Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Okeh? Okay! See below.


SUGAR BLUE: Cross Roads (Europa) You may remember his harmonica from "Miss You" (or if you're lucky Johnny Shines's newly tape-available Too Wet to Plow), but if you figured he could sing at all you didn't guess his voice would be as rich and mellifluous as his harp, more King Pleasure than Little Walter. Nor would you have predicted an existential blues in the style of Mark-Almond, or a fanfare that worked. Never fear, though--he comes in on one Sonny Boy Williamson cover and goes out on another, and he earns them both. A MINUS [Later: B]

DEPECHE MODE: Speak and Spell (Sire) "New Life" is worthy of Eno at his most rhapsodically technopastoral, but most of this tuneful pap crosses Meco (without the humble functionalism), Gary Numan (without the devotion to surface), and Kraftwerk (without the humor--oh, definitely without the humor). You'd think after seventy-five years people would have seen through the futurist fallacy--an infatuation with machinery is the ultimate one-sided love affair. But then, this isn't futurism--they call it pop. C PLUS

JIMMY DESTRI: Heart on a Wall (Chrysalis) Blondie's keyb man has always been a more adaptable songwriter than Bill Wyman or John Entwistle, but like Jerry Harrison he's a less engaging singer than either, which is going some, and in addition he lacks Harrison's flair as an arranger. Top track: quasi-instrumental starring Chris Stein. C

HAZEL DICKENS: Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People (Rounder) Dickens's brother died of black lung, an irrefutable reason to turn protest singer, and her vocals evoke Appalachia with a twangy, unadorned directness that must be the envy of Si Kahn, whom she covers. A natural feminist, too--try "Crumbs From Your Table" or the agonizing "Lost Patterns." But unlike Kahn she has trouble coming up with touches like Buddy Spicher's fiddle on "Busted" or the refrain of her own "West Virginia My Home"--music that makes you want to commit the message to memory. B PLUS

THE DICTATORS: The Dictators Live: Fuck 'Em If They Can't Take a Joke (ROIR) Twelve toons, which because they include three new originals and two new covers don't even constitute a half-assed best-of. As annotator Borneo Jimmy points out, "Rock and Roll Made a Man Out of Me" is for these boys an admission of defeat. To dig their stoopid smarts you'll have to seek out Go Girl Crazy, cut before they turned into grown-up buffoons with pro-am chops, and funnier without stage patter than this is with. B MINUS

IAN DURY & THE BLOCKHEADS: Juke Box Dury (Stiff) Dury has had great taste in musicians since pub-rock, and he's bent to dance-music convention without betraying sweet Gene Vincent. But this compilation of singles proves quite definitively that his genius is for lyrics. His literacy seems as natural as his command of slang, and he rhymes like some cross between Chaucer and Ogden Nash. What's more, he has something to say--his slightly salacious humanism is the perfect match for his diction. This shares three cuts with New Boots and Panties!!, now his second-best album, but you won't mind hearing them again. A [Later]

IAN DURY: Lord Upminster (Polydor) "Spasticus Autisticus" is every bit as startling as Dury must have hoped after Laughter got lost in the hustle, but on the rest of his major-label move he sounds like a retired ad man. I suppose the idea is to let the riddims of Steve Stanley, Chaz Jankel, and Sly & Robbie turn jingles into rallying cries, but how much human kindness can you sell with slogans like "escape is a jape"? B MINUS

FLESHTONES: Blast Off! (ROIR cassette) As a student of history I'm glad these mythic 1978 sessions are finally for sale; as a connoisseur of inspired amateurism I must remind fun-seekers that magic is hard to mass-produce. The cruddy sound doesn't make it any more like being there, and after the wacko "Soul Struttin'" and the anthemic "American Beat" I start daydreaming about the next garage. B

BILLY HANCOCK & THE TENNESSEE ROCKETS: Shakin' That Rockabilly Fever (Solid Smoke) Don't misunderstand--he wants to shake "it," as it's called, not the fever, and sometimes he actually sounds hot. A Virginia boy whose career began in 1959, the year the singer turned thirteen and the music died, Billy gets off one classic rocker ("Please Don't Touch") and one inspired medium-fast ballad ("Lonely Blue Boy"), venturing closer to the EP grail than such fellow semiauthentics as Ray Campi and Sleepy LaBeef, not to mention the current crop of hair sculptors. But he does it more with his will than his voice, and even though he comes by his affection for echo and hiccup naturally, they're still mannerisms that can't sound any more spontaneous after twenty-three years of adolescence. B

THE MEADOWS (Radio) This vocal trio from Chattanooga was recorded by Brad Shapiro in Miami and Muscle Shoals for a Fort Lauderdale-based Atlantic subsidiary. Brother Wilson sings lead and writes most of the funky music (and lyrics). Brother Eugene keeps a low if handsome profile. Brother Wallace wears a shirt that says Las Vegas on it. Soul music lives. B PLUS

PROPELLER (Propeller cassette) This cooperatively produced eighteen-song tape hang together for a simple reason--none of these ten Boston bands was born to rock. Not that they don't try; not that they don't often succeed. But they come to their (often punk-funked) popsongs self-consciously, with an awkwardness that is consistently charming. Only the Neats (healthy minimalists) and CCCP-TV (nervous about sex) come up with two sure-shot bounce-alongs, but only V: is totally engaging. Theme songs: Art Yard's "The Law" ("Language must go on and on and on") and Chinese Girlfriends' "Let's Be Creative" (alternate title: "Let's Be Ironic"). Assured of its grade because it costs only $4 from 21 Parkvale Avenue #1, Allston, Massachusetts 02134. B PLUS

QUARTERFLASH (Geffen) This Seattle sextet makes music for stewardesses if ever there was such a thing, and if you think I'm being condescending that's your problem--I'm awed. What a complex artifact! The lyrics Marv Ross writes for wife Rindy, who sings like a cross between Stevie Nicks and Olivia Newton-John and does clarinet impersonations on the saxophone, are all about how love doesn't last, especially with "Valerie," Rindy's benefactor and then some during an ill-advised stint in art school. And the band, which boasts chops beyond tight, steals only from the masters--Steely Dan chords and guitars, Steve Stills and Joni Mitchell vocalisms, Fleetwood Mac ambience, and of course that soupçon of "Baker Street." Inspirational Verse, I swear: "Hallelujah, Friday's here/The week is long for the insincere." B

LOU REED: The Blue Mask (RCA Victor) After this becomes a cult classic, in a week or so, noncultists are gonna start complaining. "My Dedalus to your Bloom/Was such a perfect wit"? And then bringing in "perfect" again for a rhyme? What kind of "spirit of pure poetry" is that? One that honors the way people really talk. Never has Lou sounded more Ginsbergian, more let-it-all-hang-out than on this, his most controlled, plainspoken, deeply felt, and uninhibited album. Even his unnecessarily ideological heterosexuality is more an expression of mood than a statement of policy; he sounds glad to be alive, so that horror and pain become occasions for courage and eloquence as well as bitterness and sarcasm. Every song comes at the world from a slightly different angle, and every one makes the others stronger. Reed's voice--precise, conversational, stirring whether offhand or inspirational--sings his love of language itself, with Fernando Saunders's bass articulating his tenderness and the guitars of Robert Quine and Reed himself fleshing out the terrible beauty he's borne. A PLUS [Later: A]

THE SEARCHERS: Love's Melodies (Sire) I kept listening to this record at the behest of two dear friends--Tom Smucker, known Beach Boys fanatic, and Greil Marcus, all-purpose self-starter. Eventually I got it, too. It's bigger and glossier and rockinger than anything they managed as the second-best group in Liverpool, and not only that it's more tuneful. They even cover Big Star's "September Gurls," which shows true power-pop hip. But for me it's a big, glossy, rocking, tuneful bore, because except on "Radio Romance" ("I love the radio/But the radio don't love me"), their only discernible motive is to take what they did well back in the '60s and do it even better, i.e., more professionally. Back in the '60s they had more motive than that. B

THE SEQUENCE (Sugarhill) In which the la-dees cover P-Funk, recite the Big Mac formula, and advise knocked-up fans to keep doing that body rock after the daddy gets gone--in short, rap wisdom, down-to-earth but not what you'd call an alternative (Medicaid abortions, anyone?). And I probably wouldn't complain if Sugarhill's studio gang gave them as good as they give the boys. B MINUS

SOFT CELL: Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (Sire) I've always found "Tainted Love" catchy-annoying rather than catchy-seductive, but these takeoffs on Clubland "decadence" get at the emotion underneath with just the right admixture of camp cynicism. Now you feel it, now you don't. B PLUS

JAMES BLOOD ULMER: Free Lancing (Columbia) Ulmer's conception is so audacious, so singular, that he can't cut a bad record--his most pro forma moments would make you sit up and notice ordinary jazz-rock. But despite his uncanny one-take double-track drone and the polyrhythmic facility of Amin Ali and Calvin Weston, I find the trio format thin here, and the three lyrics are trivial compared to "Are You Glad to Be in America?" and "Jazz Is the Teacher." Recommended to unbelievers and George Clinton: the hard, horny funk of "High Time." A MINUS [Later: B+]

THE WAITRESSES: Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful? (Polydor) You know what kind of waitress Patty Donahue is--the kind who's waiting to break into the arts. A little scatterbrained, maybe, but she can use "alarmist" and "plotted" in declarative sentences. Not only is she believable, she's full of insight--only the Springsteenian "Heat Night" fails completely, and to make up there's the anti-Springsteenian "It's My Car." But only "No Guilt" is the tour de force that any man who sets out to create feminist rock and roll had better go for every time out, which may be because Chris Butler never asked all those women he interviewed what kind of music they liked. B PLUS

NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE: Reactor (Reprise) Got loads of feedback. Ain't got no takeoff. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Epic's five new Okeh twofers--Chicago blues, rhythm & blues, soul, jazz, Western Swing--are the finest major-label reissue anthologies since Atlantic's long-lost History of Rhythm & Blues, and that despite an almost incomplete absence of smasheroos. Only the blues set is for collectors only. Despite Ahmad Jamal's bouncey vamps and Walter Jackson's stolid emoting, I'm delighted to own the jazz and soul collections for their first sides alone--the former devoted to the solidly emotive tenor of Arnett Cobb, the latter to Major Lance's Curtis Mayfield--and can listen happily to the rest (hooray for honking "Little" Johnny Griffin and the uncharted, archetypally anonymous Opals). The secret is programming, which is also what makes the r&b set a winning and instructive stylistic overview rather than a mess of great songs (though more than half qualify, hits or no). Joe McEwen has such an ear for flow--for tempo, feel, and pure musicality--that I know of no better introduction to the black pop of the late '40s and the '50s. And John Morthland's work on the Western swing is ground-breaking. If like me you know most of these bands only as names on a page, you'll play this s almost as often as you play The Bob Wills Anthology--everyone should hear Emmett Miller's 1928 version of "Lovesick Blues," half country-jazz and half minstrelsy, once before they die, and Wills's side doesn't duplicate one cut on Anthology. Bravo. . . .

Rap isn't last year's news--it infuses all of the best new funk, for instance--but I'm still catching up: Brother D & Collective Effort's "How You Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?" (Clappers); the Mean Machine's "Disco Dream" (Sugarhill); and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "It's Nasty (Genius of Love)" (Sugarhill).

Village Voice, Mar. 9, 1982


Feb. 15, 1982 Apr. 13, 1982