Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

* * * Attention * * * Disclosure * * * Attention * * * Before the goddamn Times finds out, I'll do the apparently honest thing and note that I was paid by Yoko Ono to interview her for a promotional film she's making about Milk and Honey. I took the job well after (and only because) I'd fallen for the album, though the interview clarified my ideas about it. For a while I considered not reviewing Milk and Honey, or keeping my opinion off in some discreet corner, but in the end it seemed stupid, not to mention ethically dubious, to make a Pick Hit of an album I admire (Mister Heartbreak) when the one I loved was standing right in front of me. Caveat emptor and so forth.


AFRICAN IMAGE (Gramavision) Brutally honest right down to the name, the label promotes South African pop pros Thomas Mkhize and Glynn Storm as "more structured and somewhat less dense than Adé's highlife [sic] style," praising their "state-of-the-art production values, modern instrumentation, and pronounced rock, jazz, and pop influences." In short, decorative exoticism, a touch slick, with pleasing Zulu chant melodies and a trap drummer who'd fit in on Carson. I like every one of its six cuts. And love none of them. B

LAURIE ANDERSON: Mister Heartbreak (Warner Bros.) It should come as no surprise that art-rock is what this art-world heroine is up to, at least on record. And though for sheer wordcraft I'll still take Dave Alvin or August Darnell, as art-rock lyricists go she's top-class--compare Fripp & Co., or collaborator Peter Gabriel. Given how often art-rock projects are sunk by literary malfeasance, not to mention Anderson's fundamentally verbal shtick, she'd better be. And given how often art-rock projects are sunk by silly music, it's a good thing too that this putative violinist-composer has accrued so much studiocraft, utilizing sometime co-producer Bill Laswell not so much to pin down a groove as to perfect the kind of coloristic electronic effects semiexperimentalists like to fool around with. As a result, the aural content is as suggestive as the lyrics, with a sensuality and sonic panache Anderson the narrator has no trouble living up to. For art-rock, rich stuff. A MINUS

MARCIA BALL: Soulful Dress (Rounder) Most of the new rash of soul folk, survivors and revivalists both, do little or nothing to redefine the values they hold dear, but this reformed country singer avoids any hint of neocon nostalgia. With her rolling bayou backbeat, her standards you never heard before, her habit of belting the man she's loyal to, and the moleskin burr that textures her every line, she has the makings of a downhome Bonnie Raitt. Just in time. B PLUS

BIG YOUTH: Live at Reggae Sunsplash (Sunsplash) Like most live toasting LPs, this tends to wander. The band intro is as irrelevant as most, tracks sometimes just fade out, and there are few recognizable songs. but the two you're sure to notice--"Hit the Road Jack" and "Every Nigger Is a Star"--are the best introduction on record to the militantly entertaining visionary optimism of the most untranslatable of the great reggae artists. And the show as a whole sums up his loopy, unselfconscious moral confidence like nothing else. B PLUS

JAMES BOOKER: Classified (Rounder) This is palpably more strident. The Longhair medley just isn't as sly and delicate as it should be, and in general there's too much reliance on the left hand, with the consequent loss of dynamic subtlety compounded by a klutzy drum mix. But except on his unintentional travesty of "King of the Road," Booker's forthright way with songs like "All Around the World" and "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and even "Hound Dog" has a barroom feel missing from the live disc. And the glorious schmaltz of "Swedish Rhapsody" was intended by an artist with a passion for camp. B PLUS

D.O.A.: Bloodied but Unbowed (CD) Subtitled "The Damage to Date: 1978-83," this six-buck special selects nineteen tracks from the three-single, four-EP, two-LP output of the hardest working band in hardcore. Though they're never as scintillatingly sophisticated as the Dead Kennedys at their rare best, these Vancouver boys are much more consistent, getting over on the momentum that defeats so many similar bands for the first side and writing real songs by the second. Old Clash fans will stand up and cheer their chanted oi-together-now-hooks--and their state-smashing politics, too, I hope. B PLUS

DR. JOHN: The Brightest Smile in Town (Clean Cuts) By playing the preserver of New Orleans piano tradition, the Dr. does an injustice to his equally fertile heritage as a music-biz sharpie, and too often on his second unaccompanied mostly-instrumental album he's as pleasant and boring as any other session man doing his thing. The new Pomus-Rebennack tune that kicks off side two raises hopes of a half save--until he stops singing again. B MINUS

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: Electric Universe (Columbia) Careerist ebb-and-flow notwithstanding, I'm tempted to blame the letdown on the return of Philip Bailey, whose falsetto spirituality might well have disoriented what's turned into a great pop show band. Especially if his own attempted breakthrough as a pop solo is any example. B

ALBERTA HUNTER: Look for the Silver Lining (Columbia) Since wonders of nature make bad records just like anyone else, what's amazing is that the flat writing, corny sentiment, and automatic mannerisms that bring this down barely touched the two before it. And don't be surprised if she celebrates her ninetieth by coming back yet again next time. B MINUS

JOHN LENNON/YOKO ONO: Milk and Honey (Polydor) Those too numbed by tragedy or hope to connect with Double Fantasy aren't likely to hear this one either--it's definitely more of the same, in John's case outtakes. But these were clearly rejected on conceptual rather than musical grounds, as just too quirky to suit the careful househusband image John wanted for his return to the arena. Which is why I like them better, especially spiced with asides he would have erased before final release. Yoko's songs are more recent and that's another plus, because her pop only began to jell with Double Fantasy; the horny querulousness of "Sleepless Night" and the cricket synthesizers on "You're the One" are confident personal elaborations of a tradition she comes to secondhand. Only the two middle cuts on the B get soupy. What a farewell. A

NRBQ: Tapdancin' Bats (Rounder/Red Rooster) Here's the fun record these fabled funsters have had in them for fifteen years. Concentrating on original novelty tunes, all big requests at parties, it neutralizes their fatal cuteness by making a virtue of it, with highlights that include tributes to their manager and their sweeties, a throwaway rockabilly raver, and yuck-it-ups about hard times. Even the three sloppy-cum-experimental chops-and-noodles instrumentals fit in, although I could do without the climactic title number, which seems to feature a saxophone reed. A MINUS

THE PLIMSOULS: Everywhere at Once (Geffen) I explain the "underground" rep of these L.A. power-poppers by asking myself whether I wouldn't be mystified by the Fleshtones if I lived in L.A. As befits an L.A. band, they make more of a show of hitcraft, martialing coherent lyrics to actual emotional effect on a couple of slower ones, and less of a show of partymania. And I don't like the Fleshtones' records a whole lot either. B MINUS

ELVIS PRESLEY: Elvis: A Legendary Performer: Volume 4 (RCA Victor) Deemed a worthy addition to the canon by hagiographers who label the First Live Recordings EP a rip, this apocrypha--dominated by bent unreleased versions (and songs) that include a genuinely embarrassing duet with Ann-Margret and a priceless live "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" in which the King collapses into giggles before he's done with the first chorus--marks the unchallenged ascension of Elvis Unmasked among the faithful. It's a fascinating document. I'd rather listen to the EP. B

RAINY DAY (Llama) Four L.A. neogarage bands collaborate on nine of their '60s faves, and guess what--no Strawberry Alarm Clock. They actually meld the Velvets and Big Star (a ringer, I admit) with the Beach Boys and Buffalo Springfield, picking fine songs that are rarely obvious--most impressively, the Who's "Soon Be Home." Will Glenn's violin hook on "I'll Keep It With Mine" is the only don't-miss, but with two exceptions everything is flowing. Not surprisingly, the Three O'Clock's insufferable Michael Quercio sings lead on both losers--alone among these otherwise well-meaning young people, he clearly thinks the music calls for condescension, with the coyly inept parody of a Keith Moon drum takeout presaging the meandering eleven-minute pseudo-Hendrix jam that closes things on a flubbed note. B PLUS

THE ROMANTICS: In Heat (Nemporer) I was annoyed at first by the loud drums and big echo, which tend to dwarf their simple pop-rock, but daily doses of "Talking in Your Sleep" destroyed my resistance. Really, fellas, anything you say, I'll stop thinking altogether if that's the ticket. Just give me another HOOK! B PLUS

LINDA RONSTADT: What's New (Asylum) Especially given the rich little rich girl's South African connection, I ignored this airless atrocity--lots of bad records sell, and parents do need X-mas gifts. But when it scored in my own critics' poll I could remain silent no longer. Forget phrasing, interpretation, or--God knows from someone who had trouble rocking "Heat Wave"--swing. All Ronstadt does with these fine-to-middling pop standards is stifle them beneath her moderately gorgeous voice. Her triumph is conceptual--genteel neoconservatives, kneejerk pluralists, one-upping convolutionists, and out-and-out ignoramuses all get off on the idea of a "rock" performer validating the prerock values such songs signal. And may every one of them wear a tie, a garter belt, or both for the rest of their shrinking lives. C MINUS

SAVAGE REPUBLIC: Tragic Figures (Independent Project) First side is somehow sui generis and foreordained at the same time, and how to describe it? Flipper doing Afropop originals? Maturing hardcore boys who like Talking Heads more than the Doors? Unwired Wire? How about auteurist noise guitar played for one-dimensional melody over recently learned but not quite clumsy drum syncopations? Unfortunately, there are also vocals, your basic self-important postadolescent whine and yowl. On side two, the vocals take over. B

SWANS: Filth (Neutral) With percussion techniques borrowed from the scrap industry and a guitar bottom that lows like mechanical cattle and howls like the wind in a zombie movie, this is no wave with five years of practice, too messy for mysticism and too funny for suicide. In the great tradition of their live sets, it gets wearing, and lyrics are available to suckers on request. Not only isn't it for everybody, it isn't for hardly nobody. I think it's a hoot. B PLUS

RICHARD THOMPSON: Strict Tempo! (Carthage) Cut in 1981, these "traditional and modern tunes for all occasions" are strictly instrumental, with Dave Mattacks holding the tempo. They're recommended to folkies, ex-folkies, guitar adepts, and students of European song. The Duke Ellington cover excepted, I just wish they swung as much as the rest of Thompson's catalogue. B

TOM WAITS: Swordfishtrombones (Island) Though it never seemed likely that Waits had the intellect or self-discipline his talent deserved, after a full decade of half-cocked color he's put it together. He'll never sing pretty, but finally that's an unmitigated advantage. Taking a cue from his country cousin Captain Beefheart, he's making the music as singular as the stories, from the amplified Delta blues of "Gin Soaked Boy" to Victor Feldman's strange percussion devices (try the brake drum on "16 Shells From a 30-6"). And at the same time he's finding the tawdry naturalistic details he craves in less overtly bizarre locales--Australia, suburbia, his own head. A MINUS

Village Voice, Mar. 24, 1984


Feb. 21, 1984 Apr. 24, 1984