Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

In which the one-time nay-sayer gets back to the good stuff--all things are relative, after all.

BANANARAMA (London) The girl-group version of Tony Swain and Steve Jolley's black harmony trio, Imagination, Bananarama suffer from Swain-Jolley's characteristically detached mix, which sounds dreamy when Leee Johns is coming on and untouchably dreamlike when these lucky lasses blend their voices in song. They also suffer from the songs, which despite their solid hooks don't give you much to grab onto either. B MINUS

EEK-A-MOUSE: Assassinator (RAS) What kind of artist interprets the legend of Tarzan to the tune of "Wimoweh" immediately after outlining his "Triple Love" life just so he can revel in "en" rhymes("ten," "den,", "lend," "bend," "them," "Ardenne," "Hughenden," "Gwen," "Jen," "Karen," "they even make love with my best friend Ken," and of course the literal nonsense "lah-den")? A major eccentric who makes most of those who cultivate that image look like self-serving twits, that's who. Also an eccentric whose first three songs here start with death by gunfire. B PLUS

EEK-A-MOUSE: Mouseketeer (Greensleeves) Prolific and then some, he's a little less consistent on this album than on its immediate competitor, and since there are no printed lyrics I'll probably never know what the anorexic was doing at Reggae Sunsplash. But the hot pressing and dubbed-up Henry Junjo Lawes production do compensate for his tendency to set all his songpoems to the same melody, leading off with his account of Queen Elizabeth's unscheduled audience and climaxing with an explanation (?) of how he got his name betting the horses. B PLUS

EEK-A-MOUSE/MICHIGAN & SMILEY: Live at Reggae Sunsplash (Sunsplash) Michigan & Smiley are the Statler Brothers of toasting, but this 1982 performance is where the mighty Mouse transcended the novelty pigeonhole. His delight in the comic highs and lows of his range and the syllabic adaptability of his tongue and palate are even more vivid live than in the studio, and two of the songs here, including the quietly devastating "Neutron Bomb," aren't on any of his five other U.S.-release albums (still tops: 1983's The Mouse and the Man). B [Later]

THE GO-GO'S: Talk Show (I.R.S.) Pop is such a plastic concept that to call this a pop comeback just confuses things--with its clean, bold, Martin Rushent sound and confident basic chopswomanship, it shares less with Beauty and the Beat than with, oh, Sports (and less than Bananarama does, too). In other words, it's an AOR move (with top-forty goals assumed). Lyrically, it represents a retreat--no place for sly subcultural anthems among these straightforward love songs (really relationship songs), which while sensible enough are never acute or visionary (or thematically consistent/complementary). And having peeled away several layers of resistance, I find the record thrilling. Its expressive enthusiasm gives me the same good feeling I used to get from their musical godmothers in Fanny--a sense of possibility that might touch women who are turned off by more explicit politics, and that these women are strong enough to put into practice. A MINUS

NONA HENDRYX: The Art of Defense (RCA Victor) Nona earns her loyal insider support. She's honest; she cares about the right music and the right issues in the right way. But she just isn't as talented as you wish she was, and on this follow-up her undifferentiated melodies come back to haunt her. Her singing is surprisingly careful. Material's groove surprisingly careful, Material's groove surprisingly straight-ahead, and I can guess why--everybody involved knew how thin the ice was. C PLUS

INDEEP: Pajama Party Time (Becket) I took a deep breath when I noticed that the raunchy vocal duo who'd fronted the greatest sleeper album in disco history was down to Rose Marie Ramsey, not the raunchier of the two. And you know, I never did exhale. No DJ will save this one. C PLUS

KING CRIMSON: Three of a Perfect Pair (Warner Bros.) Unburdened by any natural predisposition to play it again, I'm an unusually unbiased judge: side two again demonstrates Robert Fripp's rare if impractical gift for sustained instrumental composition in a rock context. Having expended many fruitless hours trying to appreciate Adrian Belew's two solo albums, I'm an unusually qualified judge: side one again demonstrates that the guy neither sings nor writes like a front man. B MINUS

HUEY LEWIS AND THE NEWS: Sports (Chrysalis) You said it, the man's an utter cornball, but on this album I simply succumb to the stupid pleasures of his big fat rockcraft. Even though I know it isn't the "same old back beat" that keeps rock and roll alive, but rather musicians brave or bored enough to fuck with it, something same-old has me grunting with pleasure at that song every time I let down my guard. No guard required: "I Want a New Drug" (recreational), "Bad Is Bad" (bad), and "Walking on a Thin Line" (when are Vietnam Veterans Against the War putting together their compilation album?). B PLUS

THE LYRES: On Fyre (Ace of Hearts) Just like their fellow neotraditionalists in rockabilly and r&b, these pillars of garage principle set themselves the nearly impossible task of substituting magic for the real thing every track out. As the best of such bands so often do, they get off on a rousing start, in this case by marshalling their two best originals, which they keep going with the help of a couple of covers through all of side one. On side two they slow down a little, and not only isn't the result magical, it's barely rhythmic. B

THE MEDITATIONS: Greatest Hits (Shanachie) Usually I have to let reggae albums grow on me, but the sweet tunes and sweeter harmonies on this devoted overview made themselves felt immediately. Problem is, they never reached any deeper--instead I began to notice the low homily level and nonexistent signature lead. How greatest? B PLUS

NYBOMA: Doublé Doublé (Rounder) Four eight-minute dance tracks plunked down into a standard African (also disco) album format, this features the almost feminine tenor of the leader of Zaire's Orchestre les Kamalé, but it's made by the guitar parts. The one that hooks the title track resolves a familiar African contradiction--it's both the trickiest and the most propulsive thing on the record, and well worth owning. The rest is at least worth hearing. B PLUS

THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS: Mirror Moves (Columbia) Since authenticity definitely isn't Richard Butler's métier, I couldn't bring myself to accuse the honorably crafted Forever Now of lacking conviction, yet that was how it felt to me, and now I think I know why. The commitment I missed wasn't to "content," but to a specific style and hence to craft, honorable or otherwise--Butler was tired of the Furs' sardonic fake Pistolese. Here he turns his heartfelt dispassion to an approach that bears the same relation to Bowieism as the earlier Furs did to punk. His seducerama is in the manner of an aging matinee idol who isn't quite as famous as he thinks he is: he sings as if he's known you for years even though you're both perfectly aware that so far your relationship goes no further than his offer of a lift back to your place. And if you're feeling detached enough yourself, you just may take him up on it. B PLUS [Later]

SAKHILE: Sakhile (Arista/Jive-Afrika) When a black Johannesburg crossover band split up so they can "grow musically" and the bassist and sax player come up with a slack Crusaders homage, I understand--in South Africa that'll pass for progress. Here too, actually. But here I expect people to know better--especially record executives. C PLUS

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia) I wouldn't be surprised if this apparent retrenchment ended up sounding like his best album to date, and I bet it'll prove his most playable. Even his compulsive studio habits work for him: the aural vibrancy of the thing reminds me like nothing in years that what teenagers loved about rock and roll wasn't that it was catchy or even rhythmic but that it just plain sounded good. And while Nebraska's one-note vision may be more left-correct, my instincts (not to mention my leftism) tell me that this uptempo worldview is truer. Hardly ride-off-into-the-sunset stuff, at the same time it's low on nostalgia and beautiful losers. Not counting the title powerhouse, the best songs slip by at first because their tone is so lifelike: the fast-stepping "Working on the Highway," which turns out to be about a country road gang: "Darlington County," which pins down the futility of a macho spree without undercutting its exuberance; and "Glory Days," which finally acknowledges that among other things, getting old is a damn good joke. A [Later: A+]

10,000 MANIACS: Secrets of the I Ching (Christian Burial) True enough, these new-wave art-folkies don't sound like anybody else, including their kissing cousins in R.E.M. Reason one is Robert Buck on "principal guitars devices," all delightful space effects and airily elliptical hooks. But reason two is Natalie Merchant and her equally airy "voice." Not only does Natalie inflect the English language as if she grew up speaking some Polynesian tongue, but she writes lyrics to match, lyrics which from the crib sheet I'd adjudge the most sophomoric poetry-of-pretension to hit pop music since lysergic acid was in flower. Random stanza: "Patrons in attendance/To disarm a common myth/Homage paid to the victor of immortality/Cloaked in bold tones." Jesus. B MINUS

THE THOMPSON TWINS: Into the Gap (Arista) No longer saddled with one of the most vacant art reputations in the history of hype, this decidedly unavant unfunk trio are free to pursue the airhead pop they were born to, and first try they've scored a natural: "Hold Me Now" is a classic on chord changes alone, i.e., even though Tom Bailey sings it. Nothing else here approaches its heart-tugging mastery, but the album remains lightly creditable through the title-cut chinoiserie which opens side two. After that, as Alannah Currie herself puts it, who can stop the rain? B MINUS

TRACEY ULLMAN: You Broke My Heart in 17 Places (MCA) Unlike most of her cocharting cofemales, Ullman has undertaken a conscious genre exercise--she plays girl-group tradition for naive if not dumb passivity. The songs new and old are tuneful and right, the production exquisitely not-quite-schlocky, but just-compare her "Bobby's Girl" to Marcie Blaine's original--Ullman sings with too much force and skill to make the conceit convincing. On the other hand, it's probably her musical conscience that saves the project from unmitigated "ironic" condescension. "They Don't Know" did hit at face value, after all. B PLUS

VIOLENT FEMMES: Hallowed Ground (Slash) First time out they sounded so original musically that I made it a spiritual exercise to forgive Gordon Gano his bad personality. But everything you might hum along with on the sequel was invented generations ago by better men than he. And though "Black Girls" may not be racist (or "faggot"-baiting), it takes a great deal of petulant delight in daring you to call it a name. Then again, maybe it is racist. C PLUS

THE WEATHER GIRLS: Success (Columbia) Those who find "It's Raining Men" suspiciously campy will be doubly offended to hear producer-songwriter Paul Jabara steer his reformed gospel singers into praise of the Anvil and edible men. Me, I think it's the ultimate gay disco song, four hefty-voiced black female survivors set loose on what is much more a gay than a female fantasy, and I love it--for its humor and for its uncompromising extravagance, from lyric to singing to orchestration to arrangement to beat. I tolerate the crass moments on this second long-playing contextualization because five of its six cuts make me laugh. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

As breaking becomes the biggest thing since Pac-Man, even in Americaphobic Britannia, a certain thinning out seems inevitable, but so far all that means is that many of the best rap 12-inches qualify as novelty records. The best is still Run-D.M.C.'s "Rock Box" (Profile), with its precedent-setting Eddie Martinez guitar. "Hey D.J." (Island) sees the World's Famous Supreme Team, who always struck me as rather wack with magic-man Trevor Horn, doing just fine with producer Stephen Hague (Malc gets his usual lyric credit of course). Newcleus's "Jam on It" (Sunnyview) mixes a young slick-style M.C. with smurf voices going "wicki-wicki-wicki" and a loping Jonathan Fearing track. The Disco 3's "Fat Boys" (Sutra) candidly discusses obesity over the sound effects of the Human Beat Box, who (not which) should send technophobes into their death throes. Also of note are U.T.F.O.'s "Beats and Rhymes" (Select), in which a verse in pig Latin underlines an educated synthesis, and Hassan & 7-11's "City Life" (Easy Street), a going-out guide to Newark.

Village Voice, June 26, 1984

June 12, 1984 July 24, 1984