Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

For a while there I was afraid that after taking a month off from pop in pop's hot season I still wasn't going to come up with a Pick Hit, a dire omen. So I dug among the roots and got lucky. Apologies to all you stalwart, er, new wavers. I promise I haven't given up yet.


JOHN ANDERSON: Countrified (Warner Bros.) What's made him the decade's premier country star artistically has been his disinclination to act like one--he's never climbed on the Nashville assembly line like Skaggs and Strait and so many smaller fry. Until now. He goes for George's intensity rather than Merle's hang-loose, but he won't convince you he thought these songs were special, and though this may mean the truth is still in him, don't bet on it--not after he yanked the difficult-to-program album he's got in the can. And just in case country radio isn't mollified, he provides a gratuitous cover of Merle's "Fightin' Side of Me." In the Vietnam era jingoistic trash at least made sense on its own neurotic terms. Who's he gonna beat up on in 1986? CISPES? Alexander Cockburn? B MINUS

B-52'S: Bouncing Off the Satellites (Warner Bros.) Sorry, but my fond belief in Kate & Cindy as postmodern girl duo has just gone the way of my fond hopes for Joan and Chrissie as rock and roll future. Except for the postfeminist "Housework," they contribute watercolors posing as Kenny Scharfs--not only don't "Summer of Love" and "She Brakes for Rainbows" redeem anybody's '60s retro, they don't even take off on it. So Fred's abrasive camp saves the day, and talk about satiric justice--he gets off a credible nudist anthem, a credible psychedelic fantasy, and (get this) a credible ecology song in the process. B PLUS

BODEANS: Love and Hope and Sex and Dreams (Slash) Leading off, "She's a Runaway" is a pleasant shock: he abused her, she shot him. Enough to make you imagine they embrace postroots to advance if not subvert it. Whereupon they get down catchy wimmin songs that could have been written and forgotten twenty years ago, though "Misery" is recommended to George Strait. B MINUS

JAMES BROWN: Gravity (Scotti Bros.) Not a James Brown album--a James Brown-influenced Dan Hartman record, with James Brown on vocals. Unlike Brad Shapiro, who manufactured good music this way in 1979, Hartman takes his humdrum copyrights and urges the great one to go for the expressiveness he hasn't commanded in over a decade rather than the rhythm he'll take to his grave. Don't believe me--just compare any of Polydor's most recent compilations: James Brown's Funky People (featuring Lyn Collins, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, and James Brown), Dead on the Heavy Funk 74-76 (salvaging a total of zero good LPs), or In the Jungle Groove (long-promised, worth-waiting for, full-length, '69-'71 dance classics). Hartman would love every one. C PLUS

BRUCE COCKBURN: World of Wonders (MCA) Cockburn's a very smart guy with as tough and articulate a line on imperialism as any white person with a label deal. Few singer-songwriters play meaner guitar, and as befits an anti-imperialist he knows the international sonic palette. Unfortunately, his records never project musical necessity. The melodies and/or lyrics carry the first side anyway, but though I'm sure Cockburn has some idea what the synthesized pans are doing on the cry of politico-romantic angst and the vaguely Andean fretboards on the Wasp dub poem, what the world will hear is the oppressive boom-boom of four-four drums. B

E.U.: 2 Places at the Same Time (Island) Like disco DJs, go go bands get high on contingency--all the interactive variables that pertain when you try to turn a crowd of dancers into a pulsating mass. So in theory I approve of these live, side-long jams of grooveful quotes and fragments. Except for the ultimately untheoretical fact that once they're recorded, they're not so damn contingent any more. B

ARETHA FRANKLIN: Aretha (Arista) In which Narada Michael Walden returns to the land of weenies whence he came, and on some underling's steam--not up to composing these turkeys himself, he hired the songs out and then laid them on Re, who managed to sing as if she still cared. Duet attraction George Michael can't touch Annie Lennox; duet attraction Larry Graham can't even touch Peter Wolf. For this Clive didn't milk Who's Zoomin' Who? till it bled? [Catalogue number: AL 8442.] B MINUS

MARK GERMINO: London Moon and Backyard Remedies (RCA Victor) These days singer-songwriters are as likely to start out in Nashville as end up there, and though this literary thirty-five-year-old loves words too much to keep it simple and celebrated his big break by recording in London, he's a country boy at heart. When he falls in love he hears crickets and jackrabbits, when he tunes a diesel it sings like Patsy Cline, and when he gets to thinking about barn burnings and "suicide amortization" he writes one called "Political." Even his Dylanesque turns have their poetry, and if he betrays both his muse and his immigrant forebears with "God Ain't No Stained Glass Window," just remember--country boys always sink into bathos when they approach the Almighty. B PLUS

GOOD TO GO (Island) Live albums are one way to finesse go go's refusal to organize itself into discrete, hooky, recordable compositions. Anthologies are the other, and despite soundtrack illustrations of the synthy adaptability of the D.C. groove from Sly & Robbie and Wally Badarou, this one may even steal a beat on Go Go Crankin'. But do you love "Good to Go," "We Need Money," "Drop the Bomb," and "Movin' and Groovin'" enough to buy 'em twice, no matter how hot the remake? For James Brown completists and other rhythm connoisseurs. B PLUS

BILLY IDOL: Whiplash Smile (Chrysalis) A year and a half in the making, and don't think he didn't pour heart and soul into it. It's just that he's . . . well, I hate to put it this way, but the guy is cursed: emoting love poetry from under enough Keith Forsey echo to fill Carlsbad Caverns, he still can't sing without sneering. That he gets off the occasional good one even so only reveals his essence d'Elvis for the plastic pop franchise it is, and don't blame him for the bullwhip on the sleeve--the devil made him do it. C PLUS

JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: Good Music (Blackheart) The title signifies something cruder than coverees Hendrix, Richman, and Beach Boys, who aren't likely to show up on WNCN or WPAT themselves, and its moral certitude is what you have to love about her. She's a bit simple, our Joan, but so undoubting she can get away with transporting Route 128 to the West Side Highway. And even though only three or so of these selections--"Good Music," "Black Leather," maybe "Just Lust" or "This Means War," none of the covers--will be on her song list in 1990, it's heartening to know she'll be there in 1990, and that she'll sound like she did in 1982. B PLUS

LYLE LOVETT (Curb/MCA) Writes like Guy Clark, only plainer, sings like Jesse Winchester only countrier, and if you've got a clear idea who both guys are you'll probably like him fine. B PLUS

SUGAR MINOTT: Inna Reggae Dance Hall (Heartbeat) A mild-mannered pro who "Nah Follow Nuh Fashion" because he never lets it get ahead of him trades in the Roots Radics on a computer-compatible rhythm machine, upping the tempo slightly and shifting his croon toward chant. Product, sure, but useful product, which even in Jamaica is an achievement these days. [Original grade: B plus] B

VAN MORRISON: No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (Mercury) No soap radio, no particular place to go, no man is an island. No spring chicken, No-Doz, no can do. B MINUS

MUTABARUKA: The Mystery Unfolds (Shanachie) "Dis poem is like all the rest/dis poem will not be amongst great literary works." That's what I call attitude, especially since even the first line is true in its unique way, and both are matters of pride. For the first time, this back-to-nature Rasta is showing some of LKJ's sophistication, and on his own terms--he doesn't inveigh against ice cream or trip over his own hapless sexism, but he declines the blandishments of reason in re technocratic conspiracy and revolutionary entertainment, and his political statement is stronger for it. "Dis poem will not change things/dis poem need to be changed." He insists on calling his songs poems, and he doesn't throw one of them away on the riddim. But he has started letting his words hear the music, which capitalizes on reggae's variety, from dub to jazz to anthem to the unaccompanied "Dis Poem." "Dis poem shall be called/borin/stupid/senseless/dis poem is watchin u/tryin to make sense of dis poem." A MINUS

PRETENDERS: Get Close (Sire) She's in a mature relationship, she loves motherhood, and she earns her keep fronting a band. The new guys are funkier than the old guys, the tunes are up to par, and despite "How Much Did You Get for Your Soul?"--it's offensive to dis black pop when your idea of on-the-one is "Fame" cops--her lyrics are pretty mature, with a sisterly offering I'd like to hear some soul man put across. But let's face it--it's hard to make exciting music out of a mature relationship even when fronting a band is the meaning of your life. B

RICKY SKAGGS: Love's Gonna Get Ya! (Epic) Technical brilliance and conceptual integrity put Skaggs on top of Nashville's neotraditionalist totem pole and make his albums run together like bluegrass. But this one has an edge. Maybe it's the moments of calculated grace--blues intro to "Walkin' in Jerusalem," Everlys cover that could break them up all over again, duets with James Taylor and Sharon White. Or maybe it's just the drum sound. B PLUS

GEORGE STRAIT: #7 (MCA) Nothing if not modest, less interpreter than pure medium, Strait lives and dies with his material. On this album "Nobody in His Right Mind Would've Left Her" passes for a witticism, and while I know it's not saying much to observe that the Western swing "White Christmas" on his brand-new Merry Christmas Strait to You cuts anything here, would you believe "Frosty the Snowman"? C PLUS

HANK WILLIAMS JR.: Montana Cafe (Warner Bros.) Having survived his brush with death, his defection to rock, and his obsession with his daddy, whom he now outsells, Williams rests on his laurels as professional braggart and secondhand showbiz legend. He's one of the few country artists who goes gold at least partly because he's not really country--like rock both '50s and post-Allmans, country's just grist for a macho vaudeville that on this album blows even harder than usual. The tip-off's "Bocephus," a return to unabashed me-me-me. But let us now overlook the ill-rhymed polka about cowboy hats, the Leon Redbone-styled "Harvest Moon," and the novelty rag about pretty girls whose "pig" friends interfere with the workings of Junior's dick. C

YOU CAN TELL THE WORLD ABOUT THIS: CLASSIC ETHNIC RECORDINGS FROM THE 1920'S (Morning Star) I slapped this world music on the turntable like it was Give 'Em Enough Rope in 1978, and the Ukrainian side-openers kept me coming back to the Welsh hymn and the Jewish cantor and the Turkish itinerant's song and the "masterful Spanish piping." But I remain a savage beast. Even if music is the goddamn universal language, it'll take more than the "commanding dynamics and engaging warmth" adduced in the vague and skimpy notes to put its dialects in meaningful contact. As it happens, the relaxed Puerto Rican Jardineras do jibe with those fiery Ukrainians, and if you believe in expressiveness for its own artistic sake you may enjoy every cut. But universalist humanism to the contrary, what differentiates the secular from the sacred and the Asian from the European is more important and more fun than what unites them. B

Additional Consumer News

I don't want anybody to think that after devoting most of last month's CG to jazz I stopped listening as precipitously as I started. Actually, I never stop, and though this month I've attended to duty I've been going back to four '60s Ellington reissues. Two pass pleasantly enough: the big-band New Mood Indigo (Doctor Jazz) and the sextet-septet-octet Intimacy of the Blues (Fantasy). The other two are knockouts. Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (Impulse) finds both masters sticking to basics in superb form and company one August day in 1962. And a month or so later Duke met up one afternoon with the younger generation as represented by Charllie Mingus and Max Roach. Now remixed and reprogrammed (with four previously unreleased new Ellington tunes) as Money Jungle (Blue Note), the angular chromaticism and modernist swing of this session relegate most piano-trio records back to the supper clubs.

Village Voice, Dec. 2, 1986


Oct. 28, 1986 Dec. 30, 1986