Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

It's one thing to grant various objectionable public figures the due their skill deserves--C plus, to be precise--and quite another to call attention to the plight of the almost forgotten Syl Johnson while ignoring the odious Tubes, who have been waiting for this for six years. Hence, this month's Must to Avoid is not the worst-rated record on the chart.

BEE GEES: Spirits Having Flown (RSO) I admire the perverse riskiness of this music, which neglects disco bounce in favor of demented falsetto abstraction, less love-man than newborn-kitten. And I'm genuinely fond of many small moments of madness here, like the way the three separate multitracked voices echo the phrase "living together." But obsessive ornamentation can't transform a curiosity into inhabitable music, and there's not one song here that equals any on the first side of Saturday Night Fever. B MINUS

JAMES BROWN: The Original Disco Man (Polydor) Brown hasn't just been turning out dreck lately--last year's Jam/1980's cut a classic groove. But this album is an exciting retrenchment. The giveaway is that Brown has relinquished the profit-taking ego gratification of writing and producing everything himself. Those credits go to Brad Shapiro, Millie Jackson's helpmate, who thank God is no disco man himself. Sure he likes disco tricks--synthesized sound effects, hooky female chorus, bass drum pulse--but he loves what made JB, well, the original disco man: hard-driving, slightly Latinized funk patterns against the rough rap power of that amazing voice, which may have lost expressiveness but definitely retains its natural sense of rhythm. Plus: the single of the year, "It's Too Funky in Here." And a renunciation of "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World" A [Later: A-]

BRIAN ENO: Music for Airports (Ambient/PVC) Although I'm no frequenter of airports, I've found that these four swatches of modestly "ambient" minimalism have real charms as general-purpose calmatives. But I must also report that they've fared unevenly against specific backgrounds: sex (neutral to arid), baseball (pleasant, otiose), dinner at my parents' (conversation piece), abstract writing (useful but less analgesic than Discreet Music or my David Behrman record). Also, I'm still waiting for "1/1" to resolve the "Three Blind Mice" theme. B PLUS [Later: B]

BRIAN ENO: Music for Films (Antilles) A lot of these 18 cuts seem more fragments than pieces, and although most of them provide subtle melodic or (especially) textural dynamics, the overall effect is a touch too willful in its impressionism for my tastes. Another Green World tending toward stasis, which is a funny thing for movie music to do. Or maybe ECM with hindsight, a/k/a a tape splicer. B PLUS [Later]

GENERATION X: Valley of the Dolls (Chrysalis) Since the music itself doesn't compel close listening, a simple improvement might be a lyric sheet permitting leisurely analysis of what's transformed their belligerance into despond and slid their penchant for pop-rock amenities into the murk. C PLUS

IAN HUNTER: You're Never Alone With a Schizophrenic (Chrysalis) Six winners out of nine on this mini-comeback, and he doesn't seem to be straining, either. But that's not entirely a blessing--the musical territory is conventionally good-rockin', and only on the gnomic "Life After Death" and the second verse of "When the Morning Comes" does he reconnoiter lyrically. The titles of the bad songs--"Bastard," "The Outsider," and "Ships" (in the guess what)--are warning enough. B

SYL JOHNSON: Uptown Shakedown (Hi) Some worthy soul veterans turn disco into commercial or even artistic regeneration. Others don't. For Johnson, who here abandons the rough, bluesy intensity of Total Explosion, disco means compromised semi-contemporaneity. "Mystery Lady" (she wears a mask) and "Let's Dance for Love" affect post-hustle hipness but don't achieve it, lyrically or musically, which may be why the Otis Redding medley and the Brenton Wood cover sound so halfassed. C

MCKINLEY MITCHELL (Chimneyville) A small miracle: Bobby Bland meets Brook Benton in the timeless realm of the not-quite-folkloric, where soul and blues sound precisely contemporary and strings voice old horn riffs with no suggestion of sellout. Mitchell's seven tunes don't measure up to the other three--"Dream Lover," "You're So Fine," and a classic blues from the early '70s called "Open House at My House." But it doesn't matter, because this is one of those groove records on which ordinary songwriting is transmuted by perfect pacing and unshakable stylistic conviction. A MINUS

999: High Energy Plan (PVC) A more ideologically suggestive title than the British Separates for a band that kicks off a very listenable (or jumpable) side by declaring "I believe in homicide" and ends it by warning "crime don't pay." But I suspect that only hard-and-fast punk loyalists are liable to find this thick enough. Clue: the substitution of two new tracks, no doubt to induce collectors to buy both the import and the domestic, has no effect on overall quality. B [Later]

ANN PEEBLES: The Handwriting Is on the Wall (Hi) More tough talking about sex and love (and sex)--unfalteringly funky, consistently credible, and mildly enjoyable. Great one: "Old Man With Young Ideas." B MINUS

TOM ROBINSON BAND: TRB 2 (Harvest) A measure of how good Robinson is at writing his squarecut rock and roll protest songs is that you often don't remember them by title--almost every one jogs the memory with an additional catchphrase. Another is that though I know a white man is making it with a black man and I know it's more than all right, I still can't suss out the details of "Sweet Black Angel." A third is that I started singing "Sweet Black Angel" to myself the first time I played the record. And the capper is that since I saw him live every other song here has been ringing in my head as well. A MINUS [Later]

ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (Sire) Two excellent new Ramones songs, plus a Richie Valens cover shared by the Ramones and the Paley Brothers, plus a live medley of five familiar Ramones songs, plus P.J. Soles singing one of the new ones poorly. Plus high-quality new-wavish stuff of varying relevance, most of it off albums that people who enjoy the samples would probably enjoy owning. Plus high school songs of varying quality not including the Beach Boys' "Be True to Your School" or (for shame, it was in the movie) the MC5's "High School." B MINUS [Later: B]

DEVADIP CARLOS SANTANA: Silver Dreams Golden Reality (Columbia) Frustrating, especially for an earthbound churl like myself--spiritual program music that mixes genuinely celestial rock with the usual goop. The "title" song (which for some arcane reason--scansion, probably--substitutes the word "Smiles" for "Reality") is an altogether revolting string-fed banality. It's followed by an instrumental on which the guitarist attains his soaring apogee, and a Sri Chinmoy (!) tune--arranged by Narada Michael Walden (!!)--that achieves a natural impressionism Eno (!!!) couldn't hope for. See what I mean? B MINUS

PATTI SMITH GROUP: Wave (Arista) A lot of folks just don't like Patti anymore, and so have taken to complaining about the pop melodicism ("AOR sellout") and shamanistic religiosity ("pretentious phony") she's always aspired toward. Me, I wish she'd forget she was such a bigshot, and I find "Seven Ways of Going" and "Broken Flag" as unlistenable as (and less interesting than) "Radio Ethiopia." But this is an often inspired album, quirkier than the more generally satisfying Easter--especially on the sexual mystery song "Dancing Barefoot," quite possibly her greatest track ever, and, yes, the reading for the dead pope that she goes out on. B PLUS

THE STYLISTICS: Love Spell (Mercury) Their second album with Teddy Rendazzo is their most generally listenable since Round Two in 1972. Now someone should tell them--or better still, Teddy--that general listenability is not what producing a producer's group is about. It's about go-rillas, and Round Two had at least three of them. C PLUS [Later]

SUPERTRAMP: Breakfast in America (A&M) I like a hooky album as well as the next fellow, so when I found that this one elicited random grunts of pleasure I looked forward to listening hard. But the lyrics turned out to be glib variations on the usual Star Romances trash, and in the absence of vocal personality (as opposed to accurate singing) and rhythmic thrust (as opposed to a beat) I'll wait until this material is covered by artists of emotional substance--Tavares, say, or the Doobie Brothers. C PLUS

JAMES TAYLOR: Flag (Columbia) What's wrong with most of these songs is that Taylor is singing them. He can sing, sure--the "Day Tripper" cover and "Is That the Way You Look" show off his amused, mildly funky self-involvement at its sharpest and sexiest. But too often the material reveals him at his sharpest and most small-minded; John Lennon might get away with "I Will Not Lie for You," but JT's whine undermines whatever honesty the sentiment may have. And though the man can get outside himself as a writer--with rare insight, sometimes-he can't escape that lazy drawl. Compare his "Millworker" to Robin Lamont's version on the Working album. Or ask Johnny Cash to cover "Sleep Come Free Me." C PLUS [Later]

THE TUBES: Remote Control (A&M) Their knack for songwriting always surprises me, because they deserve worse, and on this album they provide it, drenching their material in the grandiose harmonies and pomprock keyboard textures that thrive in the Midwest, where many poor souls still regard these transparent cynics as avatars of the new wave. You think maybe Patti Smith would do "No Mercy"? C PLUS

ULTRAVOX: Systems of Romance (Antilles) This time these guys have mastered their concept. John Foxx's detached, creamy baritone works against the instrumentation's electronic cast for a streamlined rocksy music that suits titles like "Dislocation" and "Someone Else's Clothes." But unlike Bryan Ferry Foxx talks as if he's detached clean through, unlike Brian Eno he's encumbered by delusions of existential significance, and unlike both he evinces not a shred of humor. B PLUS [Later]

WEATHER REPORT: Mr. Gone (Columbia/ARC) Short on rhythmic inspiration (four different drummers, no percussionists) and long on electric ivory, this is the best fusion band in the world at its most fusoid. Which is interesting, in its way--when I'm in the mood I get off on its rich colors and compositional flow. When I'm not in the mood I think dark thoughts about Muzak and Yurrup. B [Later]

Additional Consumer News

I love Columbia's Always Know, a two-LP collection of previously unreleased live and studio tapes by Thelonious Monk, mostly from 1962-65, which is when I used to sit on the garbage cans outside the Five Spot to listen to my man through the kitchen. The always underrated Charlie Rouse sounds as smart, soulful, and unpretentious now as he did then, and that I like this collection at least as much as any of Monk's other albums from the period comes as no shock. But my spontaneous affection for Nostalgia on Times Square by Charles Mingus, whom I've always had trouble getting to, is a very pleasant surprise. This is stuff from 1959, and now I know why I always associate Mingus with movie music--all those jazzy Hollywood guys in the '60s copped their shit from him. . . .

Johnny Thunder's So Alone (Real import) turns into almost everything its partisans claim for it after about three listens. As rough as the Heartbreakers' L.A.M.F. and a lot more audible, although except for "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" I'd say the songs aren't as good. Great remakes, though, and it's nice to hear the lyric of "Subway Train." Next: Live at Max's. . . .

Although I've resisted Don Williams' mild vogue, The Best of Don Williams Volume II (MCA) can't be denied. Both the compassion of the songs and the assured, conversational lilt of the singing exemplify the lost distinction between sentiment and sentimentality. . . .

Due to the innate conservatism of my record changer, which still believes in this modern age that all 45s are seven inches across and all 33s 12, I tend to put off listening to the numerous (weird) seven-inch 33s and (wasteful) 12-inch 45s that come in the mail. Two I love are--well, actually, I find James Chance impossible to love, as he intends, but let's just say I sincerely admire James White & the Blacks' "Contort Yourself"/"(Tropical) Heatwave" (Ze import, though a U.S. release is apparently planned): inverse funk on the A side, credibly sexy singing on the B, which was composed by Irving Berlin. My other fave is K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "Do You Wanna Go Party?" (Sunshine Sound), which as far as I've noticed doesn't have as many lyrics as its title (oh that can't be). Ten delightfully mindless minutes--just wish the B weren't 7:27 of the same. As for seven-inch 33s, there's "City Slang" by Fred Smith's Sonic's Rendezvous Band. Also one-sided, at least on my promo. Does it sound like the MC5? you ask. Damn right it does. . . .

My favorite English single at the moment is the follow-up by Kleenex, "You" b/w "U" (Rough Trade). More distaff dissonance from staccato Switzerland, and a breakless B side labelled "angry" that features a pained squeak for punctuation. I also like two pure-punk singles by Stiff Little Fingers, "Alternative Ulster" b/w "'78 Revolutions a Minute" and "Gotta Getaway" b/w "Sunday Bloody Sunday;' (both Rough Trade). In the instant catchy category I prefer Lene Lovich's one-sided "I Say When" (Stiff) to the overrated comeback by the darn Damned, "Love Story" (Chiswick).

Village Voice, July 2, 1979

May 28, 1979 July 30, 1979