Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

I cannot tell a lie, and anyway, what good would it do? Below you will find 16 B pluses and A minus for the second consecutive month. Do I expect you to buy four LPs a week? Certainly not. But you could do worse. The added twist this month is that seven of the albums reviewed aren't by specific performers. They're mostly "new wave" various artists compilations, and while except for the Taxi collection they don't make very consistent listening, they do have good songs on them. I've been listening to them not because it's so hard to find good albums by the usual route--both the Ramones and the P-Furs, which I love, were postponed till next time--but because it's so hard to find good singles. And most of these new wave compilations--there are a lot of regional ones that don't even merit mention--collect singles, for better or worse. Records that as 45s didn't or wouldn't ring my chimes make more than acceptable LP cuts, most impressively on the latest Akron anthology, which includes one great song and 11 pretty good ones. I figure this is what happens when your avant-garde achieves certain minimal professionalism--spectacular breakthroughs become almost impossible, but solid-plus work is there in quantity for those with ears to hear.

BLACK UHURU: Red (Mango) Forget Sinsemilla--this one'll getcha. Believe me, Michael Rose isn't trying to fill anybody's shoes--he'd probably rather not wear shoes. The ululation and ragged sense of line are pure country, like Jamaican field hollers; lots of times the songs don't even rhyme. But "Youth of Eglington" lets you know right off that this is a country boy who reads the papers, and with Rose pouring forth and Sly and Robbie rolling that rockers riddim, who needs such niceties? A MINUS [Later]

KURTIS BLOW: Deuce (Mercury) It's hard to believe six different social observers collaborated on these raps--"Take It to the Bridge," the throwaway boast, is more meaningful than "Starlife," the wishful single--and Kurtis's natural singsong makes me grind my teeth. But the light, spare, clean, catchy, inauthentic funk rings my bell--every cut, every time. B PLUS

BOWLING BALLS II (Clone) How about that--Akron Lives. Farewells from Tin Huey and the Bizarros, remembrances from Chi and Pig, solid rock from Unit 5, blue-plate special from the Waitresses, imported no wave from Totsuzen Danball, and Hammer Damage's "Noise Pollution," which deserves to be covered back to back with "Sonic Reducer," although this version is sly and slick. Executive producer Nick Nicholis has improved his quality control and dispensed with the silly synthesizers--if anything, this is too consistent. Those who'd prefer something weirder might try the wimpy punk of "Various Hoosiers" on Gulcher's Red Snerts. B PLUS

JAMES CHANCE AND THE CONTORTIONS: Live in New York (ROIR) Boy, has this shit dated--it's worn as thin as the sidemen's professionalism and James's embouchure. And the titles go beyond petty candor into keep-your-self-to-yourself-please--a "White Cannibal" with "Money to Burn" and (give this boy a benefit) "Sophisticated Cancer"? Sure it's nice to hear "King Heroin" covered with so much soul. But when he opens with "I Feel Good, I Got You" he's lying three ways. B MINUS

BRUCE COCKBURN: Resume (Millennium) Cockburn is like a smart, nice, but not especially hip/cool English prof--if he caps "Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long" with "Lord of the Starfields," just how raunchy is his barrelhouse likely to be? I'll take smart and nice over hip/cool anytime, and this best-of showcases his conventional wisdom at its most eloquent--you'll never catch the Devil taunting John Denver with an ecstatic "Why don't we celebrate?" But I skipped grad school because tragic-sense-of-life ironies weren't enough for me, and they still ain't. B PLUS

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENTS (Stiff import) Released domestically in 1980 on Ambition, this vaguely heartening survey gathers 13 generally well-regarded indie singles, many of which I basically dismissed, into one comparatively listenable album. The mood is revivalist, rockabilly to pop-rock to soul-r&b, and four cuts are specific as hell: Pylon's classically futuristic "Cool," Keven Dunn's futuristically classic "Nadine," Luxury's instant memorabilia "Green Hearts," and Root Boy Slim's "The Meltdown," a dance craze to rival Dr. Hook's "Levitate." B PLUS

THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (Slash) Every big-name L.A. punk this side of Samoa gets soundtracked here. X are the great ones (buy their albums), Black Flag the good ones (keep an ear out for Greg Ginn's axe). After that come Fear, L.A.'s version of the Sic Fucks, tighter musically (big Van Halen fans) but less, er, subtle (spokesperson Lee Ving could be Don Rickles with a botched facelift). Then the Circle Jerks, L.A.'s other version of the Sic Fucks (bet there's more). And in the pits three critics' bands: Catholic Discipline (somebody tell Claude Bessy zat zere is no such thing as French rock and roll), Alice Bag (Craig Lee, call your office), and the Germs (L. Bangs: "Bye, schmuck"). Not bad, but no fun. For docudrama I'll take An Evening With Wild Man Fischer, for social theory I'll take Psychotic Reaction or even Carburetor Dung, and maybe you'd better just see the movie. B MINUS

GEORGE HARRISON: Somewhere in England (Dark Horse) Twice Warners sent these sappy plaints back for seasoning. Then a former associate of Harrison met with an accident, and Harrison wrote his catchiest tune in years, based thematically on this epigraph from Sri Krishna: "There never was a time when I did not exist, nor you. Nor will there be any future when we cease to be." His associate has not commented. C MINUS

HICKS FROM THE STICKS (Antilles) I don't think I'm familiar with any of the tunes on this 16-cut compilation, originally released Brit in 1980 by Rockburgh Records. But I might as well be. Here on one convenient A side is everything that has made the Anglophile dance-rock scene so deadly--the synth grooves, the minimelodies, the robot vocals, the confusion of late industrial anomie with the zeitgeist. In short, the new art-rock and the new disco in one conflation, with the boring rhythms of today replacing the boring solos of yesteryear. I mean, when a pop admixture provides the rock and roll, I go home. C PLUS

RICK JAMES: Street Songs (Gordy) There's never been any doubt that James was commercial, as they say, but this time that's a plus--when he's not rocking, which is mostly, he even comes up with some dynamite love-man bullshit. And the street simulations are convincing enough. But I still want to know whether "The kind of girl you read about/In new-wave magazines" is "kinky" after the manner of the one in "Ghetto Life" who has "pigtails down to her shoulders." 'Cause with her, it may just be the hair. B PLUS [Later: A-]

DAVID JOHANSEN: Here Comes the Night (Blue Sky) With the help of sideperson extraordinaire Blondie Chaplin, David has finally mastered his own fast, vulgar studio-rock style, and this is his best solo, though only we who truly love him will hear it that way. True, the words aren't what they were in the Dolldays--"Marquesa de Sade," which rhymes "girl," "world," "pearls," and "social whirl" with an insistence that makes me wince, is typical. But like almost every other song here, "Marquesa de Sade" is also hooky and hearty. If In Style sounded desperate, this one sounds past caring, and carelessness was always the Dolls' secret. Inspirational Cliché: "You think I'm a whore/But I got a heart of gold." A MINUS [Later]

KID CREOLE AND THE COCONUTS: Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (Sire/ZE) When August Darnell kicks off his Caribbean extravaganza with a Foreigner power chord, or the Coconuts sing the I-Threes behind Andy Hernandez, or a JB riff sneaks into a tune called "Table Manners," I'm convinced that both words and music are witty enough to stand. But overwhelmed I'm not. Darnell's pastiche just isn't Stoney Browder's synthesis, and his campy sprechgesang just isn't Cory Daye's babes-on-Broadway razzmatazz. In short, his polyglot musical conception never gets the kind of translation that delves below the signifier. A MINUS

TEENA MARIE: It Must Be Magic (Gordy) I have my usual slow-fast problems with this pheenom, and I admit that all four (out of nine) slow ones give her overripeness time to turn. But no matter how rotten you think the liner poem is (and cf. Bob Dylan, etc.), you gotta dig that flowers-and-butterflies dress. It's her thing, you know? The fast ones are colorful and juicy, too--squooshy with funk slides and compulsive puns, so unguarded in their emotionality you'd fear for her sanity if she weren't so tough. And on one of the slow ones she quotes that liner poem and makes you like it. A MINUS

PRINCE NICO MBARGA AND ROCAFIL JAZZ: Sweet Mother (Rounder) Wish the praises of God etc. weren't half in English, though I suppose the Prince's upwardly mobile platitudes go with his need to venture beyond his tribal tongue. Anyway, from this Nigerian popster the blandest platitude sounds blissfully gentle and upward mobility has a good sense of rhythm. B PLUS

THE NEVILLE BROTHERS: Fiyo on the Bayou (A&M) Unlike their Jack Nitzsche-produced flop, this one sounds like gumbo--the spirit is willing and the flesh can't resist. Unfortunately, the tunes are so surefire that I long ago memorized the way other Nworlins stalwarts (and Jimmy Cliff) do 'em--in a word, better. An enjoyable way for neophytes to get into the most universal rock and roll style, but The Wild Tchoupitoulas is still in better bins, and us oldtimers will put this on mostly to hear brother Aaron sing "Mona Lisa" and "Ten Commandments of Love" like they is--in a word, like hymns. B PLUS [Later]

YOKO ONO: Season of Glass (Geffen) The little voice "chokes" and "crackles" (her words), the production relies on the usual sessioneers (Newmark, McCracken, yawn), and the composition is elementary (not primal). Yet damn near every song is affecting, and the segue from "Extension 33"'s retrospective irony to "No, No, No"'s cut-off vulnerability positively gut-wrenching. After all, we've never heard a forty-eight-year-old learn to rock (not rock and roll) before. Or a widow's concept album, either. A MINUS

SEIZE THE BEAT (DANCE ZE DANCE) (ZE/Island) Not a boring (or album-available) cut on this welcome nouveau disco compilation. Coati Mundi's bad rapping "Que Pasa/Me No PopI" and Was (Not Was)'s men-in-the-white-coats boomer "Wheel Me Out" have been on and off my turntable as 12-inches for months. The off part is the problem--there's something dilettantishly cerebral in this very Manhattan sensibility that not only makes for novelties, but for novelties you're liable to forget until somebody else puts them on. B PLUS

SLY AND ROBBIE PRESENT TAXI (Mango) These catchy (the Wailing Souls' "Sweet Sugar Plum") to groovy (Sheila Hylton's "Bed's Too Big Without You") love songs are why Jah made syndrums: reggae as pure pop, with only Junior Delgado's haunted "Fort Augustus" and General Echo's droll "Drunken Master" presenting any political distraction from the polypercussive hooks of Jamaica's greatest production team. A MINUS [Later]

URGH! A MUSIC WAR (A&M) Yet another special-price double from new-wave compilation kings Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. The gimmick is live (hence previously unreleased) versions of theoretical AOR and actual dance-floor faves by artists from all over, and despite the intrusion of a few A&M contractees the result is quite impressive, with the audience participation adding fire to pop-rock that lacked heat in the studio. For those who find that discos keep them up past their bedtime, here's an encouraging take on what's been happening--not world overthrow, that's for sure, but fun enough in the right doses. B PLUS [Later: B]

WARREN ZEVON: Stand in the Fire (Asylum) If your idea of rocking out is lots of bass drum on the two (even during "Bo Diddley's a Gunslinger"), then Warren at the Roxy will do you almost as good as the climax of Live Rust. The three best songs are all from Excitable Boy, and only one of the two new originals stands the fire, but any Zevon album that bypasses "Hasten Down the Wind" and "Accidentally Like a Martyr" is the one I'll play when I need my fix. A MINUS

Village Voice, Aug. 4, 1981

June 29, 1981 Oct. 5, 1981