Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Christgau Consumer Guide

Every year at the beginning of spring I go into the same depression. The sneaky good stuff buried in the Christmas rush is exhausted and I begin to work on--a grim way of putting it, but that's what if feels like after a while--the early 1974 stuff. Now, even though the early year release always conceals its own kind of goodies--especially Christmas product that wasn't finished in time for Christmas, like Court and Spark--it does tend to be a little flat, because the companies try to get their good artists out at the end of the year. And it's still true that the artists a company considers its good artists are a little better than the artists a company considers its run-of-the-mill artists. All of which is a feeble explanation for the bored, nasty tone of this month's consumer guide, which contains two A records by black women singers and only three B plusses, two of them from far left field. Next month, I get to decide whether the new Van Morrison is an A or an A minus, nice work if you can get it, but I don't know what I'm going to do about the other 19 entries.

Bachman-Turner Overdrive: Bachman-Turner Overdrive II (Mercury). This is what those of us who once kind of liked the Guess Who always hoped the Guess Who would become, and if that sounds dumb to the rest of you, you're missing something. This is simple, even plodding, touched with Winnipeg hick, but Randy Bachman always had a way with the catchy riff, and Turner provides the overdrive. Recommended. B PLUS

Maggie Bell: Queen of the Night (Atlantic). The comparison floating about is Janis Joplin, but a cross between Bonnie Bramlett and Maria Muldaur is more like it. Unlike Janis, Bell doesn't take hold of a song merely by breathing on it--she has to interpret, and this sounds short on interaction between singer and material to me. B MINUS [Later: C+]

Black Oak Arkansas: High on the Hog (Atlantic). For two years, BOA has toured harder than any band in history, with the biggest booking agent in the country breaking a trail of busted chops in front of them, and they still can't sell out the Academy of Music on a Saturday night. Why might that be? Because unlike most similar bands they have never achieved competence--they are actively untalented, incapable of even an interesting cop. I think they know this, which makes their stage show fun, but there is less than no reason to buy anything they record. D

Blossom Dearie: Blossom Dearie Sings (Daffodil). Whitney Balliett's notes compare her to Bobby Short, high praise from him but anathema if, like me, you think Short's show of class epitomizes what contemporary singing ought to avoid. Fortunately, Dearie has the grace to understate her high technique; she sounds like an emotionally substantial Astrud Gilberto. I can't think of a rock singer who could tiptoe so sure-footedly through these melodies, much less make them up, and if lyrical ploys about "velvet wine" are uncomfortably reminiscent of Nancy Sinatra, well, that's what happens when you sing for your supper club. Available from P.O. Box 522, Radio City Station, N.Y.C. 10019. B PLUS

Genesis: Selling England by the Pound (The Famous Charisma Label). Down-to-earth progressive, which means that it indulges in snooty satire about the vulgar futility of working class youth. Would T.S. Eliot be proud? I doubt it. But I have the feeling that they're saying right out what all their co-workers in the genre are thinking, and there's some pretty dense music here. C PLUS [Later: B]

Foghat: Energized (Bearsville). Is a good, competent rock record really good and competent if its excitement never transcends the mechanical? Is that what getting off means? So maybe this isn't good and competent. B MINUS

Aretha Franklin: Let Me in Your Life (Atlantic). Welcome her back--this is her best since her best, Spirit in the Dark, with only a few of those suspiciously ethereal moments. No kidding, even "A Song for You" sounds new. A MINUS [Later: B+]

Hot Tuna: The Phosphorescent Rat (Grunt). After four albums, or is it five, this spin-off also sounds tired and like themselves, more consistent than their sister, and why does anyone care when they don't seem to? At least when they were doing country blues the material justified the music's indolence. C

Jo Jo Gunne: Jumpin' the Gunne (Asylum). The vocals are jucier, the tracks more dynamic, and "At the Spa," Jay Ferguson's tribute to Bryan Ferry, is the first pre-fascist hard-rock escape song. So why don't I like it just a little more? Something's just missing, and I think it may be Randy California. B [Later: B-]

Sarah Kernochan: House of Pain (RCA Victor). The lyrics looked so great--like good words, not bad poetry--that I put the record on instantly, only to recoil seconds later. Admittedly, I got used to this mannered (ill-mannered?) music eventually, but I recommend a year of live audiences before her next studio date. C

Gladys Knight & the Pips: Claudine (Buddah). Gladys Knight, who is never freer than her material, meet Curtis Mayfield, always a more undisciplined composer than is safe for such an undisciplined singer. Object: soundtrack. Result: Knight's most satisfying regular-release LP. It's a little skimpy (six songs plus one instrumental for just over 30 minutes) but not so flagrant that I can dock it for short-timing. A MINUS

Gladys Knight & the Pips: Knight Time (Soul). Or is she the creature of her material after all? This is a typical cheap Motown album, comprising two strong songs, each leading off a side, that should have been on Neither One of Us, and industrial filler. Yet I'm beginning to hear something in her voice, a hurtful rough place the honey missed, that makes me want to listen through the humdrum dynamics of the tracks. B MINUS

Manfred Mann's Earth Band: Solar Fire (Polydor). Mann's strength has always been interpretation, which may be why this album lists no writers' credits, not even for a familiar-sounding extravaganza called (here) "Father of Day, Father of Night." I bet they wrote this silly stuff themselves. Ah, self-expression. As this group moves closer to the jazzy sounds it no doubt covets, it begins to show the corners of its rhythmic box. Time for fifth-generation Manfred? C PLUS

Ann Peebles: I Can't Stand the Rain (Hi). After two spunky albums that didn't sell and a smooth single that did, Willie Mitchell slides Peebles into his best-selling Al Green groove, a smooth mistake. Peebles' strengths are her "raw honey" timbre (thanks, Vince) and her bright, direct personality. Lacking the vocal flexibility and emotional cunning that make AI Green so exciting, and containing a few too many artist-composed tunes, this is short on the kinds of subtle emphases that enlivens Mitchell's best production. Far from bad, but it will disappoint anyone who loves both "I Can't Stand the Rain" (smooth) and "Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home" (spunky). B [Later: B+]

Dewey Redman: The Ear of the Behearer (Impulse). I tried, as promised, but except for brief snatches, many of which caught me in attitudes passive enough to approach the comatose, this has that fatal new-thing sound: noise aspiring to be music. Don't get me wrong--that may not be what it is. But it is what it sounds like. C PLUS

Return to Forever Featuring Chick Corea: Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor). Futuristic, Mahavishnu-style jazz-rock that's powerful enough to make you believe temporarily in the efficacy of spirit energy. Without a few McLaughlin-quality riffs, however, any music intended to fill a starscape is soon riddled with open spaces. B

Seals & Crofts: Unborn Child (Warner Bros.). This may be catchy but I refuse to get caught; they may be good at what they do, but what they do is so disgusting that that only makes it worse. I would tell them to find their roots, but instead of regrouping as the Champs, they'd probably convince Warner Bros. to waste more vinyl on the Anita Kerr Singers. D MINUS

Grace Slick: Manhole (Grunt). Of course she sounds tired, but she also sounds like herself, a small pleasure on several cuts, and the title is worth committing to print. C

Jim Stafford (MGM). A post-booze cousin of Roger Miller and Jerry Reed produces a genuinely amusing novelty album to go with his genuinely amusing novelty single. Avoid: "Mr. Bojangles." B PLUS

Yes: Tales From Topographic Oceans (Atlantic). Four whole sides, featuring guaranteed echoes of the lost Indian, Chinese, Central American and Atlantean cultures. Howcum no Graeco-Roman, Hebrew or African? Cos we'd all know they were full of shit. But I wouldn't advise playing this in a Sufi chop suey joint in Mexico City. D PLUS [Later: C]

Creem, June 1974

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