Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Though it's not entirely apparent from the reviews below, the annual year-end upswing is finally kicking in. Looking over this month's undecideds, I even find some obscure American undergrounders balanced twixt B plus and A minus. There's a small batch of Africans to be heard from, too. So be of good cheer, noel noel.

THE BEASTIE BOYS: Licensed to Ill (Def Jam) The wisecracking arrogance of this record is the only rock and roll attitude that means diddley right now. With the mainstream claimed by sincere craftspeople and the great tradition of Elvis Presley, Esquerita, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Sex Pistols, and Madonna sucked into a cultural vacuum by nitwit anarchists and bohemian sourpusses, three white jerkoffs and their crazed producer are set to go platinum-plus with "black" music that's radically original, childishly simple, hard to play, and accessible to anybody with two ears and an ass. Drinking, robbing, rhyming, and pillaging, busting open your locker and breaking your glasses, the Beasites don't just thumb their noses at redeeming social importance--they pull out their jammies and shoot it in the cookie puss. If you don't like the joke, you might as well put your money where your funnybone is and send a check to the PMRC. [Original grade: A] A PLUS

BOSTON: Third Stage (MCA) Never again can us wiseasses call it corporate rock without thinking twice. Whatever possessed Tom Scholz to spend seven years perfecting this apparently unoccupied articulation of an art-metal thought extinct years ago, it wasn't megaplatinum ambition. He's more like the Archbishop of Latter-Day Arena Rock, perfecting majestic guitar sounds and angelic vocals for hockey-rink cathedrals the world over--and also, since he's patently reluctant to venture from his studio retreat, elegiac melodies suitable to a radio ministry. If he seems more hobbyist than artist, more Trekkie than Blind Boy Grunt, that's no reason to get snobbish. And no reason to listen, either. C

BURNING SPEAR: People of the World (Slash) Like many angry young men before him, Winston Rodney has mellowed with the gathering years and assets. And like many angry young men before him, he's surrendered some edge. Innate musicality plus the right cushy production will sometimes benefit victims of this syndrome, and here he finds the formula, keyed to a horn section that happens to comprise three American women. So all hail unity and the honorable disc-race. B PLUS

DAVID BYRNE: Songs From True Stories (Sire) It isn't all as archly mawkish as the rearranged dreamsongs from his group's worst album. Pretentiously dinky is more the prevailing mood--a soundtrack only, like so many arty soundtracks before it. One where Byrne, Meredith Monk, the Kronos Quartet, and some locals who couldn't have known what they were getting into do for Texas what Byrne & Eno did for Africa. C PLUS

CAMEO: Word Up (Atlanta Artists) Larry Blackmon's a funny drummer, and I wouldn't say albums are something he just gets away with. But Vince Aletti named his column "The Single Life" after Blackmon's last significant effort for a reason. So buy the twelve-inch. And if you want more, wait for the best-of his current masterpiece makes inevitable. B

EASTERHOUSE: Contenders (Columbia) Like so many leftist ideologues before them, they make promises they can't keep. "Out on Your Own" opens side one by calling the Red Wedge's bluff, "Get Back to Russia" opens side two with praise of Leningrad in spring, and then it's mostly uniform arena-jangle. B

FISHBONE: In Your Face (Columbia) Last time they looked like sons of P-Funk and sounded like sons of Frank Yankovic's dotage, which suggested their stock in trade was cognitive dissonance. This time they look like 2-Tone fashion plates and sound like big-time new wave satirists, which suggests their stock in trade is haircuts. Uniting the two phases is their sense of rhythm or lack of same. B MINUS

HUNGRY FOR WHAT: The Shattered Dream (Better Youth) Black up the leader's cuspids and change their name to Garageland or London Calling and they could play any tribute bar between Boston and D.C. Only difference is they write their own anthems and don't fake any Cockney--when you start out in German, singing English is tribute enough. And though they won't make you love it, I bet they could make you like it--there's more spirit in their frank, admiring imitation than in the ersatz originality of whichever hybrid is tearing out the alternative playlists this week. B

KOOL AND THE GANG: Forever (Mercury) If in 1973 I'd been told that thirteen years hence Casey Kasem would name a then ghettoized funk group as the top singles act of the '80s, my heart would have swelled until my head interjected that the top singles act of the '70s was the Osmond family. In this I would have been wise, and if I'd then been told that the secret of Kool's success would be a bland black singer named James Taylor, I would have observed that he couldn't possibly be worse than our white one. In this I could have been unduly optimistic. C MINUS

THE MIGHTY LEMON DROPS: Happy Head (Sire) These shamblers do sometimes twist the clichés gently in an attempt to bring them back to life--the gurl who's "Like an Angel" is stuck up, for instance. But mostly they rely on guitars somewhat more punkish in attack than those of the countless American bands who've been working the same garage-pop angle since long before the Brits invented it. C PLUS

MOTORHEAD: Orgasmatron (GWR/Profile) I admire metal's integrity, brutality, and obsessiveness, but I can't stand its delusions of grandeur--the way it apes and misapprehends reactionary notions of nobility. One thing I like about Lemmy is that he's proud to be a clod, common as muck and dogged in his will to make himself felt as just that. Add that rarest of metal virtues, a sense of humor, which definitely extends to the music's own conventions, as on the lead cut of his first album in three litigation-packed years: yclept "Deaf Forever," a good enough joke right there (especially for Sabbaf fans), it turns out to be a battlefield anthem--about a corpse. And then add Bill Laswell, who was born to make megalomania signify: where most metal production gravitates toward a dull thud that highlights the shriek of the singer and the comforting reverberation of the signature guitar, Laswell's fierce clarity cracks like a whip, inspiring Lemmy, never a slowpoke in this league, to bellow one called "Built for Speed." Result: work of art. A MINUS

IGGY POP: Blah-Blah-Blah (A&M) You could point out that The Idiot and Lust for Life were cut with the Bowie of Low and "Heroes" while Blah-Blah-Blah was cut with the Bowie of Let's Dance and "Dancing in the Streets." Or you could surmise that copping to conscience did even less for Ig than finding true love did for Chrissie Hynde. C PLUS

THE SCREAMING BLUE MESSIAHS: Gun Shy (Elektra) Last year's Good and Gone import EP was too perfect for neogarage, too formally aware to get rough enough, but here (with two of the EP's best reprised) these pros seem like a different kind of tribute band--not Garageland Calling but London Sandinistas, strictly roots punks who can really play their axes. I don't mean ex-punks, either. They bury those roots except when they need a hook, and age has not withered nor custom staled their compulsion to snarl at the military-industrial complex and the girl next door. B PLUS

SOMETHING WILD (MCA) From the oppressive Top Gun to the not unattractive Pretty in Pink, the predictability-in-diversity of the soundtrack album typifies promo's novelty fetishism, and if this one's no different, at least it's better. Not only does Jonathan Demme do right by found exotica like Sonny Okossun, he knows how to special-order it, from a David Byrne-Celia Cruz duet to Sister Carol's saucy reggae "Wild Thing." He even gets songs that don't need pictures from eternal sidemen Steve Jones and Jerry Harrison--though not from Oingo Boingo's indefatigable Danny Elfman, or from eternal once-was Jimmy Cliff. B PLUS

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & THE E STREET BAND: Live/1975-1985 (Columbia) Any event this public will provoke backlash, and any album this monumental is sure to arouse unreasonable expectations and unlikely to satisfy the reasonable ones. So if not one of the eight songs from Born in the U.S.A. improves on the studio version, how bad does that make them? If what little remains of the mid-'70s shows that turned him into a legend is overblown enough to make you wonder if you got taken, trust yourself. If the three new originals and four covers don't leap out, figure they weren't supposed to. This album is about continuity and honest reassurance, a job very well done. Although it takes some smart chances (e.g., "War"), it wasn't meant to shock or enlighten or redefine--it was meant to sum up, and it does. There isn't one of its ten sides that excites me end to end, and there isn't one I couldn't play with active pleasure now or five years from now. If anything, it isn't long enough. A MINUS

TALKING HEADS: True Stories (Sire) These songs were conceived for a movie, rarely an efficient way to initiate an aural experience. Yet they're real songs, not detached avant-garde atmospherics, and honest though David Byrne's sympathy may (I said may) be, they leach their vitality from traditions that demand more heart than he ordinarily coughs up. Interesting they remain. But no way the rhetorical gris-gris of "Papa Legba" or the evangelical paranoia of "Puzzlin' Evidence" or (God knows) the escapist solace of "Dream Operator" is gonna fascinate like "Crosseyed and Painless" or "Slippery People"--for one thing, Byrne lets us know what the new songs mean, which ain't much. Do they rock, you want to know? Oh yes they do. B

RANDY TRAVIS: Storms of Life (Warner Bros.) With his rotogravure cover and spare instrumentation, Nashville's hot new thing cultivates an aura of neotraditionalist quality, as is the fashion these days. Fortunately, the quality at least is real. He sounds like an unspoiled John Anderson singing the material of a lucky George Strait. The two hits are the two side-openers are the two best, and neither could have been written by anybody who didn't work nine-to-five thinking up puns and angles. B PLUS

UB40: Rat in the Kitchen (A&M) One way you know they're a real reggae band is that you always think they've run out of songs until you play the album one last time. But they're a pop band, too--you don't perfect such seamless effects on a reggae budget. It would be puritanical to refuse the salves and ointments of this kind of intelligent political product. But it would be utopian to claim it cures anybody's ills. B PLUS

STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN AND DOUBLE TROUBLE: Live Alive (Epic) Formally, this is generic live double: four prev unrec tunes, most of the ten remakes a minute or two looser. But Vaughan wasn't made for the studio--live is the only concept he has any feel for. His material blooms with a little weeding, his big throaty moan gathers head under a spotlight, and the dumbfounding legato eloquence of his guitar rolls mightily down his band's expert arena-boogie groove. As a bonus, he ends up by reminding his yahooing Texans about Africa: "I may be white, but I ain't stupid"--vamp, vamp--"and neither are you." A MINUS

JOE LOUIS WALKER: Cold Is the Night (HighTone) Producer-penned songs begin and fancy up each side, which is half the Hightone story--this would be one more piece of moderately sharp spit-and-shuffle blues without that spit-and-polish. The other half is label honchos Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker's insistence on artists determined to rise above--like Robert Cray, Ted Hawkins, and JLW, who must have started out emulating both Junior Wells and Buddy Guy and taken it from there. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

The one blue-ribbon contender in a sparse crop of contemporary best-ofs is The Best of Warren Zevon (Asylum), in which Warren the Rocker kicks Warren the Poet's butt. With "Hasten Down the Wind" mercifully and tastefully omitted, the remaining midnight ruminations constitute a well-earned respite from dementia. This is the Zevon I'll play. I may also play The Best of George Clinton (Capitol), but I got it free--two of the cuts were already included on that strange half live-P-Funk, half best-of-George "mini-album" (which I reviewed as an advance tape before I could examine the actual package, which revealed that I wasn't holding the tight concert of my dreams) and three others also constitute side one of You Shouldn't-Nuf Bit Fish, the most playable Clinton of the '80s if not all time. Atlantic has done right by proto-soul man Ben E. King (Stand by Me, Atlantic) and falsetto exemplars Blue Magic (Greatest Hits, Omni); the King substitutes three Drifters ringers for five cuts on his 1966 solo Greatest Hits, but believe me, you'd rather own "Last Dance" twice than "Auf Wiedersehen, My Dear" once. The Bellamy Brothers' Greatest Hits Volume Two (Curb) features mucho outrageous ass-man smarm and "Old Hippie," Nashville's own "Born in the U.S.A." And for completeness's sake I'll mention Come Dancing with the Kinks (Arista), all ye need know and then some of Ray Davies's Clive Davis Years.

Rap's Greatest Hits (Priority) sure ain't "the biggest sellers of all time!" because there ain't no Sugarhill on it, but just take a look at these titles: "King of Rock," "A Fly Girl," "Fat Boys," "The Show," "Roxanne, Roxanne," "Friends," and two of the year's best singles--Timex Social Club's "Rumors" and Joeski Love's "Pee-wee's Dance." That rare item in rap, a bargain. Gift Rapping: The Select Best (Select) is the finest LP ever on that label and leads each side with two more hot ones, Whistle's "Just Bugging" and the Real Roxanne & Hitman Howie Tee's "Let's Go-Go." Despite Pebblee-Poo's half of the Masterdon Committee's "Get Off My Tip!," the runaway macho of Mr. Magic's Rap Attack Volume 2 (Profile) documents rap's one-better problem--playing the dozens live gives you some slack, but cop to the age of mechanical reproduction and you go up against history every time.

Perhaps descrying limited profits in repackaged contemporaries, many labels have revealed new archival interests, honoring their heritage and generating revenue simultaneously if not in that order, with the current biz craze for the compact disc and its poor cousin digital remastering spurring them on. Oldies stalwart Rhino Records deserves pride of place in any rundown because it's the exception--its revenues have always depended on other labels' archives, and while it's recently recut a significant chunk of its catalogue (and about time, since its product has always been marred by dull sound) into a Golden Archives Series that repackages its repackages, it's done the job the oldfashioned way, by locating the original masters. Later for digital, maybe after the Billy Vera capital arrives. Meanwhile, slightly reprogrammed best-ofs on the Beau Brummels, the Bobby Fuller Four, and the Standells (some heroic closet feminist snatched "Silly Little Tease" and "Black Hearted Woman" off Rhino's earlier Standells, and added "Riot on Sunset Strip" to boot), plus brighter audio on the Turtles, the Spencer Davis Group, Love (major improvement), the Everly Brothers (best domestic single disc ever available, though I miss "I Wonder if I'll Care As Much"), and the sainted Ritchie Valens.

Next up comes Abkco Records, smaller than Rhino in roster but grander in the hearts of rack jobbers everywhere, because topping that roster is none other than the Rolling Stones, whose entire pre-Atlantic catalogue is still owned by Allen B. Klein's company (note acronym). Sticky Fingers and after is now controlled by CBS, which has announced its own digitally remastered CD program, but Abkco and svengali emeritus Andrew Loog Oldham beat the big to it, with a brand new version of every album the Stones released stateside on London in the stores for Christmas. Yes, the sound on vinyl (I have yet to invest in CD playback, though not for religious reasons) is improved, though after considerable comparison I don't find the difference as thrill-packed as I'd hoped. In fact, starting with Aftermath (which is when Oldham caught on to stereo) I could even complain about the clinical coldness that moldy-fig audiophiles dislike in digital sound, and am pleased to report that my grotty old reprocessed stereo The Rolling Stones and Now! and Out of Our Heads can still make me shiver. No question, however, that the new versions have an edge. I'll take clarity over warmth even on Between the Buttons and Let It Bleed, and on the early albums the presence and detail greatly enhance Jagger's vocals without in any way muffling the band. Not a bad time for younguns to check 'em out.

Current owner of the precious Chess catalogue is MCA, which picked it up along with Sugarhill or vice versa in 1984 and has now begun to reissue long out-of-print Chess albums in their original configurations instead of compiling them yet again. With legal strong arming by the majors (MCA included) making classic imports harder to come by, these excellent nondigital pressings are a lot better than nothing, and if corporate commitment is firm enough to keep many albums in print over the long haul there'll be no point in pointing out that Chess was in the singles business, which makes its album concepts less than sacrosanct. Unfortunately, there's no historical precedent for such commitment. I'll bet Alligator, which recently initiated its own reissue program by licensing Dr. John's Gumbo from Atlantic and putting together a Delbert McClinton compilation from the MCA (formerly ABC) vaults, keeps both in print for the rest of its corporate life. How likely is MCA to do the same for Howlin' Wolf's Moanin' in the Moonlight (which features six cuts from my favorite Wolf double) or Bo Diddley (which goes eight for 14 off Sugarhill's Bo best-of and 12 for 12 off his old Chess twofer)? Which means you better get it while you can.

Ditto for EMI America's new digitally remastered series, which divides into two halves. Out of Hollywood we have collectibles. In the Beginning: Early Recordings of the Superstars and Death, Glory and Retribution: 15 Rock Rarities Including Death Discs, Protest Songs and Answer Records don't even belong on a quiz show. Put on Your Dancing Shoes: 13 Vintage Dance Singles is a wildly inconsistent mess of worthy weirdness. Dream Babies: Girls and Girl Groups of the Sixties is remarkably ungeneric for arcana (that's a caveat). But EMI's five indie compilations, which began life two cuts longer (though a little tinnier) hanging from its Italian Pathe Marconi branch, are all varying degrees of superb. It Will Stand documents Allen Toussaint's buoyant production and writing style for Minit in the early '60s, as essential a part of rock and roll history as, albeit a slighter one than, Atlantic or Motown. But to my surprise, Itchy Twitchy Feelings pays every bit as enjoyable a tribute to Juggy Gayle's work at Sue, with the bonus of a neat gender division--the female singers side cuts Dream Babies without even trying. Those who find Motown slick or just a little old these days will discover in these two albums the happy music of their innocent dreams. The Aladdin compilation, Rock Me All Night Long, is grittier, more r&b, but also strong, catchy, and up. As for that matter is Imperial's Clap Your Hands and Stomp Your Feet, though Fats Domino, Roy Brown, and Smiley Lewis, major artists who provide two cuts each, stick out too much to make for a smoothly listenable singles collection. I even caught myself getting off on Liberty's More Hits, More Often, dominated by Hollywood rockabilly and pop trivia though it is (and without "The Chipmunk Song" or Patience & Prudence, either).

The wonderful I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry: March 1949-August 1949 is the fourth twofer in Phonogram's estimable Hank Williams series, designed to present his complete recordings chronologically. Unless some accountant changes his mind, it is also the last. Williams died January 1, 1953. See what I mean?

Village Voice, Dec. 30, 1986

Dec. 2, 1986 Feb. 3, 1987