Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

I wanted to make it a real rock Christmas by pretending the world consists entirely of superstars, which would have meant replacing Faithfull, Green, Lloyd, and Wreckless Eric with Pendergrass, Pink Floyd, No Nukes, and Led Zep. But those last biggies were simply four double-LPs too many (No Nukes is a triple, so Led Zep counts). As it is you will find 10 of the big fat double-ugly mothers below, including five in Additional Consumer News, devoted as is my custom to Yuletide product. Actually, this is a good crop--two recommended live doubles and several excellent best-ofs as well as the usual pigs and turkeys. And the four small fry I stuck in will all make better Christmas gifts than any of the four I passed up. So ho-ho-ho to you.


BOOTSY'S RUBBER BAND: This Boot Is Made for Fonk-N (Warner Bros.) Bootsy sounds like a kiddie-show host at the end of his tether--trotting out sound effects, Steve Martin imitations, desperate appeals to deejays, anything he can think of. Except a good riff. C PLUS

RAY CHARLES: Ain't It So (Atlantic) Pro forma Charles here-jazzed-up Berlin and Mercer-Allen, schlocked-up "Just Because," uninspired Manilow and McDill, original Jimmy Lewis, "Drift Away" (eat your heart out, Dobie), and "Some Enchanted Evening" (eat your heart out, Ezio). In other words, a pretty damn good record. B PLUS

THE EAGLES: The Long Run (Asylum) This isn't as country-rocky as you might expect--these are pros who adapt to the times, and they make the music tough. I actually enjoy maybe half of these songs until I come into contact with the smug, sentimental woman-haters who are doing the singing. I mean, these guys think punks are cynical and anti-life? Guys who put down "the king of Hollywood" because his dick isn't as big as John David Souther's? C PLUS

MARIANNE FAITHFULL: Broken English (Island) A punk-disco fusion so uncompromised it will probably scare away any one who doesn't already admire both genres. Not a perfect record, I admit. The lyrics are maddeningly offhand and inconsistent--"Why d'ya do what you said?/Why d'ya let her suck your cock?" is a great beginning, but "Ahh do me a favor/Don't put me in the dark" is a terrible rhyme (and not the only one, either). Still, I find Faithfull worth listening to even when she's sloppy, or maybe because she's sloppy, like Dylan when he's good. The music's harshest account of a woman in the world. A MINUS [Later]

FLEETWOOD MAC: Tusk (Warner Bros.) A million bucks is what I call obsessive production, but for once it means something. This is like reggae, or Eno--not only don't Lindsey Buckingham's swelling edges and dynamic separations get in the way of the music, they're inextricable from the music, or maybe they are the music. The passionate dissociation of the mix is entirely appropriate to an ensemble in which the three principals have all but disappeared (vocally) from each other's work. But only Buckingham is attuned enough to get exciting music out of a sound so spare and subtle it reveals the limits of Christine McVie's simplicity and shows Stevie Nicks up for the mooncalf she's always been. Also, it doesn't make for very good background noise. B PLUS

FOREIGNER: Head Games (Atlantic) This isn't as sodden as you might expect--these are pros who adapt to the times, and they speed the music up. I actually enjoy a few of these songs until I come into contact with the smug, stupid woman-haters who are doing the singing. I mean, these guys think punks are cynical and anti-life? Guys who complain that the world is all madness and lies and then rhyme "science" and "appliance" without intending a joke? C

ARETHA FRANKLIN: La Diva (Atlantic) Blame what's wrong with this record on the late trite Van McCoy, one of the most tasteless arrangers ever to produce an LP. What saves it is that McCoy didn't control half of these songs--arrangements by Richard Gibbs and Arthur Jenkins (rhythm only) and Zulema Cusseaux and Skip Scarborough (rhythm plus orchestration) provide frequent relief. Aretha contributes two sisterly originals, which are really fine, and one loverly original, which isn't. Because McCoy keeps intruding she never gets a flow going. But there haven't been so many good cuts on one of her albums since 1974. B

FUNKADELIC: Uncle Jam Wants You (Warner Bros.) This is fairly wonderful through the first cut on side two, but in a fairly redundant way. Bernie Worrell's high synthesizer vamps sometimes seem like annoying clichés these days, and not even Philippe Wynne can provide the marginal variety that puts good groove music over the top-maybe because he sounds like a high synthesizer himself. B PLUS

PETER GREEN: In the Skies (Sail) For a supposed resident of Cloud Cuckoo Land, Fleetwood Mac's original hitmaker is doing all right-this solo comeback is a lot solider than number three from Bob Welch (featuring "Future Games" as blast from the past), number two from Danny Kirwan (blonde on the cover), or number one from Jeremy Spencer (now apparently unborn-again, though six out of seven songs pivot on the word "love" and the eternal one is graced with syndrums). Green's new music goes all the way back to Then Play On, but it's a lot more confident-simple guitar excursions with a Latin lilt, like Carlos Santana with a sense of form (or limits). And it makes for very good background noise. B PLUS [Later]

MILLIE JACKSON: Live and Uncensored (Polydor) Millie was made for live albums, as the rap-and-belt format of her studio work suggests, and the drama here, with its raunchy audience interplay, is at least as natural as anything she's ever devised for vinyl. Her timing keeps getting sharper, her voice keeps getting bigger, the songs amount to a best-of, and you also get a monologue about soap operas and the "Phuck U Symphony." Certainly her best since the Caught Up diptych, and probably definitive. A MINUS

JEFFERSON STARSHIP: Freedom at Point Zero (Grunt) Hawkwind-goes-commercial leads off one side, Foreigner-hurries-home the other; both cuts are catchy, both sexist tripe. The rest of the album is a familiar muddle of fixations: space travel, good-time music, the deluge, the possession of pretty girls. Personal to Mickey Thomas: ain't nobody gonna boogie on the moons of Saturn. C MINUS

RICHARD LLOYD: Alchemy (Elektra) Lloyd really has his pop down, and this record never fails to cheer me when it comes on-the songwriting and guitar textures are consistently tuneful and affecting. I don't mind that he always sings off-key, either--part of the charm of his pop is how loose it is. But the voice is so wacked-out that even if you'd never seen Lloyd lurching around a stage or matching magic with Tom Verlaine you'd sense that where for the Shoes or the Beat teen romance is a formal stricture, for him it's an evasion--he's just not telling us what he knows. B PLUS

BETTE MIDLER: Thighs and Whispers (Atlantic) The songs are pretty good, and when you listen up they get better, their apparent flatness undercut by, little touches of drama, comedy, or musicianship. But the songs aren't that good. And they don't get that much better. C PLUS

PARLIAMENT: Gloryhallastoopid (Casablanca) At its stoopidest ("Theme from the Black Hole," which features a "toast to the boogie" that goes--naturally--"Bottoms up!") this makes Motor-Booty Affair sound like The Ring of the Niebelungenlied. But at its dumbest ("Party People," apparently a sincere title) it makes Motor-Booty Affair sound like "Sex Machine" or "Get Off Your Ass and Jam." And there's too much filler. Stoopid can be fun, George--even inspirational. But mainly you sound overworked, and that's a drag for everybody. B PLUS

LOU REED: The Bells (Arista) Lou is as sarcastic as ever--the lead cut is called "Stupid Man," and in a typically acid rhyme he links "capricious" and "death wish." But due in part to the music's jazzy edge and warmly traditional rock and roll base (special thanks to Marty Fogel on saxophone) he also sounds . . . well-rounded, more than on Street Hassle. The jokes seem generous, the bitterness empathetic, the pain outfront, the tenderness more than a fleeting mood. And the cuts that don't work-there are at least three or four-seem like thoughtful experiments, or simple failures, rather than throwaways. I haven't found him so likable since The Velvet Underground. B PLUS

THE ROSE (Atlantic) The usual soundtrack alibis don't apply to a Paul Rothchild production utilizing studio-certified musicians and a dozen tunesmiths hacking out rock songs to order. In fact, all that distinguishes this collection of nine Bette Midler performances from, say, your usual backup-goes-solo bid is that it was recorded live--for "feel," I guess. Although it is true that except for the off-color "Love Me with a Feeling" the high points are the monologue on side one and a prolonged is fanfare. C

THE WHO: The Kids Are Alright (MCA) I prefer the originals, but this isn't a bad sampler. All of the songs are good, many are classics, and the relative roughness of performance has its attractions even if the relative roughness of sound doesn't (most of them are from live dates never intended for vinyl). One thing I'd like to know, though--if he's so "vital," how come 12 of the 15 Townsend compositions are from the '60s? B

STEVIE WONDER: Stevie Wonder's Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (Tamla) Like most great popular composers, Wonder is an appalling "serious" one. With their one-world instrumental flourishes and other sound effects, the presumably synthesized "orchestral" passages that dominate the first two sides are like bad (!) David Amram at their best (!) and some justifiably anonymous Hollywood hack at their worst. (Major exception: "Race Babbling," especially when it glances a presumably synthesized horn riff off presumably synthesized voices and ostinatos.) And only two of the four songs on side three, which defenders of this album admire, are worth of Key of Life. But on side four Wonder's indomitable open-heartedness finally breaks through the mawk. "A Seed's a Star and Tree Medley" is even more foolish philosophically than most of the rest of the album, but its élan makes Stevie's vitalism palpable, so that even the presumably synthesized orchestral passages which wrap things up sound ardently schmaltzy instead of depressingly schlocky. Still, next time I hope he aims lower. B MINUS

WRECKLESS ERIC: The Whole Wide World (Stiff) Like the Only Ones' Special View, Eric's U.S. debut sifts the duds out of two years worth of U.K. singles and LPs to arrive at a stylistically unified compilation album--though the 13 tracks list seven different producers, they cohere, because Eric hasn't had time to outgrow his own impulses. The voice mewls and scratches like a cat in a broom closet, but the melodies get out, and the lyrics are a lot less hapless than they pretend to be: beneath the girl-shy fool lurks an ironic paranoid of devastating subtlety. A MINUS

NEIL YOUNG: Live Rust (Reprise) John Piccarella thinks this is the great Neil Young album, Greil Marcus thinks it's a waste, and they're both right. The two discs are probably more impressive cut for cut than Decade, but without offering one song Young fans don't already own. I prefer the studio versions of the acoustic stuff on side one for their intimacy and touch. But I'm sure I'll play the knockdown finale--"Like a Hurricane," "Hey Hey, My My," and "Tonight's the Night," all in their wildest (and best) recorded interpretations--whenever I want to hear Neil rock out. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Maybe this year's best-of bonanza means the biz is so desperate it's felt driven to actually issue, er, good product. Or maybe it's just happenstance. In any case, I expect to remember a lot of this year's Christmas rush come next Christmas, a sure sign of conceptual validity. Before I get to the celeb stuff I should hype my very favorite, Burning Spear's Harder Than the Best (Mango), which extricates the tunes from the groove and adds a dab of dub. Political and possessed, with Winston Rodney's hypnotic vocals floating, darting, and echoing over the mix, this is the greatest reggae compilations since Toots's U.S. debut. Close behind is a sad one: Lynyrd Skynyrd's Gold and Platinum (MCA). Because Ronnie Van Zant wasn't quite an infallible songwriter, Skynyrd was a great band that never quite made an undeniable album, but this should convert those dumb enough to have dismissed them when they were around. Donna Summer's On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (Casablanca) proves that for everyday listening her tunes are best cut down to top-40 size. She's a pop queen as well as a dance queen now, just like those Motown girls. Shades of Ian Hunter: The Ballad of Ian Hunter and Mott the Hoople (Columbia) is exemplary discophilia, combining the 45-rpm edits of their greatest hits (stiffs, actually, but great anyway) with B sides and other miscellaneous and a best-of from lan's two Columbia solos and another best-of from the one Columbia never released. Moving down a notch we find Bee Gees Greatest (RSO), a title which pretends they didn't exist before 1975. Not that I don't think "Stayin' Alive" is the equal of "'To Love Somebody," but they don't keep it up for 20 songs. More fun is 10cc's Greatest Hits 1972-1978 (Polydor), which separates the jokes from the japes and adds two great pieces of lovesong schlock to remind you how serious they really are. More confusing is the Quadrophenia soundtrack (Polydor), which offers you most of the best songs from the original double album, nicely but not definitively remixed, plus a good side of Mod-era oldies and another good side of tunes by pre-Who Who groups and post-Quadrophenia (the album) Who groups. You figure it out. More annoying' is Rod Stewart's Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (Warner Bros.), the fourth LP to include the original version of "Maggie May" and the zeroth to include the disco mix of "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" Not bad otherwise, but I'd retaliate by abstention. More silly is ELO's Greatest Hits (Jet), the European Tradition's answer to Bubble Gum Music Is the Naked Truth--I love that "Mr. Blue Sky," almost my favorite is "Turn to Stone," and how 'bout "Telephone Line"? More disappointing is A Night at Studio 54 (Casablanca), which looks like the ultimate disco sampler but which I find resistible in practice, maybe because it omits the Three Degrees' "Steve Rubell Medley": "Walk Right In," "Cocaine Blues," and "Jailhouse Rock." More danceable is Les Plus Grands Success de Chic/Chic's Greatest Hits (Atlantic), which even induces me to enjoy "Chic Cheer," probably because I know "Good Times" and "My Feet Keep Dancin'" will follow it. And then there's the discard pile. Epic has divided Poco into The Songs of Richie Furay and The Songs of Paul Cotton, which is the difference between manic vacuity and depressive vapidity. The Best of Herbie Hancock (Columbia) might also be entitled Funk Goes to College. And only pure compulsiveness could have induced me to listen to Big Tree's Best of England Dan & John Ford Coley (Seals and Crofts go commercial) and Columbia's Mac Davis's Greatest Hits (an artist so smarmy he makes raising a four-year-old boy sound as unclean as finding, feeling, fucking, and forgetting) . . . Since I have a little extra space, I'll forego comment on Abba and Waylon Jennings (both left off my Overrated list for lack of space, but I'll try one more time) to mention that I have indeed heard the Clash's London Calling and think I'm in love. The import will cost six bucks more than the domestic, which probably won't dissuade any Clash crazies in the face of the inexplicable four-week lag in availability. Other imports deserving more celebration are Essential Logic (EP on Virgin better than LP on Rough Trade, both fine) and Pere Ubu (available domestically in February), a touch "experimental" for this listener, but seductive nevertheless.

Village Voice, Dec. 31, 1979


Dec. 3, 1979 Feb. 25, 1980