Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

If 1984 was the year of the CHR single, 1985 could turn into the year of the CHR soundtrack. So though I think soundtrack albums are anti-music even when they don't consist mostly of pseudo-symphonic John Williams mood mush and pseudo-jazz Dave Grusin action swing, I buckled down and listened to a few. Even found a good one, and only received Perfect the day I finished. Jann Wenner Sings--now there's a concept even more daunting than Jann Wenner Acts.


STEVE ARRINGTON: Dancin' in the Key of Life (Atlantic) Unless you count Amy Grant, pop doesn't get more explicitly Christian--not only does the back cover thank Jesus Christ rather than the usual God, but the record invites us to convert. Granted, Arrington's a Jesse Jackson-type Christian--remembers that petroleum is still a finite resource, takes pains to acknowledge the right to choose in a song where the abortion isn't done. But his positivity theology doesn't sell the music any more than some other ideology would. The music sells the theology, and augments it: for the first time he's making like a songwriter, designing hooks for his vital rhythms, and mellifluous vocal cartoons. The title track lives up to its dreams of Stevie, both songs about babies are choice, and it all comes together with the goofy yet spiritual scat coda to "Stand With Me (which means stand up for Jesus, children). A MINUS

BEVERLY HILLS COP (MCA) Highlights: Patti LaBelle contained, Harold Faltermeyer kisses Herbie Hancock's ass, the System rocks and rolls again, Shalamar writes to order (buy the 12-inch). Redundancy: the Pointer Sisters (buy the album--theirs--if you must). Lowlights: Junior, Rockie Robbins. Lowlifes: Danny Elfman (formerly of Oingo Boingo), Glenn Frey (formerly of the Eagles). B MINUS

THE BREAKFAST CLUB (A&M) Disco domo emeritus Keith Forsey is the great spirit behind this consumer fraud. He even wrote the Simple Minds hit, which in a rare moment of aesthetic perspicuity they've disowned, as well as utterly negligible songs for such artistes as Elizabeth Daily, Karla DeVito, and Wang Chung. Plus one, two, three, four instrumentals. D MINUS

DESPERATE TEENAGE LOVEDOLLS (Gasatanka) Wish I could report that these thirteen posthardcore toons for amateur Super-8 rock and roll flick constitute a stronger soundtrack than anything the youth marketers over in the pricier part of Hollywood have commissioned. Unfortunately, it sounds like another Rodney Bingenheimer anthology. C PLUS

FISHBONE (Columbia) Looking like postmodern vaudevillians who've just signed themselves in at the mental hospital, with sartorial details appropriated from the Specials, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimi Hendrix, Stepin Fetchit, and whoever, these six black L.A. teenagers show a flair for visual outrage worthy of George Clinton himself, though funk is far down on an equally eclectic list of musical influences that subsumes metal, new wave, and cool-jazz finger-pop into a ska Prince Buster never dreamed of. It's all too scattered, without much songwriting focus beyond the Devo-meets-Clinton "? (Modern Industry)," but in a world of of Prince clones and ugly presidents these guys are cause for hope. B PLUS

THE GOONIES (Epic) As I hope you've figured out, the New Soundtrack is no such thing: it's a cross-promotional concept that permits record bizzers and movie bizzers to exploit each other's distribution. But because the film comes first, the music pros work to order whether or not their songs function thematically or appear in the movie at all. So even when the resulting albums don't suffer from the hodgepodge effect that afflicts all compilations and goes double when music is slotted into vastly disparate moods and locales, they still breed hackwork. Which is why this one is such a relief. First of all, it's no hodgepodge: high-register vocals predominate, dance beats mesh. And not only do Teena Marie, Luther Vandross, and Philip Bailey come in at peak form, but REO Fucking Speedwagon produces an actual anthem. John Williams's scion Joseph contributes a nifty pop-funk tune, and Dave Grusin himself strolls sweetly under the closing credits. Bless music consultant Cyndi Lauper, whose two good-to-excellent tracks almost get lost by comparison. [Original grade: A minus] B PLUS

GREEN ON RED: Gas Food Lodging (Enigma) They used to be fun, partly because you couldn't tell whether they knew how risibly their wacked-out postadolescent angst came across. So now they unveil their road/roots/maturity album, which extols heroic dreams and revives Americana--drunks, murderers, husbands who've "passed away." Fun it's not. And in addition to the melodies thinning out, as melodies will, the playing's somehow gotten sloppier. B MINUS

KLYMAXX: Meeting in the Ladies Room (Constellation) In theory, these ladies are my favorite Prince rip because the attitude they give off all over the room is their own. But though they and their men friends do nice stuff with those layered robot rhythms, their attitude thins out fierce once they've had their say at the top of each side. B MINUS

LONE JUSTICE (Geffen) Although Maria McKee sure does have a big voice for such a young thing, sometimes I get the feeling she's playing grown-up with it--"After the Flood," about staying put on the family farm come hell or high water, doesn't exactly reflect the personal experience of someone who met her guitarist in a parking lot in the San Fernando Valley. Not that I doubt her passionate sincerity. Just that I find it generates more credibility when she worries about her man working late or warns him not to insult her in front of her friends. B

BILL MORRISSEY (Reckless) There's ten years of rough jobs and bumming around in these trenchant, unassuming songs, with no aura of folkie slumming to stink things up. Morrissey took those jobs to make money, not to gather material, and he went on the road to get away from home. Of course, industrial New England leaves its stamp on everything he writes anyway--his lyrics are so local, so devoid of pop universals, that even if he wanted more than finger-picking on his LP I doubt anyone would give him the budget for it. Which sad to say leaves only a stylized is-that-John-Prine? drawl to carry his familiar little tunes. B PLUS

PABLO MOSES: Tension (Alligator) Moses's singsong melodies have always been simplistic even by reggae standards, but on these cautionary ditties neither lyrics nor groove manage the sly, subtle grace of the best of them. Catchy, yes, and righteous too, but as annoying at times as a Sugar Crisps commercial. B

TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: Southern Accents (MCA) Petty's problem isn't that he's dumb, or even that people think he's dumb, although they have reason to. It's that he feels so sorry for himself he can't think straight. Defending the South made sense back when Ronnie Van Zant was writing "Sweet Home Alabama," but in the Sun Belt era it's just pique. The modernizations of sometime coproducer Dave Stewart mitigate the neoconservative aura somewhat, but unmitigating it right back is Petty's singing, its descent from stylization into affectation most painful on side one's concept songs. Side two is less consequential, and better. Note, however, that its show-stopper is "Spike," in which a bunch of rednecks, I mean good old boys, prepare to whup a punk. It's satire. Yeah sure. B MINUS

PLASTICLAND (Enigma) The fairyland psychedelica and many-hued outfits on the cover led me to dismiss the music as camp satire or idiot nostalgia. But "Euphoric Trapdoor Shoes" and "Rattail Comb" work for their laughs, and other songs achieve an even greater complexity of tone. The group's Anglophile diction can be prissy or sarcastic or acid-wild; their music is gimmicky and even silly sometimes, but like "She's a Rainbow" or "Itchycoo Park" it's also melodic and pleasurable and strong. Almost alone among the neopsychedelics, they actually have something to say about the '60s: they understand that to write lines like "Loneliness is a sad companion/Loveliness is all she feels" may well mean you're foolish but doesn't necessarily make you a fool. B PLUS

R.E.M.: Fables of the Reconstruction (I.R.S.) If you had any doubts, new producer Joe Boyd clinches it: their formal frame of reference is folk-rock, nothing less, and nothing more. Because they're Southerners, they've always defeated folk-rock's crippling stasis: they have a good beat, and you can boogie to them. But as formalists they valorize the past by definition, and if their latest title means anything it's that they're slipping inexorably into the vague comforts of regret, mythos, and nostalgia. Trading energy for ever richer textures, their impressionism sacrifices its paradoxical edginess: it's doleful, slower, solidly grounded but harder to boogie to nevertheless. B PLUS

THE SMITHS: Meat Is Murder (Sire) It makes a certain kind of sense to impose teen-macho aggression on your audience--for better or worse, macho teens are expected to make a thing of their unwonted hostility. These guys impose their post-adolescent sensitivity, thus inspiring the sneaking suspicion that they're less sensitive than they come on--passive-aggressive, the pathology is called, and it begs for a belt in the chops. Only the guitar hook of "How Soon Is Now," stuck on by their meddling U.S. label, spoils the otherwise pristine fecklessness of this prize-winning U.K. LP. Remember what the Residents say: "Hitler was a vegetarian." C PLUS

STING: The Dream of the Blue Turtles (A&M) Not since Paul Simon's dangling conversations has a pop hero made such a beeline for the middlebrow cliché. Romantically he runs the gamut from if-you-love-somebody-set-them-free to each-man-kills-the-thing-he-loves, and of course he doesn't ignore the cosmic side of things--"There is a deeper world than this/That you don't understand." Speaking of deeper worlds we don't understand, I'm pleased by his pro-miner sentiments, but wonder why he has to (my italics) "hope the Russians love their children too," since I've always assumed they do. And displacing the Police's sere dynamics we have bathtubs full of demijazz, drenching this self-aggrandizing and no doubt hitbound project in a whole new dimension of phony class. C PLUS

VISION QUEST (Geffen) This flick isn't an item on my particular grapevine, but between the sculpted pecs on the back cover and the "Only the Young" kickoff inside, I figure it's about Heroic Youth. They're "Hot Blooded," they're "Hungry for Heaven," they're gonna "Shout to the Top," and their idea of inspirational art is some amalgam of pop metal and dance-oriented schlock. Given the basic idea, these tracks are surprisingly okay, but only one fires my corpuscles: Don Henley's "She's on the Zoom," about a Dumb Chick. C PLUS

XTC: The Big Express (Geffen) Remember when Difford & Tilbrook were writing a musical? Sounds like a job for Partridge & Moulding. They could name it after "The Everyday Story of Smalltown." Which would keep them working at the proper scale and be the best thing for steam-powered trains since Ray Davies. B

DWIGHT YOAKAM: Guitars Cadillacs Etc. Etc. (Reprise) As seems retrospectively inevitable in the neoclassicist era, a major finally gave this bluegrass-tinged hardshell a shot, expanding his generous indie EP of the same title (on Oak, if you care to look) into a skimpy album. Even first time around his twang-power purism was more retreat than reclamation. Add two superfluous covers, a duet with Maria McKee, and a title tune in which all those et ceteras turn out to be "hillbilly music" and you get Ricky Skaggs for sinners. B

Additional Consumer News

The indie album has long since turned the indie EP into a marginal marketing device, its chief attraction reduced capital outlay in music or cash, so it's not surprising that the two B plus minis receiving full CG treatment above aren't by typical indie bands. But there's plenty of action out there. Next month I'll try and get to Squalls (Mbrella, out in 1984 only I misfiled it), fetching pop that owes more to Talking Heads than the dB's for once. Still growing on me is Big Black's Racer-X (Homestead): the first two tracks promise a muscular but conventionally all-over-the-place piece of neo-no wave hostility, but the guitar barrage builds real momentum, and all of side two, climaxing with a trash-compacted version of James Brown's "The Big Payback," is the kind of music you play loud when you feel like going out and stealing a pneumatic drill. On Life Is Grand (Life in Soul City) (Seed), the Wild Seeds show off a drummer supple enough to power their rock and roll eclecticism and a taste for serious fun wide-ranging and complicated enough to give them identity problems, which could clear up with one strong live show (like at the Pep Friday). Dramarama's Comedy (Questionmark) shows just as many smarts but not as much soul or rhythmic muscle. The Miracle Legion's Mark hooks his evocations of dazzled childhood and yearning adolescence on Ray's insistent guitar figures and sings like Loudon Wainwright III's kid cousin the Shoes fan on The Backyard (Incas). Anna Domino's Rhytm (Les Disques du Crepuscle import) falls short of her debut's dreamy melancholy but does a lot with the title tune/concept and continues the effect with another great cover: "Sixteen Tons." The leader's psychedoolic shirt notwithstanding, Bad Checks' Graveyard Tramp (Loretta) is better than its horror-comix title: half these songs--especially "17" and "Johnny Bring Your Girlfriend Home"--are shrewd, driving, nasty, basic post-punk. The Source describe themselves as thought collectors and slide projectors, and the way Yoko Ono's "Give Me Something" jumps out from the catchy, cleanly produced originals on their Another Look (Picture Window) makes me wonder just how much meaning they generate on their own. Michael Ward's Emergency to Order (No Secret) is white funk with the kind of quasi-political lyrics the style could have been made for but too rarely exploits. Ex-Individual Jon Klages's In a Dream (Coyote) has more character as a record than anything his former band ever managed, though its smart pop lyricism falls into the kind of time-keeping groove the Individuals avoided. The Minutemen's Project Mersh (SST) suggests that irrepressibly avant-garde bands may well come up with catchier material when they don't play at trying to "write hit songs." Kraut's Whetting the Scythe (Cabbage) takes longer to break through than hardcore vets going pop-metal should. Musts To Avoid: David Lee Roth's Crazy from the Heat (Warner Bros.) and November Group's Work That Dream (A&M).

Village Voice, June 25, 1985


May 28, 1985 July 30, 1985