Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (12)

Allow me to get serious for a moment here, folks.

A few weekends ago, when I was working with the Randall's Island Coalition to protect the people (the suggestion of a friend that it's time for the collective unconscious of the movement to replace the jargon word "people" with the jargon word "fans" is relevant here) from the promoters of New York Pop, a nonce ally approached me with a question that had been bothering her. Why did I rate records, she wanted to know. Short reviews were okay, but absolute ratings encouraged readers to remain passive consumers (as it were) rather than exercise intelligent choice. I had been trying to deal with the very real problem through my customary layers of irony ever since the CG commenced, but perhaps it is time for a straight answer. Relatively straight, anyway, since I must begin by insisting that this is one more aspect of the Campbell's Soup Perplex.

The Campbell's Soup Perplex first revealed itself to me at an ecology meeting where the age-old question of what happens to all the soup cans came under discussion. One brother indicated that the problem was illusory: after the revolution, everyone would want to make his own soup, thus sending the soup can the way of the sundial. This idea--that the good society will induce participation and creativity from all--runs throughout utopian literature, and while I admit and even insist that it has a good deal of personal appeal for me, I also insist that I am wary of imposing it on everyone else. I do make my own soup--yummy watercress and tangy gazpacho--and I can doctor Campbell's Cream of Mushroom so it becomes a new taste treat (pinch of mace, pinch of garlic powder, two tablespoons of yogurt, my invention). But give me a can of Campbell's Cream of Chicken or a package of Knorr's Chicken Noodle and I follow the directions on the package just like the housewife in a television ad. If I weren't professionally involved, my attitude toward music would be the same. Most often, I dig on intelligent choice, but I'm also glad that some crass AM programmer pounded "Sugar Sugar" and "Ride Captain Ride" into my head until I dug them. The ratings express the AM programmer in myself. They affirm the value of efficiency and the validity of passivity. If dope has taught a hyperthyroid Aries like myself anything, it probably has to do with how nice it is to lie back and be done by someone you trust. Trust me, trust my ratings. Nolan is really a gas.

BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS: Blood, Sweat & Tears 3 (Columbia) Urrp. C [Later: C-]

BLUES IMAGE: Open (Atco) Great single, mediocre (though improved) album. Do we really need another "Parchman Farm?" C PLUS [Later]

BOB DYLAN: Self Portrait (Columbia) Jon Landau wrote to suggest I give this a D, but that's pique. Conceptually, this is a brilliant album which is organized, I think, by two central ideas. First, that "self" is most accurately defined (and depicted) in terms of the artifacts--in this case pop tunes and folk songs claimed as personal property, semi-spontaneous renderings of past creations frozen for posterity on a piece of tape, and (perhaps) even a couple of songs one has written oneself--to which one responds. Second, that the people's music is the music people like, Mantovani strings and all. But in order for a concept to work it has to be supported musically--that is, it has to make you listen. I don't know anyone, even vociferous supporters of this album, who plays more than one side at a time. I don't listen to it at all. The singing is not consistently good, though it has its moments, and the production--for which I blame Bob Johnston, although Dylan has to be listed as a co-conspirator--ranges from indifferent to awful. It is possible to use strings and soprano choruses well, but Johnston has never demonstrated the knack. Other points: It's overpriced, the cover art is lousy, and it sounds good on WMCA. For further elucidation see Greil Marcus's farewell piece in Rolling Stone. C PLUS [Later]

EDISON ELECTRIC BAND: God Bless You, Dr. Woodward (Cotillion) This has been panned stupidly in Rolling Stone and ignored elsewhere. Too bad. Tight, melodic music that thrives somewhere in an uncharted region triangulated by rock, pop, and jazz. Beautifully engineered, too. B PLUS [Later: B]

FAIRPORT CONVENTION: Liege & Lief (A&M) Because my tastes are basically anti-folk, I find the heavy concentration on traditional material here a comedown after Unhalfbricking, although Fairport's recent Fillmore East appearance, also folk-heavy but with Dave Swarbrick's violin more or less replacing the voice of the departed Sandy Denny, was refreshing fun. B MINUS [Later]

THE 5 STAIRSTEPS: Stairsteps (Buddah) Soupy at times, but most of the "O-o-h Child" side (including two creditable Beatle songs) is eminently listenable sweet soul. Docked a notch for time: 27:57 B MINUS

THE FUGS: Golden Filth (Reprise) The Fugs' performances--live, not recorded--were among the most wondrous events in the history of rock and roll and. This LP, recorded at one of their last concerts, is easily the most representative they've ever released, even though there's not enough Tuli and a touch too much Ed. An obscene and hilarious document, recommended to everyone who cherishes their memory. A MINUS [Later: B+]

GRAND FUNK RAILROAD: Closer to Home (Capitol) What's happening to me? Maybe it's that damned billboard. Anyway, I'm getting to like this group's records, which present as pure a concept of hard rock as you'll find anywhere. Warning: the live performances are as stupefying as ever. B [Later: C+]

GUN: Gun Sight (Epic) This unknown group has now released two albums which come very close to succeeding. The songs are excellent lyrically and the group's pretensions--which include background strings and jazz moves on top of a hard-rock sound--usually work. But it never comes together, and my mixing expert informs me that the mix is muddy. B MINUS

TOM T. HALL: I Witness Life (Mercury) Intelligent country music in the narrative ballad tradition, brightly performed and produced. Two or three of these songs ("Salute to a Switchblade," "Ballad of Bill Crump") might qualify as genre masterpieces. Recommended to the curious. B [Later: B+]

THE IDES OF MARCH: Vehicle (Warner Bros.) Good schlock single--which got little FM play, though Jim Peterik does an amazing imitation of David Clayton Thomas--with a properly schlocky follow-up LP. Do we really need a new arrangement of "Eleanor Rigby" called "Symphony for Eleanor?" C MINUS [Later]

KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: Kristofferson (Monument) This features Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," a very great song. Many of his compositions display a sensibility that is at once deft and common, comparable, like Kristofferson's singing style, to Johnny Cash at his best. But there is such a lack of raw charisma that most of these performances can be described as perfunctory. Disappointing. B MINUS [Later: C]

JONI MITCHELL: Ladies of the Canyon (Reprise) I come late to this album, and to Joni, but I do think this is superior to her previous work, richer lyrically and more compelling musically. There's a heavy dependence on piano (the Phil Ochs switch) which does imply a move from the open air to the drawing room, and the wordplay ("lookout thru the pain") doesn't always make it. But side two is almost perfect, and the arrangements are intelligent throughout. If only her voice had more body . . . B PLUS [Later: A-]

THE MOVE: Shazam (A&M) Its enthusiasts to the contrary, this is not The Greatest Rock And Roll Record Ever To Come Down The Pike. It is one version of an overly self-conscious mode (in the perception if not the creation) which I call stupid-rock. This is compelling when played loud, but it is also full of annoying distractions, musical and otherwise. Recommended to Stooges fans who have just found a $5 bill. B MINUS [Later]

THE NAKED CARMEN (Mercury) The aptest instance of overpretension in the history of rock-is-art. It makes more sense to do a rock/pop take-off on a vulgar work in a vulgar genre than to collaborate on derivative moderne with Zubin Mehta (the Mothers) or stick your amps in front of a notoriously venal symphony orchestra (Deep Purple). The country western version of "The Toreador Song" works beautifully. Great package, too. I may even keep it. C

NOLAN: No Apologies (Lizard) The more I play this the more exciting it sounds: a black singer with a distinctly soul idiom who should have obvious and immediate--and primary--appeal in the white Stewart/Band/Traffic rock-song market. An excellent combination of strong originals and inventive covers, produced by Gabriel Mekler. A MINUS [Later]

PACIFIC GAS & ELECTRIC: Are You Ready? (Columbia) Great single, easily their best cut ever, but the album is a comedown. Charlie Allen is not an entirely convincing Otis. B

POCO (Epic) The most overrated underrated group in America. All of CSNY's preciosity with none of the genius, the perfect commentary on the vacuity of competence. Additional warning: this contains a relatively useless long instrumental. C PLUS [Later]

ROD STEWART: Gasoline Alley (Mercury) Stewart's first Mercury album was a landmark that improves in retrospect. Perhaps that's the only reason I find this somewhat flat. Much all-around excellence in both vocal and instrumental performance, but not one cut as exciting as "Handbags" or "Raincoat" on the first album. If there was, I'd give it an A. B PLUS [Later: A-]

EDGAR WINTER: Entrance (Epic) This could turn into the most horrendous sibling rivalry since Tiny Tim and Monte Rock III. D [Later: C]

Additional Consumer News

The Free Ranger Tribe, an offshoot of UPS, has taken upon itself the Sisyphean business of reifying a hip community in New York with a series of benefit dances at ye olde Hotel Diplomat, 108 West 43rd Street. The next one, scheduled for this Saturday if all goes well, will feature a good local band called Communications Workshop and Season of the Witch, a promising three-woman group led by singer-songwriter Bev Grant, who is great at both. Profits will go to Alternate U, which deserves them. Even in the age of mass media, a community not only believes the same things, but does them. Do it.

In a related endeavor, two separate musical groups are challenging the hegemony of the record industry by issuing their own LPs. A jazz group called Nature's Consort is selling its album for $4 postpaid from Otic Records, Southbury, Connecticut 06488. Unfortunately, their politics seem more inspired than their music, although it's worth adding that Nat Hentoff, who digs jazz more than I do, likes the music as well. More to my taste is an LP by a rock group called Soup, available from their manager, Gene Totten, 4411 West Broadway, Appleton, Wisconsin, 54911, for three bucks. Totten is trying to work out distribution arrangements with movement groups like the White Panthers in Chicago. The music is not overtly political, just good for the head, which ought to be what it's all about: sweet, simple, somewhat jazzy rock dominated by singer/composer/guitarist Doug Yankus, who is obviously a top level talent. With four studio cuts on one side and a pretty good jam on the other, this is much superior to most of the new rock LPs I play every week, worth a B or B plus. [Later: B] Even the engineering is good. I have always tended to believe that the paraphernalia of the record industry--all of the functionaries who intervene between music and audience--facilitates the rock artist's real job, which is communicating with large numbers of people, but I'd be delighted to be proven wrong.

Since Imperial is no hip label, their new reissue series, coordinated by Bob Hite, may be ignored, but it's worth some attention--Imperial used to be Fats Domino's label, remember. Especially noteworthy is the Sweet 'n' Greasy group-sound collection (Imperial LM-94005). Unlike the Atlantic History of Rhythm & Blues and the Roulette Golden Goodies series, these are all fairly obscure recordings--some were never released. It's reassuring to learn that it's possible to respond to all that doo-wah as music, not just nostalgia.

Andy Williams' Barnaby label (Columbia distributed) has reissued the long out-of-print Cadence recordings the Everly Brothers did for Archie Bleyer. Among old-timey freaks, the Everlys' Cadence albums are even more prestigious than the Philles Christmas album. These do sound better--though not startlingly so--than the Warner Bros. versions. That admitted, it ought to be noted that Barnaby's new two-record set is 47:41 minutes long and does not include "I Wonder If I Care As Much," the flip side of "Bye Bye Love," which the Everlys rearranged for Roots.

Though the album on which it appears--Johnny Hodges' 3 Shades of Blue--falls well out of my area of competence, I can say that Leon Thomas's "Disillusion Blues," with Hodges taking a solo and Oliver Nelson arranging, is quite simply one of the great vocal performances of our era. FM programmers, give it a listen.

Village Voice, July 30, 1970

June 18, 1970 Nov. 19, 1970