Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (16)

The humblest form creates its own imperatives, even the lowly Consumer Guide. It began as sensible conservation of energy. Unlike most of my colleagues, I felt impelled to listen to every review copy I got anyway, and because I hate to waste data some sort of abstract seemed in order. But the task of preparing that abstract has changed my listening habits and perhaps my taste itself. Reviewers share the occupational hazard of ennui, and for that reason tend to flatter work that is idiosyncratic or formally elegant. In an effort to combat this prejudice--not that I could ever hope (or want) to conquer it--I listen to certain records more and more. These are mostly efforts that seem competent but undistinguished on the surface but that for one reason or another (usually some sort of hype, to be honest, although a word from one of my far-flung advisers or some quirkish detail will also suffice) offer some hope of quality. After all, I say to myself, the guy who pays cash for an album isn't going to give up after one or two tries, so why should I? Often I find myself getting into stuff I dismissed at first, which is all right except that it tends to flatten my response simply because I spread it so thin. Even the pattern of my pleasure listening changes. I often find myself playing records I kind of like, even for visitors, and eventually I kind of like them more. All of which balls up my trusty rating system, and spoils my fun. Who wants to say nice things about 15 out of 20 records? Not nasty old me.

As I keep insisting, I do believe there is an objective correlative, as we used to say. That is, music is getting better all the time, and only a few labels release a consistent stream of crud. There is still quite a bit of crud, of course, some of it well received by all the fools who don't agree with me, most of it ignored by everyone. What's getting harder and harder is distinguishing between good, better, and best. A chancy endeavor, to say the least, and I'm no longer sure that the Consumer Guide helps much. Well, what's the diff? You just read it for yocks anyway, right? So here's another.

THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND: Idlewild South (Atco) A lot of people think that Duane Allman is already a ranking titan of the electric guitar, and he unquestionably contributed a lot to the sound of Layla. Anyone who dug that will appreciate this funky metal-rock. "Revival," a single which should have made it, is extraordinary. B PLUS [Later]

BREWER & SHIPLEY: Tarkio (Kama Sutra) The best of three good albums from an energetic, professional new-folk duo, all characterized by witty composition, solid backing, and lots of slick harmonies. Exceptional: "One Toke Over The Line," a single that may make it yet. B [Later: B-]

BULL: This Is Bull (Paramount) Speak for yourself, Ferdinand. D

ERIC BURDON AND WAR: The Black-Man's Burdon (MGM) On the front cover of this album is a black man in silhouette. On the back cover Eric, looking paunchy, rests his head in the crotch of a black woman straddled above him. He also holds her ankles. Inside the jacket seven men, presumably the band, occupy the background of a full-length photo of a grassy field. Six of the men are black; five are bare-chested. In the foreground recline two naked blondes who obviously belong in a centerfold. The left hand of one is thrown back to reveal a clean-shaven and possibly airbrushed underarm, so that her right does not quite conceal her pubic hair. Her companion hides her sex with both hands. The only man who is standing appears to be walking toward the women. He has removed the belt from his pants. D PLUS

DREAMS (Columbia) See "Bull." C MINUS

THE J. GEILS BAND (Atlantic) This remarkably funky Jewish r&b band from Boston is the current fave rave of a lot of critics (Landau, Marcus, etc.). I find it fun but somewhat derivative, which is also the way I once felt about Creedence. Great originals and tasty finds from Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Smokey Robinson, Willie Dixon, and someone named Juke Joint Jimmy, who penned the immortal line: "I ain't no mathematician, baby, but I sure would like to count on you." B PLUS [Later]

JIMI HENDRIX: The Cry of Love (Reprise) I was never a Hendrix freak, so perhaps my suspicion that this is his best LP, short of Electric Ladyland, is irrelevant. As usual, the individual compositions are nothing special, but the tone of the whole is superb. All the pretensions have been loosened just a little but not (as on Band of Gypsies) abandoned altogether. An excellent testament. A MINUS [Later: A]

JANIS JOPLIN: Pearl (Columbia) I'm sorry to say that at moments this lags a little, especially because the potential of Janis and Full Tilt Boogie was, by this evidence, enormous. A MINUS [Later]

JOY OF COOKING (Capitol) Don't take the name the wrong way--this band, led by two female songwriter/vocalist/musicians, has been cooking together in Berkeley for three or four years now. Toni Brown's piano dominates, so the music rolls rather than rocks. Especially noteworthy: "Only Time Will Tell Me," the first women's liberation song ever recorded. A [Later]

LOVE: False Start (Blue Thumb) A startling comeback after that execrable double album. This time Arthur Lee works off the new-funk tradition and makes it work, especially on side one, which doesn't contain a mediocre cut. B PLUS [Later: A-]

MASHMAKHAN (Epic) Gene Lees says: "I like Mashmakhan first of all because it swings. There is an enormous difference between swinging and pounding. Most rock music does the latter: it just jumps up and down in one place, with no sense of rhythmic propulsion. Sadly, people who dig it are incapable of hearing real swing when it occurs." And on and on, every word bought by Epic, concluding: "This is a hell of a good group." I dare you to spend money to decide which of us is right. D

VAN MORRISON: His Band and the Street Choir (Warner Bros.) A few humdrum cuts and an occasional minor lapse of taste make this a less compelling album than Moondance, which only means it wasn't one of the very best of 1970. The good cuts, especially "Domino" and "Blue Money," are superb examples of Morrison's loose, allusive white r&b. A MINUS [Later: A]

MOTHER EARTH: Satisfied (Mercury) Tracy Nelson doesn't touch everyone, but once she does, she carries you away. She can be sexual and spiritual not successively but on the same note and breath; she seems to suffer and to transcend suffering simultaneously. Vocally, Mother Earth is now Tracy Nelson, and although in theory I miss the male voices--especially Robert St. John's--I'm not really complaining. Yet this record is a slight disappointment. I love it, but I know that my prejudices are strong and that only once--on her own composition, "Andy's Song"--does Tracy burst calmly into free space as she does so often on the two previous Mother Earth LPs and on Tracy Nelson Country. Recommended unequivocally to her cadre and equivocally to the benighted. A MINUS [Later]

ANNE MURRAY: Snowbird (Capitol) An honest pop country album from the Canadian singer who had a well-deserved hit with the title song last summer. A corny and superfluous "Get Together" is more than made up for by a draft-dodging song called "Running" and (believe it or not) the best cover version of "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" I know. B [Later: B-]

MIKE NESMITH AND THE FIRST NATIONAL BAND: Loose Salute (RCA Victor) Nesmith has turned into a kind of middlebrow Gram Parsons, somewhere between a countrified Monkee and the Jimmy Rodgers of Sunset Strip. This is a wonderful amalgam of gimmicks and mannerisms and good songs, long vowel articles and near-yodels and electronic excursions and whatever else might happen. His first album with this group, Magnetic South, is equally sublime schlock. B PLUS [Later]

THE OSMONDS (MGM) The most heart-warming thing to happen to the wonderful world of pop music since Georgia Gibbs recorded "Dance with Me, Henry." Mike Curb strikes again. D PLUS

EMITT RHODES (Dunhill) Like Paul McCartney, from whom he is occasionally indistinguishable, Rhodes has done a true solo album by multi-tracking his own accompaniment and engineering the result himself. Only Rhodes does it better. Why, then, did I give McCartney a B plus? Because I was taken, that's why. B MINUS [Later]

LEON THOMAS: The Leon Thomas Album (Flying Dutchman) I've got to admit it: if Great Artists--a concept I by no means entirely approve--have arisen in popular music since he first great days of rock, Leon Thomas is one. He has literally expanded the musical possibilities of the human voice. He is as powerful a jazz/blues singer as Joe Williams or Joe Turner, both of whom he occasionally resembles, as inventive a scatter as Ella Fitzgerald. But that's just the beginning, for despite the generation lag, Thomas beats Turner and Williams in their own mode even while singing his own, and he turns scatting from a virtuoso trick into an atavistic call from the unconscious. So even though I think Oliver Nelson's arrangements here don't suit the material; even though I'm slightly embarrassed by the inflation of a Thomas composition like "I Am"; even though I'm not sure all of Thomas's explorations in black consciousness are apropos; despite all this, I have to suspend my disbelief and recommend this record unreservedly to anyone with the slightest fondness for jazz. If you're dubious, try Blues Time's Super Black Blues, Volume II, which features Thomas solely as a blue singer, together with Turner, Cleanhead Vinson, and T-Bone Walker. A

THUNDERCLAP NEWMAN: Hollywood Dream (Track) Drums: Speedy Keen, a Cockney who writes and sings lead. Guitar: Jimmy McCulloch, who is 16 and looks 13. Piano and miscellaneous: Andy Newman, who is in his late 20s and looks in his early 40s, and who didn't want to join because it meant giving up his pension at the post office. Producer and miscellaneous: Pete Townshend. It all seems like a gargantuan joke until you listen closely, at which point it becomes a very good gargantuan joke. Is this your idea of fun, Peter? Is this your idea of art? And what ever happened to Arthur Brown, anyway? B PLUS [Later: B-]

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: Loaded (Cotillion) I presume anyone who saw the guys at Max's this summer has already bought this, which is to Manhattan what Time Peace is to New York. That is, this is really "Rock & Roll" (a title), but it's also really intellectual and ironic. Lou Reed's singing embodies the paradox. A [Later]

THE VOICES OF EAST HARLEM: Right On Be Free (Elektra) This group of about 20 black adolescents--too big, unfortunately, for convenient transport--is renowned as the most exciting live act in New York, but one believed they could be recorded. Considering, producer (and manager) Jerry Brandt has done a job. Except for an unnecessary "Proud Mary" and an embarrassing "Let It Be Me"--what's the sense of a chorus singing that song?--this shouts and almost jumps, with church and commercial usages grafted onto a left-liberal folk sensibility. B [Later: B-]

Additional Consumer News

Better late than never, Consumer Guide presents (in order and immutable order, of course) the Top 20 Rock Albums of 1970. Ahem.

  1. John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band (Apple)
  2. Randy Newman: 12 Songs (Reprise)
  3. The Grateful Dead: Workingman's Dead (Warner Bros.)
  4. Neil Young: After the Gold Rush (Reprise)
  5. The Insect Trust: Hoboken Saturday Night (Atco)
  6. Van Morrison: Moondance (Reprise)
  7. Bob Dylan: New Morning (Columbia)
  8. Derek and the Dominoes: Layla (Atco)
  9. Canned Heat: Future Blues (Liberty)
  10. Creedence Clearwater Revival: Cosmo's Factory (Factory)
  11. The Beach Boys: Sunflower (Capitol)
  12. Stevie Wonder: Signed, Sealed, and Delivered (Motown)
  13. Jesse Winchester: Jesse Winchester (Ampex)
  14. Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs and Englishmen (A&M)
  15. The Velvet Underground: Loaded (Cotillion)
  16. The Grateful Dead: American Beauty (Warner Bros.)
  17. Mother Earth: Satisfied (Mercury)
  18. Delaney & Bonnie & Friends Featuring Eric Clapton: On Tour (Atco)
  19. Ike and Tina Turner: Come Together (Liberty)
  20. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band: Lick My Decals Off, Baby (Straight)

Honorable mentions for out-of-rock performance: Miles Davis: Bitches Brew (Columbia); the Tony Williams Lifetime: Turn It Over (Polydor); Leon Thomas: The Leon Thomas Album (Flying Dutchman); the Firesign Theatre: Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (Columbia).

Special award for transcending time and space: Terry Riley: A Rainbow in Curved Air (Columbia).

Consumers will be interested to note that Capitol Records is raising the list price on its records $1, which is proportionally equivalent to Chevrolet raising its prices $600. Get them while you can--or don't get them at all.

Bob Thiele, one of the more reliable good guys in the record industry (he was head of Impulse, ABC's excellent jazz division, before starting his own Flying Dutchman group) has started something called the Robert Thiele Center for American Popular Music at his old prep school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, by donating his own collection of records and books. Anyone who's into that sort of thing should understand that gifts are tax-deductible. Write checks to the Lawrenceville School with a notation about where you want the money to go.

Village Voice, Mar. 11, 1971

Jan. 7, 1971 Apr. 22, 1971