Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

In my annual ritual, I've been searching through indies, imports, and genre records for albums to augment my meager 1985 A list. And am pleased to report that it's looking less meager all the time. Not every prospect pans out, and osme of the B plusses are close to the wrong edge, but 16 of them are the most in any installment since I don't know when. Didn't Pick Hit the Replacements or LKJ because I figured them for known qualities. Next month, Africa--and Pazz & Jop backtalk.


TOMMY BANKHEAD AND THE BLUES ELDORADOS (Deep Morgan) After thirty-five years as a professional, Bankhead is as authentic as blues gets and his first album sounds that way. I can even hear the harp-only prison song as a set-opener. I can even imagine checking out this hunch at some East St. Louis joint next time I'm out that way. B

BIG AUDIO DYNAMITE: This Is Big Audio Dynamite (Columbia) Because he sang both their pop hits, Mick was always slotted as the Clash's loverboy, but that was just his vocal cross to bear--he was really the intellectual, which is why he now specializes in what the handout calls "humor particularly irony." Though "A Party" and "The Bottom Line" are wordy enough for Ellen Foley, their anger would surface instantly if Joe were spitting them out. He might even make something of the Nippophobic "Sony" and the loverboy's lament "Stone Thames." But as it is, only "E = MC2," laid down across cosmic keyb chords, lives up to Jones's goofily internationalist spirit. B MINUS

THE CLASH: Cut the Crap (Epic) Since I play the much-maligned Combat Rock as much as any Clash I own, the advance badmouth didn't faze me. The orchestral (synthesized?) horns on the lead cut did put me off, but most of this kicks in, stubborn and jolly and elegiac and together. In the aural fact, it isn't pathetic that Joe strums and chants as if there's no yesterday, it's brave. Convincer: "We Are the Clash." B PLUS

JOHNNY COPELAND: Bringin' It All Back Home (Rounder) "It's the same music, the same old beat," Copeland reports on this largely instrumental blues album, the first ever recorded where it all sort of began. Fortunately, that's not what his guitar says, nor his continentally integrated band, which finds a groove somewhere between an airborne Congolese rumba and a Gulf Coast shuffle with some tricky dance figures thrown in. And who knows, maybe all concerned were capacitated by the illusion of unity. When wise guys like Yusef Lateef and Stewart Copeland visit Africa in search of la différance, they come back with albums that are neither here nor there. B PLUS

DETOX (Flipside) Imagine a hardcore band who open with a cretin hoedown entitled "No Reggae in Russia" and you'll get some idea of their satiric range. And limitations. Inspirational Dialogue, from "I Hate the French": "Can you translate th-this?" B PLUS

DIVINYLS: What a Life! (Chrysalis) With Mike Chapman the hooker, Christina Amphlett enters the race for Miss Bad Girl of 1986 and is fairly depressing for side one. After dumping a bucket of water on her head, she starts to play rough overdisc, but it's too late. Having once interrupted coitus by throwing my back out, I've never been convinced that the line between pleasure and pain was as thin as Mike and Christina claim. B

DRAMARAMA: Cinéma Verité (New Rose) In these days of acoustic punks and live Paul Revere elpees, six guys who salute their roots with Reed and Bowie covers are like unto a breath of springtime--and so unfashionable that though they reside in Wayne, New Jersey, they had to put out their album in Paris, France. One John Easdale would seem to be the auteur, if you'll pardon my French. Sounds a little like Richard Butler without the delusions of Vaughan Monroe, and the main things he has going for him are an acerbic but not self-serving way of describing his woman problems and a band that rocks without hyphens--in other words, plenty. A MINUS

THE GO-BETWEENS: Metal and Shells (PVC) When what the Brits call pop isn't popular, it's usually rock and roll chamber music if it's any good at all. This U.S. debut, a best-of that highlights the soulful ache in the vocals and the quirky opacities in the lyrics and does what it can for a modest tune sense, honors that suspect notion. It's not stylized, and not static either, but it's pretty subtle, and its half-finished edges and kinetic lyricism are best appreciated in tranquility if not repose. Where it can be expected to unfold for quite a while. A MINUS

JOE HIGGS: Triumph (Alligator) The ska pioneer and fourth Wailer is one of reggae's most respected writers of songs and singers of harmonies. He's been around too long to have much use for millenarian cant, and he's too honest to play the romantic stud--he sings about love because he needs it soul and body in the ghetto where he figures to spend the rest of his days, and at forty-five he feels like he's got a lot of days ahead of him. His weathered voice and reassuringly deep and unpredictable backup also articulate the way he understands the world. I know of no Jamaican whose sensibility is more accessible to ordinary American music lovers of a certain age. A MINUS

HüSKER Dü: Flip Your Wig (SST) They've never sounded so good. Spot's gone, as are most of the cobwebs that obscured their clamor, so without kow-towing to Michael Wagener we really get to hear Bob Mould's guitar. Thing is, what's made them major isn't Mould's guitar, their mainstay from the first--it's songcraft. And now Grant Hart has gotten so crafty (or happy) that he's turned conventional--"Green Eyes," about beauty never jealousy, and "Flexible Flyer," which advises that we keep our hearts "burning brightly," are attractive in their way, but they betray a pop simplemindedness unworthy of the hard-driving oddball love songs that make New Day Rising such an up. As for mainstay Mould, he's still honestly confused and mad as hell. May his heart burn this bright forever. A MINUS

RONALD SHANNON JACKSON: Decode Yourself (Island) Believing correctly that what distinguishes Jackson's harmolodic fusion from Coleman's and Ulmer's isn't less musicality so much as no fun, Bill Laswell persuades him to beef up the themes and steady the beat. The upshot is the swinging "Software Shuffle" and other stuff. But it's also a record that tends to blare like regular old fusion, and it's not fun enough. B PLUS

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON: In Concert With the Dub Band (Shanachie) If Island's best-of was a superfluity, this live double is sweet excess, adding the beat, heat, and high spirits of reggae's most cosmopolitan backup to Johnson's calm, reasoned fury. No new material, but the five titles from back when the billing was Poet and the Roots might as well be. Even Making History, which is where Dennis Bovell started fancying up the horns, has gotten more extreme on tour. A MINUS

LEGAL WEAPON: Interior Hearts (Arsenal) You look at Kat Arthur's mascara and chains and listen to the band's simple hard rock and wonder whether they're HM or punk. If Arthur were a guy, this would bode ill, but a guy she definitely ain't, so she still has Joan Jett to look up to. And like Joan Jett she's got more instinct than brains, which is why her third indie album isn't quite what her cult and well-wishers have been long awaiting. B MINUS

LONNIE MACK: Strike Like Lightning (Alligator) Never much shook by the wham of that Memphis man, I was surprised as hell when this started motorvating me around the living room. Were those overdubs, or had he found himself a young hotshot? Turns out every 'bout-a-mover on the thing features coproducer Stevie Ray Vaughan, who in the famous Derek Effect benefits from Mack's company. What's more, every non-Vaughan cut benefits from Vaughan's proximity. B PLUS

THE MEKONS: Fear and Whiskey (Sin) Just when I never wanted to hear a roots-rock record again, along come these British anarchists with a sort of concept album sort of about life during wartime. The Americans are clearing a sector down south, but that doesn't stop the good guys from playing their anarchic country-rock and doing their anarchic Morris stomp and fucking up their anarchic love lives and drinking to keep from shitting their pants and rolling down a highway that may finally be lost for real. Yes, amateurism is still a sentimental fallacy, and if you want to know why it's such a powerful one, listen up. [Original grade: A] A PLUS

THE REPLACEMENTS: Tim (Sire) No songwriter in memory matches Paul Westerberg's artful artlessness, the impression he creates of plumbing his heart as he goes along. Statements like "Hold My Life" and "Bastards of Young" are pretty grand when you think about it, but you don't notice in the offhand context of the tastelessly amorous "Kiss Me on the Bus" or the tastelessly resentful "Waitress in the Sky." So far Westerberg hasn't been touched by the pretension and mere craft that seem to be inevitable side effects of such a gift, and I see no reason to anticipate that he will be. With a band this there, presence is all. [Original grade: A] A MINUS

TRIBUTE TO STEVE GOODMAN (Red Pajamas) Although his friends and coreligionists associate Goodman with all the songs on this live double wake, we don't, which is why it isn't much like the posthumous two-LP summation I still expect from him. But as an unsanctimonious evocation of why Goodman was such a catalyst in folkiedom, it's got more than its share of songs and picking and jokes (and bathos and missed opportunities). B PLUS

STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN AND DOUBLE TROUBLE: Soul to Soul (Epic) All right, all right--he's a great guitarist, and an intermittently commanding vocalist. Unlike most Hendrixites he can step a sharp shuffle, and unlike most Texas boogiemen he's a great guitarist. But he's still not a great or even commanding artist, because the classic album he has in him, Jimi Boogies, keeps getting ruined by installments of Stevie Ray Shows Off. This moves along right nice, especially on side two--until Vaughan elects to close with a long slow soulful one that only gets going with a Hendrix coda. B PLUS

VIA AFRIKA (EMI America) That's as in Afrikaner--e.g., vocalist/bassist/drum programmer René Veldsman, who cut this strange little record with Michele Howe two years before they both emigrated and sang backup on "Sun City." It's all rhythm and soulful chants/shouts that with the help of the electronic drums come across distanced rather than passionate. This seems appropriate, somehow--I don't miss the cloying sincerity of such white Africans as Johnny Clegg and Tony Bird. And n.b.: beyond a pleas to "Save Crocodiles" on the back cover, there are no politics here at all. B PLUS

BARRENCE WHITFIELD AND THE SAVAGES: Dig Yourself (Rounder) No other r&b copy band has such an in at the chicken shack that transcends all knowing, and not just because they play and sing their asses off on covers remarkable, generic, and recondite enough to get born again as new classics. They're smart enough to play cool as well--so smart that only when the chicken shack disappears (as mysteriously as it has materialized, I'm sure) do you wonder just why they're so hot to spend all their time there. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

I have the usual two inches to report on preliminary late-85 EP research, which means a rough-descending-order list of that starts with two justly praised records that haven't yet connected quite hard enough for me: Lifeboat (Dolphin), The Screaming Blue Messiahs (Big Beat import), Undercurrent's Rockin Asunder (Double Image cassette), the Texas Instruments' More Texas Instruments! (Longhead), Full Time Men (Coyote), U2's Wide Awake in America (Island), and Nip Drivers (Enigma).

Village Voice, Jan. 28, 1986


Jan. 7, 1986 Mar. 11, 1986