Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Carola Dibbell
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Christgau's Consumer Guide

My excuses for not Pick Hitting The Clash, described below in rather superlative terms, are threefold. First, many of you are presumably among the 100,000-plus Americans who have already made The Clash the largest selling import LP ever. Second, the twin Pick Hits are linked in my mind--wonderful boy-girl records that diverted Carola and me during a recent visit to Maine (the B-52's were for the beach, McCaslin & Ringer for the pines). Third, I don't have a MustToAvoid. The flood of acceptable-or-better rock and roll albums (more next month) doesn't leave me time for shit, and I can't bring myself to hate the Knack for not being the band of my dreams.


THE B-52'S (Warner Bros.) Fond as I am of the pop junk they recycle--with love and panache, like the closet ecologists they are--there's something parochially suburban about turning it into the language of a world view. So I'm more delighted with their rhythms, which show off their Georgia roots by adapting the innovations of early funk (a decade late, just like the Stones and Chicago blues) to an endlessly danceable forcebeat format. Also delightful is their commitment to sexual integration--Cindy Wilson is singing more and more, although her voice occasionally gives out before her ambitions do. Major worry: only one of the copyright 1979 songs--my favorite track, "Dance This Mess Around"--is as amazing as the 1978 stuff. A MINUS [Later: A]

THE CARS: Candy-O (Elektra) Hooks are mechanical by nature, but the affectlessness of these deserves special mention; only listeners who consider "alienation is the craze" a great insight will find much meaning here. On the other hand, only listeners who demand meaning in all things will find this useless. Cold and thin, shiny and hypnotic, it's what they do best--rock and roll that is definitely pop without a hint of cuteness. Which means that for them "alienation is the craze" may be a meaningful statement after all. B PLUS

THE CLASH (Epic) Cut for cut, this may be the greatest rock and roll album (plus limited-edition bonus single) ever manufactured in the U.S. It offers 10 of the 14 titles on the band's British debut as well as 7 of the 13 available only on 45. The lyric sheet does not (repeat: not) self-destruct when you disobey its warning and read along. And the sequencing is anything but haphazard; the eight songs on side one divide into self-contained pairs that function as extended oxymorons on careerism, corporate power, race, and anomie respectively. Yet the package feels misbegotten. The U.K. version of The Clash is the greatest rock and roll album ever manufactured anywhere in some small part because its innocence is of a piece--it never stops snarling, it's always threatening to blow up in your face. I'm still mad the real thing wasn't released two years ago, and I know for certain (I made a tape) that the singles would have made a dandy album by themselves. Nevertheless, a great introduction and a hell of a bargain. A [Later]

RY COODER: Bop Till You Drop (Warner Bros.) In which selected '60s r&b--obscure, but not totally: Howard Tate, Arthur Alexander, Ike & Tina, Fontella & Bobby--enters the folkie canon. Along with an obscure Elvis Presley song, selected older obscurities, and an original about Hollywood obvious enough for Elvin Bishop. With Ry singing as loud as he can, Bobby King chiming over him from the background, and Chaka Khan pitching in on two tracks, if even cuts a respectable groove. But drop you it won't. B PLUS

CORY DAYE: Cory and Me (New York International) This doesn't reach like Dr. Buzzard, but it's an impressive showcase for Daye, who proves herself a much more engaging--not to mention hip--all-purpose songstress than Natalie Cole and her ilk. Sandy Linzer's material is coarser commercially than August Darnell's--the disco furbishing tackier, the nostalgia more automatic--but it fleshes out a persona that's sexy and even a little wasted without trafficking in escapist hedonism or porny impersonality. And the music really romps. A MINUS

ROBERT FRIPP: Exposure (Polydor) Fripp has always been a bit of a jerk, but over the years he's figured out what to do with the talent that goes along with his affliction. This concept album earns its conceit, orchestrating bits and pieces of art-rock wisdom--from punk to Frippertronics, from King Crimson to singer-songwriter--into a fluent whole. Maybe soon he'll get smart enough to forget about J.G. Bennett. "It is impossible to achieve the aim without suffering" isn't exactly big news, and old Crimson fans will swallow side two without the caveat. B PLUS

THE KNACK: Get the Knack (Capitol) Cognoscenti I know tend to couch their belief that this is the Anticlash in purely technical terms--harmonies treacly, production punched up, and so forth. Bullshit. I too find them unattractive; if they felt this way about girls when they were unknowns, I shudder to think how they're reacting to groupies. But if they're less engaging musically than, say, the Scruffs, they have a lot more pop and power going for them than, say, the Real Kids. In other words, "My Sharona" is pretty good radio fare and let's hope "She's So Selfish" isn't the next single. Face it, this is a nasty time, and if the Stranglers are (or were, I hope) Sgt. Barry Sadler, these guys are only Freddie and the Dreamers. Docked a notch for clothes sense. B MINUS

LIVING CHICAGO BLUES VOLUME I (Alligator) A problem with the three-artists-per-disc, four-cuts-per-artist format of this estimable series is that it splits one artist per disc between two sides, requiring him to meld with both of the others. Fortunately, the great dirty mean of Eddie Shaw seems made for such journeywork, linking the gutbucket soul of Jimmy Johnson, certainly the most exciting singer of the nine, and Left-Hand Frank's right-hand-in-the-Delta primitivism. Which suggests that the distance between Johnson's pop ambitions (Bette Midler beat him to one of these songs) and Frank's rural idiosyncrasy isn't as great as might appear, because both are irreducibly sexual and Southern. An advantage of the format is that you can buy one disc at a time. Get my drift? A MINUS

LIVING CHICAGO BLUES VOLUME II (Alligator) Sad to say, the music that gets split up here is the sharp spillover guitar and tongue-twisted projection of double-threat Magic Slim. Carey Bell may be a fine harp player (with harp players I find it difficult to care), but vocally he's even more undistinguished than his mentor, Little Walter. And none of the rowdy hyperactivity of Big Moose Walker's piano carries over to his singing. B

LIVING CHICAGO BLUES VOLUME III (Alligator) Since Alligator has just released a whole album of Lonnie Brooks, I'm sure the volumes aren't supposed to be numbered in order to quality. But they might as well be. Brooks does a lot less for Texas-Louisiana than Jimmy Johnson does for Memphis, Pinetop Perkins is a Muddy Waters sideman for good reason, and despite "Berlin Wall" I'll wait a year or two on the Sons of the Blues. B MINUS

LENE LOVICH: Stateless (Stiff/Epic) It took me half a year to get through my head what an original Lovich is. Women who know how to say when, while not unheard of in rock, tend to come on macho--tough mamas with hearts (and heads) as soft as Papa Hemingway's. But Lovich's goofy energy doesn't distract her from her feelings or damage her sex appeal or conceal a mawkish underside. And although it took an outsider to define her in a ditty ("Say When," which isn't on the import), Lovich does provide her own love song, which has integers in it. A MINUS

MACHINE (RCA Victor) "There but for the Grace of God Go I," with lyric entirely by August Darnell, is irresistible musically--still the disco disc of the year. The two tracks with lyrics partly by August Darnell are mildly arresting musically. And the other four are ordinary Isleys-influenced black pop/funk/rock. B MINUS

MARY MCCASLIN: Sunny California (Mercury) I could warn ya that Linda and Nicolette's prior claim on all early-'60s revivals is established conclusively on the lacklustre arrangements on "Cupid" and "Save the Last Dance for Me." But would Linda or Nicolette risk putting five of their own songs on a major-label debut? They don't even have five of their own songs. B MINUS

MARY MCCASLIN & JIM RINGER: The Bramble and the Rose (Philo) On record as much as live, two folkies whose solo work runs from pleasant (Ringer) to special-if-flawed (McCaslin) make up a whole equal to the sum of its parts, which is quite enough--her precise, slightly astringent soprano is the other half of his offhand baritone. In addition to the only version of "Geronimo's Cadillac" you need to own,this revives traditional mountain songs so matter-of-fact and out-of-this world that you can understand why folklorists devote their lives to the stuff. And on the finale, "Hit the Road Jack," the dry, intelligent humor they share--hers mock-prim, his nice-gruff--finally reaches the surface. A MINUS

ANITA WARD: Songs of Love (Juana) You didn't really think she wanted to be the Supremes (much less the Toys or the Chiffons), did you? Nah--she wants to be Diana Ross, albeit without show tunes. Buy the single. C PLUS

MUDDY WATERS: Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live (Blue Sky) Speaking of living Chicago blues, age cannot wither nor Johnny Winter whelm the elan of this boyish man. It may not last forever, though--he really seems to mean "Deep Down in Florida." Sun shines every day, you can play in the sand with your wife, and maybe work on a slow one called "Condominium Blues" in your spare time. B PLUS [Later]

HANK WILLIAMS JR.: Family Tradition (Elektra) Since "To Love Somebody" isn't exactly Hank's kind of song, I guess he disavowed the Ray Ruff-produced side of this. On the other hand, "Family Tradition" (guess who that's about) leads off the other side, and it is exactly Hank's kind of song. Exactly. That's not so great either. C

Additional Consumer News

As always at the outset of a vacation, I left the city light-headed with overwork, which may explain why I had a mystical experience as I switched on the car radio and heard a set comprising (as I recall) Nick Lowe, Lene Lovich, the Records, and the Ramones. Not counting Yankee games, I've been listening exclusively to WPIX-FM (102 on your dial) all year, usually with pleasure, but this was heavier--to be precise, I was suddenly flushed with civic pride. Especially since Meg Griffin moved over from WNEW to become music director a few months ago, the "New York's rock and roll" format has made PIX as exciting as WMCA or WINS in the glory days of top 40, 1964 through 1966, with a spirit and enthusiasm like that of WOR-FM when "progressive radio" was a daring idea. But where for Murray the K innovation meant playing Richie Havens and the Vanilla Fudge as well as Jimi Hendrix and Big Brother, for Griffin it means reclaiming the great top 40 rock WOR foolishly rejected, so that you hear the Dave Clark 5 and the Supremes alongside classic music by, for example, Television and the Velvet Underground--music that never cracked the "progressive" line-up to begin with. Out of some combination of artistic conviction and commercial desperation, PIX has responded to the creative ferment on the local club concert, and retail scene. Loads of what can only be classified as new wave, including imports and independents as well as the Cars and the Knack, plus lots of solid rock and roll and a tolerable admixture of the tougher strains of AOR schlock. The format isn't perfect (it excludes funk and of course disco as well as music without a beat) and neither is the audience it attracts--when the Roches were played once the switchboard lit up with flaming assholes. But the AOR station I was stuck with in Maine made everything sound insipid--"Moondance" had about as much zing as Perry Como. AOR has the same effect in Houston and Spokane--and on WPLJ in New York. PIX doesn't have great ratings or a promo budget, and has gone through three program directors in two years. Support and enjoy it now and maybe it'll just get better.

Village Voice, Sept. 3, 1979


July 30, 1979 Oct. 8, 1979