Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

I know I should be fearing for my life or at least my job as record sales continue to sag, but I've been too busy finding reasons to be cheerful. Not from brave little indies this month, either--12 of the 13 B-plus-or-above albums below are from companies that are by no stretch of the terminology minor. Some of these albums are even doing okay in the charts, though one reason the majors are depressed in more ways than one is that chart numbers and accounts receivable no longer enjoy such a thriving relationship--the former are relative and the latter absolute. Are the majors also depressed because they've conditioned their shrinking audiences to expect more from megaproduction (see Must to Avoid) than from new music (see James Blood Ulmer and Ronald Shannon Jackson)? I doubt that they've carried their reasoning that far as yet.

SWEET PEA ATKINSON: Don't Walk Away (Island) Was (Not Was) repay Atkinson for his vocal chores by producing a solo debut, and spare us D. Was's bug-eyed late-capitalist existential cynicism in the bargain. Trouper that he is, Atkinson will sing any nonsense they hand him, but he obviously finds his truth in Dionne Warwick, the Tymes, General Johnson, and Eddie Rabbitt, and I'll go along with that. Meanwhile, the Was Bros. have learned enough about Linn drums to provide the kind of bug-eyed late-capitalist existential displacement that lends realism to orders like "dig deep, don't be nice" and "dance or die." A MINUS

DAVE EDMUNDS: D.E. 7th (Columbia) It's a measure of my respect for Edmunds that at this point his meticulous collections of oldies and newies impress me much the way good new Chicago blues albums do, and I vouch for number seven, especially the newies on side one. When was the last time you were more than mildly excited by a good new Chicago blues album? B PLUS

DONALD FAGEN: The Nightfly (Warner Bros.) Apparently, what Walter Becker brought to Steely Dan was an obscurantism that lost its relevance after the posthippie era. With words that always mean everything they want to say and aural pleasures that signify, these songs are among Fagen's finest, and if their circa-1960 vantage returns us to the student memories of Countdown to Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic, their tenderness is never nostalgic and their satire never sophomoric. Fagen's acutely shaded lyrics puts the jazziest music he's ever committed to vinyl into a context that like everything here is loving but very clear-eyed, leaving no doubt that this is a man who knows the limits of cool swing and doesn't believe the world was a decisively better place before John Kennedy died. A

RICHARD "DIMPLES" FIELDS: Mr. Look So Good (Boardwalk) Aware that Fields brought something quite his own to the soul/r&b heritage, I wondered why his buttery come-on never moved me. Reason's simple--he's as egoistic and ultimately lightweight as James Taylor, another traditionalist original. Dissecting women with a butcher's eye one minute and quoting Biblical prophecy the next, he persuades me of neither his essential goodness nor his essential badness. I've got nothing against the combination, either--just ask Marvin Gaye, who works at least as hard at it as Fields, or Al Green, who doesn't. B MINUS

GAP BAND: Gap Band IV (Total Experience) Although women may disagree, I don't think the cartoon sincerity of Bootsy and the Ohio Players will ever evolve into romantic credibility. So while I'm not saying these total entertainers sound like Huey, Louie & Dewey on the slow ones, I insist that they don't sound like the Temptations either--vocally, they're mere professionals singing merely professional love songs. Which isn't to deny that the funk tunes burn rubber and the funktoons drop the bomb. B PLUS

DON HENLEY: I Can't Stand Still (Asylum) Makes sense that Henley's candid self-involvement should prove of more intrinsic interest than Glenn Frey's covert self-pity, but nobody capable of the distinction figured it would get as interesting as this. If there were anything to actually like about the guy, his complaints and revelations might even be moving. As it is, let's call them strong--like primo tequila, or the smell of an old jockstrap. B PLUS

JOE JACKSON: Night and Day (A&M) Every musical era generates its Paul Simon, I suppose, and though this one does avoid that literary patina, his sudden (and no doubt sincere) attraction to salsa has the same secondhand aura. Decent, intelligent sentiments decently and intelligently expressed. B [Later: B-]

RONALD SHANNON JACKSON AND THE DECODING SOCIETY: Mandance (Antilles) Despite Jackson's Blood pedigree and predilection for electric plectrists, I'm hard-pressed to describe this as "rock" or even harmolodic funk, because while Jackson is the master of every drum rhythm from march to free time, the feel of the record is more swinging than funky, with heavy doses of Tony Williams force-beat. What it really adds up to is a fusion album on which the soloists are forced to think concisely by compositional structures that are more than cute riffs. Guitar hero: Vernon Reid, who also gets to play banjo. A [Later: A-]

ELTON JOHN: Jump Up! (Geffen) You say you don't care that it's his best album in seven years? I swear, you young people have no respect. This little guy was a giant, helped keep us sane back then, and though it's true he hasn't come up with a "Honky Cat" or "Bennie and the Jets" ("I Am Your Robot" might qualify if there were still AM radio), it's gratifying enough that after all these faithful years he's started to get good songs out of Gary Osborne (gunning for a Frank Sinatra cover on "Blue Eyes") as well as Bernie Taupin (who really shouldn't ever write about politics). B PLUS [Later: B]

MICHAEL MCDONALD: If That's What It Takes (Warner Bros.) On his solo bid the El Lay soul man sounds like he should leave his therapist, not his group. He's feeling so hard the sense of strain is constant, as if ordinary romantic travails are driving him to the edge of existential patience. Yet despite it all not one of these common-sense homilies has the common wisdom of "This Is It" or "What a Fool Believes"--there's a smugness about his determination to go with the serially monogamous flow. And I sure hope the next single is "Love Lies" or "No Such Luck"--I'm sick of the rest already. C PLUS

THE STEVE MILLER BAND: Abracadabra (Capitol) With longtime bandbuddy Gary Mallaber making like Jeff Barry, Miller fulfills his hippie destiny and turns into the Archies, or really the Monkees, since he did write the title hit himself, and it will probably stand as the biggest pop tune of 1982, by which I definitely don't mean the most quintessential, because this one is blissfully catchy and blissfully simple and blissfully schlocky and blissfully tricky, like the rest of the album only more so. B PLUS [Later: B]

PERIPHERAL VISION (Zoar) Ah, these boho compilations. As a belated and partial convert to No New York, I still don't get Mars, and I bet in 1986 I won't get the Hi-Sheriffs of Blue or the State or I/S/M or (Gawd) Crazy Hearts, certainly not all four, even if I do like Mars by then. Unless they've all improved as much as Mofungo has since 1978, of course. I hope the album V-Effect deserves is better recorded than these two cuts, which are the best-sounding things here in more ways than one nevertheless. Which leaves the Scene Is Now, whose "Finding Someone" should be the single, and the Ordinaires, who combine the nicest parts of Glenn Branca and the Moody Blues and more power to them. Ah, these boho documents. B

THE ROCHES: Keep on Doing (Warner Bros.) This sounds so good I'm beginning to believe Robert Fripp was put on earth to produce the Roches (each of us has a place in the cosmic plan, after all). It's not just the honest depth and sweet bite of the voices that make it richer musically than the debut--the songs ring with acoustic guitar ostinatos hookier than any Byrds rip you fancy. The writing has rebounded, too, though because the narrative punch and sense of overarching purpose still lags they no longer seem like protofeminist avatars--just pros who set out to prove themselves with a good album and damn right succeeded. A MINUS

DONNA SUMMER (Geffen) Turkeys this humongous will soon go the way of the dodo, and for the same excellent reason--they defy all aerodynamic principles. Misshapen and useless despite a not-bad hit single and a not-bad Springsteen song, it's an object lesson in record-biz malfeasance from the Horatio Alger lies of "Livin' in America" to the lumpish desecration of "Lush Life," and Summer thanks God so often it's surprising she couldn't talk Him into joining Dyan Cannon, Kenny Loggins, Stevie Wonder, and Peggy Lipton Jones in the All Star Choir that chants this Inspirational Verse from Jon Anderson and Vangelis: "Shablamidi, shablamida/Shablamidi/Shablamidi, shablamida." C

THE TIME: What Time Is It? (Warner Bros.) "Wild and Loose" pops wilder and looser than anything they've cut, but while I enjoy their pussy-stalking jive as both sociology and humor, the next three cuts lack the platonic single-mindedness of 1981's "Cool" and "Get It Up." Then there's "Gigolos Get Lonely Too" and "I Don't Wanna Leave You." And that's all they wrote. B [Later: A-]

JAMES BLOOD ULMER: Black Rock (Columbia) You can tell this Next Hendrix stuff is getting serious when Ulmer, always more an improviser/composer than a singer/songwriter, makes like a romantic heavy and musical philosophizer. Yet despite his grizzled visage and mouthful of marbles, he's getting away with it. As with Hendrix, his singing and thinking both seem crude at first, as do the simplified bottom of Calvin Weston and Amin Ali. But in the end the force of the conception, and of the sound itself, turn all doubts around. Ulmer's pixilated leads are more nerve-wracking than Jimi's wail, and I still await the transcendent synthesis his earliest jazz-funk gigs promised. But this is my idea of Raw Power 82. A MINUS

LUTHER VANDROSS: Forever, for Always, for Love (Epic) Well, depends on what you mean by love--like any studio habitue Vandross is a sensualist at heart, an aural libertine who revels in sheer sound at the expense of any but the most received sense. His voice is so luxuriant I can understand why fans go all the way with him. But only on "She Loves Me Back" (set apart by the hard K at the end of the title phrase) do I really love him back myself. B PLUS

VANITY 6 (Warner Bros.) The latest Prince creation is a male fantasy even if the girls did write the lyrics themselves, and Vanity's insistence on seven-inch dicks would have made me feel insecure before I discovered hormone treatments. But all eight of these dumb, dancy little synth tunes get me off when I let my guard down, and most of them are funny, hooky, and raunchy at the same time. B PLUS

WALL OF VOODOO: Call of the West (I.R.S.) Those who believe synth-pop means that the end is near should cf. WoV's 1980 EP, which gave no hint they were capable of tunes as neat and witty as "Mexican Radio" or "Lost Weekend." Maybe soon vocalist-lyricist Stanard Ridgway will fall in love with a human and start pretending he's a nice guy. B

ZAPP: Zapp II (Warner Bros.) This idly functional, playfully mechanical six-cut dance LP tested my tolerance for innocent mindlessness, especially after I realized that my favorite tune appears on both sides. But unlike its predecessor it is a real dance LP--side one will function your ass off. And you'll want to play "Playin' Kinda Ruff" again. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

There was no special reason to expect poetry honcho Anne Waldman to take as naturally to rock and roll as, let us say, Patti Smith, but on "Uh-Oh Plutonium" (Hyacinth Girls) she converts her years of reading experience into a very personable projection that added to bright, danceable, eccentric synth-and-real-drums backing and a lyric that combines crazy cosmic humor with crazy terran rage makes what ought to become a smash antinuke anthem, assuming antinukers aren't too earnest for it. . . .

My other dance singles of the months are 12-inches, and not counting the Fearless Four's "Rockin' It" (Enjoy), still number one in '82 as far as I'm concerned, both have Caribbean referents: "Sunshine Partytime (Rap)" by Rockers Revenge (Streetwise), a New York take on Eddy Grant's Guyanese anthem that's just now coming off the British charts, and Pressure Drop's er-reggae "Rock the House" (Tommy Boy), hooked to the deathless line "You'll never be the man that your mother was."

Village Voice, Nov. 2, 1982

Oct. 5, 1982 Nov. 30, 1982