Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide: Give the Gift of UniMoth

So UniMoth MegaCorp flooded the market with "millennium collection" cheapos that drove richer product off the racks. And the usual suspects put out confusing-at-best best-ofs on album artists Laurie Anderson, the Band, PM Dawn, Richard & Linda Thompson (reinstate their catalogue!), and Marshall Crenshaw (go for the reinstated debut and demand Field Day!). But for all that I had no trouble locating sure-shot gifts for the last Christmas of our prosperity. Including a record three boxes, three two-CD sets, and a bunch that retail for 10 or 11 bucks if you know where to look.


CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & THE MAGIC BAND: The Dust Blows Forward (An Anthology) (Warner Archives/Rhino) The proof of his avant-gardism isn't the rejects and weirdness of Grow Fins. It's that the music (if not the poetry) on his finest albums-- Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978), Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970), and Doc at the Radar Station (1980), with the insufficiently fluent Trout Mask Replica (1969) a distinct fifth behind Ice Cream for Crow (1982)--is more gripping and coruscating than ever. But only Trout Mask is in print domestically. And while this double-CD lifts heavily from all while pulling him as far out of shape avantwise (blame Frank Zappa) as popwise (blame Ted Templeman), it also documents, more songfully than he ever cared to, the progress of blues that were progressive to begin with. That's right, blues, no matter what he says, from Skip James and Elmore James to Ornette Coleman and James Blood Ulmer, who Don Van Vliet may never have heard and who should only be so dense and nutty. Another referent: the Band at their careening best. Another: Pavement. Repressive tension, explosive release; sprung rhythm, fugueing melody. All that. A

THE ORIGINAL CARTER FAMILY: Can the Circle Be Unbroken (Columbia/Legacy) Although the Carters' selling point is repertoire, their craft is Mother Maybelle's deceptively simple bedrock guitar and vocals that shade matter-of-fact mountain ballad convention. These mostly 1935 recordings are slower and more forceful than the classic 1927-1929 RCAs, substituting audible confidence for sprightly charm and repeating only three tunes from Anchored in Love and My Clinch Mountain Home. If this "Keep on the Sunny Side" could be sunnier, that "Lulu Walls" could be droller. Especially for nonfolkies who haven't suffered through too many fools clunking them up, a great bunch of songs. A

THE FUNK BOX (Hip-O) Praise UniMoth from whom all blessings flow. Thanks to the corporate consolidation that unifies MCA's and PolyGram's holdings, as well as the corporate cooperation that frees WEA to share Aretha and AWB, here's the rare box that makes sense (and music) of tracks you could never hear (or stand) rather than diminishing ones you cherish into generic or hero-mongering oblivion. Roy Ayers? Patrice Rushen? Billy Preston? The Fatback Band? Fatback? With their basslines pumped and their best tricks set off by the deeper tricks of betters from JB on down, all jam like jam bands oughta and Uncle Jam said they should. Stretching over four CDs as expansive as the world music they encapsulate, these 55 tracks are worth your 50 bucks no matter how many you already own. Scrooge option: the same label's 12-track Love Funk. A

ICE-T: Greatest Hits: The Evidence (Coroner/Atomic Pop) I missed "Cop Killer" (at least "KKK Bitch," or--remember, Eminem?--"Momma's Gotta Die Tonight") until I accepted Ice-T for what he here chooses to be: not an outrageous ironist but a cold-eyed truth peddler, a man who knows from well-remembered, -observed, and -imagined experience that crime sometimes pays and usually doesn't. Not only does no G get trepanned here, no woman gets misused; the violence is almost all suffered or recalled. Thus contextualized, the clarity, economy, and devastating detail of the man's rapping and rhyming are a benison, turning the spare beats he favors into an ascetic aesthetic. A

ETTA JAMES: The Chess Box (MCA) More is more. Time and again, especially when this early bloomer is still in her twenties, she defeats ordinary songwriting and production far more decisively than Aretha did at Columbia. Aretha's her competition, too--even today, James's voice is a wonder, so gritty it's filthy and so sweet it's filthier than that. Only 22 when this 1960-76 span began, she was possessed of a shrewd intelligence that understood standards like "Lover Man" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" just fine--r&b singers had been changing pace with the stuff since the '40s. She only stumbled artistically when she learned how meaningful she was. Graded leniently for deep-sixing Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On." A

FRANKIE LYMON & THE TEENAGERS: The Very Best of Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers (Rhino) Lymon's oeuvre is less mythic than he is. Forced to sit through his Bear Family box, adepts luxuriate in nostalgia or read trauma and triumph into every piece of crap George Goldner handed him while outsiders smile indulgently at his una-poppa-cow or kvell about a New York street music better understood as a democratic multiplicity. Fact is, the 16-song package is kinder than the 20-track it condenses. Lymon possessed the strongest instrument of any young teenager on record, including Tanya Tucker, Arlene Smith, Brenda Lee, LeAnn Rimes, and Michael Jackson himself. Aware that this little kid was a pimp before he got fucked on the hit parade, we can hear the knowingness of the voice's innocence as both thrilling and chilling, but note as well how much his street music owes the showbiz razzmatazz every teenager of the time encountered on radio and television but few were canny enough to put to use. Then we should admit that on the few pieces of B material here, he's just reading his lines, stuck in a rut that can't accommodate his drive to rise above. And then we'll try and forget all that, as Lymon had to if his records were to make any sense as the teen dreams they were and remain. A

TAJ MAHAL: The Best of Taj Mahal (Columbia/Legacy) Though the box is too much as usual, rest assured that none of his albums have gotten worse. But since not everyone's a natural sucker for John Hurt's love child moved down to New Orleans and taken up with a St. Kitts woman, here's where to find out how much you care. Five of 17 songs are also on the paradigm-shifting 1992 comp Taj's Blues, which also begins (and why not?) with "Statesboro Blues" and "Leaving Trunk." But starting with 1969's The Natch'l Blues, say, would mean missing, to name just two, Dave Dudley's Teamster-certified "Six Days on the Road" and the Pointer Sisters' greatest minutes, their sashaying backup on "Cakewalk Into Town." Don't die without hearing that one. It's reason to live all by itself. A

MOTOWN: THE CLASSIC YEARS (UTV) Although most of these tracks are by artists who can and do support two-CD comps of their own, the documented existence of whole generations of young people for whom they are prehistoric overrides such scruples. Motown was Motown before it was Smokey, Supremes, Tempts, Marvin, Stevie, or marvelous Marvellettes, and it deserves to be heard that way. I fretted that its formula--on the first disc, only two tracks clock over 3:00 and two under 2:30--would sound corny or mechanical. Instead, all but a few of these 40 records range from superb to transcendent, and the only one I'd pan is a pet peeve, the Four Over-the-Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There," which some judge a masterpiece. Lists for $25. If you know somebody who wouldn't be delighted to receive it, ditch the sourpuss. A PLUS

OHI0 PLAYERS: The Best of Ohio Players: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (Mercury) A snazzier gleaning would include "Far East Mississippi" and some Westbound hits--"Pain," "Ecstasy," "Funky Worm." But as competing UniMoth entries by the Gap Band, Trick James, and LTD make clear, this Dayton crew got the funk. What seemed like novelty ad infinitum in the '70s was in fact kompletely kinky, and not in the sense of honey-covered cover girls or (too bad) fresh interpretations of "Lola" and "You Really Got Me"--just wound-tight bass and drums and three horny men following turn for turn. Topping all was Leroy Bonner's falsetto etc., as toon-town as Bootsy yet, like Bootsy, soulful to the nth when it chose. Remember the 1974 ballad "I Want To Be Free"? No? Well, rent Spike Lee's Kings of Comedy, where a whole arena in Charlotte knows every word. A

POP MUSIC: THE EARLY YEARS 1890-1950 (Columbia/Epic/Legacy) Unlike the equally amazing nine-CD American Pop: An Audio History (still floating around the Net for $70), the sole prize from Sony's misshapen series of two-CD Y2K keepsakes (discounted at Wherehouse.com for $20) relegates the folk to other keepsakes and deals solely in pop: not only "commercial" music, which all records aimed to be, but manufactured music, geared to the demands of a known distribution system. It doesn't avoid schlock (bandleader Ben Selvin, who laid down 2000-plus sides, is a far commoner denominator than Elton John or Celine Dion), and it's got its ringers--14 of these 50 records aren't on Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories charts. But most of the nonhits serve some historical or artistic purpose--in my favorite (conceptually, at least), the Italian American imposter who played Aunt Jemima in the original Show Boat delivers "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," her only release. In general, these tracks are more urban, Northern, immigrant, Jewish, female, female-identified, arranged, literate, timely, faddish, vulgar, sophisticated, expert, confident, compromised, conflicted, and monocultural than their folk counterparts. They're also every bit as fascinating and enjoyable. Education can be fun. Pop is art. A

RICHARD PRYOR: . . . And It's Deep Too!: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1975-1992) (Rhino) Not music. Nine original-package CDs that could squeeze onto six. Lists for $80. Yet while I'll note that Pryor's outrages are synergistic with hip hop's--each naturalizes, enriches, and critiques the other--I'd be recommending this luxury item over my own dead principles even if they weren't. His woman problems can vex, but not only hasn't he dated, he's gained stature. These albums comprise a great body of performed literature, their only drawback their lack of videos. So bargain hunt. I located it at non-union-busting (if nonunion) CDNow for $56. A PLUS

JIMMY REED: Blues Masters: The Very Best of Jimmy Reed (Rhino) He was a paragon of mush-mouthed warmth and congenial ineptitude, the crudest hitmaker in pop history and one of the best-selling bluesmen ever. People pretend to understand how he happened, but they don't. Sure the boogie shuffle Eddie Taylor got out of his guitar was new and inviting, but was it novel, or compelling? And Fats Domino, a plausible analogy, was infinitely cleaner and slicker. Rhino's selection includes the prized "Odds and Ends," in which a violinist on shore leave from the Chicago Symphony goes crazy and can't figure out how to get back. Seems like a parable, only what exactly is the point? The point is that with Jimmy Reed, you never know. A

SMOOTH GROOVES: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION (Rhino) Finally, after truckloads of fluff and baloney, a quiet-storm comp worthy of a 70-minute man. Access definitive Delfonics, Stylistics, Spinners, Blue Magic! Enjoy essential Green and Gaye! Hear Lou Rawls succumb to Gamble & Huff! Find out why Kool & the Gang did slow ones! Climax simultaneously with Barry White! Wake up next to Heatwave in the morning! A

DIONNE WARWICK: The Very Best of Dionne Warwick (Rhino) Warwick aged terribly--rid of Burt Bacharach, she immediately immersed in the ritual emotion of divahood. But as his ingenue she was a model of self-possessed vulnerability. Though this chart-determined 16-song budget CD skips such lovely moments as "You'll Never Get to Heaven" and "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," it still leaves her on the right side of 30, which for the purposes of this argument means 29. Dry with a sweetness like affordable champagne, she was girl-group's big sister, her natural sense of style based on close readings of Harper's Bazaar and sage advice from her Uncle Burt--who was in the business, who lost his touch when she wasn't there to dress anymore, and who didn't regain it when she came back her own woman. A

Village Voice, Dec. 26, 2000

Postscript Notes:

This column originally included a review of Merle Haggard, This Is Merle Haggard (Music Club):

Without having track-checked more than a little of the 75 or so frustrating Hag comps I know of, I do solemnly swear that this 16-song cheapo (a) includes a higher concentration of classics than any other and (b) will seem kinda redundant if you own much Capitol. Conceive it as a starter kit, perfect for young people who figured out he was cool when Epitaph picked up his contract. A

On further checking this particular compilation turns out to be Haggard's re-recordings of his original hits--something to always be on the lookout for, since he's done an awful lot of it. Christgau withdrew the review. I think there was even a letter published in the Village Voice to this effect, which we'll add here if/when we find it.


Dec. 5, 2000 Jan. 23, 2001