Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

What a strange month. Only one truly bad record, and that mostly for balance, but only two truly good ones. Plus--help!--13 pretty good ones. November is when the great lates should be marching by, but instead I'll provide my first within-B plus guide in years. From top to bottom: Chilton, Take Cover, Fastbacks, Williams, Skynyrd, Morrison, Nixon-Roper, Soweto, EWF, Cash, Black Britain, D'Arby, Christmas Rap.

BLACK BRITAIN: Obvious (Virgin) After six more years of Thatcher and the dawning of electrohop, it's as if Linx had laminated the soft edges of its prophetic premeditated funk to a flash, beatwise sheen. Both vocals and politics are more strident, pausing for love only to flog the jezebel whose lust for diamonds ends in the murder of an innocent jeweler by an innocent (sez they) black Briton. Though it is obvious, it scores points, zapping unguarded rhythm sensors like a sharpshooter in a video arcade. Here's hoping it grows in wisdom. B PLUS

JOHNNY CASH: Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town (Mercury) I'd have let his contract lapse too--the pathetic Class of '55 proved he was a has-been, huzzahs and all. But he was holding a few in reserve, like definitive Elvis Costello and Guy Clark, overdue James Talley and (why did nobody ever think of this?) Ernie Ford, and the song-factory prizes any Nashvillean with a mind to can turn up: "The Night Hank Williams Came to Town," a hit, and "Heavy Metal (Don't Mean Rock and Roll to Me)," recommended to Mikhail Gorbachev for Goskino's next tractor movie. And then there are the two originals, which convince me he's still a has-been. B PLUS

ALEX CHILTON: High Priest (Big Time) Chilton had a chance to lead his little flock back onto the paths of righteousness. In a microcosm where nobody can tell good pop junk from utter shit anymore, his first four cuts are a refresher course: one Slim Harpo let get away, a callow Goffin-King throwaway, his own tasteless Buddhist joke, and "Volare." Each the real thing, each different, each undreamed by the Fanzine Filosofy. But after that he lets things slide, from a straight (for him) declaration of love to a Lowell Fulson boogie to covers the Fleshtones could think of. These are parlous times, Alex. Sloppy's getting harder to bring off, and cute ain't enough. B PLUS

CHRISTMAS RAP (Profile) First side's rap in the spirit of the season, full of good cheer and unabashedly materialistic from Mrs. McDaniel's macaroni-and-cheese and King Sun-D Moet's realism to all the name-brand shit in Ghetto Santa's bag before it gets stolen--Gucci and Jaguar, Barbie Doll and G.I. Joe, not to mention the gold and the diamonds and the pearls, not to mention the butler and the limo and the chauffeur. Second side's hip hop copping to the season, with the Disco 4's bass-and-jingle balls and the Showboys' cutups fronting for tales and boasts that aren't sucker, just snooze. Pop fans will settle for the Run-D.M.C. on A Very Special Christmas. Rap fans will prefer it to the Surf M.C.'s album, which said M.C.'s suggest you ask Santa for. Modesty wouldn't get them anywhere either. B PLUS

TERENCE TRENT D'ARBY: Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby (Columbia) He can sing sweet or gritty, write sweet, gritty, or pretentious. His rhythms and arrangements show a sense of roots and a sense of style. He's got black consciousness and pop ambition. Which sums up why everybody wants this record to achieve what it promises. Summing up what it does achieve is the best cut, a Smokey Robinson song--which you'll think is his own until you check the fine print. B PLUS

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: Touch the World (Columbia) Though supposedly they've reconstituted as a lean quintet, the credits credit Maurice White and hired guns, notably Philip Bailey who sings lead on two cuts, shares lead on three, and backs up wherever. White gets only two compositions, which may explain why such a fabrication seems more in touch with the world than his solo album, where he made the mistake of expressing himself. Canceling out El Lay buy-a-song like "Every Now and Then" are the side-openers, the strongest protests this seminal pop transcendentalist has ever gotten down. Both focus on money, something he obviously has a feel for. B PLUS

THE FASTBACKS: . . . And His Orchestra (PopLlama) Ace junk guitarist Kurt Bloch is the orchestra leader, off-key heroine Lulu Garguilo his girl singer, and they care so much that if the mixes were cleaner they'd strike fear in the heart of the sainted Joan Jett. As it is, even the lyrics are pretty garage. Maybe next time they'll abandon their principles a little. B PLUS

THE FURIES: Fun Around the World (Infrasonic) Sticking their art-pop in your face, they write cute rock and roll tunes about their band, a famous band, an opera singer, a private museum, "arts and crafts." "There is no difference between art and life," they warble; violence and pullution and Russia they know about from the San Fran Chronicle. Their best songs are about a female friendship (they "talk about art") and a lousy lover (the opera singer). Their candor is refreshing, their triviality not quite clever enough. B

LITTLE STEVEN: Freedom No Compromise (Manhattan) There are good singers who moan and good singers who whine, but this doomed soul is neither. He's just a guy who longs to let all the love and pain and ambition inside him out, and who isn't even any good at imitating those who know how. Civic virtue, rhythmic responsibility, sartorial overkill--none of them will gain him an ounce more popular credibility than he's already gained on the coattails of this icon or that issue. As usual, it's only as a writer of protest songs that he shows any knack--Rubén Blades could probably lift "Bitter Fruit" the way Black Uhuru did "Solidarity," and without Steven's phony accent. One hell of an expensive demo. C

LYNYRD SKYNYRD: Legend (MCA) What made them a great boogie band was that Ronnie Van Zant had a mean, sly edge on him. What made them a damn fine boogie band was that they knew how to relax. Except maybe for a bit about "Hollyweird," there's no special edge on these B sides, outtakes, reconstituted demos, and live one. But a decade after the fact they sound damn fine. B PLUS

VAN MORRISON: Poetic Champions Compose (Mercury) His first interesting album in five years sounds best as a CD for the same reason it isn't all that interesting--in his current spiritual state, which could last until he rages against the dying of the light, he doesn't much care about interesting. He just wants to roll on, undulating from rhythmic hill to melodic dale. If only he'd resequenced the third-stream instrumental "Celtic Excavation" so that it closed the full-length digital work instead of opening its nonexistent second side, he'd have framed his dinner music perfectly. Yeah, dinner music--I figure if it doesn't make me want to vomit, it must have something going for it. B PLUS

NEW ORDER: Substance (Qwest) Twelve cuts, eleven previously released some way or other, five available some way or other on U.S. albums, only one in this form. The emphasis is on twelve-inch mixes, with a new vocal patched into the hallowed "Temptation." The double-CD includes a whole extra disc of collectorama, but the double vinyl has no fat: it does nothing less than show off the greatest disco band of the '80s except Chic, and these guys outlasted Chic. Of course, not until Chic was gone did their disco dwell fully among us. The secret of Bernard Albrecht's elementary vocals, Gillian Gilbert's two-finger exercises, Peter Hook's strummed bass, and the compressed physicality of Steve Morris's drums was never virtuosity--it was conception, timing, rapport, devotional concentration. Originally attracted to disco because it was trancelike, they broke through when they devised a system of kinetic percussion and hypnotic chants to keep themselves awake. Cultists miss the murk of the early mixes, but I prefer them hyped and speeded up. Pure rhythm machine with an ironically mysterious overlay of schlocky melody to help it go down, this album is a case study in sensationalist art, and I say the world is better for it. A

MOJO NIXON & SKID ROPER: Bo-Day-Shus!! (Enigma) Art statements like "Wash No Dishes No More" and "I Ain't Gonna Piss in No Jar" can't be laughed off these days. "Elvis Is Everywhere" is for Phil Ochs in heaven, and by laying down cassette-and-CD-only tracks worth hearing they face up to their formal problem--making irresponsibility new. Not only would the agape-riven "Don't Want No Foo-Foo Haircut on My Head" and the primordial "Story of One Chord" fit quite audibly onto twelve inches of vinyl, they'd enlighten Mojo's collegiate followers. This cannot be said of the Americana-mongering "We Gotta Have More Soul!" and "B.B.Q. U.S.A.," much less Skid's "Lincoln Logs," in which the poor folkie misses his boyhood toys boo hoo. B PLUS

PUBLIC IMAGE LTD.: Happy? (Virgin) As sheer aural sensation, this may be PIL's best, synthesizing the deep dubwise pessimism of The Metal Box with the sharp studiowise pessimism of Album. But as total experience, it's product. My favorite line was "We want your money" until I realized it really went "We want your body"--another antisex rant, jeeze. Transcending John's unwavering self-regard is "Fat Chance Motel," a definitive piece of aural sensation apparently conceived during a desert vacation he apparently didn't enjoy. B

REMEMBER SOWETO 76-86: BULLETS WON'T STOP US NOW (Mordam) Outsiders seeking politically specific antiapartheid music won't get much satisfaction out of repressed South Africa itself: neither the brave, impotent folk-rock of the End Conscription Campaign's Forces Favourites nor the ANC's docuprop Radio Freedom, both on Rounder, will connect away from home. And Mordam's San Francisco-based Viva Umkhonto! is as subculture-bound as most hardcore comps. But this earlier collection from the Afrikaners' Netherlands fatherland speaks the language of international postfolk protest with a Eurorad accent, war before peace. Pop Afrobeat and avant Afrobeat and reggae and dub poetry and hardcore and plastic-people art-rock, by exiles black and white from South Africa and elsewhere, it puts secondhand talent to firsthand use. Includes propaganda booklet and comic, with all proceeds to Umkhonto We Sizwe, the ANC's military wing. B

RICKY VAN SHELTON: Wild-Eyed Dream (Columbia) In his white cowboy hat and sleeveless undershirt, he's as honest as George Strait with a day job--except maybe when picking an album title, because like most neotraditionalists he's too damned tasteful to stay wild-eyed long. As I hope he's noticed, the outlandish "Crime of Passion" is his ticket to ride. Guarantee you it will be remembered when all the small perfect moments surrounding it have passed into good-taste limbo. B

SOUNDS OF SOWETO (Capitol) If mbaqanga admirers find this contemporary compilation techno, that's their prejudice. At any acceptable level of economic development, electronic instruments are people-friendly, and music that mediates between South African blacks and the cities apartheid bars them from has its progressive function. Of course, quality can still vary. Condry Ziqubu and Lumumba burn; Lionel Petersen and the Winners kowtow. Some lyrics avoid the censors while sticking to the grit--corn, coal, crime in the streets. Others lie--if Petersen feels so damn "free to sing a song," that's another reason to suspect it doesn't mean shit. First side never lets that upwardly suave beat quit, and none of the others gets so smarmy you'll push reject. B PLUS

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Tunnel of Love (Columbia) Where Nebraska was plunged in a social despair he never quite made his own, this companion piece comes out of personal compulsion. By depicting the fear of commitment as sheer terror, he does the impossible: renews L-O-V-E as pop subject. First side's got distance, bravado, optimism, even a joke, but then comes one long deep look inside, so well-observed that he seems neither self-pitying nor self-important, just a decent guy with a realistic understanding of his major but not insoluble emotional problems. And although the format is almost as spare as Nebraska's, the man has worked on his sense of rhythm the way he's worked on his marriage, which means he's pleasing to hear with just a drummer or alone. Next thing you know he'll learn to dance. A

TAKE COVER (Shanachie) The buzzy sound that has me skipping the first side is no mbira, so I assume it's a tragedy of underdevelopment--a recording lapse serious enough to annoy even a lo-fi schmo like me. Though perhaps I'd reconsider if its two best-sounding tracks weren't a folk song and a call to Christian vigilance. Side two is Zimbabwe like it oughta be, soft-sung popchants hooked on clear, dancing treble guitar figures, with a second guitar echoing on the beat or embellishing lightly around it. You think maybe Stevie Wonder could donate a predigital console to a bright young engineer in Harare? B PLUS

VICTORIA WILLIAMS: Happy Come Home (Geffen) Sui generis it may be, yet in a great semipopular tradition: oddball folkie meets El Lay, represented by her coproducers born-again Steven Soles and bicoastal Anton Fier, as well as venerable oddball Van Dyke Parks, whose string arrangements prove him her soul brother. Her roots are in Cajunland, so naturally she sings like a cross between Dolly Parton and Yoko Ono. If you fear art damage, I cannot tell a lie, so maybe you'll believe me when I add that it's tolerable. Shoes, Jesus, merry-go-rounds, and animals--lots of animals. Hirth Martinez would be proud. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

The frustrating unavailability of the vast Ray Charles heritage can't be blamed on corporate perfidy. Charles controls the catalogue himself, and for whatever reason--so his new stuff will have no competition? so nobody can make him out to be a mere pop star? so he can hold out for his million like Ornette Coleman?--he's kept it to himself. Since 1971's long-gone 25th-anniversary compilation, the impossibly muddled five-disc box he permitted Atlantic in 1982, and the occasional mailorder deal have been the works, so it's big news that 40 of his ABC tracks are once again available, albeit in yet another limited form: Greatest Hits--Volume 1 and Volume 2 are CD-onlys from Dunhill Compact Classics. Two decades on they recall his hero Nat Cole more than we would have figured at the time--he really never rocked like "What'd I Say" again once he discovered country crossover. But I mean no insult to Cole when I observe that Charles is more black identified. Not to mention more country. Grab them, laser fans.

Serious Clownin'--The History of Huey "Piano" Smith & the Clowns (Rhino) is a little catchier and a lot more obvious than its great lost predecessor, Huey "Piano" Smith's Rock & Roll Revival, long out of print on U.S. Ace. I mean, Frankie Ford's "Sea Cruise" isn't exactly a rare item, and the one Huey did with Geri Hall is a lost gem. Why not Ford's "Alimony" or the Clowns' "She Got Low Down" instead of "Just a Dream"? On the other hand, I'm glad I got my hands on "We Like Birdland" and "Rockin' Behind the Iron Curtain," and anybody's who's been bit by the New Orleans bug should definitely put this ahead of, say, the Nevilles' Treacherous. Huey was Dr. John and Allen Toussaint combined in an unselfconscious era. Near essential.

The Platters' Anthology (Rhino) is the double they've always deserved. Some think Tony Williams' high-flying tenor the essence of pop melodrama, and I admit it can get much, but I say he was the first crossover soul man, and that the most popular vocal group of the '50s earned its hits.

I confess I may well spin the flawlessly up Reet Petite--The Best of Jackie Wilson (Columbia) when I crave some of his immoderate baby workout, and I'm certainly saving Through the Years, Rhino's "collection of rare album tracks and single sides." But I'm obliged to point out that The Jackie Wilson Story (Epic) includes 11 of these 12 tracks among its 24, omitting only "I Get the Sweetest Feeling" (a mistake). Now that Wilson's in the pantheon where he belongs, most of you will want the double's ballads no matter how much you like to rock. And because I also like to rock, another Reet Petite, the Ace import, remains my Wilson collectorama of choice.

Rhino's sin is selling too much of a good thing, but their Sun repackages err on the skimpy side, as in Johnny Cash's skillfully mastered The Vintage Years: 1955-1963. Four of the 14 cuts bleed his CBS catalogue, which is completely unnecessary as anyone who's heard such forgotten Sun singles as "Next in Line," "There You Go," "Train of Love," and "Give My Love to Rose" can attest. For CBS stuff, go right to the new The Columbia Years 1958-1986.

Three recent Chess twofers, The Best of Chess Blues, Rhythm & Blues, and Rock 'n' Roll, constitute MCA's first attempt to repackage rather than reissue Chess, and while none will hurt your ears, two don't cut it. Especially after checking back to Pete Welding's Chicago Blues Anthology, I realized that Blues simply plays it too safe, ceding six cuts to Waters-Wolf-Williamson, each of whom deserves his own compilation project and dwarfs his delightful colleagues. What's more, Willie Mabon and Little Milton run through blues classics they do nothing for rather than adding their novelties to Rhythm & Blues, which needs a shot of something: Chess never really caught on to the black pop of the rock and roll era, Dells and Billy Stewart notwithstanding. On the other hand, their teen crossovers were uncanny: Monotones, Tune Weavers, Lee Andrews, Sensations, Tommy Tucker, the glorious Johnnie & Joe. You deserve to find out what they sound like if you don't remember or never knew. Rock 'n' Roll!

Even better: The RCA Victor Blues & Rhythm Revue. Starting in 1940 with Lil Green's transcendent "Romance in the Dark" and ending in 1959 with the Isley's immanent "Shout," it concentrates on the post-WW II jump blues that was the forgotten progenitor of rock and roll: not blues plus country, but rib-tickling boogie. Almost all of it was new to me, and did I have fun, from the Delta Rhythm Boys and undiscovered Little Richard to Count Basie praising Jackie Robinson. Louis Jordan fans know what to do.

Girl Groups (Rhino) is great rock and roll. Teen Idols (Rhino) is camp trivia. Summer of Love (Rhino) is camp trivia. Now here's the surprise: Jefferson Airplane's 2400 Fulton Street (RCA Victor) is great rock and roll. Or anyway, real good rock, redolent/representative of its era as only pop product can be. Wonder if they ever thought it was anything else.

No cigar: Bad Checks: Innocence (Music Action); Dick Destiny & the Highway Kings: Arrogance (Destination); D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince: Rock the House (Jive); Duran Duran: Notorious (Capitol); Just-Ice: Back to the Old School (Fresh); Charlie Pickett: Route 33 (Twin/Tone). Trying: Big Audio Dynamite: No. 10, Upping Street (Columbia); Fuzzbox: We've Got a Fuzzbox and We're Gonna Use It (Geffen); Hollywood Beyond: If (Warner Bros.); Little Richard: Lifetime Friend (Warner Bros.); Rat at Rat R: Rock & Roll Is Dead Long Live Rat at Rat R (Neutral); the System: Don't Disturb This Groove (Atlantic); Hege V: House of Tears (MTM). What Was That Song Again?: The Hard-Ons (Big Time); Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers: Hey World (EMI America); the Nuns: Rumania (PVC); The Other Ones (Virgin); Rank and File (Rhino); Splatcats: Sin 73 (Moving Target); 'Til Tuesday: Welcome Home (Epic). I don't Remember a Thing: the Human League: Crash (A&M); Painted Willie: Upsidedowntown (SST); The 77's (Island); the Toasters: Skaboom! (Moving Target); Rosie Vela: Zazu (A&M). Duty Called: ABC: Alphabet City (Mercury); Cinderella: Night Songs (Mercury); Communards (MCA); Nona Hendryx: Female Trouble (EMI America); Judy Mowatt: Love Is Overdue (Shanachie); Poison: Look What the Cat Dragged In (Enigma); Surf M.C.'s: Surf or Die (Profile); the Wallets: Take It (Twin/Tone). Playboy Made Me Do It: Alabama: Just Us (RCA Victor); Force M.D.'s: Touch and Go (Tommy Boy); New Monkees (Warner Bros.); Rush: Hold Your Fire (Mercury). Bad Name Raspberry: the Contras: Ciphers in the Snow (Whittier). The Consumer Guide Guarantee: I have listened to all of the above records twice. I never want to type their names again.

Village Voice, Dec. 1, 1987

Oct. 27, 1987 Dec. 29, 1987