Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Last month I was forced to choose between two albums that more than deserved Pick Hit status. This month I chose among three less powerful candidates--though if Riffs hadn't siphoned off Peter Stampfel that wouldn't have been a problem. As for the Must To Avoid, no, I don't enjoy picking on the kid. And if Journey got such regretful better-luck-next-times, I'd pick on them too.


LAURIE ANDERSON: Home of the Brave (Warner Bros.) Multimedia ain't omnimedia, and if she ever gets to do a movie again I hope she hires Jonathan Demme or at least Julien Temple. A credible groove ain't a compelling groove, and I'm inclined to blame the auteur rather than Nile Rodgers, Jimmy Bralower, or even Adrian Belew. But this soundtrack establishes her as a dynamite entertainer nevertheless. Her timing and intonation are so slick that even when she says something strange you catch yourself taking it for granted. Most of her material is perfectly comprehensible to anybody with a working knowledge of lower Manhattan. And if you're thinking this is faint praise, stop condescending--she's got more to say than 98 percent of those plodders, stumblers, and lurchers whose chief aim in life is keeping their avant-garde credentials in order. A MINUS

STEVE ARRINGTON: The Jammin' National Anthem (Atlantic) Here we come up against the perils of Christianity as a political matrix in black music (and life). I don't doubt the goodness of Arrington's heart any more than I do his Stevie-cum-Bootsy vocal and rhythmic dexterity. But last time he was brimming with charity and full of fun, where now the anxiety that besets anyone who sticks to "old-fashioned" values in a time of upheaval erodes his tolerance. So he sounds a little frightened--of gays, of teen violence, of a "new age" that won't look like his dreams no matter how many anthems he writes. He misses Martin Luther King a lot. So do we all. B

THE BANGLES: Different Light (Columbia) Right, they're maturing into a less derivative pop synthesis, as if that means shit these days. Like the Raspberries before them, they're brilliant when they emulate the Beatles and mature popsters when they don't. And for what it's worth, the four most striking tunes here are the four nonoriginals--every one, for what it's worth, written by a guy. B

SOLOMON BURKE: A Change Is Gonna Come (Rounder) With his fondness for the grand gesture, I just knew Burke was going to build the hushed title cut to a crescendo, but instead of trivializing the song with a false resolution he maintains its tension for seven minutes. That's the triumph, but the same level of taste prevails--this is a modern soul album that engages the material at hand instead of pimping for reactionaries. And with contributions from the likes of Paul Kelly and Jimmy Lewis, the material is worth engaging. B PLUS

FAT BOYS: Big and Beautiful (Sutra) Just by announcing a "stupid def side," they reaffirm their timeless message: stupid is def, def is stupid, all is one. Former sideman Dave Ogrin updates their beats without trying to tackle Rick Rubin head on. Their run-in with the Russkies is as meaningful a cultural exchange as "Rapp Symphony (In C-Minor)." And even more than their moving rendition of "Sex Machine," the title track sits all over rap's serious macho heavies. It may even get these jumbo gigolos something good to eat. B PLUS

FORCE M.D.'S: Chillin' (Tommy Boy) What scattered grow-ups seem to like about these teen goody-goodies is the touch of authenticity the sweet burr on the edge of T.C.D.'s tenor injects into the New Edition formula--a promise of, what else, soul. But the more I listen the more irrelevant that seems--when you crave a little authenticity, you don't go to a cute factory for it. What they need is more stringent quality controls than they're likely to get from chief producer Robin Halpin--not to mention the bozos who captain the ill-conceived Fat Boys excursion, or even "Tender Love"'s Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who've never made balladry their long suit. I know, the kids'll buy it anyway. But it won't keep any of them in school, I guarantee you. C PLUS

JOE JACKSON: Small World (A&M) He's even more adenoidal than his worthy forebears Graham P. and Elvis C., so how come he's the one with the gold records? Must have something to do with keeping it simple, don't you think? Not that he sticks to simple subjects--the guy actually has a sense of history--but that he makes their ironies seem straightforward. And maybe he's got something--I'm not going to tell you there's any inherent truth value in bitterness or paradox. I just wish he weren't so adenoidal. B MINUS

KATRINA AND THE WAVES: Waves (Capitol) Especially with Kimberley Rew down to two tracks, songwriting isn't the point and shouldn't be. Anything more meaningful than the received, catchy tunes and themes of readymade pop vehicles--the country affectations of Lone Justice, say--would interfere with the pleasures of the singing. Katrina doesn't illuminate these small-time universals with her lusty contralto, she subjects them to her own purposes, which come down to lighting up the world. A MINUS

JOHN LENNON: Live in New York City (Capitol) Just by putting his all into such unsung great songs as "Well, Well, Well" and "It's So Hard," the great singer comes a lot closer to justifying this ad hoc document than Jagger did with Ya-Ya's or Daltrey did with Leeds. The alternate "Instant Karma" and "Cold Turkey" and "Mother" are also welcome. But his accidental romance with Elephant's Memory never did him any good musically. And for all his encouragement Yoko wasn't yet a rock-and-roller, so "Hound Dog" remains a concept. B

JULIAN LENNON: The Secret Value of Daydreaming (Atlantic) Just when you thought he couldn't get any worse he decides he has a right to be doing this, thus surrendering the aura of vulnerability that was Valotte's only spiritual virtue. And when this one stiffs I bet he comes up with a song about "people who criticize." D PLUS

REBA MCENTIRE: Whoever's in New England (MCA) Winning though her directness may be, McEntire is neither as clear as George Strait nor as lavish as John Anderson. In fact, the basics she gets back to recall Rosanne Cash more than anyone else, and no matter how she tries, she just can't rock out (or sing) like Nashville's crossover queen. Most convincing are the jauntily defiant cheating-on song "Little Rock," where she plays a rich man's wife, and the dolefully forgiving cheated-on song "Whoever's in New England," where she plays a young executive's wife. Elsewhere she's mostly just direct. B

MISSION OF BURMA: The Horrible Truth About Burma (Ace of Hearts) One of the two most impressive tracks on this live all-new-material farewell from the seminal Boston indie band is a Stooges cover. The other is an Ubu cover. The rest--eight songs--is entirely original. I'm sure this isn't the horrible truth their label has in mind, but rock historians should jot it down somewhere. B

NEW EDITION: All for Love (MCA) Bright and shiny as a new cliché, Ralph Tresvant is equal to any J5 (or MJ) fantasy the group's multifarious writers and producers throw at him, and for most of the first side so are they. Second side's more like, you guessed it, the Force M.D.'s, and won't keep anybody in school either. B MINUS

PUBLIC IMAGE LTD.: Album (Elektra) John Lydon's name on the sticker, combined with his sudden eagerness to shoot the shit with representatives of the press, has everybody confused. This isn't a Lydon record that (the conveniently uncredited) Bill Laswell happened to produce, it's a Laswell record custom-designed for Lydon, with whom the auteur shares a disappointed revolutionary's professional interest in power. Just abstract the production style Laswell's adapted to artists as diverse as Mick Jagger and Herbie Hancock, think Sex Pistols, and you'll get something like this, as clinical as brain surgery and as impersonal as a battering ram, with unlikely virtuosos playing the Cook and Jones parts. It kicks in because they're both cold bastards; it feels out of whack anyway because Lydon can't match Laswell's commitment and still has too much integrity to fake it (and maybe also because he has never been in the same room with most of the musicians in this "band"). B PLUS

SLY FOX: Let's Go All the Way (Capitol) From thumping stop-and-go bottom to gleeful Beatle allusions, the title track is the most far-out piece of music to break pop all year, and you keep waiting for the rest to go . . . somewhere, if not all the way. I'm not saying the filler isn't as meaningful as Bootsy gone romantic or Levi's gone doowop. But it sure doesn't convey the same sense of adventure. B MINUS

SOUL ASYLUM: Made to Be Broken (Twin/Tone) Unless the meaning of life is passing me by, Bob Mould's proteges are the latest concept band, admired more for their correct aesthetics than for how they actually sound (or what they actually say). Fast turmoil rools, with hints of metal anthem and country warmth sunk deep enough in the mix that nobody'll cry corny. As a concept, pretty admirable. B

BARBRA STREISAND: The Broadway Album (Columbia) I had hopes for this record, honest. I certainly prefer the show tunes of her flowering to the "rock" (and schlock) of her Hollywood phase, and I enjoy discovering musical-comedy gems my normal interests would never steer me to. But unearthing gems is not Barbra's purpose. There are only three lyricists here--Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, and the album's real reason for being, Stephen Sondheim, who sums up his aesthetic philosophy by rewriting a song about Seurat so it applies instead to that other great artiste, la Streisand. I've enjoyed all the non-Sondheim songs in less precisely wrought versions and am also familiar with a little something called "Send in the Clowns." I admire the cattiness of "The Ladies Who Lunch." The others I'll live the rest of my life without. C

VOLCANO SUNS: The Bright Orange Years (Homestead) First side's got everything an insatiable Mission of Burma (or Hüsker Dü) fan could ask except Richard Harte's production, which might do justice to the band's command of detail. In fact, it makes me wish MOB had let drummer-vocalist Peter Prescott, who does most of the songwriting here, do most of the songwriting there as well. Second side's more clamorous, which these days is just another way of saying conventional. B PLUS

HANK WILLIAMS: Just Me and My Guitar (Country Music Foundation) Why do demos have such a mystique? Aren't they created solely to sell songs? And if Williams's prominence freed him of the need to compromise his expression, didn't it also free him of the need to put the song across at all? I mean, it wasn't evil bizzers who forced him to record with a band--the band was Hank's pride and joy. Listen to the static singsong rhythms of these strummed solo versions and you'll know why--when Vic McAlpin (?) provides a touch of vocal counterpoint on "You Better Keep It on My Mind," it's like somebody just pulled up the shades. Nor are all the obscurities as epochal as the side-openers, "Honky Tonk Blues" and "Jambalaya," both available and then some in livelier, more crisply recorded versions. Because Williams was a genius, his alternate takes are certainly of interest, and occasionally--the slow, stark "A House of Gold," for instance--they're riveting. But this is for serious collectors. Casual collectors should put their money into Polydor's complete-recordings twofers before evil bizzers kill the project. B PLUS

ZAZOU BIKAYE: Mr. Manager (Pow Wow) Zairean Bony Bikaye's Felaesque chants (sans agitprop, avec Afrobeat girls) provide the identity, but the substructure is all French-Algerian Hector Zazou, whose synth arrangements are praised for their orchestral density and distinguished by their propulsive linearity. Most of the Afrogallic music I've heard makes too much (Toure Kunda) or too little (Manu Dibango) of its Africanness. This strikes me as an original balance: minimalist Eurodisco that trades pseudosophistication for pseudoprimitivism. A MINUS

Village Voice, June 3, 1986


Apr. 29, 1986 July 1, 1986