Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

I ought to mention that much of the listening for this CG was done on two Walkmen, a tiny Sanyo box, and (occasionally) a borrowed hi-fi system of erratic tape speed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. What's more, it was done whle I got to know a two-week-old human being who didn't much care for Naked Raygun. I love my portable headphones, but I do believe music is meant to be ambient, and not in the Brian Eno sense, so I wondered how some of these records would sound when I came home to take a gander at the Birdfood King. Pretty much the same is how. And now the tropics beckon once again.

DAVID BYRNE: Music for The Knee Plays (ECM) I didn't trust my instant attraction to these obviously derivative occasional pieces until I looked at the label and realized that five of the twelve originated with "Trad./Arr. by." There's no tune like an old tune, and if this music really was "inspired by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band," then I think Byrne's fusion of New Orleans horn voicings with Soho-avant calm is more satisfying than theirs with bebop and funk. I also think his words do Robert Wilson proud and then some. A MINUS

DANNY AND DUSTY: The Lost Weekend (A&M) Danny is Green on Red's Dan Stuart, a likable fool, Dusty the Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn, a pretentious wise guy, and with the help of some L.A. drinking buddies they've come up with an album less ambitious and more satisfying than any either band has produced on its own. It makes a concept of the loser mythology that's such a big deal in L.A., and I was prepared to hate it--I've never believed that "we've all gotta go down." But the songs are relaxed, unassuming, and funny. I guess if the Heartbreakers could make heroin addiction sound like a good time, these guys have a right to do the same for alcoholism--they certainly have tradition behind them. B PLUS

BOB DYLAN: Empire Burlesque (Columbia) The absurd contention that by utilizing electronic horns and soul girls and big bam boom he's finally mastered pop fashion and state-of-the-craft production--I've actually heard this referred to as "Disco Dylan"--proves only that his diehard fans are even more alienated from current music than he is. At best he's achieved the professionalism he's always claimed as his goal. No longer "relevant" enough to make "statements" that mean shit to any discernible audience--vide Infidels or, on this record, "Trust Yourself" (only if you say so, Bob)--he's certainly talented enough to come up with a good bunch of songs. Hence, his best album since Blood on the Tracks. I wish that was a bigger compliment, but debunking comparisons to Street-Legal are also way off--the arrangements and especially the singing are, yes, tasteful enough to support material that puts Elton John to shame. I mean how did he get that ominous calm, that soupcon of prophecy? And how did he come up with the toughest Vietnam-vet song yet? B PLUS

RICK JAMES: Glow (Gordy) Rick has never been Mr. IQ, but this record is so stupid--not stoopid, just plain stupid--that his continuing failure to conquer MTV seems more disgraceful than ever. I mean, with his monotonous hooks, one-dimensional beat, fop coiffure, and relentless sexual self-aggrandizement, that's clearly where he belongs--he may be smarmier than Billy Idol, but what's a little grease among professionals? C

GEORGE JONES: First Time Live (Epic) If it's amazing that this inexhaustible record machine has never resorted to a live quickie, it's doubly amazing that he's never dared one. Less amazing is the career moment it captures, the period of sobriety that's turned his never-ending stage fright into shtick. "No Show Jones" opens the show, naturally, and this being country music it kicks off with his guitarist's Merle Haggard imitation. Elsewhere there's a set-down-a-spell band feature, a get-it-over-with medley, and the usual quota of you-had-to-be-there cornball, which Jones, whose stage fright isn't altogether irrational, delivers pretty clumsily for a thirty-year-man. And on top of it all there's irrefutable proof of how instinctive his tricks and mannerisms are--you've heard these vocal grimaces and bursts of prose poetry before, but never in just these heart-stopping places. Definitive: "He Stopped Loving Her Today." B

SI KAHN: Unfinished Portraits (Flying Fish) At his best, Kahn writes like the gifted local organizer he still is sometimes; his political commitment is bound up in the incidents that precede issues. But his modest folkie renown seems to have cut him off from his sources in much the way that superstardom starves pop genius at the root. With one exception (El Salvador as seen by a farmboy-turned-soldier), the best songs here are the most personal: two for the new love of his life, one for a gay coworker. The political stuff is often generalized, conceived to serve an idea, and while he gets away with it sometimes (an antiharassment song that kicks off from the turn-of-the-century "It's the Same the Whole World Over"--smart), he does seem to think that "It's not how large your share is/But how much you can share" is an inspirational couplet. B

KID CREOLE AND THE COCONUTS: In Praise of Older Women and Other Crimes (Sire) Though personally I don't much care whether Cole Porter comes again, I must point out that August Darnell suits the part better than Stephen Sondheim or Paul Simon or Elvis Costello. Certainly no one in rock or musical comedy maintains such a consistent level of lyrical sophistication, even if he does overdo the brittle satire at times like these (which may be because brother Stoney is helping out again). And those who would bewail his relationship to the great European harmonic tradition should remember that Cole Porter was a rhumba man and ponder the title of Andy Hernandez's attack on white-collar crime: "Dowopsalsaboprock." A MINUS

THE KNITTERS: Poor Little Critter on the Road (Slash) With Dave Alvin and John Doe getting a chance to pick and Exene getting a chance to sing purty, this ad hoc roots excursion is often tuneful and appealing, sometimes much more. I have my silly faves, but the convincer isn't silly at all--"Cryin' but My Tears Are Far Away," in which Doe not only writes and sings (and how) a classic country ballad, but creates a paradigm of urban alienation at the same time. Unfortunately, the bad stuff can be revoltingly cute, beatnik romanticism's softfolkie underbelly, as in the Old MacDonald intro to "Rock Island Line" or the speeded-up tag to "Walkin' Cane," which seems designed to convince alienated urbans that you can get rock and roll out of this hick stuff. B

MEAT PUPPETS: Up on the Sun (SST) Furious negativist then, goofy nature mystic now, Curt Kirkwood is the David Thomas of endearing sloppiness. The tunes unfold loosely and sweetly, with Curt's guitars not so much chiming as chattering in a nonchalantly unstylish take on neofolk lyricism. But the music's charms are a little too flaccid to hold up the most unabashedly lysergic worldview yet to emerge from postpunk. B PLUS

BILLY OCEAN: Suddenly (Jive) Jimmy Cliff he ain't, and Jimmy Cliff ain't all that much. But platinum-plus he is, and it's my considered guess that we'll be hearing more lilting, faintly West Indian tenors, the closest England comes to soul. C PLUS

PRINCE AND THE REVOLUTION: Around the World in a Day (Warner Bros.) It's pretty strange, given that he looked like a visionary not long ago. But this arrested adolescent obviously don't know nuthin about nuthin--except maybe his own life, which for all practical purposes ended in his adolescence, since even for a pop star he does his damnedest to keep the world out. So while his sexual fantasies are outrageous only in their callous predictability and his ballads compelling only as shows of technique, they sure beat his reflexive antinomianism and dim politics. Which suggests why the solid if decidedly unpsychedelic musical pleasures our young craftsman makes available here don't wash. Only the crass "Raspberry Beret" and maybe the crooning "Condition of the Heart" are worth your time. B MINUS

READY FOR THE WORLD (MCA) "I want your lips/I even want your tongue, love": Melvin Riley Jr. puts into words the erotic aspirations that have motivated love men since the first falsetto seduction. From wet ballad to videogame beat, the Prince influence is so palpable it's almost comic and so brazen it could take your breath away. But where Prince thinks sex is nasty, Melvin makes nice-nice. La-la means he'll fuck you. B PLUS

NILE RODGERS: B-Movie Matinee (Warner Bros.) Since it's all, or mostly, in the groove, I can only guess at an explanation. New producer Tommy Jymi? New drummer Jimmy Bralower? Nile's hot romance with the Synclavier? Luck? Whatever, Rodgers hasn't made such a jumping record since the underrated Take It Off, or such a substantial one since the underrated Real People. Some may miss that reassuring Bernard Edwards substratum, but I'll take my rhythms rising to the top. A MINUS

THE SCENE IS NOW: Burn All Your Records (Lost) Admirers of Red Crayola's Kangaroo?, the only album in history based on Marxist art criticism, will find this hauntingly familiar, not just in its often arcane leftism but in its apparent indifference to musical niceties like vocal pitch. Its pleasures are manifold, and its variety not of the obvious sort you might expect from four guys who play twenty-eight instruments. They combine awkwardness and grace, comedy and admonition, intellect and grunge in politically enlightened proportions. And borrow their pithiest lyric from Mao Tse-Tung. B PLUS

TALKING HEADS: Little Creatures (Sire) As I assume you've figured out, this return to basics isn't exactly Talking Heads '77. What the relatively straight and spare approach signifies is that their expansive '80s humanism doesn't necessarily require pluralistic backup or polyrhythmic underpinnings. It affirms that compassionate grown-ups can rock and roll. The music is rich in hidden treasures the way their punk-era stuff never was, and though the lyrics aren't always crystalline, their mysteries seem more like poetry than obscurantism this time out. Anyway, most of the time their resolute happiness and honest anger are right there, and in "Stay Up Late" they come up with a baby song that surpasses "Willie and the Hand Jive" itself. A

THE THREE JOHNS: Atom Drum Bop (Abstract) I know I have a weakness for demented three-chord rant, but so should you. Don't you wish you knew some Americans who could cop snatches of Jimmie Rodgers and the Golden Gate Singers and "Don't You Start Me Talking" and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" without imitating any of them? These are guys who not only consider it their mission to keep rock and roll "The Devil's Music" for as long as the world goes to hell, but who also don't want the world to go to hell. They're my favorite new Brits in years. Their album was manufactured in France. B PLUS

'TIL TUESDAY: Voices Carry (Epic) In the great tradition of Kansas and Starcastle (and also, let's be real, Berlin and Scandal), these social climbers infuse a Brit idea of dubious truth value with a shot of marketable American vulgarity--not only do they roll out synth-pop hooks like vintage A Flock of Seagulls, but Aimee Mann's throaty warble sounds almost human. And while the generalization level of her aggressively banal lyrics signals product, not expression, every one lands square on a recognizable romantic cliché. B MINUS

UTFO (Select) For years rappers boasted that they were in it for the money, which given the amounts of money involved proved how close to the street they still were. These days you can't be so sure. After announcing their educated synthesis with a verse in pig Latin on their first single, the new guys on the block have proven street professionals--if they don't use a rhyming dictionary, then they'll probably market one. And Full Force comes up with the one great hook Roxanne Roxanne needs. B

LUTHER VANDROSS: The Night I Fell in Love (Epic) Though Vandross's devotion to pure singing will always be too pure to admit much content, his material has improved. Marcus Miller makes the fast ones hop to, and the ballads retain their shape no matter how far Luther stretches them--only dud's the ridiculously well-named "My Sensitivity (Gets in the Way)." On "It's Over Now" Mr. Nice Guy even orders his treat-him-bad woman to "hit the road"--although it is his femme backups who utter the actual words. B PLUS

SUZANNE VEGA (A&M) If I walked into a folk club and came upon this woman strumming her songs, I'd be impressed too--she picks her words with evident care and conversationalizes her chosen vocal tradition with evident savvy. But that's not good enough: great lyricists either dazzle you utterly or sneak the imagery on by, and no folk-based vocal tradition ought to require conversationalizing. Despite her considerable talent, Vega is self-consciously Artistic like so many folkies before her, which means that while a rock and roll production might power her over her affectations, more likely it just wouldn't mesh--the slightly prissy precision of these arrangements is precisely what the songs demand. As for that ersatz medieval ballad (which ain't bad, actually)--it's no anomaly. B MINUS

Village Voice, July 30, 1985

June 25, 1985 Aug. 27, 1985