Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Christmas is here and with it the usual bah humbug from your product tester. These results do not reflect all those just possible discs put in the stack once or twice and then filed for future detail work. More's the pity. Had any of those sounded promising I would have played it again and yet again, but if there's an A record still lurking in the (pre-December 15) 1975 release I will admit it with more surprise than shame come next month. (Ed Ward is hyping the newest Bobby Bare to me, but then, both he and Leichtling set me on Guy Clark. Texas dross, I say. John Cale got enough Pazz & Jop votes--two--to send me scurrying, but the only decision I'm left with is what shade of B he deserves. And so forth.) In the meantime I'm off my temporary high--based, I realize, on the build-up of unplayed discs over my vacation--and back to the depression in which I've been wallowing for most of the year. The problem isn't with the As, as I keep insisting, but the B plusses. Where has all that solid oddball product disappeared to? Into the same black hole as Joni and Aretha? Stay tuned.

THE BAND: Northern Lights--Southern Cross (Capitol) I've always been put off by the sprung quality of the Band's music--the sense that if someone were to undo the catch its works would be propelled forth in all directions. Instead of energizing the impulse to piece together the lyrics--in the manner of the Stones, not to mention Bob Dylan--the sound of albums like Music From Big Pink and Stage Fright (not The Band though, or The Basement Tapes) tends to reinforce their own metaphorical impenetrability. So the pure comeliness of every melody on this album led to an immediate infatuation. As I listened to the words, however, infatuation turned to mild affection, for once again a parallelism in force. The best of these songs is sentimental; the worst (the two that are set in the city) are grossly sentimental. If Garth Hudson hadn't turned into a synthesizer natural the music might not even prevail in the end, although it does. I just wish, though, that more of the promise of that enormously suggestive title had been fulfilled. A MINUS [Later: B+]

BAY CITY ROLLERS (Arista) I was hoping I wouldn't have to mention this, but the single has made the push to the top. So . . . what you figured, too bland to be offensive yet, more Partridge Family than Osmonds. Noormal geeze just like yew. C

ALBERT BROOKS: A Star Is Bought (Asylum) Brooks apparently lives in a milieu so saturated with comedy that laughter itself seems redundant, perhaps even vulgar. All that matters is the idea of Funny. In just that sense, the album is very Funny. Fortunately, it is also good for a modicum of laughs. Reminiscent in tone of Are You on Something? by Ray D'Ariano, who is now a successful promo man at MCA, where he keeps everyone in the office in stitches. B PLUS

ERIC CARMEN: Eric Carmen (Arista) It was the theory of those who considered Starting Over the only good Raspberries album that the secret ingredient was new bassist Scott McCarl, who played Lennon to Carmen's McCartney. Now that the man is flying solo, the question becomes: What good is one secondhand Wing. C PLUS [Later]

JOHN DENVER: Windsong (RCA Victor) Why haven't all those textual analysts who figured out that Paul was dead and Bob Dylan a junkie applied themselves to the song sequence "Two Shots," "I'm Sorry," and "Fly Away," a mini-triptych that proves (rilly) that John and Annie are on the rocks!! Too morbid a thought, I bet. Upgraded for documentary interest. C MINUS

JACKIE DESHANNON: New Arrangement (Columbia) As an American songwriter who has escaped the confessional mode, and as a woman who can sing about subjects other than men, DeShannon exemplifies several healthy trends. The main thing this well-made record reveals, however, is an intelligent professionalism that matters about as much as a surge in enrollment in creative writing classes or women's liberation for female executives. B MINUS

ARETHA FRANKLIN: You (Atlantic) Does the curiously unfocused effect of this album reflect Aretha's inability to direct her own career? Or is it just the way the bass is mixed? Or are the two the same? B MINUS

JOHN HIATT: Overcoats (Epic) I admit to a weakness for loony lyrical surrealist protest rockers. And I admit that this one tends to go soft when he tries to go poetic. I even admit that he has a voice many would consider worse than no voice at all (although that's one of the charms of the type). But I insist that anyone who can declaim about killing an ant with his guitar "underneath romantic Indiana stars" deserves a shot at leading man status in Fort Wayne. B

DELBERT MCCLINTON: Victim of Life's Circumstances (ABC) Any old boy who can get arrested for "cuttin' up some honky with that bone-handled knife" has earned this perfect new-rockabilly title. Which suggests the album beneath the title has been unjustly put away--but not that unjustly, as it turns out. Sentence suspended. C PLUS [Later: B+]

MIGHTY CLOUDS OF JOY: Kickin' (ABC) Dave Crawford's debut production with this group explored the spirited affinities between showbiz gospel and sweet studio soul. This one exploits shared commercial assininities. Don't be fooled if ABC gets the A plus exception, "Mighty High," onto deejay turntables; Joe Ligon singing "You Are So Beautiful" is even more oppressive than Billy Preston. C PLUS [Later: B-]

FRANKIE MILLER: The Rock (Chrysalis) If like me you have a taste for English soul singers who have taste in American soul exemplars, you will be pleased to learn that Henry McCulloch does a hell of a Steve Cropper imitation. But Miller is no Joe Cocker (not to mention Toots Hibbert) (not to mention . . . ) and he was better off letting Allen Toussaint contribute songs. B [Later]

JONI MITCHELL: The Hissing of Summer Lawns (Asylum) The transition from great songwriter to bad poet is always a difficult one, and Mitchell's talent and good sense are putting up a fight. But any record that is more interesting to read than to listen to has got to be in a lot of trouble. Of course, interesting is a relative concept, so it must be remembered that Joni's biggest trouble is her current bunch of boyfriends. Tom Scott's El Lay pseudo-jazz coolcats--when Steely Dan needs a classy sax break, Phil Woods joins the session, while Mitchell resorts to Bud Shank, the creative paragon who vaunted his distaste for the boho dance with a hit version of "Michelle." Read against such music, the editorials in Cash Box would probably be good for a few kicks, and Mitchell's level of literacy is much higher than that; she's turning into an autodidactic West Coast Erica Jong. Representative couplet from "The Jungle Line," about the pervasiveness of African culture: "Floating, drifting or air-conditioned wind/Drooling for a taste of something smuggled in." That's not awful. But somebody should convince the artist that her pejoratives apply very well to El Lay coolcats, including floating poetasters who are losing their grasp on music. B MINUS [Later: B]

ANN PEEBLES: Tellin' It (Hi) Peebles's small, rough-cut ruby of a voice can't buy her Aretha's kind of time, her hesitant pursuit of a dramatic frame, an artistic self, will never do the duty of a real persona. Which may mean that Willie Mitchell is wrong for her. Not only does this seamless funk deprive her of the sharply accentuated settings her instrument was created for, but his concentration on music to the exclusion of image leaves her singing warmed-over Millie Jackson wife-and-other-woman lyrics with the wan confusion they deserve. B MINUS

ROXY MUSIC: Siren (Atco) Good album--a lot of fast ones and a great hook. Of course, Roxy Music albums have always had hooks, but "Street Life" and "Virginia Plain" never told us as much about Roxy's less accessible music as "Love Is the Drug," an equation which represents not liberation from artificial stimulants but the breakdown of both sexual and emotional abandon into "just another high." Very appropriate to situate the song in a singles bar, for that '70s reality is the exemplary environment for Bryan Ferry's romantic pessimism. Much of what his music has to say about such environments is fascinating, even perversely attractive--but ultimately a little off-putting, which I guess is the point. A MINUS

GIL SCOTT-HERON AND BRIAN JACKSON: From South Africa to South Carolina (Arista) This is what happened to Pharoah Sanders and I say yeah. The danceability of Jackson's music reifies the tribal aspirations of new-thing avant-gardism just as Scott-Heron's modest but fetching talent for analysis brings all that cosmic politicking down to earth. Also, I really like Scott-Heron's singing--his instrument will never equal Leon Thomas's or Pharoah's, but that's not what it's about. B PLUS [Later]

STAPLE SINGERS: Let's Do It Again (Curtom) If you want to buy an album just to own Mavis gasping like she does on the radio, it's your money. Be hereby informed, however, that the forty-five version is 1:24 ugly seconds skinnier than the thirty-three. Other statistics: producer Curtis Mayfield included a total of about ten minutes of instrumentals on the classic Super Fly and Claudine soundtracks. This forty-minute (eight-cut) job includes only two real songs plus a lot of doo-doo-doo, and the orchestrations--by Richard Tufo (responsible for the waste cut on Claudine) and Gil Askey rather than Johnny Pate (who did Super Fly) are mush. D

HAPPY & ARTIE TRAUM: Hard Times in the Country (Rounder) If you're a sucker for folkie nonsense--ramblin' mythopoeia, articulated sentiment, purty tunes--you might as well buy it from real folkies on a real, struggling folkie label. Bonus: "Gambler's Song," Artie's uncharacteristically ironic tale of anomie, which ought to be recorded by somebody who'll get it heard. B MINUS

THE UNDISPUTED TRUTH: Higher Than High (Gordy) Finally a disco song that imparts new meaning to the term "boogie on down." Inspirational Verse, from "Poontang": "People say I ought to be ashamed of myself/Because I don't make love like nobody else/You see I was in the war y'all and Lord I got wounded/And when I got home to my wife I got down on my knees and spooned it." C PLUS

TOM WAITS: Nighthawks at the Diner (Asylum) When he's trying to evoke the naugahyde swizzle-stick dawn, Waits is so full of shit Port-O-San ought to name a model after him. Let's hope he follows the example of poet-cum-comedian Loudon Wainwright--this is the first album in history where you skip the song to get to the next intro. C PLUS [Later: B]

NEIL YOUNG: Zuma (Reprise) Young has violated form so convincingly over the past three years that for me, at least, this return to form took a lot of getting used to. In fact, its relative neatness and control--relative to Y, not to C, S, N, and their epigones--vitiates the sprawling blockbuster cuts, "Cortez the Killer" and "Danger Bird." But the less ambitious tunes---"Pardon My Heart" is my favorite--are as pretty as the best of After the Gold Rush, yet rougher. Which is a neat trick. A MINUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

Before the Rolling Thunder Revue reached Madison Square Garden December 8, the Voice received two letters from fans who had put in their time in the long ticket queues. Both felt victimized, with some justice; two days, 18th in line, eighth row; 10 hours, 250th in line, 50th row. What explanation was proffered had to do with seven rows being reserved for the band and Muhammad Ali, dubious practice in any case, especially when like me you know a secondhand friend of a music-biz heavy (hardly of the Rolling Thunder sort) who ended up in those magic seven rows. Wonder how that came about. Wonder what the riot is going to be like. Wonder whether the Garden and the police will blame the ensuing casualties on the greed and immaturity of rock fans. But don't wonder long.

Not that the willingness to devote one's life to buying tickets is so worthy of reward (a mail lottery is the best of many bad solutions). I got my own seat (loge, way to the side, but fairly close) as a member of the press, late. I wanted to be there, but I was not without dubiety, and correctly so. Folkie gossip to the contrary, this was hardly an apotheosis. Dylan himself sounded terrific, and I very much want to hear the new songs again, but the lameness of the backup band was underlined when Robbie Robertson came on stage to accompany Mr. D on just one song and made it all sound like rock and roll single-handed. This isn't a question of musicianship, but of spirit--folkie scene types just aren't driven to provide that drive.

Bobby Neuwirth has all the charm of Ron Ziegler, Ronee Blakley has one of those interesting voices that becomes a definite annoyance once you get used to it, and Joan Baez destroys everything she touches with her gentility and idealism. When any of that trio sang harmony with Dylan--which happened a lot--only half of what came through the voice mikes was satisfying, a bad percentage. On the positive side was Ramblin' Jack Elliott (I have a weakness for him, admittedly), Roger McGuinn (who hasn't sounded so manic in at least five years), and Muhammad Ali, who got a big hand when he came on and quite a few jeers for introducing some white Tennessee politico who he predicted would be our third-from-now president (1981 if we're lucky, that means). The jeers were the best moment of a predictably smug lefty audience.

For me, the star of the show was Rubin Carter, who sparred with Ali and addressed the rest of us via telephone. One reason they don't want to let him out is that that man's gonna be a completely indomitable motherfucker when he has his freedom of movement. And if smug lefties make it happen, good for them.

Village Voice, Dec. 22, 1975

Dec. 1, 1975 Feb. 2, 1976