Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (3)

Due to unanticipated reader response, I have concocted a second successive Consumer Guide, hereafter referred to as CG3. I promised myself I'd never write two in a row--I like to think of myself as a writer, not a service department, though the latter is beginning to have appeal--but I find myself overwhelmed by Reader requests, which I foolishly promised to answer in CG2.

So, more than half of the ratings in CG3--most of those below B--were requested by readers. If you don't find yours it's either because I don't have the record or refuse to believe it requires a consumer rating. Some self-control here, folks. Anybody who's still biting his nails over whether to buy Led Zeppelin needs more reinforcement than I want to provide. And Mother Earth's Living with the Animals, a great record, was released around last October. I really did intend this feature for people who wonder whether they should buy this or that record after hearing a promising cut or a good live performance. The reality, however, is too much like work. Keep those cards and letters coming in, but even though I'll consider all requests--I normally answer all letters except those I lose, by the way, though I've reneged temporarily in the face of the current deluge--I promise to listen only according to my own unpredictable inclinations. If you want to know what I think of a group, ask me and I'll tell you. I'll even tell you that I have no opinion.

Some more thoughts on rating. I'm just like anyone else--I trust the familiar, and tend to give the benefit of the doubt to artists I've liked in the past. Allow for that. Also, when I don't write about a group it will usually mean that they're not even good enough to worry about. In general, I would say that any record that gets a B plus or better is worth owning--by my standards, of course. This week's way of stating those standards is to say I'm highly suspicious of both formlessness and polish, like soul music and Top 40 more than most of you and white blues less, and tend to rate improvisations by standards inherited from jazz when they run over a couple of choruses. And remember, I penalize records one notch for being too short (under 30 minutes), badly packaged (Unipak) and, in some cases, chintzy with personnel listings.

On to CG3.

AORTA (Columbia) Rescued from my second-apartment second-listen pile by a reader's tentative C rating, this one is a caricature of the new releases that glut the stores, not to mention my workroom. Badly sung (ranging from pseudo-soul to imitation Happenings), full of pretentious production effects (another disaster from Dunwich Productions), its silly lyrics reproduced proudly within the double-fold--yet someone bought it and listened to it and I can almost understand. What a gap there is between people who pay for their records and those who hear everything free. As a final insult, group members are listed "upper right," "upper left," etc. E MINUS

BLIND FAITH (Atco) Perhaps because I expected such miracles from the beginning, I was never turned around by Cream or Traffic, but neither group ever put out a record that didn't contain a track or two that I loved--"I Feel Free" or "Paper Sun" or "Politician" or "Feelin' Alright." There is nothing here that makes me feel that way: I'm almost sure that when I'm through writing this I'll put the album away and only play it for guests. Unless I want to hear Clapton--he is at his best here because he is kept in check by the excesses of Winwood, who is rapidly turning into the greatest wasted talent in the music. There. I said it and I'm glad. B

BLUE IMAGE (Atco) Competent white blues without enough of the Latin multiple percussion promised on the jacket. C

THE BOX TOPS: Dimensions (Bell) My weakness for lead singer Alex Chilton is admitted, but this really is the group's best album, a goldmine of ambiguities for nascent producer theorists. I have to grant that Chilton's "I Shall Be Released" isn't up to Cocker, Makeba, Simone, or the Band, but that the group should do it at all, as a single, yet . . . Also, dig "Midnight Angel." Charged a notch because Bell didn't even bother to list Chilton, much less provide us with the names of the studio musicians who impersonate the group on those sessions. B

JAMES COTTON BLUES BAND: Cotton in Your Ears (Verve/Forecast) Even more undistinguished than usual, except for a nice jazzy instrumental called "The Coach's Better Days." Mike Bloomfield produced. C MINUS

SWEET LINDA DIVINE (Columbia) Linda Tillery is a somewhat excessive black girl with a razor in her larynx who did a pretty good record with the Loading Zone. Now Al Kooper, wearing his producer suit, has gotten hold of her and indulged her excesses as if they were his own. It was five years between "Highway 61 Revisited" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Was it really worth the wait? D PLUS

EARTH OPERA: The Great American Eagle Tragedy (Elektra) A pretentious group which brings it off better than most pretentious groups, at least on this album, which I ignored because the first one was so terrible. Some good melodies hidden here--I'll listen more. C PLUS

BILL EVANS WITH JEREMY STEIG: What's New? (Verve) Usually, Evans is the final proof of the triviality of technical accomplishment, but occasionally he gets together with someone who complements him properly. No heavy riffs and not much heavy beat, but nice, especially for all of you who believe you like Jethro Tull (see below). B

WILD MAN FISCHER: An Evening with Wild Man Fischer (Bizarre) This record has gotten good reviews everywhere and I just wanted to concur: a fascinating document. But remember--it's a document, not music, recommended only to those with a serious interest in the rock subculture. Great term paper subject. Along the way, Frank Zappa provides two object lessons in the relationship of production to original material. B

LOTTI GOLDEN: Motor-Cycle (Atlantic) I don't like this myself, but I also don't like Laura Nyro. If you do, you might glance at the lyrics on the back of the jacket and find out if you're interested. D PLUS

JOHN HARTFORD (RCA Victor) Hartford is an engaging singer and an excellent songwriter, but the production and arrangements on this record are criminal (boo Rock Jarrard! Boo Al Capps!) and the material very thin--nothing near the calibre of, say, "California Earthquake." Songs about warts take you just so far. Unipak. D PLUS

JETHRO TULL: This Was (Reprise) Ringleader Ian Anderson has come up with a unique concept that combines the worst of Roland Kirk, Arthur Brown, and your nearest G.O. blues band. I find his success very depressing. C MINUS

THE KNOWBODY ELSE (Hip) A classic white Southern rock band. Despite the terrible group name and the terrible label name (Stax subsidiary) and the terrible cover art, they really make it. Lead singer James Mangrum is a cross between Dr. John and Captain Beefheart, the arrangements are spare and evocative, the songs simple but never banal. Very nice. B

THE LITTER: Emerge (Probe) Excellent on hard rock (three cuts), normal-lousy on everything else. Too heavily weighted in favor of a bad lead guitarist. C MINUS

JONI MITCHELL: Clouds (Reprise) Without David Crosby's production--this is basically a voice-and-acoustic record--Joni's voice sounds malnourished, which it is. Three excellent songs, but two of them, "Both Sides Now" and "Chelsea Morning," have been done better elsewhere. (By the way, nightclub singer Gloria Loring's version of "Chelsea Morning" is better than Judy Collins'.) The other one is called "Roses Blue." C

OTIS REDDING: Love Man (Atco) Although the tender passages aren't quite up to his best, this is Redding's best lp since "Immortal." Dig especially the scatting on "I'm a Changed Man." A

SPIRIT: Clear (Ode) A talented group with guts of cellophane. Randy California is the rock equivalent of the cool, progressive jazzman of the '50s. The group can be very good--side one is mostly excellent rock--and incredibly empty--"Ice" on side two. Down a notch for not telling us who's playing, up one for concentrating the good on one side. C PLUS

THE STOOGES (Elektra) Stupid-rock at its best--the side of the Velvet Underground that never developed (John Cale produced). B PLUS

TONGUE AND GROOVE (Fontana) I have since discovered that Lynne Hughes, the singer who makes this go, has worked with the Charlatans, but when I put it on I had never heard of her. What a pleasant surprise. Michael Ferguson's rolling piano and Randy Lewis's contained guitar add up to a happy and original sound. A sleeper. (Great name, by the way. The publishing company is called Scarf Joint.) B PLUS

THE YOUNGBLOODS: Elephant Mountain (RCA Victor) C is for chi-chi. In the manner of tight groups, the Youngbloods stretch thinner all the time. Not only have they lost Jerry Corbitt, but their own expertise has become somehow attenuated. Banana used to be the most tasteful electric pianist in rock. Now he has become so tasteful he can sounds like Roy Kral on a lazy night. This is a bad week for personnel listings--down a notch. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

According to Cash Box, the top single in the country this week is "Honky Tonk Women." The Stones aren't out yet. Also, "Give Peace a Chance" is 14, "Lay Lady Lay" 16, and "Get Together" 17, all with bullets. Not bad, not bad.

Reader Dana Dolan informs me that The TAMI Show, the great 1965 rock and roll movie, has not disappeared or disintegrated but could in fact be found on a double feature with Monterey Pop in San Fransisco not long ago. The bastids always get there first. Why doesn't someone in New York try that bill?

Someone wrote to suggest that I write an encomium to Tina Turner and include a discography. Well, I just saw Tina for the first time (at the Las Vegas International Hotel, where I traveled to see Elvis, of which more next column) and I agree--she's a great one, a female James Brown. But Brown doesn't come across on record, and neither does she. Some day I may really listen to all those Ike & Tina records on all those labels (at least five that I know of) but my cursory impressions are always the same--a few great tracks amid the mediocrities.

One stanza of Frank Sinatra's version of "Mrs. Robinson" (on the aptly titled My Way album) goes like this: "The PTA, Mrs. Robinson, won't OK the way you do your thing/Ding ding ding/ and you'll get yours, Mrs. Robinson, foolin' with that young stuff like you do/Boo hoo hoo."

Mea culpa: I am reminded that the composers for "Wild in the Streets" were Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, not Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Sorry.

Village Voice, Aug. 14, 1969

July 31, 1969 Sept. 18, 1969