Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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By my stingy standards, in which it's bad form for a label to turn listeners into collectors, the reissue label of the year is MCA, source of six superb one-disc distillations recommended for your gift-exchanging pleasure below. Plus a terrific but somewhat extraneous Hendrix single and Skynyrd double as well as a three-CD Armstrong that proved too much to digest before Christmas.


AMERICAN POP: AN AUDIO HISTORY (West Hill Audio Archives) Nine CDs spanning 1893-1946, it'll set you back a hundred bucks, and it's not really what it says it is, cheating Tin Pan Alley, John Philip Sousa, George M. Cohan, Ruth Etting, Broadway, Northerners, Ukulele Ike, Gene Austin, humor, Hollywood, Fred Astaire, Glen Gray, Glenn Miller, the Andrews Sisters, and anybody who doesn't sing-a de English, among others. Nevertheless, it's an endless delight, almost 11 hours where Harry Smith's Anthology is four-something, and a powerful illustration of the antibiz aesthetic in which the best popular music derives from and is aimed back at subcultural audiences the artist can smell and touch. Play any disc and you'll soon be rummaging around for the first booklet, where all the track listings are. So that's James Reese Europe! Ella Mae Morse! Geeshie Wiley! Only isn't it Geechie? And who the hell are Polk Miller and His Old South Quartette? A

THE ANDREWS SISTERS: Greatest Hits: 60th Anniversary Edition (MCA) From all-American Minneapolis, half Norwegian and half Greek, the biggest-selling girl group of all time. Although Patti's soggy "I Wanna Be Loved" states explicitly that "loved" doesn't stop with "kissed" and my wife swears "Want Some Sea Food Mama" can't just mean butterfish, their considerable sex appeal is all in their wholesome eagerness to let their hair down. By concentrating on close-harmony uptempo smashes, this 16-song best-of-the-best minimizes mawk as well as travelogues like "Rum and Coca-Cola" and "Bongo, bongo, bongo/I don't want to leave the Congo." Only one "polka," for instance. Averred their music director: "I hated `Beer Barrel Polka' and arranged it as badly as I could, but it turned out to be their biggest hit. So I gave up trying to do anything musically worthwhile." Now do you believe they were on the side of the angels? A MINUS

BOBBY BLAND: Greatest Hits Volume One--The Duke Recordings (MCA) His strapping young voice set apart by his trademarked gargling snort as well as a falsetto he claims he found when he had his tonsils out, Bland was never more puissant than when knuckling under the broad thumb of Don Robey, the label owner (they hadn't invented executive producers yet) who surfaces in parentheses as song-copywriter Deadric Malone. "Turn On Your Love Light," "Farther Up the Road," "I Pity the Fool"--you'd think they'd always been there, so familiar are their tropes and tunes. But they were tailored to a specific voice and market, defining upwardly mobile blues in a moment when r&b was wide open. Later Bland would lean into the soul beat of "These Hands (Small but Mighty)" and the pop-Latin lilt of "Call on Me," incite harmonettes into chirping "Yield not to temptation." But postblues are his home ground. And most of the time, Jabo Starks is his drummer. A

DUKE ELLINGTON: The Best of Early Ellington (MCA) Although it doesn't approach RCA's long-lost Flaming Youthand touches fewer famous classics than Columbia's fainter, cleaner two-CD Okeh Ellington, this warm, scratchy disc leads out of his tangled discography into his '20s music, which traffics in a rinky-dink novelty more rock and roll than his glossy big-band dance charts. At first only a few familiar tunes stand out from the delicate audacity and raucous detail of the sound. But soon every theme kicks in, every silky clarinet solo and bumptious plunger mute. Ellington called this jungle music because white folks would never have believed he heard the modern city so much better than they did. They learned, kind of. A

GANG OF FOUR: 100 Flowers Bloom (Rhino) In a year of exploitations and misconceptions--Newman box (his albums sell cheap), Bacharach box (when will Dionne get her miniset?), Mayfield overkill-then-downsize (MCA's two-CD 1992 Anthology nails him)--the synchronic programming, live tracks, and five songs from 1995's disappearing Shrinkwrapped make this double look like another rogue Rhino. Far from it. Gof4's Warner albums always worked as albums, as they will again when they're finally rereleased, and Warner's Brief History of the 20th Century posits a proper beginning, middle, and end. What this jumble does is establish new interconnections--the concert versions and studio remixes hold songs you know up to the light, and mixed in among the old electrofunk adventures their recent techno moves sound principled and in character. Gof4's radical critique/embrace of commodification remains a truth, not the whole truth, so help me God. But it sure hasn't lost relevance. And when their albums do come back whole, as commodification makes inevitable, this version of their vision will still get in your face. A

HARD ROCK CAFE: PARTY ROCK (Hard Rock/Rhino) Lead track: "Addicted to Love." Best track: "Addicted to Love." Also includes: "Hot Blooded," "What I Like About You," "Can't Get Enough." Oldest track: "Joy to the World." Second-worst track (after "Do You Feel Like We Do"): "Joy to the World." Author of notes: singer of "Joy to the World." Black artists: one. Newest track: Tone-Loc's "Wild Thing." Tracks by legitimate album artists: one ("Gimme Three Steps"). Conflicts with Dazed and Confused: two. Conflicts with Jock Jams or Frat Rock: zero. In short: best stupid-rock comp in many a year. A

MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT: Rediscovered (Vanguard) Who needs a best-of on the most important artist ever to emerge from Mississippi except maybe William Faulkner? With every Vanguard save the live double superb, buy all three like he was Al Green or Otis Redding and be done with it. Only (a) you don't believe me so you're not gonna and (b) this skillfully selected and segued bargain is the one I'll play too. Beyond his songster's repertoire and self-taught picking (Segovia supposedly asked who the second guitarist was), Hurt's gift was a sweetness of temperament that normalized every subject he touched, from murderous men and adulterous women to Maxwell House coffee and shortnin' bread. Hence, Robert Johnson gets all the ink. Violence as only an aspect of life--what a wimp! A PLUS

THE KING'S RECORD COLLECTION (Hip-O) A great gift idea for that Elvis nut, this collection of records Elvis covered hits every Sun nonoriginal except "Milkcow Blues Boogie" and establishes his superiority to Arthur Crudup and Big Mama Thornton (though not the Drifters or Joe Turner) for anyone who's never located the records in question. A vivid representation of both his voracious tastes and the musical ferment from which he made what he made. D.O.A.: Leon Payne's dull "I Love You Because." Born again: the Shelton Brothers' deadpan "Just Because." A MINUS

THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS: Greatest Hits (MCA) As with such contemporary jazz and folk harmonists as the Hi-Los and Peter, Paul & Mary, the pretensions of their elaborate schlock were strictly vocal. Rather than a wall of sound for them to emote over, Lou Adler had the Tycoon of Teen's studio studs construct a latticework for them to wend through, with strings generally left out, mixed down, or reduced to chamber music. Another corn corrective was John Phillips's detached, often acid songwriting--cf. the gentle rake's confession "I Saw Her Again," or this collection's sole serious omission, the cheerful junkie boast "Straight Shooter." Phillips got romantic only as a California dreamer, most tellingly in the late, commercially minor "Twelve Thirty," a benign description of how groovy it felt to leave New York for L.A. circa 1966. Its sense of stoned entitlement on show business's hippie fringe evokes a utopian moment too many '60s memoirists have forgotten or never knew. A

MILLENNIUM FUNK PARTY (Rhino) There are at least three of these things: nonstop nondisco from the Commodores to the Sugarhill Gang on Millennium Funk Party; the Tempts to LTD on Rhino's song-strong VH-1 8-Track Flashback; or Tom Browne to Graham Central Station on Relativity's jamful Funkgasm. The examples suggest why this one gets the nod--it's totally obvious, totally surefire. Does it conflict with your P-Funk library and Gap Band best-of? I hope so, and by all means compare track listings. But somewhere in this vicinity lies the way of instant par-tay. A

OVER IN GLORY: FAVORITES FROM CLASSIC GOSPEL GROUPS (MCA) All climax, all the time. I mean, in a music whose individual proponents make it their business to channel the universal, why not stick to their ecstasies and leave the mundane to their secular counterparts? Not that these impassioned tracks are above detail--one apogee among many is the Jackson Southernaires' painfully protracted tale of a son who reaches his dying mama just hours too late. But whether the glorious singers are getting happy or laying their burdens down, they're all in extremis, opening windows not into their mortal souls but into an idealized gospel experience--the spiritual release nonbelievers prize in a music that will never be their own. Connoisseurs may cry cartoon, but for must of us that's a plus, as is the articulated call-and-response built into the group format and the crassness of Peacock's Don Robey, not a guy who hesitated to besmirch the Lord with rhythm sections. Guitars either. A

FRANK SINATRA: Everything Happens to Me (Reprise) The Chairman on Reprise is a study in why artists shouldn't own record companies. My researches into a catalogue that runs to some 100 LPs have yet to uncover a single title that comes near the great Capitols (including the Jobim job people ooh and ahh about, although the 1964 Basie-Quincy It Might As Well Be Swing! does what it sets out to), and the compilations are not to be trusted. So especially if you're reluctant to spend $60 for the choppy 81-song box, try this 20-song oddity, supposedly programmed by Frank himself at age 79 and duplicating only seven box selections. Anointing more Don Costas than Nelson Riddles and surprisingly scant on the Tin Pan Alley pantheon, its defining factor is tempo, almost always moderate or less, accentuating the autumnally ruminative mood of the songs and the old man who looked back on them so fondly. It ain't, to choose the Capitol remaster I've just glommed onto, Songs for Young Lovers/Swing Easy! But from the "suddenly you're a lot older" of the 1981 lead track, there's character here no callow 40-year-old would stoop to. A

HUEY "PIANO" SMITH: This Is . . . Huey "Piano" Smith (Music Club) "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" has already created a disturbance in your mind--as an impossible yet inevitable piece of language, and as the sloppiest and most, there's no other word, infectious of the New Orleans piano novelties. Forsooth, it could make you swear off antihistamines, yet it's no juicier than the slogan-crazed, tequila-soaked "Would You Believe It (I Have a Cold)," which comes with its own distinct melody, unlike "High Blood Pressure," not to mention "Little Chickie Wah Wah," the hidden link between "Rockin' Pneumonia" and Smith's other great hit, Frankie Ford's "Sea Cruise," although his highest charter was "Don't You Just Know It," from an idea by his chauffeur, Rudy Ray Moore. And if you're getting the idea that this man and his well-named Clowns had more than one way to turn a joke into a party, wait till you hear the one Patti Smith covered. A

THIS IS SKA! (Music Club) Ska compilations are a puzzlement--once you get the ramshackle groove, the supply of likable stuff you'd never heard expands toward infinity as the roll call of undeniable classics remains as brief as ever. Island instigated the confusion with Intensified! and More Intensified!almost two decades ago, and finally solved it with the first volume of the four-CD reggae overview Tougher Than Tough. But this $10, 16-track, 44-minute alternative also strikes just the right mix of funky popsters (two Desmond Dekkers, one Jimmy Cliff) and loose-limbed groovemasters (their pace set by the Skatalites' "Guns of Navarone"). Prime MIAs: the unrepresented Prince Buster's "Al Capone" and Roland Alphonso's "Solomon Gundie," the latter available on Island's semiobscurantist new Ska's the Limit, which does unearth the archetypally out-of-tune sax solo of Lord Creator's "Independent Jamaica." Then there's Music Club's This Is Ska Too!, specializing (it says) in third-wave cover faves. Skank on. A

Village Voice, Dec. 29, 1998


Dec. 15, 1998 Feb. 23, 1999