Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Uninspired by the big-time product coming my way, I made this American band month, which wasn't too inspiring either. Five albums seemed worthy of some comment, with others pending as usual. But 19, almost all indie debuts, were consigned to limbo. These ranged from competent craftsmanship which I'd dismiss as mere product from a major label to various depressing amalgams of pretension and amateur night. In very roughly descending order, they came from the Slickee Boys (D.C.), the Neats (Boston), the Killer Whales (Charlotte), 100 Flowers (L.A.), Schwantz Lefantz (Austin), Thumbs (Lawrence), Translator (San Fran), Social Distortion (L.A.), Anti (L.A.), the New Marines (L.A.), the Zantees (NYC), Dogs on Fire (L.A.), Personal Effects (Rochester), Vinny (Boston), the Oil Tasters (Milwaukee), Einstein's Riceboys (Milwaukee), Fools Face (L.A.), and the Radio Alarm Clocks (Cleveland).


THE ACCELERATORS: Leave My Heart (Dolphin) Even on generic rockabilly Gerald Duncan has a way with words, pinning down the thwarted lust that's always added nervous energy to the style. "Two Girls in Love" is as fine a lesbians-from-the-outside song as the Amazing Rhythm Aces' "Emma-Jean," and "Regina" brings "Brother Louie" down home. Duncan comes up with hooks half the time, too. But his singing is so mild and his band so contained that only the most striking material lifts off. Just our luck that in an age of interesting bands with nothing to say an interesting songwriter doesn't put quite enough into the music. B

J. BLACKFOOT: City Slicker (Sound Town) "The Way of the City" and "Street Child" and "Where Is Love" and the not-quite-dumb-enough "One of Those Parties" don't sound like a country boy's response to the city--they sound like an unreconstructed soul journeyman giving weary moderns everywhere cheap sobs and snickers they might pay for. But as an uneven soul album this scores around 50-50. "The Way of the City" is on the up side for its Memphis-New Orleans fusion, one of the few marks of musical development. In the old days soul men usually left tunes as lightly ebullient as "All Because of What You Did to Me" to the gals, so that's progress. And the title rap actually does sound like a country boy's response to the city. Inspirational Verse: "Get the sweetnin' out of gingerbread and never break the crust." B

THE CHESTERFIELD KINGS: Here Come the Chesterfield Kings (Mirror) If you're going to live in the past, you might as well go whole hog like Greg Prevost, who in the great blues purist tradition performs only covers--of titles no one but other garage-band collectors has ever heard. The upshot is a seamless archive of quaint adolescent macho, definitive yet utterly negligible protohippie songs rendered by a band whose claim to expertise is the mastery of a dozen marginally distinct varieties of crudity. B PLUS

THE EVERLY BROTHERS: Reunion Concert (Passport) They were a vital team right up to Roots in 1968, but then they lost it, which was perhaps a cause of their estrangement, perhaps a result, or perhaps mere entropy. This 1983 gig was their first in ten years, and they sure didn't slough it off. But it's nostalgia anyway, adding nothing but a pushy drummer and a slight slackening of the voices to a superb body of work available in better record stores everywhere. B MINUS

FERRON: Shadows on a Dime (Lucy) She knows two or three melodies, she sings flat, she phrases every line the same, she can get pretty gauche lyrically, and in most of this she reminds me more than a little of, I'm sorry, the young Bob Dylan. The repetitious insistence of her most powerful songs drives home her commitment to folkie usages that in other women's music practitioners sound pat, purist, and out of it, and a shifting pool of (male and female) backup players provides the variety. From her smokily confessional introspection to her habitual occultism to her eight-minute, eight-stanza "It Won't Take Long" ("it" being the Revolution or something similar), her bullshit is her own. And she'll make you like it. A MINUS

JOHN HIATT: Riding With the King (Geffen) With well-respected albums on three major labels and boosters from Three Dog Night to Ry Cooder, Hiatt must be doing something wrong. Singing is my guess--just like Ry, he's immersed himself in the mannerisms of soul without enjoying access to its physical substance. But in the end this is his best album because the songs are so much his catchiest and pithiest. Most of them reflect smashed hopes. The tenderest is called "She Loves the Jerk." And of course the jerk ain't John. A MINUS

GREGORY ISAACS: Out Deh! (Mango) At least once the great lover takes his formulaic bent too far--"Private Secretary" is a remake of the sex fantasy "Night Nurse" in which he plays a boss instead of a patient, no advance. And on "Sheila" and elsewhere the melodies are banal rather than simple. But the rest of the time they're not only simple, but less simple than they seem, enhanced as usual by the Roots Radics' profound angularity and Isaacs's smooth concentration and subtle hooks. B PLUS

KNOTTY VISION (Nighthawk) Though at first I tagged this as one more choppy multiple-artist compilation, in fact it's as integral and inevitable as death and glory. Beginning with a wailing Burning Spear chant and finishing with a burning Wailing Souls admonition, it's where fundamentalist reggae will convert you if you're destined to feel the spirit at all. Give the first side three or four tries with some time between and you should be able to get to the lyric intensity of six voices possessed by a single song. And eventually the tunes on the B surrender the conviction at their root. A MINUS

CHRISTINE MCVIE (Warner Bros.) Both sides are unimpeachably sensible and unfailingly pleasant; except for the closer, each of the ten tunes paces proudly by in full confidence that it will set you humming. Yet as reported, the proceedings are a little, shall we say, somnolent, which I blame not just on a voice whose deep satisfactions are best appreciated in the company of brighter and flightier ones but on a drummer who isn't Mick and a bassist who isn't John. B PLUS

NATIVE TONGUE: Yowl (Modern Method) What can it mean when all I'm sure of after playing an album a dozen times is that the band likes Wire a lot? But in the end I give them considerable credit for keeping their taut drone on my turntable long past the point when I've sent umpteen similar bands to the warehouse. Which reminds me that in today's permeable musical atmosphere it's conceivable they've never even heard Wire, just Wire's ideas. And actually, I'm also sure they feel "Hoodwinked," the lead cut that kept me coming back after six or seven spins. I bet I even know why they feel hoodwinked. But not because they helped me figure it out. Recommended to rabid formalists and rabid Pink Flag fans. B

PINHEAD: Where Are You? (BSharp) Six unhurried songs from a Vermont band given to satire (and music) whose hale, unsmartalecky tone could never happen in the city. Inspirational Verse: "There were these birds called butterflies/They used to fly inside of the sea/We had this stuff called oxygen/It used to hang from all of the trees." B PLUS

LOU REED: Live in Italy (RCA) Unlike 1969 Velvet Underground Live, this isn't a song album, which is no surprise--a guitar album is what I was hoping for. But unlike Rock n Roll Animal it isn't a showoff showcase, either--it's a guitar ensemble album, which is subtler than I was hoping for. Reed and Robert Quine get their moments, but the matter at hand is the interaction of a crack rock and roll band. One of the things that makes Quine a great guitarist is his formal tact, and just as Fernando Saunders's bass defines Reed's recent music on record, the modulated anarchy of Quine's acerbic fills and background commentary defines the live stuff. Even so, I wish they'd arrived at a way for him to cut loose more within the structure, especially since Lou doesn't seem deeply interested in the well-worn classics that dominate the show. The function of crack rock and roll bands, after all, is to set songs. B PLUS

ROCKWELL: Somebody's Watching Me (Motown) Berry Gordy III sounds like he learned his accent from British Airways ads rather than Boy George or George Harrison, which would be bad enough. Worse still, the cartoon only begins there. Never trust a rich man's son, even a prodigal, when his misgivings about government focus on the IRS, and don't be sure he's so damned concerned about runaways either. C

RUN-D.M.C. (Profile) Though a bit upwardly mobile for the highbrow-lowbrows who regard money lust and the death throes of capitalism as two sides of rap's only fit subject--D.J. Run boasted about attending St. John's, of all things--the competitive fatalism of the spare, brutal "It's Like That"/"Sucker M.C.'s" was unforced and dead on, and Eddie Martinez's Hendrix-Funkadelic metal on the expansive "Rock Box" proves that even street minimalists can love guitars. But this does more than fill in around two of the finest singles of the past couple of years. It's easily the canniest and most formally sustained rap album ever, a tour de force I trust will be studied by all manner of creative downtowners and racially enlightened Englishmen. While their heavy staccato and proud disdain for melody may prove too avant-garde for some, the style has been in the New York air long enough that you may understand it better than you think. Do you have zero tolerance for namby-pamby bullshit? Do you believe in yourself above all? Then chances are you share Run-D.M.C.'s values. A MINUS

SHANNON: Let the Music Play (Mirage) Reports that this product makes it as an album are probably due to the addictive novelty of its rhythmic colors, in which one-man synth army Rob Kilgore surrounds a sweet, yearningly anonymous disco woman with a medium-b.p.m. carillon. But "Give Me Tonight" is a surprisingly essential follow-up, and the rest is crafted proportionately. Which is why some let the filler play too. B

SPINAL TAP (Polydor) Sonically, these long-suffering limeys don't pack the priapic overkill that might make their compilation as convincing as the "rockumentary" which finally won them critical acclaim. The problem is physical--neither vocalist David St. Hubbins nor guitarist Nigel Tufnel possesses equipment of HM's gargantuan proportions, although they might have faked it if producers Guest-McKean-Shearer knew recording studios like they do movie sets. Nevertheless, Tap were ahead of their time in 1965 ("Cups and Cakes" is very late '66) and 1973 (that synth on the classic "Big Bottom"), and they're pathfinders today as well--funnier than the Dictators ever were. B PLUS

THE SYSTEM: X-Periment (Mirage) Titles announce concepts with this bare-boned synth-and-voice pop/funk duo. In the x-periment here, they dispense with hooks/riffs not to mention sweat. Only Depeche Mode devotees will fail to anticipate the result. C PLUS

VAN HALEN: 1984 (Warner Bros.) Side one is pure up, and not only that, it sticks to the ears: their pop move avoids fluff because they're heavy and schlock because they're built for speed, finally creating an all-purpose mise-en-scene for Brother Eddie's hair-raising, stomach-churning chops. Side two is consolation for their loyal fans--a little sexism, a lot of pyrotechnics, and a standard HM bass attack on something called "House of Pain." B PLUS

WHITE ANIMALS: Ecstasy (Dread Beat) Despite the off name and kalimba intro, I figured these Nashvillians for an especially one-dimensional bunch of popsters after happy songs like "This Girl of Mine" and "You Started Something" provided exactly what they promised. But eventually, wondering about the "Gloria" remake and the psychedelic blues, I realized that one-dimensionality is . . . not the point, because that would imply irony, but the payoff. Somehow these guys sincerely inhabit a very '60s-ish reality; their message isn't some kind of distanced commentary on their musical material, it's the material itself. They say they like soul, too, and I believe them. [Original grade: B plus] B

WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: In 3-D (Rock 'n' Roll) I don't want to belabor the obvious (that's Al's job), but this is Mad for the ears. Still, Mad does hit dead on now and then, and with a lot of help from its target so does "Eat It." Palatable follow-ups: the free-swinging "Polkas on 45," which goes Joe Piscopo ten better, and "Mr. Popeil," which exploits Yankovic's otherwise fatal resemblance to Fred Schneider. C PLUS

Village Voice, Apr. 24, 1984


Mar. 24, 1984 May 29, 1984