Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Back to albums, with Additional Consumer News dealing all too briefly with briefer configurations. One new twist: Compilations will now be included in the body of the CG--if, like The Best of the Kendalls, they function as discrete albums, new info, rather than semi-superfluous appendices. (And maybe if they don't--have to see.) Could have used two Pick Hits and Must to Avoids this month. Eno & Byrne were simply overwhelmed by one of the most offensive records of all time. And Stands for Decibels got skipped because it's still an import, although En Why's own Shake is supposed to come out with it eventually.

THE BRAINS: Electronic Eden (Mercury) Put in enough time with this one and despite its dull initial impact every track will give up a hook--a dull hook, perhaps, but in these brite days there's a kind of satisfaction in that. The problem is that the hooks don't connect to much--when the most memorable lyric on the follow-up is about how that guy has got her hypnotized, you begin to wonder just what money has changed, and how. B

THE CRAMPS: Psychedelic Jungle (I.R.S.) After setting the mood with two obscure sureshots from the Pebbles anthology (why wasn't "Green Fuz" a hit?), En Why's own mock rockabillies come up with an actual novelty album instead of a theoretical one. If only there weren't these jokes about rape, voodoo, and jungle folk (at least they're not called "bunnies," although they do "hop"), I might still be chuckling. B

THE DB'S: Stands for Decibels (I.R.S.) En Why's own Southern Anglophiles keep their potential for Beatley let-loose and Box Topsy get-down in such close check that their compulsive studiocraft radiates a mad joy all its own. This is pop at its tensest--the precise harmonies, broken rhythms, and Byrdsy zoom effects are drawn so tight they make the expertly rendered romantic ups and downs of the songs sound intense and earned. A MINUS

DEAD KENNEDYS: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (I.R.S.) I do want there to be more punk rock--I do, I do. I do want there to be more left-wing new wave--really. By Americans--I swear it. But not by a would-be out-of-work actor with Tiny Tim vibrato who spent the first half of the '70s concocting "rock cabaret." Admittedly, I'm guessing, but I'm also being kind--it sounds like Jello Biafra discovered the Stooges in 1977. C PLUS

JOE ELY: Musta Notta Gotta Lotta (South Coast) Hanging out with the Clash hasn't been so great for Ely's music--he's rocking harder than ever, but with a forced urgency that detracts from the songs. Only "I Keep Getting Paid the Same" is heightened by his breakneck boogie, and both Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight" and Shorty Long's "Rock Me My Baby" would come across better if they rolled a little. Best in show: Butch Hancock's Spanish-tinged "Wishin' for You," which has a Latin catch. B PLUS [Later]

BRIAN ENO/DAVID BYRNE: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Sire) Something fishy's going on when unassuming swell-heads like these dabblers start releasing their worktapes. As cluttered and undistinguished as the MOR fusion and prog-rock it brings to the mind's ear, this album has none of the songful sweep of Remain in Light or the austere weirdness of Jon Hassell, and the vocal overlays only intensify its feckless aura. More "interesting" than Jamming With Edward, I suppose, but no more useful. C PLUS [Later]

MARVIN GAYE: In Our Lifetime (Tamla) Personal to David and Brian: For techno-Afro atmospherics, try this. Pay attention to Nigel Martinez's drumming on "Far Cry" or Frank Blair's bass on "Funk Me" and you might even try to hire them. And though the words are confused, at least they're sincere, which in an age of irony has its advantages. Just like on your record, not one cut announces itself, but that's only because these days Gaye aspires to a line (by which I mean a con or a come-on as well as a musical schema) more sinuous and insinuating than the peculiar hooks and JB elementals of yore. And though not one cut announces itself, every one gets through the door. A MINUS

AL GREEN: The Lord Will Make a Way (Myrrh) I might end up praising God myself if He or She gave me the most beautiful voice in creation and then let me keep it when I descended into purgatory. As it is, I'll praise Al for his lead guitar, which lends such a down-by-the-riverside feel to these rolling gospel tunes that you hardly notice the violins. B PLUS [Later]

JOE JACKSON BAND: Beat Crazy (A&M) Just in case Jackson is about to turn into last year's model for good, I thought I'd mention that I kind of like his poorest-selling album. The melodies escape me as usual, but the beat is getting tougher and more resilient and the lyrics are at their best. Granted, the social comment and romantic reflections still sound smug at times, but anybody who can justify a dedication to Linton Kwesi Johnson ("Battleground") and say something new about fooling-around-on-the-road ("Biology") hasn't thrown it in yet. B

GARLAND JEFFREYS: Escape Artist (Epic) After four years of having been, Jeffreys makes like a macher. With Roy Bittan playing the colorist, Garland's affinities with Uncle Bruce are suddenly obvious, and with Big Youth and Linton Kwesi Johnson on counterpoint his reggae ties have never been firmer. "Modern Lovers," his basic theme, is one he knows more intimately than, let us say, Hall & Oates, but my two faves break the mood: "Jump Jump," his greatest name-dropping song and an anthem for rock critics everywhere, and "Miami Beach," Dennis Bovell-produced American dub that's too strong musically and politically to relegate to a bonus EP. Jeffrey's weakness for doggerel sticks out when he's writing this well, and the Springsteen connection reminds me that Ghost Writer's static rhythms cut into its durability. But this man should be given the keys to every city whose streets he walks--ours first. A MINUS [Later: B+]

THE KENDALLS: The Best of the Kendalls (Ovation) Moral Majority take note: The Kendalls are a father-daughter duo who sing about adultery. With each other. Granted, they do invoke all the Calvinist cheatin'-song antinomies--heaven or hell, devil or angel, etc. But ultimately they're soft on sin--their upbeat melodies and perky arrangements make infidelity seem about as heavy as a very successful Tupperware party. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't fascinated, but I'd also be lying if I said I wasn't put off. And so are Moe, Willie, and George & Tammy. B PLUS

B.B. KING: There Must Be a Better World Somewhere (MCA) King's seldom been terrible, and when in 1978 he decided to stop trying for AM ballads and disco crossovers and move on up to nightclub funk he started making good albums again. With songs by Doc & Dr. (Pomus and ace sideman John) and a band anchored by the spectacularly unflappable Pretty Purdie, this is the third time in a row he's topped himself. The voice is no longer exquisite and the licks might as well be copyrighted, but King's standard is classic. Of course, it's also predictable--though the material reprises the timeworn truisms (heavy on party blues and perfidious women) with palpable enthusiasm, only "Victim" stands much chance of entering the repertoire. But if this were the first King album you'd ever hear you'd make damn sure it wasn't the last. B PLUS

ROBERT JR. LOCKWOOD & JOHNNY SHINES: Hangin' On (Rounder) The formal double-bind of the Delta blues these two students and near-contemporaries of Robert Johnson pursue so loyally isn't as constricting as that of the more recent Chicago style--there's no dated "commercial" formula, so attempts at progress aren't as likely to sound like awkward compromises. The acoustic duets, alternated (never shared) lead vocals, relaxed two-man horn arrangements, and funk-influenced drumming of their recording debut may read like a mishmash, but Shines's singing and songwriting fills in the holes for Lockwood, who has made unpretentious eclecticism a specialty for years. A MINUS

MARIA MULDAUR: Gospel Nights (Takoma) In the end I'm not won over by the Rock and Roll for Christ, but I do want to note that Muldaur has never sang with more confidence. Maybe she was of two minds about that sexy w-o-m-a-n stuff. B

PASSAGE (A&M) Though I wish he wouldn't dedicate this venture (or his life) to "Our Savior, Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth," that's not why (Brother) Louis Johnson pisses me off (cf. Al Green, Maria Muldaur). He pisses me off because he's as sterile and chickenshit as the polite elevator funk he uses to sell his message--too chickenshit to mention, for instance, that he believes "Mr. Jewish Man" and "Mr. Muslim Man" are doomed to burn in hellfire. Heed my advice, people. When somebody tells you to "say good-bye to the reasoning/That's standing in your way," think some more. And when somebody tells you that without Jesus "you can't be livin'," take a deep breath. D MINUS

STEVE REICH: Octet/Music for a Large Ensemble/Violin Phase (ECM) I get shy when I write about putatively avant-garde composers like Reich--who am I to judge their compositional acuity? Somebody who knows great kitsch when he hears it, that's who. Music for 18 Musicians is damn near transcendent kitsch--what seems suspiciously lightweight at first reveals itself over countless hearings as durably ethereal. In contrast, these pieces sound dinky over the long haul--listenably dinky, but dinky. My favorite is "Violin Phase," written for a solitary instrument back in 1967, before Reich got unpretentious. B PLUS

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Being With You (Tamla) Aspiring popsters should welcome this proof that our greatest living poet is able to make do (and then some) with sneaky-fast melodies and rhythms and a vocal style of irreproachably guileless sophistication. Lets them off the, er, hook. Wordwise, that is. Not melodywise, rhythmwise, or voicewise. A MINUS [Later: B+]

TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS: Toots Live (Mango) Toots's spirit and improvisatory verve merit a concert LP, and for a while I thought this one might double as a best-of--I was even ready to hold my fire on the inevitable remake of "Funky Kingston" when offered the first U.S.-album version of his magnificent "5446 Was My Number." But the exigencies of crowd control induce Toots to work that bittersweet ex-con's victory cry as a shoutalong, and when something similar happens to the climactic "Time Tough" I give up. Toots's ability to exult in suffering (cf. the unfortunately omitted "Famine") may be a miracle, but loaves and fishes it ain't. So why should a multitude join in? B PLUS

COLIN WALCOTT/DON CHERRY/NANA VASCONCELOS: Codona 2 (ECM) I don't trust music with bird noises in it, I don't trust concepts like "again," and I don't trust Oregon (East) Indian Collin Walcott, composer of the tweety "Again and Again, Again." I wonder why Walcott's "Walking on Eggs" sounds like an Ornette Coleman tune while "Drip-Dry," credited to Coleman, sounds like Walcott wrote it (sitars will out?). And when I really want recent Don Cherry I'll put on Johnny Dyani's Song for Biko and get Dudu Pukwana at the same time. But side one is the best UNESCO ad you'll ever hear. Starts with percussionist Vasconcelos's "Que Faser," which sustains itself without obvious melody or beat for 7:08, and continues through the traditional African "Godumaduma," a brief, elegant reminder of where Steve Reich learned his shit. And then there's Cherry's "Malinye," where he states an astonishingly lovely theme first on melodica and then on trumpet before allowing the music to break into crowd noises that somehow enrich the mood, which is then picked up by none other than Collin Walcott--who by this time could sell me a used car, not to mention a brand-new day. B PLUS [Later]

YARBROUGH & PEOPLES: The Two of Us (Mercury) The problem with received tropes about love and music isn't that they're a turnoff in themselves--finally, I don't care what the words of "Don't Stop the Music" are, and the same goes for "Crazy" and "Third Degree," which continue side one. But when the settings are undistinguished, as on side two, only very great singers can attract one's interest the way a good lyric might. Y&P are very good singers. B

Additional Consumer News

Room for three 12-inches. Kelly Marie's "Feels Like I'm in Love" (Coast to Coast) is the only obsession--the most cheerfully cheesy piece of pop junk to hit the air in years. I got hooked on it listening to WBLS in the car and over other people's boxes. Sheena Easton Go Home--Kelly Marie Come Here. Lime's "Your Love" (Prism) is a catchy disco duet that should have made my roundup at a bare A minus last month. And the bassline of the Treacherous Three's latest rap, "Feel the Heartbeat" (Enjoy) is recommended to all Taana Gardner addicts.

Village Voice, May 4, 1981

Mar. 30, 1981 June 8, 1981