Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Attentive readers will notice an oddity of format this month: two Pick Hits. This does not signal any softening on my part, not even in the spirit of yuletide overkill. It's just that I have mixed feelings about reproducing the cover of my Must to Avoid, Bob Welch's attractive-but-meretricious French Kiss. None of this chi-chi halfway porn; I much prefer Behind the Green Door to Helmut Newton. If we're going to design record jackets for wankers, let's see some of the real stuff: soft blow jobs, plaster casting, Magic Fingers freakouts, and guitarists making it with their roadies.

Also, of course, I just couldn't decide between True to Life and From Akron.


THE ALPHA BAND: Spark in the Dark (Arista) This unholy trio's second album is "humbly offered in the light of the triune God," but T-Bone Burnett still sounds like a helluva monad to me. He doesn't know as much as he thinks he does, but when he steps aside from the songwriting the group usually falls flat--and when he pitches in, these guys could almost pass for a country-rock Steely Dan without money. B PLUS

JOAN ARMATRADING: Show Some Emotion (A&M) Okay, I'm convinced. I've even begun to enjoy the album I C-plussed last year. Sometimes funny, always real, and never ever pretentious, she proves that a big, husky voice needn't turn you into a self-important fool. I played this record a lot when it came out. So why don't I have anything more specific to say about it? Because most of the meaning of the ordinary-plus lyrics is conveyed by nuance and stance. B PLUS [Later]

ELVIN BISHOP: Raisin' Hell (Capricorn) This live double-LP, four sides of strong material unmarred by a single extraneous show of chops, reveals why Elvin's good-time music is actually fun. Would Charlie Daniels or Richie Furay think to rouse a crowd by announcing: "Remember, this is not a rock concert, it's a cultural event--we won't have anybody raisin' their voices and gettin' rowdy"? Uh-uh--they'd be afraid it would backfire, and with them it might. A MINUS

BIZARROS/RUBBER CITY REVELS: From Akron (Clone) There's been a Lou Reed enclave around Cleveland since the late-Velvets days, and recently it's begun to produce musicians; maybe the real reason the Dead Boys left for New York was to avoid comparison with bands as smart as Devo and Pere Ubu. Even so, a self-produced album showcasing ten good songs is a pleasant shock. The Bizarros' deliberate discordances (including viola, lest we forget John Cale) are carried forward on surefire junk-rock riffs; mastermind Nick Nicholis has the hang of Lou's deadpan songspeech, although some of his mannerisms are otiose and the promising lyrics aren't worked as fine as they must be to sound natural. The stoopider approach of the Rubber City Rebels--"Gotta get a brain job/Gotta get it now/Gotta get a brain job/But I don't know how"--proves more foolproof. Alice Cooper sang about dead babies, these guys claim to eat them. The album seems to be in mono, with sound presence worthy of Andy Warhol, but it hasn't quit on me yet. A MINUS

OTIS BLACKWELL: These Are My Songs! (Inner City) He wrote them, all right, but only once--on an amazing "All Shook Up" that ranks with Presley's--does the singer in him manage to reclaim what was long ago appropriated from the composer. His pipes could be better, and a stiff backup doesn't help, but the basic problem is that Blackwell lacks authority as a performer--he may have invented a bag of tricks for Elvis and Jerry Lee, but he never developed enough sleight-of-manner to put them across. B MINUS [Later]

DAVID BOWIE: "Heroes" (RCA Victor) When I first heard the Enofied instrumental textures on side two, as background music, they struck me as more complex than their counterparts on Low, and they are. Low now seems quite pop, slick and to the point even when the point is background noise; in fact, after I completed my comparison, I began to play it a lot. But what was interesting background on "Heroes" proved merely noteworthy as foreground, admirably rather than attractively ragged. Maybe after the next album I'll get the drift of this one. B [Later: B+]

BREAKFAST SPECIAL (Rounder) Where it survives as indigenous country music, bluegrass may well be a wondrous thing, but among citybilly archivists it only magnifies the usual folkie escapisms--purism and pastoral nostalgia--by encouraging mindless virtuosity. Which makes this virtuosic but eclectically streetwise record a small miracle that should delight anyone more spiritually attuned to the genre than a faithless wretch like me. B PLUS

RAY CHARLES: True to Life (Atlantic) Charles hasn't sung with such consistent care in years. Not that he's given up his jocund audacity--two of the best cuts here are a miraculous recasting of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and a Bobby Charles song first recorded by, fancy that, Joe Cocker. But even on the throwaways he seems to remember the difference between goofing and goofing off. The first side is as listenable as any Charles I know, and I've learned to enjoy myself through the schmaltz of "Be My Love" and get to the easy stuff on side two. Now if only he'd let those Beatle ballads be. A MINUS

LOL CREME/KEVIN GODLEY: Consequences (Mercury) (Seven songs plus one piano concerto divided by 5cc.) plus (one paltry eccentric musician-battling-ecodisaster plot multiplied by Peter Cook) equals (three good-humored, inconsequential twelve-inch discs plus one twelve-inch booklet plus one gift box). Unfortunately, it also equals something else, sure as the world ends: a list price of $20.98. For which it is docked a notch. C

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: All 'n All (Columbia) I've always found Maurice White's music skillful, disjointed, and bland, but this time he's focused the horns, the vocal harmonies, and the rhythms and textures from many lands onto a first side that cooks throughout. Only one element is lacking. Still, unsympathetic as I am to lyrics about conquering the universe on wings of thought, they make me shake my booty anyway. B PLUS [Later]

FREDDY FENDER: Merry Christmas-Feliz Navidad From Freddy Fender (ABC/Dot) A tough ex-con blissfully unembarrassed by sentimentality, and with a terrific sense of rhythm, Freddy could have made a (bilingual!) Christmas album to rank with Phil Spector's. If only Huey Meaux (producer-svengali) hadn't hogged the copyrights, thus keeping Freddy away from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (his kind of song!) and--even worse--"Feliz Navidad" itself. But I kind of love it anyway, and if it doesn't match UA's rereleased 12 Hits of Christmas or Rhythm and Blues Christmas, it beats hell out of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's White (get it?) Christmas. B [Later]

REGGIE KNIGHTON: Reggie Knighton (Columbia) People who still believe Randy Newman's Little Criminals is a great record may be silly enough to think this is a good one. C PLUS

BETTE MIDLER: Broken Blossom (Atlantic) Bleh. So she can translate Billy Joel into Phil Spector--she has nevertheless become, at least on record, just another pop singer, albeit with a few interesting idea. I ask you, is the redemption of Billy Joel fit work for a culture heroine? C [Later]

CHARLES MINGUS: Three or Four Shades of Blue (Atlantic) Mingus's elitist aesthetic theories have always put me off his music, so when I'm told that the oldies on side one have been recorded with more fire in the past, I can only respond that now I'll want to hear them for myself. Side two is the best composed bebop I've come across all year; Larry Coryell and Sonny Fortune contribute their sharpest performances since fusion became commercial, and that's the least of it. A MINUS

ODYSSEY (RCA Victor) Native New Yorkers who just can't wait anymore for the next Dr. Buzzard have turned to this, in which the Dr.'s producer once again weaves meaningful lyrics into a texture discrete enough not to digest its own strands. But the sad truth is that words and music here are much less dry, audacious, and, well, hip. For me, they evoke the Anglophile West Indies rather than the barrio. Anyway, I came so disgracefully late to Dr. Buzzard that I'm still on my first wind. B MINUS [Later]

QUEEN: News of the World (Elektra) In which the group that last January brought us a $7.98 LP to boycott devotes one side to the wantonness of woman and the other to the futile rebelliousness of the doomed-to-life losers (those saps!) (you saps!) who buy and listen. C

SANTA ESMERALDA: Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (Casablanca) I know people who think a flamencoized fifteen-minute disco version of an Eric Burdon song is some sort of sacrilege, but I just hum along. Sacrilege? Eric Burdon? Doesn't anybody remember "Sky Pilot"? B [Later]

SPARKS: Introducing Sparks (Columbia) On its five albums for Bearsville and Island, this skillful brother act compounded personal hatefulness with a deliberately tense and uninviting take on pop-rock. But on their Columbia debut, Big Beat, they began to loosen up, and on the follow-up they actually come close with one cut, "Over the Summer," that belongs in any history of surf music, in the tending-to-hyperconsciousness section. This is tuneful, funny, even open. But the fear of women and the stubborn, spoiled-teenager cynicism is still there, and it's still hateful. B [Later]

RINGO STARR: Ringo the 4th (Atlantic) Less than three months after its release, the Ringo fan in me dutifully played this for a third and last time. Whereupon the journalist began to wonder how many people were buying such dreary music just because it was by a Beatle. And was both saddened and pleased to learn that the answer, for all practical purposes, was no one--it never got higher than 199 in Record World, which I'll bet was some statistician paying his respects. D

BOB WELCH: French Kiss (Capitol) When "rock" gets this creamy, it functions as disco for racists, people who'd rather play soft-core dominance games than dance anyway, and the classy lady flicking her tongue in the general direction of our classy artiste's ear lobe has the right idea: aural chic. 'Tis tuneful, though, and probably helps one get through the ironing as pleasantly as the Doobie Brothers do. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Five best-ofs emerge from my annual Christmas roundup as stylistically coherent albums that I actually expect to play again, rather than bargain-basement career-highlight hash. Johnnie Taylor's Chronicle--The 20 Greatest Hits (put together under the auspices of Fantasy, notable for its jazz twofers) collects grittier and more subtle Stax stuff than the Stax of old did on 1972's now-unavailable Greatest Hits, converting me to a singer I'd always considered overrated. Stevie Wonder's three-LP Looking Back, excerpted from his career before Talking Book, is flawed, long overdue, and essential. Roxy Music's Greatest Hits offers lotsa fast ones, lotsa hooks, and whaddaya know--this time I listened to "A Song for Europe" all the way through, almost. Paul Simon's Greatest Hits, Etc. lacks the substance of his first solo album, but works as a top-notch collection of thoughtful pop tunes. And Elton John's Greatest Hits Volume II includes two 45-rpm delights, "Philadelphia Freedom" and "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," in a bright sampler of his time atop the heap. Hashier are an ambitious Grateful Dead anthology, What a Long Strange Trip It's Been, that won't convert anybody; The Best of Arlo Guthrie, of little use unless you crave a new copy of "Alice's Restaurant Massacre" (previously available only on Arlo's otherwise amateurish debut LP); and Capitol's (not the Beatles') predictably soupy Love Songs. The Best of ZZ Top is a fairly gutsy boogie LP that is surprising only because it comes from such a shitty group; the O'Jays' Collectors Items includes many classics, but only one side is free of the mawkish bombast that is now their specialty. Finally, in descending order, to dramatize how I suffer: Platinum Jazz, by War; Repeat: The Best of Jethro Tull: Vol. II; The Osmonds Greatest Hits; the Bay City Rollers' Greatest Hits; Judy Collins's So Early in the Spring; and MFSB: End of Phase 1. One more thing--Neil Young's three-LP Decade belongs in some other discussion altogether. . . .

You Read It Here First: Your song to hate in '78 is already available in stores! It's called "Yes Sir, I Can Boogie," by a Spanish duo called Baccara. Don't wait--go out and burn one now. . . .

With almost no genuinely informed basis of comparison, and with my nose turned up at the reprocessed stereo, I must admit I enjoy a little taste of the quality pop music of 40 years ago that RCA's Benny Goodman--A Legendary Performer affords. . . .

The late Roland Kirk's Early Roots, recorded for Bethlehem long before he was Rahsaan, is the best r&b-based blowing session I've heard in a long time. . . .

Music Women, a monthly newsletter for managers and producers of women's music, is available for $10 a year from Sight & Sound Women, Box 880/Downstairs, 160 West 21st Street, NYC 10011. . . .

I have received two records called "Punk Rock Christmas," and what I want to know is, where are the Chipmunks [ . . . ]

Village Voice, Dec. 26, 1977

Postscript Notes:

The photocopy is clipped top, left, and bottom.


Oct. 31, 1977 Jan. 30, 1978