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.