Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

For months I've been dreading my annual best-of roundup, and not because of the best-ofs themselves--this year has been as shitty for them as for all other contemporary albums, and a rundown wouldn't have taken much out of me. But it's been an overwhelming year for reissues, usually on artists I know only in passing. Believe me, I am not an expert on Leon McAuliffe or Dee Clark. So I'm finessing it. Additional Consumer News will deal briefly with the giants, most of which really would make wonderful gifts, if only for yourself. Long about March I'll be doing a Consumer Guide extra in which I write full-length capsules on 20 notables and sum up the rest. Save your pennies.


PHILIP BAILEY: Chinese Wall (Columbia) Pretty convoluted: great falsetto of great drummer-led black pop band seeks solo identity, turns for production aid (and duet on single) to drummer who's led great (i.e., best-selling) white art-rock band back into money by ripping off (appropriating?) black rhythms and vocals. Funny thing is: though Phil Collins plays a little louder than Maurice White, he's got almost as many chops and may even sing better. Even at that, for Vegas-gone-to-heaven I'll take Earth, Wind & Fire over Phil & Phil. But I'll certainly take Phil & Phil over Genesis for lush/sensuous/zippy soundtrack. B PLUS

BLACK STALIN: You Ask for It (Kalico) Heir to the voluble wit of calypso tradition, Leroy Calliste is droller than any Jamaican Rasta you can think of whether he's being dragged kicking and jamming into soca clichés or talking back to a vocoder that won't shut up about "better days are coming." With its Cuban horns and displaced steel drums, the music has its own witty take on the tradition. And if I don't understand every topical reference, maybe it's just as well--any kind of Rasta going on about "corruption" can get me laughing out the other side of my mouth pretty quick. B PLUS

JULIE BROWN: Goddess in Progress (Rhino) Never one to turn up my nose at a cheap laugh, I'm delighted to report that like the notorious "Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun," "I Like 'Em Big and Stupid" ("What kind of guy does a lot for me? / Superman with a lobotomy") and "Cause I'm a Blond" ("Being chosen this month's Miss August was a compliment I'll remember for as long as I can") go after their targets with a fine lack of discrimination. Elsewhere on the EP Julie makes love, or at least it, with a space invader (She: "That sure is a big piece of machinery you've got!" He: "I made it myself") and fights a clubland hangover. Music's catchier than a jeans jingle, too. [Original grade: B plus] A MINUS

THE CHURCH: Remote Luxury (Warner Bros.) I see these Aussies as the wimp Del Fuegos--musically they wind up just where they want and epistemologically they go next to nowhere. All right, so the songs are quite pretty in a modernized early-Faces/late-Zombies kind of way--more consistently so than the '60s competition (which gives them a leg up on the Fuegos, who like the macho boys they are take on the Stones). I even get the point: the sweet, melancholy alienation the band cultivates is an attractive alternative to the crass pragmatism and/or self-righteous nihilism of their contemporaries. But where my own fave formalists the Shoes are honest enough to focus their lyrics on the very limited social milieu essential to the nurture of such alternatives, these guys evade specifics via metaphor and have the presumption to reproduce their hazy poetry on the inner sleeve. Which may help explain why the music sometimes almost drifts away. B

CULTURE CLUB: Waking Up With the House on Fire (Epic) Since I had even less use for the dismissive because-he-wears-dresses theory than for the ridiculous new-Smokey analysis, I could never figure out this cutie-pie's means of commercial propulsion, but I know why he's having trouble staying up there: because he wears dresses. Given the discernible leftward shift in his soft focus, led by a catchy, censored single, this calls for concerted protest--which might be easier to whip up if the latest album weren't part three of more-of-the-same. B

THE DEL-LORDS: Frontier Days (EMI America) Unless you see a band week after week, you have to wait till the album to gauge the depth of their songwriting, and these nice guys do all right by the sounding. The melodies are pretty basic, but that was to be expected; what's important is that they stick. The lyrics go for Blasters-style populism and achieve it with fewer downhome details and more international perspective. And if there's less singing and playing here than four or five gigs made me hope, that just makes me hope that next time they'll go commercial enough to hire a real producer instead of nice-guy Lou Whitney. A MINUS

ANNA DOMINO: East and West (Les Disques du Crépuscle) Fans of femme folk-new wave--Raincoats, Young Marble Giants, etc.--should check out this EP even though the artist floats her lyricism in a gentle electronic wash and doesn't appear to hail from Britannia. Me, I'm a fan of early Tom Tom Club, Velvets-era Nico, and Maureen Tucker singing "Afterhours." Hypnotic with no cosmic aspirations, she could be labeled spaced out, but in a dreamy, nicely sophisticated way. Composer of best song: Aretha Franklin. A MINUS

EXPLAINER: The Awakening (B's) It's a little disorienting to encounter a dance music that lives or dies aesthetically by its lyrics--partying's not supposed to be that way. Yet here it is. Back when Winston Henry was a struggling young soca man, he came by his sobriquet honestly; these days he doesn't miss a chance to kiss Reagan's ass or make like "our skin color not get in our way." As a result (?), his groove gets nowhere. Interesting that back when he was a struggling young soca man his "Lorraine" sported as ferocious a hook as the style has known, while now his pop moves are reduced to a certain slackening of the tempo and the occasional keyb texture. C PLUS

FORCE M.D.'S: Love Letters (Tommy Boy) If only there was a little something to the songwriting, the cute idea of anchoring a falsetto group to a rap rhythm section might have produced more than an exceedingly cute album. Certainly the fivesome sing sweet and rap sharp, and the LeBlanc-Wimbish-McDonald bottom is almost lithe enough for a top, even on the reggae. But not quite. [Original grade: B plus] B

FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD: Welcome to the Pleasure Dome (Island) Hype is a word I try to use no more normatively than I do guitar--one's almost as intrinsic to rock and roll as the other. And this is a truly great hype. We're not just talking spectacularly entertaining, like the dripping labia of Mom's Apple Pie, or spectacularly profitable, like the Monkees, or both, like the "Thriller" video. We're talking hype as primary signifier, as a carrier of rich, profound, and potentially subversive meanings. I love the hype right down to the album package, and will even grant that the appalling quality of the band's music enriches the meaning further. But that doesn't mean I'm going to be caught dead telling anybody to listen to it. The singles side is okay--"Relax" has proven itself a fetching fuck-mantra, "Two Tribes" is fair-to-middling political art. But on the whole Frankie are a marginally competent arena-rock band who don't know how to distinguish between effeminacy and pretension, like an English Grand Funk gone disco. Follow the ads by all means. Watch the videos. And steal these inner sleeves. C

JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth (MCA) Seekers after the unvarnished rock and roll truth needn't haunt used record stores and postbohemian beer joints--here it is in all its generic glory, with an independent woman on top providing a preideological political kicker. The problem for those of us who still care about "art" is that it's all a little too generic--in 1984 they may be better than the Stones, but they'll never be as good. I don't miss Mick--if Joan's lyrics are rarely clever, they're always pithy, and these days she's the smarter singer--but I do miss Keith, some musician whose writing/playing might make the songs sound like models rather than examples of the genre. B PLUS

LOS LOBOS: How Will the Wolf Survive? (Slash) This takes generic to a whole different level. Where their EP was a straightforward account of a world-class bar band in command of what we'll call Chicano r&b, a relatively specialized indigenous style with unexploited mass potential, their debut LP makes it sound as if they invented the style. Who did the original of that one, you wonder, only to discover that you're listening to the original. Listen a little more and you figure out that these slices of dance music have lyrics, lyrics rooted in an oppression the artists really know about--the love songs return incessantly to the separation that defines migrant laborers' lives. And from the moment you hear "I Got Loaded" you'll know that while Cesar Rosas is merely a generic singer in the best sense, David Hidalgo is some kind of tenor. A

MADONNA: Like a Virgin (Sire) If a woman wants to sell herself as a sex fantasy I'll take a free ride--as long as the fantasy of it remains out front, so I don't start confusing image with everyday life. But already she's so sure of herself she's asking men and women both to get the hots for the calculating bitch who sells the fantasy even while she bids for the sincerity market where long-term superstars ply their trade. And to make the music less mechanical (just like Bowie, right?), she's hired Nile Rodgers, who I won't blame for making it less catchy. [Original grade: C plus] B

JUNIE MORRISON: Evacuate Your Seats (Island) Not just guitarless but wholly synthesized, with Junie's all too childish falsetto playing daddy to a smurf club, this is as half-assed as most P-Funk spinoffs even if it wastes a few more ideas. I'd like to hear a bigger artist take over. Think maybe George would mastermind a total remix of "Break 6"? B MINUS

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS: The Red Hot Chili Peppers (EMI America) As minstrelsy goes, this is good-hearted stuff (and as minstrelsy, it had better be). The reason it doesn't quite come off isn't that it's good-hearted, either: the band is outrageous enough, though probably not the way it thinks it is. Perhaps there's a clue in this mysterious observation from spokesperson Flea: "Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow have great raps, but not that great music with it." In a bassist, that's serious delusion. B MINUS

MARGARET ROADKNIGHT: Living in the Land of Oz (Redwood) In Australia she's been dubbed "queen of jazz," which says more about Australia than it does about jazz. As does she--what's most appealing on this U.S. compilation is topical (and usually humorous) material about her native continent that's recommended to Nick Cave and Olivia Newton-John. But though she musters an impressively gruff blues timbre and on occasion some rudimentary swing, I'm not convinced she always goes flat on purpose, and when she emotes she may strain the credulity even of those who set their standards by Nick Cave and Olivia Newton-John. B PLUS

RICKY SKAGGS: Country Boy (Epic) Act authentic for too long and it begins to sound like an act even if it isn't. I mean, didn't John Denver preempt the title of this thing? Oh right, his went "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." God, I best Ricky wishes he could get away with that one. B

SKELETON CREW: Learn to Talk (Rift) Fred Frith and Tom Cora's fractured songforms on "Side Free" make their seditious point more sharply than I'd feared, but I'm glad I had the sense to play "Side Dirt" first--I do prefer songs to song forms. The post-Weill sound and critique will strike a minor chord with admirers of Henry Cow and the Art Bears, though especially given Frith's rough, sardonic vocals, the presentation's less formal--which I also prefer. B PLUS

GEORGE STRAIT: Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind (MCA) As an unreconstructed rock-and-roller, I prefer my country music out on the edge--if not zany or wild-ass then at least (and often as best: Jones, Frizzell, Wynette) deeply soulful. Despite his regard for the zany, wild-ass, and deeply soulful verities, what I get from Strait is a convincing show of honesty. And what I get from his best album and song selection to date is a convincing, tuneful show of honesty. B PLUS

RICHARD THOMPSON: Small Town Romance (Hannibal) What can it mean that the five best cuts on this live-and-unaccompanied-in-1982 cult item are the five he's never recorded before. It means that as a singer he has real trouble carrying slow songs that were designed for Linda and/or a band, preferably both, and that his solo versions of the fast ones can't compete with a memory. Granted, his new songs are so winning cultists won't care. What this half-cultist wonders is how much he knew when he wrote the oh-so-true "Love Is Bad for Business." B

Additional Consumer News

The number one reissue of 1984 remains James Brown's Roots of a Revolution (Polydor import), apparently omitted from Kurt Loder's recent Rolling Stone roundup because it's not a U.S. release. The exchange rate being what it is, I picked up my two-record set for under 10 bucks, and while I heartily recommend the two Solid Smoke vocal-group and two Polydor funk discs as well, this is where to start convincing yourself that JB belongs in the pantheon with Elvis and the Beatles. Oh yeah, Elvis. I still don't have much use for the RCA box, but in conjunction with that piece of scholarship the company has performed a salesworthy service by restoring to mono Elvis's four classic '50s albums: in order of preference, Elvis Presley, Elvis' Golden Records, 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong, and Elvis. Taken together these render the new Rockers compilation more or less superfluous, though I suppose seekers after the '50s grail won't want to miss out on his admittedly lowdown versions of "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll." Me, I prefer his rockers cut with the ballads that were every bit as much his calling, though I do draw the line at "Old Shep," which is why I rank Elvis fourth. All these albums last about 30 minutes except 50,000,000 (greatest hits two), which clocks in at a meager 22:37. The return to mono is no gimmick: this digitally-remastered-on-virgin-vinyl sound is incredibly vivid without seeming hyped up, not just clear but rich and vibrant like no '50s music you own. And then there's a third titan. Hank Williams's 40 Greatest Hits (Polydor) is the collection anybody who wants to own only one country record has been waiting for. Singer, songwriter, proto-rock and roller, Williams cut lots of stuff, but this is the cream: not a weak track. For specialists there's also Williams's Rare Tracks and Radio Cuts (Polydor), which don't outshine the available originals and can be played repeatedly anyway, but for me the find is George Jones Salutes Hank Williams (Mercury), a brief (24:01) but heart-stopping collection of 10 covers recorded in the late '60s. As annotator Elvis Costello notes, there's still time to cut volume two, but I doubt Billy Sherrill would let him into the studio with that lonesome fiddle.

Easing down toward the mundane, I'll highlight best-ofs by beginning with yet another titan: Legend: The Best of Bob Marley (Island) is a loving selection that augments the Wailers albums rather than confounding their internal logic, kind of like Creedence's Chronicle. Also recommended are John Anderson's Greatest Hits (Warner Bros.), Teddy Pendergrass's Greatest Hits (Philadelphia International), and The Best of Gil Scott-Heron (Arista), all excellent if by no means exhaustive samplings from consistent album artists overlooked by too many rock and rollers. Get your feet wet.

My favorite EPs of the season, Anna Domino's East and West and Julie Brown's Goddess in Progress, are duly described in the body of the CG, and I have a feeling that given another week they'd have been joined by the Butthole Surfers' Live Pcppep (Alternative Tentacles). The first Surfers EP suggested an arty posthardcore band whose outrageousness was truly original or vice versa, but there's a deeper kind of emotional power here, more than I felt at the impressive CBGB gig I caught a few months back. The Judds (RCA Victor) presents a mama-and-daughter country act who've given me more active pleasure--a pleasure that inheres primarily in the way the harmonies line consistently strong material--than any other Nashville music this year; I'll report on the follow-up album shortly. Ism's Constantinople (Broken Box) is another posthardcore boast, surrounding a goosy pseudo-'60s psychechoogle and some sexist-ageist puritan-in-reverse yah-yah about fucking old ladies (bet some of 'em are at least 50) with a Residents cover and a Fugs cover. 100 Flowers (Happy Squid) is a live farewell disc that shows off the tough attack and undogmatically postpunk rock and roll attitude admirers heard on their album. For a long time Tetes Noires (Rapunzel) gave me Nightshade nightmares, but this feminist satire cuts deep, painful because it takes more contradictions into account. Charlie Pickett and the Eggs' Cowboy Junkie Au-Go-Go (Open) is ace country-punk that closes with one of the bitterest post-free-love songs you've ever heard. The Honey Drippers (Es Paranza) is Robert Plant and Jimmy Page doing r&b covers under Ahmet Ertegun's supervision and might turn into the best-selling EP in history. Shanghai Dog's Clanging Bell (SDEP) is postpunk with a rod up its ass: tight, angry, judgmental. The Bobs' White Gazebo (Safety Net) presents a bar band without a concept, just a bunch of songs about the usual stuff: laziness, suffering, parents, beer. Aztec Camera's Oblivious (Sire) remixes the signature cut from their best (first) album and adds three coincident B sides which beat most of their Knopflerized follow-up. For cultists only: Tommy Keene's Back Again (Try . . .) (Dolphin) (album forthcoming); Billy Bragg's Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy (Utility import) (Paul Weller as clod); Captain Beefheart's Legendary A&M Sessions (A&M) (boogie). Not even for cultists: the Pop-O-Pies' Joe's Second Album (Subterranean) (not funny).

I've never written about the Grandmixer D.St. side of Herbie Hancock's three-song Mega-Mix (Columbia), partly no doubt because I haven't known where to slot the thing. So call it sui generis hiphop and get hip to one of the year's wildest rhythm excursions.

The best rap 12-inch since "Jam on It" is Time Zone's "World Destruction" (Celluloid), with preacherly A. Bambaataa and caterwauling J. Rotten eclipsing Melle Mel's millenarian fervor, not to mention millenarian humor (Bam: "Who wants to be a president or a king?" John: "Me") over Material's most powerful rap track ever (yay Nicky Skopelitis). On the Furious Five's careerism-gone-amok "Step Off" (Sugarhill), Mel himself is in a less constructive mood: "I may sound possessed but you know I'm blest/ With the will to make sense of all this mess/ I'm the power of the sun that shines in the sky/ And I'm the only M.C. that'll never die." The Fat Boys get sent up the river for running out on their Burger King bills in "Jail House Rap" (Sutra). The Treacherous Three has single-released Beat Street II's "Xmas Rap" (Sugerhill), just the thing for that Realistic Reaganite on your list. And Guru says goodbye to all that on "Who You Stealin' From?" (Partytime), a danceable in-joke that anyone who's been to the Roxy twice should own.

Village Voice, Dec. 25, 1984


Nov. 27, 1984 Feb. 5, 1985