Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • Santana [Columbia, 1969] C-
  • Abraxas [Columbia, 1970] C+
  • Santana III [Columbia, 1971] B
  • Caravanserai [Columbia, 1972] B-
  • Welcome [Columbia, 1973] B+
  • Santana's Greatest Hits [Columbia, 1974] B-
  • Borboletta [Columbia, 1974] C+
  • Amigos [Columbia, 1976] B
  • Festival [Columbia, 1977] C+
  • Moonflower [Columbia, 1977] B+
  • Inner Secrets [Columbia, 1978] C+
  • Marathon [Columbia, 1979] C
  • Supernatural [Arista, 1999] Choice Cuts
  • The Essential Santana [Columbia/Legacy, 2003]  

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Santana [Columbia, 1969]
Just want to register my unreconstructed opposition to the methedrine school of American music. A lot of noise. C-

Abraxas [Columbia, 1970]
On the debut most of the originals were credited to "Santana Band"; this time individual members claim individual compositions. Can this mean somebody thought about these melodies (and lyrics!) before they sprung from the collective unconscious? In any case, they've improved. And in any case, the best ones are by Peter Green, Gabor Szabo, and Tito Puente, none of whom is known to be a member of the Santana Band. C+

Santana III [Columbia, 1971]
In theory, the polyrhythms intensified the momentum while the low-definition songwriting served the freeflow gestalt. In fact, the Latin lilt lightened the beat and the flow remained muddy indeed. So the electricity generated by the percussion-heavy opening cut comes as a pleasant surprise, and the movement of what follows is a surprising pleasure. New second guitarist Neal Schon deserves special thanks for crowding out Gregg Rolie's organ. Maybe soon he'll come up with more than one idea per solo. B

Caravanserai [Columbia, 1972]
Some of the slower electronic stuff fails to sustain my admittedly tentative interest, and the Gillette commercial vocals take this post-hippie business altogether too far. Still, I'm happy to report that the experiment--away from Latino schlock and toward Mahavishnu you can dance to, sort of--is not only honest but successful and not only successful but appropriate. After all, improvisation has always been their "thing." B-

Welcome [Columbia, 1973]
More confident and hence more fun than Caravanserai, this proves that a communion of multipercussive rock and transcendentalist jazz can move the unenlightened--me, for instance. Good themes, good playing, good beat, and let us not forget good singing--Leon Thomas's muscular spirituality grounds each side so firmly that not even Flora Purim can send it out the window. B+

Santana's Greatest Hits [Columbia, 1974]
The problem with their albums turns out to be too complex to be solved by eliminating uninteresting tunes--which is a backhanded compliment to the complexity of their concept. In any case, this compilation reduces their music to a cross between pan-African blooze and Latin-metal pop. The fine (and, er, not so fine) cuts it showcases work better in their original contexts--as heads, lynchpins, focal points of improvisations that are not (yet?) what they should be. B-

Borboletta [Columbia, 1974]
Old Santana fans beware. Ad copy to the contrary, the only Latin roots here flowered in Brazil long 'round '66. Airto Moreira isn't Sergio Mendes, I admit, but Leon Patillo isn't Leon Thomas either. C+

Amigos [Columbia, 1976]
Bill Graham and David Rubinson augment Sri Chinmoy's everybody's-everything strategy with direct-hit tactics as Carlos resumes his attack on the rock marketplace. Greg Walker doubles credibly as soul man and sonero, and "Dance Sister Dance" is the band's all-time hottest original even if it is lifted form a universal salsa riff. As Armando Peraza proves (on "Gitano"), better salsa conservatism than samba impressionism. And as Carlos proves, better salsa than Wes Montgomery at his schlockiest or a tune called "Europa" that lives up to its name. B

Festival [Columbia, 1977]
As a salsa band they're still OK, but a ten-tune format and the sincere desire for AM proselytization don't make them a pop band. (Putting vocals on all the tracks might help.) It makes them a mediocre fusion band. (Is there another kind?) C+

Moonflower [Columbia, 1977]
Mixing greatest oldies with lesser newcomers, salsa classics with rock covers, European concert hall with San Fran studio, this seamless double album should stand as the working definition of a world-class band. My objections stand, too--the improvisations sometimes divert when they should sustain, the groove is often too easy, and the vocal ensembles sound like commercials. But all these flaws, for better or worse, suit music of such global appeal. And Carlos Santana has never played so well for so long. In the rock guitar tradition he is less a man of style than of sound, a clear, loud, fluent sound that cleanses with the same motion no matter how often that motion is repeated--as long as the intensity and the context are there. On this album, the live cuts provide both. B+

Inner Secrets [Columbia, 1978]
It's sad when one of the few megagroups with a groove powerful enough to get it out of any jam resorts to hacks like Lambert and Potter for a hit. I mean, Santana is schlocky anyway. But Santana's own schlock has some dignity. C+

Marathon [Columbia, 1979]
In their selfless pursuit of universality they've signed on a second Eddie Money graduate and replaced Greg Walker, their finest vocalist, with a Scot named Alexander J. Ligertwood, who proves his internationalism by aping that eternal foreigner Lou Gramm. Odd, you can hardly hear the congas. C

Supernatural [Arista, 1999]
"Put Your Lights On" Choice Cuts

The Essential Santana [Columbia/Legacy, 2003]
Columbia's Essential series dishonors a great packaging concept: two-CD best-of in single-size jewel box. Every title that isn't a priori redundant is either too long or, yes, too short; the second discs almost unfailingly home in on late schlock, especially misbegotten collaborations (hint: Willie Nelson's Hank Snow and Webb Pierce one-offs now occupy one budget disc). But the first disc here is long-winded enough to evoke a real Santana album but not so long-winded you won't give the next soundalike solo a shot, and so's its second disc--except for the dreadful patch in the middle featuring Scots belter Alex Ligertwood, a textbook example of how horribly wrong "rock" went in the AOR '80s. This clueless corporate greed, that clueless corporate greed--so different, yet so the same. [Recyclables]  

Further Notes:

Subjects for Further Research [1980s]: Though he'll never be as facile as Page or Clapton, Carlos Santana is a guitar god on sound alone, and in the '80s he probably did more honest work than any of them. As a bandleader, however, he's always had trouble distinguishing between the near-great (Armando Peraza, Coke Escovedo) and the abysmal (Neil Schon, Sri Chinmoy). I enjoyed his solo 1983 Havana Moon (the Willie Nelson cameo is the best vocal of Santana's career), admired his comradely Blues for Salvador, and listened all the way through 1988's smart three-disc coffee-table compilation, Viva Santana!. But even in 1968 he had too much dinosaur in him.

Subjects for Further Research [1990s]: It has long been the habit of artists on Arista Records to thank for their success God and Clive Davis, in that order, and if anybody has a right to put God first, it's Haight-Ashbury's longest-running hippie mystic. But though Carlos Santana released plenty of honorable albums in the '90s, including several shows of multicultural piety and some typically just-better-than-average archival digs, 1999's star-studded Supernatural was Clive's miracle: a tribute album owned solely by the tributee (and his corporate sponsor, natch), complete with the hit songs Davis always insists on and quite often gets. Hook him up with Matchbox 20? I ask you, does God have that kind of chutzpah?

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