Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • The Punch Line [SST EP, 1981] B
  • What Makes a Man Start Fires? [SST, 1982] A-
  • Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat [SST EP, 1983] A-
  • The Politics of Time [New Alliance, 1984] B-
  • Double Nickels on the Dime [SST, 1984] A-
  • Project: Mersh [SST EP, 1985] B+
  • 3-Way Tie (for Last) [SST, 1985] A
  • Ballot Result [SST, 1987] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Punch Line [SST EP, 1981]
They're politniks who love punk, with a name that mocks hardcore's rightwing rep and their own aesthetic--these eighteen "songs" average under fifty seconds apiece. The lyrics don't rhyme or even scan, less poems than the jottings of young men given to cultural bullshit. "History Lesson"--"hundred thousand years ago homosapiens stood erect mind empty fresh created love and hate created god and antigod human slaughtered human for power"--gets the flavor: not Fredric Jameson, but better-informed than the skinheads they play for. And where last year's seven-inch Paranoid Time could pass for speed-rock, the funky dissonance here has no parallel in the genre or anywhere else: not Ornette Coleman, but better-informed than the Circle Jerks they play with. B

What Makes a Man Start Fires? [SST, 1982]
The lyrics are richer, bleaker, and smarter than the hardcore rant that softened the world up for this art band in disguise, but I prefer their music. The more you listen the less fragmentary these eighteen tense little guess-you-have-to-call-them tunes sound--each transforms its own riff into an identity that meshes with the album's guess-you-have-to-call-it gestalt. Since they're not purist (or unpop) enough to resist putting the strongest material first, their steady-state kineticism does lose a notch or two of stress as each side proceeds, but that's the only way they could work it--any kind of climax would be too romantic for these guys. A-

Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat [SST EP, 1983]
These guys define the future of atavism if anybody does. Subtle structures and sharp musicianship--rhythm-slasher D. Boon is as much a guitar antihero as labelmates Bob Mould and Greg Ginn--serves music that continues to seem primitive, even crudely offhand; lyrics articulate, elaborate, and, that's right, criticize the fucked-up despair of the world where they make their living and preach their uncoercive gospel--the fucked-up despair that in true hardcore makes such a great excuse for not thinking. A-

The Politics of Time [New Alliance, 1984]
They sound smart and there and committed to change, and as with most mortals their outtakes is outtakes and their live shit is live shit: couple-three good songs out of twenty-seven total (this is when they were pure). B-

Double Nickels on the Dime [SST, 1984]
Maybe by designating a "side chaff" and aiming a boast at their four-sided labelmates ("take that, hüskers") the L.A. (really San Pedro) punk-fusion (really "chump rock"?) trio mean to acknowledge that a forty-six-song double-LP is overdoing things. But I have my faves throughout, topped by a Steely Dan cover that wouldn't have survived first weed, and I'm not sure I'd like them so much at a different pace. Eleven of the titles are over 2:00 and thirteen more over 1:40, but structures are still so abbreviated that the way one riff-song segues into the next changes both. This is poetry-with-jazz as it always should have been, and while D. Boon may be a somewhat limited singer, he's a hell of a reader, with a guitar that rhymes. A-

Project: Mersh [SST EP, 1985]
Where at first this seemed to prove that irrepressibly avant-garde bands are catchier when they don't set out to "write hit songs," now it's obvious that the commershal concept is total rather than part joke--only the trumpet parts (horns symbolize sellout to punks, maybe because they're so hard to play) mark a significant departure. Songs are catchy enough, too, with the catchiest lasting eight minutes including six-minute outro. Very mersh. B+

3-Way Tie (for Last) [SST, 1985]
Since their uncompromising reach always exceeded their fairly amazing grasp, I tried to cut myself a little critical distance in the wake of a rock death that for wasted potential has Lennon and Hendrix for company. Sure they never sounded better, I said, but they're still a little naive here and conceptual there. Only that wasn't distance--it was denial. D. Boon's singing, writing, and playing here are all infused with a new lyrical lift that adds unexpected buoyancy to a band that was generous at its most cynical and confused, and as a result their zigzag rhythms and interesting conceptualisms get the songful relief they need. After seven fairly amazing years he was just getting started. Shit, shit, shit. A

Ballot Result [SST, 1987]
As someone who's never had much patience with the mystique of the ill-recorded moment, music overheard just before it slips into the historical void its creators figure it for, I'll make a partial exception for the Minutemen, because I miss them so much. I know most of the songs on this mostly live double in versions I prefer, but better than any studio distillation it underlines the crucial point: they lived. And given the modesty so intrinsic to their world-historical public ambitions, its muffled, take-a-flier intimacy speaks. Also, I like the covers. A-