Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: August 2015

Say hello to the world's oldest working rock critic. Born in 1942, Esquire columnist at 25, Village Voice columnist as of 1969, and editor as of 1974 with a Newsday stint in between. My Voice job ended in 2006 after "New York's Weekly Newspaper" succumbed to a hostile takeover from Arizona. Since then I've been a staff writer/columnist at MSN Music, Rolling Stone, Blender, and Cuepoint/Medium. The searchable robertchristgau.com documents most of my published journalism--including, after a decent interval, the writing that will now continue at Noisey.

I've published over a thousand features, essays, and full-length reviews, but what most people search my site for is the Consumer Guide--the reviews I long published monthly under that heading, but that since 2010 have appeared in a blog called Expert Witness that surfaced at MSN, moved to Cuepoint/Medium, and has now relocated to Noisey. This project began in 1969: letter-graded "capsules" that run as short or as long as I think suitable but average 125 or 150 words--augmented sometimes by Honorable Mentions that average 30 or so words. I won't burden you with Consumer Guide's long history except to note that I'm coming up on 14,000 album caps and that that's a lot of listening--since people always ask, know that full reviews require five to ten plays and Honorable Mentions at least three.

Unlike most reviewers, especially in this era of the churn-it-out 24-hour news cycle, I don't aim to get there ahead of the next blog. My credo is that I'd rather be right than first. So I listen at my own pace until I know what I think. It's only my opinion, but it's an exceptionally well informed and, I hope, pungent and idea-filled opinion. The B I gave Street Hassle got Lou Reed so pissed that he called me a toefucker on its crappier live follow-up, and my early Sonic Youth pans inspired a B-side called "I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick." Hey, no hard feelings--later I gave both artist plenty of A's, not to make nice but because I was right and they got better.

I don't think it's crazy to celebrate popular music as an endless succession of forgettable thrills. Since the 60s I've enjoyed what's lionized or belittled as "pop," and still do--see Jason Derulo below. But because rock criticism surfaced just as the album became the staple of a music industry that's been in crisis since Napster, I also don't think it's crazy to celebrate popular music as a supposedly disposable art quite capable of withstanding ye olde test of time. In my opinion, Derulo's Talk Dirty achieves this better than its follow-up. But both make the cut.

So my working assumption is that popular music is of lasting value and that the album format remains an excellent way to realize that its value, with my little reviews part of a complex historicizing process. Eclecticism has always been my way. I got into country circa 1972, came early to punk, was onto hip-hop by 1980, and cover more African music than any non-specialist anywhere. Nevertheless, I have my negative prejudices like most sentient humans--dislike metal, find much folk music sappy, and consider contemporary dance music too site-specific, designed for club environments I seldom got to even when my knees were better. I've never gotten sick of youth music for a minute--was into both Pavement and Pink. But, significantly given my advanced years, I've argued for decades now that rock and roll's origin as teen music prepared it well to address the aging process. Yoko Ono and Willie Nelson are just two artists who've thrived past 80. Boz Scaggs just came up with his best record since 1976.

So welcome--or welcome back--to Expert Witness, which will appear in this virtual space every Friday. It began as the Consumer Guide because it's supposed to function as purchasing advice--I stopped writing pans when I left the Voice, although I may make a few exceptions. Usually, though, the grades break down A+ (the rare masterwork), A (the meat of my leisure listening), A- (well over half the total), and B+ (too close not to get half a cigar). So I hope I move you to buy some music you've read about everywhere and some you never heard of. I still get some freebies. But I put cash down on physical copies of two of the A minuses below. Helps me concentrate.

And if for some reason you crave more words about this enterprise, here's my website.

August 14, 2015

Link: Sam Smith / Miguel / Jason Derulo / Tinashe / OceaŠn

Sam Smith: In the Lonely Hour (Capitol) Only when I finally bought the CD did I realize how well this pleasant pop I'd been MP3ing through my skull cohered as a self-portrait. This Sam Smith fella is a needy man, insecure about love as all of us are and more candid about it than most. And though manly types may scoff at his pleasing to infernally hooky tunes, not one song approaches self-pity. Both vocally and verbally, they offer the kind of emotional complexity about sexual romance's ins and outs that good pop captures better than good literature, where cynicism is such a folkway. But having established that baseline, let me single out my favorite, the lead "Money on My Mind," an emotionally complex reflection on his record deal. And let me add that the four OK-to-excellent extras on the deluxe edition dilute the original album's effect. A MINUS

Miguel: Wildheart (RCA) It's sloppy to slot this as the latest in r&b's endless succession of sin-versus-salvation struggles. This Angeleno is more secular than that, and also less desperate. So ". . . goingtohell" is about romantic love and human mortality, not eternal damnation, and "gonna die young" addresses not the brutalities of the thug life but the perils of the fast lane like Frank Ocean and the Eagles before it. Nor is the chiseled Afro-Hispanic the pure sex symbol some assume--that's why the porn-inspired "the valley" is followed by the domestic morning-after of "coffee" before it's trumped by some dickish fuckery he hands off to Kurupt. You could even say this recalls one of rock's endless succession of coming-of-age struggles. The straightforwardly confused "what's normal anyway" sums it up nicely. He is normal--because he ain't. A MINUS

Jason Derulo: Everything Is 4 (Beluga Heights/Warner Bros.) Though it's no surprise that it's less silly and romantic than the ebullient Talk Dirty, Derulo is proof that the pop machine comes in many models. Like the Chevy Malibu, Derulo has his blind spots. But his gimmicky pop r&b reminds me more of the peppy Ford Focus. At least three different ways to say ooh-ooh-ooh. Effective cameos from the iconic Stevie Wonder, the generic Julia Michaels, the useless Meghan Trainor, and the fat, deep, obscure Big Marv. Plenty of sex. Less love. Enough love nonetheless. A MINUS


Tinashe: Aquarius (RCA) Any stroke can stretch an orgasm, any sound can state a beat ("2 On," "Wildfire") ***

OceaŠn: The Grip EP (Rough Trade) The--all right, an--erotic truth for an epoch of signal-impaired courtship and the phone pulsing every time you get a new sext ("Grip," "Veritas") **

August 21, 2015

Link: Hopping Along Into a Girlpool: Hop Along / The Go! Team / Chastity Belt / Lizzy Mercier Descloux / Joanna Gruesome / Girlpool

Hop Along: Painted Shut (Saddle Creek) Musically, several if not many notches above the new generation of look-sis-no-lessons grrrls. Frances Quinlan sings, writes, plays, and makes it be, her brother Mark Quinlan bangs the drums steadily, there's a dedicated bassist, and Philly guitarist-producer Joe Reinhart is a force. Not virtuosos but not newbies either, they recall Pavement both ways, with the crucial distinction that Quinlan's lyrics hint at the concrete situations and emotions shrewd 90s ironists eschewed and arty millennial obscurantists look down on. Quite a singer, Quinlan--tiptoeing along the edge of her range, she often leaps or tumbles into the unknown. And every time she does, there's a chance your heart will jump with her. A MINUS

The Go! Team: The Scene Between (Memphis Industries) Having parted ways with Anglo-Nigerian Ninja, immodestly self-effacing mastermind Ian Parton recruited an international bevy of anonymous warblers for his group's/concept's fourth album, apparently on the theory that his original find had become too damn personable. None of these multicultural yet mostly white singers gets the lead on more than two songs or puts her stamp on lyrics that specialize in studied generalizations. This facelessness can be annoying, as Parton may well intend. But as he definitely intends, there's a special kind of ebullience here as well--an idealized pop ebullience I couldn't get out of my mind after getting high on the ambient estrogen of a Taylor Swift concert. A MINUS


Chastity Belt: Time to Go Home (Hardly Art) The melancholia of the sexually independent alt-rock woman ("Drone," "Cool Slut") **

Lizzy Mercier Descloux: Press Color (Light in the Attic) 1980: preemptive ex-Parisian postpunk dares the world to stop her from fucking around ("Hard-Boiled Babe," "Herpes Simplex") **

Joanna Gruesome: Peanut Butter (Slumberland) Frantic even when conciliatory, sweet-voiced young things half-articulate their fury by recognizing no boundary between punk and twee ("I Don't Want to Relax," "Separate Bedrooms") **

Girlpool: Before the World Was Big (Wichita Recordings) Picking their way through a world that ain't all that big no matter how scary ("Before the World Was Big," "Ideal World") **

August 28, 2015

Link: Yo La Tengo Made Their Loveliest Album Ever: Yo La Tengo / Freedy Johnston / Rhett Miller / Giant Sand / Wilco

Yo La Tengo: Stuff Like That There (Matador) Right, it's been a quarter of a century, but how they've changed since Fakebook. There's the bassist around whom Georgia and Ira cohered. There's Georgia's increasingly confident calm meshing with Ira's increasingly thoughtful quiet. There's the fragile, enduring lyricism that's been their musical heart since "Autumn Sweater," and the uneasy, enduring domesticity that goes with it. Ira took the lead on Fakebook's covers, which tended toward a perky cheek now gone. But amazing as ever on this second covers album is his ear for the obscure ditty. The heartbreakingly cute Darlene McCrea opener "My Heart's Not in It." The existentially anxious Great Plains midpoint "Before We Stopped to Think." The Lovin' Spoonful filler "Butchie's Tune." Sun Ra's chart-ready "Somebody's in Love." Hell, the Cure hit "Friday I'm in Love." They also cover themselves and birth a few new ones. But what makes this their loveliest album ever is Ira's ditties combined with Georgia's confident calm. Her "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" isn't Hank's, or Al's either. But in its own way it's just as good, bereft with only the barest show of emotion--she doesn't ever really raise or even intensify her voice. You're forced to wonder, and worry--what's she got to be bereft about, anyway? A

Freedy Johnston: Neon Repairman (Singing Magnet) His best collection of songs in this century--clever in the service of a pensive compassion, the major exception being the guy who just kept driving when the cops caught up with that crazy gal Angeline. Feel the unadorned forlorn of "Baby, Baby Come Home." Hear how thin-shoed and pregnant outgrows her "Summer Clothes." Meet the veteran who didn't get blown up with his buddies but will you sign for this please because he left his hands back in that gutter. Not many dynamics--Can You Fly? is funky by comparison. But a lot of feeling and enough tune. B PLUS


Rhett Miller: The Traveler (ATO) The cleverest, tenderest, and most rakish relationship delineator of his generation comes up with a bunch more ("Jules," "Wanderlust") ***

Giant Sand: Heartbreak Pass (New West) Tripartite autobiography that turns Howe Gelb's natural sprawl into a concept replete with strange yet sensible songs ("Texting Feist," "Eye Opening," "Transponder") ***

Wilco: Star Wars (dBpm) As hooked on sonics as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot--song sonics as opposed to electronic sonics or Americana sonics, and also as opposed to songs ("EKG," "Taste the Ceiling") ***

Noisey, August 2015


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