, doomy noise songs that sound like DNA meeting the Marx Brothers. Oh OK's Wow Mini Album (DB), the only seven-incher on this list, comprises four toy songs totaling 6:42 in which two girls--definitely the word--with tiny little voices and sharp little minds dissect such subjects as sibling narcissism, personhood, and he impermanence of waves. Fine Art's Scan (Good) leads off with a deliberate, hypnotic existentialist ditty called "You Tell Me" that's the catchiest piece of white-woman art-funk since the more danceable "Too Many Creeps," then rolls merrily along until "Scheduled Interruption," where they fall off a cliff that students of band names will have anticipated. Peter Laughner (Koolie) isn't for audiophiles, but should convince mere rock and roll fans that the Cleveland legend, who died in 1977, deserves his rep as both songwriter ("Sylvia Plath," "Baudelaire") and guitar prophet ("Hideaway," "Dinosaur Lullabye"). The Incredible Casuals' Let's Go! (Eat) offers eight songs totaling 20:21 in that doomed '60s-nostalgia Beatles-surf mode, and whaddaya know, four or five have the timeless aura of good clean pop, especially "Yeah, a Little" and "No Fun at Parties." And Hose (Def Jam) isn't Flipper. . . .

All praises to the Sugarhill Gang, Chuck Berry is back in print. The Great Twenty-Eight (Chess) is recommended unequivocally to the young, the ulcultured, and the divorced--in short, anyone so unforunate as not to own the Golden Decade compilations. I can't say that the mono sound is so much brighter as to warrant purchase by the already Berried, however. And what Marshall Chess is doing with the forebears' blues catalogue is a disgrace--so far, one measly compilation of classic stuff plus Muddy and the Wolf, cut with famous rock musicians in the late '60s and early '70s respectively. Music's fine, of course--but it could be so much finer. . . .

Unlike new wave indies, dance music indies are hard to do mail business with, so out-of-towners and bed-ridden folk might try doing mail with Vinyl Mania, which will take orders at (212) 929-1658 and ship them C.O.D.

Village Voice, Oct. 5, 1982


Aug. 31, 1982 Nov. 2, 1982