Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: December 2012


Be unfraid. Be very unafraid.
Tuesday, December 4, 2012  

Dobie: Nothing to Fear (Big Dada, EP)
There are four tracks on the summer-released half of a two-EP diptych that you can buy on overpriced and space-inefficient vinyl or download cheap and burn to a single CDR, forming a tidy 41-minute album, as the People of the Guitar used to call them. With a fancier printer than I've ever laid out for, you can even fashion a neat-o "mosaic" cover in living colour. As brave as his title, veteran Massive Attacker Dobie keeps the percussives jumpily uptempo on this panel, but never fear, the follow-up panel is slower and . . . A MINUS

Dobie: . . . But Fear Itself (Big Dada)
. . . lower, given to darkening suddenly like a December afternoon. Halfway through we find ourselves in a thriller flick--two adversaries striding amidst the crowd unnoticed as one tails the other through the atrium of a busy mall. Finally there's a human voice: "You know, he wants to get in and get out without even being noticed, except for the work that's gonna come out to the public in, you know, that Monday." And then a remix of the tailing music, which bears the appropriate title "The Mouse," leaves our story--what else? Unresolved. A MINUS

The Dave Brubeck Quartet

Jazz hero of the rock and roll generation
Friday, December 7, 2012  

The Dave Brubeck Quartet: Jazz Goes to College (Columbia '89)
Released in 1954, Brubeck's first album for Columbia--he'd done plenty for Fantasy, including several also recorded at colleges--is my favorite, and while there are many I haven't heard, I've put in enough hours to advise against anything with an orchestra or without Paul Desmond. This one comes with extra jam mostly because the recent substitution of drummer Joe Dodge spurred Brubeck to wing two key tracks, "Balcony Rock" and "Le Souk." Its title bestowed by a&r man George Avakian just as the rock 'n' roll fad was learning its name, "Balcony Rock" is that doubly rare thing in Brubeck's oeuvre, a blues jam, and although Brubeck is oft praised for his classical touch, the block chords of his solo bump rather than arpeggiate, which many young folks preferred even in 1954. Desmond's harmonies impart a Middle Eastern tinge to "Le Souk," which Brubeck revs to a nice runaway feel, but on the standards that fill out the set the Apollonian alto saxophonist is at his lyrical best. Note too the memorable "Take the A Train," built around yet another blocky Brubeck solo. In rhythm music, blocky generally beats tinkly. Just ask Neil Young. A

The Dave Brubeck Quartet: Time Out (Columbia/Legacy '97)
Inspired by a State Department-backed Eurasian tour and released in 1959, Brubeck's all-time bestseller is supposedly where he and drummer Joe Morello explore exotic Oriental time signatures, although near as most of us can tell it's got a lot of waltzes whether they're in 3/4 or 6/4. The big exceptions are the two classics: Brubeck's "Blue Rondo A La Turk," in 9/8 even though it's a (bluesy) rondo, a sonatalike form invented by the exotic French, and Desmond's "Take Five," in 5/4, steadied by a stubborn Brubeck vamp and covered wherever folks were cool: Stan Getz, Chet Atkins, Grover Washington, Rodrigo y Gabriela. While some say Morello doesn't swing enough, he's an inventive colorist, and as waltzes go, most of the remaining originals combine composition and propulsion with crowd-pleasing panache. B PLUS

I\m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen

By Sylvie Simmons/Harper Collins/2012
Tuesday, December 11, 2012  

Leonard Cohen already had a biography, a pretty decent one by rockbook standards. Published in 1996, in the middle of a prolonged monastic retreat that appeared to put an end to the 62-year-old's public life, Vancouver English professor Ira B. Nadel's Various Positions is strong on Cohen's Jewish identification and poetic career if not so hip about the music that's why the book happened. But in I'm Your Man Sylvie Simmons blows Nadel away. Up there with such recent competition as RJ Smith on James Brown and Chris Salewicz on Bob Marley, she's constructed a hard-thinking music journalist's book where Nadel's is an openminded literary academic's. Having interviewed damn near everybody where Nadel did very little such digging, the San Francisco-based Brit isn't just much better than Nadel on Cohen's many music-biz enablers--she's better on his privileged youth in Jewish Montreal too.

Most important, she's infinitely better on what she--ponder that pronoun: she--has the common sense to make thematic from her title on out: women. G-d knows how many of the holy creatures Cohen has bedded in his 78 years--hundreds for sure, including Joni Mitchell and once Janis Joplin, unnamed seekers in that monastery, and briefly manager Kelley Lynch, who eventually robbed him of something like 10 million dollars, thus rousing him to a level of public activity and prestige few performing artists of 78 have ever achieved. Even Nadel mentions a few liaisons Simmons doesn't. But Simmons has gotten the details the major ones deserve: the saintly Marianne Ihlan of "So Long Marianne" fame; hot-headed Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his two children and his common-law wife for 10 years (the only one who seems bitter, although he's close to the kids, singer-songwriter Adam Cohen and Lorca Cohen, who has long lived downstairs in his Los Angeles duplex); distant Parisian photographer Dominique Isserman; May-December smart-beauty-with-a-dirty-mind Rebecca de Mornay; and his consort and collaborator for the first eight years of this century, Anjani Thomas.

OK, so we knew he's been quite the ladies man. But by soliciting the memories and insights of the Ihlan-Elrod-de Mornay-Thomas succession (Isserman didn't sit for an interview), Simmons portrays a man who was a remarkably intense serial monogamist no matter how much he got on the side--an adorer of women and a votary of beauty. No wonder, as Simmons reports, the fans at Cohen's European concerts in the '70s were three-quarters female. Yet she's equally diligent tracing Cohen's other non-artistic obsession: religious enlightenment. She details his devotion to the Jewish rituals passed down by his rabbi grandfather; fully describes the disciplines imposed by his now 105-year-old guru Roshi, who ordained him a Zen priest; devotes many pages to Cohen's substantial and decisive post-ordination studies with a Hindu teacher in Mumbai; and respects his early fascinations with Catholicism and Scientology as well.

These twin obsessions, one carnal and one spiritual, are source and content of Cohen's laboriously perfected, stubbornly prolific body of work, which Simmons doesn't neglect to analyze and appreciate. I'd say she overrates such works as Beautiful Losers, Death of a Ladies' Man, and Dear Heather. But that's a privilege she's earned. Though you'd never guess it from the awards showered on him--after all, he's touring at 78, and a Canadian citizen to boot--Cohen isn't Yeats or Lorca, and knowing the backstory of this lifelong depression fighter and belated superstar may not altogether allay your skepticism about his ultimate aesthetic import. But it will certainly induce you to understand where he's coming from, and why.

The John Lennon Letters

Edited by Hunter Davies/Little, Brown/2012
Friday, December 14, 2012  

For someone who loves writing every bit as much as music, the plethora of rock memoirs and biographies is a glut, a contagion, a hypertrophy--a wretched excess meant to squeeze a few last entertainment shekels from consumers born so long ago they remember how it feels to commit to a musician for life and turn a page-turner's physical pages. Occasionally a definitive biography emerges from the system. But beyond Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, the memoirs that rise above tend to be outliers: better Jen Trynin or Nile Rodgers than Pete Townshend or Bob Mould.

There was reason to hope The John Lennon Letters would be another kind of outlier--accidental genius by a rock and roller whose intentional genius has already inspired levels of personal identification that rival those of Dylan himself. Or maybe that was just a bereft response to how poorly the legacy of this beloved genius, dead 32 years now so what the hell's the problem, has been served by all the books coughed up by anybody who ever spent six months in his proximity. In 2007, preparing the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Lennon, I was dismayed to learn that the big bios were by ax murderer Albert Goldman and awestruck manservant Ray Coleman. Since then, however, the estimable Philip Norman has produced the thorough and reliable John Lennon: The Life. In theory, The John Lennon Letters might have proved an equally reliable and more intimate companion piece.

It isn't, for three reasons. Because everything an avatar touches gains exchange value thereby, editor Hunter Davies tells us, "any scrap, any word" Lennon ever scrawled is now a collector's item, and collectors are greedy, willful creatures. Nor can one expect even faintly embarrassing materials from Lennon's intimates, especially Yoko Ono, who supported this project but remains a cautious and self-interested guardian of the legacy Lennon entrusted to her. Most important, it turns out that for all his verbal gifts Lennon wasn't much of a letter writer. Davies, a Beatles intimate since he wrote the group's first biography in 1968, explicitly denies this. Lennon "loved writing letters," he claims toward the end of a collection that includes public statements and legal documents written by Lennon's handlers, filled-out questionnaires, a book review The New York Times extracted from him, some valuable annotations to Imagine, and half a dozen shopping lists. But I believe what he told his half-Egyptian cousin Liela, who got more mail from him than most: "I seldom write letters myself."

When he did, moreover, his impulse was to joke around rather than reveal himself, sometimes with the same kind of dumb stuff you or I might use to tart up a quick missive--"Having a wonderful. Wish I was here." went a postcard (there are many postcards among Davies's 285 treasures) to his wife Cynthia toward the end of their marriage--and sometimes with the kind of complex-to-obscure wordplay fans have already quaffed to the dregs from In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. There are exceptions, however: two tantalizing pages of a seven-pager to Cynthia in which he excoriates his own inattention to their son Julian, six punny letters and many postcards to his gifted sometime aide-de-camp Derek Taylor, engaged and thoughtful responses to fans who in a few cases seem to have been picked at random out of a mailbag, and lots of reach-outs to relatives like Liela.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so impressed by Lennon's continued involvement with his complicated family--including his rapprochement with his biological father Freddie, his sporadic relationship with Julian, his correspondence with feisty Liela, and the nagging secondhand presence of his Aunt Mimi, who brought him up and to hear him tell it never took his success seriously. But it has a different kind of presence in this first-person evidence than as described by others. The evidence of his warmth to fans is also striking, especially since there's also evidence of his nasty side (including a satisfying kickback at a Jesus freak and a "How Do You Sleep" sidebar for Paul and Linda). And I can't resist quoting what he wrote to a waitress at L.A.'s Troubadour during his lost weekend period: "Dear Pam, I apologize for being so rude and thank you for not hitting me. P.S. Harry Nilsson feels the same way."

Unfortunately, much of what I've just cited comes from the last third of the book--the solo third, the post-Janov third, the househusband third, etc. He had more time then, of course, but that's not all--Lennon's humanity does seem to have broadened post-Beatles/as he got older/with Yoko. Even the shopping lists fascinate--anyone who believes the househusband thing was an act will please explain how he knew what kind of Friskies the cats liked and which greengrocer had the best strawberries. But none of this improves the first two-thirds an iota. Thin pickings.

Nevertheless, as one of those who's always identified with Lennon not Dylan, I have to acknowledge that this book touched me a little deeper than I would have figured. With every letter reproduced in its original form as well as transcribed--complete with legible handwriting, terrible typing, original drawings, and the beak-nose-and-granny-specs cartoons of himself he scribbled thousands of times--it's a mass-produced reliquary, and it goes on the A shelves. For this merry Christmas and happy New Year (let's hope it's a good one without any fear), it's a Sasquatchian stocking stuffer for the Beatles fan who can never get enough.

The Quintet/Charlie Parker

Insufferable idolatry
Tuesday, December 18, 2012  

The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall (Original Jazz Classics '91)
Date: 5/15/53. Length: 47 minutes. Place: Toronto, Ontario. Band: Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach, and clandestine alto saxophonist Charlie "Chan." Never mind the apparently similar Diz N Bird at Carnegie Hall (24 minutes of a quintet that adds John Lewis, Al McKibbon, and Joe Harris to the two horns before turning into a big band record) or the hosannahed Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945 (38 Bird-Diz-Roach minutes substituting Parker's studio-favored Al Haig-Curly Russell piano-bass combo). Without question, this is live Bird numero uno even though the setlist belongs to Dizzy, including the inevitable (and dandy) "Salt Peanuts" and "Night in Tunisia." Parker's relaxed, bluesy mood is epitomized by a seriously interactive "All the Things You Are" that shifts bar-by-bar between virtuoso phrases and soulful here's-the-melody before dissolving into a "52nd Street Theme" breakdown. Gillespie is lyrical and incisive, Powell brings his A game, Roach thunders like no post-swing drummer working, and Mingus's bass is the most expressive in classic bebop. O Canada! A

Charlie Parker: Now's the Time (Verve '90)
Discographically, Bird on Verve is a mess, primarily but not exclusively due to the strings, orchestras, and choruses Norman Granz employed to market his prize--with the prize's enthusiastic cooperation, absolutely, but that does nothing to undercut the grandiose guff that gums up the Confirmation: Best of the Verve Years twofer. The 1950 Bird and Diz, which features a muffled Monk and isn't as badly damaged as might be by Buddy Rich's bombs, is a pricey import-only. And it isn't nearly as miraculous as this lucky yoking of two quartet sessions: the first 12/30/52 with Hank Jones-Teddy Kotick-Max Roach and the second 8/4/53 with Al Haig-Percy Heath-Max Roach. The recording strategy is pretty consistent: Parker states the theme with minimal help and plays till about 1:50, after which the other guys jam their choruses in before the three-minute mark. Of these, Roach's are generally the most musical, with Jones's fuller and solider than Haig's and the single solo Kotick gets room for higher in content than any of Heath's walks, which do saunter some as his half proceeds. But the core is 25 minutes of unimpeded Bird. The two "Cosmic Rays" should be one at most, and four takes of the midtempo blues "Chi-Chi" is one too many, although the CD-only add-on is welcome because it's where Parker drops the virtuoso boilerplate and sticks to what may be blues boilerplate but who cares. Everything else is superb: two standards, Parker's "Laird Baird" sounding like a standard itself, the non-rote virtuosity of two lightning-quick "I Got Rhythm"-based "Kim"s, the only studio version of his oft-covered "Confirmation," and the definitive rendition of the title original, which in 1949 provided r&b journeyman Paul Williams the materials for a dance smash called "The Hucklebuck" that isn't the first rock and roll record but deserves a nomination. A PLUS

Thelonious Monk

Prestige Items
Friday, December 21, 2012  

Thelonious Monk: Thelonious Monk Trio (Prestige '01)
There's a special use value to this 10-track collection, eight from 1952 with two from 1954 mixed in, which has been reissued in more iterations and titles than I can catalogue--my copy is PR-CD-7027-2 and begins with "Little Rootie Tootie," as it should, but others reshuffle the same takes. What all offer is the not so common chance to hear Monk as a solely featured soloist with a rhythm section. Moonlighting NYC cop Gary Mapp is merely functional like so many Monk bassists, although even he has to hop around to follow the razzle-dazzle child's play of "Little Rootie Tootie," and Percy Heath adds his own flourishes to the 1954 "Blue Monk," which at 7:36 is the only selection out of three-minute range. But drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach are co-stars--don't ignore Blakey's rhumba sticks on "Bye-Ya" or Roach decorating "Bemsha Swing," one of several tunes Monk rocks like one of his stride-piano idols. Monk signed with Prestige after an unwarranted arrest that cost him his cabaret card prevented him from showing off his mastery of a body of melody as fetching and mind-boggling as Gershwin's or Berlin's. And if not every original is from the top of his canon, the Russ Columbo chestnut "Sweet and Lovely" could almost be "Round Midnight"'s fraternal twin when he makes it his own. A PLUS

Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins: Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins (Prestige '06)
Rollins lays out on two trio numbers and tackles only one Monk tune on this five-track, 34-minute 1954 product. But that performance belongs on both guys' life list: the little-recorded closer "Friday the 13th," an indelible four-note motif Monk made up in the studio that's stated breathily by Rollins and then tossed around for 10 minutes by the principals, MJQ bassist Percy Heath, left-field drummer Willie Jones, and--adding unexpected and melodic textural chutzpah--Julius Watkins on French horn. Supported by original bebopper Tommy Potter and hard-bop stalwart Art Taylor, the Fields-Kern and Caesar-Youmans standards that open ain't Swiss cheese either. A


Use him
Friday, December 28, 2012  

Miguel: All I Want Is You (Jive '10)
The Afro-Chicano love man front-loads his Prince-channeling debut album: five hooky tracks--two romantic ones linked by an ambivalent interlude to one about a prostitute and another about a quickie--followed by six pleasant tracks and capped by two hooky novelties, the second of which delights immatoorly in the old "piece"-"peace" homonym. But there's a treasure hidden in the middle. With supplicant's songs rare enough in a genre that makes its nut promising untold pleasures, "Teach Me" is unprecedented, laying out the truth that, as Norman Mailer put it in one of the few useful sex tips in his orgasm-mad canon, "the man as lover is dependent upon the bounty of the woman." Who knows what pleases her? She does, she alone, and Miguel craves to be let in on that shifting and enthralling secret. If only he'd hung a top-drawer melody on the sucker he'd have a "Use Me" or "Sexual Healing" he could sing forever. B PLUS

Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream (RCA)
He's major now, and musically, this locks in top to bottom. "Adorn"'s throbbing, garbled hook is one of 2012's signature pop moments, and even when he settles for an ordinary tune he devises a way to trick it up. Lyrically he goes for it too, including a "Use Me" he can sing forever. But that doesn't mean anyone else will, and I do wonder why the two most memorable lines by this certified improvement on R. Kelly are "Do you like drugs?" and "How many drinks would it take you to leave with me?" Final track--they always save it for the final track--he bids for redeeming social content with a song bearing the nicely turned title "Candles in the Sun." Here's hoping--and half believing, because he's a bright, decent dude--he improves on it. A MINUS

MSN Music, December 2012

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