Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

January is catch-up month, when I search through my shelves for A records I may have resisted when they were new. Found a few, too, with other possibilities pending. But none of them match my twin Pick Hits, pleasant surprises that snuck out from the artier reaches of the New York scene very late in 1984. It's enough to make you believe in an avant-garde that knows its name.

LAURIE ANDERSON: United States Live (Warner Bros.) Taking a deep breath, I dutifully put on side one the moment the box arrived and to my surprise raced through the rest almost consecutively. Then I was able to jump around--which I have, just about daily, ever since. This is partly a function of sheer quantity--hard to get tired of four-and-a-half hours of fairly good anything very fast. Maybe after playing all ten sides five times minimum I should have a favorite, and it's true a few jokes have paled. But even though the live set is more conceptual comedy à la Big Science than rockish breakthrough like Mister Heartbreak, the composer-turned-performance-artist's three years as a nominal pop star have done something for her. Words carry this aural document, but minimal (if not minimalist) accompaniment and arrangement (and of course, performance) assure that their movement is always musical. And if the meanings could be more pointed, Anderson is hardly the first major artist to leave the driving to us. A

ASHFORD & SIMPSON: Solid (Capitol) Hooked by their most confident and attractive single since 1978's "Is It Still Good to Ya" (and maybe since whenever), this never rises nearly so high again, but the nontitle side especially is a return to the consistency of So So Satisfied and Stay Free. Which is to say that these world-class songwriters have made themselves another groove album. But not to suggest the pertinent contradiction: the groove is a flow, the flow hips and hops. B PLUS

BLOW-UP: Easy Knowledge (Polar) Six out of eight songs on this half-hour-plus "EP" get to the heart of smart teen disillusion, which is as much as I ever expect of the L.A.-spawned nuevo-Nuggets approach. The Standells cover sounds like Dylan and states Blow-Up's credo, which in the great smart-teen tradition comes perilously close to making a fashion statement about not conforming to style. Of course they look up to Steve Wynn and Dan Stuart--they're young in L.A. Jim Carroll takes imagination. A MINUS

BRUCE COCKBURN: Stealing Fire (Gold Mountain) The songs about life and love fade into the usual high-IQ lyricism, but the ones about politics bite and hold. Not just because they're more violent (guns and copters galore) or virtuous (folk-rock Sandinista!)--because they're more specific. It isn't just ideology that makes "Who put that bullet hole in Peggy's kitchen wall?" a better lyric than "Pay attention to the poet/You need him and you know it." Me, I pay attention to rocket launchers. B

THE EMBARRASSMENT: Retrospective (Fresh Sounds) Now that I've finally gotten the message, a year and a half after this great lost American band dispersed into the wilds of Wichita, I still can't repeat it back to you. Which may help explain how the band got lost. Even garage-rock isn't a broad enough genre description--the song shapes here are just too ungainly. Their lyrics are too wide-ranging and elusive for modern romance, yet too down-to-earth and just plain funny to get lumped in with the neotrippies. And while the voice of John Nichols, described by annotator Drew Wheeler as belonging to "an All-American adolescent in a state of psycho-sexual confusion," provides a convenient way in, I know that what makes me sit up and say yeah is the kick of Bill Goffrier's rather grungy guitar. You figure it out. A MINUS

ERASMUS HALL: Gohead (Capitol) The best Clinton spinoff since the Brides (not including Bootsy, who's on board as well) makes the funk album of the year (not including rap, which I guess is where funk went). Of course, to hear Capitol tell it, George discovered these Detroit pros long after they had their own thing. In the nick of time, I'd say. B PLUS

FLIPPER: Gone Fishin' (Subterranean) I must have listened to Generic Flipper fifty times without fully registering the dark and more or less unceasing roil of Ted Falconi's guitar. On this album it was the first thing I noticed. Watch out for bands who get heavily into texture. And stop making jokes. B

THE J. GEILS BAND: You're Gettin' Even While I'm Gettin' Odd (EMI America) This has always been an unnecessarily obvious pop group, and while fill-in vocalists Seth Justman and Stephen Bladd eschew illusions of grandeur, they're neither gifted nor skilled enough to dance that nuance. And so the hooks pound on, making the wordplay in the sex lyrics seem unnecessarily salacious and the poetry in the political lyrics seem unnecessarily overwrought. B MINUS

HALF JAPANESE: Our Solar System (Iridescence) This is the band cultists love, give or take a few tokens of encroaching maturity--the tantrums are shorter and more entertaining, the musical forms marginally recognizable. Lots to laugh at, including an instrumental: "Hall of the Mountain King"/"Louie Louie." They don't have the chops for "European Son," though. B

HALF JAPANESE: Sing No Evil (Iridescence) As the postpunk Modern Lovers gain musicianship (accrue musicians?), they're beginning to sound vaguely like Beefheart, and these days I prefer them--better nerd primitives-turning-primitivists than hippie primitivists-turning-pretenders. Any of their thousand faithful who fear this latest album represents some accommodation with commerce shouldn't have nightmares about Unconditionally Guaranteed--it's more along the lines of Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). Meanwhile, their target market, which must number at least ten thousand, can sing along to nearly everything here and recollect most of it in moments of unwonted tranquility. I love all the songs about Jad Fair's pathetically normal sexual obsessions, but my favorites are his nerd "Secret Sharer" ("There's a man who looks like me/And talks like me/And acts like me/But that's where the similarities end") and his nerd "Ball and Chain" ("It's not fair!"). A MINUS

THE JUDDS: Why Not Me? (RCA Victor) They harmonize with uncanny consanguinity. Their six-piece production is neotraditionalist (which in Nashville means liberal, right?), totally violinless (fiddleless, even). But after defying convention by indulging not a single soppy song on their tryout EP, they've flabbed the follow-up several times. And I bet they get even more complacent. B

ARTO LINDSAY/AMBITIOUS LOVERS: Envy (Editions EG) Shifting abruptly from funk to skronk to varying intensities of Brazilian pop, this may seem scattered to some, but I find its coherence riveting. I suppose what holds it together is Arto's persona--really more a sensibility, postmodernist humor coexisting with humanistic lyricism, which is articulated rhythmically but also in singing that ranges from look-ma crazee to wittingly sweet and unaffected. In this context both his fake-gibberish verbal-vocalese and his surprisingly detailed atonal strums (not his lyrics) sound like translations from the Portuguese. And "Let's Be Adult" deserves heavy rotation in every disco from here to Rio. A

MALCOLM MCLAREN: Fans (Island) Although what attracts McLaren to opera is proven commercial tunes he doesn't have to pay for, he does end up making sly, slantwise connections between two wildly successful strains of romantic superschlock: Puccini and disco. "Madam Butterfly" has the killer hook, with McLaren's Pinkerton a bizarre yet rather affecting country-cockney hybrid. But the great genre-fuck is "Fans" itself, with disco diva Angie B. doing a recitative so dumb and charming it reminds us not only that you don't need brains to love opera but that this may well be the nicest thing you can say about the stuff. Listen to Angie stumble over a few notes of real Puccini in the coda, then ask yourself whether featured soprano Betty Ann White would improve them by doing them right. B PLUS

MINUTEMEN: Double Nickels on the Dime (SST) Maybe by designating a "side chaff" and aiming a boast at their four-sided labelmates ("take that, hüskers") the L.A. (really San Pedro) punk-fusion (really "chump rock"?) trio mean to acknowledge that a forty-six-song double-LP is overdoing things. But I have my faves throughout, topped by a Steely Dan cover that wouldn't have survived first weed, and I'm not sure I'd like them so much at a different pace. Eleven of the titles are over 2:00 and thirteen more over 1:40, but structures are still so abbreviated that the way one riff-song segues into the next changes both. This is poetry-with-jazz as it always should have been, and while D. Boon may be a somewhat limited singer, he's a hell of a reader, with a guitar that rhymes. A MINUS

MINUTEMEN: The Politics of Time (New Alliance) They sound smart and there and committed to change, and as with most mortals their outtakes is outtakes and their live shit is live shit: couple-three good songs out of twenty-seven total (this is when they were pure). B MINUS

TRUE WEST: Drifters (PVC) They're still loud, they're still songful, but the balance is now so cautious that their elegiac, hard-driving Television-goes-country-rock wins this month's Trouser Press Memorial What-Does-It-All-Mean Award for Formalism, an eye-catching statuette of gilded virgin vinyl that looks kind of like an ear and kind of like a question mark. Blame it on the new drummer if you want. My guess is attrition, a/k/a maturity. B

JAMES BLOOD ULMER: Part Time (Rough Trade) Cut at Montreux around the time of Odyssey, Ulmer's strongest LP, this repeats four titles and is close to his weakest. The live recording dulls his sonic concept, with only "Swing and Things," compacted into 3:27, providing compensation. Which isn't to say he doesn't still outrock Pat Metheny, or that "Encore," the most striking of the three new tunes, shouldn't get an encore. B PLUS

U2: The Unforgettable Fire (Island) Eno has shaped this record to accentuate Bono's wild romantic idealism, and while I prefer his moral force I have to admit that the two are equally beguiling to contemplate and dangerous to take literally. The romanticism gets out of hand with the precious expressionism of "Elvis Presley and America" (enough to make the King doubt this boy's virility), the moralism with the turn-somebody-else's-cheek glorification of Martin Luther King's martyrdom (death stings plenty where I live). But he gets away with it often enough to make a skeptic believe temporarily in miracles. B PLUS

THE VELS: Velocity (Mercury) These three Steven Stanley-produced Philadelphians don't just dance in their heads. Not only do they command the spare formal pop eloquence that many popdance minimalists claim and few get next to, they have a generous regard for pop pleasure. Their simple hooks add up to full-fledged tunes, their basic-English lyrics are more than runes. And singer Alice DeSoto is unaffected and vivacious, a rare combination. B PLUS

PETER WOLF: Lights Out (EMI America) Though the big deal is supposed to be the way collaborator Michael Jonzun brings Wolf's r&b into the space age, there's more electronic pizzazz in current Chaka or Ashford & Simpson. Such sweet sleepers as "I Need You Tonight" and "Baby Please Don't Go" and "Here Comes That Hurt Again," all of them originals, sound like obscure Motown covers. In short, a gratifyingly unassuming solo breakaway. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Though I've sifted through my seven-inches for an indie or two I can get enthusiastic about, only the Mighty Wah's "Come Back" (Beggars Banquet import), a CHR natural that's inexplicably unreleased here, has proven more than barely recommendable. But among the year's store of random African 12-inches, half a dozen in all, I've found a gem. African Connexion (Oval import), an EP by a half-black, half-white London sextet, is divided into a "bright side" that generates as much Afrolift as just about any album I've heard this year and a "dark side" with an English-language lyric that has the bite of good protest reggae. Worth seeking out. Also recommendable: the extended up of Super Mazembe Orchestra's "Shauri Yako"/"Pepepe" (Earthworks/Rough Trade import), Orchestre Jazira's "Love" remake (Blackmarket), and perhaps Kantata's grandly synthonic/choral "Asiko"/"Duke" highlife (Oval import).

Village Voice, Feb. 5, 1985

Dec. 25, 1984 Feb. 26, 1985