Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

You'll find the annual Christmas best-of roundup below in Additional Consumer News. Bear in mind that I judge compilation albums not just on strict aesethetic quality but on usefulness--I'm dubious about records that compromise the work of substantial album artists by overexposing their best songs. Of course, if you happen to like Hall & Oates as much as I do the English Beat, your response might well prove the reverse of mine. So get your priorities in order, okay?


BAD BRAINS: Rock for Light (PVC) Mediocre hardcore you can ignore, especially if you live in an area where they dig up the street a lot; hardcore of a certain quality you love or hate. More than ex-fusioneer Dr. Know on "gits," it's the distinctive if not exactly authoritative blackboard-screechy "throat" of H.R. that provides the quality here, and I like it, kind of. Though this repeats five tunes from their ROIR cassette, it's definitive by virtue of its Ric Ocasek production and vinyl audio. You know what to do. B PLUS

BAD RELIGION: Into the Unknown (Epitaph) Like a less musicianly version of the departed TSOL, this promising L.A. hardcore outfit has moved on to slower-tempo, organ-drenched hard rock that resembles nothing so much as late Hawkwind. Some may call it caterwaul, but I find myself moved by its anthemic ambition--and achievement. Conceptual clincher: the way they surround the dystopian-gothic tales and images--the kind of stuff that comes naturally to committed teenagers who know they're growing up but don't know they like it--with "It's Only Over . . ." and ". . . When You Give Up." A MINUS

BLACK STAR LINER: REGGAE FROM AFRICA (Heartbeat) Because the great African groove is airborne where the Jamaican is of the earth, bass-and-drums on this seven-artist, eight-cut compilation do little more than follow standard patterns, and the chantlike tunes remind you how much Jamaican melodies owe to English hymns and nursery rhymes. But that's in no way to suggest that this music isn't captivating on its own terms. The vocals bear the same yearning relationship to their more stylized Jamaican inspirations that Jamaican vocals do to the showier models of U.S. soul: the need to reach out to the black diaspora has rarely been more palpable. And the lyrics, all in English, explain some whys and wherefores. [Original grade: A minus] B PLUS

CULTURE CLUB: Colour by Numbers (Epic) Boy George really doesn't sound like Smokey Robinson, you know--not the way Frankie Miller sounds like Otis Redding, not even the way John Cougar sounds like Bruce Springsteen. If he did, he could probably put this tuneful collection all the way over--Smokey's spiritual gravity has redeemed some pretty lightweight lyrics, so this sensual specificity might just salvage some vague ones. As it is, George's warm, well-meaning, slightly clumsy croon signifies most effectively when it has the least to say--when it's most purely a medium for his warm, well-meaning, slightly clumsy self. Just like Helen Terry, who packs the voice of Merry Clayton into the body of Gertrude Stein, his real aim in life is to reenact the story of the ugly duckling--and to radiate the kind of extreme tolerance that's so often engendered by extreme sexual ambiguity. B PLUS

GREEN ON RED: Gravity Talks (Slash) Static on stage, its records diverting but ephemeral, L.A. neopsychedelica is yet another nostalgic, romantic, "commercial" extension of/reaction to an uncompromising rock and roll vanguard; it bears the same relation to slam-pit hard core as New York neopop did to CBGB punk. Since psychedelica was fairly silly even in the '60s, I'm agin it, at least in theory. I must admit, though, that the dumb tunes on this album not only stick with me but grow on me, in their gauche way. Just wish I knew whether I was laughing with them or at them. And when the verse about the dead dad follows the verse about the dead dog, I suspect the worst. B PLUS

Z.Z. HILL: I'm a Blues Man (Malaco) The title boast is inauspicious. If Hill's 1981 Down Home turned into a phenomenal 450,000-sold-and-counting sleeper on mere stylistic integrity, then why didn't his 1982 The Rhythm and the Blues do almost as well? You guessed it--song quality went way down. But after the bad start it rebounds considerably here. Personal to Tommy Couch: is Jimmy Lewis ready for another album of his own, or is he a stay-at-home? B PLUS

MADONNA (Sire) In case you bought the con, disco never died--just reverted to the crazies who thought it was worth living for. This shamelessly ersatz blonde is one of them, and with the craftily orchestrated help of a fine selection of producers, remixers, and DJs, she's come up with a shamelessly ersatz sound that's tighter than her tummy--essence of electro, the D in DOR. At first I thought the electroporn twelve-inch that pairs "Burning Up" with "Physical Attraction" was the way to go, but that was before she'd parlayed the don't-let-me-down vagueness of "Borderline" into a video about interracial love (sex, I mean) and a sneaky pop hook simultaneously. At one stiff per four-song side, smarter than Elvis Costello. [Original grade: B] A MINUS

MASSACRE: Killing Time (Celluloid/OAO) This Fred Frith thang is given to the same deconstructive clichés that undermine so many of the others. But the no-bullshit powerdrive of Bill Laswell and Fred Maher provokes some of his sharpest compositions since Henry Cow--and some fairly sharp improvisations, too. It pains me to report, however, that the blistering, acerbic pace I've heard them build live never materializes. B PLUS

BETTE MIDLER: No Frills (Atlantic) Although it helps that she gets stronger material than usual from yet another phalanx of International Pop Music Community pros, what makes this Bette's best studio album in a decade is a Habana production number set in Miami, a newly written Sophie Tucker song about a driving wheel, and not-quite-comic readings of Marshall Crenshaw and Jagger-Richard. What makes it not good enough is the curse of Broadway rock and roll--the beat is conceived as decoration or signal rather than the meaning of life, or even music. B MINUS

PABLO MOSES: In the Future (Alligator) With his precise, delicate, discretely dubwise production--sly horn part there, elegantly understated percussion effect here, bass and drums measured into the groove--and quiet, even timid vocal manner, this poet-turned-rootsman sounds like the most live-and-let-live of ital mystics. In fact he's not only urban but interested in subways and Bellevue, not only militant but smart about it--which is to say among other things that he doesn't seem to think his natural is the only natural. A

WILLIE NELSON: Without a Song (Columbia) With music as subtle as Nelson's you wonder whether you're imagining things. Maybe we've just had it with his shtick--maybe a Martian couldn't tell the difference between this and Stardust. Then again, what do Martians know? Not only is Nelson choosing cornier material--self-serving schlock like the title song, awkward fripperies like "A Dreamer's Holiday"--but the relaxed, let's-wing-it delicacy has simply disappeared. When he tries at all, he usually oversings, and he's finally hitting the wrong clinkers. If you don't believe me, compare this "Autumn Leaves" to Stardust's timeless "September Song." Or ask yourself whether Julio Iglesias doesn't sound right at home on "As Time Goes By." C PLUS

WILLIE NELSON WITH WAYLON JENNINGS: Take It to the Limit (Columbia) I enjoy this entry all right, with "Why Do I Have To Choose," a cheating song without a moral, the high point. But two things bother me. First, I prefer the songs I've never heard before to those I'm acquainted with to those I know well. Second, Waylon adds something. B MINUS

RAY PARKER JR.: Woman Out of Control (Arista) "I Still Can't Get Over Loving You," his sweetest, sexiest hit ballad ever, rips Brit synth-pop as shamelessly as "The Other Woman" ripped the Stones, but his grip becomes less definitive on the very next tune, which barely loosens the hem of Prince's garment. And side two holds on strictly to Ray's tried and true. B

LIONEL RICHIE: Can't Slow Down (Motown) Given Richie's well-established appeal to white people, this surprisingly solid album bids fair to turn into a mini-Thriller, and good for him--it's a real advance. In the years since he became a ballad writer he's learned how to sing them--"Hello" is nowhere near as magical a song as "Easy," but the grain of Richie's delivery gives you something to sink your ears into. And where the Commodores' funk often sounded a little forced, his jumpy international dance-pop comes to him naturally even when he's putting on that stupid West Indian accent. B PLUS

SHALAMAR: The Look (Solar) I prefer Go for It's soft-spoken groove, but the brilliant vocals and processed high-end percussion of their latest crossover move are an up. Added group participation probably helps, though contract players continue to dominate. And it definitely helps that the contract players have written some hits with punch, both certified--the percussive "Dead Giveaway"--and honorary--the Jeffrey Daniel vehicle "No Limits (The Now Club)." B PLUS

DAVID THOMAS AND THE PEDESTRIANS: Variations on a Theme (Sixth International) David Thomas leader-member was willing to have his ideas fucked with; David Thomas solo isn't. Maybe that's because the ideas have gotten narrower; they've certainly gotten slighter. His whimsies can be charming, his jokes are often worth a chuckle, and he couldn't ask for more sensitive accompanists than Richard Thompson and Anton Fier. Maybe someday he'll write a Peter and the Wolf for our time. B

THE THREE O'CLOCK: Sixteen Tambourines (Frontier) I keep trying to find an analogy for the precious falsettos affected by this baroquely tuneful little band. But except maybe for that prepsychedelic Dreamer Freddie Garrity, none of the obvious influences--early Bee Gees, early Floyd, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Lemon Pipers--is insufferable enough. Really, fellows, the first time around this stuff might (I said might) have been fun. In 1983 it's likely to make a grown man puke. C PLUS

JAMES BLOOD ULMER: Odyssey (Columbia) I always figured great Blood would sound like the climactic "Swing and Things"--pure virtuosic rave-up, Mahavishnu with soul and ideas. But of course, great Blood ended up sounding like nothing I could have predicted. With a new band comprising drummer Warren Benbow and violinist Charles Burnham--that's right, funk fans, no bass, though with Ulmer's strong fingers you can't always tell--he's created an ur-American synthesis that takes in jazz, rock, Delta blues (suddenly his mush-mouthed vocals kick home, especially on the heart-torn "Please Tell Her"), and even country music (though Burnham's fiddle also has a Middle Eastern effect). I don't mean he goes from one to the other, either--most of the time, you'd be hard-pressed to pin just one style on any of this painfully beautiful stuff. Great Blood, that's all. A

YELLOWMAN: Live at Reggae Sunsplash (Sunsplash) If Big Youth is the dread George Jessel, then the albino orphan who's supplanted him as JA's premier toaster is something altogether more waggish and blue, an unwitting amalgam of Eddie Cantor, Mae West, and Pigmeat Markham. Though groovemasters follow wherever he goes, his albums tend to run together because music isn't really the point, and neither is political or spiritual uplift. The point is entertainment, and live he concentrates on his best material, blued up a bit to give the crowd something extra for its money. Encore: "Sit Under Me." B PLUS

YOLOCAMBA ITA: Revolutionary Songs of El Salvador (Flying Fish) This exiled quintet can bring off their programmatic, translation-provided celebrations, tributes, parables, and calls to action for this English-only Yank because political folk music makes an urgent kind of sense in a country where a politicized peasantry can be banished or much worse for enjoying it. In my limited experience, the closest parallels to their Andean/Indian guitars and percussion and around-the-fire interaction would be the Chilean groups Quilapayun and Inti-Illimani. This is both more quirkishly indigenous and more predictably Iberian-romantic, complete with a string synthesizer that lends its cheesy grandeur to the elegiac-anyway melodies that climax side two. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

This hasn't been much of a year for great albums, best-ofs included. Last Christmas gave us Stevie Wonder and Chuck Berry and the Bellamy Brothers and Wizards from the Southside and Ray Parker and Squeeze and Shalamar and Billy Stewart, each a supremely logical record in its own way. This year only Rhino's Best of Slim Harpo makes that cut, a depressing turn of events that discourages differentiation among throwaways. (Michael) Bloomfield (Columbia) is even more for-scholars-only than previous double-disc memorials to the likes of Paul Kossoff, Duane Allman, and Eric Clapton, who was being mistaken for dead as long ago as '72. James Bond 13 Original Themes (Liberty) was fun to listen to once. And I must cite an amazing statistical oddity: Kenny Rogers's 20 Greatest Hits (Liberty) is a single disc brought in by the long-winded bastard at what as far as I know is the record length of 72:32, which makes it three times as long as The Best of Louise Mandrell & R.C. Bannon (RCA Victor), eight songs totalling 23:44. I should mention that I had more fun with the latter, which cuts the phrase "Just Married" two ways (cf. "Our Wedding Band") and which does list for a mere $6.98 (subtract three more tunes and peddle it to new wavers as an EP). And oh yeah, there's Guy Clark's Greatest Hits (RCA Victor), which replaces three tracks from his just-this-minute deleted Old No. 1, two of them bittersweet love-and-sex songs, with three newer Texas-mythos numbers--very conceptual, but hardly an improvement on the admittedly obscure original. As for the rest, alphabetical order is as much as they deserve: Air Supply, Neil Diamond, Crystal Gayle, Melissa Manchester, Alan Parsons Project, Eddie Rabbit, Ray Stevens. And if that seems like not very many, well, after last year bizzers didn't really have much left to throw at us. In the current boom, the catalogue which kept the industry's head above water during the lean years is probably doomed to obscurity once again--if you have to warehouse all that Yes and Genesis, the Coasters suddenly seem temptingly expendable again . . .

The best-of is assuming more unpredictable shapes in any case. With its various remixes, live versions, and non-LP U.K. singles, the English Beat's What Is Beat? (I.R.S.) portends the consumer confusion of compilations to come. Strictly speaking, eight of its 13 offerings are new to LP, but in general I prefer the original cuts (and sequencing); also, I can't understand why the hot disco remix of "Twist and Crawl" was left out of the grab bag. In other words, buy I Just Can't Stop It, Wha'ppen? and Special Beat Service first. And if you're into these collector variations, you might as well go for the cassette version, which though it's slightly inferior audiowise does exploit the biz's sanest tactic in the great campaign to scourge home taping by adding four more tracks, two live and two U.K.-only, including the secret classic "Wrong Side of the Bed." A more functional consumer object is the Jam's two-disc Snap! (Polydor), the closest thing to a classic best-of to arrive this year. Postpunk Britain's biggest singles band was disappointing on album because Paul Weller had a lot less gift for the riff than his mod hero Pete Townshend. My problem with the set is that even Weller's hits got across more on tension and tenderness than on such body-balms as melody or his proudly proferred beat, but Anglophiles-come-lately shouldn't mind, and this is definitely where to get to know him. Daryl Hall and John Oates's Rock'n Soul Part 1 (RCA Victor) is definitely where to get to know them too, and though I wouldn't wait around for that marriage proposal if I were you, there's no denying the instant pleasure of such slick tricks as the bitchy "Rich Girl," the seductive "One on One," and the relevant "Adult Education." Joan Armatrading's Track Record (A&M) divides pretty neatly between Steve Lillywhite's new wave, which means the drums are loud, and Glyn Johns rock, which means she gets to be loud under her own steam. Even though it follows dubious recent practice by baiting/larding the compilation with three previously unrecorded "hits"-by-association (which don't happen to shoot as sure as those on the Hall & Oates and the Armatrading), Smokey Robinson's Blame It On Love and All the Great Hits (Tamla) is the perfect introduction for those whose Smokey stops in the '60s (even the middle '70s) as well as a welcome luxury for fans of Where There's Smoke . . . and Warm Thoughts. Every Great Motown Hit of Marvin Gaye (Motown) is easily the most "spectacular" (true-life hype, unlike the title) music in this batch, with side two offering as flawless a 25 minutes of '70s Marvin as either side of the deleted Super Hits does of '60s Marvin, wherein likes the rub--the three-disc Anthology is cheaper per minute and includes such MIA classics as "Stubborn Kind of Fella," "Hitch Hike," "Can I Get a Witness," and many more. Marty Robbins's A Lifetime of Song 1951-1982 (Columbia), on the other hand, is probably all you ever need hear of the most magniloquent sometime rockabilly in history. This can certainly not be said of the grungiest folk-rock in history: The Fugs Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (PVC) mines their ESP and Broadside (not Warners) catalogue for 10 giggly if slightly dated boho ditties that clock in at a shameful 25:59. The Beach Boys' Rarities (Capitol) isn't really a best-of, since the whole idea of these items is tracks you never heard before, but since tracks sometimes means takes or codas or guitar solos, it'll pass, and beat the Beatles' Rarities in the bargain, with the highlight Bruce Johnston's interpretation of "With a Little Help From My Friends," which you've never heard before. Strange Brew: The Very Best of Cream (RSO) must be the fifth or sixth Cream reissue--I stopped counting around 1976--but it's the only one I ever played twice, and I've always wanted an album with "Anyone for Tennis?" on it. Roxy Music's The Atlantic Years 1973-1980 (Atco) is a happy misnomer that borrows "Do the Strand" from For Your Pleasure (originally issued by Reprise, by the way) and "Love Is the Drug" from Siren and Greatest Hits and then showcases Roxy Music the creamy dance band; while I wouldn't swear it's a better album than Manifesto, from which it appropriates four cuts, I would swear it's a better album than Flesh and Blood, from which it also appropriates four cuts. . . .

Finally, five multiple-artist collections, with no comment on A&M's Dance to It Vol. 1, Profile's Disco Party '83, or any of RCA's eight-song country jobs. This Are Two Tone (Chrysalis) is what I'll put on when somebody requests the Specials, whose six (out of 13) cuts make them sound like a great band and combine with the Selecter's well-selected three and the (English) Beat's predictable but beaty two for the best neo-ska album this side of I Just Can't Stop It. History of Rhythm and Blues Vocal Groups (Atlantic) returns to the catalogue (finally) a dozen of the hundreds of r&b gems in the label's vaults, chosen with no discernible logic but unexceptionable taste by Tim Hauser, without whom I would never have heard the Sensations' "Please Mr. Disc Jockey," and thanks Tim. Phil Spector--The Early Productions 1958-1961 (Rhino) is a surprisingly consistent piece of collectors-only oldies mania. Posh Hits Vol. 1 (Posh Boy) is a listenable, unredundant compilation that's probably the best hardcore sampler since Let Them Eat Jellybeans, which doesn't say a whole fucking lot for hardcore samplers, Posh Boy's R-rated Rodney on the ROQ series included. Five of the 10 cuts on the $6.98-list Slash: The Early Years (Slash) come from highly recommended albums (by X, the Blasters, Rank and File), but it's just the thing for all the Anglophiles and Deadheads on your Christmas list.

Village Voice, Dec. 27, 1983


Nov. 29, 1983 Jan. 24, 1984