Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Though release cycles often make me grumpy around this time of year, I did hope at least one of my remaining 1984 gooduns--Penguin Cafe, Redd Kross, Mandingo, even late-breaking (for slow-witted me) New Edition--would edge over into A minus. Instead I'm worrying that I was soft on Richard Thompson last time. But not whether I can locate a Must To Avoid of discernible journalistic interest.


THE BEAT FARMERS: Tales of the New West (Rhino) Like so many roots bands, they write good songs and cover better ones--even in a nonpurist movement, Velvets-to-Springsteen-to-Spoonful is a broad-minded parlay. And like so many roots bands, their singers aren't sharp enough to bring it together--can't understand the difference between having fun, making fun, and being funny before mixing them up, can't at least be soulful instead of something vaguer, like "genuine." B

BRONSKI BEAT: The Age of Consent (MCA) Good politics don't have to be this monochromatic, and neither do albums with two good singles on them. Problem's pretty simple--the narrow dynamic range that afflicts so many falsettos, even those with impeccable reasons for singing like women. And before you call me persnickety, swear you wouldn't rather hear Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." C PLUS

ERIC CLAPTON: Behind the Sun (Duck) Eric was never the nonsinger he was wont to declare himself in retiring moments, but his vocal gift only made sense when laidback was commercial. On this album he isn't retiring--he's looking for work. So he resorts to none other than Phil Collins, once his Brit-rock opposite but now just a fellow "survivor" (and how). For several reasons, including market fashion, Collins mixes the drums very high. This induces Eric to, um, project in accordance with market fashion. Sad. And also bad. C MINUS

LLOYD COLE AND THE COMMOTIONS: Rattlesnakes (Geffen) A Glaswegian whose romanticism mixes the mundane and the pretentious in nice lyrical proportions, Cole is like a middle-class Roddy Frame escaped to university instead of the bohemian fringe. Born just before the Beatles made it respectable for college kids to like beat music, he claims student life as the rock and roll subject it so obviously is, and I say about time. So what if he can't stop talking about books and movies and gathers his material on day trips from his walkup flat? Does that make him so different from you? B PLUS

PHIL COLLINS: No Jacket Required (Atlantic) Between his self-deprecating videos and his good taste in business associates (better Philip Bailey than, say, Steve Perry), Collins isn't as hateful as an art-rock leader-by-default turned best-selling-solo-artist-in-the-world-this-month might be. In fact, he's not hateful at all. But it takes more than that to make me want to hear a stupid love song again. Never mind the absolutely unsurprising lyrics and arrangements and just tell me why this is a great mean of Britpop voices? Is it because no one ever wonders what it sounds like unfiltered? C

DEBARGE: Rhythm of the Night (Gordy) Eldra DeBarge's genius isn't especially with-it--uptempo arrangements do nothing for his outstretched melodies and chilly harmonies. But he and his countless siblings scored one hit after another off In a Special Way, which led to a traumatic tour with the unsinkable Luther Vandross when Eldra might have been working up new product. Hence this mishmash--a Richard Perry-produced soundtrack one-off, a Giorgio Moroder-produced soundtrack one-off, a 1981 ballad featuring Eldra and sister Bunny in their classic falsetto mode, four standard medium-fasts from C-list funk-popper Jay Graydon, and two uptempo numbers from Eldra, who seems to be getting a handle on the stuff. Pray the paranoia underlying his all-too-interesting "The Walls (Come Tumbling Down)" dissipates when he settles into the studio again. B PLUS

DON HENLEY: Building the Perfect Beast (Geffen) This one makes you listen--its abrupt shapes and electro/symphonic textures never whisper Eagles remake. So thank cocomposer, multi-instrumentalist, and occasional arranger Danny Kortchmar, whose "You're Not Drinking Enough" (Merle Haggard, call your agent) and "All She Wants to Do Is Dance" (T-Bone Burnett, ditto) are at once the simplest and most effective songs on the record. Then blame the turgid lengths, tough-guy sensitivity, and "women are the only works of art" on the auteur, who still thinks perfect love is when you're crazy and she screams. B

JOHN HIATT: Warming Up to the Ice Age (Geffen) Commercial failure hasn't touched Hiatt's devotion to craft, but it's been hell on his sense of humor. He still cracks wise while rolling out the hooks, but the sprightly feel of Riding With the King has given way to a soulish hard rock that suggests he's satirizing all these bitter macho men in the first person because satire isn't the main idea. B

WHITNEY HOUSTON (Arista) I'd never claim that this sweet, statuesque woman and her sweet, statuesque voice are victims of exploitation. She obviously believes in this schlock. But not counting the Jermaine Jackson duet from his own Arista debut, only one of the four producers puts any zip in--Narada Michael Walden, who goes one for one. And it could have been worse--they could have sicked Barry Manilow on her the way they did with cousin Dionne. Then the credits could have read: "To Barry Manilow, It was a privilege to work with a talented professional who's made so many millions of dollars for Clive Davis. Together, we can make many millions more." C

HüSKER Dü: New Day Rising (SST) With its dawn-over-the-lake cover, guitar chimes, and discernible melodies--on as many as ten of the fifteen songs!--this is the Hüskers' pastoral. I suppose a few hardcore urbanists will think it's wimpy or something, but by any vaguely normal standard it's clearly their finest record even if they have turned off the news in pursuit of a maturity I trust they'll outgrow. Not that they haven't matured. Bob Mould's ambivalence gets him two places instead of none, and I love Grant Hart's love objects--one with a big messy room and "a worn out smile that she'll wear some more," another who's heavily into UFOs. Play loud--this is one band that deserves it. A

MICK JAGGER: She's the Boss (Columbia) History may absolve him. Jeff Beck earns his fucked-up legend here, and Bill Laswell puts together several bands--like Beck-Martinez-Hancock-Shakespeare-Dunbar-Ponce on "Running Out of Luck"--that should only tour. So maybe a hundred years from now folks who've never read People will admire the timbral virtuosity and breath control of the man atop the tracks. But Jagger has become such an overbearing public presence that I for one find it impossible to care about his romantic vagaries no matter how hard he leather-lungs. It would be going too far, unfortunately, to say he's a joke. But the only thing left for him to do with his persona is burlesque it, which is why the title track is the only one that's any fun. And as my wife complains, he probably thinks it describes the way things are with him and Jerry. C

KATRINA AND THE WAVES (Capitol) For a while I thought the only thing Capitol had done right was sign them, but between the exuberant Katrina Leskanich and the surefire Kimberley Rew this band would be hard for any label to fuck up: not one of the twenty songs on the band's two Attic LPs--Walking on Sunshine and 2, both recommended as Canadian imports--is a loser. U.S. producer Scott Litt's tricky new version of "Machine Gun Smith" makes up for the Motown horns he adds to "Walking on Sunshine." The hyped-up drums of his rather glaring remix don't really hurt anything. And if his selections favor Rew's conventional side, well, after earning his art badge with the Soft Boys the composer is working fulltime for Katrina, and hence making a specialty of direct expression in any case. Believe me, direct expression is something I don't scoff at these days. A MINUS

LADY PANK: Drop Everything (MCA) An impossible cross between the Vibrators and Men at Work is brought off by a Polish quintet who got their name misspelling punk and sing in English translation for their capitalist debut. They sound fresh without even trying, which is probably the only way. B PLUS

MANDINGO: Watto Sitta (Celluloid) On his recent Hand Power and his two Mandingo Griot Society albums, all cut for the folk specialists at Flying Fish, Foday Musa Suso went right past me. Was he playing his kora like a poser or a master, watering his tradition down or raising it to a new level? Because I was too ignorant to tell, I soon stopped caring. This Bill Laswell-produced dance record is audibly cruder--just gives the groove its head, with help from Herbie Hancock and even a drum machine as well as Suso's usual sidemen. And thus it makes the most convincing case this side of King Sunny Adé for Afro-American fusion without apologies. B PLUS

NEW EDITION (MCA) Though a confusion of production teams--five in all, none associated with the ousted Arthur Baker except by ripoff (from Freez's "I.O.U.," very clever)--gives these kids' major-label hit a misbegotten look, in the end the album achieves the winning commercial variety Baker didn't get out of them. But I admit it--for me the biggest winner is "My Secret," which does sound an awful lot like the Jackson 5. B PLUS

PENGUIN CAFE ORCHESTRA: Broadcasting From Home (Editions EG) Marginal differences count for plenty with these subtlety specialists. More emphatic production bespeaks sharper conception--sometimes dramatic, sometimes representational, sometimes self-consciously atmospheric. The music is "better"--and therefore relatively (marginally) conventional. It's lost its incidental aura, and despite the instant appeal of compositions like "Heartwind" and "Music for a Found Harmonium," an edge of charm. B PLUS

REDD KROSS: Teen Babes from Monsanto (Gasatanka) At a moment when heavy metal's theoretical attractions--stubborn grass-roots loyalty and low-class aggression--are more potent than at any time since punk did it better, this junk miner's delight performs a real public service. Obscure tunes from Kiss, Bowie, even the Stones, that'll blast the cobwebs clean out of your brainpan. Now if only the boring parts of the concept didn't exude them right back. B PLUS

SADE: Diamond Life (Portrait) Though there's not much range to her grainy voice or well-meaning songwriting, she and her associates put their project over, and with a fashion model's virtues--taste, concept, sound (cf. "look"). There's no superfluity, no reveling in la luxe, not even an excessive tempo. Which is no doubt why I find myself crediting her humanitarian sentiments, even preferring her "Why Can't We Live Together" to Timmy Thomas's equally spare but naive original. And why those who find "Hang On to Your Love" and "Smooth Operator" seductive (instead of just warming, like me) will think they carry the whole album. B

SHALAMAR: Heart Break (Solar) There's no denying the vivacity of Howard Hewett's reconstituted trio--the harmonies and rhythms pop out of the speakers with a brightness of definition that's good for a real lift. But if Hewett has any other interests, he doesn't make them plain--always look again when the standout track comes from contract songwriters. And if Hewett's new sidekicks have any other interests, their solo turns make me hope they keep them out of earshot. B

THE TEXTONES: Midnight Mission (Gold Mountain) I've tried to work up some enthusiasm for this well-meaning, well-reviewed quintet. I've tried to hear the commitment and imagination I know it took for a woman from Texas to infuse the tiredest straight-ahead rock with politics and personality. But except for "Clean Cut Kid"--written by the new Dylan, sounds like the old Stones--what I mostly hear is committed straight-ahead rock that's tired by formal definition. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

I haven't been searching with my customary dilligence (bleak out there these days), but I've finally found an undeniable indie seven-inch, the first I'd vouch for since Hüsker Dü's "Eight Miles High." Roky Erickson's "Don't Slander Me" (Dynamic) is a garage rant about blues theology that's built from blues readymades and accelerates on the kind of mad thrust you don't hear much from revivalists or anybody else. Two possible explanations: 13th Floor Elevator Erickson ain't no revivalist, and acid casualty Erickson believes in the devil. Tops among the also-rans is Christmas's "(Ballad of) The Invisible Girl" (Iridescence), the surprising interpersonal smarts of which are enhanced by its tune, its tenderness, and its hostility. The Chesterfield Kings' "She Told Me Lies"/"I've Gotta Way With Girls" (Mirror) illustrates Greg Prevost's belief that every garage band has one great song in them by putting the first original they've ever recorded on the A. "Euphoric Trapdoor Shoes"/"Rat-Tail Comb" (Scadillac, dated 1983, manufactured and distributed by Ludwig Van Ear it says, good luck), by Milwaukee's Plasticland, whose recent Enigma LP passed me right by, is the first record ever to lay a paternity suit on the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request and includes the following Inspirational Verse: "Grooving on every flake in your scalp 'cause it's you." Barbecue Bob & the Spareribs' "Oedipus Rex" (Rib) is the story of that unfortunate monarch as related by the Blues Brothers in their Muddy Waters mode. The Cheepskates' "Run Better Run" (5 & 10, also 1983) is a mite clean and cute for garage psychedelica, but it sure is catchy. The 3-D Invisibles' five-song, seven-minute Put On Your Glasses (Neurotic Bop) is punk about junk that they've thunk about, with "Tarzan Vs. the Vampire Amazons" showing a welcome Peter Stampfel influence even if they never heard of him. The YardApes' "Neurosis"/"Ghost Town" (Y-Tel) is raw but not unsophisticated mutant pop that might make a pretty good album if they're capable of keeping it up.

By pairing a never-too-late eight-minute single of "World War II" (beat this, purple Bible-thumpers) with "The Mega-Melle Mix" (prepared by "Sanny X of London, England"), Sugarhill champion Melle Mel is making good on his royal vaunt and putting Run-D.M.C. momentarily behind him. Though the Furious Five's "Step Off" sounded like brilliant bravado but no more when it came out late last year, it holds its own and then some (musically, at least) against "King of Rock," and that's not even counting Mel's remake of Trouble Funk's "Pump Me Up," which may look like an attempt to cash in on the as yet unproven go-go craze/fad/hype but sounds like heavily artillery. Most impressive shot from the other side is the Beastie Boys' irreverently powerful "Rock Hard"/"Party's Getting Rough" (Def Jam), the best white rap since "Rapture," though "Love Bug" Star-Ski's Kurtis Blow-produced "Do the Right Thing" (Fever) combines rap's pop and self-help moves neatly enough. And topping it all I'm sure will be the McDonald's-sponsored Rap Against Graffiti Contest, judged by the Fat Boys and the Force M.D.'s: "Your rap should have a message that it's wack* to tag* public buildings, trains and monuments with spray paint or magic marker!" The *, of course, means translation provided.

There'll Always Be an England: NME stringer Mick Sinclair: "Los Lobos are the worst dressed and most physically unappealing group I've ever seen. As the lead singer lets his check shirt flap over his amply waisted trousers one wonders the extent of the excess baggage tariff airlines must surely impose on his stomach."

Village Voice, Apr. 30, 1985


Apr. 2, 1985 May 28, 1985