Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Halfway through the year and my usual dire expectations are getting direr. I can almost guarantee a serious dip in A records for 1984, though I doubt they'll drop all the way to the 1975 nadir of 40. Can 1977 be far behind? You bet it can. And if my Pick Hit [Lou Reed] seems a tad predictable, I'm not apologizing 'cause I'm too relieved--I was positive it was a B plus until two weeks ago.

DUKE BOOTEE: Bust Me Out (Mercury) Yes indeed, the man can sing, though given that he made his name as a musician and writer I'm equally gratified he can rap. Competently in both cases. The difference comes in what he sings or raps. The songs are standard funk fare, the raps his most pointed and bent since "The Message." And Doug Wimbish and crew make escape from Sugarhil sound like freedom now. B PLUS

THOMAS DOLBY: The Flat Earth (Capitol) Dolby is a bright and honest fellow by no means in thrall to his synthesizers. "She Blinded Me With Science" proved he knows his way around a good beat, and the lyric sheet bespeaks a level of literacy rarely achieved by songwriters. But as with so many artists fascinated by synthesizers (and more than a few beguiled by their own literacy), his passion for texture subsumes what small knack he has for cruder, more linear devices. If there's an objective correlative for boring, that's it. C PLUS

THE DREAM SYNDICATE: Medicine Show (A&M) Very subtle--the sharper you listen the duller it sounds. Those desperate for Tom Verlaine's next one might conceivably settle for Sandy Pearlman's ampliclarification of Karl Precoda's guitar, but now that Steve Wynn is flexing his literary imagination we know where the interpersonal vignettes on the debut came from: when he grows up, Steve wants to write new journalism about adolescent anomie for California magazine. B MINUS

DURAN DURAN: Seven and the Ragged Tiger (Capitol) As public figures and maybe as people, these imperialist wimps are the most deplorable pop stars of the postpunk if not post-Presley era. Their lyrics are obtuse at best, and if you'd sooner listen to a machine sing than Simon Le Bon, what are you going to do with both? Yet the hit singles which lead off each side are twice as pleasurable as anything Thomas Dolby is synthesizing these days. Which had better teach you something about imperialism. C PLUS

FIENDS: We've Come for Your Beer (Bemisbrain) This hardcore comedy highlight includes tributes to the MC-5, the Brady Bunch, John Belushi, and Bob Hope ("Die Bob Die") among its twelve tunes or tracks or whatever. Not counting the perfectly timed "Ramblin' Rose," my favorite is "No More Drugs," an idea that's always good for a cheap laugh. Just wish more of them had as much tune or whatever. B PLUS

STEVE GOODMAN: Affordable Art (Red Pajamas) Finally free of the spend-money-to-make-money fallacy, a likable cult folkie puts together his most modest and most likable album. True, he's too sentimental when he's serious; even when he's funny he's too sentimental. His natural lyricism is a palliative, though, and when he's funny (about half the time) he's funny."Vegematic" and "Talk Backward" and the cruelly antinuke "Watchin' Joey Glow" may be easy jokes, but I ask you, why did the chicken cross the road? Hope he sells at least ten thousand. B PLUS

HUMAN LEAGUE: Hysteria (A&M) It's clear enough that despite aural appearances Phil Oakey does have feelings, but so do BBC news readers, and nobody expects them to lead popular singing groups. If these Yoo Kay yuppies are really hysterical, they're also dangerously repressed. Polite hooks feh. C

MICHAEL HURLEY: Blue Navigator (Rooster) Us snockgrass fans didn't await this long-awaited album quite long enough--sounds as if Hurley padded over to the studio before he was done with his nap. I know it's always sleepy time up north in Wolfville, and Hurley obviously spent part of his four-year vacation thinking about seven new originals. But except for the . . . climactic "Open Up (Eternal Lips)," even the best of them get lost on their way to the outhouse. Inspirational Insert: "Feel free to tape this album: Blue Navigator is not soley [sic] a commercial venture but is intended for a spiritual life far out traveling the destination of one arrow." B

J.B. HUTTO & THE NEW HAWKS: Slippin' and Slidin' (Varrick) Good new Chicago-style blues albums are rare occurrences that fall into two categories. On last year's, A.C. Reed enlivened an ordinary-plus groove with hilarious-minus material. On this year's, the now deceased slide guitar king makes his tightest and most raucous recorded music since 1968's definitive Hawk Squat! He gets telling (and tellingly understated) help from the Roomful of Blues horns. Telling-minus material would have helped even more. B PLUS

NICK LOWE: Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit (Columbia) Marital strife seems to have transformed Lowe from a power popper with brownout problems into the genre artist of roots eclectic he's always wanted to be. Slighter than ever lyrically and yet stronger overall than its two predecessors, this leads with a Tex-Mex something called "Half a Boy and Half a Man," and that's where it means to stay. B PLUS

BILL NELSON: Vistamix (Portrait) Snazzy guitarist turned decent-enough synth guy, the Spirit of Bebop Deluxe comes up with more dance hooks than Dolby--more even than Duran, at least on this U.S. compilation. And sings like Bowie doing a Jon Anderson impression or vice versa. C PLUS

THE OFFICIAL MUSIC OF THE XXIIIRD OLYMPIAD LOS ANGELES 1984 (Columbia) Though Olympic ideology valorizes what Philip Glass vacuously designates "shared humanity," you'd never guess it from the unprecedented procession of pompous asses (more than 200 Oscar and Grammy nominations among them) Lee Guber and Jon Peters have gathered together for this unprecedented display of El Lay hegemony. Only Herbie Hancock suggests by choice of players or style that the concept of international might extend beyond Giorgio Moroder and Foreigner. And only Hancock-Laswell-Susu-Dieng's "Junku" suggests that games involve play as well as the striving egomania summed up so eloquently in this classic Moroder-Zito-Engemann couplet: "Reach out for the medal/Reach out for the goal" (or is it gold?). The Russians were right, folks, and not just because Guber/Peters don't like balalaikas. D PLUS

SONNY OKOSUNS: Liberation (Shanachie) If I were more conversant with the infinite shadings of African pop, I might get a sharper buzz off Okosun's panstylistic Afro-reggae, and I might be ready to settle for reassuring uplift if the two chants on Heartbeat's Black Star Liner sampler had been reserved for his U.S. debut. But as things stand, this sounds a little soft to me, just like the universalist-influenced politics that go with it. The curse of not-Marley strikes again. B PLUS

RANK AND FILE: Long Gone Dead (Slash) There's definitely something off about these country punks, and I think it's that they're serious. Where the Scorchers, Meat Puppets, and Replacements come on crazy, the good times here give off an aura of formal discipline and military rhythm that isn't much like fun. But in a disquietingly cerebral way the music is very moving, with the Kinman brothers' wide-spaced close harmonies adding a unique sweet-and-sour lift to their defiantly doomy tunes. At a moment when the word "rain" has become rockese for all human suffering, I can't help but like folks with enough sense to pay attention to the way it falls. A MINUS

LOU REED: New Sensations (RCA Victor) This wonderful record feels like product at first--a solid but expedient bunch of songs like The Bells or Coney Island Baby or even Sally Can't Dance. Although the title cut is definitely the centerpiece, and thematic at that, there are no grand statements like "Women" or "Legendary Hearts" and no tours de force like "The Gun" or "Betrayed." And boy, does it sneak up on you. Instead of straining fruitlessly to top himself, Reed has settled into a pattern as satisfying as what he had going with the Velvets, though by definition it isn't as epochal. The music is simple and inevitable, and even the sarcastic songs are good sarcastic songs, with many of the others avoiding type altogether. Think he can keep doing this till he's fifty? Hope so. A

SHANGO: Shango Funk Theology (Celluloid) With its positive party line, international beats, ensemble vocals, and tributes to P-Funk, Sun Ra, and Sly, this may well be the first rap album that fully expresses the ideals and ideas of the group with its name on the cover--or at least of its esteemed leader, who happens to be Afrika Bambaataa. But because not one member of the ensemble (or all of them together) qualifies as any kind of grandmaster, and because Material's best rap track is still by Tribe II, the cuts that open each side (functionally enough, too) never even broke through as twelve-inches. And whatever they express, "Thank You" and "Let's Party Down" are filler. B MINUS

DAVITT SIGERSON: Falling in Love Again (Island) Essentially a producer-composer rather than a performer, Sigerson pursues AORish rockcraft and studio-guaranteed aesthetic distance in the manner of such paradigmatic early-'70s ironists as Randy Newman and Fagen-Becker--but also, before you get your hopes too high, John Simon and Terry Melcher. His theme song is "My True Feelings" ("are whatever you think you see"); his themes are both hooky (musically) and kinky (verbally). At his best ("Over and Over"), he proves how life-affirming the hookily kinky can be; at his worst ("Danish Modern"), he proves how weak-minded irony can be. B PLUS

TRIPOD JIMMIE: Long Walk Off a Short Pier (Do Speak) Those who mourn the industrial-strength Pere Ubu find understandable solace in this harsh, hard-driven one-off featuring former Ubu guitarist Tom Herman. But it gets across mainly on its rough-cut spirit, and it could use a convincing front man, something the simpiest Ubu has never lacked. B MINUS

BIBI DEN'S TSHIBAYA: "The Best" Ambiance (Rounder) From Africa via la France, another four-cut disco ("soukous") album from the authenticity-mongers in Somerville. Because it's disco, it's more useful than most authenticity; because it's authentic, it's more engaging than most disco. Next. B

TINA TURNER: Private Dancer (Capitol) Her voice was shot even before she split with Ike, ten years ago now, and videotaped evidence belied the dazzled reports that filtered in from the faithful when she began her comeback, two and a half years ago now. Less than converted by her reverent reading of the Reverend Green's "Let's Stay Together," I noted cynically that the album lists four different production teams, always a sign of desperation. Which makes its seamless authority all the more impressive. The auteur is Tina, who's learned to sing around and through the cracks rather than shrieking helplessly over them, and who's just sophisticated (or unsophisticated) enough to take the middlebrow angst of contemporary professional songwriting literally. Also personally--check out how she adapts the printed lyrics of Paul Brady's "Steel Claw" to her own spoken idiom. [Original grade: B plus] A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

The best EP I've heard all year is Changing the Weather by Persian Gulf (Raven), who left Florida to be nearer the Liberty Bell and the U.S. Mint and who remind me of both Alex Chilton and the Clash. More next month. Maybe more also on the Wind's Guest of the Staphs (Cheft), another Florida band come north, though they went back down to Carolina to record with Mitch Easter, who's never before come this close to pop so gritty and muscular. Much less gritty but even more muscular is Huw Gower's Guitarophilia (X-Disque), in which the sometime Record and David Jo sideman does two modern love songs before getting serious with "Calling Out the Heretics" and a welcome remake of the Rods' "Do Anything You Wanna Do" overdisque. Grittier but less muscular is L.E.S.R. (L.E.S.), in which graduates of the Kingpins remember their roots Del-Lords style to tell true tales of poverty on the L.E.S., including "166 Norfolk," a true tale of the joys of heroin. Aided by a new band called the Shadowlords, the well-named Willie Phoenix has given up his dreams of black Springsteen to rediscover the "power pop" (his term, folks) of his days with Romantic Noise on We Love Noise (Shadow), though shades of Bruce remain, and usually they're shadowy enough to add dimension. Yet more more more regional pop from the Rockin' Shapes on Shout! (Homewreckords), one of those records whose crudeness tempts you to call it looseness and praise it to the skies. Finally, still more you-know-what (gritty with great rhythm guitar and a song about dodging the draft to El Salvador) on Babyface 86 (Vital Vinyl).

My guilty pleasure of the month--even minor luxury items seem out of place with this artist somehow--is Arthur Baker's 12-inch remix of Bruce Springsteen's number-one-and-climbing "Dancing in the Dark" (Columbia), certainly one of the all-time Phil Spector tributes and about as disco as, I don't know, John Mellencamp gone Motown.

On a more politically responsible note we have "Rap Master Ronnie" by Reathel Bean & the Doonesbury Break Crew (Silver Screen), in which the Man Called Raygun outstreets Jesse and emerges with Teflon gleaming dully as usual: lotsa chill laffs.

The Earons' "Land of Hunger" (Island) ranks with Newcleus's "Jam on It" in this year's great-single wack-album sweepstakes: genuinely haunting pseudoreggae with a lyric that equals its track, neither of which is ever approached by the band again.

And though I haven't digested their new double-LP just yet ("Blouaugh!" as William Carlos Williams's sea elephant might put it) Husker Du's rampaging "Eight Miles High" (SST) is certainly the indie single of a very un-indie year.

Village Voice, July 24, 1984

June 26, 1984 Aug. 28, 1984