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.

August 06, 2019

[Q] I'm saddened that the Consumer Guide is in limbo due to the vagaries of the publishing and music industries. The grades remain a very valuable consumer tool. Idea: provide the grades for new albums et al without the capsule reviews (which I assume takes the bulk of your time). You provide your recommendations to your acolytes without spending hours writing reviews without compensation. Thoughts? -- Dan Weiss, Washington, D.C.

[A] Nah. A) It's still work I'm not getting paid for, so why? B) The writing and the grading are organic to each other, so that the grade will occasionally change and often firm up as I write. Writing is the final phase of grading. C) For me it would be interesting to find out how giving up grading might change the way I hear.

[Q] Among all the rightful praise thrown your way, Dean, I would like to add this vital point: you have been right. Critics, to be worth their salt, have to emerge from the pages of history as right, right? My personal experience has demonstrated this--freakin' Field Day, for prime instance. Universally dismissed (Rolling Stone gives it the back of the hand) and you give it an A plus. A plus! Today it sounds--God--so damn good, it holds up and I expect it to do so for years into the future. My question is this: I know you have spoken about this in the past but what records do you recall as being the absolutely toughest to settle on and decide? And why? -- Werner Trieschmann, Little Rock, Arkansas

[A] Werner, as a longtime fellow toiler in the rock-critical oilfields as well as a longtime supporter of mine, you know very well that "right" is a contingent concept. The reason you're a fan and supporter is that, like many of my more devoted readers, you happen to hear music and relate to artistic expression the way I do. It's somewhat subjective. That said, I think I'm unusually good at hearing beyond the kind of timebound stylistic prejudices that cause Greg Kot in the fourth Rolling Stone Album Guide--who, be fair now, does acknowledge that the booming, echoey production on Marshall Crenshaw's Field Day is "divisive," meaning that there's another school of opinion, by which he may well be thinking of mine--to give that album only two stars out of five. But "right"--that's too grand and absolute a concept for tastes that you and I share. As for what was tough to settle on, I don't know anymore. I just scrolled through the A's on my site and couldn't find one I remembered agonizing over, except maybe for a few I expect I overrated: Spoek Mathambo's Father Creeper, almost certainly an A minus, and the utterly disrespected white-women rap trio Northern State, whose first three releases all got full A's from me. That particular judgment has proven so déclassé that I've been afraid to replay for years. But doing so right now I can say that although their flow is probably too stiff for a full A I still think the songs are first-rate.

[Q] After a few years analyzing the "meta score" between movies and music (aggregate reviews across different sources), a clear theme emerges: Movies Bad, Music Good. If you look at reviews across the spectrum of major releases between movies and music, by far, music critics are more forgiving and even shy to negatively criticize any musical act than movie critics are towards film. In short, every album that has been released for the past 10 years is at least a "B," and most movies are at best a "C" and mostly worse than that. How do you account for this grade/rating inflation? Unlike Xgau, it seems like most music critics don't have a real opinion at all. It defies reason that every album that comes out is a B. -- Douglas Smith, Orinda, California

[A] Robert Hilburn keeps harping on this piece of misleading math on Twitter as well. And while I'd agree that, as the "Rotten Tomatoes" tag indicates, there's a long-running tradition of the blatant pan in movie criticism that surfaces only seldom in music criticism, to me it's obvious that the principal reason for that is structural: there are more albums released than films by a factor of . . . what? In the old days, make it 10 or 20, but in the Soundcloud era it's even larger. So where almost every film released to theaters is reviewed, by a staff of one at many publications, often a frustrated aesthete who regards "good entertainment" as B plus at best--cineastes tend more pretentious than rock critics (who themselves often don't respect pure fun the way they should, either) --and other time someone who cares for nothing else. In contrast, most albums aren't even covered, and when they are it's by someone with an affinity for the subgenre the album represents assigned by an editor who's already decided the album is good enough to cover, where in film the same person ranges far and wide. I would add that Rolling Stone's standard three to three-and-a-half star review reads like B minus to B plus to me, and B minus ain't B, and the same goes for P4K's usual 70-80 range, where I personally take below 70 as a C plus. And I'd add as a onetime music editor that, given the paucity of review space, I was always ready to hear a critic I respected pitch me on something he or she loved and I wasn't especially impressed with.

[Q] Your top forty list of the '70s changed my life threefold. It brought to my attention Call Me by Al Green which I've considered the greatest album ever for the entire duration since 1980. It also introduced me to For the Roses which is my most listened to album ever--often it's too emotionally draining and too attention consuming to listen to Al Green. Thirdly the list turned me onto the Holy Modal Rounders. I'm not as wild about Have Moicy! as their first two albums. What's your opinion of those? You're wrong about I'm Still In Love With You being an A minus. It's on par with Call Me. -- Ted Fullwood, San Jose, California

[A] As it happens, I did an Al Green roundup for Blender in 2007, when I found that I agreed with you: I'm Still in Love With You, the conventional choice, is even better than Call Me. Find said roundup here. You should also be aware that there's a great albeit discomfiting Al Green bio available from Jimmy McDonough, very much worth reading even though McDonough is an arrogantly and also tediously contrarian anti-intellectual who thinks yours truly is a wonk--the stuff on Green's musicians is terrific, the sad biographical saga worth coming to terms with. And btw: Green's supposed autobiography is so empty I decided not even to mention it in my roundup. As for the Rounders, sure I like their early 1 & 2 stuff. But not as much as Have Moicy!, which is probably in my all-time top 10.

[Q] You gave Vampire Weekend's first three albums an A-, A, and A+. All three were produced by Rostam Batmanglij. Without Rostam, you gave Vampire Weekend a B+. Do you feel that the band missed Rostam's influence? I would argue that Rostam's production is integral to the band's sound, but you have never mentioned him in your Vampire Weekend reviews and you have not reviewed any of his solo work. -- Alan, Canada

[A] Just for the record, I did mention Rostam once, in the big VW essay collected in Is It Still Good to Ya? But not at length. Did his split with Koenig bode ill for the band? Of course. But que sera sera. Koenig remains VW's face, voice, and lyrical soul, and I doubt that Rostam's influence would have materially improved the new album, which I like a smidgen less than most. I have indeed followed his solo work and found it one more variation on the usual synthmaster texturetronics.

[Q] Please put me on your mailing list if you do go it alone. I'd subscribe to that. Best regards, Mr. C. -- Michael Craig, Vancouver

[A] Still haven't decided what I'm doing, but if I decide on a subscription model I will announce it on my site and on Twitter. As someone who's proud to have stayed off Facebook for all these years, I don't want to sell anybody on Twitter, which has many drawbacks although I've managed to render it useful by holding my fire and delimiting how many people I follow. But it is an easy way to keep up with my doings., which I always announce there.

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.

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