Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Before me, my wife, and our auxiliary stereo retired to the idyllic Chenango Valley for two weeks, I took the trouble of clearing my shelves of theoretically current LPs that I'd never really gotten around to. It's not surprising that five or 10 of these were blues--now produced in moderate quantity solely for aficionados, most blues albums offer honesty and a certain basic but marginal formal satisfaction, and few offer more. But I hardly expected to end up devoting so much of my upstate retreat to Chicago and Texas blues. I guess the reason is that both styles mediate between the rural and the urban, which is as far as this New Yorker wants to take pastorale. Anyway, you'll encounter my findings scattered alphabetically below. Not counting the reissues that lead off Additional Consumer News, I made no major discoveries, but I did think about why some honest records work better than others, and it's not surprising that formal satisfaction has a lot to do with it.

RUBY BRAFF: Very Sinatra (Finesse) At fifty-five, cornetist Braff has eleven years on the object of his veneration, but that's not why he adores melody so much more effectively than Frank these days. It's that in the end he's just as devoted to craft and a lot more modest about it; he has less talent, I suppose, but more taste. And it's taste above all that enables one to make a convincing case for the ersatz elegance of traditional pop. A MINUS

CLARENCE GATEMOUTH BROWN: Alright Again! (Rounder) Texans, Jesus--give them a black man in a cowboy hat and they won't stop jawing about the wide open spaces until they fall off the barstool. And what is this thing they have for blues brass in platoons? I mean, Bobby Bland can sing over, under, and around that shit, but this old pro obviously hasn't bulled his way past a tenor sax in twenty years. Still packs a fairly sharp guitar, I grant you, and he can make you listen up with that violin of his. But he's fronting some very unswinging white boys, and his idea of contemporary is the stock-market woes of small businessmen. C PLUS

CAMEO: Alligator Woman (Chocolate City) Funkateers think this is "new wave" not just because the title hit sounds like the B-52's but because secret virtuoso Larry Blackmon keeps the groove stripped down and off balance. Unfortunately, the hooks are few, the humor is forced, and the ballads suck. For theoreticians mostly. B

ALBERT COLLINS: Frozen Alive! (Alligator) Simply by putting him in a studio with songs and sidemen worthy of the genre, Bruce Iglauer got the best album this Texas legend ever cut, 1978's Ice Pickin', but faced with the blues producer's eternal what-next he settled for a record on which a full horn section jostled uncomfortably against Collins's down-home wit. Fortunately, the next next goes for the bare live bones, with the classic "Frosty" establishing a bite and authority that are never relinquished. I miss that down-home wit, though--giving your bass player room for a hornpipe is the kind of dumb joke that's afflicted live albums for years. B PLUS

CLINT EASTWOOD & GENERAL SAINT: Two Bad D.J. (Greensleeves) I've always had reservations about the avant-garde rep of Jamaican engineering--a lot of those whooshes, zooms, and sprongs strike me as the aural equivalent of a light show. So I get off when these two clowns play it as vaudeville. Trading chants over a fine array of twisted dials and session-man offbeats, they make sex & apocalypse & rockers' roles seem like such a cosmic joke that their rhythmic life can sneak up on you. Rub a dub and what do you get? You get the answer to one of life's stubbornest mysteries--how to come and laugh at the same time. A MINUS

BRIAN ENO: On Land (Editions EG) In pulse, movement, and textural detail, this falls somewhere between the static Music for Airports (a bore) and the exotic Jon Hassell collaboration (a trip). Whenever I play it (usually late at night) I experience an undeniable pleasure so mild I'm not sure anyone would want to pay for it. Caveat emptor. B PLUS

FLEETWOOD MAC: Mirage (Warner Bros.) This is the safe follow-up Rumours wasn't, and I find myself alternately charmed by its craft and offended by its banality. After seven years, you'd think they'd weary of romantic tension-and-release. But despite the occasional I'm-scareds and can't-go-backs, you'd never know how much passion they've already put behind them--they write about infatuation and its aftermaths like twenty-year-olds. This is obviously a commercial advantage, and I wouldn't want to be immune to its truth. But pop music offers endless variations on that truth, and since only the most graceful are worth pondering I have to say that there isn't another "Hold Me" here. B PLUS

BUDDY GUY & JUNIOR WELLS: Drinkin' TNT and Smokin' Dynamite (Blind Pig) I assume this 1974 live-at-Montreux was finally released because it features Bill Wyman, who does seem to know the parts, but saints be praised, he's not the star. Saints be criticized, neither is Wells, who was once a sharper, tighter singer. He's plenty soulful, though, especially on harp, and Guy picks up the slack--listen to him think on "Ten Years Ago." B PLUS

THE JAM: The Gift (Polydor) It's easy to understand why this is Britannia's favorite band--their dedication is very winning. Nobody plays ex-punk quasifunk with less ostentation or more skill, and Paul Weller goes Springsteen one better--not only is he working-class, he's young. As usual, his good-heartedness is palpable here. He takes on suburban racism, nine-to-five fatigue, even general strike without talking down or claiming exemption from sin. And if he's written half a dozen good melodies since he stopped settling for Who hand-me-downs, three of them have passed me by. B

KID CREOLE AND THE COCONUTS: Wise Guy (Sire/ZE) August Darnell has synthesized his polyglot influences so thoroughly you'd think all show music is written over a fast funk bottom. Two of the eight tunes--"Imitation," a sortastar's complaint in disguise, and the mum "Stool Pigeon"--could use some narrative context, but usually it doesn't even matter much that Augie is singing. The end pieces are the wickedest: "Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy," in which he breaks it to her traumatically, and "No Fish Today," the nastiest song about class since "Career Opportunities." A MINUS [Later: A]

MAGIC SLIM AND THE TEARDROPS: Raw Magic (Alligator) It ain't magic because it ain't raw enough--Slim conscientiously approximates the licks and grooves of his betters without adding a thing. In contrast, his Rooster EP is a lot cruder and considerably more exciting. Which is not to suggest he could keep it up for forty minutes anywhere but a South Side bar. B MINUS

MOON MARTIN: Mystery Ticket (Capitol) Martin seems intent on fulfilling his formal promise: the hooks keep getting bigger and the beat keeps getting edgier. In fact, for a thirtyish wimp who frequently threatens to murder his girlfriend, he's quite an attractive fellow. B [Later: B-]

FRANKIE MILLER: Standing on the Edge (Capitol) People used to complain that Miller sounded like Otis Redding. Now, inspired by the Muscle Shoals boys and countless dangerous wimmin, he sounds like Bob Seger. This is not an improvement. C PLUS

THE NECESSARIES: Event Horizon (Sire) Why is this the artiest of En Why's numerous art-pop bands? Because in their fascination with plectral interaction they eschew what makes art-pop pop, or rather, "pop"--toons. Inspirational Titles: "Europe," "State of the Art," "AEIOU." C PLUS

SQUEEZE: Sweets From a Stranger (A&M) In a classic rock and roll success story, Tilbrook & Difford are getting laid more and enjoying it less. Not that enjoyment in the usual sense is the point--flesh is hardly their specialité. But the ever more disconcerting hookcraft signifies a "maturing" emotional grasp in which a scheduled album seems like as good a reason as any to think up nine new ways to leave your lover. B PLUS

HOUND DOG TAYLOR AND THE HOUSEROCKERS: Genuine Houserocking Music (Alligator) The HouseRockers were the Ramones of Chicago blues, cutting three wonderful, virtually indistinguishable albums before Taylor left this self-composed epitaph in 1975: "He couldn't play shit, but he sure made it sound good!" His secrets were cheap equipment, a slide fashioned from the leg of a kitchen table, and the most enthusiastic reliance on "Dust My Broom" since Elmore James. It's completely fitting that this all-new album should be almost as fine as the two that came out of the twenty-cuts-a-night 1971 and 1973 sessions from which it's culled, yet somehow reassuring that it doesn't quite match up. Taylor slurs too much, quite a claim in this context, and "What'd I Say" and "Kansas City" are bar-band throwaways, by which I mean that George Thorogood, Taylor's chief epigone, could do them better. B PLUS

PETE TOWNSHEND: All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (Atco) What intelligence must have gone into this album! What craft! What personal suffering! What tax-deductible business expenditure! In 1982, at 37, Townshend has somehow managed to conceive, record, and release a confessional song suite the pretentiousness of which could barely be imagined by an acid-damaged Bard drama major. That is, it's pretentious at an unprecedented level of difficulty--you have to pay years of dues before you can twist such long words into such unlikely rhymes and images and marshal arrangements of such intricate meaninglessness. A stupendous achievement. D PLUS

JANE VOSS & HOYLE OSBORNE: Get to the Heart (Green Linnet) There's only one Irving Berlin song here, but it's Berlin's vulgar, magnanimous, democratic tunefulness that Voss claims for the folkie sensibility. And though her voice sure isn't as strong as Bessie Smith's, as she's good enough to point out in another tribute, she also wants to wail and moan. So where Joan Morris does Berlin by simulating the careful pitch and intonation of '20s pop singers, who still cowered in the shadow of operetta, Voss flats her melodies shamelessly, sounding half like a jazz improviser and half like Sister in her cups and/or parlor. Pianist Osborne is squarer than need be and composer Voss sometimes runs on at the mouth, but get to the heart they do. A MINUS [Later: B+]

SIPPIE WALLACE (Atlantic) This project scrapes by on taste and good intentions--the selection of songs by Wallace and contemporaries, Bonnie Raitt's unobtrusive voice and slide, and the impeccable swing of pianist Jim Dapogny and his Chicago Jazz Band. The problem is that where Alberta Hunter commands an almost regal strength in her eighties, Wallace sounds like a cartoon granny with denture problems. Her lyrics still sting after half a century, and her phrasing puts them across, but she doesn't even hint at the young Sippie's hard-won erotic composure. CBS and RCA: reissue. B

WARREN ZEVON: The Envoy (Asylum) What convinces me isn't the deeply satisfying "Ain't That Pretty at All," in which Zevon announces his abiding desire to hurl himself at walls--he's always good for a headbanger. Nor, God knows, is it the modern-macho mythos of the title cut and the Tom McGuane song. It's a wise, charming, newly written going-to-the-chapel number that I would have sworn was lifted from some half-forgotten girl group. If "Never Too Late for Love" and "Looking for the Next Best Thing" announce that this overexcitable boy has finally learned to compromise, "Let Nothing Come Between You" is his promise not to take moderation too far. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Although escapist encomiums to yesterday's music go against my principles, it's undeniable that blues's heyday is past, which is why the most exciting recent blues albums I've found are reissues. B.B. King's 16 Original Big Hits (Fantasy) is a midline-priced collection of his most famous tunes in the renditions that put him up on the r&b charts for Kent a quarter century ago and augments Live at the Regal as the essential B.B., while his Memphis Masters (Ace import) dates to before he had his licks down pat, which means you get to hear him figuring them out. Those who regard the greatest modern bluesman as a made-for-Vegas slickster won't believe the brawling roadhouse feel of these records. . . .

Meanwhile, owners of at least one Robert Johnson LP who are ready to go back to the '20s should start with Roots of Rock (Yazoo), which compiles the original versions of 14 AOR staples. Jimmy Page fans should check out what Memphis Minnie does to "When the Levee Breaks," though my own find is Henry Thomas's "Bull Doze Blues," a tune I always thought was called "Going Up the Country" and written by blues scholar Al Wilson. Oops. . . .

As a professional listener with more records than time, I've always been fairly passive about Western swing. The superb Pioneer Western Swing Band 1935-36 by Milton Brown and His Brownies (MCA) will change that. Neither vocals nor beat tone up the norm as drastically as is sometimes claimed, but talk about attitude--this is the crazee stuff adepts always rave about, shameless in its pursuit of novelty and double entendre, and I intend to find more of it on collector labels. . . .

In contrast, the perfectly commendable Bob Wills (10 previously unreissued cuts now available in the new midland Columbia Historic Edition series seems quite tame (though more genuinely lively than the glitzed-up remakes he later cut for Decca, now MCA). The same series's Lefty Frizzell, however, sent me back to Greatest Hits (Columbia) and Treasures Untold: The Early Recordings of Lefty Frizzell (Rounder, and damned if I won't take it over either. Frizzell's easygoing drawl is honky tonk at its most honest and seductive--no phony macho, but no phony vulnerability either--and he had enormous phrasemaking gifts, both lyrically and vocally. The new album captures him before his natural sadness subdued his unassuming hopes, and its 10 songs are more consistent than the Rounder record's 12. Wish "Look What Thoughts Will Do" were among them, though. . . .

A Life in Music, the five disc Ray Charles box in the new Atlantic Deluxe series, is all but essential--none of Charles's early Atlantic stuff has been in print since A 25th Anniversary Salute to Ray Charles disappeared a decade ago. Unfortunately, it's also all but unlistenable. Gary Giddins tells me I'd like the jazz cuts if Kevin Eggers had chosen different ones, but the programming would still fuck things up. My Ray Charles is an r&b singer (and pianist, okay), but every time he hits a groove I love here Milt Jackson or somebody comes along and classes it up. All of Charles's music should be in print, of course--that's the real disgrace. But if we have to have it in swatches for Christ's sake let them be stylistically harmonious swatches. What a waste. . . .

I'm duty bound to admit that two of the four special singles of my summer have come from, of all places, England. My radio fave is Gary U.S. Bonds's "Out of Work" (EMI America), Bruce's most fun record in years. My reggae fave is Althea & the Donazz' "Virgin Style" (Circle import 12-inch), proof that you can't keep a bad girl down. But my club fave is Yazoo's "Situation" (Sire 12-inch), which I first heard on WBLS and which actually sounded as if it belonged there. And my fave fave is New Order's "Temptation" (Factory import 12-inch), in which Manchester's finest stop hearing ghosts and stake the claim to a danceable pop of unprecedented grimness and power. If this isn't the definition of romantic obsession, it's even richer than I think it is.

Village Voice, Aug. 31, 1982

Aug. 10, 1982 Oct. 5, 1982