Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Due to complications surrounding the awards gala, the seventh or eighth Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, originally scheduled for this space, has been postponed until February 4. I know that's kind of late to be wrapping up 1980, but for me the year only began in October. My return to the Consumer Guide franchise represents an attempt to catch up. I'd never suggest that my replacements were less than perfect--de gustibus and so forth. But I admit I shuddered a little when the Vapors beat out the English Beat by two notches, and as for the Love of Life Orchestra, why, those infidels didn't even get a picture on the cover. Still, that's all water under the bridge and so forth. Regretting would be crass. Right. Only I did think there were a few albums that just were missed altogether. Never wrote about at all. You'll find 20 of them below. My rules were strict--nothing under B plus, nothing released after September 30, and nothing reviewed favorably by Pareles or Mortifoglio in Riffs. Finding 20 wasn't quite as easy as I'd expected--I developed quite a dislike for Patrick Barnes of Dirty Looks when I listened up, for instance. But it's my guess that there are more waiting, and they'll probably spice up future CGs. Meanwhile, benign revisionism rules. More pronouncements on 1980 next week. My only regret at the moment is that there wasn't Pick Hit space for Alberta Hunter.

JOHN ANDERSON (Warner Bros.) Maybe this isn't the best country album of 1980, but I'll take it over Willie Nelson's supersessions, George Jones's refurbished macho, and even Merle Haggard's inspired revivalists. The songs fade on side two, but not since Hank Williams, Jr. fell off his mountain and Gary Stewart fell off his barstool has anybody put so much vocal muscle into unadorned hard stuff. Convincer: Buddy Spicher's fiddle break on the definitive "She Just Started Liking Cheatin' Songs." B PLUS [Later]

T-BONE BURNETT: Truth Decay (Takoma) What does it mean when the best Christian record of 1980 is also the best rockabilly record of 1980? It means something has happened to rockabilly since Sam Phillips talked Jerry Lee Lewis into defaming the Pentecost. Burnett is equally comfortable with the (divine) "power of love" and a (fleshly) "love that's hot," so maybe something has happened to Christianity too. But don't take Pascal's wager quite yet--not unless you believe that to be "in search of an historic Jesus" is to throw "a wooden nickel in a wishing well." A MINUS [Later]

CHANGE: The Glow of Love (Warner Bros./RFC) "New and true and gay," this gold album confirms disco's continuing autonomy as a market and as a style. From the Rodgers-&-Edwards rip of "A Lover's Holiday" to the good ole Giorgio Moroder of "The End," here's the complete bag of tricks. Luther Vandross's best Teddy Pendergrass impression doesn't redeem the militantly escapist lyrics and probably isn't meant to. But "It's a Girl's Affair," sung by Jocelyn Shaw, is a softcore treat--and spell that "Girls'" on your next printing, please. B PLUS

CHIC: Real People (Atlantic) As on Sister Sledge's follow-up, Rodgers & Edwards have run out of sure shots--no "Good Times" here. But Risque was more than "Good Times," and this beats Risque. Jumpy, scintillating rhythms fuse with elegantly abrasive textures for a funk that's not light but sharp. Plus post-chic words that go with the attention-grabbing heat and invention of Nile Rodgers's postrock guitar. A MINUS [Later: A]

ERIC CLAPTON: Just One Night (RSO) Who needs another live double? A master guitarist whose studio albums have been cited for unfair trade practices by Sominex, that's who. All your AM and FM faves plus, served hot, raw, or both. B PLUS

ALBERT COLLINS: Frostbite (Alligator) In its way, this is as formulaic as a Linda Ronstadt album--pick good tunes, gather good musicians, identify good takes. But in blues the Good is simpler, more satisfying, and harder to come by than it is in superpop, and while I wouldn't say Albert plays better than Linda sings, I wouldn't argue if you did. Albert sings okay, too. B PLUS

DEVO: Freedom of Choice (Warner Bros.) Hey now, don't blame me--I insulted them every chance I got back when your roommate still thought they might be Important. But now that that's taken care of itself we can all afford to giggle. Robot satire indeed--if they ever teach a rhythm box to get funky, a Mothersbaugh will be there to plug it in. B PLUS

JOE ELY: Live Shots (MCA) Like a thousand blues and jazz guys before him, Ely is an American whose live album should have seen America first--not a year, a charting studio record, and a major endorsement after touring the U.K. The claim that this injustice was a corporate blunder is boogie bullshit: even prime material acutely performed sounds a little redundant in an artist whose fundamental is songs. Still, this is prime and acute. Let's hope he rides the Clash's tailwind right into downtown Lubbock. B PLUS

MERLE HAGGARD: The Way I Am (MCA) "Wake Up," a devastating final-night plea that's one of Haggard's few great love songs, is the only original that transcends his usual poses, with "Sky-Bo"--"That's a new kind of hobo for planes"--the most cloying offender. But Haggard's chief value has been vocal ever since "Okie From Muskogee" saddled him with an image, and here his resonant, reflective baritone transforms three Ernest Tubb tunes from standards into timeless pieces of Americana. If Willie Nelson is Bing Crosby, Haggard's Sinatra. B PLUS

JIMI HENDRIX: Nine to the Universe (Reprise) With posthumous Hendrix it's always best to concentrate on the improvisations as if he were a jazz musician, and these relaxed jams are his jazziest contexts to date. Unfortunately, at least in theory, the only jazz player on hand is organist Larry Young, who got pretty far out with Miles and McLaughlin but sounds like Jimmy Smith over the Billy Cox-Mitch Mitchell beat. The result is bracing progressive r&b with Jimi stretching out, and the question is whether tighter structures wouldn't have made him think harder and faster. B PLUS

ALBERTA HUNTER: Amtrak Blues (Columbia) After the bland Remember My Name soundtrack, John Hammond's gem is a blessing--it would have been tragic if the rebirth of this eighty-five-year-old wonder of nature and history, easily the most authoritative classic blues singer alive, had been documented only in print. A hot rhythm section, anchored by pianist Gerald Cook and jazzed up by hornmen Vic Dickenson, Doc Cheatham, and Frank Wess, pitch in with undeniable verve on material from "The Darktown Strutters' Ball" to "Always" to several worthy Hunter originals. Timing and intonation are as savvy as you'd figure, and though the voice isn't quite as full as it must have been, it packs an amazing wallop--when Hunter gloats about getting her butter churned, the memory sounds quite fresh, like maybe the dairy man poked his head in that morning. More good news--she'll be back in the studio with Hammond soon. A

MICHAEL HURLEY: Snockgrass (Rounder) More songs about dying and food--and rambling, mustn't forget rambling--from the old-timey existentialist, whose oblique wail recalls both Jerry Garcia and John Prine because all three are more obsessed with mountain vocal styles than most mountain vocal stylists. "Jole' Blon," "Tia Marie," and a few others are more or less what you'd expect, but if you ever expected "You Gonna Look Like a Monkey" or "I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop," you're two up on me. A MINUS

THE JACKSONS: Triumph (Epic) More cluttered than Off the Wall, partly because Michael's brothers are butting in, partly because Quincy Jones isn't. But most of the clutter is sheer, joyous muscle-flexing--hated the chorale that opens "Can You Feel It" at first, but now I chuckle at their audacity every time it comes on. Anyway, you know about solo albums--the songs do improve when the group butts in. And you can dance to them. In short, their best. A [Later: A-]

SI KAHN: Home (Flying Fish) This Carolina-based union organizer--who dedicates his second album to his father, Rabbi Benjamin M. Kahn--is the most gifted songwriter to come out of the folkie tradition since John Prine. His overview is political and his songs personal, their overriding theme the emotional dislocations of working far from home. No doubt part of his secret is that he lives among folk rather than folkies, but his understated colloquial precision is sheer talent. Some will consider the all-acoustic music thin (it's often solo or duet, twice a cappella) and the voice quavery. I find that both evoke the mountain music of the '20s in a way that makes me long for home myself, and I'm from Queens. A MINUS

ROBIN LANE & THE CHARTBUSTERS (Warner Bros.) Formally, this is reactionary, from Lane's chesty melismas to the band's fakebook licks, and the songs go on too long. But every one catches, and despite Lane's lady-macho stage moves, her lyrics seem felt in what I can only call a progressive way--autonomous but not anomic or selfish, compassionate but not infinitely long-suffering. B PLUS

ANDY FAIRWEATHER LOW: Mega-Shebang (Warner Bros.) When I heard the funky force-beat of "Night Time DJukeing" I was delighted--sounded like the man had invented DOR all on his own, and in Wales yet. But as I perused the lyrics I began to suspect that his heart--a concept that in Low always includes the mind--wasn't entirely committed. Good fun from an artist who's capable of the best. B PLUS

LPJE: Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1980 (Latin Percussion Ventures, Inc.) Begin with Tito Puente on timbales and Patato Valdez on congas. Add three dedicated young improvisers, making sure that one is as snazzy as electric violinist Alfredo De La Fe. Let them play what they want. Presto--pure polyrhythm rules. Try it. A MINUS

THE SUBURBS: In Combo (Twin/Tone) I know it's endearing amateurism that makes middle America's new wave tick, but these Minnesotans think clockwork is fun--their music is glibly witty, even decelerating into a mournful country-rock triad to make a joke. Their scattershot, nasty-to-nutball humor is oblique or tongue-in-cheek enough to convey an undercurrent of empathy most of the time. And when they're comparing cows' feet to those of sheep, little empathy is required. A MINUS

THE UNDERTONES: Hypnotised (Sire) From the opening chorus--"Here's more songs about chocolate and girls/It's not so easy knowing they'll be heard"--the good-kids-of-the-year are as honest as power pop (remember power pop?) ever gets. They're also as powerful, which I bet has something to do with why they're so honest. The improved melodies have something to do with why it's not so easy any more. A MINUS

WANNA BUY A BRIDGE? (Rough Trade) Rough Trade has become the biggest British postpunk indie by (or at least while) brooking no compromise politically or aesthetically. Politically this has led to idiot rant like the Pop Group's "We Are All Prostitutes"; aesthetically it's meant rapprochements with incorrigible art-rockers like Mayo Thompson and Robert Wyatt as well as the diddle-prone experiments of Young Marble Giants, the Raincoats, Essential Logic, and Cabaret Voltaire. But it's also provided such classic punk protest as Spizz Energi's "Soldier Soldier" and Stiff Little Fingers' "Alternative Ulster," and none of the above-named diddlers would have been taken aboard without a surefire tune or two in their packet. Hence this superb fourteen-single compilation, Rough Trade's first U.S. LP. Kleenex's "Ain't You" and Delta 5's "Mind Your Own Business," two of the finest postpunk forty-fives anywhere, do help. As do Scritti Politti's arty, political, hypnotic "Skank Bloc Bologna" and "At Last I Am Free," by none other than Robert Wyatt. A

Additional Consumer News

Solid Smoke is certainly 1980's reissues champion. In addition to James Brown's Live and Lowdown at the Apollo, Vol. 1, which everyone reading this has already purchased even if the long out-of-print King original is on their shelves, there's The Sheppards, a compilation so intelligently conceived that it turns a fairly ordinary Chicago vocal group into avatars of the evolution from doowop to soul. How many more wonderful LPs are lurking out there among the half-forgotten singles of two decades ago? . . .

I've managed to get intimate with two of last year's many superb jazz reissues: Dexter Gordon's Clubhouse (Blue Note), mature late bebop featuring Freddie Hubbard, Barry Harris, Bob Cranshaw, and Billy Higgins, and Betty Carter's Social Call (Columbia, in the same series as an estimable Chuck Willis from the Okeh vault). Social Call is only half a reissue, actually, dating from Carter's earliest solo dates, at a time when she stuck close to the tunes, a procedure that suits my reactionary tastes. . . .

I somehow never got around to mentioning Material's all-instrumental Temporary Music, 1, a 12-inch EP that is the best documentation to date of the white half of the punk jazz idea. Also admire Material's "Discourse"/"Slow Murder," which has words and a steadier pulse.

Village Voice, Feb. 2, 1981

Apr. 28, 1980 Mar. 2, 1981