Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (15)

Just too late for Christmas trade-ins, Consumer Guide Meets the Heavies Again. The pretext hasn't changed since the last time I had the temerity to try this, in CG6, and my defeat this time is almost as ignoble. All the records below are by artists who, as I put it a year ago, "have headlined at the Fillmore or committed some equivalent act." Last time this approach inundated us with nine As, and my new figure, eight, doesn't represent much of a gain in courage or individuality. I lose again. I even like it. But there have been changes.

Headling at the Fillmore seems to have more varied equivalents than it did a year ago. I estimate that at least half of this week's collection would now be unsuitable for such a gig. In many cases that's because they sing for black audiences; in others, their audience is too big, or too sedate, or too adolescent, or too caught up in the past of rock and roll, or just not right for Bill Graham's homodrome. This is far from entirely bad: it means not only that Graham's hegemony has dissolved, but that the music has ramified. I've described the break-up of the rock audience--which is to say, its community--in negative terms before, but it's important to remember that there's a positive side. There seems to come a time in the growth of any mass popular art when the size of its audience actually begins to force it to appeal to that lowest common denominator critics are always yapping about. A return to smaller sub-audiences can signal a revitalization that will permit some grander synthesis in the future. The million-selling album, a rarity five years ago, is now commonplace. That means millions of people who never thought about rock and roll are now fans. There's room to lay back for a while, and more good music is the likely result.

Another aspect of this phenomenon is that those who make the good music have changed. Ardent admirers will recall that when I began this service I warned continually of my prejudice against white blues. The way I hear it, most of those white blues bands which have survived have gotten a lot better, usually without surrendering their essential force. Less exciting records often come from old stand-bys. You will note, however, that I have declined judgment on the real heavies of the season. That's because I cherish the fantasy of commenting on them at greater length sometime vaguely soon. So far, I love the Dylan, admire the Lennon, and dislike the Harrison. Other heavies are missing, too, which might lead you to wonder: What the hell is a heavy, anyway, after all this ramification business? The answer is sample. A heavy is an artist included in Consumer Guide Meets the Heavies Again.

THE BEACH BOYS: Sunflower (Brother/Reprise) If you can feature the great candy-stripers grown up, then this is their best record, far more satisfying, I suspect than Smile ever would have been, and better too than Pet Sounds or Wild Honey. The same medium-honest sensibility prevails, only now it is a little more personal. The Beach Boys weren't really surfers or hotrodders, but they were really Southern Californians, and that's what their music was about. It still is, only now they sing about broken marriages and the pleasure of life. Still a lot of fun too. A [Later: A-]

THE BYRDS: Untitled (Columbia) I'm sorry. I love them--or do I mean him?--too, but it finally seems to be ending. The new songs are unarresting, the harmonies weak or just absent, and the live performance . . . well, I'm sure you had to be there. I was, lots of times, and I guess I will be again, but as always it will be more to demonstrate my devotion than to get off, and such events don't transfer very well to vinyl. I'm sorry. C PLUS [Later]

CANNED HEAT: Future Blues (Liberty) I miss Alan Wilson more intensely than I ever enjoyed him. The pitch of involvement Joplin and Hendrix could demand at their best made their deaths seem proper, even--and this is a still more outrageous way of putting it--metaphorically correct; the only way to finish the act, so to speak, after all that power had begun to run down. However much sense Wilson's death meant in his life, which was never happy, it was inappropriate to his art, which continued vital to the end. On this record his creative force, never imposing but always there to be enjoyed, is at a peak, and the rest of the band coheres alongside him: Bob Hite finally sounds like himself and Harvey Mandel and the rhythm section really cook together. The original material (most of it by Wilson) is excellent and the rest is perfectly apropos. I never much liked their previous lps, but I'm sorry there won't be more like this one. A [Later: A-]

JUDY COLLINS: Whales and Nightingales (Elektra) Artysong. C PLUS

DELANEY & BONNIE & FRIENDS: To Bonnie from Delaney (Atco)This is put down for sounding like all the others, which can only mean that no one is listening. D&B's singing has always been subtler than its framework, and this is their most understated record. There are a couple of mediocre songs and too much reliance on sustained-climax gimmicks, but Bonnie has never sung with more humor ("Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean") or passion ("The Love of My Man") and Delaney is as strong and easy to underrate as ever. A MINUS [Later]

DEREK & THE DOMINOES: Layla (Atco) Reviewers (myself included) tend to be hostile towards double albums because they mean double listening work--it would almost always be feasible, after all, to put the best of a set on one super-record--but even though this one has the look of a greedy, lazy, slapdash studio session, I think it may be Eric Clapton's most consistent recording. The high-keyed precision of his guitar contrasts nicely with the relaxed rocking of Allman/Whitlock/Radle/Gordon. Much better than his solo LP, one of those rare instances when musicians join together for profit and a lark and come up with a mature and original sound. A [Later: A+]

ARETHA FRANKLIN: Spirit in the Dark (Atlantic) A lot more consistent than This Girl's in Love with You, but also flatter. Almost jazzy in its pleasantness. Almost pleasant in its jazziness. B PLUS [Later: A]

THE GRATEFUL DEAD: American Beauty (Warner Bros.) This is less impressive than "Workingman's Dead," especially at first: that understated complexity is lacking. Repeated hearings make it clear that the increased directness and simplicity, both lyrical and musical, is quite deliberate, but even at that several of the cuts don't quite make it. A MINUS [Later]

THE GRATEFUL DEAD: Vintage Dead (Sunflower) This resurrection from the golden days of the Haight suggests something about the value of iron pyrite when the assay office is far away. The singing is weak, the guitar work often uninspired and the recording stinky. Recent converts beware. B MINUS

THE GUESS WHO: Share the Land (RCA Victor) Having encountered the versatility, strength, and honest ambition of this AM group, we now confront its limitations, which appear almost fatal. The replacement of guitarist-composer Randy Bachman by Heavy Greg Leskiw doesn't help. Their most unflawed and uninteresting record. C [Later: C+]

PAUL KANTNER: Blows Against the Empire (RCA Victor) Two warnings. First, the only Airplane records I didn't underrate when I first wrote about them were Volunteers (which I loved) and the live album (which I never play). Second, Marty Balin is not present--the only reason I can discern for not calling this an Airplane record--and that makes me think that this time I could be right. I've played this a lot and feel no desire to play it any more. B [Later: C+]

LED ZEPPELIN: Led Zeppelin III (Atlantic) I have always approved theoretically of Led Zep's concept, and now the group has finally whipped it into shape. It's amazing to realize that Robert Plant's vocals can convey that same overbearing power when Page plays acoustic, as he does to great effect on several cuts here. No drum solos, either. Heavy. A MINUS [Later: B+]

CURTIS MAYFIELD: Curtis (Curtom) My grade reflects a certain cultural relativism; that is, I don't approve of these essentially middlebrow guides to black pride, but a lot of black people do, so I feel obliged to qualify my judgment. Mayfield is a more trustworthy talent than Eddie Harris, say, so that the two long cuts are better than might be predicted. I still prefer the old Impressions. B [Later: B+]

OTIS REDDING: Tell the Truth (Atco) Atlantic is obviously scraping bottom on Otis. Even at his worst he was passable or better, but the material, arrangements, and performances here are perfunctory, and under happier circumstances they never would have been released. For worshippers only. B MINUS [Later: B+]

RINGO STARR: Beaucoups of Blues (Apple) For a long time, I laughed at this record when I wasn't crying, because Ringo just isn't a solo singer. But Pete Drake's production and song selection are superb, and Ringo, after all, is Ringo, which is still something. Recommended to country heads. B [Later]

STEPHEN STILLS (Atlantic) Stills is too damned skillful to really put down, but there's something terribly undefined about this record. B PLUS [Later: C+]

TEN YEARS AFTER: Watt (Deram) I liked this group at the time of "Undead" and despite a few trying experimental moments here I think this is their most consistent album since then. But maybe it's just the cycle. B PLUS [Later: C+]

TRAFFIC: John Barleycorn Must Die (United Artists) So that Vince Guaraldi can live on? C PLUS [Later]

JOHNNY WINTER: Johnny Winter And (Columbia) Winter has come up with a good group--three members of the old McCoys, one since departed--and the best metalrock album this side of Layla. Ex-McCoy Rick Derringer has composed four of the songs, co-produced, and contributed a strong second lead guitar and voice. A MINUS [Later: B+]

STEVIE WONDER: Signed, Sealed and Delivered (Tamla) Sometime in the past (can it be?) eight years, Little Stevie became Big, and so did his frantic one-smash-a-year style--wheezes, shrieks, and all. Consistent Motown albums are rare, and this has its weak moments, but it's still the most exciting lp by a male soul singer in a very long time, and it slips into no mold, Motown's included. A MINUS [Later: B+]

Additional Consumer News

Since MGM prexy Mike Curb declared himself the moral guardian of youth culture, I have been keeping an especially sharp eye on his releases, MGM has assembled a series of 40 reissue albums, included artists like Freda Payne and Don Gibson, who did none of their important work for MGM, and the Velvet Underground, who have moved over to Atlantic’s Cotillion label. You remember Curb's stand on drugs? Well, on the first Velvets LP there is a song called "Heroin." It is not a prosmack song by any means, but then, "Street Fighting Man" isn't a prorevolution song either. Reportedly, Lou Reed is reluctant to perform the song because of the way it is often misconstrued. "Heroin" is the first song on side two of the Golden Archive Velvet Underground. MGM has also released an album called The Best of Marcel Marceau, which consists of 38 minutes of silence and two minutes of applause, and another called Paul Frees and the Poster People, in which Frees, the voice of Boris Badnov, assumes the voices of nine dead (no lawsuits) superstars and interprets many of today’s modern now hits, including, I swear, Charlie Chan singing "Ret It Be." Other MGM hopefuls include The Osmonds, Sixteen Magazine’s answer to Sajid Khan, a singing Marine, and a 14-year old Dutch kid named Heintje, who between his rendition of a tune called "Mama" and the charming little bulge in his pants may be the modern world’s answer to Oedipus. Keep 'em coming, moral guardian.

You Read About Him First in Consumer Guide: Jerry Reed, RCA’s veteran country-rock singer, is finally making it big. His single, "Amos Moses," is now country going pop and is worth getting. There are also great singles available from Van Morrison and, er, George Harrison.

Village Voice, Jan. 7, 1971

Nov. 19, 1970 Mar. 11, 1971