Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Still savoring the glory year of 1984. I uncover three more marginal A minuses, then move into the present by registering reservations about two sure finishers in the next Pazz & Jop poll, one of them also a marginal A minus. Plus: 1985's first full A--which was recorded in 1969.

FRANCIS BEBEY: Akwaaba (Original Music) On the recordings of Paul Berliner and elsewhere I've always found the African thumb piano--mbira, kalimba, sanza--overly delicate, fragile as a music box. These experimental compositions, by a Camerounian musicologist who calls on a wide range of supplementary African instruments and techniques, are lithe and lovely. And when Bebey breaks into his subguttural chest voice you won't know whether to gasp or giggle. B PLUS

BIG BROTHER AND THE HOLDING COMPANY: Cheaper Thrills (Made to Last) Postpunks should forget Janis Joplin and dig this: just because they practiced in their own $300-a-month Marin commune doesn't mean they weren't a garage band. A classic garage band, in fact, and they played out a lot. That's one reason this low-fi one-night-only live-in-1966 tape overcomes the expected flaws to give forth more raunch than most singles catalogues. Janis Joplin is the other. B PLUS

BILLY BRAGG: Brewing Up With Billy Bragg (CD) Nice lad, always votes Labour, means well with the girls. So why does he subtitle this modest collection of songs-with-electric-guitar "a puckish satire on contemporary mores"? Some believe he's wiser than he knows. I suspect he's not as smart as he thinks he is. B MINUS

HAROLD BUDD: Abandoned Cities (Cantril) This phonographic record of a gallery installation called Image-Bearing Light moves slowly but not glacially. Sounds like chords on a color organ played back at 16-r.p.m.--stark yet soothing. Recommended to seekers after low-down ambience. B PLUS

HAROLD BUDD/BRIAN ENO: The Pearl (Editions EG) Budd's previous work with the avant-pop sound-environments king was a mite tacky--he tended to signify spirituality with wordless vocal choruses that reminded me of the Anita Kerr Singers, though I'm sure they boasted a prouder lineage. These eleven pieces are more circumspect and detailed, and while they do slip into decoration they're the most intellectually gratifying (and emotionally engaging) music Eno's put his name on since his first Jon Hassell LP. Finally he succeeds in making soporific an honorific. A MINUS

THE DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND: My Feet Can't Fail Me Now (George Wein Collection) I may never get over early reports describing this New Orleans neotrad octet as "funky," which I took to mean that in addition to integrating Monk and Bird tunes into marching-band polyphony they had a bottom like James Brown or at least the Meters. After one listen, I realized what I already knew--that to get a funk beat out of tuba, bass, drum, and snares isn't difficult, it's impossible. Maybe the big deal is that they're not only fun in a mild, neotrad way, but also what Dr. John used to call "fonky"--that even though they play jazz, people dance to it. A not inconsiderable conceptual triumph, but those who dance a lot anyway are unlikely to appreciate it. Upped a notch for integrating Monk and Bird tunes into marching-band polyphony. B

JOHN FOGERTY: Centerfield (Warner Bros.) The hosannas and precious metal showered on this slight, self-centered reentry tempt one to overlook its slight, self-centered virtues. Fogerty's drumming has definitely sharpened, though he doesn't hold up the break on "Zanz Can't Dance" any better than Doug Clifford would have, and cut for cut Centerfield is catchier than his previous effort--he had nine years to come up with the tunes, after all. But the material just isn't Creedence-quality. The mythopoeic genre piece "The Old Man Down the Road" was the keynote single not out of commercial caution but because it's the strongest thing on the record, yet does anyone claim it's the equal of "Proud Mary" or "Green River" or even "Rockin' All Over the World"? And is anyone foolish enough to believe that the generalized "Mr. Greed" (not to mention the simpy "I Saw It on T.V.") has the teeth of "Don't Look Now" or "Fortunate Son," or that his first-ever career resumé "Centerfield" is a personal statement to compare with "Lookin' Out My Back Door"--in short, that the genre pieces are illuminated by visionary flashes, which is what made Creedence a great band to begin with? B PLUS

GRANDMASTER FLASH: They Said It Couldn't Be Done (Elektra) I was and am rooting for Flash, Creole, and Rahiem--they have good hearts, and from the Fats Waller cover and the way "Iko Iko" sneaks scratch-style into the lead cut, you can tell they're trying. But Creole isn't powerful enough for a lead rapper, Rahiem's crooning is wimp ordinaire without bombast for ballast, and sometime Herbie Hancock vocalist Gavin Christopher not only isn't anywhere near as funky as the Sugarhill gang (which I assume everyone knows) but has none of the pop production flair that might move them into Rick James territory, assuming that's even a desirable destination any more. And the words! "Sign of the Times" is the kind of confused protest you could hear on sucker twelve-inches a year ago, "Jailbait" isn't so fucking good-hearted, and "Girls Love the Way He Spins" is the claim that's supposed to make the competition hang up their mikes and go home. Why do groups break up? It's enough to make you lose your faith in capitalism. C PLUS

GREAT PLAINS: Born in a Barn (Homestead) Even though Ron House's whiny monotone gravitates toward the same melody no matter the song, each folk-punk arrangement stands out, and the lyrics show a sense of Americana worthy of a band from Columbus, Ohio--college town, state capital, boondock. Ever since high school I've been waiting for a rock and roll song about Mark Hanna, and I didn't even know it. B PLUS

AL GREEN: Trust in God (Myrrh) Al shouldn't let his originals out of Sunday school these days, but he's always had a way with the covers. "Lean on Me" and the rushed, simplistic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" are too obvious, but elsewhere he's his usual catholic self (that's a small C, Al--look it up); here he takes over "No Not One," which he found in an old church, and there "Up the Ladder to the Roof," which he found on an old Supremes album. And the uptempo country rollick he makes out of Joe South's "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home" is up there with the downcast urban plaint he made out of the Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart." B

RICHARD HELL: R.I.P. (ROIR) Supposedly the farewell of annotator Lester Meyers to his alter ego Hell, this fourteen-song all-previously-unreleased compilation begins with Johnny Thunders in New York, ends with Ziggy Modeliste in New Orleans, and preserves seven new songs and eight new Robert Quine cuts. What could be bad? you ask perspicaciously, and yet I'm a little disappointed. Only Fats Domino's "I Live My Life" and a painful lament for a masochist groupie called "Hurt Me" would improve Blank Generation or even Destiny Street, and the alternate versions alter nothing. Recommended to Walkpeople. B PLUS

JULIAN LENNON: Valotte (Atlantic) I'd hoped to let this one die in dignified silence--figured you couldn't blame the boy for trying. But as it's now sold over 500,000 RIAA-certified copies, discretion is useless. Anyway, I do blame him for trying. Aside from the eerie vocal resemblance, this is bland professional pop of little distinction and less necessity--tuneful at times, tastefully produced of course, and with no discernible reason for being, more Frank Sinatra Jr. than (even) Hank Williams Jr. Julian seems well brought up, a credit to his long-suffering mom. I suggest he invest his royalties in medical school--or else, if he's so keen on not wasting his genetic heritage, launch a career in the visual arts. C

THE NOMADS: Outburst (What Goes On) Why is this neogarage band better than all other neogarage bands? Admittedly, it could just be taste in covers--Alex Chilton and Sleepy John Estes as well as the Kinks and the eternal Standells. And it could be appetite for covers--eight all told leave room for only four overly generic originals. But it certainly helps that they're from Sweden--means their preference for American music is democratic rather than chauvinistic and adventurous rather than sentimental. [Original grade: A minus] B PLUS

REGGAE GREATS: STRICTLY FOR LOVERS (Mango) Unlike the useful but scattered and redundant toasts on D.J.'s, these eleven lovers' rock tracks, only one pre-1982, play as an album while expanding the genre. The must-hears are Winston Reedy's seductively seductive "Dim the Lights" and sixteen-year-old Junior Tucker's sweetly devastated "Some Guys Have All the Luck." Prereggae stalwarts Ken Boothe and Jimmy Riley prove more timeless than usual. And Aswad and Struggle have the good sense to identify romantic spirituality with the "Roots Rockin'" and "Rocky Music" they're so militant about. B PLUS

RUN-D.M.C.: King of Rock (Profile) You can tell these guys are real rock-and-rollers because they sounded so much fresher before they got what they wanted, and you can tell they didn't get it all because their rhymes still make a lot of sense sometimes--especially "You're Blind," a protest for and at the ghetto rather than about it. But their well-timed "You Talk Too Much" routine runs aground on stupid insults ("nagging wife," gosh) and old jokes ("Why don't you find a short pier/And take a long walk," groan). "It's Not Funny" is either a perverse albeit well-named joke or a complete washout. Even the boasts run thin. "Take airplane flights/At huge heights"? I mean, what do sucker MC's do? Just taxi around the runway? B PLUS

SON SEALS: Bad Axe (Alligator) Seals will never be a Muddy Waters or B.B. King, and his fifth LP lacks the edge of Midnight Son or Live and Burning. But he's such an impassioned craftsman he makes the distinction problematic, and he doesn't stand still--this time he's singing tenderly enough to bring off the self-servingly sentimental "I Can Count on My Blues." Which I guess he can. B PLUS

LINDA THOMPSON: One Clear Moment (Warner Bros.) Nothing like a busted marriage to bring out the latent feminism in a woman, and this one has a mouth on her--"Hell, High Water and Heartache" makes me wonder whether she got cheated out of some publishing on "Hard Luck Stories." So lyrics, while not always brilliant, aren't the problem. Problem's musical conception, which between producer Hugh Murphy and collaborator Betsy Cook turns this into the best Carly Simon record I've heard in a while. B

RICHARD THOMPSON: Across a Crowded Room (Polydor) Moderate fame and/or extreme divorce has rendered Thompson predictable. He writes well-crafted songs about his love life, and while most of them are pretty good, only "Fire in the Engine Room" packs the old metaphorical wallop and only "You Don't Say" sneaks in the old emotional double-take. He does take leave of himself on "Walking in a Wasted Land," the generalization level of which betrays yet another pop pro who should get out more, and whose guitar isn't going to save him forever. [Original grade: A minus] B PLUS

UB40: Geffery Morgan (A&M) Seemed dull even for reggae first time through, and even for the soulfully monochromatic Ali Campbell well after that. I persevered only because an Afrosax instrumental kept taking me by surprise. Then the lilting "Seasons" won my heart. And then--presto!, or at least lento . . . --I was focusing in on almost every cut, and admiring the jumpy depth of the production throughout. Could be their strongest ever, I swear. Still there's reason to worry about how long the first impression will last. A MINUS

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: VU (Verve) Each of the Velvets' four official studio albums had a distinct personality, and so does this unofficial one, recorded mostly in mid-1969, right after The Velvet Underground appeared. It's goofy, relaxed, simultaneously conversational and obscure, an effect accentuated by the unfinished feel of takes the band never prepared for public consumption. As a result, especially given PolyGram's state-of-the-art remix, it's their most listenable record even if its friendliness is deceptive--the disarming straight-ahead rocker "Foggy Notion" has a lyric whose casual sadism beats any of The Velvet Underground & Nico's shock-horror perversities. If you ever doubt the VU's rightness, just compare the flashy compromises of the solo "Lisa Says" and "I Can't Stand It" (itself the making of Lou Reed) to the flat rush of the Tucker/Morrison-powered versions here. A Basement Tapes for the '80s. A

Village Voice, Apr. 2, 1985

Mar. 19, 1985 Apr. 30, 1985