Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (51)

Every fall I prepare myself for the single greatest privilege and pleasure of criticism--year-end best lists. My work with the Consumer Guide makes this task easier--all I have to do is sort through old CGs and separate out all the A and A minus titles. Oridnarily, this is a gratifying process. I find each year that despite the usual rock-is-dead gossip I have 30 or so titles on my list (usually a few more), and happily compile a Top 30 without shame. Imagine my shock and surprise, then, when in mid-November I found myself with only 23 titles, including at least one misjudgment.

So for the past month I have been listening, rather disconsolately, to left-field candidates. There are a few other weirdos left, and there are also some centerfield albums yet to be appraised--my instincts go against the new Aretha Franklin but I'll give it more time, there should be a second Steely Dan in the stores before Christmas, maybe a third Dylan as well, and (note my increasing desperation) I haven't heard the new Ringo yet. But although all this work has unearthed a smattering of genuinely odd, interesting, and creditable, "rock" albums, only one of them, the new Leonard Cohen, has been deemed A-worthy, and that by the skin of its ceremony.

An A record, of course, is one which someone who more or less shares my taste can be advised to buy. In these days of self-fulfillment, it's not a category as it used to be, but it still gives me comfort. The B plus record is either not quite good enough or too damn quirky. B and B minus indicate kinds of competence, and from there it's downhill. Merry Christmas.

GEORGE CARLIN: Toledo Window Box (Little David) Despite healthy bits of the affectionate wordplay--a somewhat sentimentalized legacy from Lenny--that is Carlin's major comedic strength, the main thing this proves is that making up too many dope jokes is almost as bad for you judgment as smoking too much dope. C PLUS

LEONARD COHEN: New Skin for Old Ceremony (Columbia) I've never trusted Cohen's arty reputation--a lot of page poets read better--but I continue to be a sucker for his voice, which has become more expressive and confident over the years without losing its flat, amateurish vulnerability. Some of the songs on this LP are less than memorable, but the settings, by arranger and co-producer John Lissauer, have the bizarro feel of John Simon's work on Cohen's first album, which I never believed was overproduced. For addicts, a genuine if occasional pleasure. A MINUS [Later]

JOHN COLTRANE: Interstellar Space (Impulse) These duets between Coltrane on tenor (and bells) and Rashied Ali on drums sound like an annoyance until you concentrate on them, at which point the interactions take on pace and shape, with metaphorical overtones that have little to do with the musical ideas being explored. European, Oriental, African--I don't know. But amazing. A MINUS

KEVIN COYNE: Marjory Razor Blade (Virgin) Another British eccentric with a voice scratchy and wavery enough to make Mick Jagger sound like Anthony Newley, only this one can write songs. The annoying kid-stuff tone of the perversity here purveyed is redeemed by the fact that there isn't a chance it will sell, and "House on the Hill" is as convincing a madman's song as I know. B PLUS [Later]

FIRESIGN THEATRE: Everything You Know Is Wrong (Columbia) Firesign's sci-fi schtick doesn't seem as revelatory in 1974 as it did in 1970, but this relatively lightweight piece about the end of the world is not only clever but honestly conceived--as coherent as there is any reason to expect, with enough laughs, verbal and aural, to justify its classification as comedy. A MINUS

AL GREEN: Al Green Explores Your Mind (Hi) In the past, Green has always come up with lyrics that elaborated his narrow persona; his musical repetitiousness has been mitigated by daring vocal explorations, especially of outside material. This time, however, those who complain about his strict devotion to formula are right. He wrote all the songs himself; none of them is as much a departure as "Stand Up" or "Let's Get Married," and one of them sounds just like "Unchained Melody." Willie Mitchell's production has become more constricted, and it's likely that Green, who wasn't too happy, with the sales on his last one, wants it that way--"Sha La La" may be shit, but it's a shit hit. Depressingly unambitious, which we should all hope is only temporary, because that's some formula. B [Later: B+]

HOT CHOCOLATE: Cicero Park (Big Tree) From the interracial London group that originated "Brother Louie" comes an album that might sound startling in retrospect, but as of now is only impressive. Both Mickie Most's precise, almost formal framing (pop hard rock veering toward disco) and the elocution of the (unnamed) lead singer or singers (strange to hear soul with a British accent) make for an overall coldness unbroken by the heat of individual cuts. B [Later: B+]

B.B. KING & BOBBY BLAND: Together for the First Time . . . Live (ABC/Dunhill) I would describe the performances here as spirited rather than inspired, but they're definitely not compromised, which makes this collaboration of genius an automatic collector's item. I suspect I won't play it as much as I do the Joe Turner/Otis Spann/T-Bone Walker session that Bob Thiele set up five years ago. But then, I never figured I'd play that one as much as I do. A MINUS [Later: B+]

MAN: Rhinos, Winos and Lunatics (United Artists) Deke Leonard has the right attitude. His music is noisy and dissonant and eccentric and there must be a wah-wah pedal down his gullet. But neither this (made with his band of Welsh crazies and blessed with an opening hook) nor Kamikaze is as substantial as Iceberg, and Iceberg was short on something ineffable--I think melody. B MINUS [Later: B+]

BARRY MANILOW: Manilow II (Bell) Manilow arouses all the distrust that a man who achieved affluence making advertising music deserves: even if he is as sentimental sometimes, as his hit would indicate, he has no right to be. Nevertheless, a couple of songs written with someone named Enoch Anderson, who must deserve better, stick with me. The jingle strikes again? C

MANFRED MANN'S EARTH BAND: The Good Earth (Polydor) Manfred has learned just enough about the synthesizer to be dangerous, as his previous album proved, but at least this one, intended to be "more accessible," improves with listening. Two songs are homely enough to justify the name of this progressive-identified intragalactic conspiracy: "I'll Be There" and "Be Not Too Hard." B MINUS

GEORGE MCCRAE: Rock Your Baby (T.K.) The folks liked the title single so much they extended it through most of an album--literally over eight minutes, plus all the samey rhythm tracks featuring McCrae's serviceable but emotionally limited falsetto. Funny thing is, the single is so good they almost got away with it. B [Later]

ESSRA MOHAWK (Asylum) Here is a vocalist who should throw away all her Leon Russell records. When she calls herself a "full-fledged woman," it sounds like "pool player's" woman, which given her persona makes more sense. Inspirational Verse: "Can we doubt when we don an old animal skin/That it's really a previous state we're in/After all if a TV can change its station/Why not a soul its next incarnation." D [Later]

P.F.M.: Cook (Manticore) It stands for Pasta Fazool Machine, only they cook without garlic. C MINUS [Later: C-]

NEIL SEDAKA: Sedaka's Back (Rocket) In which a self-admitted mean old man approximates a cross between the young Paul Anka and the post-Bennington Reparata and the Delrons, only his voice is higher and his lyrics more considered. Nice. B PLUS [Later]

STANLEY SILVERMAN: Elephant Steps (Columbia) A mere Chuck Berry expert cannot judge the quality of the "classical" music herein contained, although he can mention that he does not intend to investigate it further. The "rock," however, was apparently concocted by David Clayton-Thomas's heir covert and the pit band from the Oslo production of Hair. And any English major can see through the "libretto." C MINUS

BILLY SWAN: I Can Help (Monument) As befits an unknown one-shot who names his album after his big single--especially a single that advances the rockabilly moment eighteen years--Swan has made an LP with a B side. Only it's one of those B sides thrown together so casually that you find yourself attracted by its elan. Programmed with "I Can Help" are four listenable examples of Swan's detached singing style, all separated from nostalgia by wacky absurdist touches. But on side two the absurdism is provided solely by Swan's willingness to waver off pitch on otherwise straightforward tunes from Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, and C. Boone, whoever he is. It's only a sloppy quickie, but I like it. B PLUS [Later]

THIS IS REGGAE MUSIC (Island) Unlike The Harder They Come, which collected the best songs of artists whose music was either unavailable or not rich enough to fill an LP, this sampler serves no function. The two cuts from the Wailers highlight their two American albums, which anyone who likes reggae should buy. The two from the Maytals are not their top work, and a Maytals album that includes both should be available here soon. Some of the rest (Heptones, Joe Higgs) is pretty good; some of it (Lorna Bennett, Zap Pow) is pretty discouraging. C PLUS [Later]

MCCOY TYNER: Sama Layuca (Milestone) After much listening, I am not convinced that Tyner is the total pianist. True, there are more ideas per minute on his simultaneously released solo album, Echoes of a Friend, than on Keith Jarrett's Solo Concerts. But the mystical empty spaces that Jarrett explores or exploits do have an irreducible validity that a bad idea does not, and unfortunately, Tyner is not above bad ideas, especially those Tatumesque flourishes with which jazz buffs satisfy their craving for soppy romance. (Why is the rock an droll fan listening to solo piano albums at all? The rock and roll fan is not always sure himself.) But Tyner's failings, which aren't major anyway, are less egregious in an ensemble setting like this one. At its best, this music breathes with a lushness and lyricism that never cloys: the melodies and harmonies and polyrhythms are sensuous without coming on about it. Strength that never offends. B PLUS

WISHBONE ASH: There's the Rub (MCA) The journeyman English blues-cum-heavy group of whom it has been said: "When they come out on stage, they seem to be holding their guitars like machine guns, but pretty soon you realize it's more like shovels." D PLUS

Additional Consumer News

My year end ruminations have me going back over past judgments and revising them, so let me correct some unfair grades. I've decided that Stevie Wonder (B plus to A minus) the Average White Band (B to B plus) and the Who (C plus to B minus) are better than I gave them credit for. Doug Sahm (A minus to B plus) is worse.

My favorite record review feature these days appears in Phonograph Record Magazine. It's called Blind Date, by Flo & Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, former Turtles and Mothers both) and it is a disco-addict's dream.

Hot Steely Dan Rumor (which should interest rock and roll more than hot Rolling Stones rumors these days): Walter Becker plays guitar on forthcoming LP, replacing Skunk Baxter.

No matter what Geoffrey Stokes says I came away from the Bottom Line last week feeling something like "I have seen the future this evening and it is the past." The Raspberries, at least in a club, were as pleasurable an act as I've seen in months. I'll get over it.

Village Voice, Dec. 23, 1974

Nov. 21, 1974 Jan. 27, 1975