Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Two Pick Hits this month, neither real rock and roll but one at least current. This is partly because Two Sevens Clash ain't exactly news even if it does look like my number one come Pazz & Jop. And it's partly because I couldn't bear to slam a Ramones album that beats Aerosmith and Ray Parker product only me and David Geffen expected anything from to begin with.

AEROSMITH: Classics Live II (Columbia) Six of eight tracks on Corporate Revenge II were cut New Year's Eve 1984, a money gig for sure, and every one was at least eight years old at the time; a seventh previewed a song soon to appear on their Geffen debut--but recorded, heh heh, while they were still under CBS jurisdiction. And what we get is some of the toughest and least indulgent live metal ever vinylized, not quite Greatest Hits (four dupes) but way beyond Live Bootleg or Corporate Revenge I. Professionalism--who can predict it? B PLUS

AEROSMITH: Permanent Vacation (Geffen) Don't let the 12 tracks, blues moves, or ace Beatle cover mislead you. Horns here and here and here plus mellotron there and there plus song doctors all over the place add up to running out of gas again already. C PLUS

DAVID BEHRMAN: Leapday Night (Lovely Music) The problem with semipopular minimalism, new age, snooze music, whatever, isn't its quietude--nothing wrong with a record that lowers your pulse rate if that's what you're up for. But its acolytes aren't on very friendly terms with their brains--when their music isn't just stupid, it pampers the vaguer emotions. Behrman's a poetic intellectual, a post-Cagean electronic composer whose moods and textures are generous enough for semipop--or for sentimentality, some "rigorous" academic rivals might sniff, as if they'd know. These computerized synth pieces interact with live violin on "Interspecies Smalltalk," live trumpet on "Leapday Night." The former is like Behrman's On the Other Ocean/Figure in a Clearing with spontaneity built in, the latter like Miles's "Yesternow" or "Shhh/Peaceful" on a floppy. Bye, Michael Hedges. Pack it in, Durutti Column. A MINUS

CRAZY BACKWARDS ALPHABET (SST) Though Beefheart-FFKT drummer John French, Dixie Dregs bassist Andy West, and hockey-mad Swedish avant-rocker Michael Maksymenko get equal billing, this is Henry Kaiser's pickup project--you can tell because he's on every cut. Concept is Beefheart as Dixie Dregs, kind of, with intermittent lyrics, not always in English. You'll go for Maksymenko singing ZZ Top in Russian, and Kaiser-West-Maksymenko rocking Albert Ayler. Both covers, you notice. I never did get Dixie Dregs. B

THE CUCUMBERS (Fake Doom) "My Boyfriend" is a girl-group masterstroke for a feminist age. It revitalizes the notion of cute, and might actually hit if there were actual top forty anymore. In its way, so's "Susy's Getting Married," in which Deena Shoshkes panics at the thought of her girlfriend's desertion, defeat, or coming of age. In their way, so are the self-explanatory "Go Ahed and Do It" and "Snap Out of It." A MINUS

CULTURE: Two Sevens Clash (Shanachie) Previously U.S.-available only as an import if at all, this even more than early Spear is the wellspring of the roots apocalypse that detonated the lion's share of great late reggae. Imagine a man from the hills sitting on a bus in Kingston and possessed by a vision: 1977, the year of the beast, the two sevens come down in all their numerological fury. No wonder every catchphrase sounds like God's word: this is where the Black Starliner and calling Rastafari became the moon-June-spoon of a music industry. The melodies are indelible, the rhythms early Drumbar, the ululations Winston Rodney gone all childlike and lyrical, at least seven tracks absolute classics. One of the ten best reggae albums ever made, says Shanachie's Randall Grass, but he has to watch his credibility. Bob Marley aside, it's the best, and I've been putting Bob Marley aside for it since 1977. A PLUS

THE DB'S: The Sound of Music (I.R.S.) Yeah it rocks, but when a pop group leaves it at that they're no better than their latest song, and when their sole remaining songwriter is still dissecting serial monogamy as he says bye to thirty, chances are his latest song doesn't even interest him all that much. With Chris Stamey they really had a sound. And with Chris Butler they really had a groove. B

DRAMARAMA: Box Office Bomb (Questionmark) They'd rather stay home and make records than go out and play bars, which gives them less of a shot at a jealous following and more of a shot at you and me. Album two's songs don't leap out quite so fast, but everything has more kick--John Easdale's deeper, edgier vocals, Mr E Boy's articulated guitar, and especially Jesse's drums. And soon what you play for just one more post-Pistols taste shakes down into articulated tracks of surprising emotional range. Which coexists with Inspirational Verse like "I told her she was gorgeous/And all about the Borgias." Only Easdale half-swallows "Borgias." Tricky guy. A MINUS [Later]

FASTER PUSSYCAT (Elektra) Supposedly, these glammers are the plastic (isn't that the term?) Aerosmith rip, as opposed to the authentically (right?) nasty boys in Guns n' Roses. They sure do mow down their allotted share of dynamite riffs on side one, though--fit right onto Toys in the Attic. And if side two is pretty generic, it's only a rip, with its meaner impulses undercut by Russ Meyer camp. Guns n' Roses are shriller than Steve Tyler ever was, and nastier. Also dumber. Maybe they should fulfill their self-declared destiny and off themselves with real guns. Real roses won't cut it, and sex and drugs and so forth are so slow, so unreliable. B [Later]

FRENCH FRITH KAISER THOMPSON: Live, Love, Larf and Loaf (Rhino) First side's got the skewed songcraft you'd hope, second the avant-folk excursions you'd fear, and both outdo anything you'd dare expect. Despite the prolonged "Drowned Dog Black Night," first side's also the strongest Thompson since he elected to pursue his solo dick. Good that he doesn't have to do it all--from French's wacky "Wings la Mode" to the collective demolition of "Surfin' USA," it's an ad hoc collaboration that sounds as good as it reads. As for the excursions, well, renowned guitarist Thompson exercises a restraining influence on wealthy plectrum enthusiast Kaiser. Maybe next time they'll persuade Frith to put down his fiddle and join them in 14 choruses of "Free Bird." A MINUS [Later]

MICK JAGGER: Primitive Cool (Columbia) He grooves his overpaid pickup band, he tells Jeff Beck what to do, he writes love songs for every occasion, he doesn't even over-sing much--in short, he realizes his solo move, which beats botching it if only because the sound of a plutocrat's desperation is such an awful thing. But when I realized that "Let's Work" was no metaphor--that it was the plutocrat importuning his lessers to "kill poverty" from the bootstraps up--somehow I stopped worrying whether his "life is trivialized." Your choice, mister--you live with it. B MINUS

KASSAV': Kassav' #5 (Celluloid) Like Senegalese mbalax and Zairean rumba, Antillean zouk has its schlocky tendencies--singing in Creole doesn't get all the French out of your system. So Celluloid's two U.S. Kassav' LPs, both from the early '80s, feature synthesizers and fancy horns and ladies going duh-do-do-do as well as hot polyrhythms and soul/calypso/rumba horns and the occasional catchy theme. Georges Decimus is pretty tuneless, closing one side with a drum piece that won't signify to anyone who doesn't know the difference between ti bwa and Saint Jean (they're both rhythms), and while Kassav' #5 is a lot catchier, I bet greatest hits plucked from the two dozen albums recorded by the band and its many offshoots would be a lot catchier than that. Saved by the schlock-like-it-oughta-be of "Anki Nou"--a quiet storm that crosses "A Whiter Shade of Pale" with "Maggot Brain." B PLUS

K.T. OSLIN: 80's Ladies (RCA Victor) After "Do Ya'," side two is dreck, squeezing its sob stories down to the last overripe chord change, but when she asserts herself this countrypolitan career woman can tell you more about the vagaries of erotic love than two male neotraditionalists half her age combined. Not surprisingly, she asserts herself only when she writes a song all by her lonesome--on "80's Ladies," "Younger Men," and "Do Ya'" too. And the only tune she didn't have a hand in is a sob story that should convert anyone who thinks lady songwriters shouldn't launch singing careers in the prime of life. A voice she's got. B

RAY PARKER JR.: After Dark (Geffen) No no no, Ray--"Let you play with my tool after dark" isn't really a double entendre. It's a little, you know, obvious. And forget Alexander O'Neal--he can sing. That's why he doesn't need double entendres. C PLUS

RAMONES: Halfway to Sanity (Sire) Though things do pick up on side two, workmanlike product isn't saved by a group concept that no longer holds them together. It kills me to say this, but with Richie or whoever on the lam, Dee Dee moonlighting as a punk-rapper, Joey frequenting all-acoustic showcases, and Johnny Johnny, a great band has finally worn down into a day job for night people. C PLUS [Later]

SCRAWL: Plus, Also, Too-- (No Other) As female-identified garage-rock, this never attempts to glorify its ineptitude with swagger or poetry--it has the guts to make plain that ineptitude isn't so damn far from vulnerability. Too often, right, it's merely inept--tuneless and quiet instead of tuneless and loud. But when S. Hershe worries that she's turning into "a slut," or wonders if she should "decide not to worry," or simply sings "I'm sad, I'm sad, I'm so fucking sad," her brains could break your heart. B

STING: . . . Nothing Like the Sun (A&M) He's more relaxed this time, because he's gotten to know his band or maybe just because he's got to less to prove, but except on the lovingly funky "We'll Be Together," no doubt a sop to the market, you're not going to catch him having fun. That would entail his getting out of himself, and from the jazzy insouciance of his Noah sendup to the aching compassion of his tribute to the mothers of the Chilean slain, the focus is always on the man singing. Pretentious, this is called, and no matter how humane your intentions it buries your subject matter in ego. B

A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS (A&M) You get J.C. Mellencamp rocking "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," Bon Jovi slavering "Back Door Santa," Madonna vamp-camping "Santa Baby," but you also get solemnity-and-a-half from Sting and Bob Seger and Whitney Houston (who in this context owes us some soul). No, what makes this the best Xmas album since Phil Spector got bored with Hanukkah is conceptual audacity: pop-rock sticks its schlock in your face, leaning on fourteen eternal hits only Scrooge and Steve Albini could hate on principle. And all for an utterly safe, indubitably worthy cause. This December I'm bringing it out to Queens for dinner. A MINUS

THE WINDBREAKERS: A Different Sort . . . (DB) With Bobby Sutliffe off following his muse like some junior Chris Stamey, Tim Lee remains as Peter Holsapple--sinewy soul, sandpaper cry, iron pyrite hooks, the works. No way is he as clever, but he compensates with an urgency that's his version of sound and groove both, and if a few of these jangle no-fail melodies went deeper than love hurts, he'd deserve better than he's likely to get. B PLUS

NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE: Life (Geffen) The autobiography of a loose cannon starts things off with a bang, proving once and for all that this furriner should volunteer his literary services to the Central Intelligence Agency, where surrealistic inconsistency and casual racism are hallmarks of every cover story. Then there are the reflections on liberty (war?) and fashion (terrorism?) and a heroine from that bygone epoch when dusky-skinned peoples had natural nobility going for them. After which he turns the record over to riff on "Too lonely to fall in love" and toss off some mournful tunes and get his garage band to caterwaul "That's why we don't want to be good." Make no mistake, there's plenty of life left in the son of a bitch. Which should surprise no one who believes it. B

Additional Consumer News

I don't have much use for completism--when I feel like some Buddy Holly or Jerry Lee, the hits (or better, the hits plus) suffice, so I do my listening out of a jacket, not a box. But as much as 24 Greatest Hits (now superceded by 40 Greatest Hits) has given me over the years, when I feel like Hank Williams I crack one of his chronological twofers and discover something new. Praise the Lord, Polydor has now released two more for a total of six--Long Gone Lonesome Blues August 1949-December 1950 and the slightly preferred Hey Good Lookin' December 1950-July 1951, and as usual only a few of the sacred numbers are too much. Don't matter who really wrote the damn songs--the man had a sound.

So did Bob Wills, but it went rote, which is why (except maybe for the Tiffany radio transcriptions) it's wisest to stick to his Columbia years. The Golden Era, a new addition to the Columbia Historic Edition series, won't fail to please latter-day Western swingers, especially those with a hankerng for the jazzbo part of the synthesis. Carl Perkins' Original Sun Golden Hits (Rhino) is the long overdue domestic summation of the subtlest rockabilly, complete with jacket. And then we have RCA's Elvis Presley Commemorative Issue, the latest chapter in the biz's longest-running saga of excess: The Complete Sun Sessions, The Number One Hits, The Top Ten Hits, and The Memphis Record. Great as much of this music is, the packaging is an exploitation. I suppose The Top Ten Hits could serve as a useful introduction, though the early classics are all available in more revealing configurations, and The Memphis Record will appeal to those with a passion for his early comeback period. But The Number One Hits (the Issue's sole single-disc release) is glorified K-Tel, and I've already filed The Complete Sun Sessions in the reference collection. The digital remix adds a little depth to Bill Black's bass, which is neither here nor there, and takes a little echo off Elvis's voice, which is there--does somebody at RCA think the man was a goddamn folksinger? And the second disc--which justifies the "complete," though I bet more takes are unearthed in some golden future--is real collectorama, the outtakes mildly enjoyable and revealing, the three extra "I Love You Because"'s and six extra "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone"'s enough to try the patience of Sam Phillips himself. The Sun Sessions (RCA APM1-1675) is still in the catalogue. It's worth owning for sure.

Katherine Dieckmann obviously doesn't know much about Chuck Berry, but she knows a fuck of a lot more than she did before she damned Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll with her mixed review; I know quite a bit about Chuck Berry, and I sure learned a lot. "The elder rocker is a control freak"? Our Chuck? Only a man who declines all interviews and regularly waves his hand in front of his face on TV to foil perfidious editors. Those who'd like to know more about his criminal record and extramerital exploits should consult Chuch Berry: The Autobiography, which devotes considerable space to both topics; maybe Chuck kept a lid on in the movie so as not to cut into his literary royalties. Granted, either way we have to take Chuck's word, but until you set the Center for Investigative Journalism on the man (and I say Charlton Heston comes first), he's the one with the info. Taylor Hackford has made a very funny and remarkably revealing movie whose explicit subject is a control freak. I'm amazed Chuck let Keith's speculations about the origins of the guitar style in poor old Johnnie Johnson's piano out of the cutting room. Not to mention that rehearsal. As for the big concert, it's a great excuse. Check it out.

Village Voice, Oct. 27, 1987

Sept. 29, 1987 Dec. 1, 1987