Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

The sharp-eyed may have noted that in March the only A record was a comedy LP. Things are looking up. Over the past month or so three of my projected 1979 top 10 have been released in the U.S., and if only I could have figured out what I wanted to say about Pere Ubu (regarded by their critical admirers as the hardest band in the world to write about), all three of them would have been graded below. As it was, I thought I'd leave the poor Beach Boys alone--it's not that bad--and go with two Pick Hits. I'd hate to ignore either one.


BOBBY BARE: Sleeper Wherever I Fall (Columbia) In case you were wondering what Bill Graham's been up to, here he is directing the career of a Nashville veteran with a great ear who's never fulfilled his great expectations. His CBS debut, Bare, was a Shel Silverstein collaboration that offered its fair share of pleasures, but it didn't sell, so this one goes rock-schlock, befouling good songs with strings that aren't up to Parton and Byrdsy cadences that aren't up to McGuinn, Clark & Hillman. Fortunately, the new one hasn't sold either. Recommended: This Is Bobby Bare, on RCA. C PLUS [Later]

THE BEACH BOYS: L.A. (Light Album) (Caribou) I quite like the electronic disco extension of "Here Comes the Night," but more as an oddity than a pleasure. The chief pleasure--Brian's "Good Timin'"--is not a new song. What is new is the pop orchestration on "Lady Lynda." C PLUS

THE BOOMTOWN RATS: A Tonic for the Troops (Columbia) Satisfied owners of the group's Mercury debut might spring for the import (on Ensign), since this repeats two of the better tunes from that new wave no-sale. And seekers after straight-ahead cacophony might look around for the Mercury. But though this does turn rather campy at times--Bob Geldof's cheerfully narsty opportunism has lost body and focus--it will certainly do. I'll take a good calculating song about Adolf Hitler over an ordinary calculating song about the perils of romance any day, and if you're heading your music toward the rock mainstream, wit and flash don't hurt. B PLUS

CINDY BULLENS: Desire Wire (United Artists) This woman sets out to prove that she can write and perform songs about the joys of rock and roll and the perils of romance that are tougher, sprightlier, and more propulsive than Eddie Money's. And does it, by George! B MINUS

CHEAP TRICK: Cheap Trick at Budokan (Epic) The second side almost works as a best-of, but I'd wait for the studio job--despite the Japanese applause track, this was obviously recorded in the Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns. Arrangements are gratifyingly tight--ten titles on a single disc--but six of them are also available (even tighter) on In Color. Also: "Ain't That a Shame," the intro of which ought to give pause to those who consider Rick Nielsen an innovative guitar player as opposed to showman; a throwaway collaboration with Tom Petersson; a nice Move ripoff; and "Surrender." B MINUS

ERIC CLAPTON: Backless (RSO) Whatever Eric isn't anymore--guitar genius, secret auteur, humanitarian, God--he's certainly king of the Tulsa sound, and here he contributes three new sleepy-time classics after the manner of J.J. Cale. All are listed on the cover sticker and none were written by Bob Dylan. One more and this would be creditable. B MINUS [Later]

MARVIN GAYE: Here My Dear (Tamla) The brightness of the disco remix Motown has made available on "A Funky Space Reincarnation" is a vivid reminder of how pathologically laid back Gaye is striving to be. I mean, seventy minutes of pop music with nary a melody line almost qualifies as a tour de force, and the third side barely escapes the turntable at all. Yet this is a fascinating, playable album. Its confessional ranges from naked poetry ("Somebody tell me please/Why do I have to pay attorney fees?" is a modernist trope that ranks with any of Elvis Costello's) to rank jive, because Gaye's self-involvement is so open and unmediated, guileless even at its most insincere, it retains unusual documentary charm. And within the sweet, quiet, seductive, and slightly boring mood Gaye is at such pains to realize, his rhythmic undulations and whisper-to-a-scream timbral shifts can engross the mind, the body, and above all the ear. Definitely a weird one. B PLUS

HOLY MODAL ROUNDERS: Last Round (Adelphi) In which Peter Stampfel and friends--including veteran Rounders Steve Weber and Robin Remailly, many Clamtones, and Antonia, composer of "That Belly I Idolize" and "God, What Am I Doing Here" (with "Fucking Sailors in Chinatown" yet to come)--prove that the counter-culture still exists. Strange drug experiences are detailed, ooze is embraced, girls without underwear consume hoagies and juice. In short, Head Comix live. B PLUS

JOE JACKSON: Look Sharp! (A&M) In which an up-and-coming professional entertainer tricks up Britain's latest rock and roll fashion with some fancy chords and gets real intense about the perils of romance. Well, better "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" than "Sunday Papers," the social-criticism interlude, which inspires fond memories of "Pleasant Valley Sunday." B

THE JAM: All Mod Cons (Polydor) Far from the posers cynics believe them to be, these guys are almost painfully sincere, and on this album their desire to write commercial songs that say something is palpable and winning. Unfortunately, their success is mixed at best, and the music is so tentative that I was surprised by how hard they made a set of new material rock in concert. But last year's set rocked even harder. And though I can overlook the record's gaffes and forced lines and faint playing in the aftermath of the show, I'm too much of a cynic to believe the glow will last. B

RICKIE LEE JONES (Warner Bros.) It isn't just the skeptic in me who suspects that, despite the critical brouhaha, this young singer-songwriter's attractions are more sexual than musical or literary. It's also the male--"Stick It Into Coolsville," eh? But the critic knows that there are only three or four of her songs--including "Coolsville"--that I'd enjoy hearing again. B MINUS

JACKIE MCLEAN WITH THE GREAT JAZZ TRIO: New Wine in Old Bottles (Inner City) The first side of Monuments, the funk record RCA has put out with McLean, is more than passable--although the tunes are ordinary and the groove is a little dead, McLean puts out and the groove isn't that dead. But Monument has jazzbos up in arms, and this record is why--the best McLean album in over a decade and it's not on a "major" label. The saxophonist's work here surpasses that on his European SteepleChase outings because the rhythm section of Hank Jones, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams encourages him to think as fast as he can play, which is plenty fast. He thinks just fine when he slows down, too, although Joe Raposo's "Bein' Green" is unworthy of him. Yet another reason Charlie Parker played bebop. A MINUS

MIDNIGHT RHYTHM (Atlantic) At last a whole disco album that actually brings off all the disco tricks--exploding out of the speakers, washing over the room, and so forth. The thump of the bass drum never dominates the rhythmic pulse, and the lyrical tag lines avoid the words "dance," "dancer," "dancing," "dancin'," and "disco"--until an orgasmic break (repeated once) that goes "Dancin', dancin', dancin', dancin'." Monofunctional but potent. A MINUS

GRAHAM PARKER AND THE RUMOUR: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) An amazing record. Parker's mood, which has narrowed into existential rage with a circumstantial root, makes for perfect, untamable rock and roll. Guitar, drums, vocals, lyrics, and hooks (and more hooks) mesh into ten songs so compelling that you're grateful to the relative lightweights for giving you a chance to relax. And if Graham is pissed off merely because he's not a big star yet, he translates his frustrations into credible, emotionally healthy anger--the kind you feel when they can't fit the real news into print, the kind you feel when your boss diddles with your work to prove how big his corporate dick is. A PLUS [Later: A]

THE RAES: Dancing Up a Storm (A&M) The failure of "A Little Lovin'" to crack top forty portends a duller future for AM radio than any new wave blackout. A hooky girl-group classic that broke disco when a percussion break was patched in, the tune is certifiable contemporary pop, recommended in both seven-inch (b/w "To Love Somebody") and 12-inch (b/w its radio-length self) formats. Wish I could recommend the album, too, but you know how girl groups are. C PLUS [Later]

RAYDIO: Rock On (Arista) If this is "disco," that's only because disco is a lot more open than the people who hate it. Ray Parker's idea is to synthesize the old black-music tradition of the male vocal group with the new one of the self-contained funk band, and here he proves that he has what it takes as a composer to keep the idea going. None of these songs stands out like "Is This a Love Thing" and "Me" did on the debut, but every one is danceable/listenable fun. B PLUS [Later]

THE ROCHES (Warner Bros.) Robert Fripp's austere production of this witty, pretty music not only abjures alien instrumentation but also plays up the quirks of the Roches' less-than-commanding voices and acoustic guitars. Thus it underscores their vulnerability and occasional desperation and counteracts their flirtations with the coy and the fey. The result is not a perfect record, but rather one whose imperfections are lovingly mitigated. Replete with memorable melodies, heartbreaking harmonies, wise words, and lotsa laffs. A

ROXY MUSIC: Manifesto (Atco) This doesn't represent Roxy at its most innovative, but at its most listenable--the entire "West Side" sustains the relaxed, pleasantly funky groove it intends, and the difficulties of the "East Side" are hardly prohibitive. At last Ferry's vision seems firsthand even in its distancing. And the title track is well-named, apparent contradictions and all. A MINUS [Later]

TIN HUEY: Contents Dislodged During Shipment (Warner Bros.) They get arch at times, both lyrically (e.g., the "surreal" "Puppet Wipes") and in rhythm changes and instrumental breaks that betray an art-rock heritage. But like Pere Ubu, these Akron boys make art-rock that rocks, with chops you can enjoy for all the music's sake. And if their humor is collegiate, I'm a sophomore. B PLUS

VILLAGE PEOPLE: Go West (Casablanca) At first I dismissed this as market fatigue--it's hard to act like you're still discovering your formula on your fourth album in 21 months. With no help from a peaked-sounding Victor Willis--shouters should avoid even the appearance of laryngitis--it came off as a tuneless disco tribute to John Philip Sousa that omitted the "Stars and Stripes Forever" cover only because Jacques Morali doesn't control Sousa's publishing. But now I kind of enjoy it. Cruisin' was dumb, and this is an advance--a quantum leap in dumbness, without even risque puns to distract from Victor's metronomic cries. Although I have my doubts about this "skin-diving" stuff myself. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

While it lasts--and maybe it will--I'd recommend tuning to WPIX-FM (102 on your dial), which is playing a whole lot of real rock and roll. I've even heard Jane Hamburger (my fave) play black rock and roll, albeit from the '60s (the folks on WBCN in Boston, those labor stalwarts, are pushing the Machine disco disc, which is what I call super-hip), and a weekend jock dubbed Alfredo played for an hour and a half one dreary afternoon without hitting my tuneout button once. WNEW is also sounding a lot better these days, with Meg Griffin moving up in the airtime hierarchy and Vin Scelsa remaining Vin Scelsa. It's a disco counterreaction, I think, and I hope it doesn't merely reflect a dearth of blockbuster AOR product. . . .

The current proliferation of disco discs, the 12-inch 33-rpm singles originally devised for in-disco promotion (that is, play) and still available to the consumer only erratically, presents a real dilemma. Generally retailing for $2.99 ($4.98 list, discounted to $2.49 at Disc-O-Mat and elsewhere), these records are marketed in patterns reminiscent of ripoff collectibles like picture discs. Many of them are recalled when the album becomes available, and even those that sell lots (200,000 is not uncommon) often get limited pressing--fans who don't buy early have to settle for the LP and hope that it features the same arrangement and mix they've come to love on the dance floor or over the radio. Some companies still don't release everything they remix, or put the same song on both sides (Casablanca's have only one side), or (as in the Marvin Gaye mentioned above) put a instrumental on the flip, a trick reggae lovers know as the "version." Happy as I am to own Blondie's "Heart of Glass" 12-inch can I really recommend that anyone purchase a 5:50 vocal and a 5:17 instrumental-with-doo-doo-doos for three bucks?

But then again, I recommend import singles and EPs at two and three bucks, and the 12-inch is a more convenient format (especially if you stack on a changer, as I do) that does guarantee richer, bassier aural quality (though the gain makes more difference on a disco sound system than on yours). If you're a dancer, disco discs clearly make sense--you know you're buying exactly the music that's been getting you off, and you can pace sets in your living room just like a real deejay. But if you're only a music fan, who knows? I would advise anyone who likes Grey & Hanks's "Dancin'" to buy the 12-inch, which has an even better flip called "How Can You Live Without Love," because that's the cream of the album. But then again, I'm professionally intolerant of ordinary music, and, like so many disco-oriented LPs, the Grey & Hanks is merely ordinary, not horrible.

Two of my favorite records of the year are disco discs, and both go further with such perplexities. Machine's "There but for the Grace of God" (RCA/Hologram) produced by August Darnell of Dr. Buzzard, has both a musical hook--a synthesizer riff that is also the title and refrain--and verbal one--the line "No blacks, no Jews, and no gays." As you might have guessed, this is hardly a pro-bigotry song, but the disco world, having little experience with even the most muddle-headed political messages, didn't get it, and an edited version featuring the line "Where only rich people stay" instead was made available as a promotional 12-inch. You get the bowdlerized version in the stores if you buy the seven-inch 45. In context, it's actually somewhat clearer politically and sociologically, but it's definitely not as, shall we say, poetic.

August Darnell being August Darnell, I wouldn't be surprised if Machine's LP were equally interesting, but August Darnell being August Darnell, I also wouldn't be surprised if it appeared very belatedly. This seems like unreasonable delay of gratification to me. At least McFadden & Whitehead, the Gamble-Huff songwriters-turned-performers whose "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" (Philadelphia International) seems certain to become one of the year's top songs, won't keep us waiting so long--their album, which sounds on one hearing like a very good one indeed, will be released by the end of April. "Ain't No Stoppin'" is a tough-minded anthem in the classic spirit of the duo's "Back Stabbers" and "Bad Luck" that works at all count-'em four of its lengths--the 10:45 disco disc, the 7:02 LP cut, the 3:38 45-rpm single, and the 6:12 disco radio re-mix (for all their putative devotion to the form, programmers at disco stations forswear cuts that run much more than six minutes). All except the last one are or will be available retail. Personally, I prefer the disco disc--which features maxi-scatting, a wonderful low-register (cello-based?) string break, and more of the synthesizer sound effects that give the cut a playful edge--and the 45, which condenses an admirable composition and arrangement admirably. (Sometimes I like it drawn out, and sometimes I like it quick and intense.) But since the album is also fine, that means I'm recommending all three commercially available versions--which I got for nothing, of course! Now I ask you, just what kind of a consumer guide does that make me? Answer: One who's a prisoner and a beneficiary of the market system, just like you.

To which I can only add that I'm also actively enjoying disco discs by the Raes (see above), the Jones Girls ("You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else," also on Philadelphia International), and someone named Rod Stewart. The flip of the Stewart is just awful, though--"Scarred and Scared," it's called, and it sounds like more of that pseudo-meaningful "rock" stuff to me.

Village Voice, Apr. 30, 1979


Apr. 2, 1979 May 28, 1979