Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

For a week or so there I thought this was going to be the road to Damascus--having spent five days in Albion, I suddenly found myself stacking albums like a limey. Yaz and ABC and A Flock of Goddam Seagulls. Well, false alarm--we end up with a black American Pick Hit and an Anglodisco Must to Avoid, hardly an unfamiliar pattern. Still, Yaz and ABC and A Flock of Seagulls do represent a significant break in my taste, and also, I like to think, a tiny trend away from the wimp futurism of electronics-for-electronics-sake toward a new fusion with real pop (or humanity, as we sentimentalists sometimes call it). Granted, the trend may not mean much: two of these albums are basically pop-art jokes, and if I prefer the naive to the witting, well, I always liked Batman comics better than Barbarella, too.


ABC: The Lexicon of Love (Mercury) Since Bowie and Ferry offered a lot more surface than substance back when they were supposed to be saving rock and roll, I can't get worried about this tribute band's lack of depth. Martin Fry's candid camp and ad-man phrasing don't altogether justify his histrionic flights, but they do give him room to be clever, which is clearly his calling--some of these synthetic (in more ways than one) funk rhythms make me laugh out loud, and he's an ace jingle writer. "If that's the trash aesthetic I suggest that we forget it"? Not when your throwaways include bon mots like "looking for the girl who meets supply with demand." B PLUS [Later: A-]

A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS (Jive) This is very silly, and I know why earnest new-wavers resent it. But I think it's a hoot--so transparently, guilelessly expedient that it actually provides the hook-chocked fun most current pop bands only advertise. The human drummer and all-too-human guitarist provide reassuring links with a past these boys have no more intention of giving up than you, me, or Rod Stewart. And if the cheerfully mechanical voices and cheerfully mechanical melodies do once or twice venture toward cheerfully mechanical lyrics about the direly mechanical end of the world, well, that's just the shape of bubblegum to come. A MINUS

ADAM ANT: Friend or Foe (Epic) Telescoping into a year and a half the kind of career that used to take a decade, Adam fires his group, hires some horns, and tops off his meretricious, arrogantly bombastic flop follow-up with some ruminations on life's little ups and downs. The first surprise is that four of these are arrogantly catchy. The second surprise is that all four dwell--allusively in the title tune--on Adam's status as victim-of-the-press, a theme that was death to rock and roll in a less self-conscious age. Still has trouble with real life, though, which is probably why the rest bombs. B MINUS

AU PAIRS: Sense and Sensuality (Roadrunner import) The renown of this sorry punk-funk gone pop-jazz is as depressing as anything in the annals of Anglophilia. Lesley Woods's line on free love is as priggish as the rest of her leftism and her separate-but-equal rhythm section couldn't make the earth move if one of them played tractor. Don't blame me for the metaphor, either--it's Lesley's, by way of famed protofeminist E. Hemingway, which proves that she's either open-minded or just plain dumb. Not since the Stranglers has a Brit group sexed it up so unconvincingly. C

BLACK UHURU: Chill Out (Island) This hasn't made itself felt the way Red did for fairly marginal reasons, hype/timing not least among them--the need for a new Marley becomes less urgent as the self-evident truth that there ain't gonna be one is absorbed. The musical margin is about urgency as well--not the quality of the riffs and riddims but rather the relative elegance, and detachment, or their execution. In a music of margins, such fine distinctions encompass worlds of woe that high-tech pros like Sly and Robbie abandon at their peril. B PLUS

BURNING SPEAR: Farover (Heartbeat) Although backup horns subsume backup vocals as his unearthly outcries grow more coaxing, less admonitory, Winston Rodney is so synchronic that in 1982 he gives up pretty much the same trancy buzz as in 1976. But I crave more shock-of-the-new. B PLUS [Later]

FERRON: Testimony (Philo) It sure isn't her male backup that gives this Canadian the edge on her pastoral-lesbian sisters in the U.S.A.--the Olivia collective could duplicate these modestly imaginative folk-rock arrangements and maybe even think them up. But Ferron's natural musicianship is something special: the light, grainy, "halfway pretty" mezzo glances off sweet-and-sour words and melodies with a fetching ease that's never laid-back. And given the utopian burden of so much "women's music," an old sinner like me is reassured by all the grief she cops to. A MINUS

FLAMIN' OH'S: Oh! (Fat City) This engaging, unpretentious, skillful, and ultimately forgettable collection of pop-tunes is the kind of indie album that makes me hope everybody involved is in it for love. Musically and lyrically, its straightforwardness is charming and tangy--there's none of the calculated swarm that marred so much L.A. pop, and none of the creative strain you can hear in New York bands like the dB's and the Individuals. But by the same token it's hard to tell why these Twin Cities boys care so much about the style, and thus it's unlikely they'll make anybody who isn't within hailing distance care about them. Point of information: a follow-up is imminent. B

THE FLESH EATERS: Forever Came Today (Ruby) I've always taken Chris D.'s horror-movie imagery as a joke that went with his singing, aptly described by one admirer as a "strangling werewolf commercial." Here it's no joke, but rather a wellspring of metaphor with which to evoke the horrors of modern love, so to speak. This reflects poorly on the moral and intellectual resources of young people today. It also sounds like a strangling werewolf commercial. C PLUS

PETER GABRIEL: Security (Geffen) If Gabriel can't resist orchestrating his rock and roll, better he should lay on third-world rhythms than simulate first-world themes. But self-conscious primitivism hasn't cured his grandiosity--lyrical protestations notwithstanding, the only time those rhythms are around him and inside him, in control and in his soul, is on "Shock the Monkey," which has a good old first-world hook. Only Gabriel probably doesn't want to be cured--bet he admires African music not because it flows like a stream but because it taps the divine, and while he may know in his head that animists can't have one without the other, he's not about to become a believer. C PLUS

MARVIN GAYE: Midnight Love (Columbia) Gaye's always had more feel for sexual healing than for wholly-holy or inner city blues, and this album's concentration on the carnal is one reason it's his best ever: after a week of grumping about his coke-snorting super freaks, dick-brained Bob Marley tribute, and jive ooh-la-la, I realized I was in bed with the man anyway and decided to lie back enjoy it. His wet croon makes up for the lost grit of Let's Get It On, and never before has the rhythm master layered the tracks with such deftness and power. King Sunny Ade, meet Dr. Feelgood. A [Later: A-]

EVELYN KING: Get Loose (RCA Victor) Examining this for more timeless trifles after rediscovering "Love Come Down" on Capital Radio, I got to like side two's opener as well. Unfortunately, the other tracks were just pleasant enough to keep me trying until I rediscovered how few trifles are timeless. So buy the single, I think. B MINUS [Later]

THE LORDS OF THE NEW CHURCH (I.R.S.) Add the soul of the Damned to the heart of the Dead Boys and you get new-wave Black Sabbath, complete with technoprofessional arena echo guaranteed to attract music-lovers who will either take the band's superstitious yet not altogether worthless political doomsaying as gospel or else ignore it altogether. C

MADNESS: Complete Madness (Stiff) These jolly lads have failed to click Stateside for the most honorable of reasons--they offer nothing to snobs. The "16 hits tracks" here compiled have a common-sense compassion as working-class and authentically nostalgic as their music-hall ska, which I swear could open for a polka band. B PLUS [Later: A-]

MATERIAL: One Down (Elektra) Laswell, Beinhorn & Co. have obviously been listening to the radio instead of complaining about the end of the world. The result is a protean disco album that sounds like real New York rock and roll. Chic guitar and planet-rocking vocoders are only the beginning--several of these experiments seem designed to cross over right behind "Eye of the Tiger," and never have electronically processed rhythms throbbed with such life. All that's missing is a deeper feeling for singers and songs, an old problem that the finest and most atypical track suggests is remediable--Soft Machinist Hugh Hopper's "Memories," which guest stars Whitney Houston and Archie Shepp, transfers into one of the most gorgeous ballads you've ever heard. A MINUS

LINDA RONSTADT: Get Closer (Asylum) Could be her, could be us, probably's both, but never has Ronstadt sounded more the art singer than on this painfully precise collection. James Taylor, of all people, saves the Ike & Tina cover, and Rod Taylor, of all people, adds one more great ballad to her canon, but I suggest that she git while the gitting's good. C PLUS

SIMPLE MINDS: Themes for Great Cities (Stiff) Dance sources assure me that I heard all or most of this "Definitive Collection 79-81" in clubs during the years indicated, and it must be, since even today it makes me want to sit down on the spot. English DOR at its intricately ambient Eurodisco-cum-art-rock nadir, replete with steps for subtle metronomes and computerized sound effects that avoid vulgar sensationalism at all costs. Somebody take a good look at that singer's eyes and ask him whether he loves his mother. C MINUS

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Nebraska (Columbia) Literary worth is established with the title tune, in which Springsteen's Charlie Starkweather becomes the first mass murderer in the history of socially relevant singer-songwriting to entertain a revealing thought--wants his pretty baby to sit in his lap when he gets the chair. Good thing he didn't turn that one into a rousing rocker, wouldn't you say, though (Hüsker Dü please note) I grant that some hardcore atonality might also produce the appropriate alienation effect. But the music is a problem here--unlike, er, Dylan, or Robert Johnson, or Johnny Shines or Si Kahn or Kevin Coyne, Springsteen isn't imaginative enough vocally or melodically to enrich these bitter tales of late capitalism with nothing but a guitar, a harmonica, and a few brave arrangements. Still, this is a conceptual coup, especially since it's selling. What better way to set right the misleading premise that rock and roll equals liberation? A MINUS

STRAY CATS: Built for Speed (EMI America) Though the soft, shuffling bottom makes up in volume what it lacks in angle of attack and Brian Setzer integrates quite an array of modernistic exotica into his pickin', the mild vocals just ain't rockabilly. You know how it is when white boys strive for authenticity--'57 V-8 my ass. B MINUS

YAZ: Upstairs at Eric's (Sire) If Depeche Mode, the most bloodless synth-DOR unit this side of the German Federal Republic, can spin off such a soulful second generation, all is not lost. A tape-layered playlet does disfigure side one, but better godawful than bland, and before you complain about Vince Clarke's hackneyed take on modern romance you ought to remember that he only rejoined the human race a few months ago. I like to imagine that the agent of his salvation was new-age tough mama Alf Moyet, who can make any romantic cliché moderately credible. And I know for sure that the agent of her salvation is Clarke, whose spare, bright, intriguing, juicy electrocomp makes the credible compelling. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

A major exception to my cynical rundown on major-label EPs two months back is T-Bone Burnett's Trap Door, on Warner Bros., also the home of Gang of Four's superb Another Day/Another Dollar, the B-52's' album-worthy Mesopotamia, and (more recently) a live Blasters quickie that I played with instant pleasure and filed almost as quickly. Trap Door is no breakthrough for Burnett--I still prefer Truth Decay (Takoma) and The Alpha Band (Arista)--but does offer the cover of the year, his "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," as well as theusual reflections on sinful folly. Also worth mentioning is Kurtis Blow's Tough (Mercury), which runs over 25 minutes and does feature a first-rate title track, although his singsong gets wearing.

Village Voice, Nov. 30, 1982


Nov. 2, 1982 Dec. 28, 1982