Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

This could easily have been a double Pick Hit month if I hadn't been keeping an ear on my own burgeoning Anglophilia. As it was the nod went to the new guys. It could also have been a double Must to Avoid month, but not for two gals who'd rather you printed their picture than spelled their name right.


CHARLES BROWN: One More for the Road (Blue Side) This long overdue piece of record-making hits you with its craft and taste. Of course, you think. Brown's powers are undimmed since he topped the charts as a lounge singer forty years ago, so why shouldn't he sound just as fine in the studio today? And he does. With Billy Butler on guitar, his combo is at least as choice as the Three Blazers, and he has forty years of lounge classics to draw on--"One for My Baby," "I Miss You So," "Who Will the Next Fool Be," all right. There's only one problem: Brown is no Nat King Cole. His voice slips into the lugubrious so reflexively that at times you suspect clutch problems with the master reel, and it could just be that he's best appreciated over a highball--or else, like so many chart-toppers before him, in three-minute doses. B PLUS

CUTTING CREW: Broadcast (Virgin) Hip punky look, hip-hop name, superhip label (and airline), pop dreck. The only good Brit is a good Brit. C MINUS


JOE JACKSON: Will Power (A&M) An orchestral album? By Joe Jackson? Sounded like the quickest Must to Avoid in history, but I should have known better than to expect something so distinctive from this perpetually well-meaning guy. Not terrible by any means. C PLUS [Later]

THE JUDDS: Heart Land (RCA Victor) This which-one-had-the-baby mother-and-daughter act was cute for about fifteen minutes. They've long since revealed themselves as neotraditionalism's most shameless nostalgia pimps, and the only way their sexual politics could get more disgusting is if their songwriters slipped them wife-swapping jokes. To honor this achievement, their label herewith institutes a nine-track limit for country LPs. I remember when twelve down to eleven was a scandal, and submit that in this case like so many others zero might be a more socially responsible target. C

LISA LISA & CULT JAM: Spanish Fly (Columbia) Aphrodisiac they ain't--just Hispanic and, supposedly, fly. Hell's Kitchen scullions who've made good in typical one-part-talent-to-ten-parts-application Fame fashion, they're just streetsmart enough to want nothing so much as to escape to the suburbs. Their kids will either carry on the family business or join hardcore bands. C PLUS

THE MCGUIRES: Start Breathing (Righteous) With hundreds of other bands working out imperceptible variations on songform, usually by admixing noise or roots or exoticism, the McGuires aim to do nothing new, and since they have the gift of song to begin with, that's a plus. Oh, they do call their friendly sound "barbecue-beat," but there's no petty territoriality here, no minute formalism expressing selves that are barely worth the trouble. Just middle-class rock-and-rollers voicing their middle-class disaffection with a measure of lyric grace. I'm fond of "T.V. Party" (they're not going), "Let You Down" (and apologize in advance), and "She's a Lawyer" ("Sorry, sister, she's not gay"). You may like the one about the prophet Elijah. B PLUS

MOFUNGO: End of the World, Part 2 (Lost) In its weary postfolk delicacy and righteous politics, "Ku Klux Klan" is definitive despite a clumsy Willie Klein add-on about Rehnquist, who deserves worse. A bow to Apollinaire, kiss-offs to Reagan and Baby Doc, and three Elliott Sharpened remakes do the job as well, but the remakes also suggest shortfall. As does the useless militancy of "Science Song #1" (ozone lesson), "SR-71 Blackbird" (even Bruce Cockburn could blow it out of the sky), and "Lemmings" (guess who). B PLUS

TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) (MCA) For such a downhome guy, Petty has a major instinct for the news hook. Here, after defying premium pricing, reconstructing the South, and touring with somebody famous, he exploits the Dylan connection once again. In the tradition of his new hero, Petty's plan was no plan--he and the guys just went into the studio and these songs came out. And whaddaya know? Stick the thing in your playback mechanism of choice and these songs come out--for the first time in his career, the man sounds like the natural he's worked so hard at being. B PLUS

PROFESSOR LONGHAIR: Houseparty New Orleans Style (Rounder) If you don't know why Fess is a national treasure of obstinate localism--not rock and roll or blues or even r&b, just Nworlins--these lost recordings from just after his 1971 revival will teach you a lesson. Fess's wobbly vocals and careening piano apotheosized the city's crazy independence the way Allen Toussaint's did (if not does) its pop affability. With eight of fifteen songs otherwise available, novices can skip it if they promise to start somewhere else. Treasure hunters need only be apprized that Snooks Eaglin is on every track and Ziggy Modeliste behind four. A MINUS

PUBLIC ENEMY: Yo! Bum Rush the Show (Def Jam) It may seem redundant to accuse a rapper of arrogance, like accusing a politician of seeking power, but Chuck D takes the bully-boy orotundity of his school of rap elocution into a realm of vocal self-involvement worthy of Pavarotti, Steve Perry, or the preacher at a Richard Pryor funeral. And while I know the idea is to play him off the wheedling motor-mouth of his boy Flavor-Flav, why should I like the great man's fan any more than I like the great man? They've got literary chops--amid puns more Elvis Costello than Peter Tosh, their "Megablast" is cutting anticrack narrative-propaganda--and they make something personal of rap's ranking minimalist groove. But there's no fun in these guys, which given the intrinsic austerity of the groove means not much generosity either. [Original grade: B] B PLUS

REGGAE DANCE HALL CLASSICS (Sleeping Bag) Near as I can tell, dance hall represents a hedonistic rebellion against Rasta religiosity not unlike disco's rejection of rock pomposity, and a lot of it is as forgettable outside its context as disco was. What's crucial about these eight tracks is that they all made themselves in Manhattan discos--downtown, natch, but that's the point. All are naggingly uptempo, most one-shots and/or novelties, many hooked with universal melodies that somehow slipped the collective mind--"5000 Miles," "Frere Jacques," "Dem Bones," "For the Love of Money." You can just imagine how weird they must have sounded twixt Madonna and Fad Gadget. Even up against one another they sound pretty weird. A MINUS

REGGAE DANCE PARTY (RAS) Not the promo sampler you might expect from the foremost U.S. reggae label. Only four of the eleven artists have RAS albums, and only Black Uhuru's Arthur Baker remix boosts LP product with any oomph. That's because the foremost U.S. reggae label had damn well better know its twelve-inches. The side-openers are Natural Beauty's "Nice Up Dancee," cravenly omitted from the Something Wild soundtrack, and Paul Blake & Bloodfire Posse's ten-minute dub-included "Get Flat," custom-designed for JA's gun wars. Oldtimer Horace Andy's venture into computerese is also worth committing to memory. The rest will OK up dancee. B PLUS

THE REPLACEMENTS: Pleased to Meet Me (Sire) It's no different for Paul Westerberg than for less talented mortals--sooner or later he had to grow up or fall apart. That's why he got rid of Bob Stinson, who threatened to destroy the band along with himself and anybody else within range. But that doesn't mean Westerberg's guitar can extend Stinson's perpetually broken promise to harness the power of naked anarchy. Or that he can altogether avoid the sentimentality inherent in subjects like teen suicide and red red wine. Of course, with almost any other band those two songs would be airplay cuts, but compared to "I.O.U.," "Alex Chilton," "I Don't Know," "Valentine," they're product and filler. For the third straight album Westerberg delivers the goods--grimy, uplifting, in the tradition and shocking like new. No competing rock and roll mortal can make such a claim. If by some stroke he learns to handle maturity, Valhalla awaits him. A MINUS

ROYAL CRESCENT MOB: Omerta (Moving Target) Although those who think all funk sounds the same might confuse them with, er, Cameo, unlike other umpteenth generation new-wavers they have identity to burn. Say they're '60s types hip enough to have learned their wacked-out anarchy from Pedro Bell's mid-'70s psychedelic cartoons. Partly because funk gets over on a groove more muscular than they can cut and partly because they put their all into a self-manufactured EP, only "Get On the Bus," which also led the EP, and "Mob's Revenge," for an ass-grabbing asshole and featuring a rousing "You're fucked" refrain, belong on their best-of. But their identity comes this close to carrying them over the top anyway. B PLUS

THE SCENE IS NOW: Total Jive (Lost) The rhythms and harmonies are properly knotty, the ideology grounded, the prosy, dissociated lyrics never corny. The singing is more tuneless than the tunes can afford, the politics more situationist than the sense of detail requires, the poetry insufficiently suggestive/evocative. Bohemia strikes again. B

CHUCK STANLEY: The Finer Things in Life (Columbia) The tender heart palpitating beneath Public Enemy's hard-boiled exterior, Stanley is out of Oran Jones's league. His juicy baritone rises easily to a rich falsetto, and Luther or Freddie would pay cold money for either. But the range of his instrument becomes an end in itself--he never projects Luther's personal intensity or even Freddie's personal style. And while he's not yet a big enough love man to bore the world by controlling his own publishing, the soft fantasies of the hard-boiled do have their runny tendencies. B

THE TANZANIA SOUND (Original Music) These fourteen tracks were cut mostly in neighboring Kenya circa 1960, back when the British colony of Tanganyika was turning into Julius Nyerere's socialist proving ground. Congo rumbas that sing their East African provenance in lithe Arab-tinged melodies and Kinshasa rhythms, they have the same urban-folk directness you hear on John Storm Roberts's Africa Dances anthology. These days Dar Es Salaam's renowned live music scene is documented only in state radio's tape library; Tanzanians have made virtually no records since the early '70s, which wasn't how Nyerere planned it when he closed off the Kenyan border. The socialist in me hopes Tanzania's pressing plant starts up soon--and also hopes the music remains as distinctive and unforced as it used to be. A MINUS

THAT PETROL EMOTION: Babble (Polydor) Although I'm a known sucker for fast guitar bands, I've turned down hundreds that shall remain nameless. So why do I love these guys? Specifying comes as hard to me as their originality comes easy to them. Except in snatches I can't understand the words, which apparently only add up to snatches anyway. From the press packet I gather that their politics are no more than you'd expect from Northern Ireland, not enough to win me over. And however I shuffle perfectly applicable terms like "punk" and "pop," they just won't form a suitable pigeonhole. One thing I notice: in addition to the tunes, which can't put bored music over any more, they're given to scalar guitar hooks that remind me of nothing so much as art-rock ostinatos. In theory, I hate this device. But here it's just another token of smart, untrammeled enthusiasm. A MINUS

RANDY TRAVIS: Always and Forever (Warner Bros.) Nashville's latest sureshot is exactly as strong as his material. How this distinguishes him from Tammy Wynette or Carl Smith I don't get. B

WIRE: The Ideal Copy (Enigma) The Wire of punk myth abraded like the smell of gunpowder, fucking in the sand, a scouring pad. This is more like digital sound turned up too loud, a cold shower, a dash of after-shave: chronic alienation converted into quality entertainment. Except on a terrible track that outdoes slow Roxy Music, it's pretty bracing in both rock and disco modes. It's also nothing more. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Rhino's new doowop collections make you think the reissue kings will keep doing it forever. I could quibble, and I will--was there no room for "A Thousand Miles Away" or "The Closer You Are" on the consistently excellent Doo Wop Ballads and who chose the teen-idol "Step by Step" over, say, "Speedo" on Doo Wop Uptempo? Nevertheless, tyros for whom names like the Five Satins and the Monotones are myths encountered on Royal Doo-Wopp posters and misdialed oldies station should pick up on this shit like it was Beatles CDs, and learn how eccentric and eternal pop trivia can be.

But no way can the same be said for Rhino's five-volume Soul Shots series. By recycling presumed ephemera nobody else is equipped to profit from, Rhino predicates its success on the persistence of one-shots and the essential unity of random pop moves. This works for the Count Five and the Music Machine, and it works even better for doowop, whose aesthetic assumptions were shared by hosts of amateurs, wannabees, and small-time exploiters. But soul was different. Its deep groove didn't come naturally to journeymen, which is one reason it was a music of house bands--most prominently at Stax/Atlantic and Motown, but also at Hi and Minit. Except for a few Atlantic subclassics, Rhino has no access to these four catalogues. Moreover, both its gospel roots and its black power ethos assured that soul would aspire to a seriousness that in doowop was either prearticulate or altogether absent--or else simulate such seriousness as usually doesn't matter much, except that in soul the conventions of seriousness required vocal equipment that doesn't grow on street corners, a commodity in which Atlantic and Motown once again developed dominant market positions. As I've complained about the Atlantic box, this aesthetic doesn't anthologize especially--even Motown, the greatest pop factory in history couldn't altogether smooth over the idiosyncrasies of singers with savvy and style. The Rhino collections yoke bottomless indie flukes flashing incongruous hooks with the hits of major and minor artists who sound more at home on their own compilations, from Etta James to James & Bobby Purify. All offer gems of varying rarity, and only The "In" Crowd: Sweet Soul is largely mediocre. But all also include songs that after 20 years give up the secret of why they were vaguely annoying at the time: "Sunny," "But It's Alright," "Love Is a Hurtin' Thing," "Wack Wack," even, I insist, "The Nitty Gritty," to name but five. There's not one I expect to play as a record, not even Soul Twist: Instrumentals, spoiled by the protofusion of Ramsey Lewis, Hugh Masekela, and the Young Holt Trio.

In soul especially, the outpourings of the half-forgotten often prove more durable than the hits of the half-assed. James Carr charted nine times r&b in a three-year career that never touched the pop top 50, and while he's hardly "The world's greatest soul singer"--only romantics with a weakness for the abject loss of self would think to hawk that hype--he's been too long from the racks. At the Dark End of the Street (Blue Side) sets the strong, hurting voice over two prime rhythm sections, and its overstatement makes Carr's case. Never would have thought, for instance, that he'd hold up against Ann Peebles, much of whose catalogue is now available on two Hi/Demon imports, I'm Gonna' Tear Your Playhouse Down for the smokey can't-stand-the-rain stuff the Brits go for, 99 Lbs for the fun-loving troublemaker she started out as (where's "It's Your Thing"?). And topping it all off is Percy Sledge's When a Man Loves a Woman (Atlantic). Grave, slow, hopelessly country, Sledge was never much of a showman and so was soon eclipsed by his labelmates. But there was a lot more to him than the unforgettable title tune. Remember "Take Time to Know Her"? "Out of Left Field"? That's just the beginning.

Village Voice, June 30, 1987


June 2, 1987 July 28, 1987