Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Not Enough Information

It was pushing midnight and I wanted to do a Consumer Guide review of an album by "Ethio-jazz" proponent Mulatu Astatke, which I'll also be covering for Bob Boilen at NPR, who turned me onto it. The title: Information Inspiration. But after I examined the CD, a creditless promo, and the PR release, a one-sheet with vague performance details, there was still a lot I needed to know. I'd read the very good liner notes to Ethiopiques 4, which I knew from Rhapsody featured Astatke even though there it was spelled Astatqe and that series almost never highlighted artist IDs in the interest of promoting its brand name, and I'd Googled around and found pretty good stuff about the British outfit the Heliocentrics, Astatke's collaborators. So I emailed Astatke's label publicist and started Googling some more. Found maybe a dozen reviews, half totally useless, half worth printing out, although only Richard Miller's in Dusted was high quality. Poking out of one, in fact, I found the following lede, as my people used to spell it:

Is it shameful to say that I've never listened to a full Mulatu Astatke record? That's I'm largely unfamiliar with the Heliocentrics? Or that the greater portion of my knowledge entering into this review consisted of a making-of-the-album vid that I streamed off the Internet? The beauty of Inspiration Information is that it convinces me that my critical foible barely matters , , ,

Without reading too much into this--it's one self-described "hip-hop head" at one less-than-prestigious online venue--I was appalled. Some information, then.

  1. The title is actually part of a series on the Strut label supposedly inspired by a song and album by Shuggie Otis. The song was covered nicely by Sharon Jones, her chronic overstatement balancing Otis's chronic understatement, on Red Hot + Blue's Dark Was the Night. I rejected Shuggie Otis in his original hippie-era manifestation, which had plenty of promotional muscle behind it and flopped anyway, and was unconverted by his rediscovery--though I must say the Strut series counts for something.

  2. Typically, I'd say, though I watch as few as possible, the promo video is dreadful--cut to shot of tape; cut to shot of cables; cut to shot of musician talking; cut to shot of musician playing; cut to shot of rain coming through roof and collected in plastic bucket (a new percussion instrument, someone joshes har har). Soundbites include: Astatke says record is "unique and different"; Heliocentric says Astatke is "ultimately a true artist"; Heliocentric (I think--not going back to check) observes "often the best music comes from taking risks." Inspiration-wise, those are typical. Ethiopian instruments are named, which is good, but quickly, which isn't--especially since, duh, they're not spelled.

  3. For the video-addicted, there is a four-minute YouTube clip of Astarte playing with the Either/Orchestra. It's so easy to access that I watched it myself. Learned something, too.

What can I say? The hip-hop head wasn't getting paid, and had some vagrant thoughts about how inspiration doesn't require knowledge that he wanted to expound on. He's right, too--sometimes exciting music proceeds from ignorance. Sometimes good criticism even does. But it's damn rare. And it isn't old-fartism to conclude that ignorance is even more common on the web than in print, more common in unpaid writing than paid. What was the head's editor/facilitator thinking? I'm glad I found that Richard Miller piece, which wouldn't exist without the web. But I'm not mollified.


By Jim on June 13, 2009 7:57 AM

Maybe you're reacting to the full review, which develops the argument, I guess, that the critic doesn't have much to add, in the way of information, to the understanding of this music, and ought to just recommend it and get out of the way. Though I thought he made some effort to describe what it sounded like.

Otherwise, I don't get it. I'm not a fan of Internet reviews that share what the writers are doing and thinking before they actually get around to reviewing, which I associate with Harry Knowles at Ain't It Cool News. So maybe this fails as writing.

But I think most pop music fans and even critics would be starting from relative ignorance if a friend or editor turned them on to this. I'd never heard of Heliocentric, and I listen to a lot of music and read as much as I can.

Also, I know blog writing, like Internet reviewing, is often quick and dirty, but if ignorance is your topic, you ought to get the series title right.

By Jones on June 18, 2009 10:52 AM

Why do I believe the columnist's outrage isn't entirely justified?

Articles, June 12, 2009

Obvious Believers Beautiful