Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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'The Love Chimes,' 'Better Off Dead,' All Their Nonhits!

One fulcrum of Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, the finest rock and roll novel since (or before) The Commitments, is the obsession of urban pioneer-turned-rock critic Dylan Ebdus with Barrett Rude Jr., father of Dylan's bosom buddy Mingus Rude and voice of a cult soul group called the Subtle Distinctions from the smash "Bothered Blue" to the LP-only "So Stupid Minded." Complete with a handsome 12-page booklet that abjures track listings while including a pie chart of Rude's stylistic debts, The Subtle Distinctions is Lethem's two-CD, not-for-sale tribute to the music Ebdus grew up to.

While the Manhattans and Lethem's beloved Spinners check in with multiple sell cuts, a good third of the 39 tracks are obscurities by such influences as David Ruffin, Syl Johnson, and Marvin Gaye. Ruffin's aside (solo, he had no one to make him pipe down), these are gifts. I'd never heard the three Johnson titles or Gaye's "I'm Going Home," and dismissed Billy Paul's conscious cover of Paul McCartney's "Let 'Em In" if I noticed it at all, but they're every bit as '70s as and far more fun than the chart-toppers that cram Rhino's Can You Dig It? box--especially as linked to the novel by such soulsters as Randy Newman and Phil Ochs. Although all the artists would find their sales enhanced by the exposure, copyright law assures that few readers who adore The Fortress of Solitude will ever get to hear Lethem's collage. Ain't information capitalism grand?

Village Voice, Jan. 13, 2003