Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Paranoid new wavers may suspect that I'm getting soft on supergroups, but all the orthodoxy in the world won't make the new albums by the Jam and Gary Numan more fun than those by ZZ Top and Led Zeppelin, not to mention more meaningful (or more fun) than the new one by Gil Scott-Heron. And I have my doubts about Elvis Costello too--but then, I always did.

LEONARD COHEN: Recent Songs (Columbia) Cohen's arrangements are even more detailed and surprising than John Lissauer's, and Jennifer Warnes is the most valuable backup singer since Emmylou Harris. "The Traitor" is a minor masterpiece. And in general this record's take on courtly love in the swingers' era packs more ironic intelligence than you would have thought possible. Or necessary, unfortunately. Cohen's gift for elementary hummables seems to deteriorate as his writing evolves from the conversational toward the allegorical. Irony or no irony, "rages of fragrance" and "rags of remorse" sound suspiciously like bad poetry even when they're sung, and that's not now it's supposed to work. B

STEVE FORBERT: Jackrabbit Slim (Nemporer) John Simon's settings go every which way--from Muscle Shoals to Kingston, from country to folk to r&b--but always seem to come up pop. Then again, what else do you do with Forbert? He's as all-American as the Band, but beyond that catchy young heartland-soulful voice he has no musical identity: his lyrics are omniverously observant, but beyond an attractive all-purpose compassion they never reveal a point of view either. Steve Forbert Reporting, that's all. Which means you have to care about him as much as he does--"Make It All So Real" is as shameless as the suffering-artist theme gets--to care about his songs. And the voice doesn't do that for me. B MINUS

IRON CITY HOUSEROCKERS: Love's So Tough (MCA) "Turn It Up" is one of those self-transcending cliches--a song about rock and roll escape that reveals how the truism became one. Most of the others are honorable cliches--working-class angst played for tragedy rather than irony or analysis in the great tradition of B. Springsteen. Or is it T. Lizzy? B

THE JAM: Setting Sons (Polydor) Likable lads, as always, and improving themselves, too. The music has gained density and power, and they do OK with the social commentary--nice to see some empathy for doomed middle-class plodders like "Smithers-Jones" instead of the usual contempt, and "The Eton Rifles" and "Little Boy Soldiers" place them firmly on the left. On the other hand, some of this is pretty dumb ("Wasteland," ugh), and overarrangement (not so much extra instruments as dramatic vocal shifts) is no way to disguise thin melody. B PLUS

LED ZEPPELIN: In Through the Out Door (Swan Song) The tuneful synthesizer pomp on side two confirms my long-held belief that this is a real good art-rock band, and their title for the first ten minutes or so, "Carouselambra," suggests that they find this as humorous as I do. The lollapalooza hooks on the first side confirms the world's long-held belief that this is a real good hard rock band. Lax in the lyrics department, as usual, but their best since Houses of the Holy. B PLUS

GARY NUMAN: The Pleasure Principle (Atco) Once again, metal machine music goes easy-listening. But last time the commander-in-chief of the tubeway army was singing about furtive sex, policemen, and isolation, while this time he's singing about robots, engineers, and isolation. In such a slight artist, these things make all the difference. B

TEDDY PENDERGRASS: Teddy Live! Coast to Coast (Philadelphia International) The three live sides include no new tunes and none from his first album. Many women scream, and a few sing into his hand-held mike. Both uptempo tunes on the studio side are pretty good, but they're interspersed with an exceedingly distracting interview conducted by one Mimi Brown. MB: "How do you like your eggs?" TP: "Hard." MB: "Out of your three albums, which is your favorite?" TP: "I'd say my first." C

ESTHER PHILLIPS: Here's Esther . . . Are You Ready (Mercury) Proving her resilience once again, this thirty-year-woman skates over "Philadelphia Freedom" with a lot more cool than Aretha managed on "The Weight," explores her blues roots with a Ruby & the Romantics cover, and gets good material out of what still looks suspiciously like a songwriting stable. Special plaudits to producer Harvey Mason, who reminds us that disco horns and strings are supposed to push push. Fave: the danceable get-down parody, "Oo Oop Oo Oop." B PLUS [Later]

PINK FLOYD: The Wall (Columbia) For a concept album about the alienation of a rock star, this isn't bad--unlikely to arouse much pity or envy, anyway. The music is all right, too--kitschy minimal maximalism with sound effects and speech fragments. But the story is confused, "mother" and "modern life" make unconvincing villains, and if the recontextualization of "up against the wall" is intended ironically, I don't get it. B MINUS [Later]

IGGY POP: Soldier (Arista) This is sheer product--hard uptempo sessions with the pickup band that featured Glen Matlock and Ivan Kral. But the formula serves him well; he can apparently generate satirical energy over a clean rock bottom at will. Play this a few times and in two years you'll still recall five songs when you put it on again: "Dog Food," "I Snub You," "Loco Mosquito," "I'm a Conservative," "Play it Safe." And all the others will sound pretty good. B PLUS

PRINCE (Warner Bros.) This boy is going to be a big star, and he deserves it--he's got a great line. "I want to come inside you" is good enough, but (in a different song) the simple "I'm physically attracted to you" sets news standards of "naive," winning candor. The vulnerable teen-macho falsetto idea is pretty good too. But he does leave something to be desired in the depth-of-feeling department--you know, soul. B PLUS

JOHN PRINE: Pink Cadillac (Asylum) Weird. With production by Knox and Jerry (Sons of Sam) Phillips, Prine has never rocked harder. But he's slurring his vocals like some toothless cartoon bluesman emulating an Elvis throwaway--related to the Sun sound, I guess, but perversely. Are the new songs any good? Hard to tell. B MINUS

RAMONES: End of the Century (Sire) Sad. The best cut is "I'm Affected" (note double-edged title); the second best is a Ronettes remake (Joey outsings Andy Kim); the third best is a ballad about their manager (now departed). They also remake two of their own songs--"Judy Is a Punk" (good sequel) and "Rock 'n' Roll High School" (unnecessary Spectorization)--and one of the Heartbreakers' (inferior). And take on the Sports and Joe Jackson with a song about the radio that would be the worst they'd ever written were it not for "This Ain't Havana" and "High Risk Insurance," in which the group's reactionary political instincts finally escape that invisible ironic shield (bet Johnny provided worse-than-Barry-McGuire rhymes like "on your way to life''s promotion/You hinder it with emotion"). Phil Spector doesn't make that much difference; his guitar overdubs are worse than his orchestrations, and they''re not uncute. But this band sounds tired. B PLUS

BRENDA RUSSELL (Horizon) If it's pop you crave, slow down a minute and check this out--eight love songs, all in sensual-to-pert medium tempos, all sweetly hooky. Russell's singing is breathy, soulish, and trickier than it seems, and though her lyrics are sometimes quite clumsy, they always sound felt and particular. Even the string arrangements avoid the vague and saccharine, especially those by David Wolfert, who produced Dusty Springfield's best album of the '70s. The material isn't as powerful, but this reminds me more than a little of Dusty's best album of the '60s, and that's high praise. B PLUS

GIL SCOTT-HERON/BRIAN JACKSON: 1980 (Arista) Having already written more good antinuke songs than the rest of MUSE put together, they add a third on their best album ever. The melodies are only functional but the rhythms are seductive and the singing is warm. And then there's the words. Subjects include compromise (necessary), "surviving" (cop-out), aliens (surviving), the shah (dead), the road (long), and the future (here). A MINUS

SLY & THE FAMILY STONE: Back on the Right Track (Warner Bros.) This really is Sly's best since Fresh, but the title does give it away, because Sly isn't going to progress by trying to recapture the past. Fresh was a great finale because it gathered five years of energy and innovation into an almost autumnal synthesis. There are cuts here--"The Same Thing," "Shine It On"--that might fit into that synthesis. But there aren't any that could define it, much less suggest a new one. Time: 27:07. B

DIONNE WARWICK: Dionne (Arista) The voice is still magic--I even get off on her overdubbed backups--but who wants to listen to it through all this mush? Wait till the collaboration with Barry Manilow dries up, after two or three albums. Betcha Clive tries reuniting her with Bacharach-David around then. And around then, they just might be in the mood to do it right. Maybe. C PLUS [Later]

HANK WILLIAMS JR.: Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound (Elektra) At times his son-of-an-outlaw obsession is worse than shtick, but here he does justice to the formula. Two candid songs about women tell you more about his sexism than he knows himself, two others explain why he's in that mood, the covers from Gregg Allman and George Jones define his parameters, and "The Conversation"--with Waylon Guess Who, about Guess Who, Sr.--doesn't make you gag once. B PLUS

TONY WILLIAMS: The Joy of Flying (Columbia) For months I've had the nagging suspicion that this special-guests showcase might be that oddity of oddities, a good fusion album. But it's only an interesting one, featuring a duet with Cecil Taylor that has nothing to do with fusion and including among its snappy complexities a snappy tune that is actually fun--the lead cut, Jan Hammer's "Going Far." Rest assured that Hammer redeems himself tout de suite on George Benson's "Hip Skip," which like most of what remains is snappy and complex and cloyingly high-tech in the great fusion tradition. But Ronnie Montrose's arena fusillades--unlike Benson's articulate tripe--are also fun. And not only is Williams equally comfortable with Cecil and snappy and heavy metal, he's worth listening to no matter what's in the foreground. B MINUS

ZZ TOP: Deguello (Warner Bros.) These guys got off the road for real--sounds as if they spent all three years playing the blues on their front porch. The strident arena technique is gone, every song gives back a verbal phrase or two to make up for the musical ones it appropriates, and to vary the trio format they not only learned how to play horns but figured out where to put them. I've heard a shitload of white blues albums in the wake of Belushi & Aykroyd. This is the best by miles. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

I'm very limited spacewise, but before my in-order-of-preference rundown of the singles that have been building up I'd like to recommend a piece of journalism to all you Anglophiles out there: Paul Du Noyer's "New Platform Boots and Leon Pants," about the "new wave" of heavy metal currently inundating Britannia. Scary. It's in the March 1 New Musical Express, which Anglophiles will know how to find. And now . . . Joe "King" Carrasco's "Party Weekend"/"Houston El Mover" (Gee Bee) is the best American independent 45 since "Money Changes Everything"; the Tex-Mex B is ever tuffer than the original-punk A. Delta 5's "Mind Your Own Business" (Rough Trade import) is nouveau girl-group reminiscent of Kleenex, made tuneful and danceable than the Raincoats or the Slits. The Cellts' "Uh-Oh"/"Terminal Thighs" (Rude) is tight, infectious, r&b-tinged post-punk pop, rawly hummable; both sides have been growing on me for months. Slaughter & the Dogs' "You're Ready Now" (DJM import) is a Crewe-Gaudio tune gone punk-metal--mindless fun. Tin Huey's "English Kids"/"Sister Rose" (Clone) is in TH's great if truncated cartoon art-rock tradition, with Chris Butler remembering 1965 (you can tell cos concert seats are three bucks) on the A and Ralph Carney expending half of Harvey Gold's 2:17 with a sax coda on the B. The Naz's "The Word" (Charisma, distributed by Polydor) is a Lord Buckley rap turned dance track with John Sinclair sharing composition credit. And finally, if I'm still on the page, old fans of Love--a band I've been rediscovering of late--should seek out the indie EP Arthur Lee released on Da Capo in 1977; "I Do Wonder" and "Happy You" are tongue-in-teeth weirdo pop (that is, vintage Lee), while in "Just Us" and "Do You Know the Secret" he seems to lose that edge.

Village Voice, Mar. 31, 1980

Feb. 25, 1980 Apr. 28, 1980