Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

I was afraid October's profusion of As might leave me without a Pick Hit in November, but I said the hell with it, so 1984 returns to forms herewith: a bare four A minuses, two of them flukish indeed, with the Pick Hit a late-breaking entry from a hero of the halcyon '70s.

APOLLONIA 6 (Warner Bros.) In which our heroine fucks the principal, opens up for her pretty boy, sings quite a bit, and talks cute rather than dirty. The tracks are more than serviceable Starr Company issue; the formula is less than kicky shock. B MINUS

BLACK FLAG: Slip It In (SST) "Slip It In" is by somebody who learned about sex from movies. "Black Coffee" carries this antidrug thing too far. "Wound Up" could be tighter. "Rat's Eyes" cries out in agony for Sabbath's chops. "Obliteration" is an ace accompanist's solo turn. "The Bars" isn't about prison--or saloons. "My Ghetto" is an outtake from the rant side of Damaged. "You're Not Evil" is right on. C PLUS

DAVID BOWIE: Tonight (EMI America) What makes Bowie a worthy entertainer is his pretensions, his masks, the way he simulates meaning. He has no special gift for convincing emotions or good tunes--when he works at being "merely" functional he's merely dull, or worse. With Nile Rodgers gone, the dance potential of the second album of his professional phase is negligible, and he's favoring the tired usages that have been the downfall of an entire generation of English twits. In this setting, not even Leiber-Stoller's long-neglected "I Keep Forgetting" makes much of an impression. C

THE DB'S: Like This (Bearsville) This is a different, less ambitious band without Chris Stamey, whose taste for the uncanny is missed when the lyrics wind down into the enigmatic (nice word for vague, unrealized, etc.) stuff on side two. But Chris Butler's eight-cylinder production suits the straightforward thrust of Peter Holsapple's young-adult love songs, and melodies have never been their problem. A piece of Inspirational Verse, then: "I can understand/Why you want a better man/But why do you wanna make him out of me?" And one request: How about a whole album that kicks like "A Spy in the House of Love"? A MINUS

THE DEL FUEGOS: The Longest Day (Slash) You want unpretentious? Will these boys give you unpretentious! And their debut album has more good songs on it than The Best of the Standells! B

EVERY MAN HAS A WOMAN (Polydor) Like most multiple-artist compilations, this lacks the sense of identity that gives good albums their momentum, which means that while it does vindicate Yoko Ono's songwriting--there's not a clinker in the dozen--it's far from establishing her as the compelling popular artist she'd like to be. Pick hit: Rosanne Cash's penetrating, soulful "Nobody Sees Me Like You Do." And let us not forget: John Lennon's "Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him." B

FELA ANIKULAPO-KUTI & EGYPT 80: Live in Amsterdam (Capitol) There are obviously significant political differences between Fela and the musician he most resembles, James Brown--JB has never been imprisoned for his egomania, which is the least inflammatory construction that can be put on why Fela is in jail at this moment. More likely it's the ingrained defiance of the Nigerian government voiced (though my pidgin isn't so advanced that I get all the details) by the three songs he squeezes onto this live double. That's right, three songs--like JB, Fela is a true son of vamp-till-ready. Unfortunately, since he's not a world-class saxophonist or singer, and since his touring unit is long on brass and short on things to hit (one conga total), eighty minutes of steady but not quite uplifting groove punctuated by interesting horn arrangements is what you get. B MINUS

FELA ANIKULAPO-KUTI: Original Sufferhead (Capitol) It's not just the printed lyrics that distinguish this from Black President, reviewed here as an import with its own crib sheet in 1981 and now also available as a no-frills Capitol mid-line. The musical definition is so sharp it's hooky, with arresting commentary from a backup chorus that includes many of the leader's wives. And the lyrics help, especially "Power Show"'s bitter observations in re bureaucratic status-tripping. The title (and other) track, in his geopolitical mode, makes its point less cleanly. B PLUS [Later]

GENERAL PUBLIC: All the Rage (I.R.S.) Songcraft notwithstanding, I find that the (English) Beat's (debut) ska and (follow-up) panafrobeat albums wear better than their (farewell) pop album, and I'm sorry to report that Dave Wakeling's and Ranking Roger's new group turn a tendency into an avalanche. Although they've managed a unique sound within current English pop fashion, which makes do with unintrusive dance grooves instead of beat and melody, they don't break out of its rut. Their new rhythm section is no more an improvement on David Steele and Everett Martin than Wesley Magoogan was on Saxa. They place too much weight on lyrics that even when they escape modern romance simply don't deconstruct clichés the way they propose to (viz. "As a Matter of Fact"). And the breathy expressionism of their vocals is fast evolving into affectation. B MINUS

HERBIE HANCOCK: Sound-System (Columbia) Future Shock was a pretty good album despite its dink quotient; this is a better album despite its schlock quotient. Where's-the-melody is beside the point, because even when they're just hooks the melodies seem a little obvious, without the physical or intellectual bite of the rhythm tracks (nowhere mightier than on the amazing "Metal Beat," recommended to those who think Trevor Horn is into something heavy). And me, I doubt Herbie should be playing more "jazz"--several of the false moments here are provided by Saint Wayne Shorter himself. The African exotica of Foday Musa Suso and Aiyb Dieng, on the other hand, sounds right at home. As does the South Bronx exotica of D.St. A MINUS

DAVID JOHANSEN: Sweet Revenge (Passport) The synbeats and keyboard colors on his first studio LP since 1980 don't flush away the corn that is his destiny, but after years of records geared to grandiose AOR-cum-band-bar guitarism, they update its context. Just in time, because--ignoring a few easy rhymes and possibly excepting "N.Y. Doll"--his best solo album ever showcases his best songwriting since the N.Y. Dolls, including but not limited to the hedonist "I Ain't Workin' Anymore" (he got money), the hostile "The Stinkin' Rich" (they got too much money), the fast-talking "King of Babylon" (baby he was born to rap), and the explicit "Heard the News" (in solidarity with the people of El Salvador). As for the corn, I believe every word. A MINUS

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: Induku Zethu (Shanachie) This immensely successful South African vocal ensemble isn't my kind of thing. Their lyrics are in Zulu, which may be just as well, since they probably serve culturally conservative values. They employ no instruments, drums most certainly included, and generate almost no pulse; they sound like a glee club. And since I've never heard them before, I can't tell you how their umpteenth album stacks up. All I know is it's amazing--serious, intricate, droll, eerie, precisely rehearsed, and very beautiful. It's too thoughtful to fade into the background, but like so much good African music it possesses calmative properties. Anyone who thinks he or she might like it probably will. A MINUS

THE LONG RYDERS: Native Sons (Frontier) This is one of those albums whose whole is less than the sum of its parts. Though Sid Griffin and Steve McCarthy are gifted songwriters and the band's down-to-earth poor-boy stance is an improvement on the boho excesses of the new L.A., it lacks vision, offering no compelling reason why these impressively particular songs go with this impressively seamless country-rock synthesis. Nor does the singing make the essential connection. B PLUS [Later]

BOBBY MCFERRIN: The Voice (Musician) He's an innovator, he's a virtuoso, he even has a sense of humor, but he's also a mite precious, not to say arty, and this unaccompanied scat demonstration encourages his formalistic proclivities. As with so many solo recitals, technical display is emphasized; fact is I've heard numerous saxophonists do more with "Donna Lee" and numerous drummers do more with "I Feel Good." One reason the voice is such a sublime instrument is that it can pronounce words, and give or take a catchphrase or two the only ones he bothers with here are his own lyrics for "I'm My Own Walkman." Wonder when some creative type is finally going to stick up for those of us who'd rather consume music than manufacture it. B MINUS

NEW YORK DOLLS: Red Patent Leather (Fan Club import) Featuring the original lineup plus a tactful second bass and full of unavailable originals and covers, this live recording from their 1975 fling with Malcolm McLaren looks like a gem and sounds like shit. Literally: audio is maybe a notch above Velvets-at-Max's or Beatles-at-Star-Club, with David undermiked and the guitars buried behind Arthur & Friend. What's more, the originals are all Syl's, highlighted by "Teenage News," which he improved on his generally forgettable solo album four years later. For documentarians only. C PLUS

SONNY OKOSUNS: Which Way Nigeria? (Jive Afrika) For an African groove to buoy those of us who haven't been swimming in it since childhood, it has to be articulated in distinct detail, which is why I thank the engineers who popped each element out this time. Agile horn arrangements from a man called Dave also stir it up. As on Okosuns's Shanachie compilation, the lyrics (all but "My Ancestors" in English) are kind-hearted, militantly progressive, and a little simple--maybe too much so when he's following Nigeria's new leaders. B PLUS

REPO MAN (San Andreas) Because the movie is zero per cent promotional device, most of the music that goes with it is free to function as barely heard background noise. But separated out as songs on this "soundtrack" disc it complements the film's dryly spaced-out take on L.A. punk. Not until K-Tel goes hardcore will you find Black Flag's "TV Party," Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized," and Fear's "Let Have a War" on the same LP. Iggy Pop's title song is powered by the best of Chequered Past. And Sy Richardson's Shaft parody goes his film bit one better. B PLUS

TOM ROBINSON: Hope and Glory (Geffen) With its saxophone parts and enriched vocals, this reaffirms Robinson's affinities with cabaret after two albums of straight rock and roll and two inspired compromises with postmodernism. "War Baby" is a wrenching triumph and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" a great moment in gay liberation, but though it's nice that he sings "Looking for a Bonfire" and "Listen to the Radio" more affectingly than he did on North by Northwest, I'd rather he'd written more affectingly. B PLUS

FRED SCHNEIDER & THE SHAKE SOCIETY (Warner Bros.) "Summer in Hell," about the ultimate in endless parties, and "Monster," about Fred's penis, might have made the next B-52's album a great one. "It's Time to Kiss," with Patti LaBelle raring to go, probably wouldn't fit, but that doesn't go for such lesser tracks as "Orbit" and "This Planet's a Mess," both of which could use a shot of Cindy & Kate. Self-expression strikes again. B [Later]

VANITY: Wild Animal (Motown) Anyone who dreamed (as I did) that Vanity 6 was in any significant way Vanity's idea should try to squeeze some pleasure out of this: where formerly she talked her way through bright, crisp, rocking high-end arrangements and kept the smut simple, here she "sings" verbose, amelodic fantasies rendered even duller by a dim, bassy mix. And anyone who dreamed that she'd liberated herself from pornographic role-playing should get a load of the electric dildos, come-stained frocks, and psychedelic sex slavery she flaunts as she strikes out on her own. C MINUS [Later: C-]

Additional Consumer News

Boxed sets are the high-yield item in the collectors market these days, and over the past few months I've wended my way through several, including two deluxe six-disc jobs, one by a prime rock and roll originator no matter what the debunkers say, the other a sampler of a style that as far as I'm concerned rock and roll was designed to supplant--not the stupid Mitch Miller pop it actually destroyed commercially, but the big-band jazz which was its immediate predecessor as a music of broad popular and aesthetic viability. And which set do you think I'll recommend? Elvis--A Golden Celebration (RCA Victor) lists for $49.95 and retails for eight or 10 bucks less, and as Elvis exploitations go it's honorable, preserving Sun outtakes and studio chat previously available only on bootleg, offering a 26-minute version of the great TV comeback as well as songs recorded privately in Germany and at Graceland. Some aficionados--Greil Marcus, for one--are very high on it. I demur. The thing averages around 19 minutes a side, including lots of interviews and announcements and horrifying routines with the likes of Milton Berle and Steve Allen. The sound, mostly from old live tapes and kinescopes, is pretty dreadful. And although there are 73 songs on its 12 sides, there are only 43 different ones: "Hound Dog," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Don't Be Cruel," "Blue Suede Shoes," and the still mawkish "Love Me Tender" all get five versions or more. Let me tell you something--Elvis wasn't such a genius that his run-through of greatest hits under extreme duress revealed new nuances of meaning in the classics. Big Band Jazz (Smithsonian) lists for $41.96 and is available only by mail. Even by Smithsonian standards it's impressive, with copious notes and photographs as well as an impressive range of music--from Whiteman and Henderson through all the golden greats to Thornhill and Kenton--licensed mostly from RCA, CBS, and MCA. There are no times, but 80 selections are featured, most of them around the three-minute limit that helped define recorded structure in the 78 era. The sound is surprisingly vivid throughout. And while I'm obviously no expert, I can tell you that even though I have real reservations about many of the cultural presuppositions involved, I find listening to it always interesting and sometimes exhilarating. I'm not just being rhetorical when I say that there's more sheer fun here than on the Elvis job--you ought to hear Fletcher Henderson or McKinney's Cotton Pickers, or for that matter Chick Webb or Jimmy Lunceford or even Benny Goodman. If you were thinking of splurging on the Elvis, take a chance and try Big Band Jazz instead. It's not for collectors only. . . .

Rhino has revised two of the great '60s best-ofs, both originally on Scepter. The Shirelles' Anthology: 1959-1967 does justice plus to the greatest of the girl groups. Though I've always limited my personal Shirelles to Scepter's 15-cut first volume, I find that the first three seven-cut sides on this two-record set--at least up to the embarrassing "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World"--hold up throughout, and the fourth has its moments. Dionne Warwick isn't so lucky. Rhino follows a strict chronological chart-hit format, and so missing from Dionne Warwick's Golden Hits/Part 1 are three B-side gems: "I Smiled Yesterday," "Any Old Time of Day," and the heartbreaking "It's Love That Really Counts." Instead we get schlock like "Alfie" and the unbearable camp favorite "A House Is Not a Home." Fact is, Dionne sounded fine as long as Bacharach-David felt compelled to keep things simple. As soon as they transformed her into the pop singer of their dreams, she turned into what she is today, only without the grace. I don't expect ever to play the Rhino until my already-worn copy of Golden Hits/Part 1 is reduced to surface noise.

Village Voice, Nov. 27, 1984

Oct. 30, 1984 Dec. 25, 1984