Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

[ . . . ] that doesn't make me your boss, does it? Come to think of it, it doesn't make my boss my boss either.

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART AND THE MAGIC BAND: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) Inspired by the Captain's untoward comeback, I've dug out all his old albums and discovered that as far as I'm concerned this is better than any of them--more daring than Safe as Milk, fuller than Trout Mask Replica, more consistent than Lick My Decals Off, Baby. Without any loss of angularity or thickness, the new compositions achieve a flow worthy of Weill or Monk or Robert Johnson, and his lyrics aren't as willful as they used to be. Bruce Fowler's trombone is especially thaumaturgic adding an appropriately natural color to the electric atonality of the world's funniest ecology crank. A [Later]

THE CLASH: Give 'Em Enough Rope (Epic) Like a lot of Clash fans, I found this disappointing at first, but disappointment is relative. Compared to The Clash, one of the greatest rock LPs ever, or a cassette of their singles, it does seem overworked. Increasingly, the band's strategy has been to cram their dense, hard sound so full of growls and licks and offhand remarks that it never stops exploding, but this record has a few duds and at times sounds stuffed--"English Civil War" is deadened by its "Johnny Comes Marching Home" intro, for instance. An even bigger problem for Americans is the band's pervasive pessimism over the breakdown of the English punk movement into backbiting and violence. The Clash was a fundamentally cheerful record, and for all its seething localism the band's assertive class anger was easy to relate to from a distance; the recording quality here may be more accessible, as sound savants insist, but the overarching mood is less so. Nevertheless, six or eight of these 10 songs are as effective melodically as anything on The Clash, and even the band's ruminations on the star as culture hero become more resonant as you hear them over and over again. This isn't among the greatest rock albums ever, but it is among the finest of the year. A [Later]

JIMMY CLIFF: Give Thankx (Warner Bros.) Cliff hasn't evinced this much interest in years, and his female backup sounds as sisterly as Bob Marley's. But any artist whose most specific songs concern spiritual deliverance--talkin' 'bout "Bongo Man" and, yep, "Universal Love"--isn't out of the ether yet. B MINUS

ERUPTION (Ariola America) From Frank Farian, creator of Boney M.: sharp disco interpretations of "I Can't Stand the Rain" and "I'll Take You There" on a danceable/listenable first side, a version of "The Way We Were" that would turn Rasputin into a Barbra Streisand fan, and "Party, Party," the poopiest song ever on that time-honored theme. C PLUS

STEVE FORBERT: Alive on Arrival (Nemporer) I thought this kid's folk songs were promising the first time I saw him--which was before I knew he was destined to share management with the Ramones--and I still do. B

AL GREEN: Truth n' Time (Hi) Reports that Green was no longer writing all his own material worried some supporters, but in fact composition has counted for very little in Green's recent work and is generally improved here. This is his most careful and concise music since Livin' for You; in fact, it's too damn concise, clocking in at 26:39 for eight cuts, although the sustaining 6:07-minute disco disc version of "Wait Here" would have put it over half an hour. None of the originals are quite up to "Belle" or "I Feel Good," but they're all solid, and two audacious covers of songs heretofore recorded exclusively by women are his best in five years. The intensity of the 2:12-minute "I Say a Little Prayer" (dig that male chorus) is precious in a time of dance-length cuts, and although I know Green devotes "To Sir With Love" to his dad, I'm glad Proposition 6 was defeated before its release. A MINUS [Later: B+]

EDDIE HINTON: Very Extremely Dangerous (Capricorn) Hinton's Otis Redding tribute goes far beyond anything ever attempted by Frankie Miller or Toots Hibbert--it's almost like one of those Elvis re-creations. The Muscle Shoals boys put out on backup, Hinton's songs are pretty good, and the man has the phrasing and the guttural inflections down pat. So what's missing is instructive: first, the richness of timbre that made Otis sound soft even at his raspiest, and second, good will so enormous that it overflowed naturally into a humor that hurt no one. Damn, the man is worth a recreation. B MINUS [Later]

GLADYS KNIGHT: Miss Gladys Knight (Buddah) The most inconsistent of Gladys's albums with the Pips offered frequent glimmers of the soul in the middle of the road, but this solo shot is dreary. Not only is it markedly duller than The One and Only . . . , supposedly her farewell to the Pips, but it's also less interesting than Callin', the second album by the Pips along together. I assume producer Gary Klein arranged the switch from New York soul session guys, who have their moments, to El Lay schlock-pop session guys, who don't. So he and second-stringer Tony Macaulay (why he have three songs on this album? why he produce them?) will do as scapegoats. But is it their fault she says "little one" instead of "little wog" on a version of "Sail Away" in which the slave trader's gently humorous persona recalls the narrator of "Try to Remember"? And was it they who saddled her with the Jim Gilstrap Singers, soon to change their name to the Paps? Even her summer TV show was more fun than this. C MINUS

CHARLES MINGUS: Cumbia and Jazz Fusion (Atlantic) I know I'm not supposed to say this, but I've never bought Mingus as Great Jazz Genius--Important Jazz Eccentric is more like it, I'd say, especially in his more ambitious compositions. The 27-minute title fantasia is rich, lively, irreverent, and enjoyable, but it's marred by overly atmospheric Hollywood-at-the-carnival moments, while the kitschy assumed seriousness of "Music for 'Todo Modo'" almost ruins its fresh big-band colors. B PLUS

DOLLY PARTON: Heartbreaker (RCA Victor) The problem with Dolly's crossover is her rich but rather tiny voice, a singular country treble that's unsuited to rock, where little-girlishness works only as an occasional novelty. As a result, the rock part of her move fails, relegating her to the mawkish pop banality that tempts almost every genius country singer. This she brings off, if you like mawkish pop banality; I prefer mawkish country banality, which is sparer. C [Later]

QUEEN: Jazz (Elektra) Despite the title--come back, Ry Cooder, all is forgiven--this isn't completely disgusting. "Bicycle Race" is even funny. Put them down as 10cc, with a spoke, or a pump, up their ass. C PLUS

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Coming Together/Attica/Moutons de Panurge (Opus One) Recorded and released in 1973--when Attica, the topic of two of these three pieces, was still a fresh memory--this is by no means new music any more. But when I first heard "Coming Together" a few months ago I could only wonder where I'd been for five years. Its design is simple, even minimal: Steve ben Israel reads and rereads one of Sam Melville's letters from prison over a jazzy, repetitious vamp. Yet the result is political art as expressive and accessible as "Guernica." In ben Israel's interpretation, Melville's prison years have made him both visionary and mad, and the torment of his incarceration is rendered more vivid by the nagging intensity of the music. The other side features a less inspiring political piece and a percussion composition, each likable but not compelling, but that's a cavil. "Coming Together" is amazing. A MINUS [Later]

SEA LEVEL: On the Edge (Capricorn) Instrumentality, these are Dixie dregs indeed. Ringing over the Allmans' inexorable flow, Chuck Leavell's Tyneresque piano chordings used to provide a satisfying simulation of spiritual uplift, but in a fusion jam I'll take Lonnie Liston Smith (preferably with a pillar of salt). Nor is Randall Bramblett (even) a Joe Henderson on the saxophone. Bramblett writes terrific songs, however. On album two, Cats on the Coast, his "That's Your Secret" (followed by the Allmansish "It Hurts to Want You So Bad") kicked the whole first side into playability, and on this one four even stronger Bramblett compositions are featured. But three of them can be heard in less arbitrary arrangements on Bramblett's second solo album, Light of the Night, available in better cutout bins now. C MINUS [Later]

SPITBALLS (Beserkley) I assume the title is a takeoff on Nuggets, and I approve of the concept--14 musicians playing all at once while trading lead vocals on beloved oldies both famed and anonymous. I find most of the remakes amusing and one or two amazing. But inevitably, the music is ragged. Anyway, I've never been impressed with cover versions by Earth Quake or the Rubinoos before, and I miss the pure dumb inspiration of the originals. B MINUS

A TASTE OF HONEY (Capitol) Those who cite "Boogie Oogie Oogie" as definitive disco dumbness should reread the lyrics of "Tutti Frutti" and think about the great tradition of the left-field girl-group novelty--"Mr. Lee," "Iko Iko," "Shame, Shame, Shame." But though a couple of other songs here, notably "Distant," indicate that their pan may flash again, late converts are advised to seek out the single and wish they could buy the disco disc. C PLUS

PETER TOSH: Bush Doctor (Rolling Stones) The musical surprises on Tosh's second album established his gift for dublike production depth in a song format. The instant memorability of the tunes here does the same for his melodic gift. Mick and Keith add a few ingratiating touches. Nice. B PLUS

TANYA TUCKER: TNT (MCA) The problem with Tanya's crossover is her functional but rather tiny brain--if only she had some real idea of exactly what she wanted to become, her pipes would put it across. Despite the heavy hoopla, the rock move here comprises three of the '50s classes that have always been her meat, and all that distinguishes this from earlier MCA Tanya is that Jerry Goldstein, her new intellectual adviser, has contributed three unusually bad songs. C PLUS

UFO: Obsession (Chrysalis) I've praised the forward motion and facile riffs of these heavy metaloids, so it's my duty to report that they've degenerated into the usual exhibitionism. Theme song: "Lookin' Out for No. 1," a turn of phrase that's becoming as much of a watchword in late '70s rock as "get together" was in the late '60s. C MINUS [Later]

THE VILLAGE PEOPLE: Cruisin' (Casablanca) I give up--I've never been capable of resisting music this silly. At least this time they're not singing the praises of "macho," a term whose backlash resurgence is no laughing matter, and the gay stereotyping--right down to "The Women," every one a camp heroine of screen or disc--is so cartoonish that I can't imagine anyone taking it seriously. As for all the straights who think "Y.M.C.A." is about playing basketball, well, that's pretty funny too. But what happens when Victor Willis follows Teddy Pendergrass into sololand and reveals the wife and 2.4 kids in the closet? B [Later: B+]

JOHN PAUL YOUNG: Love Is in the Air (Scotti Bros.) If the title tune seems familiar it's because you tuned it out along with "Kiss You All Over" a few months ago. The culprits are ex-Easybeats Harry Vanda and George "No Relation" Young, the power-pop production heroes whose first LP with this singer actually did offer much of the bright thrust claimed for the style--not to mention the triviality that goes along with it. It didn't sell, though, and here V&Y prove their depth of aesthetic principle by mellowing and syncopating their boy into MOR AOR fodder, four leisurely tunes to the side. C MINUS

Additional Consumer News

These days Holiday Product means not outdated Xmas fluff by the Carpenters and Little Stevie Wonder and the Gospel Keynotes and the Vienna Choir Boys but rather profit-taking worthy of the Greediest. By my rough count--and I admit that I've been postponing The Best of the Strawbs since summer--there are 36 new pop, rock, country, and "black-oriented" best-ofs competing for your discretionary dollar, six of them doubles. Also three new disco compilations, one a double. And live doubles by Aerosmith, Bowie, Buffett, Kansas, Marley, Nelson, New Lost City Ramblers, Rawls, Reddy, Robinson, Rundgren, and Summer. Which makes a grand total of 70 new discs that include virtually no music.

Admittedly, I'm being less than fair to live doubles, which are at least freshly recorded and invariably feature a few new songs and arrangements in addition to all those fascinating band introductions and the opportunity to convert your own living room into a hockey rink. So sue me. As a Christmas present to myself, I haven't even listened to eight of those I've named, and as a New Year's present to myself I will never listen to some of them. But I have [ . . . ] through the [ . . . ]cially. Rare indeed are rock best-ofs like the Marshall Tucker Band's Greatest Hits, which is certainly the group's best LP, featuring the finest songs of Toy Caldwell, who once or twice a year articulates the Southern rock sensibility (Charlie Daniels gets the ethos) better than any songwriter this side of Ronnie Van Zant. More representative are the new two-volume sets by Steely Dan and the Band. These contain a higher proportion of great music than anything else in this rundown and do a good job of isolating memorable cuts (Fagen and Becker unerringly pick the three good songs off their sole loser, The Royal Scam; the Band, a more uneven group, salvage Stage Fright and Cahoots). Since they were given to me, I'll probably play them now and then. But Pretzel Logic and The Band, both of which weave wonderful lesser-known stuff into a coherent total statement, are still the ideal introductions to these groups. Nor do I expect to get much use out of The Essential Jimi Hendrix, a serious effort that functions as a strange compromise between Smash Hits (a great best-of) and classic albums like Electric Ladyland and The Cry of Love.

Much more revelatory is Greatest Hits 1974-78 by the Steve Miller Band. As marketing it's an outrage--six cuts each from two recent albums of born-again platinum, plus Miller's pop breakthrough, "The Joker," and a B side. But where Miller's Book of Dreams presents itself as pure post-hippie kitsch, its six best cuts sound just dandy on a best-of that may well stand in history with Jan & Dean's. Other annoying lightweights also sound better cut down to size. Very Best of Dave Mason showcases the hook-happy composer of gnomic ads for the self-realization movement; I find it more fetching than the "classic" Alone Together. Ditto Wings's Greatest Hits and the "classic" Band on the Run, although I'm thinking of running a nail across "My Love" so the needle will proceed directly to "Jet." Very Best of Joe Walsh is competitive with his "Life Is Hard," which means that if ABC had only wrested that summer-saving single from Asylum their package would have doubled in quality. Deep Purple's When We Rock, We Rock and When We Roll, We Roll proves that the down-to-size trick works better with lightweights than heavyweights. Profile: Best of Emmylou Harris proves that it doesn't always work with lightweights. Paul Anka . . . His Best and Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits are self-explanatory. And Barbra Streisand's Greatest Hits Volume 2 makes clear that the way she is is pretty much the way she was.

The problem with country best-ofs is that the country audience not only tolerates shameless sentimentality but demands it, even from its most strong-willed mainstream performers, every once in a while. So for those of us who find shameless sentimentality shameful, Tammy Wynette's Greatest Hits Volume 4 happens to be less listenable than her recent Womanhood, not to mention George & Tammy's Greatest Hits. The Very Best of Conway Twitty, a much stronger record, is disfigured by Twitty's own "Don't Cry Joni"; Johnny Cash's Greatest Hits Volume 3 mixes good workingmen's novelties with undistinguished love songs; Marty Robbins's Greatest Hits Volume IV features one side of Mexicali Marty (including "El Paso" and "Devil Woman" from the '50s, which is cheating on Volume IV but better than remaking them) and one side of atrocious standards (the worst: "Among My Souvenirs"). Over in outlaw territory, though, Johnny Paycheck's Greatest Hits Volume II is one of the finds of the season. In outlaw terms, a straight romantic ballad is sentimentality enow, and "Loving You Beats All I've Ever Seen" is a pretty good one; almost every other selection talks funny and sings tough [ . . . ]sistent a portrait of the mild-mannered wild-eyed boy I love as Billy Swan and better than the others. Also available: Larry Gatlin (Nashville ordinaire), David Allen Coe (turned to crime because he couldn't sing), Joe Stampley (less than unique), Johnny Duncan (permanently premature) and Sonny James (talk about young love--he's Marie Osmond's producer).

In black music, the best-of I've been listening to is virtually a reissue: the Isley Brothers' Timeless, a slightly inferior version (no "Shout") of The Best . . . , which came out on Buddah a few years ago. This was the music that popularized Hendrix-style guitar with the black audience, and it really rocks for all four sides. Two runners-up: Best of the Sylvers, which boogies feverishly through a hot side one before turning to ballad schlock, and The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire Vol. 1, an excellent introduction to what has become the finest black harmony group of the '70s through the song selection isn't quite primo. I had hoped Commodores' Greatest Hits would convert me to what has become the top mainstream funk group of the '70s, but I continue to find their music overripe and rather forced. Norman Connors's best-of is called The Best of Norman Connors & Friends, and he should be thankful for his friends; the Salsoul Orchestra is upwardly mobile in a gaudy, conspicuous way; Donny Hathaway is merely pretentious, duller and more maudlin than Sonny James.

Finally, I preferred Volume II of The South's Greatest Hits to Volume I and recommend it to sociology students in search of a good listen. I also preferred it to Beserkley's Back. And I'm reserving judgment on all the disco compilations and on two-LP sets by Roy Acuff and Leo Kottke, both of which I've enjoyed so far.

In its infinite wisdom, Motown has instituted yet another reissue program. Under the rubric Natural Resources the company is now re-releasing early LPs by its greatest artists, LPs originally deleted to create demand for the label's first round of best-ofs, all since cut out in favor of the Anthology series now in catalogue. As usual, though, there's a lot ofvalue amid the venality. One fascinating oddity, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, is defined by standards done in a strange, spare hybrid jazz-doowop style that is worlds from the big-time schlock of most Motown respectability moves. More conventional (and more consistently successful) is Gladys Knight & the Pips' Silk 'n' Soul, a collection of mainstream-soul production numbers--"Yesterday," "Groovin'," "The Tracks of My Tears"--that establish Gladys's claims as a great nightclub singer with impressive force; as a bonus, it duplicates Anthology only once. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' I'll Try Something New is problematic--the three duplications are the three best cuts on the record, and the neo-Hi-Los arrangements of songs like "On the Street Where You Live" and "I've Got Your Under My Skin," while more interesting than the Supremes at the Copa, are suspect nevertheless. Problematic in a different way is the Supremes' Where Did Our Love Go. It's a great album, showcasing them at their most naively hitbound, but Anthology includes nine of the 12 cuts. The Temptations' In a Mellow Mood--the three duplications here are "Ol' Man River," "Try to Remember," and "The Impossible Dream"--is depressingly unproblematic. And Levi Stubbs emoting two Monkees songs on the Four Tops' Reach Out isn't even good camp. . . .

Theoretical Girls, one of the more uncompromising of the deafening-headache white-noise no-wave bands, offer a hilarious march called "U.S. Millie" that is a steal at $1.25 from Theoretical Records, 17 Thompson Street, NYC 10013.

Village Voice, Dec. 25, 1978

Postscript Notes:

The photocopy has top, left and bottoms columns clipped. The second page is clipped top and bottom. This affects the intro, the end, and various points in between.

Nov. 27, 1978 Jan. 29, 1979