Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Eating Crowe

The rockcrit flap of the moment concerns a review by David Peisner of the Black Crowes' not-then-released Warpaint in Maxim, a magazine that discretion demands I mention shares ownership with Blender, where I am currently a senior critic. I do not recall ever looking at an issue of Maxim, although on its site I found a joke about men's collective propensity to premature orgasm winningly candid. But thanks to the folks at newmradio who scanned it onto the Web, and encouraged by its extreme brevity, I can tell you how the review reads in its entirety:

The Black Crowes already sounded like grizzled classic rockers on their 1990 debut. While it was certainly a neat trick for a bunch of wasted twentysomethings to pull off, it hasn't left Chris Robinson and the gang much room for growth. Now that they're legitimately grizzled, they sound pretty much like they always have: boozy, competent, and in slavish debt to the Stones, the Allmans, and the Faces.

It's signed D.P. and carries a rating of two-and-a-half stars.

Long story short as usual--this is already last week's news in rockcrit, yet unknown to the rest of the artserati--the problem with this review is that Peisner hadn't heard the record in question. The Black Crowes' people, while asserting that the boys never actually read reviews or anything so unsavory as that, was unmoved by Maxim's apology, something about how what was supposed to be a preview was changed into a review by mistake, and demanded that the magazine deliver six buxom hotties to its offices forthwith. In the musical blogosphere and even in newsprint, Peisner was mocked as if he was JT Leroy or new fake Seltzer-Jones, but also defended, as for instance by Hits sachem Roy Trakin:

10. Gripe of the Week: I'm sick and tired of how shabbily rock critics and music journo types are treated, so the current contretemps between the Black Crowes and Maxim, where the magazine's writer reportedly reviewed the band's recent album while hearing only a single song, completely pisses me off, but not for the reason you might expect. The Crowes have long adopted a media-unfriendly policy, refusing to offer up comp review tickets to their shows, as revealed several years ago by High Times editor Steve Bloom, whose publication more than bent over backwards to support the band. In defense of Maxim, if the publication needs an advance for a long-lead deadline, what do they do when they can't get a hold of a copy? It didn't seem to be a problem for Rolling Stone, whose three-and-a-half star review runs in the current issue. The problem here is the selective access granted by the Crowes' management and publicists. Sure, I understand the problems with Internet leaks, but you have to be fair. Of course you're going to favor those publications with larger circulations, but then don't expect to get preferential treatment by those you ignore. Sure, established bands tend to believe they can do just as well without press coverage as with, but then don't complain when you get caught at your own game. That's not to condone Maxim for pretending its critic heard the whole album and not just one song, but you can't blame them for their frustration, either. When no one cares enough to bother writing about them in the future, that's when the Black Crowes will be sorry they made it so difficult for the media.

I don't agree with all of this. Rolling Stone has a deadline measured in weeks rather than months and is in any case one of the few media where a positive lead review is of generally agreed-upon commercial value, so why shouldn't bands accommodate it? And this yah-yah you'll-be-sorry stuff is both childish and tautological--when nobody cares about them they'll have more important things to worry about (though it's worth mentioning that as a Southern band who make a deliberate aesthetic strategy of being smarter than they sound, they've built up a lot of ressentiment about pointy-headed Northerners who don't Get It even though many PHNs do--more than they deserve, I've always felt). Nevertheless, Trakin's basic point is one other arts journalists should be aware of. Getting review copies in time for deadlines, always difficult, has become nearly impossible for name acts since the downloading panic began. I know things have gotten worse in film in this regard recently. But it's worse with CDs, because in principle, recorded music is supposed to be not just used but re-used. And very few reviews have the wherewithal to take that basic fact into account.

The particulars of this case, athough contested, are clear enough: Peisner wrote a "preview" on the basis of one track he heard I know not how, in early January I'd guesstimate though it might have been pre-Christmas, and it was published as a "review," complete with rating. (That a "review" should be 75 words long is an outrage best reserved for another post.) Peisner claims the conversion and star rating were done by Maxim without his knowledge; Maxim is vague about how the conversion occurred. I suspect the mag of doing the deed, though whether Peisner was left in the dark I wouldn't dare guess. Certainly it's common for magazines to change star ratings without telling the writer. It happened to me four or five times at Rolling Stone over the years, sometimes by Wennerian diktat, sometimes by simple editorial error. (When it was the former I screamed bloody murder; when it was the latter I simply moaned and complained.) I see no reason to expect that Maxim is any better than Rolling Stone--not much reason, anyway. Assigning rather than changing a grade, sadly enough, seems a small step.

The Rolling Stone review was by PHN Alan Light, who was given a web address and password and permitted to stream at will with a week's deadline window. This sure beats a forced listening session under the auspices of some Black Crowes label or management functionary, which is how many big records are reviewed even by Rolling Stone, which like just about every magazine resists this new biz folkway. A better option than a stream because the sound is better is a burn, though these are generally received perilously late in the deadline cycle. Stone really does work to get burns, and has the clout to make it happen; it also helps that reviewers as prestigious as Light, who's well-connected in biz circles, are less likely to inspire the biz's uploading paranoia, for of course it's the spectre of free Internet availability before product is even in the stores that has exacerbated this always irritating problem. Even with a disc in hand, however, reviewers are frequently faced with the necessity of hearing a record for the first time and turning around a substantial review within a 48-hour or even 18-hour period. I myself don't recall ever working on less than 72 hours and rarely settled for that. My method was to immerse--play a record two or three times in a row--and then separate for, say, 18 hours (unless I just had to hear it again, a very good sign). Then I'd come back and try to nail the sucker, sometimes over four or five days, sometimes much faster--too fast. But even at the longer exposure, this was but a desperate simulation of the ownership experience.

I can't reproduce any of Light's review because the RS website, always a pain in the ass, has crashed my computer twice now, but here's a link. Funny thing is, in crucial respects it's not so different from Peisner's, though it does make one point Peisner might well have included even in a preview based on zero listens: the addition of guitarist Luther Dickinson to the band's lineup. Dickinson's as good as it gets in Southern rock and would make a difference. In addition Light makes a case for the band's seriousness of purpose based on a few good, front-loaded songs on a record he allows isn't especially well-written in general. Three and a half stars. This is the kind of thing Black Crowes defenders have always said and that I've rarely been convinced by. Although I haven't been sent a copy and don't expect one, I streamed Warpaint from Rhapsody once and on that basis suspect maybe Peisner got it right. But of course, that's one listen with a band that makes it a point to work within genre boundaries that almost always sound received first time through. So now I've downloaded the thing (legally) onto an MP3 player and for the first time in many years--more years than the seven since their last album, they are sensitive creators beneath their rough-hewn surface--feel obliged to take the Black Crowes seriously. Maxim did them a solid. And because they're smarter than they make a point of sounding, you can bet they know it.

2 Comments

By Dan Weiss on March 7, 2008 11:06 AM

Changing a star rating is really troublesome, and a practice I've never altogether agreed with. This may seem like an obvious gripe. But since I started writing for real publications a year ago the biggest surprise was how many of them carefully control ratings.

I see the advantages: a bit overgoosed, I gave Travis Morrison's All Y'All a 9.8 last year and my editor changed it to a 9.2, a rating I agree with much more now that time has passed. I've since realized that I overrated a handful of other records from the same period. The problem is, my editor had no way of knowing that, and what if I had come across a missed masterpiece? I assume it was in his best interest to not bank his entire site's name on getting behind such a marginal record as D-Plan solo, but these kinds of politics interfere with the knowledge that great albums can come from anywhere and everywhere, at any time, from any unknown. That said, I'm usually not in favor of when say, Pitchfork, awards a Best New Music tag to several unknowns a month, and often not veterans, or artists who've had time to grow. The practice makes critics look more fickle than necessary: at least when you fell for Art Brut's debut, you made a point to warn that it sounds like a one-shot. I don't often see that kind of consciousness.

It bugs me about the rating control, but especially in the post-leak environment, it's easy to feel caught between a demanding deadline and a hard place, which is the other factor: it's not usually hard to decide if you like something in the short timespan we've had to adjust to, but it's very difficult to make it relative and determine exactly how much. It's very hard to take seriously when someone calls the National a grower and they could've only had a week or two to hear it. And it's hard to say whose fault that is.

By tom moon on March 7, 2008 6:29 PM

Sooner or later this imperative for Instant Opinions was going to ricochet. Had to.

Of course Maxim looks ridiculous, but this episode isn't about one bad call . . . it's reflective of the ethos of the ultraparanoid music business, and the willingness of so many media outlets to settle for supershort "reviews" that contain virtually no analysis or insight about the actual music. Even to do this type of "spot news" coverage, which in my opinion serves nobody, you have to listen more than once, as Christgau indicates. Listening is a process. Music is rarely fully parsed on one pass -- and probably shouldn't be. At least not by people purporting to be critics.

Articles, Mar. 7, 2008


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