Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Though I'm pleased to finally figure out Memphis Minnie (skip Columbia's Hoodoo Lady), you'll find no new canon candidates in the pre-Christmas list below. Just subpantheon rockers and prerockers as individual as (and subtler than) the soundtrack schlock and rec-room pop contrarians niche-promote.

BOBBY BLAND: Greatest Hits Volume Two--The ABC-Dunhill/MCA Recordings (MCA) Insofar as it's now dimly believed that blues and soul were the same thing, kinda, perhaps I can rescue B.B. King's perpetual opposite number from the limbo of name recognition by promoting him as a great soul voice. After all, he did sing gospel before moving down, up, or over to Beale Street, and by the time mean old Don Robey sold him up the river, he was ready for anything--soul, lounge, country, disco, B.B. duets. Be it an aab gem like "Goin' Down Slow" or generic gold like "Yolanda" or a pop gewgaw like "Love To See You Smile," he claims these songs with his suave baritone and trademarks them with his unique growl. Never played an instrument, or danced much. Never had to. Proves sophistication has nothing to do with diplomas. A MINUS

SOLOMON BURKE: The Very Best of Solomon Burke (Rhino) From Jerry Wexler to Peter Guralnick and beyond, the authorities who consider this minor hitmaker (five top 40s, none after 1965) the greatest soul singer or something like it delight in his eye for the main chance. Hawking food on tour buses, skipping the playback of his label debut so he can get back to his snow-shoveling concession, he proves soul is as much show business as sincerity or gospel truth. But maybe it's not so great that he can turn his talent "on and off so easily, seemingly at will." Maybe the readiness with which the man would sing country or preach pop bespeaks a detachment from music as a calling. These mostly New York-recorded songs, all crafted with Atlantic's staunch commitment to bottom and hook, rarely create the illusion of necessity. Smooth and commanding, hustling his blarney with humor and grit, he risks remaining just out of reach of your two willing ears. A MINUS

GRANDMASTER FLASH, MELLE MEL & THE FURIOUS FIVE: More of the Best (Rhino) Beyond the extended "Flash to the Beat" and the essential "Wheels of Steel," these 12 tracks were recorded '84-'87, when they sounded a little lost. Heard as musical form rather than cultural positioning, however, they flesh out Flash's beatmastery, grandly intricate yet stone solid, and establish that Melle Mel beat Chuck D to the game--the fire-and-mutant-dogs "World War III" hits like "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," and lays down political science in the bargain. A MINUS [Later]

WOODY GUTHRIE: Hard Travelin': The Asch Recordings Vol. 3 (Smithsonian/Folkways) For the words, which suffice. Conjugating "Howdjadoo," naming fish he's read about and bugs he knows personally, describing women's hats from memory, creating a "Hanukkah Dance" for the daughter he calls "my little latke" (pronounced lot-key), his vocation was transmuting the folksy into Americanese. If he also wrote more songs than necessary with the word "union" in them, his heart was in the right place. Propaganda may be awkward, ineffective, annoying. But that don't make it wrong. A MINUS

MAMA DON'T ALLOW NO EASY RIDERS HERE (Yazoo) Most Yazoo compilations take egalitarianism too literally, mixing the classic and the generic so that every 78 in the vault stands a fair chance of digitalization. That may happen on this collection of "Piano Rags, Blues & Stomps 1928-35" as well--note that Cow Cow Davenport's hit "Cow Cow Blues," which is definitive by definition, "will be included on a later album"--but boogie-woogie is so much more fun than country blues it doesn't matter. Beyond the distinct voices--Davenport's barrelhouse solidity, Arnold Wiley's quicksilver chromatics, Will Ezell's playful chopsmanship, Speckled Red's errant enthusiasm--a single rhythmic idea animates the flow, and just when you're tired of piano Red opens his mouth and teaches America the dozens. Plus on the ride out we have the lost Oliver Brown classic "Oh You Devil You," about which we know nothing, including how Harry Smith missed it. A MINUS

JOHNNY MATHIS: The Ultimate Hits Collection (Columbia) "Wonderful! Wonderful!" "It's Not for Me To Say," "Chances Are," "The Twelfth of Never," "Wild Is the Wind"--no matter what vision of principled glitz Mark Eitzel glimpsed at the master's feet, those five songs are the substance of Mathis's legend and legacy. Poised on the cusp of black and white, masculine and feminine, they projected an image of egoless tenderness, an irresistible breath of sensuality that infused the airwaves for the second half of 1957 and kept 1958's Johnny's Greatest Hits on the album chart for 490 weeks. By 1960, however, he'd been pimped by Vegas vainglory, flexing his vocal muscle though millions of women yearned only for his touch, and at his all-too-normal worst ("Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet," arghh) he's pure beefcake. Yet though you can still buy Greatest Hits (and cheap, too), most of its filler is utterly characterless. This regular-price 18-cut does turn to schlock, but also offers up the young Johnny doing right by standards like "Misty," "Maria," and "Stranger in Paradise." Give him his due--and then use your programming buttons. A MINUS

MEMPHIS MINNIE: Bumble Bee (Indigo import) It's said this guitar muthuh fuh yuh proves women impacted rural blues as much as the vaudevillian "classic" kind, but there's only one of her, and her way was to take vaudeville to the country. City-wise entertainment values and picking as brightly declarative as her vocals carry her bawdy canon when it flags in the middle. On the ends you'll find "Bumble Bee" and "What's the Matter With the Mill," "Ice Man" and "Me and My Chauffeur Blues." A MINUS

TEDDY PENDERGRASS: Greatest Hits (The Right Stuff) I admit his subtle command of his big gruff tentpole of a voice was soul-schooled. Coming up when he did, that was only to be expected, and Pendergrass was not one to defy expectations--musically and thematically, he had all the imagination of a rubber penis. Seduction was his one great subject, and though he did it as well as it's ever been done, his sense of sin was so vestigial that even after God disabled him in a car accident he never once feinted toward the pulpit, as any proper soul man would have. In short, he's the great lost link between Lou Rawls and Keith Sweat--and a truly awesome bullshitter. A MINUS

DEL SHANNON: This Is . . . Del Shannon (Music Club) The first artist ever to chart Stateside with a Lennon-McCartney song, Shannon is suspended forever in that boy-becomes-man moment when teen romance tropes unload their frightening burden of existential anxiety. He achieves release with his sole trick, in which minor-key verse gives way to major-key refrain topped by a brief escape into a falsetto that never hints at the feminine. This pop-rock apotheosis he achieved precisely 11 times, which here take us from "Runaway" to "Stranger in Town." All are also on Rhino's slightly pricier 20-song comp. But where the Rhino filler is all carbon-copy follow-ups and failed experiments, the five bonuses here vary the formula without abandoning it, most memorably on--note title--"I Wish I Wasn't Me Tonight." Despite Nashville forays and a mysteriously forgotten 1968 concept album called The Further Adventures of Charles Westover, he never matured. When he shot himself in 1990 at 55, he was still claiming five years less, just as he had 30 years before. He left no note. Did he have to? A MINUS

PERCY SLEDGE: The Very Best of Percy Sledge (Rhino) "I love to sing a tearjerker," he told annotator David Gorman. "Like them ol' country ballads." And that sums up this child of nature, who was country not as in Acuff-Rose, but as in going to town means picking up provisions at the general store. Saddled with a classic that transcends soul itself, Mr. Miserable never equalled "When a Man Loves a Woman." But neither did Mr. Pitiful, whose own songbook could have accommodated half these selections. The reason Otis Redding is an artist while Percy Sledge is a phenomenon is that Redding would have made "Out of Left Field" sound happy, which is how it reads--a trick Sledge couldn't have conceived with "Happy Song." A MINUS

DUSTY SPRINGFIELD: The Very Best of Dusty Springfield (Mercury) A self-conscious woman in a girl's world, she found the musical place she deserved only once, when she locked horns with Jerry Wexler for a pop miracle. So Dusty in Memphis is her very best. Her twenties were a little of this and a little of that--'50s pop-folk gone first girl-group, then pop-soul under the clueless tutelage of Englishmen spared self-knowledge by her soaring empathy and breathy grit, which young Brits couldn't resist. Good for them. A MINUS

BILLY SWAN: The Best of Billy Swan (Epic/Legacy) He barely happened anyway, and he wouldn't have come close if fellow pros hadn't thought he was a nice guy--e.g. Elvis, e.g. Kris, e.g. Clyde McPhatter, who had a 1962 smash with a ditty Swan wrote in high school. Much later there was the disarming "I Can Help," which went to No. 1 just before "Kung Fu Fighting" in 1974. Like Carl Douglas, this mild-mannered rockabilly then dropped from pop sight, but unlike Douglas, he was prepared to pursue his muse where he always had, twixt Memphis and Nashville. Numerous minor country hits ensued, along with at least four albums whose big heart and simple tunes showed up Nashville careerists and "outlaws" for the smarm merchants they were. With his adenoidal pitch and nice guy's morality, he wouldn't stand a chance in Nashville today. With his nice guy's empathy, he wouldn't cut much of a figure in alt-country either. Celebrate his moment. A MINUS

THE ZOMBIES: Odessey & Oracle (Big Beat import) Originally released in 1968, this psychedelic period piece brackets love songs blithe and bereft with a sweet one about a jailbird (Posdnuous, call your permissions specialist) and a grueling one about a soldier (Chuck D, ditto), suffusing the whole shmear with the moony nostalgia that overtakes twentysomethings when they decide they're Getting Old. Presynth keybs guide Colin Blunstone's articulated sigh through arrangements that simulate baroque with backup-vocal shtick, every melody guaranteed. Forget the boxed set if you know it exists, and indulge in one of the nicest things ever to happen to Sgt. Pepper. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (Featuring Teddy Pendergrass), Blue Notes and Ballads (Epic Associated/Legacy): even if Teddy's not fully himself, Harold's not half Jerry Butler, Sharon Paige is Sharon Paige ("If You Don't Know Me by Now," "To Be True")
  • The Box Tops, The Best of the Box Tops: Soul Deep (Arista): Alex Chilton's first vehicle went deeper than "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby," but I won't fib about how deep until "You Keep Me Hangin' On" keeps its digital rendezvous with "The End" ("I Met Her in Church," "Choo Choo Train")
  • Tanya Tucker, Super Hits (Columbia): adding "Greener Than the Grass (We Laid On)" to the kiddie-porn Greatest Hits, a boon; replacing the rape-Gothic "No Man's Land" with "You Are So Beautiful," an obscenity ("Would You Lay With Me [In a Field of Stone]," "The Man That Turned My Mama On")
  • XTC, Upsy Daisy Assortment (Geffen): the best songs come from the best albums, an inconvenience ("Grass," "Making Plans for Nigel," "Dear God")
  • Memphis Minnie, Queen of the Blues (Columbia/Legacy): pretty much past her prime, but not so's she's ready to admit it ("He's in the Ring," "Call the Fire Wagon," "New Orleans Stop Time")
  • Ray Charles, Ray Charles and Betty Carter/Dedicated to You (Rhino): 12 Ella & Louis bids with Betty, 12 songs to women whose names he's long since forgotten ("Baby, It's Cold Outside," "Takes Two To Tango")
  • Rufus Thomas, The Best of Rufus Thomas: Do the Funky Somethin' (Rhino): rock's most literal link to minstrelsy ("Walking the Dog," "Do the Funky Penguin [Part I]," "Somebody Stole My Dog")
  • Joe Simon, Music in My Bones: The Best of Joe Simon (Rhino): he did teen, he did soul, he did country, he did disco, and after the hits stopped coming he hit the pulpit ("Moon Walk Part 1," "The Chokin' Kind")
  • The Jimmy Castor Bunch, The Best of the Jimmy Castor Bunch (Rhino): not a one-joke band--a two-joke band ("Troglodyte [Cave Man]," "Bertha Butt Boogie," "Hey Leroy, Your Mama's Callin' You")
  • Woody Guthrie, Muleskinner Blues: The Asch Recordings Vol. 2 (Smithsonian Folkways): knew a good tune when he stole it, no great shakes at singing them ("Muleskinner Blues," "Rubber Dolly")
  • James Brown's Original Funky Divas (Polydor): give the ladies some! now give 'em some more! one more time now! don't stop 'til they get enough! (Lyn Collins, "Think [About It]"; Marva Whitney, "Unwind Yourself")
  • Ray Price, Super Hits (Columbia): honky tonk Iglesias ("Crazy Arms," "City Lights")
  • Madness, Total Madness (Geffen): original white ska band, not to be confused with the Jam except maybe over the telephone ("One Step Beyond," "Our House")
  • Lesley Gore, Sunshine, Lollipos and Rainbows: The Best of Lesley Gore (Rhino): depressingly boy-identified for a protofeminist icon ("You Don't Own Me," "It's My Party")
  • Paul Kossoff, Blue Blue Soul: The Best of Paul Kossoff 1969-76 (Music Club): lesser guitar god, solo when he wasn't Free, suffered slowly, died twice ("The Worm," "Molten Gold")

Village Voice, Aug. 25, 1998

June 30, 1998 Sept. 29, 1998