Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Having shied away from the depressing Always on My Mind a year ago, I compensate now by reviewing no less than six Willie Nelson albums, some of them depressing and some definitely not. Took a month longer than planned--this passion for completeness is hard to sate. But I've got to stop somewhere, so if the Willie & Waylon tape that just came in the mail turns into a disc before I'm off the stands, forgive me and look for it in this space a year from now. I've got to stop somewhere.

BERLIN: Pleasure Victim (Geffen) Although my tastes in porn don't run to designer whips, Terri Nunn's sex-object impersonation on the cunningly entitled "Sex (I'm a . . .)" generates a mild buzz. But that's the only good part--the rest is flimsy synth-pop sans even a flash of pink, unless songs about the Metro make you wet your pants. Time: 27:07. C PLUS

KATE BUSH: The Dreaming (EMI America) The most impressive Fripp/Gabriel-style art-rock album of the postpunk refulgence makes lines like "I love life" and "Some say knowledge is something that you never have" say something. Part of the reason is that Bush is flaky enough to seek the higher plane in "a hired plane," although as you might expect the resulting analysis often crumbles under scrutiny. It also helps that the emotional range of her singing sometimes approaches its physical range, although when it doesn't you'd best duck. But the revelation is the dense, demanding music, which gets the folk exoticism of current art-rock fashion out of mandolins and uillean pipes and didgeridoos rather than clumsy polyrhythms, and goes for pop outreach with hooks rather than clumsy polyrhythms. B PLUS

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: Powerlight (Columbia) Since classic EW&F succeeds in spite of Maurice White's universalist hoohah, the paucity of inspirational numbers is a blessing. The one that celebrates voting is gratifyingly practical, the one that celebrates children's eyes one too many, and otherwise we're free to gape at this band's spectacular popcraft. Their sonic affluence and showtime groove encompass whispering strings no less perfect than their JB guitar beats, Funkafunnies harmonies no less schmaltzy than their Lionel Richie homages, and when the synthesis is this catchy it's the best argument for universalism they'll ever make. A MINUS

MERLE HAGGARD/WILLIE NELSON: Poncho and Lefty (Columbia) Haggard hasn't sung with so much care in years, which is obviously Nelson's doing--the difference between this "Half a Man" and the one on Going Where the Lonely Go is the difference between a husband who doesn't deserve to be cut down and a shit who does. But if Waylon brings out Willie's self-righteousness, Merle brings out his self-pity--Leona Williams doesn't want you to know it, but both of these boys have had more soft places to fall than any good man needs. B PLUS

BUDDY HOLLY: For the First Time Anywhere (MCA) If like me you were crying, waiting, hoping, or just wishing for new songs, dream on--other versions of the five originals and five covers are already familiar to owners of the six-disc Complete Buddy Holly import, most of whom bought this the week it was released. Those who've settled for 20 Golden Greats will greatly enjoy meeting the originals, especially since they sound much stronger in these recordings. And now here's wishing I could say the same for the covers--Holly rejected "That's My Desire" because it was a dog, and if the new "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" is competitive with the one you know, the new "Bo Diddley" isn't. Time: 21:03. B PLUS

KRIS KRISTOFFERSON, WILLIE NELSON, DOLLY PARTON, BRENDA LEE: The Winning Hand (Monument) This 20-song mix-and-match isn't even monumental in theory, because two of these "kings and queens of country music" haven't earned their crowns--BL is a rock and roll princess who never really graduated, KK a frog ditto. But BL is also a pleasing bedroom-voiced journeywoman who turns in half of a surprisingly definitive "You're Gonna Love Yourself in the Morning." The other half comes from WN, who's on nine cuts and sounds like he's thinking even when he also sounds like he's asleep. DP teams with WN on a surprisingly definitive "Everything's Beautiful in Its Own Way," but sounds more at home on the album's two utter unlistenables--"Ping Pong," in which DP at her cutesiest is outdone by KK at his klutziest, and "Put It Off Until Tomorrow," in which DP kisses KK's warty little head and he croaks back. Time: 59:45. B MINUS

LENE LOVICH: No-Man's Land (Stiff/Epic) Lovich hasn't so much gone Anglodisco as vice versa: she was swooping through postpunk well before the coming of the synthesizers, and she's no less goofy today. Nevertheless, she does sound less goofy, because she's surrounded by swoopers. Which doesn't make her secret privatism any easier to get to. B

NICK LOWE: The Abominable Showman (Columbia) Pretends he only goes for bad puns, yeti trails "Time Wounds All Heels" with "(For Every Woman Who Ever Made a Fool of a Man There's a Woman Who Made a) Man of a Fool." No tour de force, just unlabored love songs, and my best to the Lowe-Carters. B PLUS

MINUTEMEN: What Makes a Man Start Fires? (SST) The lyrics are richer, bleaker, and smarter than the hardcore rant that softened the world up for this art band in disguise, but I prefer their music. The more you listen the less fragmentary these eighteen tense little guess-you-have-to-call-them tunes sound--each transforms its own riff into an identity that meshes with the album's guess-you-have-to-call-it gestalt. Since they're not purist (or unpop) enough to resist putting the strongest material first, their steady-state kineticism does lose a notch or two of stress as each side proceeds, but that's the only way they could work it--any kind of climax would be too romantic for these guys. Time: 27:39. A MINUS

WILLIE NELSON: Tougher Than Leather (Columbia) In the end, I don't know what the fuck this supposed concept album is trying to say, and if Nelson does he should continue to keep it to himself--something about murder and honor and other romantic clichés. But since he felt duty-bound to write the thing, it does of necessity include a number of those modern rarities, new Willie Nelson songs! Including two that somebody else might actually want to cover: the throwaway coda "Nobody Slides, My Friend" and the new-cowboy advisory "Little Old-Fashioned Karma." Plus, for (symbolic) life, a rousing new version of "Beer Barrel Polka"! C PLUS

WILLIE NELSON & ROGER MILLER: Old Friends (Columbia) As a staunch admirer of "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd" who's had less than no use for Miller since he got serious, I'm almost persuaded by this tribute-to-the-composer cum duo quickie. In fact, one more standout like "Old Friends" (including Ray Price), "Sorry Willie" (didn't know you thought she was your darlin'), and "When a House Is Not a Home" (one of Nelson's patented dry-eyed weepers) would make the difference. But when this doesn't stand out it's just the limp Nashville jazz either will stoop to when no one's looking. Time: 29:42. B [Later]

WILLIE NELSON & WEBB PIERCE: In the Jailhouse Now (Columbia) The strained nasality of Pierce's endless string of '50s honky-tonk hits hasn't aged especially well, but his voice sure has--any suggestion of the callow or awkward is long since gone, which means that for somebody who wasn't there (like me and probably you), some of these remakes sound tougher and more vibrant than the originals. And the originals are honky-tonk standards for a reason. Time: 25:19. A MINUS

THE NITECAPS: Go to the Line (Sire) Things get gritty like clockwork on this little bit of soul, which John Xavier signifies--rather inappropriately, I feel, by gargling. The Uptown Horns keep themselves busy on top. C

RAMONES: Subterranean Jungle (Sire) "I'm just a guy who likes to get drunk/I'm just a guy who likes to dress punk," Joey chants as side one fades away, incisively and affectionately locating the real audience he's brought into being after all these years of mythos and stabs in the dark. And despite one hopeless lyric (Dee Dee on Disneyland) and one dubious cover (token pure pop to balance off double-O soul remembrances of the Chambers Brothers and the Music Explosion), this is more worthy of an audience than anything they've done in the '80s. Not a mass audience, certainly not a great audience, maybe not even a cool one--just guys who have finally discovered a taste for the raw roar the Ramones invented (bigger now but no less tuneful) and are smart enough to know that when Joey goofs his way through the five syllables of "psy-che-del-i-cized" he's some singer. A MINUS

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Touch the Sky (Tamla) Since his turn-of-the-decade renaissance, Smokey's been slipping back among the marginalia, where qualitative distinctions (better than Yes It's You Lady but not Being With You) get fine if not strictly personal. This one's recommended especially to cheating-song fans--"Gimme What You Want" is defiant enough for Millie Jackson, "All My Life's a Lie" defeated enough for George Jones--though I'll admit that what pushed me over the line was the way the positivity of the title cut fades out on a pleading "touch it, touch it" that I'd swear aims lower than the sky. B PLUS

NILE RODGERS: Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove (Mirage) Because the basic bass parts are Nile's and not Bernard's and the basic drum patterns Nile's and not Tony's and the basic vocals Nile's and not Alfa's, this groove is stiffer, sharper, tougher, weirder, and less pleasant than Chic's. It's also good if not better, colored with Rodgers's trenchant, voluble guitar talk and rendered meaningful by his willingness to experience lust as an unsentimental need that can turn into unsentimental love. A MINUS

KEVIN ROWLAND AND DEXYS MIDNIGHT RUNNERS: Too-Rye-Ay (Mercury) Rowland's arrangements are impossibly busy and his vocals impossibly mannered, but on this record he does the impossible--makes me believe he's found some young soul rebels. The unison horn voicings and post-Stax fiddles impart an underlying simplicity that'll pass for Celtic, and if Rowland swoops and swerves where a real soul singer would just emote, his earnestness prevails anyway. B PLUS

ULTRAVOX: Quartet (Chrysalis) Art-school posers, working-class climbers, world where the eternal artistic truths of pop and disco are probably known to Maggie Thatcher herself by now, Midge Ure and associates can't hide behind catchy synthbeats. Ure sings from the top of his larynx like some sixth-form opera parody and acts as if humorless clichés gain demotic significance when you string them together, as in: "Give me an inch and I'll make the best of it." Take that as a warning. C

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: Fame and Wealth (Rounder) Loudon's most confident album since he split with CBS in 1975 is also his least ambitious, done folkie-style with two penetrating embellishments from Richard Thompson and two band cuts. For a while he walks his old tightrope, wild and nasty enough to make his chronic egoism seem of general interest. But the jokes and feelings are getting thinner, and soon you'll find yourself wishing he'd grow up, shut up, or both. B

WAYLON AND WILLIE: WWII (RCA Victor) Last time these two ganged up, Willie kept things honest, but this is Waylon's caper: Willie sings on only half the cuts, and sounds almost as full of himself as Waylon when he does. You'd never know "Mr. Shuck and Jive" was about Jimmy Webb himself, and Willie's own "Write Your Own Songs" makes you wonder whether that "purified country" "music executive" (same guy?) got on old tougher-than-leather's nerves by asking him for a few new ones. Waylon's solo turns on "The Last Cowboy Song" and "The Old Mother's Locket Trick" are the giveaway--the idea is to acknowledge that all this outlaw myth is shuck-and-jive and then make the shuck-and-jive itself seem mythic. But despite some distinguished tunes, only their duet on "Dock of the Bay," which has nothing to do with anything except its own lazy self, does the trick. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force's "Looking for the Perfect Beat" (Tommy Boy) has peaked--hear it'll sell close to 200,000, impressive except that "Planet Rock" moved four times that--but I must mention that I've fallen in love with it. Those with a resistance to Kraftwerk may well share my love-feh relationship with "Planet Rock," but the followup expands its winning earnestness to a much higher level of rhythmic and verbal ambition, all that naive technofuturism digested and further funkified. . . .

Rammel Zee Versus K. Rob's "Beat Box" (Tartown, or is it Test Pressing, no address), produced by Jean Michel Basquiat with music by the Sekou Bunch, is art-rap so accomplished in the mix-beat-and-rhymes that, unlike Celluloid's graffiti series, it may actually launch the inevitable movement. Like me you may not be sure this is a good thing, but like me you'll know this is a great record anyway, laid back Spoonie Gee-style and so contemporary attitudinally I might even call it postmodernist if I wasn't afraid of attracting the wrong element. So instead I'll call it rock and roll. . . .

Jesse Rae's "Desire"/"Rusha" (Columbia) is a demented electronic dance record with plenty of moaning, shrieking, and heavy ostinatos for pre-/post- synth impurists as well as smurf voices for the young at heart. . . .

Haven't decided on Mutabaruka's album yet, but "Drug Kulcha" (Heartbeat) is such exemplary anti-coke propaganda that I can go along temporarily with its xenophobic ganja lesson, probably absorbed via the B side, Sister Breeze's "African School." . . .

Catching up with EPPs, all of them worthy fo note even if they don't all live up to my absurdly high standards of consistency for the configuration. Roxy Music's The High Road (Warner Bros.) is a generous (26:28) live disc that features limber amplifications of Bryan Ferry's "Can't Let Go" and "My Only Love" on the A and two irresistible, knockout covers on the B: next time I want to hear Bryan croon or Phil wail or just "Like a Hurricane" or "Jealous Guy," this is where I'll turn. Green on Red (Down There) is as hooky as the L.A. trash aesthetic gets, with Chris Cacavas's organ the nugget. Wish they didn't favor the B-movie imagery so prevalent in the film capital of the world, but I can think of several New York bands who should have written "Aspirin." The Suburbs' Dream Hop (Mercury, formerly Twin/Tone) adds sonic girth to their arch pop-funk hybrid, so that on three out of four songs I don't care whether they're the new Buzzcocks or just the new Sparks. D.O.A.'s War on 45 (Alternative Tentacles) is Vancouver hardcore with hearty oi tempos and second-clash breadth. Best originals: "Liar for Hire," "Let's Fuck." Best covers: "War," "War in the East," "Class War." The B side of Brave Combo's Urban Grown-Ups (Four Dots) comprises a listenable "polska" and Mexicali dance that like the band album are too damn whimsical for my party, but on the A "Three Weeks" pins down the real fun that Saturday is really good for (lawn-mowing included), while "You Pull My Tongue Out" isn't really about real torture. Nude Ants' Search for Tornado Victims (New Deal) lays down deadpan white funk and Police rips that aren't especially original but are certainly clever enough to make me wonder why no one has ever told me about them. Hi Sheriffs of Blue (Jimboco) proves not that Delta blues was avant-garde (we knew that) but that avant-gardists who think so are sometimes capable of simulating its lesser effects. Blue Riddim Band (A Major Label) are so fine live and so superior rhythmically, vocally, and conceptually to the sorry run of white reggae in this great land that it pains me to suspect them of lacking the vocal and compositional wherewithal to get across. But "Nancy Reagan" is a great start and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" won't hurt. . . .

Negative words are seldom heard around ACN, but allow me to cast aspersions upon MDC (hardcore "radicals" whose failure to understand John Wayne's style of evil tags them as probable enemies of the people), the Three O'Clock (garage psychedelia at its ickiest), and New Order's "Blue Monday" (disco).

Village Voice, Apr. 26, 1983

Mar. 29, 1983 May 31, 1983