Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

With 13 albums at B or under, which is CG code for pass on it, the year seems to be ending on a glum note, but I'm hoping it's a statistical oddity. Mood and circumstance set me on the Prince family and various rap albums this month (Newcleus and Profile's Rap 2 didn't even make the cut, Jazzy Jeff is pending, L.L. Cool J just out). Believe me, I'm raring to get the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, and have hopes for a merry December.


ABC: How to Be a Zillionaire (Mercury) The look of the Mark I ABC fooled Anglophobes into dismissing the music as fashion-plated pandering even though it was as politically suggestive as Anglophile heroes get. So don't let the look of the Mark II ABC fool you into hoping the music is outrageous, or even campy. Sure "Be Near Me" is catchier than anything on Beauty Stab, but when Martin Fry is on his game the hooks that make ABC sell coexist with the glossy electrofunk and dense wordplay that make (or made) them sparkle. As a great romantic he's just trying for a comeback. B MINUS

KURTIS BLOW: America (Mercury) Blow's pop credibility soared when he finally got one of his precious femme choruses on the radio, ruining the otherwise serviceable "Basketball" rap. There's nothing quite so intrusive here, and Blow's singing has come up some--in fact, he's now just what the world needed, another serviceable funk loverboy. Fortunately, he can still talk that talk, and his reunion with Davy DMX makes a lot of noise. B

THE BOOGIE BOYS: City Life (Capitol) "Here is proof that rapp is music," only don't worry, it isn't as bad as that. Just another electrofunk-based album from B-boys stale before their time. They spin off some unlikely rhymes--"bank accounts" and "Name's pronounced," fresh indeed--and a great many insults that boil down to "you don't smell good." And for better or worse, they never emanate more charm than when they sing a sad it-ain't-me-babe called "Runnin' From Your Love." B MINUS

MORRIS DAY: Color of Success (Warner Bros.) Now that he's a movie star, Morris proposes to cover his flank and go straight. After all, the Time's comically cocksure overstatement was just a way to get the music noticed, and now that he's a household name his sidelong synthbeats will pull in the customers all by themselves. He thinks. I think people will demand beats and comedy both. We shall see. B MINUS

SHEILA E.: Sheila E. in Romance 1600 (Warner Bros.) Joining her playmates' games of can-you-top-this with a ringleader's enthusiasm, she gives full rein to her imagination, such as it is. And comes up with several intelligent enigmas and two almost-orgies deeply influenced by Hollywood costume drama. It's got some arty passages, and you can dance to it. B

THE FAMILY (Warner Bros.) Paisley Park's attempt to pick up where the Time left off, this has the beats to prove it, but the best of them is cursed with a witlessly glamorous ersatz-Morris vocal and lyric and two others are instrumentals. Then there's the slow stuff, most of it cursed with damply purple ersatz-Prince vocal and lyric. Maybe some enterprising rapper will rip off the tracks. Till then, rest content with this Inspirational Verse: "Your body it covers my tower/Ecstasy is ours." C PLUS

BRYAN FERRY: Boys and Girls (Warner Bros.) Sure "Make believing is the real thing." When Ferry is grooving, though, the emphasis is on the make-believe, not the real. Here there's heavy slippage, especially on side one. His voice thicker and more mucous, his tempos dragging despite all the fancy beats he's bought, he runs an ever steeper risk of turning into the romantic obsessive he's always played so zealously. B MINUS

FREDDIE JACKSON: Rock Me Tonight (Capitol) To compare the latest platinum love man to Marvin Gaye is to ignore his voice. If Luther Vandross relaxed more and (what may be the same thing) sold himself love man first and singer second, this is how he'd sound. A pure make-out record--mellow groove, mellow sound. Just lie back and enjoy it. B

MARTI JONES: Unsophisticated Time (A&M) Suggesting both Dusty Springfield's breathy yearning and Karen Carpenter's AM plainstyle, Jones is a Bonnie Ronstadt for the local-band era--a nonwriter ready to raid the enormous store of good songs only pop cultists have ever heard. Of course, in the CHR era her audience may never get beyond pop cultists, which would be doubly unjust: it's bad enough when a dB's album leads off with two Peter Holsapple sure shots and stiffs, but this record leads off with two Peter Holsapple sure shots and then goes on to mine Richard Barone, Elvis Costello, even producer-svengali Don Dixon. And topping them all is a loony vow of romantic devotion called "Follow You All Over the World," by one B. Simpson. Wonder how many more B. Simpsons have hidden such stuff away on their demo cassettes. (Please do not mail tapes to The Voice; Donald Dixon c/o A&M Records, 595 Madison Avenue, will do fine.) A MINUS

KRUSH GROOVE (Warner Bros.) Whether the ecumenicism is a musical leap forward or a commercial hedge, it does integrate the strong voices of Sheila E., Chaka Khan, and too-long-gone Debbie Harry into Russell Simmons's very male roster, and unlike the Gap Band and the Force M.D.'s, the ladies keep things moving. The krush grooves are two Rick Rubin metal-rap steamrollers. And for some reason the stars of the show only make the credit medley. B PLUS

NILS LOFGREN: Flip (Columbia) The wuntime wunderkind is "talkin' 'bout survival," which he at least points out beats "self denial," and I guess it's a small miracle that he's no longer the blustering never-was of the late '70s. But 1983's Wonderland testified more gracefully to his eternal youth, and even there it was hard to tell what he's learned since 1971. To seek eternal youth in the absence of temporal wisdom is one of the great American vices, and most Americans aren't even wise enough to know it. C PLUS

LOST IN THE STARS: THE MUSIC OF KURT WEILL (A&M) First time I heard this I started muttering, "Kurt Weill invented rock and roll," which I report only to indicate how turned on I was, because it's ridiculous--Weill really only invented rock. Milking abrasive pop for outreach and meaning, he had more in common with Dylan and Newman than with Porter and Berlin, and the rock artistes who take their turns on this sequel to Hal Willner's 1983 Monk tribute sound completely at home. You can imagine improvements on some of Willner's choices--David Jo rather than Sting on "Mack the Knife," the Clash rather than Stanard Ridgeway on "Cannon Song," etc.--but that's a parlor game. With Lou Reed's "September Song" and Marianne Faithfull's "Ballad of the Soldier's Wife" the unmitigated triumphs, every track on this hour-long disc holds its own. Introduce yourself to one of the century's greatest songwriters and composers. Or augment your Weill collection and be glad you did. A

JONI MITCHELL: Dog Eat Dog (Geffen) When you peruse the lyrics, which are of course provided, the rage she directs at evangelists, racketeers, financiers, and so forth seems like the usual none-too-deep left-liberal modernism--a "culture in decline" enthralled by hedonism and rapacity and the image, tsk-tsk. But by taking her mind off her ever-loving self she's broken a long drought. There's no what-shall-I-do ennui in her singing; she isn't musing, she's telling us something, and her interest in these well-expressed middlebrow clichés comes through. Damned if I can tell just what Thomas Dolby has done for her jazzbo sound, but I suspect he helps as well. Maybe he convinced her it was pop music. [Original grade: A minus] B PLUS

HUGH MUNDELL: Africa Must Be Free by 1983 (Rockers) Mundell was all of sixteen when he cut this record in 1976; in 1983 he was shot to death. He brings to the naivete that can be so annoying in Rasta homilies a sweet, clear, militant innocence rendered even more delicate by Augustus Pablo's piano-tinged production. He believes in life everlasting, and he probably deserved it. B PLUS

EDDIE MURPHY: How Could It Be (Columbia) "Singers get all the pussy," the fledgling songwriter and vocalist observed on his last album, devoted to the comedy for which he is best known. "You sing, women go crazy." Poor guy, is he that hard up? Or is it just that like all comedians he longs to prove that he's not as nasty as we know him to be in his finest moments? Well, women aren't gonna take him on down because he sings like this--his voice is so thin that in the end Rick James ("Comedians get all the pussy. You crack a joke, women fall into bed with you") wastes his best track in years on it. And though Stevie Wonder donates two songs, Murphy doesn't bring out his Stevie impression except on his own "I, Me, Us, We," which as a result is the strongest piece of music here. It also typifies the one-worlder cheerleading of a lyricist who can't be as bright as we'd hoped him to be in his finest moments--he's got politics like Jerry Lewis, only with less soul. C MINUS

RAY PARKER JR.: Sex and the Single Man (Arista) Maybe Ray is getting jaded--pussy comes so easy now that he no longer bothers to hone his come-on. Whether he's scoring on sensitivity (oh really, "Men Have Feelings Too"?) or studsmanship (though I do enjoy the bone and puddy-tat lines in "I'm a Dog"), he's putting out just enough to get her into the car. The sole exception is "I'm in Love," in which a workaholic falls for "an interesting girl" who doesn't have a job. Workaholic--now that sounds like the real Ray to me. B MINUS

THE THOMPSON TWINS: Here's to Future Days (Arista) Tired of complaining about the problems of the world (not that anyone else noticed him doing it), Tom Bailey elects to add to them instead, with an English positivity album that's a case study in the limits of catchy--I'd pay money not to hum these tunes. Love is great stuff, but beware of rich pop stars telling you it's all you need, especially in so many words--and in 1985. C PLUS

TOM WAITS: Rain Dogs (Island) By pigging out on a nineteen-track LP that goes on for fifty-four minutes without a bad cut, Waits demonstrates how fully he's outgrown the bleary self-indulgences--booze, bathos, beatnikism--that bogged down his '70s. He's in control of his excesses now, and although his backing musicians shift constantly, he's worked out a unique and identifiable lounge-lizard sound that suits his status as the poet of America's non-nine-to-fivers. But the sheer bulk of the thing does get wearing--it never peaks. I wish he'd figured out a way to throw "Union Square," "Cemetery Polka," and "Clap Hands" into sharper relief. And realize that those might not even be his high points, or yours. B PLUS

STEVIE WONDER: In Square Circle (Tamla) Compare this to the others in your head and you'll be hard-pressed to specify what's missing, but slap on Talking Book or Hotter Than July and you'll hear how cushy it is--polyrhythmic pop rather than polyrhythmic rock. Stevie's effervescence is so indomitable that it's a pleasure even so, but nothing rises far enough out of the stew--"Land of the La La" is no "Living for the City," "Part Time Lover," no "I Just Called to Say I Love You," etc. Then there's the infectious "Spiritual Walkers," in which Stevie gives it up to Hare Krishna and witnesses for the Witnesses. B PLUS

ZZ TOP: Afterburner (Warner Bros.) With sales on Eliminator over five mil almost by accident, this hard-boogieing market strategy is defined by conscious commercial ambition--by its all but announced intention of making ZZ the next Bruce/Madonna/Prince/Michael, with two beards and a Beard at every checkout counter. The Trevor Hornish synth touches and out-front hooks are clues, but the proof is "Rough Boy," an attempted top-five ballad that would sound like pure take-me-or-leave-me revved up. And in case you think they've lost their sense of humor, there's a new dance called the "Velcro Fly." I'm laughing, I'm laughing. B

Additional Consumer News

Never too big on remixes, I put on the Special AKA's "Free Nelson Mandela: The Special Remix" in a dutiful frame of mind--the time was certainly righteous, so maybe I could throw in a plug. This turned out to be a waste of mettle--the remix is fairly subtle, but it plays up the song's most vulgar elements, especially the mbaqanga pennywhistle and the "Hang On Sloopy" montuno that now serves as a hook. Especially at this propitious time, I like the song better pushier--it adds a dimension to what Nelson Mandela's freedom might mean.

Meanwhile, Celluloid is doing right by another African political prisoner, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, rereleasing his finest album, Zombie, long since relegated to the cutout bins by Polygram. Wish they'd included a lyric sheet, but the music--and rhetoric--holds its own.

Village Voice, Dec. 3, 1985


Oct. 22, 1985 Dec. 24, 1985