Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

An elite minority of the ravening hordes invited to Michael Jackson's party are expecting results of the 10th or 11th annual Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll this week, but they'll have to settle for Consumer Guide instead; something to do with front-page schedules. Take this as a preview in which, among other things, I grapple with albums brought to my attention by the electorate, with more to come next month. And next week, the consensus.


AVENGERS (CD) These fourteen cuts constitute the recorded output of a late-'70s San Fran punk band best remembered for "We Are the One," the finest U.S. indie single of 1977, and a 1979 Steve Jones-produced EP. The notes extol their "breakthrough--however brief--into a vision of life expressing firsthand passion and revolt," but to me Penelope Houston sounds like a valley girl with too much attitude. If her "We are not Jesus (Christ!)/We are not fascist (pigs!)/We are not capitalist (industrialists!)/We are not communists" confounded cant on the single, over the long haul her antipolitical railing, lapsed-Catholic obsessions, and assertions of self-sufficiency protest too much. And I wish she knew she was singing flat. B

CHIC: Believer (Atlantic) Although you'd figure the collaboration would suffer after both Nile and Nard started coming up with good albums of their own, the damage is amazingly slight. The title track, a true song of faith ("Stand back-to-back, believer/Meet head-to-head/Fight toe-to-toe, believer/Dance cheek-to-cheek"), achieves the rough-minded positivity the rest of the album aims for. The true song of praise that comes next is every bit as believable. And the rest is blessing enough in this negative time. B PLUS

DEBARGE: In a Special Way (Gordy) When first I fell in love with the austere lilt and falsetto fantasy they've pinned to plastic here, I thought it was just that I'd finally outgrown the high-energy fixation that's always blocked my emotional access to falsetto ballads. So I went back to Spinners and Blue Magic, Philip Bailey and my man Russell Thompkins Jr., and indeed, they all struck a little deeper--but only, I soon realized, because the superior skill of these kids had opened me up. I know of no pop music more shameless in its pursuit of pure beauty--not emotional (much less intellectual) expression, just voices joining for their own sweet sake, with the subtle Latinized rhythms (like the close harmonies themselves) working to soften odd melodic shapes and strengthen the music's weave. High energy doesn't always manifest itself as speed and volume--sometimes it gets winnowed down to its essence. [Original grade: A] A PLUS

FLESHTONES: Hexbreaker (I.R.S.) Fun is a fine principle, but it works better when you start with the fun than when you start with the principle, which is why so much theoretically unpretentious rock and roll sounds forced anyway. Gets harder with every album, too. This is number three. B MINUS

GET CRAZY (Morocco) This soundtrack to a barely existent Allan Arkush movie may look tempting in the cheapo bins, so Ramones and Marshall Crenshaw fans should know that these tracks are for completists only. Music fans should know that Lou Reed's "Little Sister" could turn into a forgotten masterpiece if somebody isn't smart enough to put it on a compilation soon--or later, if necessary. C PLUS

CHARLIE HADEN: The Ballad of the Fallen (ECM) Voicing the great Spanish and Latin American revolutionary themes that Carla Bley has arranged for a norteamericano liberation orchestra, this testifies to the inestimable beauty and value of cultural autonomy, and by extension cultural cross-fertilization. It's assured but never immodest, elegiac but never maudlin, and Haden's two originals partake of the spirit. Bley's seem inconsequential, though, and the freestyle improvisations (kept in check until side two) generate little pleasure or meaning--except unintended questions about the ultimate relevance of late-capitalist avant-gardism to anti-imperialist struggle, not to mention disparate meanings of freedom in vastly disparate economic situations. A MINUS

GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS: Visions (Columbia) Accurately acclaimed as her finest work in a decade, this is amazingly uniform for an album featuring eight different bassists and eight different drummers recorded in eight different studios in L.A., Nashville, and Vegas. To an extent that's a tribute to Leon Sylvers's consistent vocal and rhythm arrangements. To an extent it's a tribute to the authority this great pop singer still commands when she's in the mood. And to an extent it's attributable to flat material. B

PAUL MCCARTNEY: Pipes of Peace (Columbia) I've finally figured out what people mean when they call Paulie pop--they mean he's not rock. But to me pop implies a strict sense of received form whether crafted by the dB's or Billy Joel. McCartney's in his own world entirely, which is the charm of his music. And of course, a reliance on charm has always been his weakness. This is quite pleasant except when Britain's number-one earner preaches against violence as if self-interest wasn't an issue, which is also the only time it comes into firm contact with the great outside. B MINUS

JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP: Uh-Huh (Riva) The changed billing indicates John's eagerness to talk straight after years of filtering himself through an inconclusive image, and I wish every AOR hero put his triple platinum to such honest use. Only thing is, the depth of John's populist intentions far outstrips the depth of his populist perceptions--he was just as interesting telling little white lies. B

MIDNIGHT OIL: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (Columbia) Figures that a major-label, major-management band expressly obsessed with nuclear holocaust and man's inhumanity to man should smell slightly progressive, which I do not use in the lefty sense. The multiplex structures, emphatic mix, and sardonically melodramatic vocals all add a pompous air to music that comes on as uptempo rock and roll. Message: everything would be quite all right if human beings weren't such stupid fools--and major power brokers have nothing to do with it. C PLUS

PRETENDERS: Learning to Crawl (Sire) "I'm not the kind I used to be/I've got a kid, I'm thirty-three" is certainly a quotable quote, and whether rock-and-rolling her baby or growling at fat cats Chrissie Hynde backs it up. It's as if two deaths in the family plus her fruitful union with Ray Davies have convinced her beyond any lingering adolescent doubt that other people are there; Chrissie the fuck-off queen always had these humanistic attitudes in her, and it's good to hear her make the thin line between love and hate explicit. Unfortunately, they're still only attitudes, which is to say that like her mate she hasn't thought them through all that much, and as a result the impressive songcraft here doesn't bear hard scrutiny. But since unlike her mate she keeps her nostalgia under control, she gets her comeback anyway. A MINUS

THE PROLETARIAT: Soma Holiday (Non-U/Radiobeat) The hardcore debut of 1983 doesn't sound very hardcore, which may not bode well for the movement--this is like a more rigorous, less cosmic PIL. There's a touch too much Geddy Lee in Richard Brown's vocals, but he sure doesn't think like Geddy Lee--avoiding tantrum and who-am-I?, these spare slogans are underpinned by actual left theory, though not much practice. Entire stanza: "Lines form/Stretch for blocks/City blocks/Many wait/Benefits/Stigmatized/Sit and wait/Benefits/Bread." B PLUS

THE RAISINS (Strugglebaby) All but the schlockiest variants of what must still be called mainstream rock are listing toward marginality so fast that soon the whole genre will be a purist specialty like white blues. Overlooking a few organ arpeggios and obvious guitar solos, these four Adrian Belew-produced Ohioans do their passion proud, with Rob Fetters's funny but not parodic (or slavish) Springsteen impression on "Miserable World" a typical high point. The songs stick, too, though the lyrics are matter-of-fact enough about bent sex to make me wonder what the really kinky people in Cincinnati are like. Then again, in Cincinnati a purist mainstream rock band may well define kinky. B PLUS

THE ROLLING STONES: Undercover (Rolling Stones) What do people hear in this murky, overblown, incoherent piece of shit? True, they still slip naturally into the kind of vernacular specificity other bands strive for; despite the wind-tunnel mix Keith still sounds like the incorrigible genius-by-accident he is, nothing stops Charlie, and Mick's Texas chainsaw monologue is a scream. Also, two of the songs have political themes, which I guess is supposed to fill me with gratitude. But I'm such a churl I'm only grateful for good songs, and these are as tired and witless and nasty as the rest. Their worst studio album. C PLUS

THE STYLE COUNCIL: Introducing the Style Council (Polydor) A rather lengthy "mini-LP" continues the strange and touching saga of Paul Weller, who gave up the Jam because fronting Britain's best-loved band had turned into a superstar routine. Here he records relaxed lounge-soul tunes with a keyb-playing partner and as with the Jam's rock tunes it's unclear to a mere Yank what the big deal is. Weller's unabashed working-class leftism is a treasure, and his charm is undeniable at any distance. But there has to be undeniable music in here somewhere as well. Doesn't there? B

U2: Under a Blood Red Sky (Island) They broke AOR rather than pop for the honorable reason that they get across on sound rather than songs, and this live "mini-LP" (34:28 of music listing at $5.99) should turn all but the diehards around. Only one of the two new titles would make a best-of, but the two-from-album-one, one-from-album-two, three-from-album-three oldies selection is the perfect introduction. And although I was right to warn that this was an arena-rock band in disguise, I never figured they'd turn into a great arena-rock band. A MINUS

LUTHER VANDROSS: Busy Body (Epic) Not counting "Superstar" and "Until You Come Back to Me," which perish in the tragic flood of feeling that finishes this album off, the only songs here that might conceivably survive without their support system are "I'll Let You Slide," which Luther lets slip, and the one that donates its title to the venture. Nor does Luther augment the support system's golden-voiced rep by sharing "How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye" with Dionne Warwick, who cuts him from here to Sunday. In short, he sounds like an ambitious backup singer. C PLUS

BUNNY WAILER: Live (Solomonic) Though his voice echoes more hollowly than the most scientific dubmaster would ever intend, the only concert the man's given in seven years sounds like it was a natural thing. His best studio albums have more distinct identities, but this is where to sample his invincible spirit. B PLUS

WHODINI (Jive) With the secret of the great rap album still shrouded in mystery, you can't fault this attempt for starting with two intelligent if corny black youths from Brooklyn (cf. Wham! U.K.). But novelty hits do sometimes wear thin (cf. "The Haunted House of Rock: Vocoder Version"). And though you might get away with producing your album in London or even Cologne, going from one to the other is asking for trouble. B MINUS

WILD STYLE (Animal) Great rap records usually begin with killer riffs and add beats from live players, buttinski producer-engineers, scratchers, and rap attackers. On this soundtrack neither musical director Fab 5 Freddy nor big man Chris Stein do much to get things started, but the rhymes themselves, mostly folk-boast rather than commercial-protest and often captured live on the streets in a kind of simulated field recording, carry the music. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Two EPs that have cut through with the singles-style bite I expect of short-players are the Minutemen's Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat (SST) and Butthole Surfers (Alternative Tentacles). The Minutemen define the future of atavism if anybody does--rarely have such subtle structures and sharp musicianship served music that continued to seem so primitive, and the lyrics continue to articulate and elaborate the hardcore nihilism that in other bands is an excuse for not thinking. The Surfers, on the other hand, are like the subjects of a Minutemen song--rarely has such perfectly demented caterwaul reached vinyl intact. And then three groups whose solid Text missing.

Village Voice, Feb. 21, 1984


Jan. 24, 1984 Mar. 24, 1984