Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Xgau Sez

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Robert Christgau. New ones will appear in batches every third Tuesday.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

July 09, 2019

[Q] Speaking of what I think Drew Hirsch from Sweetbrier, California was trying to get at, and that is why you seem to have lost interest in advocating for male voices in rock music these days. For example, your not having reviewed or even mentioned Shame's Songs of Praise, which received much critical praise elsewhere, was curious to me. -- Gene, Chicago

[A] I missed Shame initially, which happens a lot when you're off the gossip networks, especially with music whose critical base is British. Songs of Praise finished toward the bottom of the 2018 Pazz & Jop top 100, after which I presumably listened to once as I generally do and moved on. But on your say-so I put it in the Spotify file on my phone, listened several times, decided it had a certain knack, bought the CD, stuck it in the changer a bunch more times, continued to feel it had a knack without ever getting to where I actively wanted to play it again, and decided to buckle down to a dedicated listen. Got through six tracks and put it away for a lost cause. It's not terrible, obviously, but without feeling obliged to expend more brain time and comparison listening, I'd say that although they know how to assemble a fast rock song--I see where the honorific "punk" comes up in their reviews of praise, but this music just isn't intense enough to merit it--their affect is devoid of any species of uplift: humor, empathy, solidarity, lyrics with a twist, all that corny stuff I retain a yen for. Formally anthemic, spiritually not is another way to put it. True enough, this has turned into a white male mindset, affliction, what have you. Part of the problem not part of the solution. Might they lift themselves out of it sometime? Hope so.

[Q] Your consistent positive reception of Parquet Courts left me surprised to find no review of their 2017 collab with Daniele Luppi, Milano. What were your thoughts on the project? How about Luppi's work with Danger Mouse (also producer of Wide Awake) on Rome (2011)? Just discovered this column and it led me to your new book, pumped to have a great summer read in the pipeline! -- Will, Denver

[A] Another album that never entered my recall memory if it entered my brain at all--checking back, I see it got its 7.5 from Pitchfork at just the time Carola's cancer diagnosis was materializing. So upon receiving this I took the same route as with Shame above, only when I bought it I was already pretty sure it was an A, and although I haven't written it yet or nailed any kind of cut-by-cut, by now I'm positive it's worth more than a 7.5. Thinking about Shame I was wondering why PQ were the only youngish all-male band I've gotten behind in what seems like this entire decade (and by the way, their biggest fan around here is female punk stalwart Carola Dibbell, although I was on them first). How readily they mesh with Karen O on Milano may suggest an answer.

[Q] Dr. Christgau: In your June 18th edition of Xgau Sez, you deemed "Heartbreak Hotel" an "overrated" single. Would you care to extend this qualifier to any other novelty hits, like Brenton Wood's "Oogum Boogum" or the Ikettes' "I'm Blue (The Gong Gong Song)"? -- Tim Getz, Vernon, New Jersey

[A] I don't think "Heartbreak Hotel" was a "novelty," though I have nothing whatsoever against novelties and in fact prefer both of the classic novelties you name to Elvis's breakthrough. On the contrary, it was a rather unorthodox pop song rendered more unorthodox by Presley's performance and legendary by its standing as the first pop hit by the most culturally and commercially momentous of the original rock and roll greats, whose third single made a believer out of me--not "Hound Dog," which was more a "novelty" than "Heartbreak Hotel," but "Don't Be Cruel," a flip side turned A side that presaged the follow-up "All Shook Up," which between them established rockabilly as a pop style even though they were presaged stylistically by several of Elvis's Sun recordings. To me both seem far more durable and classic than "Heartbreak Hotel." Which, don't get me wrong, ain't bad.

[Q] I discovered Nick Hornby's High Fidelity as a teenager, around the same time that I started reading your reviews. Rob Fleming's inclusion of "Tired of Being Alone" in his all-time Top Five list was my introduction to Al Green, and I recall going straight to your Consumer Guide to check if Green was the real deal. That said, what do you think of 1) the novel, 2) the movie adaptation, and 3) the various top-five lists featured in each? -- Nigel Jaffe, Jersey City

[A] Here's a tip, kidz. You're interested in what I think about something, stick it into the Google search utility at my site, as I did to locate the review I long ago published of High Fidelity. I think the novel is entertaining but limited, the movie better, and have no interest in either's top-five lists, though my review added one you can now go find. Hornby was and presumably remains a "rock" moldy fig whose ears closed up in his thirties as so many do. He was briefly a terrible rock critic in The New Yorker, a gig he lost, if memory serves, when he wrote a column bragging that he had not heard a single album in the top 10 of the week he was writing.

[Q] You reviewed a couple of Grateful Dead CDs recently (Cornell '77 and Crimson White & Indigo) and you've written that Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young and others redefine their music in concert, so I'd like to know if you're always monitoring the endless stream of archival concert releases and crate digs by the Dead, Hendrix, Neil Young, etc. or do you only check out ones that have good word of mouth? I can attest that both of Hendrix's recent releases (Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival from 2015 and Machine Gun from 2016) earn their acclaim. Neil Young's Roxy Tonight's the Night Live (2018) and his new Tuscaloosa both sound pretty great too. And lately Bruce Springsteen has made many of his best concerts available for sale at nugs.net, including the classic Roxy, July 7, 1978. And have you heard David Bowie's Welcome to the Blackout (Live in London) which is absolutely superb? And what about Sonic Youth's Battery Park NYC July 4, 2008? -- Bill Sussman, Astoria, New York

[A] The fact that some artists redefine their music in concert doesn't mean you can hear that miracle on their live albums. Imprecise audio, loose arrangements, protracted solos best propped up with visuals and ambient pheromones all slacken their impact. I played Hendrix's Atlanta CD just once and find most of Young's many live albums de trop even though I love the ancient Time Fades Away and like Live Rust; the two Deads you mention got *** and *, and the only one I'm likely to replay is the first side of CW&I because the sequence indicated in the recommended tracks is truly extraordinary; love the Broadway solo Springsteen, which is new conceptually (basically a musical version of his autobiography) but have never been compelled by his live E Street stuff. Etc. My favorite live album of all time is Monk's Misterioso--jazzmen in general are more accomplished and unpredictable soloists than rock musicians plus less dependent on audience vibes. Best live album of this century off the top of my head: Leonard Cohen's de facto best-of Live in London. PS: The Sonic Youth I've been playing with pleasure for weeks. I believe the '00s were their live peak. Kim is incendiary.

[Q] Why do you allow yourself to keep getting "retired"? Go into business for yourself! Set up a subscription service. Subscribers get a monthly e-mail blast of reviews for a small yearly pay-paled subscription fee. You'd only need a few thousand subscribers to make it financially viable. What's the problem with that? -- Ryan Gilliver, Lincoln, England

[A] Whaddaya mean, "allow" myself? It's as if everybody's-a-freelancer is a nouveau-avant-garde up-to-the-century ideal. To me this seems like dog-eat-dog capitalism in an era when ye olde www has drastically reduced the cash value of both recorded music and the written word. I've been a journalist all my life, and never happier or more at home than when I was part of a great newspaper called The Village Voice. And when the Voice canned me I was proud to be part of larger collectivities at both MSN and Noisey (Medium, I'd say, functioned differently). But all that said, and you bet I could go on, I am considering self-publishing at one of several sites designed to facilitate such ventures. I'll start no earlier than September, will get out fast if I'm not making enough money at it, and am not yet sure I want to do it at all. It so happens my first Voice Consumer Guide ran July 1969, which means Noisey pulled the plug--which happened, of course, because maintaining profitable publications on the web is a difficult trick--precisely 50 years after I started. There's a poetry in that. And although I still find myself writing capsule album reviews of stuff I was getting ready to do when I was told the column was ending just 10 days ago as I write, I need to find out what life is like without that particular obligation. Stay tuned.

June 18, 2019

[Q] Here is a list of my top nine favorite African artists:

  1. Youssou N'Dour
  2. Rachid Taha
  3. Tabu Ley Rochereau
  4. Papa Wemba
  5. Orchestra Baobab
  6. Kanda Bongo Man
  7. King Sunny Adé
  8. Étoile de Dakar
  9. Miriam Makeba

With whom shall I complete my top ten? -- Adam S. Fenton, Temecula, California

[A] Whoa, Nellie. You're missing someone I didn't notice at first because I assumed he was there--Luambo Franco, next to if not along with N'Dour the very greatest, start with the two superb Sterns Africa two-CD Francophonic comps and the Rochereau collab Omona Wapi. Moreover, I'd count N'Dour and Étoile de Dakar as one artist--that band was his invention, period--leaving room for another woman. Oumou Sangare or possibly Mariem Hassan would be my picks.

[Q] Do you like "Old Town Road"? -- Alexander Robertson, Wilton, Connecticut

[A] I like "Old Town Road" in the Billy Ray Cyrus remix. But I don't love it. As a song I think it tops Childish Gambino's "This Is America" but not Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow," two previous must-hear this-is-a-phenomenon singles I got on late because I'm so album-oriented in this phase of my life, but found none of the three as culturally or aesthetically compelling as I was supposed to. This may be because I'm 77 and may be because most current "memes," if that's what these are, are less intrinsically compelling than must-hears should be. More than, let us say, "Beat It" or "Hound Dog" (but maybe not the overrated "Heartbreak Hotel"), they are pure functions of an information system less universal than such information systems are credited with being. This is why so many "memes" would once just have been called "hypes." On the other hand, taking "Old Town Road" off the country chart strikes me as racist pure and simple, because country radio remains racist regardless of the Darius Ruckers and Kane Browns it makes room for. And of course, it's also sexist in an era when so many of the edgiest country singers are women: Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, Becky Warren, Margo Price, Ashley Monroe, Mary Gauthier, even Kacey Musgraves, can I mention Lori McKenna, and I know I'm forgetting people.

[Q] Do you still stand by C- for Master of Reality and if so why? -- William Hjelte, Brooklyn

[A] Why wouldn't I, and why doesn't the review I wrote--I believe in 1980, when I was filling out the first Consumer Guide collection, rather than 1971--suffice to explain? Was Sabbath an Important Band that belongs in the Rock Hall? Of course. Did I think the Osbournes' reality show was kinda funny? Indeed I did. But people like what they like, and why you'd expect someone with my sensibility to change his mind about that particular band I can't begin to know. It so happens that when I was doing my radio show for the Voice in 2001 my producer was a Sabbath fan. I liked him a lot, so when he asked me to give them another shot and provided a CD to make it easier, I did, for two-three plays. No go. End of story. Life is short and great music an all but infinite expanse.

[Q] I notice you don't review jazz records much lately, though you used to, notably Ornette Coleman. I know you chewed out Richard Meltzer back in the day for trying to review jazz without having the chops--did you even make him apologize to Gary Giddins?--but I would be curious to hear your views on Kamasi Washington's recent The Epic, especially because image wise it seems aimed at a wider/pop/rock audience. Although he puts a large orchestra plus a female choir into the kitchen sink, I hear rather little emotional substance. -- Simon Hearn, Vancouver

[A] First of all, I've never reviewed jazz much. Instead I followed jazz artists with rock or "rock" connections--Miles Davis's avant-electro-'70s, Ornette Coleman with his harmolodics (both of which claimed and for the most part earned "funk"), James Blood Ulmer and his ilk, the prolific and ever-changing David Murray, Nils Petter Molvaer and a few other trumpeters extending Miles's '70s into dub and techno--plus a few classic favorites, notably Monk and Sonny Rollins, who I had language and experience to explain to rock-oriented readers who'd followed me that far. Plus some overrated '70s "fusion" when that was a thing. These days, the old masters I came up with are gone, and I find I don't have the interest to explore new guys: Joshua Redman in particular clearly has something going for him, but also pretty clearly limitations I don't have the listening experience or critical chops to unravel. The recent Sons of Kemet and Harriet Tubman albums were gratifying exceptions. I hope there are more, but I have no intention of immersing in deep research or going off half-cocked to find them. As for Kamasi Washington and the rest of that LA posse, I think it's soft and all too feel-good. But that's a hunch only, one I'm unlikely to expand on in a format that has no use for Duds. (P.S.: As for Meltzer, there was never any way to "make" him do anything, which is to his credit.)

[Q] You've spoken before about how Johnny Griffin's tenor sax solo on Monk's Misterioso represents your favourite piece of recorded music. Are there any other segments of music that give it a run for its money? -- Adam, London

[A] The one parallel to that "In Walked Bud" solo I can think of I've written about before: the first, non-hit side of Bill Doggett's 1956 "Honky Tonk," its second side the biggest rock instrumental of the '50s, which I listened to for an hour straight on the living-room rug at 14 and came out a different person--my conversion to the blues template, which I replay occasionally to this day, although I listen to both sides consecutively now. That was life-changing. So it makes sense in a way that the more recent alternatives that come to mind are both death-related: Willie Nelson's "September Song," which my bedridden mother-in-law listened to over and over in the last months of her life (although often we played more of Stardust than that), and the Beach Boys' "Darlin'," which brought my wife and me to tears in the early days of her stem cell transplant sequestration last September. Those are obviously not strictly musical judgments, wonderful though the music has to be to make such an impression. Nevertheless, when I replay them now, and I do once in a while, the impact recalled remains.

[Q] You periodically reference requiring a certain mood/circumstance to completely appreciate an album--"Granted, its uses are limited--best for late nights alone," for Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate, "I'd have to be in a very special angry mood to play it," for an Idles album. It strikes me as the critic in conversation with the listener, the critic toward the "objective" (I know) end of the spectrum, the listener adding a necessary dose of subjectivity. I'm curious about how an album's "usefulness"--its ability to match or mold a mood--figures into your evaluations. Does a narrow range of commensurate moods make for a lower grade? -- Dustin Lowman, New York City

[A] What I really listen for is the kind of thrill that at its most intense feels like love. But on the earthly plane the fact is that I care much more about use value--a term Google reveals comes up dozens of times in my reviews over the years--than "objective" aesthetics, especially since a chief virtue of the latter is that they boost the former: the better executed or made an album, the more likely its use value is to endure. Indeed, it's rare for me to play an album without being something like "in the mood" for it, which is use value enough. And this goes way back. I've published precisely one poem in my life unless my rewrite of "Short People" counts, at Dartmouth when I was 19. It begins: "I will make poems/for my own uses/musical as hurdy-gurdies/and sad as the old man whimpers." Still sounds like me, I'd say.

May 28, 2019

[Q] Do you consider Pitchfork's 8.7 review of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music trolling? Your own C+ I can sort of get, but come on . . . 8.7? Ok, to be fair I have only heard the "A 1" track myself, but this is a mind game, right? I would have more fun with the drumbeats on the live "Waiting for My Man" than listen again. Next up we have 9.2 for 1973's Dylan because it's actually a masterpiece. Right? -- Ian Sommers, Manchester, England

[A] I don't know if I'd call it trolling, but in general I think this particular P4K feature/gimmick is more about repositioning the mag and recalibrating the canon than anything systematic or serious. Since this particular extreme example was written by Mark Richardson, who was the editor at the time, it's fair to assume it was done with some sort of editorial strategy behind it, but that's not to suggest that I think he did it solely to shock and be contrarian--he's always been a more judicious critic than that. Instead I'd surmise that the prog side of him had always believed (or, less propitiously, recently decided) that this provocative album had gotten a raw deal and thought it would be nice positioning for Pitchfork to play around with its own hard-earned stature as the established critical voice of the thoughtful young music fan by saying so in print. If you think that's trolling, a term I've never been comfortable with unless it involved anonymous, fictional personas, then you have a right, I guess. But my assumption is that the ideas expressed in that review are truly Richardson's. Not that they'd ever move me to relisten just to make sure. My 1977 review was based on multiple plays I have no desire to repeat. And I would also add that Metal Machine Music is a far cry from Dylan. It has a conceptual rationale and is original in that respect, which Dylan does not.

[Q] Hello! I wonder if there are any musicians of the rock age that you love but your wife can't stand, or vice versa? -- Robin Ingman, Upplands, Väsby, Sweden

[A] Basically, the answer is no, which is kind of miracle, isn't it? As I recall, she didn't like how Idles sounded, but first five times through neither did I, and though I came to admire that record I'd have to be in a very special angry mood to play it. In general, however, as we've gotten older I've been less inclined to play abrasive new music for her, though she has no trouble with the old stuff: Clash, Pavement, etc., and the fact is that I don't hear much abrasive new music that I like myself--never really liked the Fat White Family, say, though I intend to try again soon. Ditto for the more aggressive strands of hip-hop, although she actually worries that she doesn't hear enough recent stuff in that vein. And for sure I often play old favorites for her--just recently Steely Dan, who we listened to a lot when we were first together, and Bobbie Cryner, whose debut sounded so strong in the car this past Saturday. As I wrote in my memoir, Carola is as aesthetically responsive as anyone I've ever known, and that's without being any kind of sop or sponge. For a critic, she's such a gift, not a shit detector but a divining rod--when she notices something new that she likes I'm usually a lot further on my way to an A or at least a high Honorable Mention.

[Q] If you were a TED Talk, you'd be Chuck Klosterman. Any opinion on the guy? -- Rene Ortega, Fallbrook, California

[A] If I'm supposed to understand what the TED talk reference means, sorry, I don't. Does Klosterman do TED talks? For that matter, do you watch them? Wha? Anyway, Klosterman's obviously a very bright guy who I bet isn't as facile as he makes it seem. I like Fargo Rock City but have never worked up any interest in his other books or understood why he was declared an "ethicist" (wasn't that it?) by the NYT. That's in part because I've never credited what moral judgments of his I've encountered. He always seemed clever and contrarian for their own sake, the kind of guy who'd generate a "theory" he'd forget six months down the road. I will add, however, that he can be very funny. I once did a reading with him for some function I've long forgotten and he blew me off the stage--I enjoyed what he read more than what I wrote myself.

[Q] Good day, Robert. Please share your opinion of John and Yoko's "Woman Is the Nigger of the World." -- Wayne Timmins, Ontario, Canada

[A] The whole Some Time in New York City album sounds better to me now than it used to, and "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" was always the best song on it. Problem is, of course, that even in 1973 white people appropriating the word "nigger" was not just problematic but beyond the pale. And it still is. But as protest music goes, the detail and analysis of the rest of the lyric remain of unusual intelligence and complexity. Good tune, too.

[Q] Are you pussy-whipped? Do you review straight white males with guitars anymore or are they beholden to the patriarchy? You're worse than NPR. -- Drew Hirsch, Sweetbrier, California

[A] I am a white male heterosexual who has identified publicly as a feminist since 1970. Since then I have written thousands of positive reviews of bands consisting entirely of straight white guys with guitars. So far in 2018 I've added albums by Idles, Pedro the Lion, Todd Snider (solo, true), Robert Forster, Jason Ringenberg, and, er, Bruce Springsteen (also solo, hmm), not one of whom is stupid enough to think "pussy-whipped" a striking or witty term. Facts: African-Americans have always been the prime creative motor of American music, I've had an active interest in African music since it began to become more available in the mid-'80s, and most of today's interesting younger guitar bands are led by women, freed up by the confidence that they won't attract ginks like you to their shows.

[Q] Have you decided what album you will listen to on your deathbed? -- Rob, Pittsburgh

[A] Not yet.

May 07, 2019

[Q] Hey there. Mongo hasn't written in a while been busy making pigs happy this spring, they only settle down with Fox news on in the barn. Go figure. Anyway, I want to say I just can't wait to read your forthcoming collection Book Reports. (Thank you btw for the discount code too.) Mongo wonder, do you have a favorite book that you've read more than once in your life that can generate laughter from you. Mongo love Confederacy of Dunces for this very reason. -- Mongo, A Warm Muddy Midwestern Pig Farm

[A] Of novels I've read twice--I keep a record of sorts, believe it or not--the ones that make me laugh are Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo and Roddy Doyle's The Commitments. But that's not why I look them over again. I do that because they loom large in my life. So after reading your note I got on a stepladder and pulled down George Ade's Fable in Slang and More Fables in Slang, which I have in one volume that cost me a buck in 1962 or so. That made me laugh yet again. And when I reread Dave Hickey's Air Guitar, which I do often, in bits and pieces, I always laugh. A hilarious as well as a brilliant critic. His slept-on 2017 Perfect Wave is recommended.

[Q] The subtitle for Book Reports I can only suppose is an allusion to some 18th- or 19th-century bildungsroman--what's the story? And in light of the recent challenge to a similarly high-profile university press, any balming stories of editorial support at Duke, re the subtitle or otherwise? -- L.R., Washington DC

[A] I thought the subtitle was cute, precise, and bracingly unorthodox, end of story--certainly not a literary reference, in case that question wasn't an obscure joke. As for university presses, the Stanford story you link to is utterly unsurprising in a political environment where profit maximization at all costs is assumed almost everywhere to increasingly disastrous effect--including the book industry, natch, where "midlist" authors like me can no longer get decent advances. This is not to imply that I've ever made much money off any of my books. I publish books because I love books and read as many as I can--somewhere in the Jonathan Lethem piece in Book Reports the permanently book-mad Lethem puts this motivation better than I ever could. And into the midlist vacuum have stepped various university presses. Robert Gipe, who's published two terrific novels set in Kentucky coal country that I like a lot, did it with Ohio University. The Why TK Matters series to which my friends Donna Gaines and Tom Smucker have contributed 40,000-worders on the Ramones and the Beach Boys was dropped by a disintegrating University of New England Press and picked up by University of Texas. And my Duke editor Ken Wissoker published collections by Chuck Eddy (two) and Greg Tate before he did my two. As I'm telling audiences on my far-flung promotional tour, which will bring me to all the way to Word Books in Greenpoint May 23, Ken and I made literary history. Never before, to my knowledge, have two journalism collections by the same author appeared within the same six-month span, or indeed in successive years.

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