Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Rock and roll still looks like pop rampant from here--which is still Honduras, with Wham! and Julian Lennon on the maids' radio in the kitchen. I'm willing to accept the trend--certainly there's an exuberance in Aretha Franklin's (Narada Michael Walden's?) calculated hitcraft that I don't find in even the smart part of the disloyal opposition. But as I apply myself to all the other craftspeople the zeitgeist has thrown our way, I understand why the disloyal opposition could give a shit.


BRYAN ADAMS: Reckless (A&M) The megabuck stops here. Maybe I'll let Bruce Springsteen teach me how to hear John Cougar Mellencamp, but damned if I'm going to let John Cougar Mellencamp teach me how to hear Bryan Adams. From antipunkdiscowave strut to Flashdance homage, he's a generic American hunk, only whiter because he's Canadian. Where Sammy Hagar flaunts his anticommunism and Don Henley flaunts his mouth, Adams flaunts nothing more and nothing less than his young reliable bod. Like all the above-mentioned good and bad he shares a mysterious nostalgia for the recent past with a lot of people who aren't half dead yet, at least chronologically. And more than any of them he has real problems relaxing, which puts him square in the soul-as-will-and-idea tradition of Lou Gramm, Pat Boone, Sophie Tucker, and so many others. C MINUS

JOHN ANDERSON: Tokyo, Oklahoma (Warner Bros.) Anderson loves a good lyric the way David Johansen loves a good lyric, the way Willie Nelson loves a good tune--and he loves a good tune, too. With "Twelve Bar Blues" and "A Little Rock 'n' Roll and Some Country Blues" defeating their billing and the title tune crossing "Fujiyama Mama" and "Promised Land," this is the rock and roll album I was afraid he'd never make--he's allowed three slow songs, especially when one is as sad as "Down in Tennessee." A MINUS

WALTER BECKER/DONALD FAGEN: The Early Years (PVC) Eternally faithful to early Dan, I hoped to descry the lineaments of unspoiled genius in these 1968-1971 demos, but all I got was demos. Between Fagen's scratch vocals and three grooveless drummers who sound relieved to remember their parts, these are songs casting about for a form--that is, for Gary Katz, whose smooth swing suited them far better than the bare bones Kenny Vance resorts to. Worth salvaging: "Don't Let Me In," in which they turn their collegiate cynicism on themselves for once. C

LEONARD COHEN: Various Positions (Passport) With a new crop of beautiful losers arising out of the latest bohemia as inexorably as ailanthus out of a vacant lot, the man who wrote the book is worth attending, because he's not bitter. After all, righteous anger has never been his long suit, and what does he have to be bitter about? At fifty, he's still living comfortably off the fruits of his spiritual torment. Of course, not every loser is so talented, or resilient, The hymn "If It Be Your Will" and the fable "The Captain" are as rich and twisted as anything in his career, and "The Law" does justice to his patented romantic irony, which by now has a soothing glow. B PLUS [Later]

COMMODORES: Nightshift (Motown) Title tune's pretty slick as rock and roll heaven songs go, but ever since Lionel--who they could have used on "The Woman in My Life"--they've been too tame for their own good. A new singer from Heatwave obviously isn't going to change that. When they thank Dennis Lambert "for being so good at what you do," you should remember that what he does is schlock. C PLUS

SAM COOKE: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 (RCA Victor) Some people think live albums capture the essence of rock and roll; I don't even think live shows do. That may be why this record, which yea verily doth document a little-noted aspect of Cooke's amazing career, leaves me mostly tepid. But I blame it on headlong show-band arrangements so single-minded they soon undermine what conceptual interest inheres in the transformation of this seminal crossover teen dream into fit fare for the over-twenty-ones in a Miami r&b club. I like grit as much as the next postprimitivist, but good grit admits interpretive flair just like any other mode--more than Cooke puts into these hits, originally designed to downplay his gritty side. B

D.O.A.: Let's Wreck the Party (Alternative Tentacles) Decking their cover with quotes from Durutti and Chagall and slogans like "Bring Back the Future" and "We Don't Need Unity . . . We Need Co-Operation," these Vancouver lifers have obviously made something of their hardcore anarchism. If only the music had as much spirit. Amid the slightly Britified metal-mania so many professional punks drift into, the great moments are stolen--a speed-anthem cover of "Singin' in the Rain" and a "Hot Blooded" rip calling for a "General Strike." But since property is theft, maybe that's as it should be. B MINUS

EURYTHMICS: Be Yourself Tonight (RCA Victor) The new wave's answer to Shirley Bassey is finally connecting with those of us who won't settle for voice-plus-hooks not because she shows signs of having a soul, but because she shows signs of having a brain. Of course, the two go together--her lush, brassy emotionalism is more coherent partly because it's grounded, less taken with alienation as a way of life. Dave Stewart's guitar doesn't hurt either. And neither do Aretha, Stevie, or Elvis. B PLUS [Later]

ARETHA FRANKLIN: Who's Zoomin' Who? (Arista) It seems so simple now that it's happened, but let's face it--she's been trying to sell out this big for at least ten years. And take my word for it--she hasn't done anything near this good in over a dozen. It couldn't have happened without the top-forty revival, and it couldn't have happened without Narada Michael Walden, who unhesitatingly plugged his first legend into one pop format after another and came up with classics almost every time. From lead rocker to hooked ballad to Caribe Richie carnivalesque, these songs go no deeper than Franklin can make them by breathing, but their instant inevitability could keep this album alive for years. And when somebody like Aretha Franklin goes multiplatinum, the world rejoices. A

HOWARD JONES: Dream Into Action (Elektra) Smarter than Cat Stevens. Sexier than Norman Vincent Peale. But not vice versa. And less soulful than either. D

GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS: Life (Columbia) The reflectiveness of her interpretations has never extended to her choice of material--the honest journeywoman in her must prefer contract songwriting. So she does what she's always done over "contemporary" settings that don't clash or mesh or otherwise call attention to themselves. Amid the various shades of schlock and dancy compromise, the best songs are those she wrote with her coproducers, Sam Dees and Bubba Knight, and the only notable one is "Strivin'," the most straight-up bourgie boogie since "Bon Bon Vie." Even at its most committed, professionalism can get pretty boring. B MINUS

MOFUNGO: Frederick Douglass (Twin Tone/Coyote) What would a stranger make of this friendly but apparently overwrought and tuneless cacophony? Wish I were sure s/he'd find it as winning as I do. Not counting "El Salvador," this is the only time in eight years they've treated themselves to a mix forceful enough to clarify the apparently casual musicianship that goes into what are actually canny, complex, and suggestive structures. Even when you have no idea just what words they're hanging from titles like "Migrant Assembly Line Workers" and "Our Days of Weakness Are Over," you know they like grunge, a good joke, and other people. You know they're pissed off, too. Time: 29:51. B PLUS [Later: A-]

ALISON MOYET: Alf (Columbia) Hooking up with Imagination's Swain & Jolley for hologram soul that takes advantage of her giant voice as well as their cushiony electrodance, she gives off all the right signs, romantic victimization prominent among them. I don't believe a word, even though I know it could all be "true." Maybe an aura of artificiality is the point--do I take Leee Johns literally? C PLUS

ROCKIN' SYDNEY: My Zydeco Shoes Got the Zydeco Blues (Maison de Soul) All over America eccentrics match doggerel to jingle and then importune song publishers for their pot of gold. Sidney Simien commits his creations to vinyl, but with his big talk of "Sidney's hits" and "Talkin' over," his world is no less wishful, except for one thing--he made his breakthrough. A small one, to be sure, but however you spell it "My Toot-Toot" shows off his sporadic lyrical flair and is already a New Orleans standard. Not that there's any compelling reason to hear the way Sidney does it, especially since he plays all the instruments himself (drums last, sounds like). His album is of value primarily as a specimen of guileless folk ambition, of a man struggling to adapt a local tradition to what he understands of the great outside. B MINUS

SCRITTI POLITTI: Cupid & Psyche 85 (Warner Bros.) Green's Gallic allusion of choice--the name of his pubbery, in fact--is "jouissance," but although he's playful and verbal enough to make it his own, he falls short in the climax department. I'd suggest a less gushy conceit: esprit. The high-relief production and birdlike tunes and spry little keyb arrangements and hippety-hoppety beat and archly ethereal falsetto add up to a music of amazing lightness and wit that's saved from any hint of triviality by wordplay whose delight in its own turns is hard to resist. Usually I suspect lyricists who refuse to be clear of never having figured out what they mean, but here the puns are so clever and incessant that they become an end in themselves. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Green knows what he wants to say. A MINUS

SHANNON: Do You Wanna Get Away (Mirage) Her pleasantly expressive voice free of inconvenient conviction, she slips unassumingly from stance to stance--fantasy lover to wronged Cosmo Girl to horny wildcat to committed lifemate. Thus she never gets in the way of true stars Chris Barbosa and Mark Liggett, whose production is consistently engaging but less peaky than back when they were earning the right to develop their property. B MINUS

SONIC YOUTH: Bad Moon Rising (Homestead) They're sure to disagree--what else are they good for?--but despite all their apocalyptic integrity and unmediated whoziwhatsis, the achievement of their first halfway decent record is strictly formal: simple, rhythmic songs that neither disappear beneath nor get the better of the clanging and grinding of their brutal late-industrial guitars. Whatever credibility the guitars lend to their no doubt painful but nonetheless hackneyed manic depression is undermined by their usual sociopathic fantasies, and in the end the music isn't ugly or ominous or bombs bursting midair. It's just interesting. B

THE WEATHER GIRLS: Big Girls Don't Cry (Columbia) At a moment when soul is resurfacing as an ear-catching set of usages, a form basically independent of its original sources, these fat ladies--abetted by a new production team, and so it goes--take it one step further and make soul a cartoon, with the title cut the masterstroke. They'll cop material anywhere--debut single's from Jesse Winchester. And if at first their tricks seem inspired, by the time you get to Creedence and Neil Sedaka they're beginning to sound obvious. B

WHAM!: Make It Big (Columbia) Though George Michael seems more swellheaded than one would wish in a superstar (or a coworker), he does take care of business! His Isleys cover is less striking than his ersatz Motown! How many other pretty boys can make such a claim?! B

WOMACK & WOMACK: Radio M.U.S.C. Man (Elektra) Just how low-profile the new songs are is made clear when a sweet cover of "Here Comes the Sun" snaps you from drugged semiconscious enjoyment to full attention. I love the relaxed groove and wavering back-porch harmonies that go into their unique sound--lazy, tender, patient, long-suffering, tired of fighting. But they don't have to get by on atmosphere. B PLUS

Village Voice, Aug. 27, 1985


July 30, 1985 Sept. 24, 1985