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Robert Christgau on a Brilliant Beefheart Trip and Some Early Stones Standouts

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas's 'The World of Captain Beefheart' and The Rolling Stones' 'On Air.'
Mark and Colleen Hayward / Redferns

The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To find out more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.


Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas: The World of Captain Beefheart (KFR) Although avant-guitarist Lucas accompanied and eventually managed Don Van Vliet during his mercurial 1978-1982 second coming, to reimagine him with post-soul artiste Hendryx he leans on Beefheart's blues-besotted youth. Ten of these dozen selections are from 1972 or before, and the two from 1967's Safe as Milk you may not believe are Beefheart at all—the Delta-as-desert "Sure 'Nuff Yes I Do" and "I'm Glad," a doowop torch song the captain wasn't tender enough to nail himself. Gentle ain't exactly Hendryx's default mode either, but she knows how to fake it, then switches smoothly into the jagged "Smithsonian Institute Blues." On the whole, the album cants sensuous, Latinizing Beefheart's jagged groove—before climaxing with the nutso "Tropical Hot Dog Night," which remains as much fun as two flamingos in a fruit fight. A MINUS

The Rolling Stones: On Air (Deluxe Edition) (Polydor/Abkco/Rolling Stones) Exploiting the surprise sales spike of their 2016 Christmas album Blue & Lonesome, their 2017 Christmas album purportedly revisits the band's early-'60s blues beginnings, which in fact were no such thing. Chuck Berry, who wrote six of these songs, was not a blues artist, and neither was Bo Diddley, who gets three including the previously bootleg-only "Cops and Robbers" playlet (theirs is fine, Bo's better). Billed "R&B" as they started playing out in 1963, the Stones were catchier and quicker than blues, and on these 32 radio transcriptions they sound like the premier bar band of their time if not ever. Where Blue & Lonesome is a sodden thing—many old rockers have recorded sharper, spunkier, wiser music—this collection proves what world-beaters they were even before they got serious about songwriting. True, the unperfected "Satisfaction" some hedger stuck in sounds pretty good—how could it not? But "2120 Michigan Avenue," the instrumental they concocted to celebrate recording at Chess, is the closer because it oughta be. A MINUS


Van Morrison: Versatile (Exile/Legacy) Introducing the concept and smoking his other five other copyrights with a jauntily repetitive original called "Broken Record," he proves his mature mettle by covering the great American songbook with more panache than Linda Ronstadt if not Joni Mitchell ("They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Makin' Whoopee") ***

Peter Stampfel and the Atomic Meta Pagans: The Cambrian Explosion (Don Giovanni) Polyphony spins dizzily awry as fearless leader plus ad hoc nonet reel off protest songs, pop standards, banjo improvs, nursery rhymes, etc. ("This Is My Country," "Blue Moon," "Cumberland Mountain Deer Chase") ***

Frank Zappa: Zappatite: Frank Zappa's Tastiest Tracks (Zappa) Pop being beyond him emotionally, the anal guitar virtuoso applies his high IQ to satire ("Trouble Every Day," "Valley Girl," "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow") **

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