Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

If the number of unfavorable reviews below seems unusually large blame it on this year's New Music Seminar, which instilled in me a renewed sense of professional responsibility. I mean, there are people out there who take these records seriously. You may even be among them.


A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS: Listen (Jive) If you think I enjoy enjoying this epitome of new-wave commercialism, this pap beloved of no one but MTV-addled suburbanites (not even NME, ever!)--well, you're right. I'm not just being campy, either, except insofar as camp means the luxury of surrender to stupidity--in this case to sheer, sensationalistic aural pleasure, whooshes and zooms and sustains and computerized ostinatos and English boys whining about their spaced-out, financially secure lot, all held aloft on tunes Mr. Spock could dance to. There are too many slow ones on number two, so I don't play both sides indiscriminately like I do with the debut. But hell, "What Am I Supposed to Do" even has a decent lyric. B PLUS

MARSHALL CRENSHAW: Field Day (Warner Bros.) Production brouhaha usually signifies the betrayal of an impossibly ecstatic expectation--think of Talking Heads 77, New York Dolls, Exile on Main Street, or (for you oldsters) Moby Grape, all bad-rapped when they first appeared, all in fact a little botched aurally, and all enduring records. Since the problem here isn't mess but overdefinition, a more precise analogy might be Give 'Em Enough Rope, but with a crucial difference: The Clash had better songs than its follow-up, while this follow-up has better songs than the debut. I don't mean better lyrics, either. That impression only holds up until you read them and rediscover that with a few exceptions (the David Weiss collaboration "Monday Morning Rock" more than the anthemic "Try") Crenshaw is a true songwriter--his words and music cannot be separated. Not even by the wrong drum sound. A [Later: A+]

DEF LEPPARD: Pyromania (Mercury) Fuckin' right there's a difference between new heavy metal and old heavy metal. The new stuff is about five silly beats-per-minute faster. And the new lead singers sound not only "free" and white, but also more or less 21. C

DAVE EDMUNDS: Information (Columbia) Not since the onset of a career always marked by consistent taste and uncertain utility has Edmunds strayed so far from the trad, and though his perfidy/courage is characteristically marginal, it's still a mistake. The two Jeff Lynne-produced tracks have given him the hit he needs, but where 1971's echoey "I Hear You Knockin'" was a departure, 1983's teched-up "Slipping Away" is an accommodation to marketing trends the Edmunds of Rockpile bucked. And as a symptom of his faltering commitment, the songs he's selected for side two are quite humdrum, which isn't characteristic at all. B MINUS

FLASHDANCE (Casablanca) Ten different singers collaborate with half a dozen producers to collapse a myriad of pop polarities onto one all-inclusive rock-disco concept soundtrack. Tenors and contraltos, guitars and synthesizers, lust and love, ballads and DOR--all are equal as these mostly undistinguished, mostly quite functional artistes proceed through their mostly undistinguished, mostly quite functional material. Concept: the overinsistent beat, which signifies how compulsively they seek a good time that retains shreds of both meaning and ecstatic release. B MINUS

GARLAND JEFFREYS: Guts for Love (Epic) Jeffreys's odd weakness for rock without roll is the ruination of this overproduced, undercomposed anachronism--even the reggae grooves are tinged with synthesized AOR melodrama, and the dance numbers do not jump jump. C PLUS

JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: Album (MCA) It's one of Jett's virtues that unlike so many rock traditionalists she doesn't let her sense of humor undercut her commitment --"Fake Friends" (cf. "Back Stabbers") and "The French Song" (cf. "Triad") are the real stuff. It's also one of her virtues that unlike so many other rock traditionalists she does have a sense of humor. Even makes fun of the Stones--they called "Starfucker" "Star Star," she covers it as "Star Star" (cassette-only until retailers pressured MCA into taking it off, still available as twelve-inch B-side), then dubs her own "Scumbag" "Coney Island Whitefish." And if you don't see what's so funny about her tuneless "Everyday People" (the twelve-inch in question), I guarantee Sylvester Stewart is laughing all the way to his next label. No joke: her nagging love-is-pain clichés. B PLUS

SYL JOHNSON: Ms. Fine Brown Frame (Boardwalk) Johnson has the rep and pedigree of a down-home treasure, but like so many of his fellow workers both renowned (Johnnie Taylor) and obscure (O.V. Wright), he's rarely better than his material if almost never worse. Having released bluesy soul records out of sweet home Chicago since the dissolution of his '70s label, where his final album was a dismal piece of out-of-it disco, Johnson here constructs his best collection since 1975's Total Explosion and his best side ever on the firm foundation of the title track, a superb piece of out-of-it disco. And may well have something equally interesting to show us before 1990. B PLUS [Later]

JOURNEY: Frontiers (Columbia) Just a reminder, for all who believe the jig is really up this time, of how much worse things might be: this top 10 album could be outselling Pyromania, or Flashdance, or even Thriller. Worse still, Steve Perry could run for the Senate as a moderate Republican from, say, Nebraska, where his oratory would garner excellent press--and then, having shed his video-game interests, ram the tape tax through. D PLUS

KAJAGOOGOO: White Feathers (EMI America) Anglophile album buyers are nothing if not fickle, and this well-named bit of fluff is just forgettable enough to get caught in the backlash. No, it's not entirely fair--the single's cute, as are the little fuguey bits. Boo hoo. C PLUS

KRAUT: An Adjustment to Society (Cabbage) New York's most likely hardcore boys keep the hooks coming for a whole side of enlightened rant--not twenty yet and they've figured out that past and future are real categories, always a tough lesson for rock-and-rollers. Overdisc, despite a terrific antiwar closer, they settle for blurred distinctions. B

MEN WITHOUT HATS: Rhythm of Youth (Backstreet) "Who are you listening to--Jethro Tull?" someone asked over the phone, and that's new music for you. What makes it new is how ruthlessly it goes for the one-shot, which sometimes means the good song--"The Safety Dance," available as a twelve-inch. As for the rest, well, Ivan Doroschuk seems smarter than anybody in A Flock of Seagulls. And Ian Anderson seemed smarter than anybody in the Ohio Express. C PLUS

MIGHTY DIAMONDS: The Roots Is There (Shanachie) The amazing thing about reggae of a certain quality--in which an affecting singer like Donald Shaw joins ace session players--is that no matter how sedulously it restates platitudes about roots and girls and Jah, its small graces eventually get its equally sedulous melodies across. But why should anyone who doesn't credit the platitudes give them that long? B

MTUME: Juicy Fruit (Epic) How deeply these clever funk lifts and come-hither ululations penetrate your mind-body continuum depends on how deeply you're into big-league fucking, which for these folks seems to involve a confusion between candy and fruit. I like both, prefer the latter, and wouldn't advise going to bed with anyone who doesn't know which is which. B

THE POLICE: Synchronicity (A&M) I prefer my musical watersheds juicier than this latest installment in their snazzy pop saga, and my rock middlebrows zanier, or at least nicer. If only the single of the summer was a little more ambiguous, so we could hear it as a poem of mistrust to the Pope or the Secretary of State; instead, Sting wears his sexual resentment on his chord changes like a closet "American Woman" fan, reserving the ambiguity for his Jungian conundrums, which I'm sure deserve no better. Best lyrics: Stew's "Miss Gradenko" and Andy's "Mother." Juiciest chord changes: the single of the summer. B PLUS

PYLON: Chomp (DB) The only band named after a Faulkner novel, and that's what I like about the South. Though I honor their collective front, and believe in my heart that Curtis Crowe is the great musician here, I know for damn sure that the one who makes me murmur "Oh yeah, that one" five seconds into each of these twelve tracks is Randall Bewley. And suspect the reason I can say no more is Vanessa Briscoe, who looks a lot earthier than she turns out to be. A MINUS

SIMPLE MINDS: New Gold Dreams (81-82-83-84) (A&M) With more effort than hedonism should ever require, I make out three or maybe four full-fledged melodies on this self-important, mysteriously prestigious essay in romantic escape. Though the textures are richer than in ordinary Anglodisco, they arouse nary a spiritual frisson in your faithful synesthetician. Auteur Jim Kerr is Bowie sans stance, Ferry sans pop, Morrison sans rock and roll. He says simple, I say empty and we both go home. C PLUS

SOFT CELL: The Art of Falling Apart (Sire) Marc Almond's compassionately bitchy exposés of bedsitter hedonism and suburban futility risk bathos when they eschew burlesque. I'm sure his faithless U.S. audience would find the non-LP B side "It's a Mugs Game," in which Marc pukes on his shoes, more edifying than the mock?-tragic "Baby Doll" or a bedhopper's lament like "Numbers." And David Ball's synthesized Hendrix on the bonus twelve-inch isn't funny enough to compensate. B MINUS

DONNA SUMMER: She Works Hard for the Money (Mercury) In which schlocky Michael Omartian replaces magic man Quincy Jones and Summer is born again. You know why? Because Omartian believes in Jesus, that's why. The result is the best Christian rock this side of T-Bone Burnett, and not just because it's suitable for Danceteria, although that helps. After all, can T-Bone claim to have introduced the concept of agape to the secular audience? A MINUS [Later: B+]

UB40: 1980-83 (A&M) Only Bunny Wailer's inventions have anything on the deep consistency of this integrated English world-class reggae. And if Ali Campbell's sufferating vocal leads are tamer than the outcries of such rootsmen as Winston Rodney and Keith Porter, they certainly don't lack for soul or expressive reach, except perhaps on the upful side, where the fast-talking Astro comes to the rescue before any serious tedium is done. Repeating only three tunes from their U.K. best-of, eschewing long-winded dub, this overdue U.S.-debut compilation is where to get hooked. A [Later: A-]

Additional Consumer News

It's no surprise that neither of my favorite non-U.S. releases this year comes from Britain, but despite the known weakness of importers for stupid haircuts and Japanese vinyl, I find it alarming that they don't appear to be for sale in this country at all. With Gilberto Gil's Um Banda Um (WEA Brazil) that's only temporary--the great popmeister, whose June concert converted me utterly with tunes I'd never heard before yet will know by heart when he brings them back, is planning a U.S. move. But what about Pamelo Mounk'a's Propulsion! (Sonics, France)? Mounk'a is a 20-year veteran from Cameroun whose understated floodtide carried me away even in the heady rush of a dozen straight great ones at an African disco I visited in London last fall. Propulsion!, brought through customs by an English friend, is the best African album I've heard this side of Sunny Ade, and I've sampled dozens. And from what I've read I'd pick up one called L'Argent Appelle l'Argent the moment anyone gave me the chance. . . .

The best EP I've heard all year is Emotion, DFX2's debut on MCA, which has never released an EP before. The band is a San Diego quartet who copy the Stones--despite hints of Lou & Ig, the post-Some Girls Stones, an odd and apt effect in a teenaged band. They're rock-is-lifers, they're not immune to sexism, they have all the retrograde attitudes, and believe it or not they do it do it do it do it. Let's hope they grow up right. True West (Bring Out Your Dead) is the toughest and finest EP to come out of the West Coast psychedelic whosis, though if this punky-yet-songy stuff qualifies, maybe R.E.M. does too, and Chronic Town it ain't. The Embarrassment's Death Travels West (Fresh Sounds) is eight droning, astringent, strangely catchy songs about everything from the Lewis & Clark expedition to "There's no doubt about it, my old friend's a monster." Hüsker Dü's Everything Falls Apart (Reflex) documents their power-trio approach to hardcore, with each instrument distinctly virtuosic and each instrumentalist an accomplished yowler, but isn't likely to convince anyone of how much greater they can be live. The Polecats' Make a Circuit With Me (Mercury) is technopopabilly recommended to the Rockets--"Juvenile Delinquents From a Planet Near Mars" indeed. The Honest Cartwrights (Honest Cartwrights) are the first indie group to take inspiration from Jo Mama (okay, Steely Dan); they're respecters of craft (get it?), not at all pompous about it, yet not a joke either. The Bangles (Faulty Products) have more Beatles in them than Fanny, although to precisely what end remains unclear. They're more limited by the idea of craft than the Honest Cartwrights, perhaps because it comes harder to them, and could perhaps take a cue or two from Little Girls' Thank Heaven (PVC), a joke that could benefit from a bit more craft. . . .

On the dance 12-inch front, Material (aided considerably by Grandmixer D.S.T.) have outdone themselves with Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" (Columbia), an electronic percussion extravaganza that outbeats not just their work on Lenny White's "My Turn to Love You" (Elektra) but also their Afrika Bambaataa collaboration "Shango Message" (Celluloid). Is it--heaven forfend--cold? You betcha, and about time. The 12-inch of Peter Tosh's "Johnny B. Goode" (EMI America) features lots of synth and is much improved thereby. Bob & Bob's "We Know You're Alone" (Polydor) is the novelty song of the, by an L.A. conceptual art duo who could turn into the Peter Max (Inc.) of hedonistic alienations, but right now are real good at making fun of it. Marcia Griffiths's version of Bunny Wailer's "Electric Boogie" (Mango) is produced and arranged by Bunny, mixed by Chris Blackwell, and sung by the third I-Three with appropriately self-effacing respect for the riff, a great one. The Dynamic Seven's "Shame, Shame, Shame" (Sugarhill) translates Shirley & Sylvia's dance classic into electronic boogie. And Johnny Dynell and New York 88's "Jam Hot" (Acme Music) is a rhumba. . . .

Though the Wizards From the Southside compilation does typify the cautious pace of Sugarhill's Chess reissue program, it's a good way for cautious youngsters to get their feet wet in Chicago blues. Fourteen superb cuts, five from Muddy Waters (none on Chess's Rolling Stone collection) and three from Howlin' Wolf, and if things go as they should you'll welcome the chance to buy them again further on the road. Two less epochal label compilations offer just-the-hits from the L.A. pop machine at Solar and the N.Y. dancing machine at Prelude. Except for two Shalamar cuts better apprehended on their best-of and all the Lakeside you need, I find the nine tunes on Solar's Greatest Hits surprisingly unhooky, though certainly not unpleasant. But though most of the songs that comprise the Prelude's Greatest Hits double-LP quite entered my life as singles, those that didn't sound just terrific mixed in with those that did. To-the-beat-y'all expediency at its most honorable--and you can listen to it. . . .

The first two-thirds of Timothy White's Bob Marley bio Catch a Fire is replete with historical-novelistic virtues--a life rather than a career, with welcome background on Jamaica and Rastafarianism. In short, White has a valuable take on Marley's roots, which for a Babylonian journalist is clearly the hard part. unfortunately, the final third does little to account for his worldwide impact. How did Marley feel about Chris Blackwell? Michael Manley? Wayne Perkins? I'd really like to know, and I hope White gets the chance to revise and expand his analysis of Marley's final decade, when his life and career got all bunged together.

Village Voice, July 26, 1983


June 28, 1983 Aug. 30, 1983