Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

For years the Consumer Guide has graded 20 albums per month, and I could have done it again--there are plenty of LPs worth writing about. But because I've been obsessing on 12-inch singles, this month I'm breaking format. I'm hardly a 12-inch expert--this isn't reviewer-serviced stuff, and because indie-label underground r&b seems to have been exploding ever since the collapse of disco as mass culture, I have a lot of catching up to do. But the records are expensive enough to warrant grading--between five and 10 minutes of A side (with good Bs a rarity) retail for three or four bucks. (Bondy's, 38 Park Row, is the cheapest store I've found. Downstairs, 20 W 43rd Street, is more expensive but has great stock and does mail order. Vinyl Mania, 30 Carmine Street, sells only 12-inches and does a lot of lowballing. Record Audio King, 207 West 125th Street, is a recommended uptown source. And Mail O Disc, Box 143, Kings Park, New York 11754, is a mail-order specialist.) For the rest of us, though, I've devised a strict standard--no 12-inch, no matter how enjoyable, will get an A or A minus unless I'm sure that if someone ripped off my copy I'd go right out and buy another. I haven't given up on little records with big holes, either--at $1.30 a pop, the best ones are real bargains, and for those of us who listen as much as dance their compression is often a plus. You'll find some great buys in Additional Consumer News.

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA/ZULU NATION/COSMIC FORCE: "Zulu Nation Throw Down" (Paul Winley 12-inch) Half jingly song-chant and half rap, this starts out so flat that even the rap sounds off-key. But soon the harmonies begin to seem natural, as in "ethnic" music tuned to its own scale, or maybe Kleenex/Liliput. And Lisa Lee, resident young lay-dee of this "Funkadelic of the microphone," must have been a tobacco auctioneer in some earlier lifetime, and a Shirelle after that. Virtually irresistible. A MINUS

THE ANGRY SAMOANS: Inside My Brain (Bad Trip 12-inch) Like so many of their co-scenemakers, these dorks cultivate race and sex shock; one of them has had unkind words for his "adopted Jew parents," and the band's abuse of a (female) "stupid asshole" and a "pathetic male queer" are now on record. But if Carly Simon can make great rock and roll, why not them? Six melodic-cum-heavy-metal L.A. punk songs (they find their hooks--yeah, hooks, ain't that something?--in the vicinity of Black Sabbath and the Music Machine), every one of which makes the point that inside their brains things are real fucked up. Inspirational verse: "You stupid asshole/Baby I'm one too." Time: 9:26. B PLUS [Later: A]

KURTIS BLOW (Mercury) Especially on "The Breaks," Blow's words--for which he gets co-writing credit at most--are cleverer than the competition, and despite the predictability of his first-beat sledgehammer, side one percusses by rapidly. But on the second side he also tries to sing, and not only that, he tries to sing songs--including BTO's "Takin' Care of Business," which bodes ill for both his rhythms and his politics. B PLUS

CHAMPAIGN: How About Us (Columbia) The exquisitely churchy harmonies take us back to the halcyon days of soul, but the material takes us back to the Doobie Brothers, or is it Christopher Cross? Golden voices and hearts of mush. B MINUS

ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN: Crocodiles (Sire) If anything might convince me that the term "psychedelic revival" means something, it's "Villiers Terrace," a real good terror-of-drugs song. And the music flows tunefully, in a vacant, hard-rock sort of way. But oh, Jimbo, can this really be the end--to be stuck inside of Frisco with the Liverpool blues again? B

FREE EXPRESSION: "Chill-Out!" (Vanguard 12-inch) Less than five minutes of fusion-vet guitar-and-rhythm, hooked on a nouveau-honk sax part and bass-man lyrics borrowed from jeans ads, with an overblown "Save the Last Dance for Me" on the B, this is as marginal as a decent 12-inch can be. I was all set forget about it, or hit it with a B minus. Then my malfunctioning changer played it three times in a row. B PLUS

FUNKADELIC: Connections and Disconnections (LAX) "This album does not include any performances or creations by George Clinton," disclaim Fuzzy Haskins and his band of claim-jumpers, but they sure try to simulate same, with generally pathetic results (except when they make "P-Funk" sound like "Hee haw"). Where Jerome Brailey's mutiny on the mamaship deepened the funk, these renegades aspire to fuzak--pleasant only if you forget who they say they are. C

FUNKY 4 + 1: "That's the Joint" (Sugarhill 12-inch) "Rappin and Rocking the House," this young crew's Enjoy debut, is a real charmer, 16 minutes of fast talk over drum-dominated rhythms. But here's the joint. The instrumental track, carried by Sugarhill bassist Doug Wimbish, is so compelling that for a while I listened to it alone on its B-side version. And the rapping is the peak of the form, not verbally--the debut has funnier words--but rhythmically. Quick tradeoffs and clamorous breaks vary the steady-flow rhyming of the individual MCs, and when it comes to Sha-Rock, Miss Plus One herself, who needs variation? I'm rooting for "Get the point?" to join "Get down!" in the fly lexicon. A

TAANA GARDNER: "Heartbeat" (West End 12-inch) This classic one-shot is the hottest r&b record in the city right now for two self-evident reasons. First is the beat, which is like what it says only deeper and more deliberate (in the drums and handclaps) with palpitations (provided by a slow-humping bass). Second is Taana, who'd combine the melodic dislocations of Esther Phillips and the girlish screech of Diana Ross if she had the technical control of either. Because she doesn't, she also recalls another timbre-sister, Shirley Goodman (of & Lee and "Shame, Shame, Shame"). First I played the 6:30-minute "party" version; now I prefer the 9:34-minute "club" version. One-shot, eh? A

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS 5: "The Birthday Party" (Sugarhill 12-inch) The most spectacular of the Sugarhill crews on stage is also the hookiest on record, thanks to Flash's spinning--he can make his turntables give forth like a horn section of kazoos or electric soprano saxophones. But if "Freedom," their Sugarhill debut, made aural graffiti-writing seem like a political act, here they remind us of its nuisance potential--it's fun to hear the Five's birthdays, and nice that each of us has one, but the idea is thin and so is Flash's hook. Next: "The Rent Party," in which we all get to shout our addresses. B PLUS

THE INCREDIBLE FLY: "Want the Body"/"The Incredible Fly's Rap" (Superfly Music 12-inch) Over identical funkified synthesizer drones and syndrum interjections, the I.F. intones in a Marvin Gaye-influenced singsong falsetto on two-key new-r&b themes: The Ineluctable Modality of the Carnal on side one, Makers of the New R&B on side two. Address: 5746 Sheridan, Chicago Illinois 60660. B PLUS

THE NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION: Reactor (Official) Music: Jefferson Starship meets Foghat meets Devo, completely unoriginal except in the guileless enthusiasm of its unoriginality. Bonnie Bonnickson: Lydia Pense meets Lene Lovich, ditto. Social nexus: The Farm, Stephen Gaskin's dubious venture in counterculture communalism. Rationale: No more nukes. Message: Hippie lives! And protests! And still has a sense of humor about it! Pix to click: "White Sugar," which is pro, and "Fax," ditto. Address: 156 Drakes Lane, Summertown, Tennessee 38463. B PLUS

PARLIAMENT: Trombipulation (Casablanca) Reports of George Clinton's demise are premature, but there's reason to worry about his body tone. Although the transcendent silliness of "Agony of Defeet" recalls past glories, the quotes from Bach, Brylcreem, and Mother Goose are dim echoes of the sharp confidence games of yore, and on occasion this sounds kind of like Fuzzy Haskins & Co. Hmm. B MINUS

ROCKERS (Mango) Those discouraged by the supposed decline of reggae after The Harder They Come might cheer themselves up with the most impressive Jamaican compilation since. It's got a spotty second side (Burning Spear's cut barely hints at what Winston Rodney can do), and it's not as winningly melodic as The Harder They Come (the Maytones' lissome "Money Worries" sounds like a quaint throwback). But it collects classic songs from such undiscouraged second-liners as Jacob Miller, Justin Hines, the Heptones, Gregory Isaacs, and Junior Murvin (the original "Police and Thieves"). And unlike so many compilations, it's sequenced listenably. Great flick, too--the good guys wear black, and they win. A MINUS [Later: B+]

SIR DOUGLAS QUINTET: Border Wave (Takoma) I'm not one who believes that Doug Sahm should never attempt horn-chart r&b the way he did on Hell of a Spell, which should add weight to my belief that this reunion with his original concept is his best LP in a decade and maybe ever, including last year's half-assed best-of. It's loose, it's tight, it's got great covers from the Kinks and Butch Hancock, it's got guitarist Alvin Crow taking a song, it's got Johnny Perez on drums, and of course it's got Augie Meyers doing what he was born to do, which is back Sir Douglas on organ. It's not easy to make "simple" rock and roll this late in the game, but simplicity has always been Doug's gift. A MINUS

STEEL PULSE: Reggae Fever (Mango) The bright clarity of this subtly audacious pop fusion--felt in Geoffrey Chung's crystalline production, David Hinds's catchy melodies, Selwyn Brown's straight-ahead vocals, and the way the tempos push without rushing--offend those infatuated with reggae's steamy aura of ambiguity. I myself wish the band weren't soft-pedaling the politics quite so hard--the lyric of "Shining" ("For summer is here/And flowers in full bloom") is bad Maruice White. But I've never asked music that worked on its own terms to meet abstract stylistic or ideological standards--and when the songs shape up, this music really works. A MINUS [Later]

THE STRIKERS: "Body Music" (Prelude 12-inch) If your idea of a good time is heavy-breathing jungle sounds and chants of "Do the punk rock" and "Ashkenazi" (well, that's what it sounds like) over spare disco-funk, rush out and buy this left-field street record. The hard-to-find Cesaree-label original goes lighter on the clavinet and has a real B-side. Hunh! B PLUS

THE TEARDROP EXPLODES: Kilmanjaro (Mercury) If Bunnyman Ian McCulloch favors the schlock mysterioso Jim Morrison, Droplet Julian Cope prefers the schlock heartthrob, complete with romantic authoritarianism ("Well I don't think this is real/To criticize our love" is prime hippie bullshit, no?), "Touch Me" horns, and AM potential. No, really, "Sleeping Gass" was once a very poppy indie single, and some of this stuff would probably sound pretty neat on the, er, radio is what we used to call it I guess. But why anyone who didn't acquire an addiction that way would prefer this to Blondie or the Box Tops is beyond me. I mean, Cope is a little smarter than Jay Black or Gary Lewis, but that just makes him harder to take. B

THE TREACHEROUS THREE: "The Body Rock" (Enjoy 12-inch) Though the Three's speech rhythms are heavier than I'd like, both their records are hooked inspirationally by Enjoy house band Pumpkin. I prefer the bass (synthesizer?) throb on this obsessive piece of rap minimalism to the keyboard (synthesizer!) squiggle on the more conventional "At the Party," but each sustains seven minutes of newfunk almost automatically. A MINUS

U2: Boy (Island) In addition to kinetic zeal, this debut offers a passel of melodic hooks and keen guitar parts (though I prefer "I Will Follow"'s in Keith Levene's "Public Image" version). But if Bono's echoey vocals already teeter on the edge (in-joke) of grandiosity, how are they going to sound by the time he plays the Garden? As bubble-headed as the teen-telos lyrics at best, as dumb as Uriah Heep at worst. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

The one 12-inch I've played as much as "That's the Joint" and "Heartbeat" isn't available commercially--T.S. Monk's "Bon Bon Vie" (Mirage), a rich song about aspiring to the rich life. I love not only the subtle Sandy Linzer lyric but also Thelonious Monk Jr.'s rough, high-humored vocal and incisive drumming, and its arrangement keeps giving up new pleasures. The long version does lead off the spotty LP, but the 45, which puts the album's second-best cut on the B, might be a better introduction. Also recommended is the biggest black record of the year so far--Yarbrough & Peoples's "Don't Stop the Music" (Mercury), the novelty hooks of which wear better at a radio-edited length. And Unlimited Touch's "I Hear Music in the Street"/"In the Middle" (Prelude), a big 12-inch, does its anthemic work quite neatly as a 45. Finally, a nonhit (as yet) for Aretha fans: Shirley Brown's "Same Time, Same Place"/"You've Got to Like What You Do" (20th Century-Fox).

Village Voice, Mar. 30, 1981

Mar. 2, 1981 May 4, 1981