Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Down to four As from last month's six, but I can remember when two was a lot. Admittedly, only one of my current favorites adheres to the rock and roll verities, but having too much fun listening to worry whether I'm going to wind up in Heaven with the Big Bopper. Play on.

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: The Wheel (Capitol) I began by wondering what unsuspecting big band had provided the horn riff on "Am I High?" and ended by wondering whether they'd made it up themselves, as with so much that is good on this group's most satisfying LP since their debut on United Artists. By now the songwriting has become almost straight; you might conceivably find "Somebody Stole His Body" on a white gospel album or "My Baby Think's She's a Train" on a Sun outtake. The distance that remains comes across as healthy, good-humored respect, especially for banality, which with this band often turns into dumb eloquence, as on the love song "I Can't Handle It Now." Inspirational Verse: "In French Baton Rouge might mean red stick/But to me it means broken heart." A MINUS [Later]

THE BAND: Islands (Capitol) Even true believers admit that this sounds like a listless farewell to old habits--recording as a group on Capitol, for instance. The best song is about the baby Jesus and almost made me gag first time I heard it; the second best is about a traveling evangelist and strikes a familiar note; and the third best is a remake that sounds like one. C PLUS

MICHAEL FRANKS: Sleeping Gypsy (Warner Bros.) I don't trust Franks's sambas to drowse by, not even when the lyrics wake me up, but I find that I play them. Inspirational Verse: "I hear from my ex/On the back of my checks." B [Later]

PETER GABRIEL (Atco) Even when he was Genesis, Gabriel seemed smarter than your average art-rocker. Though the music was mannered, there was substance beneath its intricacy; however received the lyrical ideas, they were easier to verify empirically than evocations of spaceships on Atlantis. This solo album seems a lot smarter than that. But every time I delve beneath its challenging textures to decipher a line or two I come up a little short. Worth considering. B PLUS [Later]

PHILIP GLASS: North Star (Virgin) Rock ears take to this avant-garde composer because he understands electronic sound in a melodic context and loves rhythm, a rhythm achieved--like the hypnotic/mystical mood of the music as a whole--not through percussion but through mechanical repetitions cunningly modified. There is natural drama here, but Glass never indulges it, which is why he appeals to Eno's side of the "progressive" spectrum rather than to Keith Emerson's. What Eno fans may find hard to take--and what I find doubly admirable--is that this music refuses to fade into the background; it's rich, bright, and demanding despite its austerity. The intrigued should definitely take a chance. A MINUS [Later]

DARYL HALL & JOHN OATES: Bigger Than Both of Us (RCA Victor) Now they're rich boys, and they've gone too far, 'cause they don't know what matters anyway. B MINUS [Later: C+]

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: Loleatta (Gold Mind) Those craving a big-voiced r&b singer should probably grab this rough-edged Philadelphia-type production. Those in control of their urges should note that nothing else on the album matches the lead cuts on each side, "Hit and Run" and "Ripped Off." C PLUS [Later: B-]

BONNIE KOLOC: Close-Up (Epic) I disapprove of songs about silver stallions, I'm sick of "We Had It All," and I suspect that Koloc's own "I'll Still Be Loving You" requires more camouflage than her Marxophone (?) coda, but I really like this record anyway. Its intelligence is modest and unmistakable and the two Lil Green compositions that kick off side two actually vie with the originals and would probably be welcome even if they didn't. But the clincher is that there are just some voices you like--I find myself unable to resist someone who sings the way Lily Tomlin has always wished she could. B PLUS [Later]

KRAFTWERK: Trans-Europe Express (Capitol) No, I have not shorted out or fallen in love with a cyborg. No, I do not like Kraftwerk's previous craft-work, Radio-Activity, which consists mostly of bleeps. But this shares with Autobahn a simple-minded air of mock-serious fascination with melody and repetition. Plus its textural effects sound like parodies by some cosmic schoolboy of every lush synthesizer surge that's ever stuck in your gullet--yet also work the way those surges are supposed to work. Plus the cover and sleeve photos are suitable for framing. B PLUS [Later: A-]

NILS LOFGREN: I Came to Dance (A&M) In which the aging prodigy flirts with hackdom and almost scores. He still makes killer licks sound easy, although the melodies are drying up fast, and despite an ominous piece of Inspirational Verse--"I'll play guitar all night and day, just don't ask me to think"--and a road song that sounds like the first of a series, there's more ambitious lyric-writing here than on either of the two previous A&M LPs. Thing is, except for "Happy Ending Kids" and a sly ditty about eating pussy, the lyrics don't work; whether "Jealous Gun" is straight anti-hunting propaganda or an allegory about who knows what, its language is stillborn and its pretensions annoying. Worst cut: a version of the Stones' "Happy" in which Keith's "always burned a hole in my pants" is transformed, for no discernible reason, into "always had a heart in my pants." Where else? C [Later]

DIANA MARCOVITZ: Joie de Vivre! (Kama Sutra) This woman suffers from Don Rickles's syndrome--when she gets serious, watch out for flying horseshit. But "The Colorado of Your Mind" ("Go shove it up, the toochas of your mind!") and "Drop Dead" are nasty and hilarious, the kind of songs that are adjudged "offensive to our listeners" by sensitive (male) program directors. Martin Mull should have a tenth of her esprit. B MINUS [Later]

MARY MCCASLIN: Prairie in the Sky (Philo) I consider it just that the most convincing cowboy-based music in years should come from a woman who starts off with this request: "Pass me by if you're only passing through." The voice is high and lonesome, not given to gush; the instrumentation is built around an acoustic guitar, but accommodates a single French horn, a drumset, or both, when appropriate; the songs--both borrowed and original--are a lesson to L.A. cowboys everywhere from an L.A. cowgirl who makes her records in Vermont. B PLUS

DELBERT MCCLINTON: Love Rustler (ABC) McClinton's cult sentimentalizes bar music. The fact that bars encourage a relatively innocent functionality--pleasing a small concrete audience rather than a large abstract one--doesn't necessarily make them any more "authentic" than studios: McClinton is essentially a male Texas version of Linda Ronstadt--a strong-voiced, versatile singer who doesn't seem like an especially interesting person. This means not only that he's at the mercy of songwriters and arrangements but also that he isn't likely to have very distinctive taste in either. The title cut is a classic, and several of the remakes are worth hearing more than twice, but as a whole this album is as pleasant and forgettable as a Friday night out. B MINUS

KATE & ANNA MCGARRIGLE: Dancer With Bruised Knees (Warner Bros.) Not as tuneful as some might wish, but even a bright melody must strike artists this subtle as unseemly, rather obvious. Rarely has the homely been rendered with such delicate sophistication: these women spend sixty or seventy grand trying to make a studio approximate a living room, or maybe a church basement on production numbers, and succeed! They are prim, wry, and sexy all at once, with a fondness for family life as it is actually lived--a repository of strength, surely, but also a repository of horrors--that is reflected in their version of folk instrumentation. Rather than on-the-road guitars (with their attendant corn about the wimmin at home) they rely on accordion, piano, organ; once when they need a drum they get the kind of oompah beat you still hear in parades. It took me six weeks, but I now prefer this to the first. A [Later]

PINK FLOYD: Animals (Columbia) This has its share of obvious moments. But I can only assume that those who accuse this band of repetitious cynicism are stuck in such a cynical rut themselves that a piece of well-constructed political program music--how did we used to say it?--puts them uptight. Lyrical, ugly, and rousing, all in the right places. B PLUS

BONNIE RAITT: Sweet Forgiveness (Warner Bros.) I was put off at first by the rough textures here, just as I was by the slick textures of Home Plate, which eventually became my most played album of 1975. But this is basically a rock and roll album; it needs to be rough, right down to a vocal style grittier than she's ever dared before. The songs are a little flat--there's no "Good Enough" or "Sweet and Shiny Eyes" this time. But anyone who induces me to listen to entire lyrics by Jackson Browne and Karla Bonoff and dance to Eric Kaz has got to be doing some kind of job. A MINUS [Later]

DIANA ROSS: An Evening With Diana Ross (Motown) The band could be Doc Severinsen's and the rushed tempo medleys are maddening, but the vivacity in this live double-LP is palpable. I haven't gotten such a good idea of what the fuss is about since Lady Sings the Blues. B MINUS

LEO SAYER: Endless Flight (Warner Bros.) In the great tradition of Elton John, Sayer abandons all pretensions midcareer, except on the title cut, his tributes to early Elton (with Nigel Olsson providing the thud). As always, the problem is that Leo isn't as talented as Elton. "I Think We Fell in Love Too Fast" is a natural for the young divorcee crowd and the falsetto send-up on "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing" great fun, but too many of these catchy tunes aren't catchy enough. Too bad--we could use a shot of middle-period Elton around now. B MINUS [Later: B]

SID SELVIDGE: The Cold of the Morning (Peabody) Selvidge's voice is so rich it's a curse, especially since it's combined with a good-humored grasp of blues tradition--all he has to do is release the notes and people tell him he's a genius. On this evidence, Selvidge is only a craftsman. His gifts as a lyricist are limited, and his facility as a guitarist is neither intense nor original enough to sustain a whole album instrumentally; worse, he doesn't seem to have much to say with his talent. But the two lead cuts and Selvidge's own "Frank's Tune" are special enough to excite some hope. B [Later]

BILLY SWAN: Four (Columbia) Last year Swan made the finest rockabilly album of the current revival, songful and manic and ebulliently inadequate, and it didn't sell shit. Now someone seems to have taught him a lesson--this time we get horns and strings that show up his voice and a song about California that is no less drab than most of the others. For everybody's sake, let's hope this doesn't sell shit either. C

Additional Consumer News

MCA's second Count Basie twofer, Good Morning Blues, features singing by Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes that will tell you as much about the blues tradition as Robert Johnson ever did, not to mention some pretty fine playing, including some by the Count and a rhythm section that says as much about less-is-more as Ernest Hemingway ever did. . . .

Columbia's Taj Mahal Anthology: Volume 1 is the perfect gift for the person who doesn't own a Taj Mahal album. It features Taj's pre-Caribbean bluesy phase, with all failed experiments deleted. . . .

Those who can't believe Nils Lofgren was ever worth the noise can check out Epic's Best of Grin, a slightly uneven best-of that is no excuse for cutting out three slightly more uneven rock and roll classics. . . .

Good fucking music: Savoy Jam Party, a twofer by tenor "sexophonist" (his own term, apparently) Don Byas that featuers small-combo swing from 30 years ago. Warm ballad tones, seductive rhythms, and nary a discouraging word. . . .

Three rock reference books, one commendable, one useful, and one delightful: The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (Random House) is a critical anthology that (as might be expected) is occasionally cranky or uninspired, but its overall level of discourse is amazing (and I'd say that if it didn't include four essays by my esteemed self). Greil Marcus's Beatle chapter should be read in the bookstore. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock (Harmony) was compiled in England by Melody Maker, with the eccentricities that implies, but I'm always pulling it off the shelf and often finding what I want. David Dalton and Lenny Kaye's Rock 100 (Grosset & Dunlap) is very idiosyncratic and less reliable than it should be, but a wonderful read. In the honorable and neglected tradition of Lillian Roxon, but with no discographical waste space. . . .

Since EMI isn't giving it away--and may even be reluctant to sell--those narsty Sex Pistols, I finally went out and bought "Anarchy in the U.K." (for three bucks--hope you do better), which turns out to be a raver anthem far more impressive than Eddie and the Hot Rods' album or the Damned's CBGB show. An even better English 45, apparently unavailable here, is Pete Fowler's "One Heart, One Song" b/w "The Miners' Strike"; on the A side, Buddy Holly finds himself at home in the '70s, and on the B he gets class consciousness. It's on Virgin's Oval subsidiary, which I've just been reminded is run by Charlie Gillett, he of Graham Parker and The Sound of the city. Epic should give it a try.

Village Voice, Apr. 25, 1977

Mar. 21, 1977 June 6, 1977