Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

I could say the two Pick Hits celebrate my real return to the franchise, but the fact is I've been reluctant to listen to anything worthless, or even infuriating. What this portends will be discussed in future intros. Meanwhile, there's lots of Additional Consumer News waiting at the other end.

ADAM AND THE ANTS: Kings of the Wild Frontier (Epic) This isn't rock and roll, sez here--it's "sexmusic," a/k/a "antmusic," heralding Arapaho (Apache) (Kiowa) (pirate) warrior ideals as a futuristic reaction against Brit-punk nihilism. The scam has whole subcultures working for it in England, but here it's the sex and the music that'll determine whether Adam is David Bowie or Marc Bolan (or Gary Glitter). The sex is your basic line-drawings-of-spike-heels stuff, redolent of Sex, the haberdashery once owned by Adam's ex-manager. The music, needless to say, is rock and roll, a clever pop-punk amalgam boasting two drummers, lots of chanting, and numerous B-movie hooks. Especially given Adam's art-schooled vocals, I find that the hooks grate, but that may just mean that when it comes to futuristic warriors I prefer Sandinistas. B

B-52'S: Wild Planet (Warner Bros.) I keep waiting for number two to come through on the dance floor the way the debut did, but "Party Out of Bounds" and "Quiche Lorraine" are expert entertainments at best and the wacko parochialism of "Private Idaho" is a positive annoyance. Only on "Devil in My Car" and "Give Me Back My Man" do they exploit the potential for meaning--cosmic and emotional, respectively--that accrues to the world's greatest new-wave kiddie-novelty disco-punk band. B PLUS

RAY CHARLES: Brother Ray Is at It Again! (Atlantic) Accurate title, Ray! And an up-and-at-it first side! "Ophelia" is a great Robbie Robertson cover, too! Somebody buy this man a copy of The Band! B PLUS

THE CLASH: Sandinista! (Epic) At $9.99 discounted, figure sides five and six as a near-freebie sweetened by great cuts from Timon Dogg and a grade-school duo. Compare "Apple Jam" (you know, on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass triple, now there was a prophetic title) invidiously to the run of their dub ramble. Listen to Sandinista Now!, the promo-only one-disc digest Epic has thoughtfully provided busy radio personnel, and note that you miss (in my case) "Rebel Waltz" and "Let's Go Crazy" and "Something About England" (and who knows what in yours). Note that you also miss the filler and assorted weirdnesses which provide that heady pace and/or texture. Then note as well that the many good songs aren't as consistently compelling as on previous Clash albums, though God knows "The Sound of Sinners" is a long-overdue Christer spoof and words about reading are always apt and the romanticization of revolution is an inevitable theme. And conclude that if this is their worst--which it is, I think--they must be, er, the world's greatest rock and roll band. A MINUS

ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE ATTRACTIONS: Trust (Columbia) Who ever said he wasn't much of a singer? Was that me? No, I said he wasn't much of a poet--all wordplay as swordplay and puns for punters (one of which means something, one of which doesn't, and both of which took me ten seconds). But here he makes the music make the words as he hasn't since This Year's Model. This is rock and roll as eloquent, hard-hitting pop, and Elvis has turned into such a soul man that I no longer wish he'd change his name to George and go country. A

WILLIAM DEVAUGHN: Figures Can't Calculate (TEC) This singing (and writing) sewer designer scored three anachronistically soulish hits in 1974, then dropped from sight. Here he resurfaces with an anachronistically soulish (and anachronistically disco-ish) "new version" of his biggie, "Be Thankful for What You've Got." And covers "You Send Me" as Curtis Mayfield might were Curtis still so deep. And writes some more. B

INSECT SURFERS: Wavelength (Wasp) Ah, suburbia, synthesizing information overload into unheard-of pop combos native to everywhere and nowhere. Take these presumptive civil service brats, for instance. Why, they cram Commie propaganda, a Wire cover, Europop, electro-DOR, and of course surf music onto one eight-song, twenty-five-minute, $5.98-list "EP." But the only cut that'll be heard of again in my house is the revealingly entitled "Fascination With the Neon." B MINUS

JERMAINE JACKSON: Let's Get Serious (Motown) For a while, the jumpy drive and axiomatic simplicity of the Stevie Wonder-composed and -produced title track got me into the skittish banality of the others (including the two Stevie ballads). Now I recommend the single, seriously. B MINUS

MILLIE JACKSON: I Had to Say It (Spring) Who better to do a rap parody--a damn funny one first few times through, closes with MJ invited into the KKK. I like the infidelity-on-the-road piece, too, and note that much of side two--"I Ain't No Glory Story," the Philip Mitchell duet, "Ladies First" (and you'd better last)--tops For Men Only. But either Millie's growing weary of her shtick or we are--she sounds bone tired. B

JUNIE: Bread Alone (Columbia) J. Morrison's funk is pleasingly plump, replete with pear-shaped tenor, well-rounded rhythms, and thick do-it-yourself mix. He has a sensuous way with a melody, and his romanticism is winningly sincere. But not even the lead cut's tricky be-my-baby hook has that get-up-and-dance kick. B PLUS

WILLIE NELSON & RAY PRICE: San Antonio Rose (Columbia) Since he hit paydirt with Stardust, Nelson's groove has resembled a rut. Well, this selection of country standards cut in a vaguely Western swing style (in Nashville, without horns) is definitely a groove, Nelson's best work in years. Nothing startling, mind you, but without the false steps and lackadaisical jams of the live doubles and the Leon Russell job. Price, who tends to posture in countrypolitan settings, thrives on the relaxed atmosphere. People who don't know the originals could really fall in love with these. B PLUS [Later]

PARLET: Play Me or Trade Me (Casablanca) Even though P-Funk's second-string auxiliary has no Dawn Silva or Jeanette McGruder, this comes on as strong as Never Buy Texas From a Cowboy, because it doesn't take much for funk to come on strong. Just a few dance-phrases is all--"help from my friends," "play me or trade me," "now button it up, I'll put it away." Endurance is something else. Watch them do their thang indeed. B

TEDDY PENDERGRASS: TP (Philadelphia International) With the Futures doing backup and Stephanie Mills doing duet and Ashford & Simpson doing their number and Cecil Womack doing himself proud, this may well be the definitive Teddy. Only once does he break into a fast tempo, which is fine with me, because schmaltz is the man's meat. He needs, he demands, he comes on hard, he comes on subtle, he goodtimes, he longtimes--in short, he inspires heavy petting, and we all know what that can lead to. A MINUS

POPEYE (Boardwalk) Although nothing will appease my hunger for the glorious "Everything Is Food"--you'd better include it on the disco pressing, Mr. Bogart--this beats Xanadu, Flash Gordon, and Urban Cowboy combined. The orchestrations are Kurt Weill meeting Lionel Newman at the Firesign Theatre, and the actor-vocals sound overheard, almost like a Robert Altman soundtrack. Composer Harry Nilsson hasn't worked this hard since Schmilsson; arranger Van Dyke Parks hasn't worked this wisely since Song Cycle. A MINUS [Later]

PYLON: Gyrate (DB) Vanessa Ellison's bellowed admonitions, Randy Bewley's guitar gradients, Michael Lachowski's peripatetic bass, and Curtis Crowe's prodigious roundhouse drumming add up to an unmistakable sound. I'm impressed. But I wish they'd come up with a few more riffs/melodies as deliberate and haunting as those of "Volume" and "Stop It" and the foolishly omitted "Cool." And while I admire their bare-boned lyrical concept, often the unpretentiousness seems mannered, like some comp-lit cross between Robbe-Grillet and Ted Berrigan. B PLUS

THE REDDINGS: The Awakening (Believe in a Dream) Of the core group--Otis III on guitar, brother Dexter on bass, and cousin Mark Lockett on keyboards--only Lockett does much writing, and he had nothing to do with the hit, "Remote Control," as apt a radio song as Elvis C. or Van M. has ever come up with (well, almost). But it's 1980, and this ain't no soul group, and for better or worse, writing (not to mention singing) isn't what funk groups are about, as three slow ones that would have stymied even Otis III's dad demonstrate. Playing is what funk groups are about, and if you don't believe me, listen to Otis III on "Doin' It" and "Funkin' on the One" or Dexter anywhere. B

TOM ROBINSON: Sector 27 (I.R.S.) This attempt to fuse TRB's music-hall cheer with postpunk postfunk isn't as innovative as its sources, but it comes across better on record. Robinson has always flattened his flair for melody under one-dimensional rhythms and vocal attack, but here the arty touches--that is, Stevie B.'s perverse little guitar parts--serve what I'd call a "commercial" function if only the record were selling better. And who ever said politics and propaganda were the same thing? A

RUBBER CITY REBELS (Capitol) When it comes to El Lay punk, you take the sun-addled Germs and Circle Jerks and Dickies and leave me these stagestruck outlanders, Doug Fieger production and all. At least they understand what being phony means, y'know?. "Young and Dumb" doesn't replace the definitive "Brain Job" (still available on Clone's From Akron) because it isn't about the Rebs. But anybody who can link the hallowed anomie of (the Pistols') "No Feelings" to the cartoon cannibalism of (the Rebs') "Child Eaters" deserves to tour with the Psychedelic Furs. B PLUS [Later: B]

POLY STYRENE: Translucence (United Artists) If the retarded tempos and professional musicians mean this isn't rock and roll, then what the fuck do you call the Shirelles? Speed and crudity aside, the pleasures here recall Germfree Adolescents--nursery-rhyme melodicism and tongue-in-cheek versifying superimposed on an image of provocative, charming plasticity. And if you believe that means she's "plastic," just what exactly is your beef? Are you a hippie or something? A MINUS

T.S. MONK: House of Music (Mirage) That's Thelonious Jr. on drums and his sister Boo Boo singing, but basically this is producer-writer Sandy Linzer's Chic move, the way Odyssey was his Dr. Buzzard move. Which makes the c'est-si "Bon Bon Vie" a counterpart of the urbans "Native New Yorker." Maybe this time he'll produce a follow-up. B MINUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

I began noticing the sax-line and choral-whistle hooks of "Split" (Rough Trade import) on the dancefloor in October but didn't find out it was by Liliput--formerly Kleenex, the best thing to happen to Switzerland since John Berger--until mid-February. Might have been my single of the year if I had--the bashy girl-punk of the B, "Die Matrosen," means the 45 is actually worth three bucks. Also a two-sided buy: "Diet"/"It's Obvious" (021 import), by Birmingham's Au Pairs, girl-and-boy-postpunks who've dubbed their pubbery Ideal Home Noise. . . .

Yoko Ono's "Walking on Thin Ice"/"It Happened" (Geffen) was in the works before December 8, but the titles suggest how eerie its resonances have become; Double Fantasy fans will recognize and treasure the studio style. "Academy Fight Song" (Ace of Hearts) is a one-hook wonder from the postpunk power trio Mission of Burma. The Outsets' cover of "Fever" doesn't get me hot, but "I'm Searching for You," with its Ventures-play-James-Brown guitar and Ivan Julian vocal, is the most attractive straight rock and roll I've heard from an indie lately (Contender). And I'm pleased to report that the best L.A. punk single I've ever heard comes from Indians: the Panics' genuinely funny yet genuinely abrasive (and annoying) "I Wanna Kill My Mom"/"Best Band"/"Tie Me Up, Baby!" (Gulcher). . . .

Amid the usual dreck, the Christmas best-of barrage yielded the usual finds. B.T. Express's Greatest Hits (Columbia) runs even with Bootsy's Ultra Wave as best funk LP of 1980--a classic singles-band compilation on the five-hit, '74-'77 "Old Gold" side, a classic B.T. Express album on the three-cut "Future Gold" side, which is to say that "Stretch" merits the boast and the others don't. Unless you count The Sheppards, the Manhattans' Greatest Hits (Columbia) was the best vocal-group album of 1980 with songs dating back to 1973--give journeymen moving material and they'll go somewhere.

Village Voice, Mar. 2, 1981

Feb. 2, 1981 Mar. 30, 1981