Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

I hope the annual February doldrums account for my relatively limited enthusiasms this month--could also be that I've temporarily Od'd on good old you-know-what. In any case, it's been a long time since I've felt as uncertain about a grade as I have about the Undertones' B. For those who keep track of such things, I ranked albums by 20/20 and Richard Lloyd higher because I thought the songwriting both more interesting (musically) and more consistent (the Beat was a mistake, I think--that's a B, too.) On the other hand, the Pearl Harbor album could go higher. The radio and the dance floor--that is, the great spirit of consensus--will probably be making a big difference in how we end up valuing the continuing welter of you-know-what. Let's hop both stay as open as they've been.

BOBBY BLAND: I Feel Good, I Feel Fine (MCA) Then you must be on something--you don't even get to sing on that track. C MINUS

JOHN CALE: Sabotage/Live (Spy/I.R.S.) "Military intelligence isn't what it used to be," Cale intones on a title cut replete with slash and yowl. "So what--human intelligence isn't what it used to be either." Speak for yourself, John. This material, based in part on Cale's recent inquiries into foreign affairs, is fairly strong in a geocynical way that's a lot newer to rock than it is to human discourse in general. But the live recording, while no doubt economical, gets less slash than flesh cut out of Marc Aaron's guitar and not enough singing out of Cale. And "Captain Hook," the dumbest song here goes on for 11:26. B

MARSHALL CHAPMAN: Marshall (Epic) This declared "rock and roll girl" is a lot more confident, clever, and animated than such northern counterparts as Ellen Foley and Ellen Shipley, but she's a farily one-dimensional conservative compared to Pearl E. Gates or Chrissie Hynde. Not only does she never question what she wants, which I guess is okay, but she still equates rock and roll itself with liberation, which isn't. The reason it isn't is illustrated by her band, who reprise old boogie licks as if they're expressing themselves. B [Later]

THE CONTORTIONS: Buy the Contortions (ZE) Bohemias are always beset by ambitious neurotics who hawk their obnoxious afflictions as if they're the future of the species, which is why in theory James White's music is better without the words: You get the jagged rhythms and tonic off-harmonies without being distracted by his "ideas." But in fact the music is so (deliberately) stunted that it needs a voice for sonic muscle, and James's lyrics do have a certain petty honesty and jerkoff humor. "I Don't Want To Be Happy" should separate the believers from the spectators quite nicely. Time: 29:47. B PLUS

JOE JACKSON: I'm the Man (A&M) Oh yeah? Then get the knack back. C PLUS

FREDDIE JAMES: Get Up and Boogie (Warner Bros.) Just what you've been waiting for, I'm sure--another soprano crooning over another cleverly entitled dance track. And coming up next, oh my god, it's "Crazy Disco Music." Think it might help if the singer were male? Well, it does, quite a bit--very cute, very unusual. In fact, since he's already 14, very very unusual--his soprano days are numbered. Next step, he says, is to go to "Hollywood," where they'll tell him to "Dance Little Boy Blue." Don't put your advance on it, kid. B MINUS

M: Pop Muzik (Sire) Not only did the single break the new wave/disco barrier, it packed an instant wallop worthy of its title--you could hear it explode up the charts from moment of impact. All that's audible here is Robin Scott straining to duplicate that light-hearted, wordly-wise eclecticism and exposing himself as a hopeless dilettante in the process. C

MADNESS: One Step Beyond (Sire) We have entered the era of the white drummer--suddenly every young rock and roll band that strikes vinyl can generate a moderately exciting pulse. But moderately exciting is all this is. It's as if the Kingmen knew that the way to fame and fortune was to add some local color stories from the Portland bars to their repetoire of borrowed licks and melodies. Fun, don't get me wrong, and I like a couple of the sketches--"My Girl" and "Mummy's Boy"--very much. Entertaining on stage, too. But I can wait until somebody else puts this on the turntable. B [Later: B+]

CAROLYN MAS (Mercury) Mas is one of those folksingers who likes "good" rock and roll so much that she feels honored to contribute kitsch poetry like "Snow" and kitsch pop like "Do You Believe I Love You" to the genre. So I was surprised to find myself enjoying four of these songs and getting off on two, "Sadie Says" and "Quote Goodbye Quote." Only you know what? Her guitarist, David Landau, turns out to have co-composing credits on three songs here, and they just happen to be my three favorites. Wonder how he sings. B MINUS

PEARL HARBOR & THE EXPLOSIONS (Warner Bros.) A rhythm band ought to have a better rhythm section--most of this rocks okay for DOR, but the funk beneath "Get a Grip on Yourself," for instance, is stiff to no purpose. The riffs are hooky, though, and Pearl E. Gates is an independent--not to say insular--woman who knows what her habits cost. There are no tears on her pillow and she doesn't care if your aim is true, but she doesn't waste her energy on macha bluster, either--prefers the cutting remark and isn't above turning her wit on herself. Which does not mean she has any intention of "reforming." B PLUS [Later]

PRETENDERS (Sire) Tough gals, tough gals--suddenly the world is teeming with tough gals. And Chrissie Hynde is a good one. Maybe not all of her songs are championship singles, but she's got more to offer emotionally and musically (and sexually) than any of the competition, unless Patti counts. She's out for herself but she gives of herself as well; when she alternates between rapacity and tenderness you don't feel she's acting coy or fucked up, although she may be. And she conveys these changes with her voice as well as with her terse, slangy, suggestive lyrics. James Honeyman Scott's terse, slangy, suggestive guitar steals don't hurt either. A MINUS

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Where There's Smoke (Tamla) Most of Smokey's finest album is in the sexy do-the-rock mode of his biggest solo hit "Cruisin'" Motown purists-come-lately will no doubt be miffed at the snappy discofication of "Get Ready" which opens the "Cruisin'" side. But what cavils will they level at the new songs on side one, which modernize the man's concise, smoldering romanticism with a flair that seemed lost to him years ago? Never count a soul man out--never. A MINUS [Later]

DIANA ROSS: The Boss (Motown) In which La Suprema passes a crash course at the Ashford Ampersand Simpson School of Total Adult Fulfillment, although not with As. It's her house, she wants your good lovin' once in the morning and once in the evening, she'll compete and regret it, she'll cooperate and be glad, and she shall survive, because she's the boss. Quite smart, quite sexy, but sometimes dull--it doesn't do much for A&S's crash material that there's only one singer. B [Later]

SANTANA: Marathon (Columbia) In their selfless pursuit of universality they've signed on a second Eddie Money graduate and replaced Greg Walker, their finest vocalist, with a Scot named Alexander J. Ligertwood, who proves his internationalism by aping that eternal foreigner Lou Gramm. Odd, you can hardly hear the congas. C

THE SPECIALS (Chrysalis) It takes longer than you'd figure for their jingles to get across because the sound, especially the vocal sound, is just too thin to make itself felt from the outset (compare their "Monkey Man" to Toots's if you dare). I like their commercial messages, though--promote racial harmony, use contraceptives. B PLUS [Later: A-]

SYLVAIN SYLVAIN (RCA Victor) "Teenage News" has been a great one ever since Syl introduced it with the Dolls. "What's That Got To Do with Rock 'n Roll?" is a pretty good one. And that's as many songs as this born sideman should ever sing in half an hour--though since he was born a sideman, it's more than he ever got. Time: 29:57. C [Later]

TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS: Pass the Pipe (Mango) This isn't as well-crafted song for song as Toots's last American release, Reggae Got Soul, but because it doesn't assume that "soul" equals U.S. success it's a lot less confused, and I like it more. The music's momentum is unimpeded by bad faith, and the three compositions that do stand out--especially "Famine", as amazing a juxtaposition of horror and good cheer as Jimmy Cliff's "Viet Nam"--sound like great ones. B PLUS

THE UNDERTONES (Sire) Nice lads, nice lads--suddenly the world is teeming with nice lads. I like their punky speed and adolescent authenticity, but I'd prefer the reverse, because among adolescents these days the speed takes care of itself, while finding something besides teendom to write about presents problems. Though I enjoy most of side one and a little of side two, not one track is so great that I need it. And neither do you. I don't think. B [Later: B+]

JAMES WHITE AND THE BLACKS: Off White (ZE) This is pretty good to dance to, but like so much disco music it gets tedious over a whole side. And the chick singer--probably somebody's girlfriend--certainly doesn't help. B MINUS

WIRE: 154 (Warner Bros.) Predictions that these art-schoolers would turn into art-rockers no longer seems so cynical. Their gift for the horrifying vignette remains. But their tempos are slowing, sometimes to a crawl, as their textures venture toward the orchestral, and neither effect enhances the power of their vignettes, which become every more personalistic and/or abstract. B

Additional Consumer News

Unlike my future-shocked colleagues, I'm not entirely convinced by either of the two modernistic girl groups with albums out on Rough Trade (expected to begin U.S. production sometime this year but still on import at the moment). Both remind me in spirit of late '60s art-rock of the Cantabrigian school (Kevin Ayers and Soft Machine rather than Yes and ELP): dubious pro-am musicianship, unavoidably spacey ambience. I prefer the Raincoats, who have a punk-goes-folk-rock feel; the tentativeness of their rhythms and vocals is accentuated rather than mitigated by the medium tempos they prefer, and their songs are of mixed quality, which means some of them are very good. Vicky Aspinall's violin--which she saws rather than plays--is the hook, just like Lora Logic's minimal sax in Essential Logic. Logic's musical conceptions--even better displayed on Virgin's Essential Logic EP--are more finished, with swooping melodies and staccato rhythms. The album reprints the otherwise indicipherable lyrics, which are willfully eccentric, harsh but whimsical, and suspiciously "poetic." I hope that when we know what these bands actually portend we'll hear their debuts as exciting premonitions, but with hindsight they may also sound insufferably pretentious or regrettably crude. . . .

Speaking of hindsight, or is it girl groups, let me recommend a mail-order threefer called Super Girls. Despite chintzy notes and packaging, five songs-per-side programming, questionable sound (mine is fuzzy, other copies aren't), and obvious selection, this compilation of girl (as opposed to girl group) hits of the early '60s is a must for the noncollectors who only know this stuff as a memory. One song per artist, a good idea, including Motown but not Philles (where there's still a Warners best-of available). Anybody could quarrel with individual selections: Why not the Exciters' "Tell Him," the Ad Libs' "Boy from New York City," and who was it who did "Get It on Home"? Why not go to the '50s for the Chantels and the Bobbettes? Why Robin Ward and Joanie Summers, for Chrissake? But ultimately even the wimpy stuff sounds great, and most of it is surprisingly soulful. I've been hearing Herman's Hermits' version of "I'm into Something Good" rather than Earl Jean's for 15 years now, and that's much too long. There are 30 songs in the package for $8.98. Address: Super Girls, 930 Remington Road, Schaumburg, Illinois 60195. . . .

I can't say I'm especially delighted by the ever-increasing chicness of the music I like. I don't mean popularity--that contradiction is what I'm in this for. I'm talking about Kennedys at Hurrah and suchlike--delights the owners of Hurrah, but doesn't make it anymore fun for those of us who've been going all along. The 10-buck ticket Ron Delsner is selling for the Specials' show at the Diplomat ($10.50 with the virtually automatic Ticketron surcharge) isn't going to do anybody good except Delsner and maybe the Specials, neither of whom (including the Specials, who do quite all right in England) need the money. If the show is a success it will be one more step toward the kind of pricing structures that enabled the biz to take over the music in the early '70s. Local openers will get screwed, the less affluent--meaning the bohemian types and impecunious students who have been an essential part of New York's scene--will get frozen out. I wouldn't be so corny as to suggest a boycott. But I will say that I didn't think the Specials were worth the eight bucks I didn't pay at Hurrah. Have my doubts about their grade, too.

Village Voice, Feb. 25, 1980

Dec. 31, 1979 Mar. 31, 1980