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 other Tuesday.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

August 07, 2018

[Q] I've noticed that your reviews have begun to reflect a lot of political thought in the days of Donald, beginning with A Tribe Called Quest's most recent album (and your most recent A+). The questions I wish to ask are these: how do you perceive art unbiased when you have a political view? Do you believe in having an obligation, as part of a publication, to highlight certain a political agenda? -- Henry Glover, Australia

[A] A surprising number of my interrogators seem to think criticism should be "unbiased," or even that I make such a claim for my own. That's silly. Everybody's "biased." Every one of us has a different set of values. The critic's responsibility is to be explicit about those values and put them to use. I've always been more candidly and aggressively political than most critics, and by political I mean "of the left." That doesn't mean the word can't just as readily signify more moderate or conservative views, although in rock criticism the latter are still pretty rare. When I started rock criticism was counterculture-identified and therefore left-identified, although some critics tried to muffle those connections--take a look at my early essay "Rock 'n' Revolution." But I was also very aggressive about the aesthetic legitimacy of popular and mass culture, which I associated with class prejudice and still do, although that point has become far too hegemonic. But all of this has a graver weight in the Trump era, because we thought World War II defeated fascism and it didn't. Trump hasn't succeeded at fascism (yet) only because the USA's institutional structure makes that difficult to bring off--and also, I hope, because the number of citizens who would welcome a government even more racist and authoritarian than the one Trump and the revanchist, oligarchical Republican Party of today has done its damnedest to put in place is smaller than even Trump's poll numbers suggest. Take a look especially at Poland, Hungary, and Italy as well as Putin's Russia (and the China of president-for-life Xi). I don't believe there's much room for moderation in this schema, although I believe that moderates like Merkel and Schumer-Pelosi do put a kind of brake on it. So yes I'm making a special effort to write about politics when I find music that finds a way to address this crisis, which is very difficult to do without being merely preachy or worse. And damn right too I think rock critics/"music journalists" should do their best to fight this fight and hammer home these points, which is also very difficult to do effectively.

[Q] Hi! Can you recommend please any specific greatest hits CDs by The Four Seasons, The Flamingos, or The Shondells? I know and like a few songs by each of them but don't know if any of these oldies groups are really worth buying a CD for. Thank you so much. -- Elena B., Brooklyn

[A] Know this, Sezzers. This person was not born Elena. He was born Joseph, and has no transsexual tendencies I'm aware of. Joseph suffers from a rare psychological disorder called greatest hits fetishism and, because I'm the only rock critic who takes the compilation seriously, is always trying to get me to answer questions like this, leaving me less and less inclined to be his enabler. He's posing as a woman here because he knows something deep about me: I wish the whole enterprise I set in motion with the Consumer Guide in 1969 wasn't so Boy. I love women. I've been learning about music from women for more than half a century and have had sexual relationships with two dynamite rock critics, the latter of whom stuck at trying and ultimately succeeding as writing dynamite fiction instead (Carola Dibbell, The Only Ones, now available in French as well as English). So far, 17 of my 45 A records this year are either by women or feature them definitively (that's Wussy and Yo La Tengo). So if any of you guys can persuade the female music lovers I hope and believe are in your lives to visit here, I'd be grateful.

[Q] Mongo fancy himself a very bad homebrewer. Are you a craft beer guy? I wonder if you enjoy any specific libations while listening to music? Do you have a favorite beer or liquor you or your wife enjoy? -- Mongo Vauche, A Midwestern muddy pig farm

[A] Xgau craft nothing but sentences, and for reasons he'll get around to explaining isn't drinking with his wife as much as he used to, which was regularly but never a lot--two-drink days were the exception, no-drink days common enough. Except for the occasional late-night beer, he never drinks alone. But to return to the first person, we've definitely liked some beers in our time and in fact collaborated on a 1975 Consumer Guide to beer for Oui. I will say that after a long spell with mostly IPAs and other ales, I've returned to pilsner in the past few years--Brooklyn Lager made a good one Trader Joe's no longer stocks, and I now favor Six Point "Pilz"--"The Crisp," as it's billed--and Carola likes a Belgian ale called Fat Tire, both from Trader Joe's and often we switch off. At bars she goes for strange ales and the wheat beers I can't stand at all; I find out what pilsner they're selling. We're both big fans of something called McNeill's Firehouse Amber Ale, which isn't even easy to find in Brattleboro, Vermont, where it's brewed. Up the proof scale, we drank Jack three-four times a week for decades, but after a while she began cutting it with ginger ale and for the past two years we've switched to Maker's Mark, which for an extra buck or two a bottle is easier on the aging stomach. One hard liquor we adore: Ron de Barilito Three-Star from Puerto Rico. A great dark rum. Look for it.

[Q] Hi Bob! Any books or new collections in the pipeline for us to look forward to? I hope so :) -- Bradley Sroka, Sterling, Virginia

[A] Funny you should ask, Bradley, because not only do I have a book coming out, one reason I began this surprisingly labor-intensive bagatelle is to publicize myself in a nondisgusting way in the weeks leading up to its October 28 pub date. It's from Duke University Press and entitled Is It Still Good to Ya: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017. You can read more about it here and pre-order it here. Yes, it's a collection--as the introduction explains, it was because I loved collections that I became a journalist, and this is my first in 20 years unless you count the '90s Consumer Guide book, which isn't quite the same thing. I love journalism collections. (Does anybody know that Dave Hickey just published Perfect Wave, his finest since Air Guitar, late last year? Why not?) And here's special hint for Sezzers. There may even be another before too long.

July 24, 2018

[Q] I appreciate if you will give a grade for Keith Richards' Crosseyed Heart album released in 2015. -- Kotaro Ueda, New York City

[A] I've gotten a lot of questions asking me to grade or review albums that for one reason or another I've skipped and feel I'd better make a few things clear. Many of my readers seem to feel I walk around with a mental file of graded albums I've never written about. I do not. Grading is work, and that work isn't done until I write the review in question, which in the case of anything that gets a letter grade can take anywhere from an hour or two to most of a day once I sit down to it. By the time I start to write, I generally know what grade to expect, but it's not unusual for me to change my mind as I concentrate cut-by-cut and start scratching around for detailed language. Recently, Beats Antique started as either a *** or a B plus and ended up an A minus, where Neko Case began as a probable A minus, sunk to ***, and then eked back up to B plus.

One more thing--I haven't memorized my own work. Did I really say there were three worthwhile songs on The Wall, an album that came out in 1979? Not that I can Google. (I did relisten as it became such a phenomenon, but haven't played it for figure 30 years at a minimum.) And then there was the guy who asked my opinion of six Neil Young albums I couldn't recall at all, although a couple of the titles looked vaguely familiar--for the record, both Psychedelic Pill and Storytone showed up in my Neither file, which these days is kind of an honor, because I seldom add to it now that I don't feel obliged to nail down every possible Honorable Mention. That's why I laid off Arcade Fire's Everything Now. Was it perhaps a *? I don't consider it my obligation to history to make that call.

As for Crosseyed Heart, it came out at around the time EW switched over to Noisey and I believe I missed it altogether, which can happen, especially when I'm working without direct oversight, as happened at all my post-Voice Consumer-Guide-style outlets, MSN and Medium as well as Noisey. First play on Spotify as I write it sounds like some kind of Honorable Mention--songwriting deliberately generic.

[Q] You never reviewed an album by the Wedding Present. Do you have any opinion on them whatsoever? -- Ryan, Urbana, Illinois

[A] Hmm, you're right. I never reviewed an album by the Wedding Present. They're not even in the Neither file. Wonder why. Greil loved them, as I recall, but our tastes mesh much less often than they diverge. Guess I didn't like them that much. The RCA period of 89-93 (saith Wikipedia) would have been when I gave them a shot. Lot of drones, as I recall. But that was a quarter of a fucking century ago.

[Q] There are articles on your site relating your favorite albums of the 70s, 80s and 00s, and I have seen posted elsewhere your picks of the 60s and 90s. I was wondering what are your personal choices of the 50s, whether they be studio albums (obviously a rarity of the decade, except in the world of jazz) or compilations? -- Nigel, Sydney, Australia

[A] Fifties rock and roll was a singles music best appreciated on all the compilations I've reviewed. Elvis nuts swear by Elvis Is Back!, which even so was 1960, and Ned Sublette had an early Elvis album he bonded with. Chuck Berry Is on Top was 1959 but was soon superceded by the endless succession of GH albums. If someone were to find an actual Chantels album that didn't cost a zillion dollars from somebody's basement in Teaneck, I bet it would be super, but not as super as their Rhino comp. Etc. A few years ago I bought a four-CD set on the Real Gone label that included six Bo Diddley albums plus bonus tracks. Title: Bo Diddley, great. Then it cost 20 bucks or so, now I don't find it. I expect it would be worth sorting out--Diddley was very smart about such stuff. The major exception I'm aware of is Ray Charles's 1959 What'd I Say, which I bought myself as a graduation present in 1962 and played as much as my Bird my first year out of college. Now I'd call it an A minus--definitely some filler there.

And then there are the jazz albums of the '50s. Many great ones--more than I or you will ever hear.

[Q] Hi Mr. Christgau. I would like to ask a question about one of my favorite bands, Nirvana. Why did you grade all their albums A except for their first one Bleach. Don't you think Bleach is just as good as the others, so it is also be an A or at least an A-? thank you sir. -- Donny Sullivan, Portland, Oregon

[A] I never rated Bleach because it came out in 1989 and I glommed onto Nirvana with Nevermind in 1991, by which time the '80s book where I caught up with many other things I'd overlooked, which always happens, was already out. I wrote about it briefly in the New Yorker review of Charles Cross's Cobain bio that I published in 2001. Reads like an A minus. Here's what I said.

Familiar now with Cobain's extraordinary gift, we can hear it loud and clear on the 1989 debut album, Bleach. Cobain's gigantic, goofy, bass-playing buddy Krist Novoselic added drollery to the band's chaotic irreverence. But only with the entrance in 1990, of the robust, songful, head-bustingly hyperactive drummer Dave Grohl did Nirvana turn into a great band.

[Q] In your review of Tierra Whack's Whack World, you mention your commandments for your school of Orthodox Rock Criticism and list three tenets. I'm curious how you developed said orthodoxy and if there are any other commandments you didn't mention. -- Jon LaFollette, Indianapolis

[A] The Commandments are, of course, a joke. Made up on the fly.

I was trying to come up with a lead that would account up top for Whack's video rep and the "Thou shalt not watch the video" line popped into my head--that's the way jokes are, right? Soon after, same phase I think, I realized videos didn't deserve pride of place and added the "Never read the comments" line--which is, by the way, a byword for most of the writers I know, a lot of editors too only they can't admit it because it'll make their bosses mad. But that review was written three-four days before deadline and it kept passing through my mind, as pending reviews do. And it dawned on me that not getting there first is an m.o. that needs all the ink I can give it in the age of instantaneity from which I grumpily dissent, so put "Fuck getting there first" first.

Might be fun to think of others, I suppose, Unfortunately, it would also be work. Anyway, all that occurs to me is "Fuck you if you can't take a joke," and unless I were to decide to alternate "Fucks" and "Thou shalts," I think one "Fuck" to open is a better idea.

[Q] Hi, Mr. Christgau! I took at least one of your nonfiction courses at NYU, back in 1990 or 1991, and I thank you. When I stare at a blank document, fingertips hovering over the keys, I visualize the question you'd write on the blackboard: "What do you want to write about?" I recall one project, in particular--my proposed column "It Won't Kill You," targeted at hypochondriacs. You helped a boyish, pre-Google me discover the word I needed for my first topic: "priapism." You also were kind enough to see my band The Dendrite at CBGB. I later explained that in addition to my bandmates "the rocker, the hippy, and the punk," I was Moe. Please let me know if I may take you out for dinner and/or beverages--or if you have a night class that I could observe. At any rate, best wishes with Xgau Sez and thank you for the way your meticulous syntax scrubs my brain. -- David McClintock, Brooklyn

[A] This (slightly edited version, natch) isn't really a question, but I've figured out a way to make it one and am far too vain to throw it on the scrap heap. It was 1991, I remember your name but not your face, as I do recall Louis Braham, John Quinan, Roni Sarig, and Marisol Marrero. You and Braham got full A's as did Sarig when he took the course again the following year, The question as I interpret it is whether you can take me out for a drink and the answer is sure, it would probably be interesting, but only in theory 'cause there's stuff going on. Will email you privately.

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