Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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By now you know about new age. New age is quasi-semiclassical music whose aura of familiarity is augmented by repetition after repetition after cunningly varied repetition--repetitions designed to lull rather than motivate. It's the Extra-Strength Tylenol of dinner music. Like any rock and roller, I find the shit repulsive. But that doesn't mean I think there's no place for lulling sounds, or disapprove when some quiet weirdo--folk-blues guitarist John Fahey, Chinoiserière Lucia Hwong--slips by the genre's none too vigilant guard.

New age has taken it out of quiet weirdo Brian Eno, whose Opal label promotes music that's evolving from what he once dubbed "ambient" minimalism toward wimp and gush--compare 1984's The Pearl (on Editions EG), where pianist Harold Budd plays so deliberately there's room to meditate in its spaces, to Budd's current White Arcade, arranged to evoke a background sonata devoid of anything so troublesome as content. On the other hand, it's providing meaningful work for trumpeter Jon Hassell.

Hassell never approached the hypnotic ethnomusicology of his 1980 Eno collaboration, Fourth World Vol. 1 (Editions EG), until he cut loose from his semipopular mentor with 1986's Power Spot (ECM). Relatively speaking--we're still on the edge of new age, speaking Hassell's Esperanto--Power Spot was abrasively electric, a sawmill heard at middle distance where Fourth World was more like a Casbah after the customers have gone home. The Surgeon of the Nightsky Restores Dead Things by the Power of Sound (Capitol/Intuition) goes down a little easier. Replete with Miles-style keyboards milked for sustain rather than rhythmic punctuation (a composer I know insists they must be breath-activated), Surgeon compromises with the soft textures favored by his only sizable potential audience. If you have a weakness for high-quality soporifics, you could sink a lot lower.

Playboy, Jan. 1989


Dec. 1988 Feb. 1989