Christgau's Consumer Guide
In the interest of squeezing in some pre-Christmas Additional Consumer News I'm keeping the intro short. The theme this month is damn with faint praise, a record harvest of six B minuses, all attached to big-selling or well-reviewed LPs by name artists. Whether this represents a retreat from competence, a rise in the requirements of competence, or an advance from lackadaisy I'm not prepared to say. What I am prepared to say is that if you buy such records you may not even have the satisfaction of feeling cheated--just the vague consciousness that you're not playing the damn thing as much as you expected to, or getting what you wanted. Caveat emptor and venditor both.
AFRICA DANCES (Authentic) What The Harder They Come does for reggae this sampler attempts to do for the American-influenced urban music of Africa. Its scope is necessarily broad, but only once does an alien-sounding rhythm (Arabic tarabu) interfere with its remarkable listenability. The mood might be described as folk music with brass, for although the horn techniques are familiar from big-band jazz, r&b, and especially salsa, the overall effect is much less biting than that would imply. There's something penetratingly decent, humorous, and even civil about this music, as if the equanimity of tribal cultures at peace at least with themselves has not yet been overwhelmed by media-nourished crosscultural complexities. If this is my misapprehension, perhaps it is reinforced by the fact that the lyrics aren't in English, although I don't get anything similar from salsa. Anyway, this is a find. John Storm Roberts put it together (with notes) two years ago and has about 100 copies of his first pressing left; as he's since dissolved the record company, check ($5.98 postpaid, $6.45 in New York State) must be made out to him. A MINUS [Later: A]
THE ALPHA BAND (Arista) Finally a decent record comes out of Rolling Thunder, from what sounds like a country-rock band shocked by city living into a credible, slightly surrealistic nastiness, rather than the usual sleazy lies. T-Bone Burnett is that rare combination, a tall, inspired crazy; David Mansfield is a precocious, multi-instrumental sound effects man, and Steve Soles is a speed-rapping narcissist who can be thrown to the Poco fans. Plus a rhythm section that plays actual rock and roll. And Bobby Neuwirth in the background, where he belongs. B PLUS
BURNING SPEAR: Man in the Hills (Island) Winston Rodney is probably the most interesting figure--vocally, lyrically, and politically--to arise in reggae this year. Who can argue with someone who makes a chant out of "It is good when a man can think for himself"? But most of his songs have the limitations of chants, and I'm not ready to make the leap it takes to believe in them as music. B [Later: B+]
JOSEPH BYRD: Yankee Transcendoodle (Takoma) Subtitle: "Electronic Fantasies for Patriotic Synthesizer." Further description by artist: "This album is a series of aural and spatial fantasies evoking the spirit of American patriotic music." I quote because I can't think of a way to say it better myself, a symptom of my failure to connect with these great old tunes despite my admiration for both the pride and humor of the concept and the confidence of the execution. The abstractness here may be appropriate--is appropriate--but that doesn't mean it isn't alienating. All lovers of American music should try to hear this record. But not even the "Internationale," which Byrd managed to sneak in somehow, moves me to wave the flag for it. B
J.J. CALE: Troubadour (Shelter) Go back to sleep J.J., it was only a dream. You're not a troubadour. Troubadours go places. B MINUS [Later]
THE JIMMY CASTOR BUNCH: E-Man Grooving (Atlantic) When Castor says "that funky monster's breathin' fire down my neck," does he refer to Count Dracula, the rather cool get-down man on this LP, or is he planning a hot follow-up? B
ERIC CLAPTON: No Reason to Cry (RSO) This well-made, rather likable rock and roll shows more pride and joy than the standard El Lay studio product--probably because the characters here assembled don't do this kind of thing all that much--and is a lot more listenable than Clapton's second Miami LP. The words are trite but the singing is eloquent and the instrumental signature an almost irresistible pleasure. When he's been great, however, Clapton has always been shaped by a concept, and I don't perceive one here. B MINUS [Later]
EARTH, WIND & FIRE: Spirit (Columbia) EW&F are the real black MOR, equivalent in their catchy way to the oh-so-expert Carpenters, though of course they're much better because they're black--that is, because the post-Sly and harmony-group usages they've had to master are so rich and resilient. Most of these songs are fun to listen to. But they're still MOR--the only risk they take is running headlong into somebody coming down the middle of the road in the opposite direction. Like the Carpenters. B
HANNIBAL (MPS) In jazz I've always been a saxophone man; I find trumpets too clean, so that even when Miles Davis is presiding I long for some breath of raunch to scent the proceedings. But this record, led by Hannibal Marvin Peterson over piano, cello, bass, and percussion, caught my ear immediately with its post-Coltrane strength and swing. I dissent as usual from the poem with percussion (about Africa, of course), but regard it as an appropriate price to pay for this fierce, coherent, auspicious trumpet music. B PLUS
GEORGE HARRISON: Thirty-Three & 1/3 (Dark Horse) This isn't as worldly as George wants you to think--or as he thinks himself, for all I know--but it ain't fulla shit either. "Crackerbox Palace" is the best thing he's written since "Here Comes the Sun" (not counting "Deep Blue," hidden away on the B side of "Bangla-Desh," or--naughty, naughty--"My Sweet Lord"), and if "This Song" were on side two I might actually play the record again. B MINUS
KC & THE SUNSHINE BAND: Part 3 (T.K.) I don't know how many KC albums the record lover need own. One may well be enough, but zero is certainly too few. This is less consistent than the second and more predictable than the first, but it's a close question: Casey and Finch are remarkably inventive within their uniquely limited range. Like the others, this sounds so samey you think the riffs will never kick in--and then they do. B PLUS [Later]
BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS: Live! (Island) For an in-concert LP this boasts commendably distinct sound and economical arrangements; the material is choice and the performance on "No Woman, No Cry" probably definitive. But the rushed tempos and girl-group harmonies are a depressing reminder of how much reggae can lose when translated into rock. Believe me, "Trenchtown Rock" can be a far more painful and profound celebration than it is here. B [Later: A-]
STEVE MILLER: Fly Like an Eagle (Capitol) Miller's pop-inclined eccentricity--blues harp amid the Sam Cooke amid the technologized ditties--is unsatisfying because it has no center or even epicenter. He plays willfully, like a spoiled child, not for the fun of it, but to prove he doesn't have to make his bed if he doesn't want to. Fly like an eagle indeed--the Eagles themselves have flown higher and prouder than this. B MINUS [Later: B+]
TED NUGENT: Free-for-All (Epic) Side one is well-wrought heavy metal--tensile and clever, reminiscent of Deke Leonard only clearer. Side two is the usual frantic melodrama. B MINUS
ROBERT PALMER: Some People Can Do What They Like (Island) My guess is that Palmer dresses classy as a subterfuge, to make people think that subdued quality is deliberate. Instead he's convinced me that I'll get off on a white r&b singer from Savile Row the same day I give up Jack Daniel's for sherry and join the Dartmouth Club. C PLUS
GRAHAM PARKER & THE RUMOUR: Heat Treatment (Mercury) Parker doesn't just have the makings of a major artist, he is one. Nevertheless, this isn't quite as engaging as last spring's Howlin Wind, one of the finest LPs of the year, because rockers like Parker need lots of fast songs for leavening. The more reflective and/or accusatory tendency of his r&b compositions here shows up his rather narrow vocal and melodic range, which even the verve of the Rumour's arrangements and Parker's deft and pithy way with vernacular speech don't entirely redeem. Try Howlin Wind first. After you've gotten into it--Parker songs are built of such familiar materials that it takes a while--you'll probably want to acquire this. A MINUS [Later: A]
LOU REED: Rock and Roll Heart (Arista) "I Believe in Love" is a fairly hilarious send-up of the let's-get-down game Lou is playing right now. I mean, could Mitch Ryder or Ian Hunter comfortably cover lines like: "I believe in the Iron Cross/And as everybody knows/I believe in good-time music/Good-time rock and roll"? (Christ, I hope they don't take this as a challenge.) But the joke doesn't quite hold up, and sometimes it gets lost altogether, at which point Reed sounds like he's imitating his worst enemy, himself. Not the disgrace his followers believe, but not the bad-time music he's capable of. B MINUS [Later]
SILVER CONVENTION: Madhouse (Midland International) Just what you've always wanted--protest disco, in which the philosophical evasions of disco and its life-style are taken on (in "oratorio" form) within the genre itself. That means it's simplistic by definition. It's also a noteworthy curio, and if you're as fond of Silver Convention's style as I am, a listenable one. B PLUS [Later: B]
Additional Consumer News
The winner of the Finest of Carmen McRae contest is Hal Samis of Manhattan, who named The Dave Clark Five's Greatest Hits, on Epic, which clocks in at 21:33, a full 25 seconds shorter than the McRae. Close but no cigar was Paul Gross, who entered the same LP a few days later. SP4 Larry J. Smith suggested Billy Preston's Organ Transplant (great title), although since it was issued on cheapo Pickwick I'm not sure it counts. Finally, I lost the entry of someone else who found several other classic shorties and also distinguished himself by assuming that Carmen McRae was male. Speaking of losses, Hal Samis will have to send me his address to claim his prize. . . .
'Tis the season to be jolly and the racks are decked with best-ofs. Asylum offers a quite listenable Linda Ronstadt that, because it draws on both her Capitol and Asylum phases, may actually be preferable to Heart Like a Wheel. Capitol and Atlantic are marketing useless collections from George Harrison and Aretha Franklin, respectively, and CBS has raided the catalogues of four groups of sometime substance. Both Steppenwolf and Ten Years After did their best work for earlier labels; as here collected, the former run like your average heavy Chevy in need of a valve job and the latter run like pigs from the slaughter ("I'd Love to Save the World" epitomizes the political reaction of English blues rock). Four of the 10 New Riders cuts come from their first and only good album, which I guess wasn't that good. But as someone who never admired Mott or The Hoople that much. I find that the new Mott the Hoople collection serves as a convenient compendium; only two repeats from All the Young Dudes, which is still in catalogue and still sounds revelatory.
Village Voice, Dec. 27, 1976