Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

As I prepare my first draft a week in advance, new albums by the Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, and Linda Ronstadt sit on my shelves, as yet unplayed because I've been so busy quality-checking old Kevin Coyne releases; Randy Newman should arrive shortly. Sire's four-album new wave release has been on my turntable for weeks but I'm not exactly sure what I think of it yet (hint: I like the Dead Boys more than I expected and Talking Heads less). Wait till next time.

KARLA BONOFF (Columbia) I like this woman, who strikes me as sexy and sensible and almost as wise as she wants to be. But there's something self-pitying and slightly sheeplike in her voice that turns me off. And even though I've been humming "I Can't Hold On" for three days, I suspect I'll be going to Fleetwood Mac when I want that sort of buzz in the future. B MINUS

DOLLAR BRAND: Cape Town Fringe (Chiaroscuro) Horns and piano lope through the 13-minute title cut and A side--a relaxed, sexy, conversational melody with variations-and-polyrhythms that is as charming and listenable as any African pop music I've yet come across. Side B begins as a fetchingly forthright Spanish-style piano piece but devolves into a flute meander that doesn't justify an overall length of 13:36. Nevertheless, a find. B PLUS

BLONDIE CHAPLIN (Asylum) The trick with this very attractive record is to approach it as an intense and knowing exploration of the conventions of modern rock and roll. That way you can immerse yourself in its raceless melisma, raving overdubs, and produced grooves as if engaging in a meaningful activity. But it is customary in projects of this kind to distinguish between exploration and exploitation, ready-made and cliché, aural depth and aural surface, by means of a few hints in the lyrics (cf. Dave Edmunds or Dwight Twilley). Chaplin doesn't--can't bear to tamper with the purity of his vision, I suppose. B

DON CHERRY (Horizon) A clear-eyed charity animates Cherry's three recent albums: Eternal Now (Antilles), dominated by Asian and African folk instruments; Hear & Now (Atlantic), produced with standard electric jazz instrumentation by Narada Michael Walden; and this Eastward-looking acoustic jazz LP. Rather than transporting him into kitschy esoterica or providing an excuse for profitable one-worlder populism, Cherry's religious leanings seem to inspire a gut respect for the uses of musical ritual, whether in a Chinese temple or a movie-theatre-turned-rock-palace, so that he can recycle what is fresh about the folk roots and popular branches of the free-jazz idiom without betraying his own commitment to it. Not that his work isn't marred by rambling passages and received riffs; even this album, featuring musicians like Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, has its share of sappy moments. But I can't think of a fusion hustler or black Buddhist who couldn't learn something from his sweetness and acuity. B PLUS

CLOVER (Mercury) These California eclecticists are callow enough to achieve wimp naturally and soulless enough to attempt funk without the chops. In other words, they're worse than Firefall (whom see) and Pablo Cruise (whom see simultaneously). Nip 'em in the bud. C MINUS

ALICE COOPER: Lace and Whiskey (Warner Bros.) Is this how Johnny Rotten is going to end up? Concocting mildly melodic garage MOR for an audience defined by its tolerance for condescension? I doubt it--but I'm not so sure about Stiv Bators. C PLUS

KEVIN COYNE: In Living Black and White (Virgin) Given his invisibility in this country, this may be your last chance at this gravel-gutted dwarf with his weirdo proclivities. It's also your best--the live recording is a little loose, as usual, but the voice is less panic-stricken than on his studio LPs, and the material at a peak. B PLUS

15-60-75 THE NUMBERS BAND: Jimmy Bell's Still in Town (Water Bros.) What is this I hear? Some kind of weird cross between the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground making its own record in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio? No, that's not what I hear, but the description will have to do until the group comes up with another album--which I hope will feature more public lyrics and a drummer who can propagate the polyrhythms. B MINUS

FIREFALL: Luna Sea (Atlantic) In which Rick Roberts allows as how he's "gonna quit that crazy runaround"--cross your heart, Rick?--and the whole band muses about how nice it would be if things never "changed for the better/But never got no worse." Such dreamers! Alternate title: Compa Tents. C

FIRESIGN THEATRE: Just Folks . . . A Firesign Chat (Butterfly) It's a good year when the grand old men of head comedy release two albums (including Forward Into the Past, a skillfully reedited twofer best-of on Columbia) and Cheech & Chong release none (yet, and let's hope). This LP concentrates on what Firesign does best--turning tolerant radio chitchat into a horror show. But the edge is off their discovery--the details change but the perception itself seems stagnant. For followers only. B MINUS

CAROLE KING: Simple Things (Capitol/Avatar) Inspirational Verse: ". . . it's not for me to understand/Maybe destruction is part of the plan." Maybe? Worth millions and she doesn't know how to make an omelet. C MINUS

MALLARD: In a Different Climate (Virgin) In case you ever wonder what happened to Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, a few of them joined up here, playing an electric music that recalls country blues (not to mention the Captain himself) in both the guttural density of its sound and the downhome surrealism of its lyrics. Hard to tell it's them only because Beefheart, that lovable eccentric, retains legal rights to their lovable stage names, thus compelling musicians he once induced to remain anonymous to revert to their unknown monikers. B

STEVE MARTIN: Let's Get Small (Warner Bros.) Martin's style of tastelessness is refreshing--you know he'd do a blue routine or a moron joke if he could come up with one that was funny. But it's not true that he's unsullied by topicality; his definitively post-hip humor is as bound to time and place as Mort Sahl's, less "pure" than Bill Cosby's or Jerry Lewis's (not to mention Buster Keaton's). And having listened to this record shortly after making his acquaintance in concert, I find that most of it doesn't wear especially well. Pardon me. B

HIRTH MARTINEZ: Big Bright Street (Warner Bros.) I like a man whose dream of utopia goes "And they never grew old/And they never caught a cold," and I like this record. Hirth has learned to use his wizened voice more forcefully without relinquishing any of the amateurism that is his special charm, and since John Simon is a relatively reticent and eccentric producer, the funky gloss that so often accrues to El Lay favorites never turns to glitz. B PLUS

MAC MCANNALLY (Ariola America) Although it does often sound pat, as folk stoicism will in a post-folk context, the first side comes across pretty outspoken for a Mississippi singer-songwriter with royalties in the bank--the heroine of one song is a rape victim who murders both assailant and judge after the latter lets off the former. Side two is Joe South. B MINUS

THE ORIGINAL ANIMALS: Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted (United Artists/Jet) Not bad for a reunion LP--a lot more authentic sounding than the Byrds', or Moby Grape's. But then, the Animals weren't as good as the Byrds or Moby Grape. And the only time Eric Burdon really recaptures that old white magic is on "Many Rivers to Cross," such an extended cliché by now that only a singer as crude as Eric, with his desperate key changes and random enthusiasm, can bring it to life. Me, I still prefer "Sky Pilot." B MINUS [Later]

PABLO CRUISE: A Place in the Sun (A&M) This mainstream synthesis is not without a certain agreeable tension--vocally and instrumentally, these boys do have their licks down. But it's also a demonstration of how today's pop exploits the rhythmic and dramatic clichés of yesterday's black music. Lyrics, too--Cory Lerios and Dave Jenkins are credited as the sole composers of "Raging Fire," even though it includes the following Inspirational Verse: "Your love has lifted me higher/Than I've ever been before." C [Later]

IGGY POP: Lust for Life (RCA) The line on Iggy is that his creative power has dissipated; of the two comeback albums with Bowie and friends, this one is given an edge because it's faster and more assertive, but nostalgia for the good ole Stooges prevails. I say bullshit. The Stooges never made first rate albums (including the collectors only live semi-bootleg, Metallic K.O.). They recorded prophetic music, but only some of it was great; because Iggy's skill at working out his musical concept didn't match his energy and inspiration, the attempted dirges tell that and some of the rockers never blasted off as intended. In contrast, the new records work as records, due of course to Bowie, who revealed his (trance-prone) affinity for the slow rocker on Station to Station and his (apollonian) affinity for the dionysiac artist on All the Young Dudes. The mode is nihilistic satire, counteracted as always by the forward movement of the rock and roll form itself. By now, Iggy barbs his lyrics with a survivor's irony, which suits Bowie's music just fine, and in retrospect it will appear that this was his only alternative to autodestruct. Not true, perhaps, but retrospect favors artifacts, and so do I. Lust for Life is less Bowie-esque and will appeal more to orthodox rock and rollers, but I value The Idiot just as much. A MINUS [Later]

JAMES TALLEY: Ain't It Something (Capitol) The country populism on Talley's previous album was vague enough to suit Johnny Cash or Charley Pride (not to mention Jimmy Carter) and went with mawkish love songs and some dubious B.B. King guitar. This one is as tough culturally/politically as Tryin' Like the Devil, as tender romantically/domestically as Got No Bread, and puts in some James Brown funk where it belongs. Welcome back. A MINUS [Later: B+]

LIBBY TITUS (Columbia) I don't like this woman, who strikes me as a cutesy-pie snob with starfucker tendencies. But there's something sultry and smart in her voice that turns me on. And although there are too many Carly Simon compositions on side two (now I know--it's the singer and the song), I suspect I'll be playing side one again some time, no doubt when I'm in the mood for a sharp cutie-pie who might conceivably mistake me for a star. B

Additional Consumer News

There's scarcely an anthology in Martin Williams's Smithsonian Collection of jazz recordings that I don't admire, but there are quite a few I file away for present reference and, perhaps, future pleasure. Not so with Fletcher Henderson: Developing an American Orchestra 1923-1937, an irresistible tour of the best impulses of American jazz between the time of King Oliver's pre-Armstrong band and the heyday of Duke Ellington. I play it almost as often as I do Ellington's now out-of-print Flaming Youth, on Vintage, and the Smithsonian's Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines 1926, which like the Henderson is available for $9 from Box 10230, Des Moines, Iowa 50331. . . .

Import obsession of the month--in fact, obsession of the month--is the Vibrators' Pure Mania, about which more when it appears on domestic Columbia. Stiff (starring Elvis Costello) will also be distributed here by Columbia, but I wonder whether the Clash (on CBS in England) won't prove too rough for Black Rock, delaying their American career. . . .

Weird single obsession of the month is "I Got a Right" by Iggy Pop and James Williamson, recorded in 1971 and never put on Raw Power (to its detriment). Two bucks from Siamese Records, c/o Chouket, 1214 West Clark Street, West Hollywood, CA 90069. I also enjoy Devo's "Jocko Homo" b/w "Mongoloid," by the Ramones out of Eno, on Booji Boy (they come from Ohio and work some in L.A. but I have no address) and the hard rockabilly "Rock and Roll Behavior," by Charlie Burton & Rock Therapy, on Wild. Imports: Rods (see Pazz & Jop) and (especially for politicos) the three Step-Forwards from the editors of Sniffin' Glue; Chelsea, the Cortinas, and the Models, all available at Freebeing on Second Avenue for a buck. . . .

Geoffrey Stokes's Star Making Machinery, one of the best rock books ever written and the definitive account of how the music biz operates, is now available in Vintage paperback for $3.95. I know he works here and all, but this is really a good read. Pick it up.

Village Voice, Oct. 3, 1977

Sept. 5, 1977 Oct. 31, 1977