Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

A few years ago I began to get very disturbed about the increasing scarcity of B plus records--thought it meant that a certain level of reliable artistic achievement was disappearing from the music. Well, on the evidence of this month's CG, it's back, and I'm still complaining. I mean, where are the records I can get excited about? There are five A minus selections below, and I'm not exactly in conniptions over any of them, though I do expect to get pleasure from every one for years to come. As for the 11 B pluses, I figure this is the perfect time to revive an old CG tradition--the within B-plus guide. So, in descending order: Squeeze, Secret Policeman's Ball, Skaggs, Nelson, 8 Eyed Spy, Chilton, Swan, I.R.S., Dead, Cash, Kampuchea. And now if you'll excuse I'm going to go home and play "That's the Joint."

ROSANNE CASH: Seven Year Ache (Columbia) It's a tribute to persistence of something-or-other that somebody should still be getting decent music out of the sterile studio-rock formula. What that something-or-other might be is perhaps indicated by the identity of the somebody, who is second-generation pro rather than a punk revoloo. B PLUS

ALEX CHILTON: Bach's Bottom (Line) These 1975 tracks, the best already released on Chilton's long-gone Ork EP, are about as Memphis as a garbage strike. Not only does anarchic equal chaotic equal sloppy equal a mess, but soulful equals spontaneous equals off-the-cuff equals a mess. None of which is to deny that he knows how to mess around. B PLUS

CONCERTS FOR THE PEOPLE OF KAMPUCHEA (Atlantic) I'm a permanent skeptic about live albums, compilation albums, and charity albums, so don't call me sucker when I report the sound superb, the arrangements tight, the performances up, and the programming acute (especially on the relentless Pretenders-Costello-Rockpile side). Could do without the Who's "Sister Disco" (they're flaccid in general) and organizer Paul McCartney's 20-member Rockestra (though Wings sounds fine). Graded leniently because with UNESCO in on the deal it seems likely that your bucks will actually buy rice. B PLUS

8 EYED SPY: Live (ROIR) I've always had my doubts about Lydia Lunch, but this Chris Stamey-recorded tape establishes her beyond doubt as the most promising female novelty artist in the American underground. Unlike Debora Iyall, she makes no apparent distinction between sex and eros, which is why she's a novelty artist, but Iyall should follow her lead in the giving-it-what-you-got department. Pat Irwin's dissenting sax and George Scott's pushy bass are what they got, and where they got it was James Chance. B PLUS

ELLEN FOLEY: Spirit of St. Louis (Epic/Cleveland International) This well-intentioned side trip from punk postpurism to Weimar-manqué artsong might be less embarrassing if Foley and all her voice lessons weren't such typical backup stuff, but as it is she really bollixes such conceits as "Priests married themselves, using Bibles and mirrors/In China all the bicycle chains snapped at once." Which Joe Strummer, here reduced to strummer and backerupper, might actually spit out with some authority. Producer Mick Jones, dubbed "My Boyfriend," acts as if too many chops are Peter Asher's problem, but it's just the opposite--in studio-rock, every note has to be perfect and then some, which leaves Paul, Topper, Mickey etc. two steps short much of the time. C

DEE DEE SHARP GAMBLE: Dee Dee (Philadelphia International) After "Breaking and Entering" and "Let's Get This Party Started" get the party started, Dee Dee torches into "I Love You Anyway," written to a disaffected hub by none other than ex-hub Kenny G. This she brings off with such heartbrokenly matter-of-fact determination--all for show, I hope--that I felt ready for a whole side of slow ones. Which unfortunately I got. B

GANG OF FOUR: Solid Gold (Warner Bros.) Only when a jazz critic uttered the word "harmolodic" in conjunction with this music did I realize why I admired it so. Not for its politics, which unlike some of my more ideological comrades I find suspiciously lacking in charity. And not for its funk, which like some of my more funky comrades I find suspiciously lacking in on-the-one. And certainly not for its melodies, which . . . well, never mind. I admire it, and dig it to the nth, for its tensile contradictions, which are mostly a function of sprung harmony, a perfect model for the asynchronous union at the heart of their political (and rhythmic) message. A MINUS [Later: A]

GRATEFUL DEAD: Reckoning (Arista) I know you're not going to care, but I've played all of this live-acoustic twofer many times and felt no pain. Sure it's a mite leisurely, sure Jerry's voice creaks like an old floorboard, sure there are remakes if not reremakes. But the songs are great, the commitment palpable, and they always were my favorite folk group. B PLUS

THE GREAT RAP HITS (Sugarhill) Well, not exactly. This expedient collection is why Sugarhill changed over from fabrications like Sequence and the Sugarhill Gang itself to street-dance kids like the Funky Four Plus One, half of whose Enjoy debut, "Rappin and Rocking the House," brings up side one. The slight shift of gears is almost startling--the real party people stay a split second ahead of the beat, while such creatures of the sixteen-track as Super Wolf and Lady B. lag cunningly or uncomprehendingly behind. Still, not a one of these six cuts is without charm--by mining the dozens and God knows what else for boasts, insults, and vernacular imagery, Sylvia Inc. could convince anybody but party people that rap is really about words. A MINUS

I.R.S. GREATEST HITS VOLS. 2 & 3 (I.R.S.) Miles Copeland's philosophy of new wave is simple--sign it cheap and gimme gimmick. So it's no surprise that the hooky (and not so hooky) samplings on this well-chosen twofer tend toward faddish one-liners. A lot of good ones, though--rule-provers from the Cramps, the Damned, and the Stranglers, one-offs by Fashion and Alternative TV, all you need of the Humans, Skafish, and Patrick D. Martin, good bait for the Fall, the Buzzcocks, and (get hooked) Sector 27, and crowning it all Brian James's "Ain't That A Shame," which may not be heard again until the pop archaeologists get to work. B PLUS

THE "KING" KONG COMPILATION (Mango) Greil Marcus compares the late Leslie Kong to Sam Phillips, and as the man who turned ska into reggae he deserves the accolade, but it was already 1969 in the global village by then, so it's no surprise that there's a Jerry Wexler (not Berry Gordy) sophistication to his sound. And Impressions/Temptations/Cooke soulfulness pervades these sixteen tunes as well, although their fervor is more innocent and their sheer chops are less brilliant. None of the less familiar tracks is up to those you know (and perhaps own) by the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, and the Melodians, but Tyrone Evans's newly uncanned "Let Them Talk" and the Pioneers' "Samfie Man" come close. A MINUS

WILLIE NELSON: Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Columbia) Nelson's best since Stardust isn't quite the rehash it seems to be. The often uptempo music is suffused with Western swing, the standards not all that standard. Which would be great if only Nelson's ecumenicism didn't run in the direction of "My Mother's Eyes," the aforementioned "Over the Rainbow," and a jazzed-up "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." B PLUS

PUBLIC IMAGE LTD.: Flowers of Romance (Warner Bros.) J. Lydon's right--rock and roll is boring. And needless to say, so's rock criticism--in a multimedia age I should be able to write my reviews in scratch-'n-sniff. If I could, this one would smell like an old fart. I mean, rock and roll may be boring, but at least it's boring in an engaging way. This is interesting in a boring way. B [Later: C+]

ELVIS PRESLEY: This Is Elvis (RCA Victor) Almost half of this two-record soundtrack comprises previously unreleased live tapes, usually of songs we have in studio versions--some forgettable (the two Chuck Berrys on side three), some historic (the Dorsey-show Joe Turner medley). In any case, the point is documentation, and for once I approve. Even trivia like "Viva Las Vegas" and "G.I. Blues" work in this context--in fact, it makes the context, just like the interviews (try Hy Gardner's) and intros (Ed Sullivan's). In short, buy The Sun Sessions (now midline-priced) and Gold(en) Records first, but this is the overview. A MINUS

ROMEO VOID: It's a Condition (415) Those who find sex and love in the new bohemia a theme that hits home admire this for its literary value, but only one cut kicks it on back: the opener, "Myself to Myself." Until the likes of "Charred Remains" and "Confrontation" attain an equally hypnotic self-absorption, I'll relegate Debora Iyall's alienation tales to my sociology shelves. B

THE SECRET POLICEMAN'S BALL (Island) Who fans who covet the Kampuchea set should start instead with this concert for Amnesty International, which is to say for all of us. Reason's musical--the three Pete-Townsend-with-acoustic cuts, including a superb "Won't Get Fooled Again," are his best recorded work since Rough Mix. Also: a Neil Innes Nelson Riddle parody, two selections by classical guitarist John Williams, and two by Tom Robinson, a new one and a chilling "Glad To Be Gay." B PLUS

SHOES: Tongue Twister (Elektra) For three straight albums I've started out resenting the pure pop-rock blandishments of these Ramones of the heartland, and for three straight albums I've ended up clucking appreciatively at every fill. As befits heartlanders, they wear theirs on their sleeves, not just for decoration but because that's where they belong; their formula serves a supple expressionism in which sincerity is a given. Inspirational Liner Note: "No keyboards." A MINUS

RICKY SKAGGS: Waitin' for the Sun to Shine (Epic) Skaggs's taste and technique are impeccable; not one of these ten songs, many of them classics I'd never heard before, falters melodically or lyrically, and the arrangements, snazzy though they are, are so steeped in country tradition they could be from decades ago. Which I guess is my beef, because the only way you'd guess it isn't decades ago is from the faint folk-wimp whine in Skaggs's mountain tenor. Time: 29:10. B PLUS

SQUEEZE: East Side Story (A&M) They're finally beginning to show the consistency that's the only excuse for obsessive popcraft. The songs are imaginative, compassionate, and of course hooky--the warped organ on "Heaven" bespeaks divine intervention. And with Elvis Costello coproducing, the music is quite punchy, though I wouldn't go so far as to say it rocks. And speaking of punch, that's still what I'd like to do to Glenn Tilbrook--anything to make him stop sounding like Ray Davies after est. B PLUS [Later]

BILLY SWAN: I'm Into Lovin' You (Epic) Chagrined with Billy's tendency to cope with maturity by hitting himself over the head with violins, I almost didn't give this a chance, which would have been a shame--it's simple and gentle and steadfastly tuneful, mostly domestic with a few winsome courtship songs to prove he's a Nashville pro. Theme: "Not Far From 40." Still loves rock and roll, he says, and I know just what he means. Time: 28:25. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Given my aural obligations, I always end up squeezing jazz reissues into the cracks. Three that have proven impossible to hold down recently are Great Moments With Charles Mingus (MCA), including The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, which quite simply converted me; The Art Farmer Quintet Plays the Great Jazz Hits (Columbia Jazz Odyssey), a jazz album for people who like to hum featuring 10 memorable themes; and Evidence, by Steve Lacy with Don Cherry (Prestige), in which Lacy explored his obsession with Thelonious Monk and thereby intensifies mine. Bud Powell's Portrait of Thelonious (Columbia Jazz Odyssey) feeds the same jones, while Charles Earland's Burners best-of (Prestige), is the first funky organ album I've ever played twice. N.b. all of these are "midline" priced, which means under four bucks per disc for you. . . .

Big single of the month should have been in there with Denroy Morgan (not Wilson, that's Delroy, sorry) last time: "Shake It Up (Do the Boogaloo)" by Rod (Prelude) with writing credits that sum up its flavor succinctly--"R. Niangandoumou, R. Niangandoumou." Little single of the month is Teena Marie's "Square Biz" (Gordy).

Village Voice, June 29, 1981

June 8, 1981 Aug. 4, 1981