Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (11)

When I began to do the Consumer Guide, about a year ago, records that emphasized composition over improvisation were rare, and those that did usually relied on unnecessary studio work. We were feeling a two-year cultural lag, dating back to mid-1967, when Hendrix/Cream and Sgt. Pepper had everyone all het up. Recently, however, a new orthodoxy and a new cultural lag have asserted themselves. The orthodoxy is song-oriented and favors tight, spare instrumentation. Its referents are '50s rock, country music, and rhythm-and-blues, and its key inspiration is the Band. Since this trend conforms to my oft-repeated critical prejudices, I might offer a little rap about its aesthetic maturity, how musicians are apprehending the exigencies of the phonograph record, and so forth, but that would only dignify (not to say solemnize) what will probably turn out to be a fad--rock's last fad, perhaps, if the depression lasts. I have nothing against fads in themselves, but they do get boring. The sad and salient truth is that where mediocre records used to be offensive they are now tedious. Instead of separating the ripe and rotten I am separating wheat and chaff. But the impulse to separate drives me on.

BLUE CHEER (Phillips) There ought to be hundreds of groups like this one--hard, competent, slightly commercial--but there probably aren't more than 20. This is not especially original, but it's good, and I'll bet they're a stone happy gas live. B

JERRY BUTLER: You and Me (Mercury) The follow-up to the beautiful Ice On Ice is a little too cool for me. Only one of Butler's new songwriters, Terry Callier ("Ordinary Joe") seems exceptional. Mainly for specialists. B [Later: B-]

WILLIE DIXON: I Am the Blues (Columbia) Dixon is an anomaly of the recording industry: the first important blues composer since the classic era who is not also an important singer. He makes money from royalties and as a producer, so he doesn't hassle much performing. Maybe that's why this (as well as an earlier record on Prestige) is so undistinguished a document. It's not that Dixon doesn't have a voice (is it ever?) just that he's never learned to get it across. Maybe he hasn't paid his dues. The backing, by an anonymous "hand-picked crew of Chicago blues veterans," is competent and unexciting. C [Later: B]

THE AYNSLEY DUNBAR RETALIATION: To Mom, From Aynsley and the Boys (Blue Thumb) John Mayall produced this low-key English blues record, which works better for me than any of Mayall's highly-touted recent stuff. Recommended to fans to Mayall and of Fleetwood Mac, which it resembles. B MINUS

FRUMMOX: Here to There (Probe) Pretentious cowboy music? Yes, pretentious cowboy music. C MINUS

THE GRATEFUL DEAD: Workingman's Dead (Warner Bros.) A [Later]

GRINDER'S SWITCH FEATURING GARLAND JEFFREYS (Vanguard) This group resembles the Band so closely, in both musical style and lyrical bent, that at times it's impossible to tell the difference. If that offends you, enjoy yourself; if it turns you on, obtain the record. It does neither for me, despite three or four excellent cuts. As an added curiosity, it ought to be noted that the leader (singer-composer Jeffreys) is black. C PLUS [Later: B]

JOHN HAMMOND: Southern Fried (Atlantic) Another Col. Sanders special from the white Taj Mahal. The playing is very good and Hammond's taste in blues-based material original enough, but his vocal style demeans his mentors. Otiose. C

HOT TUNA (RCA Victor) I have been educated into a fond tolerance for acoustic folk music, but this extrapolation on country blues by the Airplane's spinoff band (Jorma dominating) doesn't strike me as good within the genre. Despite the delicate complexity of the guitar work, I doubt I'll ever play it while I have John Estes and John Hurt on my shelves. B MINUS [Later: B+]

JUICY LUCY (Atco) More English eclecticism in the new orthodox mold: eight vocally oriented cuts with a lot of inventive guitar and rhythm effects and excellent song selection. Listen to side two first. An A minus record if the vocal mix weren't so muddy--I don't normally complain about such niceties, but on this LP the lack of clarity is noticeable and annoying. B PLUS

GENE MCDANIELS: Outlaw (Atlantic) Some left doggerel combined with a few jazzy harmonies doth a cultural rip-off make. Back to "A Hundred Pounds of Clay," Gene. C MINUS [Later]

MOTT THE HOOPLE (Atco) Despite the hype, this is a hard-rock combo distinguished only by its sameness. Big on long post-Kingsmen instrumentals. C [Later: C+]

JOHN PHILLIPS (Dunhill) In case you were fooled, Phillips can't sing--that was Denny--but he can project, and that's what it's all about. Like John Sebastian's solo LP, this is excellent in all the predictable ways. In fact, it almost smacks of noblesse oblige: Phillips is the Carter Burden of rock. If effeteness turns you off, perhaps you'd better shy away, but if you dig on pure accomplishment you'll dig on this. Lou Adler's production, by the way, is superb. B PLUS [Later]

REDBONE (Epic) This special-price two-record set has excited reviewers, all of whom get off on the fact that Redbone comprises four real-to-Gawd Injuns! Can a red man sing the whites? Sorry, not this time. There are a few good moments, but this often blurs the fine line between relaxation and tedium and offers nothing new. Really, now, why should an Indian group be anything special? If that's your thing, you'd be better off sending your five bucks to the Piutes. C MINUS [Later: C]

JERRY REED: Cookin' (RCA Victor) Since I am no country expert, this umpteenth LP by a Chet Atkins regular took me by surprise merely because I'd never heard of him. Competent-plus in the country-rock mold of Carl Perkins/Bob Luman/Charlie Rich. Docked a notch for time: 25:58. C PLUS

SMALL FACES: The First Step (Warner Brothers) One more complication in the Rod Stewart mystery. After his execrable work with Jeff Beck and his superb work with Lou Reizner, he turns in something mediocre. The only notable cut is Ronnie Lane's "Stone." C PLUS [Later]

RINGO STARR: Sentimental Journey (Apple) For over-50s and Ringomaniacs: the reports that he did this one for his Mums are obviously true. C MINUS [Later]

THREE DOG NIGHT: It Ain't Easy (Dunhill) Admitting it won't gain me many friends, but I admire this group's first LP. I thought the second boring and the third just awful, but this one gets back: excellent song selection and not too many of the preening vocal pyrotechnics that are their most egregious fault. Highlights: the hit version of Randy Newman's "Mama Told Me Not to Come" with just the right mixture of high-spirited schlock to turn it into the AM giant it ought to be, and a wonderful take-off on pre-Beatle rock called "Good Feeling (1957)." B PLUS [Later: B]

THE DEIRDRE WILSON TABAC (RCA Victor) For all of side one this walks the tightrope between soul music and cocktail jazz, a diverting performance. Side two topples into the martinis, but something of a sleeper anyway. B [Later: C+]

JESSE WINCHESTER (Ampex) Winchester is a Memphis boy who now resides in Canada for the usual reason draftables reside in Canada. With production help from Robbie Robertson he has turned out one of the freshest first albums in recent memory. His songs are first-rate and he performs with uncommon originality and authority. Recommended, especially to fans of the Band. A MINUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

Last week a friend and I caught B.B. King and Carla Thomas at the Royal Box of the Americana Hotel. We attended, of course, as guests of the Americana; we also attended, of course, stoned out of our east-of-Tompkins-Square heads. The vichyssoise was especially noteworthy, but the baked Alaska proved a slight disappointment. So did Carla Thomas, who is trying a Dionne/Tina combo and missing, but I dug B.B. a lot. It was the predictable surrealism in everyday life--celebrities present at the second-night show I saw included Enzo Stuarti, who was introduced, and Judy Clay, who wasn't--but B.B., for all of his over-gracious thanks, thrived there. For one thing, he didn't feel obliged to sing "Please Accept My Love," closing instead on a rocking version of "Why I Sing the Blues." I hadn't seen him so good in several years. Maybe he's better off trying to please adults than catering to the love crowd; maybe the club intimacy suits him, too; or maybe he's just coming around to his former greatness. Anyway, he was wonderful, and one thing you have to say for the Royal Box is that people dance there, though not to B.B. The Dells are due in this week. Anyone who has a lot of someone else's money to spend could spend it a lot worse.

According to Allen Klein, three of the four best-selling Beatle albums are Apple product, with Let It Be nosing ahead of Sgt. Pepper in fourth place and Meet the Beatles second. Abbey Road is first, Hey Jude third. All this is probably due to Klein's merchandising genius, but it's strange how the Beatles' artistic flaccidity seems to increase as their merchandising improves. I really would like to think it doesn't have to be that way.

A few weeks ago I saw an incredible performance at the Apollo by a group comprising two shouting poets and an Afro-percussionist, the first time I'd ever really dug on the "jazz poetry" idea. The recorded version, on Douglas, is a hot seller (over 350,000) and highly recommended; acerbic and exciting and as politically uncompromising as anything ever recorded. Name of group and record: The Last Poets. Frightening and beautiful.

I believe electric synthesizers are the wave of the future. Eventually, they'll redefine music. Right now, however, only Paul Beaver and Bernard L. Krause, who have just released an LP on Warners called In a Wild Sanctuary, are doing anything in a rockish vein that is at all interesting. Their two previous records are also worth some investigation: Ragnarok: Electronic Funk on Limelight, and Moogie Woogie on Chess.

Village Voice, June 18, 1970

May 28, 1970 July 30, 1970