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 15, 2020

Grades that hold up (and one that didn't), lyrical determinacy (or not), Kendrick's minuses (and pluses), pleasant enough music, unpleasant mail and the eternal greatness of T.S. Monk's "Bon Bon Vie."

[Q] Are there some notable albums you had loved initially but in the process of time of time you think of them as much worse? You know, an A-, an A, or maybe even an A+ that has aged extraordinarily poorly; put out of context, there's not much left? -- Jakub, Olkusz, Poland

[A] Basically the answer is no, although the way David Murray's A plus Shakill's Warrior failed to bowl me over when I checked it out a while back is an exception--A plusses should be eternal, so I'd have to guess now that that one is an A minus. The reason it's only "basically," however, is that there are for sure some A minus albums out there that I haven't played since I reviewed them--statistically, it's inevitable. I wouldn't expect to immediately "get" every low A minus I haven't played in 20 or 30 years, but I also wouldn't replay unless I had a journalistic reason to do so even though it would only be fair to give it a second try. In general, however, such experiments work out very well--A minuses I literally haven't heard in two or three decades sound fine when I bring them back. I remember doing that a year or two back with two early-'70s albums by what I'd describe as black bohemians who got very little critical attention: Paul Pena in 1972 and "Mississippi Charles" Bevel in 1973. After almost half a century both were still clearly A minuses by me. Proud to say I seldom jump the gun or get carried away by either the conventional wisdom or my own contrarian tendencies.

[Q] Hi Bob! Another one of your Chinese fans here, wanna thank you for your work, I started following when I was 12, now I'm 25 and your writing has pretty much formed my musical tastes and still is the never failing compass to exciting new (and old) music. So! As a non-native English speaker, I've always wondered what your approach to the comprehension of lyrics in more obscure and less accessible music is. Might as well throw in some of the hip-hop and folk music (Dylan?). As I understand it, you play the records a couple of times and delve into them when the music really grabs you. I doubt that you understand everything all the time, so at what point do you decide that you need to read them? Do you always wait until you understand everything before you grade the records? (All the slang and cultural references in hip-hop music!) And what do you do if you can't get hold of the lyrics? -- Jo, Nantes, France

[A] As long as they're in English I always try to know what the lyrics are at least in general before I sign off on a record, which always takes more than a couple of times, and when they're not readily available I poke around trying to get a rough idea. Many people, some of them wonderful vocalists or otherwise gifted musicians, have really stupid ideas about politics, religion, and human relations, and many men have deplorable ideas about women. Not most, certainly, but for sure a few, and if I'm signing off on music that includes such ideas I at the very least want to be aware of it. Sometimes, of course, knowing the lyrics is literally impossible, because they're garbled or gargled. But Genius, which I refer to all the time, is a very useful if less than absolutely accurate resource, and often interviews and reviews help too. The lyrics aren't determinative and shouldn't be. The music generally continues to dominate my aesthetic response, though there are exceptions. But knowing what's there is just part of the job.

[Q] I'm probably grade-grubbing here, but you gave pretty much every Kendrick Lamar album an A-minus, which means there are some flaws holding it back from an A/A+. I'm curious to know what those flaws are--is it song-for-song inconsistency, or a general dislike for his ambitious concepts? And given that To Pimp a Butterfly came in 22nd on your best-of decade list (ahead of Modern Vampires, which got an A+) has your opinion changed? -- Oscar, Johannesburg, South Africa

[A] Not grade-grubbing--a reasonable question, especially given Butterfly's placement in my decade list, though if you look at the Dean's List for 2015 (via the Pazz & Jop tab on the homepage) you'll see it's number four there, because by year's end I'd already decided I'd underrated it. My problem with Lamar has always been his flow. I've just never gotten the kind of musical thrill from his soft-edged enunciation that I do from crisper and clearer rappers: Chuck D, Rakim, Jay-Z, Eminem, Nicki Minaj. Especially given that I made it a point to defend Kanye's somewhat awkward flow when he was getting dissed for it early in his tragic and increasingly reprehensible career, this is obviously a personal quirk of mine, one I might renounce altogether were I ever to spend a day or two bearing down on Lamar. A major artist without question.

[Q] A lot of young people coming off of the musical line of Vampire Weekend, Sufjan Stevens, Beach House, and Mitski feel like (Sandy) Alex G stands out brightly in Spotify's indie playlists. What did you think of his September 2019 album House of Sugar? Too pleasant with not enough being said? -- Alan, Canada

[A] I read those reviews and dutifully stuck the album up at the top of my Spotify Consumer Guide candidates, of which there are a lot. Assumed that I'd put it on now and then and eventually it would hook on between my ears the way all the artists you've named did after three-four-five plays--if not worth a full review, then at least what I still think of as an Honorable Mention. Didn't happen, so after a month or so I gave up. "Too pleasant without enough being said" may well be the reason--I note that the four artists you named all have both distinctly different sounds and lyrical approaches, the latter of which Alex G definitely does not.

[Q] Was looking through your grades recently (as one does with way too much free time on their hands) and was curious about your opinions on any Swans album past Filth (1983)? You gave it a B+, so I'd generally imagine you don't dislike their sound or their vibe in general. Or maybe on a broader topic: any strong opinions on Gira's work outside of the group? (Referring his solo work, Angels of Light, The World of Skin, or The Body Lovers / The Body Haters.) Can't really imagine you being a fan of the super heavy stuff, but thought I would ask anyway. -- Paul Attard, New York

[A] Sometimes in the late '80s, after I'd published a few derogatory words about Swans in contexts I no longer recall--possibly Voice Choices or something?--I got a letter from Michael Gira or someone claiming to be Michael Gira with a hand-written message explaining that the gluelike residue on the paper was Gira's semen and a few of his pubic hairs. By this time I'd decided that Swans weren't as funny as my B plus said they were, so I was convinced by this missive never to listen to them again. In fact, however, I did, early in this decade; don't remember which latish Swans album the Pitchfork boys got so exercised about, but I played it more than once and decided I'd done my duty. I can't say I was surprised when a few years ago singer Larkin Grimm accused Gira of raping her.

[Q] I fucking love "Bon Bon Vie." I mean, how could you not? This is an amazing song that deepens every time you listen to it. I'm just curious to know, considering how much you love Monk, do you think that the fact that it was made by two of his children influenced how much you love that song purely musically? -- Nicholas Auclair, Montreal

[A] Seems to me my CG album review answers the Thelonious question. But since you've given me this opening, I'm grabbing the chance to point out that the final chapter of my Going Into the City memoir is entitled "Bon Bon Vie" and includes the following paragraph:

T.S. Monk's "Bon Bon Vie" had no connection to Thelonious Monk except a big one--Monk's son, bandleader Thelonious Sphere Monk III a/k/a Toot, plus his sister Boo Boo and his fiancee Yvonne Fletcher. Their 1980 debut album was produced by Sandy Linzer, a veteran songwriter with enough catalog highlights to keep a hack's head up--the Toys' "Lover's Concerto," the Four Seasons' "Workin' My Way Back to You," Odyssey's "Native New Yorker"--who had also recently produced Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, the rare artistic entity (cf. the Pointer Sisters) to claim retro and make something more alive out of it. But not even Dr. Buzzard put such a spin on "the good life." "Bon Bon Vie" engineers its escape by devoting three stanzas to Toot's clock-punching weariness and alienation, one to how much he loves New York anyway, and one to a champagne-quaffing night on the town, the final line of which leaves his last remaining dime in a blind man's cup. Yet in all five stanzas the Chic-like spritz of Toot's arrangement and the good-humored ebullience of his vocal--an excellent drummer by trade, he can sing when he has a song, including a 1999 "Just a Little Lovin'" almost as sexy as Dusty Springfield's--exemplify a Gramsci precept Marshall Berman loved: "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." Linzer never gave the band another decent song. And then, in a Marshall Berman-worthy turn, both Boo Boo Monk and Yvonne Fletcher died of breast cancer in 1984. After a period of seclusion, Toot emerged to head Boo Boo's brainchild, the long-running Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. He also started a pretty good jazz group. But even rearranging his father's indelible book, he never came up with anything as complex and distinguished as "Bon Bon Vie."