Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

I try not to pick on poor li'l indie bands, but this month's Must to Avoid [The Coolies] has become a novelty item to rival the Royal Guardsmen in our voluble rock "underground," garnering praise from four different observers in this newspaper alone. Unlike my Pick Hit [Elvis Costello], victim of that underground's chronic Anglophobia and next-big-thingism, plus perhaps the artiste's fall media tour, which distracted perversely from the product at hand.


ART OF NOISE: In Visible Silence (Chrysalis) Not only do they sacrifice meaning to sensation, they happily exploit ersatz meaning as a sensation-heightening device. So fine, don't trust them. Only since when is music supposed to be trustworthy? Just note that deprived of genius Trevor Horn these mad studio pros have to go with what they know, subjecting their sound-effects music to hook and beat when no grandiose electronic joke comes to mind. And good--not since the glory days of the Penguin Cafe have instrumentalists confounded the arty and the trivial and had fun at the same time. A MINUS

THE BEAT FARMERS: Van Go (Curb) Except for the deadpan "Gun Sale at the Church" and maybe the Johnny Cash impressions, their country-rock is now proudly generic. In a world of lame concepts this approach is jake with me, and if their sharpest song originated with Neil Young, well, they didn't write the flattest one either. B

"BIRDLAND" WITH LESTER BANGS (Add On) Since I knew Lester, I don't entirely trust my moderate delight with this nine-cut, twenty-six-minute demo, recorded one day in 1979 with the future Rattlers, soon to kick him out (as Lester told the tale) because he was "too fat." But since Lester was a genius, I have to mention that it's manifestly more confident than 1981's perfectly acceptable Jook Savages on the Brazos, with which it shares four songs, preserved for posterity a second time after the singer had the opportunity to develop some mannerisms. He was better off relying on force of personality--musically he always had the instincts, and words were no problem. B PLUS

PETER CASE (Geffen) Case's problem is that he's a born actor who won't cop to it. Folkies have always enacted authenticity, and great ones from Dylan to Roches have role-played with a vengeance. But by pretending that his songs are about "sin and salvation" rather than the more problematic "America," Case evades challenges to his new homespun persona--supposedly, sin and salvation are everybody's heritage. And hence he's no more convincing now than he was when he led a group named after the Beatles' sneakers. B

THE COOLIES: Dig? (DB) Lame as the assembled Simon & Garfunkel songs were in the original, they're lamer still in these speedy, occasionally funny-voiced takeoffs. Though the band might have gotten away with an EP featuring "Having My Baby," the only satire here with any teeth and the only one that doesn't target Paul Simon, I find it bewildering that anyone can hate Graceland enough to pay them for turning their stoned fantasy into an album. A glaring example of the post-modernist dictum that art about art is boring but junk about kitsch isn't. C

ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE ATTRACTIONS: Blood and Chocolate (Columbia) To pigeonhole this as just another Elvis C. (and the Attractions) record is to ignore the plain fact that he (they) hasn't (haven't) sounded so tough- or single-minded since This Year's Model. Like Little Creatures, it's a return to basics with a decade of growth in it, and until midway through side two, when the songs start portending more than they can deliver, it's so straightforward you think he must be putting you on. But he's just voicing his pain and the world's, in that order, as usual. When the two strongest songs on a pop record run over six minutes apiece, we're talking sustained vision. A MINUS

THE DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND: Mardi Gras in Montreux: Live (Rounder) No longer bummed out by false promises of funk, we can settle for fun. Even if it's right to suspect that their synthesis is less than historic, their lively, unsentimental update of New Orleans jazz heritage proves once again that the best way to honor the dead is with a party. But not that the guest of honor should get up in his best suit and sing "Stormy Monday." B PLUS

THE GO-BETWEENS: Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (Big Time) The lyrics, which set oblique but never opaque romantic vicissitudes against a diffidently implied existential world-historic, aren't the secret of their lyricism, and why should they be? These Aussies make music, with Robert Forster's intensely sincere vocals and Grant McLennan's assertive but never pushy hooks pinning down the melodies. Granting all reservations about the form itself and with apologies to skillful romantics from R.E.M. to XTC, there are no popsters writing stronger personal love songs. I doubt there are any page poets envisioning more plangently, either. A MINUS

BRUCE HORNSBY AND THE RANGE: The Way It Is (RCA Victor) Schlock has roots, too, which is why sentimental bizzers hail this mildly surprising platinum-plus debut as the second coming. Hornsby roughs up a piano that's more Elton John than Floyd Domino with a voice on the boogie side of country-rock and adds sometime folkie David Mansfield to songs that divide the same way--they sound like pop and read like something closer to the source. Title tune was my guilty pleasure of 1986 because what makes me feel guilty is succumbing to the blandishments of liberalism. The rest I don't have much trouble fighting off. B MINUS

RONALD SHANNON JACKSON WITH TWINS SEVEN SEVEN: Live at the Caravan of Dreams (Caravan of Dreams) For the first time, harmolodia's master drummer requires no decoding; sparked by a Nigerian chantmaster, he vamps along without ever risking implosion. But a vamp isn't always the deepest of grooves, and though the synthesis should engage devotees from both sides, only "Iré," in which various sidemen shadow the chanter a note and a harmony behind, will give agnostics a joyride. B PLUS

EARL KING AND ROOMFUL OF BLUES: Glazed (Black Top) Like B.B., Albert, and even Freddie before him, New Orleans's finest juices a horny blues record with prime guitar. Helps as well that he's been pulling in songwriting royalties for thirty years--nobody ever mistook him for a singer. B PLUS

JOHN LENNON: Menlove Ave. (Capitol) The late-night session-band workups of songs later embalmed on Walls and Bridges are startlingly stark and clear, making side two the finest music of the hiatus between Imagine and Double Fantasy, whose precisely felt studio-rock they prefigure. Phil Spector produced the commercial versions. He also produced Rock 'n' Roll, source of the outtakes on side one, which were rejected because they're even stiffer than the intakes. John never could figure out what to do about loving Rosie & the Originals. And Phil wasn't the guy to tell him. B PLUS

YOUSSOU N'DOUR: Nelson Mandela (Polydor) One NME raver cites Einstürzende Neubauten, which may not turn everybody on but does imply Eurocentrism subjected to underdevelopment and its discontents. I hear a gifted singer making a choppy crossover move. The horns recall the pretentious big-band clutter Dave Crawford and Brad Shapiro worked up for a fading Wilson Pickett, and the tama drum is so far up in the mix it tapdances on the groove. N'Dour's high Islamo-Cuban cry and crack Afro-Gallic byplay generate plenty of intrinsic interest, but only on the simple little "Magninde" do they avoid fragmented overconceptualization. If you say it's ethnographic condescension to prefer the more organic effects of Immigrés (Celluloid import), I say it's reflexive progressivism to claim that nobody ever trips going forward--or that every African pop star is a moral force. B

THE PONTIAC BROTHERS: Fiesta en la Biblioteca (Frontier) Their dense mix is twixt-punk-and-pop Replacements with plenty of Huskers thrown in, their idea of cover tribute the Dead's "Brown Eyed Woman." So say they're a roots band the way the Exile Stones were, shading their guitar barrage into bottleneck and fingerpick. The songs are mostly on it, too. But Hunter & Garcia had tuffer attitude--beyond the occasional one-line hook, medium equals message here. Again. B PLUS

THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS: Midnight to Midnight (Columbia) As his pose proves ever more profitable and baroque--dig that silken-haired punk déshabille--Richard Butler reminds me more and more of Glenn Miller, who in his time also provided a lush, enthralling, perfectly intelligent alternative to the real thing. Butler's snarl is a croon, his harsh guitar sound a grand echo, his selfish rage a soothing reminder that some things never change. B

READY FOR THE WORLD: Long Time Coming (MCA) How long, oh Lord, how long? An official 47:28, which comes (as they say) to 4:45 per cut, almost every one a slow if not sluggish grind. And with "Mary Goes Round" insisting that sluts need not apply, 6:29 of "Love You Down" is all a good girl needs. C PLUS

SLAYER: Reign in Blood (Def Jam) I'm not about to check out the complete works of Venom to make sure you can't do better, but anyone who wants to know what gets Washington ladies hot should steal, tape, or purchase this piece of speed satanism quote unquote. Rick Rubin focused, CBS passed, guitar's quicker than a theremin on reverb, and "Jesus Saves" mauls the enemy. Who ain't Jesus--or, damn right, Satan either. B PLUS

THAT PETROL EMOTION: Manic Pop Thrill (Demon) With shrieking guitar racing thumpity bass racing headlong drums to the blessed dreamy interludes, this professional Irish garage band exploits an American mode too often neglected over there--they're psychedelic punks who don't know one's supposed to preclude the other. Which doesn't mean they emulate the Count Five, or the Fleshtones either. Having absorbed and assumed twenty more years of noise, they define a sizable new piece of aural turf both conceptually and technically. And through the haze of desperate imagery you sense that their sound and fury signify. A MINUS

JENNIFER WARNES: Famous Blue Raincoat (Cypress) She's a background singer, a soundtrack diva, a Nashville-to-El-Lay pro. She loves Leonard Cohen's songs because she thinks they illuminate the dark side of the universe. Cohen thinks they are the universe. Which is why--Judy Collins be damned and Joe Cocker notwithstanding--they're all but inextricable from his tuneless, grave, infinitely self-mocking vocal presence. B MINUS

WORLD SAXOPHONE QUARTET: World Saxophone Quartet Plays Duke Ellington (Nonesuch) As someone who's never gone all the way with the elegantly appointed orchestrations of what all agree is the man's greatest period, I admire the way the quartet format suggests sonorous magnificence without deploying an embarrassment of riches in its service. Barely touched by deconstructive anarchy, these homages constitute the richest, mellowest music ever recorded by a group whose accomplishment has always been tarnished by a certain theoretical veneer. I suppose a rhythm section would only distract from its textured gloss. And have no doubt that the guest composer adds a quantum of quality. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Rhino's three-volume History of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues listens great for a multiple-artist set, if not as great as EMI America's Allen Toussaint tribute It Will Stand, with which Volume 2 shares six cuts. Though Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis are missing and missed, it weaves album-worthy artists like Lloyd Price, Irma Thomas, Huey Smith, and Johnny Adams (two cuts each) into format, and though I'd pawn my TV and my unabridged dictionary (though not my typewriter or my Billboard best-of) before divesting Lee Dorsey's Holy Cow! or the Neville's Treacherous (four cuts each), your needs may dictate that you start here. And you won't be sorry. The 42 cuts on this documentation of the most ebullient and essential of local r&b traditions are devoid of bad or even humdrum music. Infrequently compiled gems like Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used to Do" and Ernie K. Doe's "A Certain Girl" (passed over by It Will Stand, it makes Volume 2 a near-must with help from Barbara George and Bobby Marchan) and Alvin Robinson's "Down Home Girl" stand up proud next to "Let the Good Times Roll" and "Sea Cruise" and "Barefootin'." Order of preference: 2, 1, 3. I hope you can afford them all.

Unfortunately, I can't say that the Five Tinos or Carl Mann or even Billy Riley stand quite so tall against "Good Rockin' Tonight" and "Great Balls of Fire" on Rhino's The Sun Story--which remains a useful, listenable rockabilly introduction nonetheless.

Village Voice, Mar. 31, 1987


Feb. 24, 1987 May 5, 1987