Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

I'm no proselytizer for the EP. Commercially, it maximizes profit on one or two surefire songs the way the LP does on three or four; artistically, its truncated length demands intensity, militating against the solid consistency that makes many albums satisfying. Nevertheless, the EP (or mini-album, as the majors call it) has become a prime medium for music on the margins, which is still where so much of the interesting tuff is found, and so I'm modifying my previous policy. From here on all A and solidly A minus EPs will receive full reviews in the body of the CG rather than a sentence in Additional Consumer News. There aren't too many such--DFX2 and Cool It Reba are the only 1983s preceding Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, who break the ice below. Meanwhile, B plus and B EPs will be found in ACN, along with an occasional pan.


JAMES BROWN: Bring It On (Augusta Sound) The fast side is honorable and dispensable--great title riff plus filler, nothing anyone who owns some early-'70s JB is likely to need or even want, though neophytes will dance to it now. The slow side comprises the three strongest covers Brown's released since he stuck a classic "Kansas City" onto Everybody's Doin' the Hustle in 1975. He still approaches high notes with the caution of someone who's hoarse as indelibly as he's black and proud, but he's emoting like he wants you to believe "Tennessee Waltz" and "For Your Precious Love" and in between comes "The Right Time," which isn't really slow at all and features a Brownette who approaches any kind of note as if she owns it. Time: 28:45. List $5.98. B PLUS

ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE ATTRACTIONS: Punch the Clock (Columbia) Without the sustained melodicism of Imperial Bedroom (first side, anyway) to impart the illusion of meaningful wholeness, this is adjudged a major letdown by Elvis's acolytes. But "Boxing Day" is hardly the first time one of his punderous constructions has failed not just to signify but to communicate. Most of this disparate collection (first side, anyway) does what he's always done--convey an elusive feeling that's half pinned down by the words because that's all the grasp he's got on it. And though the alternate versions of "Shipbuilding" (Robert Wyatt) and "Pills and Soap" (the Imposter) are indeed more gripping, their literalness does place his personal contortions in useful perspective. B PLUS

HOWARD DEVOTO: Jerky Versions of the Dream (I.R.S.) In which the nastiest wimp since Ron Mael makes his pop move, sometimes diverting and never positively offensive. That includes the title--Howard knows his audience. Granted, Dreamy Versions of the Jerk would have been more to the point, but accuracy has never been Howard's forte. C PLUS

EURYTHMICS: Sweet Dreams Are Made of This (RCA Victor) In theory, synth duos have always been okey-doke with me, especially when the resulting pop is as starkly hooky as what Dave Stewart comes up with here. And you might say Annie Lennox has a bono vox. But like so many with comparable gifts, both these people are fools, and pretentious fools at that. Remember, folks--when they tell you everybody's out to use or get used, make certain you go along for the ride you paid for. B MINUS [Later: B]

MARIANNE FAITHFULL: A Child's Adventure (Island) This is skilled work, hookful and lithely arranged and sung with a racked grace far more accomplished than the harrowing croaks of Broken English. If I were a woman in search of rock and roll models, I might well dote on it. But model rock and roll it's not--Broken English still got the power. B PLUS [Later]

TOM T. HALL: Everything from Jesus to Jack Daniels (Mercury) Returning from five misspent years at RCA, with his 1982 Earl Scruggs collaboration for CBS a halfway house, Hall delivers his strongest album in a decade and bitterest ever, chock full of death, decrepitude, and disillusion. In fact, T. sounds so down on himself you'd think he was an aging rock star--real truth-sayers rarely get this cynical. "The Adventures of Linda Bohannon," the only yarn in his classic mold, is also the only song here to end with his patented shrug-and-chuckle. Life does go on, just like he's always said, and now that he's decided to give honest music another try he should get out and talk to folks again. Time: 29:00. B PLUS

I-LEVEL (Epic) New music, if you insist--relaxed white technofunk under Sam Jones's sepia vocals. As product, though, it's an utter throwback. The two first-rate songs, "Minefield" (about dancing in one) and "Give Me" ("What you can't get back"), were both singles. Each leads off a side that passes from the mind before it vacates the ear. Only the surrounding confusion of configurations indicates that the year isn't 1962--the B side of the "Minefield" twelve-inch features a "Give Me" remix plus the very mildly interesting "No. 4." Buy the EP, or twelve-inch, or whatever it is. C PLUS

INDEEP: Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life (Sound of New York) With its nonelectronic JB rhythms and outlandish sound effects (percussion includes a flushing toilet), this terse little sleeper of a novelty-hit spinoff bridges predisco and postdisco funk cannily and unassumingly. Reggie Magloire is a nasty girl who's not just trying to impress the boys, Rose Marie Ramsey's her more romantic counterpart, and with help from writer-producer-arranger-band Michael Cleveland they make street music together. Time: 29:05. A MINUS

RICK JAMES: Cold Blooded (Gordy) As his head continues to expand, tricks that once seemed honorably functional begin to smack of expediency, with upwardly mobile cameos throwing his shortcomings into heavy relief. Teena Marie and the latter-day Tempts he could keep up with, but on this album Smokey Robinson shows up Rick's rank sentimentality, Billy Dee Williams his cornball cool, and Grandmaster Flash his roots of clay. And the redeeming social value of "P.I.M.P. the S.I.M.P." trips over his fashion sense--this is not a man who should criticize his peers for dressing funny. B MINUS

JASON & THE NASHVILLE SCORCHERS: Fervor (Praxis) Crossing Gram Parsons's knowledge of sin with Joe Ely's hellbent determination to get away with it, Jason Ringenberg leads a country-rock band no one can accuse of fecklessness, dabbling, revivalism, or undue irony. The lyrics strain against their biblical poetry at times, but anyone who hopes to take a popsicle into a disco is in no immediate danger of expiring of pretentiousness. Time: 18:20. List: $5.98. A MINUS [Later]

BILL LASWELL: Baselines (Musician) One thing's sure--this is shitty background music. That's intentional, of course, but if Laswell's/Material's avant-fusion experiments are to prove useful to avant-pop listeners, they'd better reward attention more brilliantly than they do. Pulse or no pulse (and it can be either), the usual interesting-to-inventive, and even though I prefer Laswell's urban, conflict-ridden taste in noise to the ecological romanticism of the ethnojazz school, I don't hear the street or the subway (or my stereo) any better than before I put this on. B

LEROI BROTHERS: Check This Action (Amazing) With Texophiles buzzing these guys up as the roadhouse band of a college cowboy's dreams, I was put off some--that big, brawling sound has never been this honorary pencilneck's idea of Saturday night. More listens later than I would have thought tolerable, while Steve Doerr romped all over "Ballad of a Juvenile Delinquent," I finally got the joke. Remember, the Dictators knocked them dead in Dallas too. B PLUS

MENTAL AS ANYTHING: Creatures of Leisure (A&M) As benign an evolutionary mishap as the koala bear, this displaced pub-rock band does its level best to act friendly and crazy despite disheartening life experiences. Along the way, keybman Greedy Smith sings Roy Orbison's "Workin' for the Man" like Dave Edmunds couldn't dream it, and headman Martin Plaza enlists his mates in the impossible task of closing the Nick Lowe gap. B PLUS

N.Y.C. PEECH BOYS: Life Is Something Special (Island) This is virtually an encyclopedia of N.Y.C. dance music--no microchips anywhere carry so much verve, sex, or grit. Only in N.Y.C., however, do people dance a whole lot to encyclopedias, and I fear that if "Don't Make Me Wait" didn't convert the great out-there then the rest of this is doomed to a life of obscurity. Nor can I claim righteous indignation--not since the Meters has a record driven me so inexorably to concentrate on its underpinnings. B PLUS [Later]

JONATHAN RICHMAN & THE MODERN LOVERS: Jonathan Sings! (Sire) Like a bit of great modern rock and roll only more so, Richman's surprising return to his senses plays havoc with all notions of artistic maturity. It couldn't have happened if he hadn't finally grown up, but it wouldn't have been half as striking if he'd relinquished his kiddie lyricism in the bargain. "Not Yet Three," "The Neighbors," and the admonitory campfire anthem "That Summer Feeling" have the magical complexity of masterworks without the reassuringly forbidding aura of mastery, generating just enough authority to shore up lesser songs that might have seemed merely eccentric on their own. Granted, without the disarmingly precise backup of Ellie Marshall and Beth Harrington, Jonathan's singing might have seemed merely eccentric as well. It doesn't. A

STRAY CATS: Rant n' Rave With the Stray Cats (EMI America) I love the sound of this record--it's much bigger and rawer, as if Built for Speed's prettification was just to get over. Only an ideologue would deny that these unlikely pop stars tear into rockabilly readymades with twice the gusto of any purists or authentics now recording. And Brian Setzer is the snazziest guitarist to mine the style since James Burton. But he's also a preening panderer, mythologizing his rockin' '50s with all the ignorant cynicism of a punk poser. He's no singer, no actor, no master of persona. And if he can write songs he didn't bother. Let's hope that was an arrogant miscalculation--the follow-up does raise the group's list by two bucks while reducing their music by two songs. After all, wouldn't Setzer make somebody a great sideman? B MINUS [Later]

JAMAALADEEN TACUMA: Show Stopper (Gramavision) There's more to harmolodics than funk, and Prime Time's bassist knows it. Hence the Colemanesque lyricism of a second side any old-and-new dreamer would boast about and many couldn't put together, with the master contributing the theme of an atmospheric solo showpiece and Hemphill, Dara, and Ulmer sitting in. And don't worry, side one has the funk covered--with surprising help from reed player James R. Watkins, who damn near has the master covered. A MINUS

TOM TOM CLUB: Close to the Bone (Sire) As a one-off, this band was a delight, with a big push from the riff of the '80s and the help of consistently sly and kooky lyrics. But in rock and roll, delight is a fragile thing, and this codification flirts with the insufferable. The simplistic tunes and sing-song delivery do no service to the coy credos of freedom, equality, and happiness they accompany, and there are times when all this praise of jitney drivers and four-way hips suggests the kind of irresponsible exoticism cynics always suspect when rich white people find the meaning of life in the tropics. C PLUS

THE URBATIONS: Urban Dance Party (Metro-America) "Goin' to Alpena, Cement Capital of the World," begins the 12-bar blues that begins this tape, and I wish I could tell you it ever got that good again. Andy Boller and Mr. Dr. Blurt Sandblaster do enjoy their laughs--listen to the roller-rink organ Boller lays beneath the horny "I Need a Job"--but they don't write or sing with the difference that can raise neoclassicist white r&b to the level of necessity. B

JUNIOR WALKER: Blow the House Down (Motown) Walker was always funky in the generic sense, but on this welcome return to his home label eight different producers help him get all fashionably funky as well--without any sense of strain. Won't it be nice to dance to the same old sax without risking '60s nostalgia? B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

I'm hard on EPs because almost every track has to provide the kick of a good single for both sides to merit repeated listening. Even at that, the first two of this month's recommended crop are right on the A minus/B plus borderline. The redundant anti-Nazi extravaganza "Goose Step Two Step" is so stupid I may never hear the willful "I Live" again, but I'll definitely return to the A side of Hilary's Kinetic (Backstreet): the title tune's the catchiest Gary Numan song since "Cars" and the liveliest ever, and "Drop Your Pants" is what it wounds like, loving and randy and startling on WLIR. The Bluebells (Sire) goes three or four for five, leading off with the magnificent poptune "Cath" (even more magnificent in its 12-inch London import remix, though) and also featuring Brendan Behan's "Patriots Game" (and I thought that was a Bob Dylan tune). Then we have four minis that surround what might once have been a major single with high-quality stylistic extensions. "Mr. Boyfriend" is a girl-group masterstroke for an inexorably feminist age that revitalizes the notion of cute and really might hit if there were authentic top 40 anymore, and the rest of the Cucumbers eponymous EP (Fake Doom) has grown on me mightily in its wake. On the (L.A.) Beat's To Beat or Not to Beat (Passport), the standout is the scathing, beaten "Give Me the Drugs," which admittedly doesn't quite mesh with the rest of Paul Collins's maturing but still basically cheerful songcraft. The hit I hear on the Bongos' highly Gotteherized Number With Wings (RCA Victor) is the title tune, already subjected to a redundant dance mix and as good an argument for burying your precious little quirks in the pop factory as Red Rockers' "China." But it isn't "Slang Teacher," the never-say-die 12-inch which finally induced RCA to put out Wide Boy Awake, that sold me on their Anglicized gumbo rhythms--it's the contagious "Chicken Outlaw." Finally, five altogether solid outings. Angst (Happy Squid) play posthardcore with a countryish tinge that highlights the underlying good sense of lyrics like "Pig" and "Neil Armstrong." The Blue Orchids' Agents of Change (Rough Trade import) is one of those records that anyone who loves The Velvet Underground will have to hear, though Martin Bramah is more Peter Perrett than Lou Reed, and good for him. Bobby Braddock's Hardpore Carnography (RCA Victor) is chockablock with punny homages to Homer & Jethro; Elvis C. should check out "I Lobster but Never Flounder," and I'm sure Don & Phil are already fans of "The Elderly Brothers." Half Japanese's Horrible (Press) is a concept EP about horror movies, certainly a suitable subject for a band that has always attempted to simulate the sound of your nightmares. And Fats Deacon's Buzzardhead (Ames Griffin) proves that not all black rockers have forgotten Chuck Berry. . . .

The present-day rapper refuses to die. Afrika Bambaataa's (and Arthur Baker's) "Looking for the Perfect Beat" is still the most impressive record to appear this year in any configuration, and his cohorts seem determined to reinvent the future of pop and the history of the rhyming dictionary. My favorite rap 12-inch since Run-D.M.C. is Tribe II's "What I Like" (Celluloid 12-inch), in which congas, synthesizers, and the superbly sung backup of Peech Boy R. Bernard Fowler supports words whose grown-up hedonism comes as a relief even to a diehard youthcult fan like me. The Disco Four's "Throwdown"/"School Beats" (Profile 12-inch), produced by Enjoy's renowned house band Pumpkin, yokes a militant party-hearty anthem with an injunction to do your homework, both of which are well-taken. Whodini's "The Haunted House of Rock" (Zomba 12-inch) puts a great ringing synth riff in the service of a novelty rap that doesn't wear like Stacy Lattisaw's. I'm pleased that B-side versions are finally offering more than unaltered instrumental tracks, especially since I prefer the Fearless Four's "Fearless Freestyle" (Elektra 12-inch), which rhymes Coca-Cola with Zola, to "Problems of the World"/"F-4000," which don't necessarily benefit from crib sheets on the cover, and the short mix of Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel's suspiciously seductive "White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)" (Sugarhill 12-inch) to the A (never was much of a Liquid Liquid fan). Crash Crew's ebullient "On the Radio" (Bay City 12-inch has also been a kick, as have the Sugar Hill Gang's surprising up-yours party anthem "Kick It Live From 9 to 5" (Sugarhill 12-inch), which from almost anybody else would promise great things. Finally, Rammelzee vs. K. Rob's long impossible-to-find "Beat Box" is finally being distributed without cover art on Profile. Check it out.

Village Voice, Nov. 11, 1983


Sept. 27, 1983 Nov. 29, 1983