Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

The year hasn't shaped up the way years usually do by this time, and while I'm too seasoned to make a trend out of what may be an aberration, I can't say I'm enjoying my work much. Ordinarily there's more good-to-interesting music on my shelves than I know what to say about, but at the moment I feel swamped by bad-to-interesting product instead. So keep an eye out for the first and I hope last Consumer Guide Turkey Shoot, coming to this newspaper in just two weeks if my stomach holds out.

STEVE ARRINGTON'S HALL OF FAME: Positive Power (Atlantic) Arrington's bass does pop now, but whether you really get his funk depends on how well you connect with the way he turns the style's loony-toon vocals into pear-shaped tones. Me, I jump only for the synthesized-kalimba hook of "Young and Ready," and he chants that one. B

ASWAD: Live and Direct (Mango) These black Brits' considerable commercial success in their non-Ethiopian homeland guarantees no more than any other band's commercial success; though they're avowedly more roots, their songs for lovers ("Your Recipe") and rhythmic extensions ("Soca Rumba") are as serviceably undistinguished as those of Third World, a commercially successful band indeed. And I'm sure they could have made their U.S. introductions more winningly than with a year's dub album followed by a live job. Inspirational Intro: "You know what live and direct mean? It mean live and direct." C PLUS

ELBOW BONES AND THE RACKETEERS: New York at Dawn (EMI America) With a new Dr. Buzzard in the works and Kid Creole still August Darnell's principal outlet, it's amazing that he's found time and songs for yet another project--or so I thought until I heard the project. Only the declaration of infidelity "Other Guys" is more than a skillful black-music genre exercise, and though other singers might pull it out, Gichy Dan and Stephanie Fuller don't. B MINUS

JOE ELY: Hi-Res (MCA) I have no theoretical objection to the man's hard rock move--it's the dumb-ass conventionality of the actual hard rock in question that gives me a pain. Where Lloyd Maines and Ponty Bone were aces on their country-identified instruments, Ely's new guys are arena dorks in their dreams. You remember the tunes and licks after a while only because they're so similar to thousands of others you soon forgot. And where Ely's own songs have always worked best as change-of-pace, here they're expected to carry the shebang. Except for the febrile "Imagine Houston," buried on side two, and maybe "Cool Rockin' Loretta," a find of a throwaway but no more, they sink it instead. C PLUS

EURYTHMICS: Touch (RCA Victor) Physical gifts and technical accomplishments tempt a singer to overdramatize--Annie Lennox makes altogether too big a deal of punching the sofa. But even if she isn't, well, "cooler than ice cream" (really), I'm glad she's normal enough to want to be. If it's high-grade schlock you seek, this'll do as well as early Quarterflash. And Lennox has better hair. B

FOOTLOOSE (Columbia) Since the idea of this deeply cynical movie is to assure teenagers not only that AOR equals youth rebellion but also that they can dance to it, and given AOR's enduring commitment to racial segregation, it seems appropriate to note that the two first-rate songs on this offensively glitzy, offensively hyper soundtrack are by black people. Deniece Williams and Shalamar, in case you didn't know, both available as singles and a good thing too. C

IMAGINATION: New Dimension (Elektra) This sensuous trio still enjoy their work, but though they get off some insinuating touches, it's hard to remember any single one when the act is through. I don't believe that's how sex should be. C PLUS

JOE JACKSON: Body and Soul (A&M) Jackson's done it again--fabricated a creditable facsimile of somebody else's music, not jump blues this time but a brassy, Broadway pan-Gotham pastiche, sort of like West Side Story if you correct for talent differential and years elapsed. And because the new-wave Billy Joel is a role model, it's likable enough. But I prefer West Side Story, and I prefer jump-blues even more. B MINUS [Later]

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON: Making History (Island) For a while I thought the light-handed fills, tricky horn parts, and swinging rhythms went against the artist's hard-hitting message, not to mention my own hard-hitting tastes. Only after seeing him live did I recognize those embellishments for what they were--hooks. Dennis Bovell's arrangements take the natural lilt of LKJ's self-conscious patois to a new level of musicality. He may not be quite the man of the people he wants to be, but he comes a damn sight closer than most leftists (not to mention most semipopular musicians), which is why he puts so much care into the pleasure of his propaganda. And he's as smart as anyone could want to be, which is why he puts so much care into his analysis. A

MEAT PUPPETS: Meat Puppets II (SST) Alone with various strange gods (is there another kind?) in the wide open spaces of his psyche, Arizonan Curt Kirkwood has stumbled upon a calmly demented country music that does more to revitalize the dubious concept of "psychedelic" than California suburbia's whole silly infatuation with the late '60s. He conflates the amateur and the avant-garde with a homely appeal bicoastalists would give up their nonexistent roots for. Rarely if ever has incipient schizophrenia sounded like such a natural way to go. A MINUS

OH-OK: Furthermore What (DB) The secret of this childlike music isn't just its coy sexuality--lots of pretend girls play that game. But how many mask a preoccupation with death, disease, lust, and rebirth without violating either the existential verities or their own sense of fun? Sounds to me as if Linda Hopper is onto a good way to live. Time: 15:35. List: $5.98. A MINUS [Later]

VAN DYKE PARKS: Jump! (Warner Bros.) Parks is a naughty choirboy and Kathy Dalton is auditioning for the Broadway lead, but theatrical preciosity is all you can expect from a musical comedy concept album anyway. What you don't expect from musical comedy is exotic Americana like Parks's irrepressible arty vernacular verbal and musical puns, which combined with his rich melodies compensate for the annoyances. B PLUS

R.E.M.: Reckoning (I.R.S.) This charming band makes honestly reassuring music--those guitar chords ring out with a confidence in the underlying beauty of the world that's all but disappeared among rock-and-rollers who know what else is happening. As befits good Southerners, their sense of necessity resides in their drummer, which is why the Byrds analogies don't wash (who ever noticed Michael Clarke?) and why they shouldn't get carried away with the country moves (slow ones really are supposed to have words). A MINUS [Later: B+]

ROCHEREAU: Tabu Ley (Shanachie) This well-designed compilation, comprising six recent full-length dance tracks by the bandleader whose clarion baritone has made him the biggest singer in Zaire for 25 years, is the ideal introduction to Afropop's dominant "Congo" style. Most of the cuts have real tunes, for variety two feature his female protégée M'bilia Bel, and the lyrics are in French and thus accessible to a wide range of high school graduates. But for all that I have to say I find the groove a little wearing--whether it's me or the demands of showbiz, the music seems steady-state even when horns or guitar solos or vocals lift it higher. B PLUS [Later]

RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (MCA) I know nothing about Japanese music and missed the movie, so for me these Japanese-style synthesizer atmospheres are just exotically ambient background noise, and I'll take them home, thanks. They even have content--a catchy theme, a few discreet climaxes. Marred only by three soundtrack-verité songs in English, including a skillfully segued hymn and an irritating closer from David Sylvian, who demonstrates once again how little Japan-the-group has to do with Japan-the-nation. B PLUS

THE SMITHS (Sire) Morrissey's slightly skewed relationship to time and pitch codes his faint melodies at least as much as Johnny Marr's much-heralded real guitar. What's turned him into an instant cult hero, though, is his slightly unskewed relationship to transitory sex--the boy really seems to take it hard. If you'll pardon my long memory, it's the James Taylor effect all over again--hypersensitivity seen as a spiritual achievement rather than an affliction by young would-be idealists who have had it to here with the cold cruel world. B MINUS

STEEL PULSE: Earth Crisis (Elektra) David Hinds has always signed his music by swinging the beat a little more than is normally advisable, and this time, subtly but tellingly, his jazzbo tendencies catch up with him. Where in the past he'd add a subliminal tension to the groove by extending syllables slightly, here his phrasing sometimes goes slack--at one point he even adds a "now" that would do Joe Piscopo proud to the line "As long as Babylon is my foe." So despite strong material, this lacks the requisite steely edge. And whether the confusion of "laboratory" with "lavatory" is simple ignorance or one of those deep Rasta puns, it sums up his wit and wisdom on "these times of science and technology" all too neatly. B PLUS

TROUBLE FUNK: In Times of Trouble (D.E.T.T.) MacCarey's timbales and Dyke Reed's synths give these loyal D.C. homeboys more instrumental distinction than most of their major-label competition, but on the studio half of this double-LP you'd almost forget what sharp rappers they can be. The crowd on the live disc reminds you. B PLUS

XTC: Mummer (Geffen) Having retired full-time to the studio, the definitive English art-poppers sound more mannered and arid than ever, which is no less bothersome just because it's one way they have of telling us something. By now, there are hints of guilt-tripping in Andy Partridge's awareness of what he isn't, and while "Human Alchemy" ("To turn their skins of black into the skins/Of brightest gold") and "Funk Pop a Roll" ("But please don't listen to me/I've already been poisoned by this industry") are notably mordant takes on two essential rock and roll subjects, Partridge deliberately limits their reach. The eccentric dissonances that sour his melodies and the fitful time shifts that undercut his groove may well bespeak his own sense of distance, but art-poppers who command both melody and groove are rare enough that I wish he'd find another way. B MINUS

PAUL YOUNG: No Parlez (Columbia) Unlike the interpretive singers of an earlier generation, Young projects a concern with emotion rather than emotion itself--an idea or a value rather than a passion. Where Joe Cocker and Maggie Bell played it hot, Young's take on the slightly archaic black singing styles he admires so candidly is cool and synthetic. while this aligns him neatly with urban contemporaries in the Jeffrey Osborne mold and helps him steal away with "Love Will Tear Us Apart," it puts a heavier burden on his powers of analysis than any rock-and-roller should risk. Fortunately, his delight in state-of-the-art production and arrangement, as well as in his own vocal resources, provides the underpinnings of authenticity any second-hand man needs. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

My glum mood set in only after I returned from a California vacation. Especially in L.A., where I found myself listening more to CHR stations than to the fabled KROQ, I felt like I was in the middle of some as yet unnoticed and probably completely arbitrary girl-group revival, what with Deniece Williams's above-mentioned "Let's Hear It for the Boy," the Go-Gos' "Head Over Heels," Shannon's "Give Me Tonight" (plus an occasional reprise of "Let the Music Play"), Nena's "99 Luftballoons," Tracey Ullman's "They Don't Know," the Pointer Sisters' "Automatic," and Madonna's "Borderline." Not to mention the head cheerleader, Cyndi Lauper, this year's greatest argument for the pop process in which (listen up, younguns) the radio forces you to listen to a song beyond what ought to be the point of diminishing returns and the dividends keep adding up. I dismissed "Time After Time" when I gave the album a B-plus last October, but now I like it fine and the album's an A and Arthur Baker's cartoon remix of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" is number one on my in-home playlist. So inspired was I upon my return that I put on Pat Wilson's dinky-looking Australian EP Bop Girl (Warner Bros.) and had fun with that too. I know it's only meaningless-to-exploitative commercialism, but sometimes it doesn't take all that much to make an old rock and roller happy. . . .

Two repackages of local favorites head in opposite directions, as repackages often do. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's Greatest Messages (Sugarhill) is Sylvia Robinson's latest attempt to cash in and its eight cuts definitely look like some kind of bargain for the culturally deprived who don't own such 12-inches as "It's Nasty", "Survival", "Birthday Party", and "The Message" itself. Only problem is, all four seem to be edited 45-rpm versions. In the case of "The Message," there are no words lost except for the "Livin' in the City" coda, but the omission of the instrumental bridges completely destroys the rap's unbearable tension. For impecunious novices only, Marshall Crenshaw's U.S. Remix (Warner Bros. import--that's right, import--EP) comprises the long-rumored non-Lillywhite unhyped-drums versions of three songs from Field Day plus a live Elvis (Presley) cover and a DOR remix of "One Day with You". In addition to balancing the instruments, the remixes add a few deceptive flourishes, and as a Crenshaw fanatic I've already put these on a special tape. Impecunious novices, however, are advised to start with Field Day. . . .

Four of my recommended American band EPs are by female-dominated groups, always a refreshing turn of events. I'll write at more length next month about Oh OK's Furthermore What (DB), which threatens to cross the line from unflappably fey to oneirically arty but in the end is as charming and sexy as it intends, which is plenty. Rather more militant women are responsible for Ut (Gut import), half devoted to aural abrasions of the sort that already dominate two unlistenable-by-me cassettes from this New York/London trio; the new stuff sums up machine-age chaos more then it succumbs to it, and the art-funk on the other side does the same in its own droogy way. The BBC's Dutch (Emotional) is four rather droll songs from five sauerkraut lovers who like MTV and aren't ashamed of it, because in sauerkraut-land MTV is another place to get music--music you can dance to. Tommy Keene's Places That Are Gone (Dolphin) introduces an ambitious D.C. eccentric who makes his cover Alex Chilton and deserves it. Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo's Brave New Girl (Bondage) isn't quite up to the compassionate, catchy postcool of their debut album and continues to flirt with the schlocky pop her musicians have some kind yen for, but anybody who can name her climactic love song "Night Baseball" obviously has her tomboy credentials in excellent order. The Leroi Brothers' Forget About the Danger Think of the Fun (Columbia) adds gyrating second vocalist Joe Doerr to the quartet which recorded this neo-roadhouse band's Texas cult album and suggests that maybe they're made for EP length. Johnny Thunder's Diary of a Lover adds one more than okay song to the EP included on Johnny's French import album of last year and somehow sounds better on American vinyl. And Velveteen's After Hours (Atlantic) does something useful with long-time New York rock thrush Lisa Burns--turns her into an anonymous disco dolly. . . .

Speaking of the Everly Brothers, their superb body of work has just been expertly boiled down by programmer/annotator Mitchell Cohen into 24 Original Classics (Arista). Since only 12 are from their Cadence period, I think you'd be better advised to look around for the 20-song Cadence collection on Barnaby and the Warner Bros. Golden Hits, but this will certainly do. Arista's new Dion and the Belmonts 24-cut, which ranges over five labels (not including Myrrh, the gospel outfit where he now records), is even more useful, at least to someone who's always found his Laurie compilation too much of a good thing. Finally released through the good offices of MCA, which now distributes Sugarhill, Chess's Greatest Sides series offers too little of great things Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, The Moonglows, and Etta James. But that's hardly to suggest that these 14-song compilations on artists whose classic work has long been difficult to find aren't highly recommended to newcomers. And the multiple-artist Best of Chess/Checker/Cadet: Doo Wop offers winsome rarities (the Sensations' "Let Me In", say) even for old-timers. . . .

Debbie Harry's Giorgio Moroder-produced "Rush Rush" has somehow gotten lost in the shuffle. Here's hoping the two will come up an album of such stuff.

Village Voice, May 29, 1984

Apr. 24, 1984 June 12, 1984