Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (23)

I've recently had fun compiling the entries for my first annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, which I reannounce right now. Divide 100 points among 10 lps, with none getting more than 30 or less than five, and send it to me (Box 495, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009) along with your critical credentials and whatever random comments you'd like to make. Almost no one is voting for virtuoso musicians, so unless you really get off on lists don't bother. When I receive all the entries--deadline: Saturday, January 29--I'll fashion some sort of column out of what I learn. Happy memories.

My own list of the 30 best albums of 1971 appears at the end of this Consumer Guide. Last year, I offered a list of 20 and commented that they were in exact and immutable order. This year, I don't even feel in the mood to make that joke. A few records that are receiving more than freak mention in my poll I have never heard (The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, Moments by Boz Scaggs, the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Les Stances a Sophie). Others either slipped by me (The Yes Album, Aqualung, which I'm starting to dig a little) or haven't yet made their full impression (the latest from Traffic and the Mahavishnu Orchestra). In any case, my opinions change. More and more this feature reflects careful judgments, but even careful judgments fail. I still love my top four records of last year (Plastic Ono Band, 12 Songs, After the Gold Rush, Hoboken Saturday Night) but only one of them--the Neil Young, which is easy--reaches my turntable regularly, and there's no record that came out in 1970 that I like as much as Derek and the Dominoes' Layla. I suppose only someone as opinionated as I am can feel surprised at life's mutability, but I do. And if you've never really listened to Layla, do it. A masterpiece.

Now this week's permanent ratings.

ERIC BURDON/JIMMY WITHERSPOON: Guilty! (MGM) Burdon has a clumsy knack for coming out on the other side of a bad idea--after "Monterey," which is just silly, then "Sky Pilot," which is so silly it's wonderful. His stint with War was a bummer, but who but Burdon would think of teaming up with Jimmy Witherspoon? Mike Curb, maybe. This is good in the casual dumb Burdon way, with sloppy interpretation balanced out by brilliant song choice (Chuck Berry's "Have Mercy, Judge"), sloppy arrangements saved by a brilliant young guitarist (John Sterling). Recommended to his fans. B PLUS [Later: B]

THE BYRDS: Farther Along (Columbia) On that downhill road. C [Later]

DADDY COOL: Daddy Who? Daddy Cool! (Reprise) Some day this group is going to be found hanging from a basketball stanchion by matching hula hoops. C MINUS [Later]

JOHN DENVER: Aerie (RCA) Some sort of nadir among commercially successful singer-songwriter records. The voice and the songs are tepid and uninteresting, as if the mid-'60s folk sensibility and the stringless/hornless instrumentation. There's more originality and spirit in Engelbert Humperdinck. If James is a wimp, John is a simp, and that's apparently even worse. D

DION: Sanctuary (Reprise) For reasons that are doubtless sentimental--he was once the quintessential New York rocker--acoustic Dion has been among my favorite club performers since he revived his career three years ago. He is a mature blues based vocalist and this lp finally captures the value of that, as well as a snatch of the good-humored live act. If only he'd forget "Abraham, Martin and John." B PLUS [Later: B-]

MIMI FARINA AND TOM JANS: Take Heart (A&M) I love Mimi Farina's voice--that muted burr really catches me short sometimes--but this record seems almost decadent to me. I don't go in for necrology, but the difference between Richard Farina, a sharp-witted, spirited artist whether he was composing, singing, or playing, and Tom Jans, who is often pretty and always insipid, is as telling an indictment of the new acoustic music as I can offer. C [Later]

ROBERTA FLACK: Quiet Fire (Atlantic) At moments, Flack, the most significant new black woman singer since Aretha Franklin, sounds kind, intelligent, and very likable, but she often exhibits the gratuitous gentility you'd expect of anyone who said "between you and I." Maybe if she'd crackle a bit you you could dance to it. C [Later]

PAUL KANTNER/GRACE SLICK: Sunfighter (Grunt) More sci-fi rev and tamalpaian grandeur from Frisco's royal family. I dig the cover and the two Grace Slick songs, though not the way she keens them, but the rest of this is Paulie II picking his nose. C

THE KINKS: Muswell Hillbillies (RCA Victor) Theoretically, I disapprove of printed lyrics, since the words of a song should reveal themselves in the context of the music, but they can be useful. After putting this on six or eight times without noticing one song, I made sure Ray Davies hadn't grown any new brains by checking the jacket. Nope. Just the same quaint alienation, become ever mushier on that long mudslide that started way back at Something Else. The Kinks Klaque is hyping this as a great album, which only proves that sentimentality dies as hard in Ray's fans as it does in Ray himself. C MINUS [Later: B+]

LAURA LEE: Women's Love Rights (Hot Wax) The first black women's liberation singer has a voice that combines clarity and power and does an amazing eight-minute version of "Since I Fell for You," yet. I can't comment confidently on her politics, but note that many of her more militant songs were written by someone named William Weatherspoon, who is also her producer. How about a chorus of "You Don't Own Me," Ms. Lee? B PLUS [Later: B]

TAJ MAHAL: Happy Just to Be Like I Am (Columbia) A relaxed, witty survey of the Afro-American sensibility, Taj's best since The Natch'l Blues. Even the tubas work. B PLUS [Later]

MOUNTAIN: Flowers of Evil (Windfall) Any group that can attach a great hard rock song to a line like "Proud and gentle was the loving of the last two island swans" has got to be doing something wrong. C PLUS [Later: C]

THE MOVE: Message from the Country (Capitol) I have reservations about giving an A to such a weird record, especially one that falls into the dubious category of hard rock for critics, but I figure any group that finishes off a side of music from Brobdingnag with an imitation Johnny Cash song (who sings it? what is that thing that sounds like a steel guitar with elephantiasis? why are there no credits on this album?) has chutzpah that is truly transcendent. In fact, after a brief acclimatization, I like every cut. Highly recommended to those who like the idea of Grand Funk Railroad better than the music. A MINUS [Later]

LAURA NYRO: Gonna Take a Miracle (Columbia) In which the Bronx tearjerker reveals the source of her gloppy sensibility, namely, good old girl-group rock and roll. Which is fine, except that gloppiness is most exciting when kept within good old formal limitations, rather than indulged, as it is here. Still, Labelle sounds good, "I Met Him on a Sunday" is a small masterpiece, and the Vandellas' stuff comes off pretty well, so this isn't altogether disappointing. B MINUS [Later]

HELEN REDDY (Capitol) A woman who just sort of sings words and melody, instead of attacking them with melodrama. I like her better than any of the genteel interpreters (read: Judy and Joanie) because she prefers songs to musical doggerel (a special weakness of Judy's) and because she lets the subtlest hint of jazz intonation and timing enter her singing, rather than trying to sound pure as a crystal (like Joanie). Highlights: "No Sad Songs" (why wasn't this on Music, hah?); "Summer of '71" (which Reddy herself wrote about the joys of sisterhood); "How?" (the John Lennon self-indulgence remarkably rendered listenable). A MINUS [Later]

BOZ SCAGGS: Boz Scaggs and Band (Columbia) I am on record against the nice 'n' easy school of rock 'n' roll, but Boz sure does it smooth and soulful. I even like the horns. A MINUS [Later: B+]

HOUND DOG TAYLOR (Alligator) This had been around for a while when, in a low mood, I innocently put it on after three sides of Warner Bros. rock and roll as folk muzak--the new Youngbloods, the new double Stoneground. Yawn, sigh, and then pow--electronic gutbucket from the Chicago blues bars, the rawest record I've heard in years, this one makes the new Muddy Waters sound like it was recorded at Caesar's Palace. A MINUS [Later]

LIVINGSTON TAYLOR: Liv (Capricorn) No relation to Hound Dog, unfortunately. C

DAVE VAN RONK: Van Ronk (Polydor) I've always found Van Ronk unlistenable--not unreasonable, since his range is about half an octave--but somehow this shouted melee of a song collection strikes me as exciting and wonderfully funny. His fans say it's his best, so if you used to like him take note. B PLUS [Later]

WINGS: Wild Life (Apple) McCartney is coming to terms with his own fluff--the overproduction sounds less cluttered this time--but it's still fluff, and not much fun, either. For further elucidation, see John Mendelsohn's review in the January 20 Rolling Stone, available in your local library. B MINUS [Later: C-]

Additional Consumer News

Finally, the list: 1. Joy of Cooking 2. The Who: Who's Next 3. Rod Stewart: Every Picture Tells a Story 4. Joni Mitchell: Blue 5. John Lennon: Imagine 6. Sly and the Family Stone: There's a Riot Goin' On 7. Delaney & Bonnie: Motel Shot 8. Van Morrison: Tupelo Honey 9. Faces: A Nod Is as Good as a Wink . . . to a Blind Horse 10. Carole King: Tapestry 11. Nils Lofgren and Grin: 1 Plus 1 12. Janie Joplin: Pearl 13. Hound Dog Taylor 14. Three Dog Night: Harmony 15. Detroit 16. Al Green Gets Next to You 17. The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers 18. Crazy Horse 19. David Bowie: Hunky Dory 20. The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions 21. The Move: Message From the Country 22. Faces: Long Player 23. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: One Dozen Roses 24. Leonard Cohen: Songs of Love and Hate 25. Boz Scaggs and Band 26. Grateful Dead 27. Harry Nilsson: Nilsson Schmilsson 28. The Rascals: Search and Nearness 29. Helen Reddy 30. Tom T. Hall: In Search of a Song . . .

Peter Guralnick's Feel Like Going Home is the most emotionally and intellectually satisfying rock book yet to appear. Guralnick is basically into blues and early rock and roll, and his vision isn't as relevant as, say, Nik Cohn's or Greil Marcus's, but he records his experience faithfully and with insight. . . .

A recommended greatest hits album: Peaches, the two-record set from Etta James, who deserves more attention than she gets.

Village Voice, Jan. 20, 1972

Dec. 30, 1971 Mar. 2, 1972