Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (2)

I am a list freak. As a high school junior I used to tabulate every conceivable aspect of Peter Tripp's Top 40, and as a new college graduate I applied my Ivy League training to careful graphs of my favorite songs on the radio. After I began subscribing to the trades a few years ago I got into the habit of predicting the Top 20 every week, though I finally gave up out of frustration--anyone who believes the charts are so damned mechanical should try it for a month. Anyway, now that I have initiated the Consumer Guide I am tipsy with it, devising all kinds of systems to make it more pleasant and efficient and listy. These will no doubt change a lot. Bear with me.

I have added a new category to Probable and Conceivable and Forget It. It is called Consumer Guide. I scrawl the titles of Consumer Guide records on a piece of scrap paper which has to be exhumed every time a new one occurs to me. The category includes: "important" records which I don't want to treat at length, usually because I don't have much to say about them; records by artists who deserve more attention than they get or I am likely to give them; most worthwhile soul lps, which even at their best rarely lend themselves to extended comment; interesting oddities; public nuisances; and records I can think up a good joke about. It does not include every bloody new group that comes my way--the flow has to stop eventually but it hasn't let up yet. All Consumer Guide records except patent atrocities get my version of special attention, which is to say I play them two or three times and listen at medium intensity at least once. (Lest I seem too cavalier, I ought to add that many are treated better than that.) When I've had enough I type out a rough-draft comment and bury it. The Consumer Guides, from now on, will be a compilation of these comments.

Am I wrong to believe that a record which concentrates four or five good cuts on one side is preferable to one which spreads them over two? Perhaps, but when a record has an obvious good side, I will say so. I also plan to charge notches (B minus to C plus, etc.) for various derelictions. I think records, especially those that emphasize musicianship, should provide informative personnel listings. If putting them on the jacket will jeopardize its inherent artistry, then an inside sleeve should be used. I also believe that record jackets should not fall part. This means that when an album is packed Unipak, that chintzy half doublefold with the badly glued opening inside, I will note it and charge a notch. Most important, I believe that lps should play for a long time. I take that to mean at least 30 minutes--12 songs at two-and-a-half minutes. When a record offers less I will charge a notch. Most labels are polite enough to list times, but CBS (Columbia, Epic, Ode, Date, Okeh) does not. Since CBS has been a pioneer of the 11- and 10-cut album (arty cousin of the 11-ounce beer can) I think this is deplorably sneaky, but I can't quite bring myself to charge a notch for it. When a CBS record seems short I will say so. Maybe they'll change. Why don't you all write and complain?

Although any rating system is absurd--always based on short-term judgments and incapable of implying ambivalence--there is no reasonable alternative. On reflection, however, I realize that all that business last time about taking records on vacation was silly. Look, it's fairly simple. A means I like it a lot, B means I like it some or admire it a lot, C means I like it a little or admire it some, D means I don't like it or admire it a little, and E means Shit. What more can I say? There were a lot of A's last time, but that was so I could plug all the records I'd been digging. Each Consumer Guide will be arranged alphabetically by artist for easy reference and include 20 records. If you have a record you want rated, or any other suggestions, write me. This is your column. Keep it clean.

HOYT AXTON: My Griffin Is Gone (Columbia) Hoyt Axton, who can't sing, has written two good songs, "The Pusher" and "On the Natural." The latter is on this record, produced by Alex Hassilev, who can't produce. D PLUS

MEL BROWN: Blues for We (Impulse) Bad album by an excellent guitarist. The fault is mostly in the production, which instead of dealing up obvious goop in the manner of Shorty Rogers and Harvey Mandel is so eclectic that it almost functions as a parody of eclecticism. Contains eight cuts: one black soul, one white soul, one country, one Lennon-McCartney, one bubblegum, one trad jazz, one blues, and one avant-garde jazz. Brown ain't that good. If you get turned on to him, try: "The Wizard" instead. Scanty personnel listings. Time: 27:08. D

SOLOMON BURKE: Proud Mary (Bell) Solid and soulful as always. Self-produced in Muscle Shoals, it's not quite up to his Atlantic stuff, but close enough. Includes a strong rendition of "That Lucky Old Sun," usually a death-trap (especially for black singers) because it's been done so often. That took balls, so I won't charge him for being slightly under time: 29:25. B

CANNED HEAT: Hallelujah (Liberty) The best Canned Heat lp solely because it contains four (of 11) cuts by Alan Wilson, who has one of the great freak voices and writes songs to match. As usual, it is dominated by Bob "Rastus" Hite, who must have been responsible for Rolling Stone's suggestion that the next Canned Heat album be called "Yassuh Boss." He is most offensive on one of those "introducing the band" jams ("Henry shoah does have the feelin', yeah") and on another exercise in solipsism called "Canned Heat." I am sure I only forgive him his version of Fats Domino's "Big Fat" because I don't happen to know the original. Still, Wilson's talent is too peculiar to fill an album. I wonder what should be done with him. B MINUS

JOHNNY CASH: Johnny Cash at San Quentin (Columbia) Much inferior to Folsom Prison and Greatest Hits, which is where to start if you're just getting into Cash. Contains only nine songs, one of which is performed twice. Another was written by Bob Dylan. B MINUS

CROSBY, STILLS & NASH (Atlantic) Rated by request. I have written elsewhere that this album is perfect, but that is not necessarily a compliment. Only Crosby's vocal on "Long Time Gone" saves it from a special castrati award. Pray for Neil Young. B PLUS

EDDIE FLOYD: You've Got to Have Eddie (Stax) This time, my rating stands for "confusing." This is apparently an attempt at a change-of-pace for Floyd's rather thin voice: some rockers, some slow stuff. Producer Steve Cropper uses all kinds of interesting tricks, none of which quite come off, at least not now--I'll keep listening. One song, "Seagull," written by Floyd and Booker T., sounds to me like an easy-listening (!) sleeper. I suspect the Stax staff is capable of creating a whole new kind of ballad sound. C

KIM FOWLEY: Outrageous (Imperial) Fowley is such a gargantuan shuck that he ought to be preserved in a time capsule. I don't understand how he continues to earn a living, but he does. This is a follow-up to his flower record of a couple of years ago. It comes complete with revolutionary liner notes ("Guerilla warfare has begun. The streets belong to the people. Let's tune in to find out what went wrong today.") that for some reason--they'd sell a few, no?--are concealed within the double-fold. F

THE GUESS WHO: Wheatfield Soul (RCA Victor) This is a Winnipeg group that hit big with a white-soul ballad, "These Eyes," which most of you probably hate. I love it. Nothing else on the lp is up to it, but except for one bummer cut (which of course runs over 10 minutes on the "These Eyes" side) it is well-played, well-sung, well-arranged, and personal without being pushy. Not to be confused with . . . B MINUS

THE GUESS WHO (MGM) Apparently a compilation of old cuts ("Released through license from Quality Record Ltd.," the fine print says) this is recommended only to Guess Who scholars. They sure have come a ways. One original song, "Stop Teasing Me," distinguishes itself as the most perfect early-Beatles copy this side of "Lies" by the Knickerbockers. D

JOLLIVER ARKANSAW: Home (Bell) Felix Pappalardi never seems to produce a bad record. One cut, "Frou Frou," may be a hit single. The rest is somewhat samey, as they say, though the talent is obviously there. Next time. C PLUS

JACKIE LOMAX: Is This What You Want? (Apple) There's something faintly perfunctory about Lomax's intensity, a common failing of British shouters, but this album has some good songs and superb production by George Harrison, plus Richard Starkey on drums. B

MONTAGE (Laurie) Those who miss the Left Banke (I don't, obviously) should know about and probably buy this record, which was produced and written by Mike Brown and is far superior to the non-Brown "Left Banke Top" Smash recently put together. Unipak. Time: 24.46. D

NRBQ (Columbia) Ever since Mike Jahn called this group the best since the Beatles (something like that) it has been the victim of terrible anti-hype. Four or five of the cuts on this album are really compelling, and while the rest is marred by a kind of cute funkiness, it is original and grows on you. Dig their version of Sun Ra's "Rocket Number 9." A MINUS

ELI RADISH: I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier (Capitol) The packaging implies that this indifferent collection of patriotic songs is an anti-war record. Maybe I'm missing something, but it can't be worth four bucks. E PLUS

THE ROCK AND ROLL REVIVAL: The Greatest Oldies Done Hear and Now (Dunhill) Sha-na-nyeh. E

PETER SCHICKELE: Good-Time Ticket (Vanguard) P.D.Q. Bach fans beware--witless. E

GEORGE STAVIS: Labyrinths (Vanguard) I don't know much about Oriental-influence banjo music, but I know what I like. B PLUS

NEIL YOUNG: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Reprise) Young is a strange artist and I am not all the way into him yet, but this record is haunting. For someone who is into him, try to find the piece Greil Marcus wrote for Good Times (reprinted in the July 23 EVO). Best rock criticism in a while. B PLUS

ZAGER & EVANS: 2525 (Exordium and Terminus) (RCA Victor) Zager & Evans make Simon & Garfunkel sound like Marx & Engels. The only reason this is not an E is that the title song has sold a million copies. That means they have to be doing something right. D MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Atlantic has released a Greatest Hits record for Aretha Franklin. For those who, like me, never quite got off on any of her albums, it is a goldmine--14 cuts, with only two (late singles "The House That Jack Built" and "See Saw") less than superb. Too bad it doesn't include "The Weight." Aretha and Jerry Wexler have apparently abandoned her Soul '69 bag, which is just as well--she doesn't have the aesthetic cunning for jazz. Too warm.

Aretha also has a new single, "Save Your Love for Me." The pendulum has swung back. At an hour or two a day, WMCA once again offers the best music in the city, despite Henry Mancini and the Winstons. The station has fired tight programmer Terrell Methene and is expanding back towards its old 60-65 playlist. Frankie Crocker really is an incredible deejay too. Beautiful singles on the air from the Stones (the flip, "You Can't Always Get What You Want," is my choice for political song of the year; when Jagger did it on TV I thought I caught a verse about demonstrations that isn't on the record), the Box Tops ("Soul Deep"--album expected), Donovan (with Jeff Beck--shit plus shit equals fertilizer, Creedence Clearwater (two-sided hit--"Commotion" and "Green River"), Sonny Charles & the Checkmates ("Black Pearl" is one of the all-time great Phil Spector extravaganzas), and the Plastic Ono Band ("Give Peace a Chance" is a much different sentiment on the radio than in the pages of Rolling Stone, where folks should know better). Even WMCA's bad stuff isn't that bad, and if you listen long enough you may get to hear the Happenings singing "Hare Krishna." If that isn't a trip.

Lucian Truscott's putdown of the Soft White Underbelly a few weeks ago was unwarranted. One of the few acceptable New York bands, the Underbelly needs a singer but has good material and a great lead guitarist.

The Pavilion in Flushing Meadow, where the Grateful Dead played to 4600 people and Chuck Berry to 700 (for shame), could become the first good music scene in New York. Not only should you give it a try, you should consciously support it, like the March of Dimes.

Village Voice, July 31, 1969

July 10, 1969 Aug. 14, 1969