Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

This has been a delightful month, and if my selections appear less young than just back-dated, that's why. Taking it upon myself to go through a lot of boring old releases, I instead discovered a lot of interesting recent releases including A (minus) records from three veteran British groups I would have sworn had hung up their rock and roll shoes. Which more than balances a disappointment B plus from a similar group I always consider ambulatory until it is proven otherwise. I don't really take this resurgence of professionalism as a trend, but this is a year in which every good album, however flukey, warms my heart. With about twice as much luck over the next few weeks I may reach the magic goal of 30. Roxy Music sounds likely, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell less so, but there's a lot of weird stuff on my pending shelve that my current bonanza has me itching to feed my ears. Stay tuned. There's talk that the big downswing in record sales has ended. There isn't any real possibility that quality had something to do with it, is there? I mean, Pink Floyd and Elton John both went number one.

A minuses are good bets, B plusses worth a chance. Merry Christmas.


AMAZING RHYTHM ACES: Stacked Deck (ABC) If you wanted to be stuffy about it, you could complain that Russell Smith's line about "two lovely lesbian ladies slow-dancin' on a parquet floor" is condescending, but I'll settle. There's enough natural hip here to last most Southern rock bands a career, with the added attraction that this isn't a Southern rock band, not hardly, despite the Memphis locus and blues inflections. Some of them worked with Jesse Winchester, but his magnolia rue didn't rub off either. Just another redefinition of rockabilly, I suppose, which is to say, something else new under the sun. A MINUS

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: Texas Gold (Capitol) If honest country music is what we need, then the mildly satiric mood of this is a bonus, especially considering the flatness of this group's second LP, on Epic. But when I consider the matter-of-fact pain and brutality of the first one, on United Artists, I conclude that honest country music means more than commitment to good sound and sounds, which is what we have here. B PLUS

JIMMY CLIFF: Follow My Mind (Reprise) Seekers after a reggae triumvirate insist that this album represents an improvement. It doesn't. Cliff is a victim of the folkie fallacy in which to sing rhymed homelities clearly and sincerely is to make good music. It isn't. C [Later: C+]

DR. JOHN: Hollywood Be Thy Name (United Artists) In which M. Rebennack's gris gris live is revealed unmistakeably for the shlock it's always been. Granted, it was often very good shlock, but not on this record--with its in-jokes, its cronyism, its sloppy copies, its fuzzy simulated-club sound. Nadir: the 253rd recorded version of "Yesterday." C MINUS

FLEETWOOD MAC (Reprise) Why is this Fleetwood Mac album different from all other Fleetwood Mac albums? The answer is supergroup fragmentation in reverse: the addition of two singer-songwriters who as Buckingham Nicks were good enough--or so somebody thought--to do their own LP for Polydor a while back. And so, after five years of struggling for a consistency that became their hobgoblin, they make it sound easy. In fact, they come up with this year's easy-listening classic. Roll on. A MINUS

TERRY GARTHWAITE: Terry (Arista) Anyone who can trace the genealogy of a "Rock & Roller" (song title) "from Bessie to Billie to B.B. to Boz"--that would appear to mean Boz Scaggs, folks--obviously has eccentric ideas about rock and roll. This turns out to be a virtue. Moving Joy of Cooking's folk-jazz fusion much closer to jazz, Garthwaite emerges as a kind of white, upbeat Esther Phillips, applying a gritty Dinah Washington cast to post-rock lyrics both metaphorical and incantatory. But she's more flexible, happier--her delight in pure sound suggests both scat improvisation and novelty nonsense--and if the long-windedness of the cuts here must be blamed on a singer who's worked too long outside the studio, we can credit their occasional stiffness to producer David Rubinson, who deserves to be trapped in an elevator with the Tower of Power. A MINUS

GRATEFUL DEAD: Blues for Allah (Grateful Dead) I've been hypersensitive to this band's virtues for years. This time I find the arch aimlessness of their musical approach neurasthenic and their general muddle-headedness worthy of Yes or the Strawbs. C MINUS

KING FLOYD: Well Done (Chimneyville) Anyone with passionate memories of an obscure soul hit called "I Feel Like Dynamite," overheard in the summer of '74 on an auto journey because it bypassed New York, is not self-deluded. And if this collection is the only form in which you can obtain that song, maybe you should--it's not devoid of amenities. But it is the kind of album that makes me wish I still owned a jukebox. C PLUS [Later: B]

GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS: Second Anniversary (Buddah) The image development here is tricky, more sophisticated than the MOR cowardice you might expect from would-be television stars. Trouble is, neither Gene McDaniel's upwardly mobile hipness (he has the Pips playing "street brothers" on their cut) nor the way-we'll-be cabaret shtick of grafting Jimmy Dorsey onto Paul Williams is sophistication enow. And so the winning song comes from David Gates, running a neck ahead of Jim Weatherly. B MINUS [Later: C+]

LABELLE: Phoenix (Epic) Maybe if Patti came a little more like the falling rain and a little less like a water main these songs about quasars and amazing birds wouldn't sound so gushy. Exception: "Far As We Felt Like Goin'" which Nona Hendryx didn't write. C

MANFRED MANN'S EARTH BAND: Nightingales & Bombers (Warner Bros.) Space doodlers at their worst, these guys bristle with cerebral energy at their best, setting the self-conscious funkiness of songwriters like Dr. John and Randy Newman in a formalistic, futuristic rock context. This time Bruce Springsteen and Joan Armatrading get the treatment, and the result is a surprisingly songful album, their most gratifying in three years. Just in time for Mick Rogers to take his guitar and go home. You think maybe he prefers doodling? A MINUS [Later: B+]

DOLLY PARTON: Dolly (RCA Victor) In her productivity and devotion to writing, Parton suggests a 19th-century woman novelist--kind of a hillbilly Louisa May Alcott, if such is imaginable. What's best about her is her spunkiness and prettiness (Jo crossed with Amy); what's worst is her sentimentality and failures of imagination (Beth crossed with Meg). Like most country artists, she yields too much product, so it's lucky that she sings as well as she writes, with an intensity of belief that gives at least some life to the worst greeting-card doggerel. That's all that salvages what would otherwise be an atrociously sentimental collection. Highly recommended alternative: The Best of Dolly Parton, released this past summer. Time? 28:10. C [Later: C+]

ESTHER PHILLLIPS W/BECK: What a Diff'rence a Day Makes (Kudu) When it works, Phillips's music is a perfectly balanced synthesis of good songs and good beat. This time her producers try to sink her into a disco groove, so it's not surprising that the songs sound a little untracked. B

PINK FLOYD: Wish You Were Here (Columbia) I'm pleased to report that this is no dumb tribulations-of-a-rock-star epic--its dedication to long-departed crazy Syd Barrett gives it an emotional purpose that undercuts what little self-pity lyricist Roger Waters allows himself. And I'm happy to add that the music is simple and attractive, especially by the standards of the psychedelic sound-effects tradition, with the synthesizer used mostly for texture and the guitar breaks for comment. In fact, I'm astonished to conclude that this is a very good record. And to remark that the cover and liner art is worthy of most of the stoned raps it has no doubt already inspired. A MINUS

NEIL SEDAKA: The Hungry Years (Rocket) Modes of integrity: Sedaka's Back, compiled from two-plus English albums, sounded organic, while this star-time El Lay session sounds homogenized. Neil's voice has changed--the light girl-groupy moments have turned bitchy and the sentimentality is thick with incipent sobs. You gotta figure best-ofs are his natural element and remember that only if he goes away can he come back again. C PLUS

PAUL SIMON: Still Crazy After All These Years (Columbia) I resented the patina of cheerfulness on There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973) because I thought it sold out the terse, evocative candor of Paul Simon (1972). Now I miss its intimations of universality. I hope in 1977 I'm not moved to praise unduly the small, self-involved ironies that define this record at its best ("50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," "You're Kind") without alleviating its lugubriousness ("Night Game," "Silent Eyes"). P.S. As you probably know, Art Garfunkel is back for one number. As you may not have noticed, Simon takes this as a cue to revert to the sophomoricism of "Richard Cory" and "The Sound of Silence." B

PATTI SMITH: Horses (Arista) I don't feel much intellectual sympathy for Smith's apocalyptic romanticism. Her ideas are as irrelevant to any social apocalypse I can envision as they are to my present as a well-adjusted, well-rewarded media professional. But Smith (in this manifestation) is a musician, not a philosopher. Music is different; the fact that I'm fairly obsessive about rock and roll indicates that on some level I need a little apocalypse, just to keep my superego honest. That, of course, is exactly what she's trying to tell us. However secondhand her apprehension of the surreal, the way she connects it with the youthcult/rock and roll nexus is revelation enough for now. This record loses her humor, but it gets the minimal fury of her band and the revolutionary dimension of her singing just fine, and I haven't turned off any of the long arty cuts yet. A MINUS [Later: A]

BILLY SWAN: Rock 'n Roll Moon (Monument) Any rockabilly who sings "I'm still me and you're still you" as if he's boasting, or trying to, knows the intense nervousness of good old macho in a way Carl Perkins only had nightmares about. Which is why this record is as good as it is, and also why it isn't any better. B PLUS

UFO: Force It (Chrysalis) Heavy metal that's not hard to take? What? B [Later: B-]

THE WHO: The Who by Numbers (MCA) This record is more depressing than my dispassionate grade would indicate, not just because from the Who we expect better--do we, really, any more?--but because Peter Townshend's runaway fatalism encourages dispassion. It's not over--when their tour opened in Houston they appeared to be putting out. But the only way I could tell for sure was by watching the kids around me. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Reissue Report: Discovery of the month is Lefty Frizzell, the Jimmie Rodgers/Hank Williams hybrid whose recent death has been commemorated with a greatest hits album from Columbia that won't disappoint anybody who enjoys either or both of his influences. Runner-up is tenor sax man Illinois Jacquet, who perfected the r&b honk in a jazz context where it stood up on its own. His album: How High the Moon, a twofer on Prestige. As Gary Giddins made clear recently, Volume One of The Complete Fats Waller, on Bluebird, is indispensable to ebullience addicts who missed the more selective Vintage LPs. Barry White's Greatest Hits is available for Christmas, although since it comes only in gold you'll have to provide the plain brown wrapper yourself. Sire's pre-Beatles Roots of British Rock has a historical and even aesthetic integrity that I miss in its History of British Rock series. Disappointments: Pye's The Searchers (the Zombies they ain't), ABC's release of Narvel Felt's Cinnamon hits (Conway Twitty he ain't) and Vanguard's Essential Larry Coryell (Larry Coryell he ain't). . . .

One thing I have to grant the Tubes: definitely not cockamamy. They are intelligent, flexible and observant, and their stagecraft (props and acting both) far exceeds that of any rock theatre yet seen. But musically they are barren--it's fine to steal your best riffs from the Velvets and BTO (another joke?) as long as you steal enough of them--and they lack what that old theatre maven Aristotle used to call telos (that's purpose, everybody). If they were to achieve mass success they might have something to tell the mass audience, but since that's almost certainly not their concern the results could also be very unpleasant. This non-mass left without learning anything or feeling any better. For rock and roll, pretty good theatre; for theatre, pretty good rock and roll. . . .

Predictably, there is backlash on the Dylan tour. The top price, announced at $7.50, turns out to be $8.50, and there is talk that he's playing more big halls than was originally projected. Myself, I wonder why playing small halls is considered such a populist move anyway. Seems like just the other side of the paradox to me. Whoever called me about The Maytals Greatest Hits on Beverley's: my offer holds.

Village Voice, Dec. 1, 1975


Oct. 27, 1975 Dec. 22, 1975