Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Defying yet another time-honored tradition, this Xmas CG hits the stands January 6. After all, nobody went out of their way to give the gift of music this year anyway, right? So why should I fall into line?

BLACK FLAG: Damaged (SST) Although the B side drags more painfully than I bet was intended, this is powerful stuff. Greg Ginn is the greatest noise guitarist since Johnny Thunders, new vocalist Henry Rollins can snarl along any tortured contour they serve up, and "Rise Above," "Six Pack," and the uproarious "TV Party" prove they can write songs as well as gnash fragments. Inspirational Verse: "I wanna live/I wish I was dead." A MINUS

THE BLASTERS (Slash) One reason the originals work better than the covers is that Phil Alvin's blues-tinged moan, while easily the most expressive vocal style in all of nouveau rockabilly, does sound pinched sometimes, so that even when you don't know the source recording (which you probably don't), you can imagine it fuller. The other reason is that Dave Alvin's originals introduce a major songwriter, one with John Fogerty's bead on the wound-tight good times of America's tough white underbelly, though his focus is shallower, sexual rather than spiritual. The band plays--and Phil sings--with comparable fervor. A MINUS [Later]

BOW WOW WOW: See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah! City All Over, Go Ape Crazy (RCA Victor) You don't play Afrobeats with a surf band's chops--what makes real African music captivating is a tonal range so subtle it creates little hooks among the polyrhythms. Yet a lot of this transcends its own klutziness. M. McLaren's propagandistic conceits are so outrageous they're comical, especially in a little samba called "Hello, Hello Daddy (I'll Sacrifice You)" ("Eat the heart of my kith and kin!/That's what I'm interested in!"). And the good-legged adolescent grace and vivacity of the wondrous Annabella touch my heart every time she opens her mouth. B PLUS

DAVID BYRNE: Songs From the Broadway Production of "The Catherine Wheel" (Sire) Byrne's take on the rhythms of Africa is even more perilous for imitators than Coltrane's on the mysteries of the Orient, but this surprisingly apt translation-to-disc of his Twyla Tharp score proves his patent is worth the plastic it's imprinted on. The magic's all in Byrne's synthesis of the way drums talk and the way Americans talk--middle Americans, not Afro-Americans. Beset by contingencies they can't make sense of, his protagonists twist from one side to the other, yet somehow emerge from the end of the tunnel with their wills intact. Must have to do with that unnatural rhythm. A MINUS

CARRY ON OI! (Secret) I don't claim to get all the words, but between bands like the Partisans and Red Alert and Gary Bushell's compassionate fictionalized notes I think this compilation gives the lie to the liberal Nazi-baiting the style's subjected to. And the way one band after another emits virtually indistinguishable bellows of jolly rage is mutually reinforcing--gives you the sense that all that enthusiasm adds up to a movement. But the songs really are pretty hard to tell apart. And the recitations and pub-sing laffs that tie it all together wear thin even faster than most concept moves. B

A CHRISTMAS RECORD (ZE import) Most of this oddly ambitious nine-song anthology seems a little off, but that suits its odd ambition, which is seeking the spirit in an audience turned off by seasonal shtick. Was (Not Was) and Alan Vega take on involuntary and semivoluntary poverty, the Waitresses aim for the singles bars, and Davitt Sigerson should by all rights be earning royalties up there with Irving Berlin--or at least Torme-Wells or Davis-Onorati-Simeone. B PLUS

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: Raise! (Columbia) As long as they hew to a few simple rules--up on the tempos, down on the bullshit, etc.--there's no reason why these fellows can't turn their sparkling harmonies and powerful groove into a pure, contentless celebration of virtuosity. I mean once a year--at least in theory. But this is the first time the possibility's ever even occurred to me, which must mean they felt a show of strength was due. Don't bet on a follow-up. A MINUS [Later: B+]

THE FUTURE LOOKS BRIGHT (Posh Boy) A much more impressive L.A. sampler than Slash's Decline of Western Civilization, this compiles 25 titles from 10 hardcore bands, all of whom manage to add an extra pinch of meaning or quantum of rush to the basic yowl. Faves: the Minutemen, named for their preferred song length and given to unpunky little guitar squiggles; the Descendents 11-second "Der Weinerschnitzel" (how's that again?); Social Distortion's "Playpen"; and of course Black Flag. List Price $5.98. B PLUS

THE J. GEILS BAND: Freeze-Frame (EMI America) For me, their best since Monkey Island if not the debut divides neatly into three groups of three: slick get-me-off trash (hit single plus two music-as-escape songs), slick get-'em-off trash (opener, closer, and "Angel in Blue," a whore with a heart of brass that I'm just a sucker for), and slick get-offa-me trash (two throwaways at the end of side one plus "River Blindness," a more pretentious try at "Monkey Island," that album's sole bumout). If you're discovering the great audience these days it might even change your life for a month. But I guarantee you it didn't change the band's. B PLUS

GREATEST RAP HITS VOL. 2 (Sugarhill) The first volume was a charming concatenation of oddities foreshortened for long-player; this melds six terrific full-length twelve-inches, including two of the greatest singles of this or any year ("Wheels of Steel" with a boisterous new coda), into one all-time classic funk album, unified by the superb Sugarhill house band (Doug Wimbish! Doug Wimbish!) and the pervasive smarts of Grandmaster Flash & Co. In its way, rap's up-and-at-'em sex-and-money optimism is as misleading as the willful down-and-outism of L.A. punk--joke-boast tradition or no, kids who find they can't go at it till the break of dawn may not need a Darby Crash to inspire thoughts of ending it all. But the way these fast talkers put their stamp on a cultural heritage both folk and mass is the most masterful pop move to hit Communications Central since the Ramones. A

JERRY HARRISON: The Red and the Black (Sire) Though the polyrhythms degenerate at times into steamy clutter, Harrison comes up with keyboard hooks I'd like to hear elsewhere; I recommend "Slink" to G. Clinton Assoc. But Jerry should keep his teeth clenched at all times. Bright enough not to try to carry a tune or anything, he apparently hasn't figured out that the talky voiceovers he essays instead are the worst fad of the year--it's as hard to avoid making them pompous or nagging or twerpy as it is, well, to sing. C PLUS

HUMAN SWITCHBOARD: Who's Landing in My Hangar? (Faulty Products) Have rock-and-rollers ever reflected more matter-of-factly on the travails of sexual commitment? Bet both Pfeifer and Marcarian were raised up in the First Church of Humanity (Secular), because unlike Elvis II and the X kids, for instance, they don't find much thrill in confessional--just get annoyed, pissed off, very pissed off, and insane with rage. Also unlike the aforementioned, they get lyrical, quite light and playful in fact, which adds charm to their organ-based garage style. Not many cool guys boasting about their girlfriends' "looks" these days. A

THE JACKSONS: Live (Epic) Quincy Jones marshals subtler dynamics, and the only classic (?) that gets full treatment is "Ben," still a song that could make you hate rats. But both material and singer(s) are live-er than you'll ever be. B PLUS

KING CRIMSON: Discipline (Warner Bros./E.G.) It's amazing how somebody who gabs as much as Robert Fripp gets fucked up by words. Maybe he's afraid to take on a real singer because he knows singers take over bands. So he hires Adrian Belew, who between his David Byrne impressions and his John Wetton impressions and his man-in-the-studio candid-microphone shtick damn near takes over anyway. Musically, not bad--the Heads meet the League of Gentlemen, although I wish the valiant Bill Bruford knew as much about rhythm as John Chernoff. But throw away that thesaurus. B

THE KINKS: Give the People What They Want (Arista) Hook-laden and hard-rocking, this is the best-crafted Kinks album in over a decade, which means that for someone who's found Ray Davies's world-view increasingly mean-spirited and mush-brained, it's also the biggest turnoff. Back when he was chairing the Village Green Preservation Society, Ray's dotty lyricism put his nostalgia in appealing and appropriate musical perspective; his current clean-cut arena style makes him sound smug and strident, as well it should. Opening with a piece of radio pimpery in which a deejay becomes not just a benefactor (lie enough these days) but a hero of modern mythos, it moves on to songs about paranoids, battered wives, murderers, and dirty old men that reveal minimal charity for either side of the interactions they put down. Giveaways the self-fulfilling "Predictable" and the misanthropic title tune. C PLUS

PABLO MOSES: Pave the Way (Mango) It's the same for Sly & Robbie as for Stax-Volt, Gamble & Huff, or for that matter Richard Perry--if a great studio style is going to break out of its formula and zap the listener, the record had better offer identification, inspiration, or hooks. But me, I'm no Rasta, or any other kind of theist or cultural nationalist; are you? And the gain in vocal competence strikes me as a dangerous thing--because Moses always "projects" now, he deprives his basic singsong of the nursery-rhyme lucidity that makes his best work so winning. Nor could anyone claim that the most memorable songs here--the side-openers, natch: this studio t.c.b.--have half the grab of "Revolutionary Dream" on that first album, entitled I Love I Bring, on UA, and still available in cutout bins. B [Later]

NEW YORK DOLLS: Lipstick Killers (ROIR) Nine great songs, three of them covers, including the previously unavailable "Don't Mess With Cupid." If I knew no other versions, I'd recommend these 1972 demos, but as it is Johnny sounds tame, doomed drummer Billy Murcia halting, Arthur out of tune (shocking!), and David perhaps halfway to the wit and assurance that brought this great band together. For historians only. C PLUS [Later]

RED ROCKERS: Condition Red (415) After starting out as a tribute band called first Garageland and then White Riot (just a joke fellas, put those guns away please), these heavy New Orleans postpunks set themselves to writing anthems for the next American revolution, anthems I'm sure would be more rousing if the next American revolution were as simple and inevitable as they pretend. Sure there's a "teenage underground," but only "Grow Up" and maybe "Peer Pressure" dig beneath its surface. Time: 27:39. B MINUS

ROD STEWART: Tonight I'm Yours (Warner Bros.) This is not only a comeback but a speedup--comes on like he thinks Depeche Mode is the next Vanilla Fudge. These days the "Mandolin Wind" man only sounds genuinely sensitive when his ego's threatened--on the cuckolded "How Long," not the icky-inspirational "Never Give Up on a Dream." And he's most convincing when he sounds really mad, on the cuckolded "Jealous." B PLUS [Later: B]

TOM TOM CLUB (Sire) Vaguely annoyed by "Wordy Rappinghood"'s arch, prolix postverbalism, I resisted this record until the "Genius of Love" signature, already the basis of two rap covers, caught up with me in a club in Queens. Now I enjoy every cut, even the one with the radio transmission, a device I ordinarily regard as the worst permutation of the worst fad of the year. Between Tina Weymouth's childish vocals and the consistently playful pulse, the best kiddie funk since Motor-Booty Affair. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Best-ofs were so confusing and depressing this Christmas that I decided to semifinesse my annual round up, as is only fair--there's never been such a confusing or depressing Christmas for the biz that spews 'em forth. Here we have Willie Nelson, Blondie, Dave Edmunds, even Changestwobowie--all listenable, none in any way definitive. In the useful category are Warners' Best of the Doobies Volume II (though I wish "What a Fool Believes" was on the same side with the other Michael McDonald goodies), 20th's The Best of Edwin Starr (disco-where-do-its-hits-go revisited) and Barry White's Greatest Hits Volume Two (sha la la means let's smooch), and best of all Gary Stewart's Greatest Hits on RCA (with half its 10 honky-tonkin' tracks from Out of Hand and Your Place or Mine, worth owning but you probably don't.

Village Voice, Jan. 12, 1982

Nov. 30, 1981 Feb. 15, 1982