Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

My apologies for the unusually terse review of this month's Pick Hit--minimalism has never inspired my maximum even when it knocks my socks off the way Glass's new record does. I had actually been planning something quite maximal about Talking Heads, but as deadline approached realized that I still didn't know whether I liked it a lot or a whole lot.

ATTACK OF THE KILLER B'S (Warner Bros.) Non-LP B sides are odd tracks out by definition, and while most of these would blend attractively if unobtrusively into albums by their respective auteurs, their proximity is strictly packaging. It's revealing that compiler Bob Merlis has stretched his concept around four ringers, including the German version of "Shock the Monkey," which opens side two for the excellent reason that unlike most of its fellow prisoners it's got a killer hook. Not that any rock-and-roller won't want to hear the Marshall Crenshaw and Gang of Four and T-Bone Burnett rarities included, and that collectors won't covet the rest. But I thought collectors already had them. B

THE BELLAMY BROTHERS: Strong Weakness (Elektra) The problem with the lesser songs of these country slickers isn't that they're too dumb--it's that they're not dumb enough. I love their harmonies, but I prefer to keep their minds at a safe distance. B

CAMEO: Style (Atlanta Artists) It never peaks, which means it'll never be as hot a party record as the A side of Alligator Woman, but this on-the-one cartoon (cf. Slave's Showtime) is an all-round showcase for syndrum natural Larry Blackmon, funk's most underutilized resource. Keyb man Charles Singleton does smart stuff with the slow stuff by covering "Can't Help Falling in Love" and making something of the atmospheric "Interlude (Serenity)." Maybe next time they'll only abandon their God-given tempo to sex it up heavy like on "Slow Movin'." B PLUS

THE COCONUTS: Don't Take My Coconuts (EMI America) I can forgive August Darnell the filler on side one because he's a gifted disco producer, which means his throwaway jingles and premature remakes and cynical trifles add up to dance music, dance music that's more listenable than most. But the failures on side two--excepting only "If I Only Had a Brain," an all too apt cover for these would-be bimbos--are as unfocused as anything he's ever committed to vinyl. B [Later]

THE FIXX: Reach the Beach (MCA) As with most Anglodisco, this record's success isn't totally bewildering--it assembles an acceptable complement of catchy secondhand riffs and beats. Only I suspect that what sells it is the very thing that makes me hope I never hear those riffs and beats again--Cy Curnin's agonized can-this-be-adulthood? vocal style, influenced by everyone from Bryan Ferry to Lou Gramm but oh so much more doubt-ridden than any old fart. C

ARETHA FRANKLIN: Get It Right (Arista) As long as Luther Vandross produces her she'll never do anything awful, but she might do something bland. Vandross's problem, obviously, is songs--he does his job on the title track, but even the one by Aretha's son outclasses his other four, which I blame in part on collaborator Marcus Miller, whose bass anchors the suavely pervasive groove. His virtue, just as obviously, is that he lets Aretha sing--there's a hoarse velvet grain to her voice here that turns Michael Lovesmith's "Better Friends Than Lovers" into a major statement and makes you overlook who originated "I Wish It Would Rain." B PLUS [Later]

FUN BOY THREE: Waiting (Chrysalis) From "Our Lips Are Sealed," proof that a "definitive AOR version" (as the sticker calls it) can negotiate between cheery veneer and breast-beating bullshit, to "Well Fancy That!," proof that not everyone who has problems with "boy love" (as men call it) is as self-serving as Howard Smith, David Byrne's production suits songwriting that has advanced beyond the undernourished chants of their breakaway debut. But except for those two cuts--plus maybe "The Farmyard Connection," which would adapt perfectly to the first album anyway--the advance is mostly technical. AOR indeed. B [Later: B+]

THE GLADIATORS: Symbol of Reality (Nighthawk) Albert Griffiths has never been a musical fundamentalist--1979's Sweet So Till, the group's first self-produced LP and only previous U.S. release, placed too much faith in synths, and when that didn't go over they went in with Eddy Grant, which didn't go over either--so maybe he's joined the Itals on this roots-conscious label because he's got nowhere else to go. But the same sense of pithy conviction that made Proverbial Reggae a classic album makes this a good one. The revival of the anthemic "Dreadlocks the Time Is Now" is no more impressive than the proverbial "Mister Goose," which unfortunately is the only song about women here that bespeaks as much loving wisdom as the songs about Jah. B PLUS

PHILIP GLASS: The Photographer (CBS) With its intrusive melodies and who-needs-a-cannon? climax, this is Glass's most obvious record, and I like it that way. After all, which is more likely to touch a rock-and-roller's heart--an opera about an Asian saint, or a multigenre piece about an American artist-gadgeteer who shoots his wife's lover and lives with the consequences? A MINUS

JON HASSELL: Aka/Darbari/Java (Editions EG) Hassell calls this computerized suite (plus sidelong "extension") of four Asian and African motifs "a proposal for a 'coffee-colored' classical music of the future," but all I can guarantee at the moment is that it makes dandy background music--more fluid and organic than Dream Theory in Malaya if also more amorphous than his first Eno collaboration. Exoticism is harmless as long as you know that's what it is. A MINUS [Later: B+]

GEORGE JONES: Shine On (Epic) Charley Pride couldn't get away with the lucky songs Billy Sherrill's stuck George with this time, and though the unlucky songs are better, superstar guilt and second-convolution cheating just don't suit him. Granted, "Ol' George Stopped Drinkin' Today" is a near-perfect fit. But when it comes to "Almost Persuaded," I'll take the original--by David Houston, Tammy's first singing partner. C PLUS

KASHIF (Arista) As if he were Dick Griffey or somebody, admirers cite the radio appeal of this Brooklyn pheenom's smooth concoctions and recall the heroic deeds of Berry Gordy. Whether that rings true with you depends on whether you value the radio of the '80s as much as that of the '60s. C PLUS

MALCOLM MCLAREN: Duck Rock (Island) McLaren knows how to record African music for Western ears, and the ebullient tunes he's collected here more than make up for his annoyance quotient. But the intrusions of the World's Famous Supreme Team, not to mention the featured vocalist, are annoying nevertheless. And when "Song for Chango," which has existed since "before Jesus Christ was born," gets credited like almost all the other compositions to Malc and producer Trevor Horn, I wish he'd thought to mention which specific Africans contributed to which specific tracks. Culture may be collective, but (in this culture) wealth ain't. B PLUS

NRBQ: Grooves in Orbit (Bearsville) They really are virtuosos of fun, a major accomplishment that makes for minor records. They're so dedicated to the perpetual adolescence of pure (or purist) rock and roll that they imitate youth--Joey Spampimato is the most egregious coy-boy in this band of players first and singers second--rather than redefining youthfulness, a more appropriate task for artists of their advancing years. I know they're only kidding (har har), but at some level these are guys who still believe a real girl (not woman, please) sews your shirt and shines your shoes. B

RED CRAYOLA WITH ART & LANGUAGE: Black Snakes (Recommended) On Kangaroo? they made their mark with songs about bourgeois art criticism, not such an unlikely subject for a Marxist art-rock group. Here they extend themselves thematically, and while it ain't bad for what it is, what it is is arty satire--"Sloths" is smarter than "The Devil Lives in My Husband's Body," but if it were really smart I couldn't make the comparison. Lora Logic has flown, as is her wont, leaving Mayo Thompson to vocalize, with the result that the same song which nails Jackson Pollock on the first album leaves me feeling sympathetic in this version. To paraphrase Pollock: "An Englishman's an Englishman in thought and act/And you'd expect this analysis to be qualified by that fact." B [Later]

CARLOS SANTANA: Havana Moon (Columbia) Like Chuck Berry's, Santana's lexicon of licks has never guaranteed entertaining improvisation, and the square rhythms of his one-shot roots rock & roll & band (MG's and Thunderbirds converge on Muscle Shoals) flatter his guitar as aptly as any funkbeat. You'll still find solo atmospherics here, but at least this time they take after Booker T. rather than Sri C. And though the vocals go to damn near everybody but Carlos himself--Booker T., Kim Wilson, Carlos's dad, even Greg Walker, heretofore the finest singer ever to drop in on him--it's Willie Nelson who shows us what for, on a country tune that's the one cut on the album which completely transcends revivalism. B PLUS

STARSTRUCK (A&M) Performed mostly by ingenue Jo Kennedy and Split Enz split-off the Swingers and tailored mostly to cinematic concept, these eleven-plus songs not only constitute an unusually disc-effective soundtrack but sound fresher than just about any collection of rock and roll ditties to come off the wall this year. In a moment when spontaneity can be prepared to order, you wonder why authenticity hounds get so exercised about the "real" thing. A MINUS [Later: B+]

THE TUBES: Outside Inside (Capitol) Encouraged by "a black friend" (Uncle Remus?) to "let this r&b music out," these soulful California cats did their professional best to simulate a Journey album. Well, all right, not quite--Journey's never sublimated misogyny into a hit single about sex emporiums, nor induced Maurice White to advocate cunt-lapping, nor essayed a Captain Beefheart imitation, nor risked an all-percussion extravaganza "inspired by Sandy Nelson," nor closed off with an ambiguous comment from a black friend that I hope will make Tubes fans wonder who's got the inside track in any racial crossover. C PLUS

THE WAITRESSES: Bruiseology (Polydor) Instead of cutting back on verbiage, Chris Butler solves his clutter problem by revving the music up so high it blares over its own complexity. The result isn't something you'll listen to all the time, but for most of us the same can be said to Ornette Coleman and the Sex Pistols. And if Butler's thematic concerns aren't universal enough to merit such heady company, his grasp of specifics won't be denied. A MINUS [Later: B+]

DENIECE WILLIAMS: I'm So Proud (Columbia) Minnie Riperton she's not--really. Cameos from Johnny Mathis (body) and Philip Bailey (spirit) bring out the character in her pure, intense soprano, and "Love, Peace and Unity" mentions the "arms race" in a welcome moment of negativity. But Williams has progressed, as they say, from Thom Bell's pop romanticism to George Duke's cosmic idealism, and these fusion guys have never understood about songs. B

Additional Consumer News

This being my month for instrumentals--they suit the country, somehow--here are three such EPs. Birdsongs of the Mesozoic (Ace of Hearts) is what ear-damaged Mission of Burma bassist Roger Miller calls his quiet new group. I didn't say acoustic, now--I'd describe the effect as something like Debussy meets the electric guitar. I didn't say sweet, either, though that's certainly part of it. Virgil Moorefield's Transformations (Slipped Disc) is recommended to Glenn Branca fans, a category that doesn't seem to include me. I prefer Moorefield not just because he writes engaging details into his grand through brief rock-classical compositions, but because the details are designed for real drum charts. Moorefield has drummed in both rock and marching bands--rather than the monolithic boom-didi-boom and/or polypercussive patter favored in downtown circles. Finally there's The Penguin Cafe Orchestra Mini Album (Editions EG), an odd piece of product because its three finest tunes, two in new but hardly definitive live versions, are also available on 1981's Penguin Cafe Orchestra, an excellent album whose length better suits the leisurely mood of Simon Jeffes's pop impressionism. Also included is "The Penguin Cafe Single," from the more marginal Music From the Penguin Cafe, and two simple, charming new pieces. . . .

The Sun Sessions, Charly's mammoth 12-disc Jerry Lee Lewis import, is certainly the year's most important rock reissue, 209 tracks comprising some 150 different titles, each described in candid and generally reliable detail on inner sleeves that double the reference value of the excellent 36-page booklet which is also included. I listened to the whole thing on my vacation at a rate of one or two roughly chronological discs per day, an interesting to exciting task until number seven or eight, after the disastrous English tour when the truth about his unconventional marital habits blew him out of the '50s. His disgust becomes palpable as his career with Sun winds down--certaainly his country sides with Jerry Kennedy have more energy and integrity than most of his late work with Sam Phillips. Because Jerry Lee prefers other people's good songs to his own bad ones, he can sustain this kind of collector format. I don't hold with the current truism that Lewis was the greatest of the '50s rockers, and I'd recommend any non-Mercury budget compilation to the casual seeker. But those to whom this sounds like a worthwhile $75 or $80 won't be disappointed. And those who've never heard the notorious theological dispute between Lewis and Phillips about "Great Balls of Fire" should befriend a collector and beg for a tape. . . .

My favorite Western swing record of the year came out last year, but by now I hope you've learned how well the stuff keeps. Smokey Wood's The Houston Hipster: Western Swing 1937 (Rambler) may not match the musicianship of Bob Wills, the novelty appeal of Milton Brown, or the scope of Okeh Western Swing, but on the other hand, it's dirty. And it has musicianship, novelty appeal, and scope aplenty.

Village Voice, Aug. 30, 1983

July 26, 1983 Sept. 27, 1983