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.

December 16, 2020

The art of storytelling and album covers. Also: consensus meters, epic curation, and a protest playlist.

[Q] I've been quite taken by Serengeti's Ajai--the characters, attention to detail, and humanity that runs through it have quickly made it one of my favourite hip hop albums. It got me thinking, who are the best storytellers in music? Dylan and Leonard Cohen of course go without saying. I grew up with my dad playing Ice-T in the car, and I've grown to appreciate the hyperliterate thug vignettes of Ghostface Killah and the Notorious B.I.G., the working-class character studies of Ian Dury and Randy Newman, and the masterful, first-person quote, unquote "short film" good kid, m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar. Would you count these among the best storytellers, and who am I missing? Please don't hesitate to suggest less literal storytellers, I love tangential lyricists like MF Doom, Mellow Gold-era Beck, and my favourite, Lil Wayne (none of those specifically would qualify though, I'm sure you'd agree). -- Ian Carroll, Skerries, Dublin, Ireland.

[A] I must say that I don't think of Dylan or Cohen as storytellers however many narrative and putatively autobiographical elements enter their songs, though obviously there are exceptions--Dylan's "Ballad of Hattie Carroll" leaps to mind, Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel." I think of them as songwriters--just listening as I write to my beloved "Brownsville Girl," and even that's on the cusp at best. And while there are obviously plenty of exceptions in hip-hop--Ghostface Killah's "260" has always been a favorite of mine, though when I relistened while following along on Genius I realized I'd never fully figured the story out--it's generally rappers' rhetoric and diction and sheer musicality that pull me in. But on the other hand there are great storytellers you don't mention--try the Drive-By Truckers' "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife," for instance. The very best are two artists who've actually put out albums with "storyteller" in the title. One is a flat-out comp, Tom T. Hall's The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Storyteller (start with "Salute to a Switchblade," then "Homecoming"). The other's a live best-of of sorts, Todd Snider's ("KK Rider Story" we were just enjoying for the umpteenth time last week), although "You Got Away With It" on The Devil You Know is the greatest of all. And hey, ever listen to Woody's Guthrie's "1913 Massacre"? Killer, as they say. Even "Ludlow Massacre" is a distinct runner-up.

[Q] Hello Bob! I've been reading you for 40 years--from sitting with the VV in my hometown library reading room til' now. But I think I might be about to stop and it is not because I don't learn from you anymore: I still get loads of great music tips from you! But your casual cruelty about people with substance abuse problems is, I fear, going to drive me away. Recently I tried to convince myself that you were just an old guy who needed some help catching up on current usage: but then I reminded myself that this is a 40+ year problem with you--a feature, as they say, and not a bug. From your dismissal of James Taylor as an "addict, pure and simple" to last month's description of Skip Spence as a "hopeless druggie" this seems to be a cruel and conscious worldview. All those years on the Lower East Side and nobody has been able to break through to you about substance abuse as illness (very often constituted as dual diagnosis with other mental illness)? Anything you want to share on this? -- Jeffrey Melnick, Cambridge, Massachusetts

[A] Backatcha, Jeff--still recall proudly how impressed you were when I biked something like nine miles on no sleep after getting lost at Roskilde in 2012, when I was 70. Thousands of books addressing questions like yours have been written, and I'm not about to start one here. But having affirmed that of course addiction is a disease, I'll begin by pointing out that you misread the Taylor review: the addiction is to the road and the Holiday Inn. At the time I wrote it (I suspect retrospectively in 1980 for the first Consumer Guide book rather than in 1971 when the album came out), I had no inkling of Taylor's weakness for heroin. Then I'll point out that while all diseases are arguably subject to interventions of the human will and/or spirit, this is much truer of addiction than, for instance, cancer, which Norman Mailer used to preach had a psychosomatic dimension, not to mention Covid 19. It's clearly too bad for Skip Spence and particularly his four kids that he just couldn't kick, and hard not to suspect because it's easy enough to recall that portions of Spence's fanbase actively admired how wasted he was. It's the romanticization of addiction that I abhor, and that has been all too common since the bebop days. But let me add that from Charlie Parker to Kurt Cobain, I've actively admired the music of many addicts, and add that one of these is John Coltrane, who kicked heroin cold turkey circa 1957 and became a much greater musician thereafter.

[Q] In the November Xgau Sez you brought up the American Epic soundtracks, which reminded me that in your original review for that record it sounded like you were also looking forward to digging into the American Epic: The Sessions album. From what I can tell, you enjoyed several other albums from the American Epic collection but you never reviewed Sessions. Am I correct in assuming that means it fell short for you? The sessions film was my favorite episode of the documentary, and while the romanticism of the reconstructed 1920s recording system (along with the fact that I'm a Jack White homer) no doubt influences my opinion, I'm also a big fan of the album. I'm curious to hear whether you got around to the Sessions album (and/or film), and if so, what you thought of it. -- Benjamin Schroeder, Grand Rapids, Michigan

[A] As someone who isn't a Jack White anything, I couldn't even get through the sessions album--don't recall the details anymore, just said enuf. Nor do I much remember the sessions episode of the documentary. I think the sharp-eared musical curation and cinematic historical digging of that project are both extraordinary. The John Hurt and Memphis Jag Band stuff knocked my socks off, and the blues CD Bernard MacMahon assembled is my favorite such comp--starts with the ahistorical (because late rather than early '30s) Robert Johnson, what a stroke. The "commercial" gestures of the session stuff, on the other hand, did nothing for me--less interpretation than exploitation, as I recall with no intention of checking. And one more thing: the documentary itself can be streamed at Amazon Prime. Very highly recommended.

[Q] I was curious about your opinion on RateYourMusic.com, an online collaborative metadata database of musical and non-musical releases which can be catalogued, rated and reviewed by users. Did you know about it? Did you use it some time? What's your general opinion about this kind of site? -- Eduardo Mujica, Colombia

[A] I don't think there's any harm in such enterprises, but given that I don't even credit Metacritic scores that much, it shouldn't surprise either of us that I don't expect to be going there often. For you I would assume it's different, since one reason you're here is almost certainly my half century of grading albums and this is an alternative. Thing is, for me grading is by now an ingrained skill--I've learned how to recognize, analyze, and describe in words my own aesthetic responses and also know how to build into such articulations a quantum of "objectivity." These raters are amateurs. Were I to learn that something had, I don't know, a 4.5 on RateYourMusic (and wasn't metal or some other genre I just don't care about) I'd probably check it out, although when I gave the site a glance I didn't even run into any 4.0s. So two pieces of advice. One, Metacritic is probably a more useful consensus meter. Two, I'd bet without checking back that RateYourMusic is 95 percent male if not higher. All this rating stuff is very boy in a time when women are nearing parity in musical quality-quantity even though men still dominate every phase of the industry. Only P.S.: there are now many more women critics than there were just five years ago, another reason to check Metacritic first.

[Q] In your review of Wish You Were Here, you say "the cover/liner art is worthy of all the stoned raps it has no doubt already inspired." This got me wondering how important you consider cover/liner art as a visual impression of an album, and how vinyl to CD to streaming may have diminished this effect--if any--over the years. For better or for worse, once I see the cover of an album, it's hard to unsee it as part of the "image" the music forms. Have you ever had this happen? -- Joe, London, UK

[A] I agree that covers matter--even the digital-only albums that have proliferated in this era almost always come with a square illo that will print out for the downloader who burns (in color if that's how the downloader rolls, as most presumably do and I unfortunately do not). How well most are remembered is another matter. Forty-five years after the fact I had no idea what Wish You Were Here looked like, and when I pulled the vinyl LP out of my shelves also had no idea what I was talking about musically in that review--not an A minus I don't think for those anal-retentives who are keeping score. Maybe the heads were agog about the cover--it was still a pot-smoking era and Floyd was of that cultural persuasion. But by then I'd pretty much quit and was never much of a head to begin with, though I do recall a special fascination with the cover of the first Asylum Choir album, good luck finding that one--psychedelic toilet paper as I recall. (Sez an Amazon commentator: "When this album came out, nobody had heard of Leon Russell or Mark Benno, and thye original cover was a toilet paper roll." (Misspelled "the" in original.) In general I think the answer for me, as someone who probably owns 50 times as many albums as you do, is a simple no. That doesn't mean it isn't different for those whose collections are smaller, who have certain records they handle all the time. It also doesn't mean I can't see the covers of Ramones, Misterioso, and The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in my mind's eye. Great covers all, and very different.

[Q] At risk of coming across as naively thinking that the devastation is over simply because he's been voted out, I was wondering if you would care to put together a playlist--or other kind of list--of your favourite Trump-targeting songs from the last four or so years. Not sure there's a whole canon there, and am sure I've picked up on some dissatisfaction from you at times that there haven't been more Trump songs, but there's probably a good selection. Off the top, Oberg, Snider, Hamell and Superchunk have all contributed some quality material. It'd be good to see your top picks. -- Isaac Iszchak, Norfolk, UK

[A] Sorry to say my dissatisfaction remains in place. Unless I'm misremembering, in fact, neither Hamell nor Superchunk, gratifyingly political though they've been, has contributed anything specific to Trump unless Hamell's commander-in-chief-assassinating "Too High" counts. To Oberg's "Nothing Rhymes With Orange" I'd add "Care" even though it doesn't name names either. YG's "FDT" remains relevantly cathartic more than four years after it was released; Public Enemy's "State of the Union" is just as explicit and more detailed even though it doesn't utter his cursed name; A Tribe Called Quest finished off We Got It From Here with the otherwise inexplicit "The Donald." And after that I'm reduced to comedy albums, first Tim Heidecker's Too Dumb for Suicide (my two favorites both involve shitting: "Imperial Bathroom" and "Sentencing Day') and then Harry Shearer's better researched The Many Moods of Donald Trump ("Covid 180," "I Never Knew Him," "Very Stable Genius"). As an alternative you can go to Spotify and search for Joe Levy's "Uprising 2020" playlist. For me racism remains primary. Even more than the long-term economic devastation wreaked by the greed of the superrich and their legislative minions, the legacy of chattel slavery remains my nation's crippling original sin and hasn't been so great for Britain either. The songs Levy put together in June hit that truth from as many angles as there are artists to calibrate them. [Eeek--PS. Because this Q&A was inadvertently deleted during the editing process and had to be quickly recreated, I failed to finish with the first and still greatest of the anti-Trump songs: YG's "FDT," released March, 2016 and killer to this day.]