Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

JOAN ARMATRADING: The Key (A&M) Folkies manqué to the contrary, it's not hard rock she's unsuited for, a point she drives home on the side-openers, which are as nasty as this album gets both musically and emotionally, and also as rousing. What she's unsuited for is pop--the way Steve Lillywhite's hooks lockstep with her alto singsong on "The Key," "Drop the Pilot," and "The Game of Love" makes the friendly sentiments expressed therein seem mechanical. And since she's always been a tough broad, that may well be the case. B [Later]

B-52'S: Whammy! (Warner Bros.) Though they still pick up some great ideas at interplanetary garage sales, their celebration of the pop mess-around is getting earthier. "Whammy Kiss" and "Butterbean" do actually concern sex and food, respectively, while "Legal Tender" and "Queen of Las Vegas" show off a healthy respect for money--that is, a disrespectful attraction to its alluring usefulness. "Song for a Future Generation" is a completely affectionate, completely undeluded look at the doomed, hopeful, cheerfully insincere dreams and schemes of the kids who dance to B-52's songs. And the Yoko Ono tribute is for real. A MINUS

JOE "KING" CARRASCO & THE CROWNS: Party Weekend (MCA) Even when he was nervoused out Joe King always used to be fun because what kept him going was high spirits--at worst, a little extra adrenalin. Now he sounds as hyper and overextended as Richard Gottehrer's production. Good parties are such fragile things. B

ALBERT COLLINS: Don't Lose Your Cool (Alligator) Kicking off with a blistering boogie, borrowing wisdom from Percy Mayfield and wit from Oscar Brown Jr., and played with an edge throughout, this is everything you could ask of a blues album except--except that it isn't quite not just another good blues album. A must for aficionados and a fine introduction for novices, but inbetweeners can live rich and meaningful lives without it. B PLUS

MILES DAVIS: Star People (Columbia) It's said that Miles has soloed better recently, and that the music relies on blues clichés. But like Agharta, this is the band's record, although unlike Agharta it works because Miles reins the band in--Mike Stern's blues duties keep him unfused, John Scofield gains needed muscle, Bill Evans hardly opens his embouchure. Anyway, blues is supposed to be a music of reinvented clichés. And Miles sounds fairly fine. A MINUS

DURAN DURAN: Rio (Capitol) With music drily electronic enough to pass for new wave and pop moistly textural enough to go over as pop, lyrics that rearrange received language from several levels of discourse into a noncommital private doggerel, and a limitless supply of Bowie clones to handle the vocal chores, this is Anglodisco at its most solemnly expedient. It lacks even the forced cheerfulness of (whatever happened to?) Haircut 100 (wait, I don't really want to know), as if it had as many hooks as A Flock of Seagulls (not bloody likely) it still wouldn't be silly enough to be any fun. C MINUS

HEAVEN 17 (Arista) As communiques--in Britain, where this group speaks directly to a general youth public--these cool-to-gnomic commentaries on a modernity in which jobs aren't roles, dreams aren't ideals, and the personal isn't quite the political undoubtedly earn some anthemic aura. As artifacts--in the U.S., where this group is sometimes confused with Duran Duran--they're dance music, albeit with generally thought-provoking hooks. B PLUS

HEAVEN 17: The Luxury Gap (Arista) Although their second U.S. album lacks the surface appeal of the debut compilation, it runs deeper, and politics makes the difference--not because their conscience impels them to come up with likable protest novelties like "Fascist Groove Thing" and "Let's All Make a Bomb," but because their compassion induces them to explore a subject to which they have privileged access. Nowhere else in music or sociology will you learn so much about the would-be hedonists who live the technopop/Anglodisco life. Obsessed with an upward mobility that fails to produce the advertised highs, their protagonists suffer the weariness known only to those who habitually overtax their wills. And Glen Gregory's cultivated, well-meaning vocals combine concerned observation with hard experience just soulfully enough. A MINUS [Later: B+]

LEGAL WEAPON: Death of Innocence (Arsenal) Since like so much L.A. gothic this punk metal cultivates melodrama with an enthusiasm that could be campier, I don't quite know how to take Kat Arthur's tales of young woe. If she really did get sodomized by daddy on the floor, the hooky crudity of her response is guts ball. But if she just thought incest a fitting hook for such a crude grabber of a riff, she should have thought some more. And the strain of such distinctions renders the crudity less satisfying than its hooks warrant. B PLUS

LEGAL WEAPON: Your Weapon (Arsenal) The follow-up is less unrelenting, but it's also subtler in crucial little ways--tempo change here, Byrdsy decoration there, burr in the throat all over the place. Kat Arthur may well be turning into Joan Jett with something to say and something else to say it with. She's still young and she still means it, but she's gained perspective on her bombed-out blues. A MINUS [Later: B+]

BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS: Confrontation (Island) There are no major songs among these lovingly selected outtakes, and on side two the material drags as low as the forced, synth-drenched "I Know." But even that one has a bridge typical of the songcraft that set Marley apart from his brethren, and on every track his vivacious attention to detail jumps out when you listen up. Inspirational Verse: "Oh Lord, give me a session not another version." B PLUS

JUDY MOWATT: Black Woman (Shanachie) Mowatt seems like an exceptionally decent person. Her avowals of sisterhood are a welcome corrective to Rasta sexism. But as a frontwoman she's a backup singer. The straightforward decorum of her timbre suits her fine, but her lack of inborn dramatic grace and soul technique make her modest tunes more tedious than they have to be. And I don't hear the boys in the band putting their backs into it. B MINUS

NEW ORDER: Power, Corruption and Lies (Factus) The second or third Joy Division II album has occasioned disputation among the faithful. Some claim that it cynically recycles their riffs, while others think it raises that old new music to transcendent summits. Me, I find it relatively gentle and melodic in its ambient postindustrial polyrhythms, their nicest record ever. I also think it sounds pretty much like the others. B PLUS

PINK FLOYD: The Final Cut (Columbia) Though I wish this rewarded close listening like John Williams, Fripp & Eno, or the Archies, it's a comfort to encounter antiwar rock that has the weight of years of self-pity behind it--tends to add both literary and political resonance. With this band, aural resonance is a given. C PLUS

A.C. REED & HIS SPARK PLUGS: Take These Blues and Shove 'Em (Ice Cube) The crudest blues album anybody's made on purpose since Hound Dog Taylor died allows this saxophone player to sing--about needing a day job. Unlike his sometime leader Albert Collins, Reed doesn't stand a chance of knocking you over with his chops, which he knows. Unlike his noncousin Jimmy (whose tunes and harp parts he's wont to lift), he's far from certain to win you over with his slurs, either. This he may not know. But his earthiness is down-and-dirty enough to ensure that he'll come close. B PLUS

THE REPLACEMENTS: Hootenanny (Twin/Tone) Thrashing their guitars or shambling like bumpkins or reading the personals w/musical accompaniment, this young band has a loose, freewheeling craziness that remains miraculously unaffected after three records. They'll try anything--there's even synthesizer percussion on one cut. If the rock and roll spirit is your bottom line, you'll love 'em. But because they play it so loose they do gravitate toward sloppy noise, which means that too often they're more conceptual than a loose, freewheeling rock and roll band ought to be. B PLUS

RICHARD THOMPSON: Hand of Kindness (Hannibal) Divested of Linda, RT stands tall as just another first-rate singer-songwriter. Near as I can tell, divides his first solo album since 1972's passing strange Henry the Human Fly between the four songs on side one that bid a poisoned farewell to his tear-stained wife and the four songs on side two that praise her replacement for saving his life before warning her not to toy with his affections and criticizing her dancing. Rocking in that blocky Morris-dance manner, but distinctly contemporary, these could be passing stranger. They're of such uniformly excellent quality, however, that even Warren Zevon, say, will be hard-pressed to top them in 1983. Gosh. A MINUS

FONZI THORNTON: The Leader (RCA Victor) As a fan of this second banana, I'd hoped he'd earn his title. Unfortunately, no quantity of returned favors from such class pop-funkers as Kashif, Ray Chew, and Nile & Bernard will do the trick for a man who not only doesn't sing as indelibly as pathfinder Luthern Vandross, which is understandable, but doesn't write as indelibly either. Best Chic song: the perky "Perfect Lover." C PLUS

PETER TOSH: Mama Africa (EMI America) A surprisingly good album from a man who's been acting the fool for years, but the quality's in the groove, not the man--and in the Afrogroove rather than the reggae groove at that. Best songs: "Stop That Train," which he almost ruins with lounge-roots phrasing, and "Maga Dog," which has never sounded better. Both were written in the '60s. B

U2: War (Island) The deadly European virus that's always tainted this band turns out to be their characteristic melodic device, a medieval-sounding unresolved fifth frequently utilized by monks in Hollywood movies. In other respects, however, their hot album is rock and roll indeed. The Edge becomes a tuneful guitarist by the simple expedient of not soloing, and if Bono has too many Gregorian moments his conviction still carries the music. Anyway, I'll take his militant if pacifist Christianity ("The real battle has begun/To claim the victory Jesus won") over most of the secular humanism and Jah love rockers are going in for these days. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Reports of rap's death have been arriving regularly since 1981, yet at the moment it seems stronger than ever. There are so many good 12-inches around that you can tune out Grandmaster Flash's analysis of "women's lib" without doing irreparable harm to your butt. In addition to "Looking for the Perfect Beat" and "Best Bop," I'm getting a rise out of Jimmy Spicer's "Money" (Spring), the Fearless Four's much-maligned Gary Numan rip "Just Rock (with a welcome Gamble & Huff rip on the B) (Elektra), Rock Master Scott's "It's Life" (Profile), and the Disco Four's 1982 "We're at the Party" (Profile), the apparent source of the Roy Bittanism piano arpeggio that hooks the tenacious Sweet G song-rap-sermon "Games People Play" (Fever) (skip Gigolette's answer-rap "Games Females Play," which don't know women's lib exists). Star of the moment, though, is definitely Run-D.M.C.'s spare, brutal "It's Like That"/"Sucker M.C.s (Krush Groove 1)" (Profile). Though a bit upwardly mobile for lowbrow-highbrows who regard money lust and the death throes of capitalism as two sides of rap's only fit subject--I mean, D.J. Run boasts about attending St. John's--its competitive fatalism sounds unforced and dead on to me. That's the way it is, if not the way it has to be. . . .

Three exceptionally ardent reissues of three long-unavailable artist catalogues make a very persuasive case for the old music (a/k/a rock and roll). Greatest Hits from the Chi-Lites and Tyrone Davis continue the Brunswick program that Epic began with Jackie Wilson. Both are more imaginative and concentrated then the original-label compilations. Eugene Record's classic Chi-Lites were a boy group specializing in early-'70s antimacho, catchy as the Spinners but a lot simpler; Davis was always a bit subtle for a soul shouter, but presented an attractive urban alternative tot he roots soul of Redding, Pickett, and Sam & Dave. The Best of Slim Harpo (Rhino) presents an attractive rural alternative to the same tradition from the elemental Louisiana rhythm-and-blues-man. Harpo's tunes were covered by such Brits as the Kinks, Them, and of course the Rolling Stones, who never claimed that their lifts of his arrangements on the likes of "I'm a King Bee" were any great hip-shakes compared to the original.

Village Voice, June 28, 1983


May 31, 1983 July 26, 1983