Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

[ . . . ] status of the entrants. But I haven't listened to so many B plusses in what seems like years, and that's good. I'd hoped to come down hard on at least part of the Sire punk blockbuster, just to prove I'm not a complete sucker for all this unmusicianly (hah!) stuff, but when I began humming Saints songs I knew it was hopeless. So instead I found I could document my objectivity in a more constructive way, by finding good music all over the place. This month, for once, there are new albums around for every taste. At the moment, my personal top-to-bottom rundown of the B plusses would go Townshend-Lane, Bley, Ronstadt, Twilley, Steely Dan, Hell, Newman, Robinson, but if you find any of them attractive to read about you'll probably find them attractive to listen to as well.

CARLA BLEY: Dinner Music (Watt) I'm quite taken with this, which reminds me in an abstract way of Another Green World. Where dance jazz was unselfconsciously functional, this is art jazz that was designed to be functional--just as Eno designed his electronic pop-rock to fade into the background the way so much electronic pop-rock does anyway. The result is yet another of those Jazz Composer's Orchestra get-togethers between avant-gardists (JCOA stalwarts Michael Mantler and Roswell Rudd) and pop luminaries (the Stuff studio funk axis), and this time the music meshes. Unfortunately, however, I find that only two of the right cuts--"Ida Lupino" and "Ad Infinitum"--combine melody and rigor as magically as the double-edged concept promises. B PLUS

DEAD BOYS: Young Loud and Snotty (Sire) Despite Stiv Bators's mewl, which can get almost as annoying as Geddy Lee's falsetto, this is mostly well-crafted junk, tough and tuneful and in one case--the definitively deafening "Sonic Reducer"--positively anthemic. But the charm of good junk has always been its innocence, and if these fellows are innocent they're pretty perverse about it--emotional incompetents out of their depth. Alternate title (stolen from Mary Harron): Take My Life--Please. B

RICHARD HELL AND THE VOIDOIDS: Blank Generation (Sire) Like all the best CBGB bands, the Voidoids make unique music from a reputedly immutable formula, with jagged, shifting rhythms accentuated by Hell's indifference to vocal amenities like key and timbre. I'm no great devotee of this approach, which harks back to Captain Beefheart. So when I say that Hell's songs get through to me, that's a compliment: I intend to save this record for those very special occasions when I feel like turning into a nervous wreck. B PLUS [Later: A-]

THE JOY (Fantasy) Maybe freedom from preconceptions has enabled this group, which never achieved its proper impact to begin with, to make the best comeback LP in memory, but more likely it's the quality of the competition. Because basically this is just a good Joy of Cooking album. It probably helps that Terry Garthwaite and Toni Brown now work with black studio musicians--the white ones on Cross-Country did nothing for them, and neither did the hassle of maintaining a band. But this music is about sure-brained songs and an ever richer vocal interplay, just like always, and if Toni's "You Don't Owe Me Spring" reminds me never to forget her penchant for limpid soppiness, everything else makes clear that once a rock band defines itself as adult it need never grow old. A MINUS [Later: B+]

MOLKIE COLE (Janus) Well! Who would imagine in this day and age? An eclectic English pop group whose songs recall Revolver, Mungo Jerry, and the Hello People (although that may just be the clown makeup). Where do you think they might be from? Cleveland, apparently. B MINUS

THE MOTORS (Virgin) Good label, good name, good image, even a reference from Ducks Deluxe, but beware--this is your basic homogenized bombast. The giveaway is the logo. Remember the Consumer Guide rule: never trust a group with a logo. C

RANDY NEWMAN: Little Criminals (Warner Bros.) Always the master craftsman, Newman doesn't waste a second here, doesn't permit an inept lyrical insight or musical fillip. But over the past three years he doesn't seem to have written one song that ranks with his best work. Among all these explorations of America's dirty white underbelly, only the out-and-out jokes--the gross intolerance of "Short People" and the Eagles music on "Rider in the Rain"--distinguish themselves. Very disappointing. B PLUS [Later]

THE ALAN PARSONS PROJECT: I Robot (Arista) I might agree that the way this record approximates what it (supposedly) criticizes is a species of profundity if what it (supposedly) criticized was schlock. As it is, the pseudo-disco makes Giorgio Moroder sound like Eno and the pseudo-sci-fi makes Isaac Asimov seem like a deep thinker. Back to the control board. C

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Big Time (Tamla) Smokey has a right to the romanticism that has saturated his solo career--deepening ick with vocal dimension has always been his metier--but I can't get behind it. So, admiration aside, I actually like this candidly discoid soundtrack throwaway more than I do A Quiet Storm, Smokey's Family Robinson, and so forth. But it does squander much plastic. B MINUS

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Deep in My Soul (Tamla) And then there's this, in which various Motown hacks attempt to approximate the brighter style of a less mature Smokey and come up with four songs (two of which begin each four-cut side) that actually do so. Whereupon Smokey, pro that he is, sings them as if he wrote them himself. Nice. B PLUS [Later]

THE ROLLING STONES: Love You Live (Rolling Stones) As a Stones loyalist, I am distressed to report that this documents the Stones' suspected deterioration as a live band, a deterioration epitomized by the accelerating affectation of Mick's vocals. You'd think they could come up with something more than another live double-LP, wouldn't you? C PLUS [Later]

LINDA RONSTADT: Simple Dreams (Asylum) Maybe she's in a new phase, maybe I am, or maybe we're both breathing easier now that Andrew Gold's off Pursuing His Solo Career, but this is the first new Ronstadt since Heart Like a Wheel that I've wanted to play twice. She's still too predictable--imagine how terse and eloquent "Blue Bayou" would seem if instead of turning up the volume midway through she just hit one high note at the end--but she's also a pop eclectic for our time, as comfortable with Mick Jagger as with Dolly Parton, interpreting Roy Orbison as easily as Buddy Holly. Even her portrayal of a junkie seeking succor from Warren Zevon's "Carmelita" isn't totally ridiculous. And I admit it--she looks great in a Dodger jacket. B PLUS [Later]

THE SAINTS: (I'm) Stranded (Sire) With its intermittent hooks, droning feedback, shouted vocals, and oldie about incest, this album from Australia achieves the great mean of punk style. Five years from now, it could sound like a classic or a naive one-shot. At the moment, it's recommended, but only to addicts. B [Later: B+]

STEPHEN SINCLAIR: A Plus (United Artists) Wrong. D PLUS

STEELY DAN: Aja (ABC) My wife suggests that by now they realize they'll never get out of El Lay, so they've elected to sing in their chains like the sea. After all, to a certain kind of reclusive aesthete, well-crafted West Coast studio jazz is as beautiful as anything else, right? Only I'm no recluse. I hated this record for quite a while before I realized that, unlike The Royal Scam, it was stretching me some; I still find the solo licks of Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, et al. too fucking tasty, but at least in this context they mean something. I'm also grateful to find Fagen and Becker's collegiate cynicism in decline; not only is "Deacon Blues" one of their strongest songs ever, it's also one of their warmest. Now if only they'd rhymed "I cried when I wrote this song" with "Sue me if I play it wrong," instead of "Sue me if I play too long." Prefering long to wrong could turn into their fatal flaw. B PLUS [Later]

STREETWALKERS: Vicious but Fair (Mercury) Artistically, this contingent of veterans is a casualty of punk; the stylized menace of their cultish, calibrated art-rock-cum-heavy-metal has been rendered obsolete by the outgoing explosiveness of the real thing. And although I've always been a nominal fan of Roger Chapman, it does serve him right--that's what you get for perfecting arrested-adolescent fantasies of sin and sexual warfare as your hairline recedes and your pot thickens. C PLUS

TALKING HEADS: Talking Heads 77 (Sire) A debut LP will often seem overrefined to habitues of a band's scene, so it's not surprising that many CBGBites felt betrayed when bits of this came out sounding like Sparks or Yes. Personally, I was even more put off by lyrics that fleshed out the Heads' post-Jonathan Richman, so-hip-we're-straight image; when David Byrne says "don't worry about the government," the irony is that he's not being ironic. But the more I listen the more I believe the Heads set themselves the task of hurdling such limitations, and succeed. Like Sparks, these are spoiled kids, but without the callowness or adolescent misogyny; like Yes, they are wimps, but without vagueness or cheap romanticism. Every tinkling harmony is righted with a screech, every self-help homily contextualized dramatically, so that in the end the record proves not only that the detachment of craft can coexist with a frightening intensity of feeling--something most artists know--but that the most inarticulate rage can be rationalized. Which means they're punks after all. A MINUS

TOPAZ (Columbia) In which Rob Stoner proves his virtuosity by mixing arrogance, cynicism, and stupidity on one record, and Billy Cross comes up with Jasper Hutchinson, who can both whine and caterwaul in a mid-Atlantic Southwestern accent. D PLUS

PETE TOWNSHEND-RONNIE LANE: Rough Mix (MCA) Meher Baba inspired psalmody so plain and sharply observed, maybe he was all reet after all. Three of Townshend's contributions--"Keep Me Turning," "Misunderstood," and an unlikely song of adoration called "My Baby Gives It Away"--are his keenest in years, and while Lane's evocations of the passing scene are more poignant on his Island import, One for the Road, "Annie" is a suitably modest folk classic. Together, the two disciples prove that charity needn't be sentimental, detachment cold, nor peace boring. Selah. B PLUS [Later: A-]

DWIGHT TWILLEY BAND: Twilley Don't Mind (Arista) Twilley's padded cells of sound recall the Flamin' Groovies' Supersnazz (now reissued as an Epic import). On both records, a lucite shield of echo and overdub stands between the bands and the downhome, Southern-British, pop-rock hooks they favor. But even though I can make up neat theories about how Twilley articulates this aural detachment in lyrics whose prevailing theme is distance from concrete love and feeling. I find it off-putting. And I certainly prefer Supersnazz. B PLUS [Later: B]

Additional Consumer News

Because black vocal groups work in a form that remains rooted in singles artistically even as it evolves toward albums commercially, their greatest hits often hold together. So it is no surprise that newly available collections by Tavares (Capitol) and Hot Chocolate (Big Tree) can be recommended as their best LPs ever, although I was surprised to find that I preferred the Isley's Forever Gold, which collects the best-known stuff the Brothers have done since switching their T-Neck label from Buddah to Epic distribution. For diehards, there's also the Moments' double-LP best-of, on Stang; Tamla's (Smokeyless) Miracles Greatest Hits, however, is worth avoiding. . . .

Aren't you lucky--while purchasing your must-own 24 Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 by Hank Williams (who now gets a "Sr." as part of his posthumous billing), you can inquire of your retailer where you might locate MGM's Vol. 1. . . .

Susie and Jody "Butterbeans" Edwards were black vaudevillians who would have turned pink at the very idea of Peaches & Herb. Salty and musical, they are said to have recorded their best stuff in the '30s, but I'll settle for Butterbeans & Susie, cut in 1960 and now reissued on the Classic Jazz label, distributed by Caytronics (thank you, Salsoul Orchestra). . . .

The South's Greatest Hits, on Capricorn, offers a cross-label selection of big singles from the Allmans, Charlie Daniels, etc. Since albums by such groups tend to be filled with filler, this seems like a capital idea, only I don't find I ever want to play it. Lynyrd Skynyrd forever.

Village Voice, Oct. 31, 1977

Postscript Notes:

The photocopy is clipped on the top, which nicks the intro but probably leaves the Talking Heads review unchanged.

Oct. 3, 1977 Dec. 26, 1977