Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

I've got to admit, it's getting better. I still feel like I'm walking around with an earhorn looking for an A record--no way there'll be 30 by year's end, which is my time-honored test--but at least the B plusses are starting to appeal with some regularity. That area of marginal success is the real indication of the music's cultural strength, comprising as it does ambitious failures and oddities and solid if unenlightening professional efforts. But looking over this month's list--in roughly descending order: Martinez, Humes, Stewart, K.C., Hendrix, Felts--I note that at least two of the artists so honored come from styles that three years ago I barely paid attention to, so satiated was I with my rock and roll. I still feel like a rock and roll partisan--it's a very rare record lacking some aspect of rock and roll sensibility that gives me full satisfaction--but I sense at the same time that my transformation into a devotee of popular music is more than halfway through. Is this a version of what Danny & the Juniors assured me would never happen? Not exactly, because it is here to stay. But so am I, and damned if I'm not going to enjoy my ears any way available.


FELIX CAVALIERE: Destiny (Bearsville) The reason the Greatest Hits is the Rascals album to own is the reason this runs down a groove so pleasant you often forget it's there. C PLUS [Later: B-]

JOE COCKER: Jamaica Say You Will (A&M) Think back to how drastically Cocker's early triumphs--"With a Little Help From My Friends" or "Just Like a Woman" or "Darling Be Home Soon" or "Bird on the Wire"--departed from the originals; he literally forced us to rehear those songs. Then compare the strongest cut here, "Lucinda," with Randy Newman's prototype; arrangement and vocal approach are almost identical. That's the nut. Cocker and Leon Russell funkified pop so persuasively that they set up their own minitradition, and now Cocker can't imagine transcending it. The breakdown of his own always undervalued songwriting talent is taken to reflect his vocal or even mental collapse, but maybe he's just sick of this stuff without knowing it. In any case, he's not equal to these new-funk-tradition songs, which cry out for herky-jerk settings and the Bay City Rollers. C [Later]

JOE DROUKAS: Shadowboxing (Southwind) Not bad, very New York, almost like a horse race at OTB: Bruce Springsteen's street tough, Elliott Murphy's media addict, and Buzzy Linhart's fuck-up, with the fuck-up ahead by a nose. Glorious exception: "The Sweetest One." B MINUS

NARVEL FELTS (ABC/Dot) Ferlin Husky at the fountain of youth--he even does "Gone." I love sexy r&b remakes like "Slip Away" and "Honey Love," of course, but even when he's at most most maudlin and self-involved I get off some on Narvel's naked, nasal emotion. This may mean I'm turning into a country music fan. B PLUS [Later]

STEVE GOODMAN: Jessie's Jig & Other Favorites (Asylum) Goodman is Very likable, bright and open and good humored but like so many solo performers, folkies especially, he can't fill an album. This isn't a question of venality--Goodman is too honest to stretch himself onto a production schedule. But his talent requires mood changes more conspicuous than so subtle an instrumentalist, or so thin a vocalist, can provide. Remember groups? B [Later]

JIMI HENDRIX: Crash Landing (Reprise) I've left this alone for six months because it's left me dumbfounded, which has always been my own personal Jimi Hendrix experience. So . . . his best since Cry of Love, a miracle of modern science, etc. Altogether too good to ignore in a bad year. But when a word junkie is left dumbfounded, he assumes something is missing somewhere. B PLUS [Later]

HELEN HUMES: The Talk of the Town (Columbia) Humes's skill is manifest, but her aesthetic assumptions don't connect for me. The Afro-American forms from which rock and roll derived acknowledged their class (not race) origins, either directly (the plainspokenness of r&b) or by outright avoidance (doo-wop's go-for-broke-fantasy). White kids may have identified with ghetto blacks out of the most abject simplemindedness, but they got candor (r&b) or spiritual intensity (doo-wop) in the bargain. The adult nightclubbers for whom a jazz-blues stylist like Humes performed, on the other hand, related to the subtle twists of emotion implied by her intricate vocal inventions only because such intricacy takes for granted the protective veneer of culture, which is sophistication's bottom line. The hidden message of Humes's music is a ruling-class myth: that the most horrible suffering (catch the lyric of "Good for Nothin' Joe") is of manageable consequence. She denies the out-of-control. And I miss it. B PLUS

JANIS IAN: Between the Lines (Columbia) In this time of dearth, it's probably improvident to laugh at someone so talented--good melodies abound here, and I can't think of a rock singer who has made more unaffected and pleasurable use of her or his voice lessons. But this woman's humorlessness demands snickers. It was one thing for society's teenager to pity herself because she didn't have the integrity to stick with her black boyfriend. It's another thing for a grown-up to pity her teenaged self because she was always picked last in basketball. I mean, face it, Ms. Ian--you're short. B MINUS

K.C. & THE SUNSHINE BAND (T.K.) Despite the ostensible similarities, this collection of otherwise meaningless dance tunes is as bright and distinct as the run of disco mush is dull. When it comes to formula, I prefer Top 40, which compels innovation, to Muzak, which forbids it. Time: 29:36. B PLUS [Later: A-]

KOKOMO (Columbia) OK for a buncha Britons, sort of like the Hues Corporation grown nostalgic for its roots. How impressive you find that depends on what you think of the Hues Corporation. C PLUS

LATIMORE: Latimore III (Glades) Mixing Lou Rawls and Swamp Dogg in a soul-stud groove that is softened nicely by his spirited but thoughtful rendition of Oscar Brown Jr.'s "Ladies Man." Another high point on a sometimes adventurous, sometimes perfunctory album: his sympathetic impression of "a redneck in a soul band." B [Later: B+]

HIRTH MARTINEZ: Hirth from Earth (Warner Bros.) Martinez sings like Dr. John out of breath from doing the samba: he is interested in UFOs, not really as stars to guide us but as occasions for metaphorical speculation. Unclassifiable funky objects of this sort used to appear at a rate of about a dozen a year; now they're down to three or four. Thank Robbie Robertson, who produced. B PLUS

WILLIE NELSON: Red Headed Stranger (Columbia) Here we have the concept album at its most counter-productive--the evocativeness of the instrumental parts is inhibited by the lyrics, which surrender much of their charm when understood in context. Ed Ward argues that the Stranger is a fantasy of vengeance rejected on side two, and also reports that the Artist has made encouraging noises about this theory, for which I don't find much textual evidence. But I also don't find myself giving a shit. What fascinates me about the Western myth has little to do with violence per se, pro or con, and a great deal to do with courage. As Nelson demonstrates, there is no inevitable connection between the two. C [Later: B-]

ELVIS PRESLEY: Today (RCA Victor) Just in case you were starting to think there's no such thing as eternal life, I decided to acknowledge this, one of the King's thrice-yearly mixes of three (almost classic) killers and seven (not bad) fillers. As sloppy as ever, of course--you want he should be neat? B MINUS

RICHARD PRYOR: . . . Is It Something I Said? (Reprise) All comedy albums have flat bits--which probably vary from listener to listener--and there are moments here when you get the feeling Pryor is making nasty not to shock but to fulfill expectations, like the guys in the fourth year of Hair waving their cocks at the tourists. But his long tale about Mudbone (stupidly edited between two sides) is so breathtakingly wise and weird that--and I never say this--it's worth the price of the record. A lot of the rest is pretty funny, too. Maybe you and your friends can chip in. A

SOUTHER-HILLMAN-FURAY BAND: Trouble in Paradise (Asylum) Country-rock aperçu of the month: this band usually goes by its initials because they stand for Shit Hits the Fan. Or do I mean Fans? C MINUS

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Born to Run (Columbia) Like you if you're as street-smart as seems appropriate, I have my doubts. After all, just how much American myth can be crammed into one song, or a dozen, about asking your girl to come take a ride? A lot, but not as much as romanticists of the doomed outsider believe. Springsteen needs to learn that operatic pomposity insults the Ronettes and that pseudotragic beautiful loser fatalism insults us all. And around how I'd better add that the man avoids these quibbles at his best and simply runs them over the rest of the time. If "She's the One" fails the memory of Phil Spector's innocent grandeur, well, the title cut is the fulfillment of everything "Be My Baby" was about and lots more. Springsteen may well turn out to be one of those rare self-conscious primitives who get away with it. In closing, two comments from my friends the Marcuses. Jenny: "Who does he think he is. Howard Keel?" (That's a put-down.) Greil: "This is as good as 'I Think We're Alone Now.'" (That's not). A [Later]

ROD STEWART: Atlantic Crossing (Warner Bros.) After Smiler I was convinced that his talent, always hard to pin down, had vanished; now it seems that he'll be breathing life into 10 songs a year in perpetuity. But granted that confidence we can also agree that good Stewart too often satisfies without calling us back for more. B PLUS [Later]

THE TUBES (A&M) If Blue Oyster Cult is hard-rock comedy, as I once claimed, then this is heavy-metal hysteria--without Buck Dharma, which is one of the jokes. So ugly it may be an earmark. So ugly it may be the American version of Genesis. B MINUS

SAMMY WALKER: Song for Patty (Folkways) Walker's amazing early Dylan soundalike isn't an imitation, it's a charming tribute, and the highly recommended title cut exemplifies his (by now) all but unique fusion of novelistic eye and political heart. (Fusion, hell--I'll settle for either.) But he is a windbag, and no matter how hard he tries he's never funny. Upgraded for gratifying intentions. B [Later: B-]

Village Voice, Sept. 22, 1975


Aug. 18, 1975 Oct. 27, 1975