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.

April 14, 2021

And It Don't Stop.

Taste vs. judgment, the (somewhat) enduring appeal of Leon Thomas, the diminishing appeal of Green Day, reading about if not listening to Joanna Newsom, and the hymnals of Judee Sill and Todd Snider

[Q] In your Auriculum podcast you differentiated between taste which is subjective and judgment which involves, I gather, some objectivity. You also discuss your own preferences in music-- e.g. fast over slow and happy over sad. How do you reconcile those preferences in the taste/judgment continuum? -- David Wasser, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

[A] Taste, obviously. But within those tremendously broad characterizations inhere countless gradations, none of which will determine in themselves my or anyone's aesthetic responses to an individual piece of music or portion of same. This means that even at the crudest levels they should generate questions like, "If I'm such a big fan of happy music how come I hate the Kars 4 Kids ad even more than you do?" or (to choose an example from this past March 17) "Shane MacGowan takes 'The Band Played Waltzing Matilda' so slow, why am I sitting there after the dishes are done doing nothing but listening six minutes in?" I go into this in some detail in the Sonic Youth piece "Rather Exhilarating" in Is It Still Good to Ya?, which includes the following slightly edited passage: "One concept the non-old have trouble getting their minds around is the difference between taste and judgment. It's fine not to like almost anything, except maybe Al Green. That's taste, yours to do with as you please, critical deployment included. By comparison, judgment requires serious psychological calisthenics. But the fact that objectivity only comes naturally in math doesn't mean it can't be approximated in art. One technique is to replace response reports--'boring' and all its self-involved pals, like 'exhilarating' or the less blatant 'dull,' with stimulus reports." Which is to say, I'll now go on, physical descriptions of the music, best accomplished for the lay reader with colloquial, non-musicological language.

[Q] Do you really think Leon Thomas's Legend album is an A record? Listening back on it after many decades myself, Thomas's admittedly unique voice seems more a novelty than anything else and the album itself more clunky than swinging. -- Lee, Brooklyn

[A] My records indicate that I Consumer-Guided just two albums by the man who sang Pharoah Sanders's "The Creator Has a Master Plan," neither of them Facets--The Legend of Leon Thomas. Both are from 1970: The Leon Thomas Album, an A, and Spirits Known and Unknown, a B plus. But by the time I did the '70s Consumer Guide book I had hedged Thomas over into the Subjects for Further Research addendum, where I pointed out that his solo career had disappeared by 1975 and expressed reservations about his "muddle-headedness." So I couldn't tell exactly what you were talking about. But with my memory jogged I went to Spotify, so much faster than excavating my vinyl, and streamed Spirits Known and Unknown. Not clunky by me, a B plus at the very least--the yodeling rousing, the scatting spectacular. And while the rationalist I am remains well south of agnostic about the Guy, Gal, or Both with the Master Plan, he fervently believes Thomas's "Disillusion Blues" should be brought out of retirement if there's anybody out there with the chops and spiritual wisdom to shout and yodel it.

[Q] Hey Bob, I'm curious why you haven't reviewed the last few Green Day albums. I know you didn't like American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown all that much, but I'm just wondering why we haven't gotten reviews of Uno, Dos, Tre or Revolution Radio. Have you gotten bored of their shtick? -- Aidan King, Cape Elizabeth, Maine

[A] Elementary, really. When I give two consecutive albums by an artist I once liked C's, you can assume that I checked out the next one only briefly if at all, and chose not to find another way to hoist said artist on his or her own petard. In fact, said next one sounded like more of the self-important same, and I'm not sure I got all the way through the one after that, although I have a dim memory of trying briefly once. Nor has what little I've read about these albums given me any reason to believe I've missed anything. Punk is so tied up with the disillusions of growing up that punks do often age poorly.

[Q] I'm curious as to whether you have any thoughts on Joanna Newsom's last few albums; or did you merely file her under over-indulgence and logorrhea after Ys? -- Cathal Atty, Donegal, Ireland

[A] It seems to me that the answer to this and many similar questions is obvious: duh. (See Green Day directly above.) The reason I'm reprinting it here is to report that a year or two ago I received a letter that began: "Joanna Newsom is the greatest artist of the 21st century. Your misogyny is showing in your refusal to acknowledge her work." Such rhetoric is only to be expected when you're a critic because most people don't know what good criticism is, but though this correspondent was obviously only in her mid teens it was still disheartening--I am so not a misogynist. The second reason is to alert you to the superb and adulatory Erik Davis feature on Joanna Newsom in the 2007 Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology (those were the days), which I edited. Immensely long. As I explain in the book's intro, I read it in one 45-minute gulp, because I do know what good criticism is, and even though Newsom really ain't for me however much I appreciate her debut, this was clearly it. Different strokes, you know how it goes.

[Q] Any thoughts on the Judee Sill revival? Your reviews were spot-on, the grades maybe a little low (given how grades have morphed since 1972, a moot point). My knowledge of non-gospel Christian music begins and mercifully ends at Amy Grant, so I was grateful for her gorgeously rendered, way-out-there perspectives in a genre I'll never care enough to revisit. -- Keith Shelton, San Diego

[A] Having had no idea there was a Judee Sill revival, if there is, my first thought is how glad I am not to feel obliged to worry overmuch about such wavelets in music's vast sea. Clearly this is a time when every moderately gifted female singer-songwriter in creation awaits rediscovery, and Sill was a distinctive one. But where I was curious about how Leon Thomas might sound today, I found I could do without hearing Sill again. An overstater, a militant if fundamentally humane Christian--life is too short, especially when you're turning 79.

[Q] I've spent several Sunday afternoons enjoying Todd Snider's livestreaming shows--even bought a shirt to chip in for the cause. During a recent performance in which he played Agnostic Hymns in full, he claimed it was his best record. That was news to me, given how few of those songs have been worked into his recent live sets--he didn't play anything from it when I saw him in 2019. I even recall reading an interview where he seemed pretty ambivalent about it. It's always been my favorite of his (got lucky on eBay once and found a promo copy on vinyl for pennies on the dollar), so it was neat to hear Snider agree with me. I was wondering if you felt the same. Best to you and Carola. -- Jon LaFollette, Indianapolis

[A] Expecting consistency from Todd Snider is like expecting pie in the sky when you die--this is a guy who probably changes his mind while he's tying his shoes. We listen to his albums quite a bit around here given the wealth of alternatives, and the only one over the past coupla years I thought maybe wasn't a full A was East Nashville Skyline, which I expect was because I wasn't paying attention at the right times. Can't swear we've played Agnostic Hymns, however. Did definitely play both discs of The Storyteller in recent memory, and got Nina to listen to the entirety of "KK Rider Story," which as a comedy fan she loved. But since it came out our surprise fave has been 2019's apparently ramshackle Cash Cabin Sessions--have enjoyed it so much so that we entered it in our private Rolling Stone best-of-all-time sweepstakes. In that company, true, he did admittedly fall somewhat short.