Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide: Turkey Shoot

Often people come up to me and say, "How do I get to University Place?" But sometimes they ask more personal questions, like, "Doesn't it make you feel small to praise one piece of product after another? The world isn't all sweetness and light, you know." And I thought this special season would be a good time to respond. Yes, for your Thanksgiving delectation, it's another Consumer Guide Turkey Shoot, and right now I'm sorry I ever talk to strangers. This feature is reserved not merely for bad albums--I could do 20 B minus and lower a week if somebody would pay me enough (500 thou a year, say)--but for major offenses and disappointments, for fool's platinum and ear poison and good men gone wrong and pretension above and beyond the call of art school. I thought the job would be easy--ducks on a pond. But once I'd given records I'd put aside in dismay a fighting chance, I found that some of them weren't the obvious targets I'd thought, and if there's anything that causes me more pain than a bad record, it's a mediocre one. So I hope you enjoy reading this service more than I enjoyed writing it for you. And will understand if mediocrities litter CGs to come.


RICK ASTLEY: Whenever You Need Somebody (RCA) Launching his career with seed money from Thatcher's Enterprise Allowance Scheme, Astley graduated from singer-bandleader to tape op and tea boy at Stock Aitken Waterman, where he ripened for a year before donning a full set of SAW hooks and emerging as beefcake juicier than Adam Faith, Marty Wilde, or Johnny Wadd ever dreamed. And that's according to the notes--it's the image he wants to project. Musically he's a a throwback to such long-forgotten big-band singers manqué as Don Rondo, with more muscle and less sweetness or swing. Blame him on Northern Soul, its attraction to Afro-America finally revealed as I-am-somebody for nobodies with a master plan. D PLUS

ANITA BAKER: Giving You the Best That I Got (Elektra) Where five years ago Baker was a soul singer who honored the traditional soul audience's lounge leanings, now she's an arena-lounge singer manufacturing generalized intimacy for 26-to-45s. Rid of funky minor-label producer-songwriter Patrick Moten, she composed two tracks for Rapture and worked on a third. Here she's down to two collaborations as the credits edge toward El Lay--if Britten-Lyle and the Perris have anted up, can Carole Bayer Sager and Toto be far behind? She's not a total loss yet--despite the universal lyrics and inflated choruses, three tracks make something of her established standards. But unless she suffers reverses I wouldn't wish on Frank Sinatra, she'll never risk an interesting album again. C PLUS

BEAT HAPPENING: Jamboree (Rough Trade'88) As with any pop band, catchy tunelets aren't enough: what the tunelets say, how they sound, and what how they sound says also matter. Some find their calculated simplicity and semiunrehearsed spontaneity recombinant, their unadorned lyricism and rude guitar doubly tonic. I find their adolescence recalled cum childhood revisited doubly coy and their neoprimitivist shtick a tired bohemian fantasy. Catchy, though. B MINUS

BIG COUNTRY: Peace in Our Time (Reprise) Five years ago these fools parlayed a video, some guitar harmonics, and the oppression of Scotland into comparisons with future band-of-the-decade titleholders U2. A stiff, an EP, and a negotiation later, they're ready to settle for something simple in platinum on a rival label. Social consciousness or no ("Time for Leaving" actually explains why a U.K. laborer is emigrating), they're just pros with pretensions this time around. Which suits the rival label just fine. C

JOHNNY CLEGG & SAVUKA: Shadow Man (Capitol) No matter what the British Musicians' Union says, I don't doubt that he's progressive in the ANC sense. I just wish he wasn't progressive in the Peter Gabriel sense, or at least had Gabriel's talent and taste--his keybs and drums left one innocent byhearer wondering why I was checking out the new Yes. This is the kind of college man who thinks rock is art and "human rainbow" and "ache that has no name" are turns of phrase. Even when he sticks to the facts that are all the metaphor any South African poet needs, his vocal melodrama empties the words of poignancy. Progress deserves better. So does a multiracial society. C

CROWDED HOUSE: Temple of Low Men (Capitol) Problem's not that philistine tastemakers are quashing Neil Finn's hit-debut blues, but that Finn has neglected the only thing he has to offer the world: perky hooks. Programmers don't care what he's brooding about because nobody else does. Plenty of popsters have managed to stir up interest in their petty anxieties. Be thankful there isn't one more. C

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: On the Strength (Elektra) Like a big band that costs too much to put on the road, their fluid five-man rat-a-tat-tat is a throwback to a more innocent era; their attempts to keep up--their "bu-oy"s, their samples, their Steppenwolf cameo--are depressingly flat. And despite an amazing "I have a dream" cover, Mele-Mel's return doesn't do all that much for their moral fervor. A "Gold" worthy of the subject wouldn't slip past miners and murders on its way to the IDs, and to hear onetime love man Rahiem make pimp jokes is to wonder just how he'll get by after their next label drops them. C PLUS

DARYL HALL & JOHN OATES: Ooh Yeah! (Arista) Break up? Them? Nah, that was just a sabbatical, and to prove it here they are, crafting that platinum as craftily as they know how to justify their brand new advance. Daryl's stiff had nothing to do with it. Of course not. 'Cept that both records do overdo the overdubs, less fulsomely on this very model of second-hand black than when Daryl calls all the shots, but fatally nevertheless. I dare you to make out hitbounds like "Missed Opportunity" and "Rockability" or talismans like "Downtown Life" and "Keep On Pushin' Love" in the time it takes a music director to push reject. The album came out in May. It's dropping out of the top 200. It's not platinum. Justice abides in the world. C PLUS

HUGO LARGO: Drum (Opal) Former hardcore advocate and MTV copywriter Tim Sommer claims his latest fantasy reformulates "the 30-year-old concept of what a rock band sounds like." Right--and so do the Kronos Quartet, the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir, and George Winston. With stringed/bowed instruments (no drums, get it?) under the sway of inaccurata soprano Mimi Goese--to say she sounds like Natalie Merchant mourning a lost orgasm understates her commitment to her affectations--this is the definition of arty twaddle. Inspirational Verse: "Balancing glasses on your nose/By the crystal ball/Purified of vulgar things/Planted feet along the hall." D PLUS

HUEY LEWIS AND THE NEWS: Small World (Chrysalis) Miffed when the Dems rejected the title tune as a campaign song--"It just doesn't rock hard enough," an unidentified Harvard pol complained--Huey offered it to George, who found it bland and pointed out that its call for a kinder, gentler planet wasn't very specific. So then Huey took it to the radio. C MINUS

BOBBY MCFERRIN: Simple Pleasures (EMI-Manhattan) No matter how much aid and comfort it gives the enemy, there's no point denying "Don't Worry, Be Happy" unless you're tin-eared enough to think it doesn't capture a feeling or deluded enough to think poor people never share it. Title tune's the real Republican lie--McFerrin's celebration of 6 a.m. wakeup neglects to mention that his morning is unencumbered by a j-o-b--and even that's probably a tragic consequence of some fundamental mindlessness. Passing as an Artist on skill and fluidity alone, he's a vocal Keith Jarrett come down with the cutes--or maybe a musical Marcel Marceau. B MINUS

VAN MORRISON & THE CHIEFTAINS: Irish Heartbeat (Mercury) Having finally met up with the jet-setting Irish traditionalists, known the world over for sitting down with anybody who'll look good on their resumé, the blocked poet essays a few jigs in a misguided attempt to prove he hasn't lost his rebop. Instead he should take another cue from the bluesmen who taught him his shit--once you settle into other people's songs, the secret of an honorable senescence is your own sense of rhythm. C PLUS

JOE SATRIANI: Surfing with the Alien (Relativity) The latest guitar god calls up keywords like "taste" and "musicality" rather than "flash" and "heavy"--not only does he write melodies (and countermelodies), he fuckin edits them. Thus he delivers both the prowess cultists demand and the comfort they secretly crave. That it surprises him to hear the result behind insurance commercials only goes to show how little guitar gods know of the world. C PLUS

THE SISTERS OF MERCY: Floodland (Elektra) There's dumber gothic--cf. Melody Maker poll winners Fields of the Nephilim for something totally ridiculous. At least these guys cut their doldrums with crass--they go disco and drop proper nouns. But Andrew Eldritch's sepulchrally stentorian stylings could arise only in a nation where David Bowie is a voice for the ages. C PLUS

THE SMITHEREENS: Green Thoughts (Capitol) I know Pat DiNizio is Beatlesque, but is that why he writes cheerful-sounding love songs that turn out to be kind of mean when you pay attention? Or allows as how he's a jealous guy? I suspect he would have discovered these creative avenues on his own, spurred by deep expressive need. C PLUS

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Chimes of Freedom (Columbia EP) If the title cut on this live charity record invests Dylan's protest with an aura of sacred majesty, the other three invest honorable Springsteen copyrights with an aura of sacred cow. Supposedly, his "reinterpretations" of his own "classics"--acoustic "Born To Run," E Street "Tougher Than the Rest"--have a demythologizing effect, but years of enormous rooms have finally taken their spiritual toll; the self-importance he's always accused of drips from his all-American drawl like Vitalis off a D.A. He's staved off this fate for as long as he has with modest strokes like Nebraska, and it's conceivable he'll come up with another one. Then again, this was probably supposed to be another one. B MINUS

THE SUGARCUBES: Life's Too Good (Elektra) Their sense of mischief isn't just playful--it's experimental and a little wicked. It's also so imperfectly realized that you have to infer it out from underneath their breathy swoops, willful shifts and starts, and translated lyrics--so imperfectly realized that most of their fans, critics included, barely notice it. Which means that on the level of attention they deserve (and get), they're either a cult band to the max or vaguely irritating pop exotics. B MINUS

THROWING MUSES: House Tornado (Sire) That collegians fall for this conflation of women's music and bad poetry proves how desperately both sexes yearn for anything that abrogates the male chauvinism of guitar-bass-and-drums tradition. Its virtues are all in the guitar, bass, and drums, which play off the melody line instead of mimicking or augmenting it and are only accompaniment anyway--meaningless without Kristen Hersh's personalized verbiage, meaningless with it. C

WHITE ZOMBIE: Soul-Crusher (Caroline) The lyric sheet that spruces up this consumer-object-in-spite-of-itself makes a promise: "Out of the chaos comes a reason." But not out of the consumer object, an inedible noise-rock omelet distinguished from the competition by drawling voice-and-guitars. People consent to fascism because they think fascism will be more fun than this. They could be right. D PLUS

HANK WILLIAMS JR.: Wild Streak (Warner/Curb) The age of AIDS hasn't left him untouched--he takes his women one at a time and indulges in telephone sex. But usually Junior comes on like such a wild-ass that you can only tell him from the average rapper by his primitive sense of rhythm and his failure to mention the size of his dick. Last album was called Born To Boogie, this one features Gary Rossington in Skynyrd simulations that top Skynyrd's own, and the CMA is so desperate to stay up-to-dately in-the-tradition that it keeps kissing his ass. Not that "If the South Woulda Won" can be said to go against the Nashville grain--nobody really wants to go back to slavery, understand, but if that's the price of more hangings and no more foreign cars, we may have to bite the bullet. Anyway, Hank drops in a good word for Martin Luther King on the very next song. How much do these people want? C PLUS

Village Voice, Nov. 29, 1988


Nov. 22, 1988 Dec. 27, 1988