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.

January 15, 2019

[Q] Alright Robert, so you have to live on a deserted island for a year. You can only bring one artist's discography to listen to. Whose discography do you bring with you? -- Cody Holleman, Fort Worth

[A] Kids are so cute. You apparently don't know that Greil Marcus edited a book based on this silly premise called Stranded 40 years ago. We were supposed to pick albums, not oeuvres, and although Dave Marsh concocted an imaginary compilation he claimed he could jerk off to, most of us took our assignment as what it was: a chance to celebrate a beloved album at essay length for decent money--$750, quite good for the time, not to mention this one. I cheated by picking a UK-only double-LP comprising both New York Dolls LPs. For your silly question I'll be more literal, however, and say the choice would be between the Beatles and Miles Davis and I'd probably chicken out and choose Davis because he recorded so much with so many different concepts, attitudes, grooves, and sonic gestalts. Sure I prefer Monk in real life. But he just isn't as varied.

[Q] You have reviewed every post-1970 Dylan album, and of course most of his 60s work is listed in the Basic Record Library. But you haven't commented on the five (!) albums' worth of standards Uncle Bobby has dropped on the world since 2015. Why the pass? Not interested? Tried to listen but felt meh? You dug both Willie's Stardust (a lot) and Rod's American songbook volumes (enough). If you did give Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels, or Triplicate a listen or two (or five), what was your takeaway? -- David Sussman, Orlando, Florida

[A] I bought Shadows in the Night and listened, I don't know, three-four-five times. Probably not five, because it was painful. Dylan's voice would appear to be permanently shot, which happens to lots of singers as they approach eighty, although Willie Nelson and Elza Soares and to a lesser extent Tom Zé and many others including my near-contemporary Maria Muldaur are sounding great. Sinatra was such a virtuoso, however, that he petered out. Dylan might still get away with writing songs for the voice he has, as the shot Leonard Cohen did. But the Sinatra-style pop canon Dylan has devoted himself to lately does generally require some show of mellifluousness and pitch control. Nothing I know about the follow-ups suggest he sounds any better three years later.

[Q] Will you admit that you got Fiona Apple's debut Tidal wrong? -- Dominic, Brigantine, New Jersey

[A] Do a Consumer Guide search on Fiona Apple on my site and find her reviews topped by Tidal's Neither. But at the bottom there's a link to something called "Hearing Her Pain" that till October 2020 will inform the Fiona Apple fan that the 2012 Barnes & Noble Review essay of that title is included in Is It Still Good to Ya? and embargoed as such. But I can tell you that my view of Tidal had not changed as of that 2012 pass and that I am unlikely to revisit the question again. "Determinedly bathetic," "sodden juvenilia," "went triple platinum behind a Grammy-winning single about doing a good man wrong and a video featuring a teenager in her underwear" is the pertinent verbiage. Sorry.

[Q] It seems like Anthony Fantano's by far the most discussed music reviewer on the internet these days. Have you watched any of his reviews. Do you think he's a good critic? -- David Springer, Fairfax, Virginia

[A] I don't "watch" reviews. I read writing. When I'm at the computer I almost never click on links to podcasts or televised news much less criticism, for two reasons--first, reading is faster than listening, and second, I'm continually using my ears to listen to music. Moreover, no one I know "discusses" Anthony Fantano, a name I barely recognized. Glancing over his Wikipedia entry he seems to have arrived at a plausible brand of 21st-century rockcrit taste that runs toward what I'll call dark prog--the godfathering Swans, this year's number one Daughters, on the rap end his beloved Death Grips. But clearly he's broader than that. Little apparent interest in the pop end or indeed tune or indeed fun, however--always a tragic and psychologically revealing lacuna. Nowhere near as insensible to hip-hop/r&b as dark proggers tend to be, but note that very few female artists crack his top 10s, which in 2018 was really missing the action. Fantano seems to have figured out a way to make some kind of living by disseminating his own criticism in the online age. That's an achievement. But until he starts putting it in written language, I'll live without.

[Q] You reviewed albums for magazines that ranked by star like Rolling Stone and Blender. Especially in Blender's case, I thought you were kind of generous on the five stars with some collections (Patsy Cline and John Fogerty jump to mind). Were you really generous or did you change your mind eventually? -- Nicky, Quebec City, Quebec

[A] Every mag that rates records has a different way of doing it. If I'm working for them, it's my job to do it their way. Rolling Stone was always too stingy except when Jann Himself was reviewing one of his rich friends. I wanted to give Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels five stars and was flat-out refused, and could only raise M.I.A.'s Kala to four-and-a-half after crushing out a review just before a family vacation and then finding that all I wanted to do when I got to LA was play it again. Both are now fives for them if subsequent coverage is any indication. Partly to distinguish itself from Rolling Stone, Blender graded more leniently; I'd say they didn't recognize the A plus concept. So for them those two comps got the highest grade. Without relistening to make sure, that makes sense to me.

[Q] What stylistic rules of thumb do you live by that other writers would benefit from. -- Scott Lyons, Stirling, Scotland

[A] I don't know about stylistic, beyond find your own voice and stick with it as it develops--plus, I guess, be funny occasionally if you can. Plus plus, oh yeah, condense. But I believe in rewriting and rewriting again--rereading anything you write at least half a dozen times, which in the case of the stuff up front in anything over 1000 words usually means dozens of times. Reread on the screen, type it out and read it on paper because that's different, ask someone you know to give it some sort of edit because the simple awareness that other eyes are on it will add perspective. And then, when you're all done and ready to send it off, proofread one more time. I should add that the Xgau Sez format is designed to be more off-the-cuff so it feels less like work--I fiddle with it, sure, but not so laboriously, and it's barely edited by design. So in this format I fuck up more often. Like when I said Ghost Dog was my favorite soundtrack hands down? Completely forgot about American Honey, which I like even more.