Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Egad--a Consumer Guide without a single A record. And they think they know about sludge at Jones Beach. Well, perhaps sludge is unfair. Fifteen of these 20 LPs have a B of one sort or another attached, which means I am reluctant to throw them away. But since I got them free, I am also reluctant to recommend their purchase. And even though the B plus grade indicates warmth--it means that I expect to wake up some Saturday with a yen to hear one side--these are not hot B plusses. The music that has excited me this month has clicked in cut-by-cut--"Think Think," "Rock 'n' Roll Love Letter," "She Don't Squash Bugs," "War." So for this Pick Hit you will have to delve into Additional Consumer News. Definitely the record of the month.

ARTFUL DODGER (Columbia) Having barely conquered my addiction to "Think Think," the supra-Beatles raver that opens side two, and having learned that "Think Think" stiffed as a single, I find myself clearheaded enough to report that if "Think Think" didn't make it this band will have to wait till next year, and to point out that next years sometimes come for bands this tight, melodic, and intense. B

BAY CITY ROLLERS: Rock 'n' Roll Love Letter (Arista) I started playing this 'cos I got hooked on the title single, which they didn't write. Then I got to like the production on "I Only Wanna Dance With You," which needless to say they didn't produce. Nevertheless, cooler than the Osmonds. C PLUS

THE BEACH BOYS: 15 Big Ones (Brother/Reprise) This is their best album since Sunflower, which is their best of this decade. Brian is aboard, if not in charge. But Sunflower or Wild Honey it's not. The oldies idea isn't itself the problem. But except for "Palisades Park" and "A Casual Look" the choices might have been more inspired, and the singing often lacks the playful, goofy vocal intensity of the black music covers of their youth. I can deal with the Maharishi stuff by now--it simply underlines the group's public transformation from super-normals into harmless eccentrics--but never again should they commit an I-love-music song. In the current example, rock evolves from the Gregorian chant, an idea I do not consider a harmless eccentricity. B PLUS [Later: B]

BOXER: Below the Belt (Virgin) What happens when an arty English keyboards-and-guitar team (Mike Patto and Ollie Halsall) decide to go accessible? Why, they take the heavy road, thus maximizing the real but limited potential of both arty and heavy. How far you go along with them depends on where you start. I start minimized, but I woke up last weekend needing "California Calling" which isn't even their best. B PLUS [Later]

STONEY EDWARDS: Blackbird (Capitol) Edwards is a black country singer who--unlike Charley Pride, in case the comparison seems apt--doesn't completely submerge his race in his chosen genre. Also unlike Charley Pride, his taste runs to songs folkier and rockier than the country-pop norm. But this is the first time in a long career that he's put it together for a whole album instead of just a song. Thank producer Chip Taylor, who also composed both the opener and the title song, which concerns "a couple of country niggers/Stealin' the rodeo." And thank Stoney Edwards for keeping on. B PLUS [Later]

DIRK HAMILTON: You Can Sing on the Left or Bark on the Right (ABC) This is one of those records that makes me wish I wasn't in the grading business. I really like it a lot, to the point of positively loving one song, "She Don't Squash Bugs," and getting a nice buzz every time I hear the opening lines of cut one: "First off let me say that I get sick and I get bored/When people sell salvation door to door." And while good words are the point, the good words are expressly musical; that is, they are designed for Hamilton's plosive drawl, a delivery in the general tradition of Van Morrison. Hamilton's earth mysticism recalls Morrison, too, and unlike Morrison he has a sense of humor. But also unlike Morrison, he has zilch gift for the hook; he's repetitive in the folk rather than the rock manner. So, all you subtlety fans (you know who you are) might take a chance. But as for the rest of you, well, regretfully . . . B [Later]

LED ZEPPELIN: Presence (Swan Song) The reason Led Zep aren't really a great band is that individual pieces of their unprecedented music aren't necessary. My guess is that this is one of their better albums, but that's only because it avoids the silly and offers at least one commanding cut, "Hots on for Nowhere." When I get an itch for Led Zeppelin, which happens maybe twice a year, I'll still put on "Whole Lotta Love" or "Black Dog" and "Rock and Roll." Nu? B [Later]

BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS: Rastaman Vibration (Island) If side one makes it seem that reggae has turned into the rasta word for boogie--even to a Trenchtown tragedy recited with all the toughness of an imprecation against litter--the unimpassioned sweetness of most of side two sounds like a function of reflective distance, assured in its hard-won calm. Some of it's even better. The Haile Selassie speech recreated here as "War" is stump statesmanship renewed by a believer, and if the screams that open the second side don't curdle the corpuscles of the baldheads who are being screamed at, then dread is gone from the world. B PLUS

CURTIS MAYFIELD: Give, Get, Take and Have (Curtom) This meanders more than is conscionable, though Curtis has been drifting through the ozone for so long that you don't notice at first. (For orientation purposes, compare Gladys Knight's "Mr. Welfare Man.") But I am most pleased to report that the opener, "In My Arms Again," is the first top-notch song he's written for himself since "Super Fly," (somebody bad riffing on guitar--sounds like . . . Curtis Mayfield), and that the three that follow rock and roll. B PLUS [Later: B]

GRAM PARSONS/THE FLYING BURRITO BROS.: Sleepless Nights (A&M) These were outtakes for a reason (shaky vocals, usually) and they don't make him any more alive. For archivists only. C PLUS [Later: B-]

DIANA ROSS (Motown) Cute, semichic eclecticism. What do you expect from a Broadway singing sensation--Al Green? C [Later: B-]

THE RUNAWAYS (Mercury) Don't let misguided feminism, critical convolutions, or the fact that good punk transcends ordinary notions of musicality tempt you. This is Kim Fowley's project, which means that it is tuneless and wooden as well as exploitative. How anyone can hang around El Lay so long without stealing a hook or two defies understanding. Maybe it's just perversity--which would make it the only genuinely perverse thing about the man. D PLUS [Later: C-]

TODD RUNDGREN: Faithful (Bearsville) As you probably know by now, one whole side recreates six '60s studio masterpieces note-for-note, from the calculated spontaneity of Bob Dylan to the electronic perfectionism of the Beach Boys and the Beatles. This is impressive and amusing, you can fool your friends, but it's overwhelmed (once you've heard it a few times) by what might be called the Enoch Light (or Your Hit Parade) (or voiceprint) effect. That is, Todd's vocal imitations (a phrase that deserves one of his slurs) sound thin and forced. This is especially notable considering how well his voice works on the other side, his clearest and most interesting set of songs since Something/Anything. It also reinforces the unfortunate impression that even when clearly interesting, Todd is factitious and compulsively secondhand. B

BOZ SCAGGS: Silk Degrees (Columbia) Scaggs is criticized for his detachment, but I say it's subtlety and I say thank god for it. In the past, he's sometimes bought (not to mention sold) his own lushness, but this collection is cooled by droll undercurrents--white soul with a sense of humor that isn't consumed in self-parody. Inspirational Verse: "Gotta have a jones for this/Jones for that/This runnin' with the joneses, boy/Just ain't where it's at." B PLUS [Later: A-]

THE SHAKERS: Yankee Reggae (Asylum) California competition for James Isaacs's 1975 discovery, Freed at Last, by Ras Irwin Freed and the Tropicanas. Sounds like Steve Miller bunny-hopping with Gary Lewis & the Playboys toward the Isle of Wimp. D

SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY AND THE ASBURY JUKES: I Don't Want to Go Home (Epic) Except for some better than average original songs, this is white r&b at its most pleasant, tasteful, and respectable--quite enjoyable, quite unextraordinary, and thank you honored guests. B

STEELY DAN: The Royal Scam (ABC) The first question is whether the melodic retreat represents a refusal to indulge the audience or a withering of invention. Given Steely Dan's track record, it seems reasonable to assume that they have chosen a jagged, even pinched music that seeks after aesthetic difficulty and bids Dan fans follow. But this fan isn't convinced he should. As if in compensation, the lyrics are less involuted and personal, but that doesn't make them any more generous than the music. On the contrary, their objectivity intensifies Steely Dan's natural nastiness, and forestalls the grace, gentleness, and lyrical emotion that has in the past seen the band through its pessimism. Whether this narrowing of spiritual possibilities is willed or a symptom of the same chronic insularity that makes Fagen and Becker unwilling to tour, the result sounds a trifle arty and a trifle producty at the same time. Does it matter whether they call San Juan "the city of St. John" in reference to the apocalypse or because it scans nice? B PLUS [Later: B]

DONNA SUMMER: A Love Trilogy (Oasis) This is marred by new what's-going-on-in-the-next-apartment distractions; again and again. Donna bids the object of her affections "come . . . come . . . come" before adding "to my arms," so that when she cries out "don't let go" you have to wonder of what. But it does boast two otherwise uninterrupted sides of baroque German disco fluff and proves that she can carry a tune as well as a torch. I can even imagine playing it at a party. B

THE TUBES: Young and Rich (A&M) Since it's my instinct to detest this group, I was dismayed to catch myself chuckling at "Tubes World Tour," "Slipped My Disco," and even "Proud to Be an American." I was even more astonished to conclude that "Pimp" might be serious. Further investigation turned up no additional satisfactions, but revealed a movement away from Al Kooper's general parody of the hard and the heavy toward a more eclectic satirical style reminiscent of (they should be so funny) Stan Freberg. B MINUS

WARREN ZEVON (Asylum) I am suspicious of singer-songwriters who draw attention to phrases like "hasten down the wind" (a title), and although I can't recall another one, I would suggest a moratorium on songs about the James Brothers (unless they also manage to rhyme "pollution" and "solution"). But I like his vest and his hair and his harmonica holder, I like the way he resists pigeonholes like "country-rock" while avoiding both the banal and the mystagogical, and I like quatrains like: "And if California slides into the ocean/Like the mystics and statistics say it will/I predict this motel will be standing/Until I pay my bill." B PLUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

Add to a group of musicians no older than the Beatles at the time of Sgt. Pepper a precocious trumpet player whose greatness is evident well before he is 20. The music these young men make together is of an unprecedented sophistication--it will change not only the sound but also the self-image of the art of jazz for the forseeable future. Its harmonic and rhythmic subtleties are more difficult to preceive than the virtuosity it required, but both its subtleties and its technical challenge inevitably discourage lazy listeners and players. Nevertheless, bebop is undeniable--within a decade its usages will pervade American popular music, although the style itself will remain inviolable. Thirty years after, what is most striking about the Arista-distributed Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes)--all of which star Charlie Parker, although the young Miles Davis is often nominal leader--is its extraordinary youthfulness, its wit and defiance and sheer vigor. If that's something you look for in rock and roll, take a listen to "Ko Ko," on side two, certainly the most exciting side of Afro-American music to be released in America this year. . . .

Until the Parker arrived my mouth was agape for Wardell Gray's Central Avenue, a twofer on Prestige that leads off with "Twisted," which Gray wrote. This is bebop digested, fluid and facile in the best sense. I am also much taken with the Bud Powell set on Verve, and recommended the first volume of Verve's Charlie Parker reissues--but well after the Savoy. Disappointing: Lester Young on both Verve and Savoy. . . .

Steppenwolf lives: Now that the long-lamented Sir Lord Baltimore, the group which Bill Graham claimed drove him to close the Fillmore East, is regrouping under Bruce Springsteen's quondam manager, will Graham stop producing at the L.A. and Oakland Coliseums? . . .

Frank Zappa lives: Kirby McDaniel of Walrus reports that Bobby Neuwirth, spokesman for the oldest established permanent floating act-of-love-to-the-audience in the world, told a disgruntled Austin crowd (after two reserved-ticket shows were collapsed into one general admission fiasco) that Rolling Thunder was "only in it for the money." Coulda fooled me. . . .

Jimmy Carter lives: Lynyrd Skynyrd will co-star at three summer concerts with Neil Young. Southern man may not need him around, but he'll settle.

Village Voice, July 12, 1976

Postscript Notes:

The pick hit was Charlie Parker, Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes), reviewed in Additional Consumer News, but it's awkward to stick the star there.

June 14, 1976 Oct. 4, 1976