Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]


I spent half of my working Wednesday listening to four CDs I'd heard at least three or four times before, all by bands beginning with P: the Paper Chase, Passion Pit, Phoenix, and the Pica Beats. By the highly imperfect but useful Metacritic test, Passion Pit and Phoenix are what used to be called buzz bands: Passion Pit averaged 76 by Metacritic's dubious calculation of 27 reviews, Phoenix 82 on 33 reviews. (If you want some notion of the Metacritic demographic, note that Jay-Z's new CD scored 65 based on only 21 reviews, and Brad Paisley's--close to my favorite album of the year, Nashville provenance or not--84 on a mere 9.) The Pica Beats scored 60 based on 6, the Paper Chase 55 based on 6, and are so obscure I was surprised to see they'd gotten into Metacritic at all.

So Metacritic's insular consensus makes two of these albums good-to-very-good, the other two barely passable if that. But for me, all are of similar medium quality, probably somewhere up in Metacritic's 75 range, insofar as that number means a damn thing: in descending order, Pica Beats, Phoenix, Passion Pit, Paper Chase. But we'll get to that disparity later. The first point I want to make is that I ended up writing about the top two but not, except here, the others. The top two are what the Consumer Guide where I publish most of my record reviews these days calls low Honorable Mentions, while the bottom two new reside in a private file I call Neither, meaning not bad enough to pan or label a Dud but not good enough to recommend in even a brief review. If you review plays, chances are you write about everything you see, and if you review movies in a daily, the same (though not, of course, if you're writing a column at a monthly or even a weekly). But if you review records or books, of which there's an even more enormous quantity (cf. that Daniel Menaker essay I linked to last time), you spend a lot of work time weeding. I'm more obsessive about this than most. But for anybody who does the job with a modicum of seriousness, how "easy" it is--a common complaint in the post-your-comment era, especially on the part of guys who need something to do with their hands besides whack off now that cigarettes are no longer cool--is drastically compromised by this often pleasureless task.

But though it may be pleasureless, it's not knowledgeless. It reminds you of how much musical competence there is in the world and of what small consequence that competence can be. It helps you remember what the sub-average and the modicum sound like so you can more readily recognize the moderately distinguished when it comes your away. Every once in a great while it can soften you up to comprehend musical usages formerly foreign to you. And it compels you to experience all the dross that musicians, listeners, and music-bizzers believe should mean something in the world, and all the moderately distinguished it makes a big fuss over.

All of these records are melodic enough, but the two with the fuss are also slick. Since not long ago slick was uncool by definition, this is no negative by me. But because their style of slick--synth-dominated and high-register, no masculine rockism here--is one I'm not drawn to, I looked for something verbal to relate to, some reason to thrill when one of Phoenix's solid tunes or the Pica Beats' twee ones or the Paper Chase's furious raveups or Passion Pit's efficiently climactic choruses caught my ear. The two that made the cut offered minor verbal pleasures--Frances's Phoenix playful formalist repetition, Seattle's Pica Beats rich, sometimes droll or sharp, rarely obscurantist imagery. In contrast, the Paper Chase's politics veered toward nihilist rhetoric, and Passion Pit proved incomprehensible even with a lyric sheet--when I got to the word "urn" I decided enough already.

Just looked at Metacritic's top five reviews for both Phoenix and Passion Pit. Two of Phoenix's never mentioned lyrics, and only one had more than a phrase--Ryan Dombal in Pitchfork, pretty good stuff. Lyric sheet notwithstanding, not one of Passion Pit's mentioned lyrics at all. Though I'm down with the old complaint that early rock criticism was way too much about lyrics, I still think songs have words for a reason--and not just so we can hear a vocal instrument, either. I'm just an old-fashioned guy. But you knew that.


By Adam on September 27, 2009 7:33 AM

Would you ever publish the Neither file, in part or in whole, some way or another (aside from brief mentions here and there, as you've just provided)? Could they be "Weeds"? Or, does that imply something even worse than "Duds"? It couldn't hurt to quickly categorize them publically, so your attentive listening can have additional purpose.

I'd like to know about Neither albums, at the very least.

Or, is the assumption to be made that if you haven't included a popular album in the Consumer Guide, of the sort one could assume you'd have listened to, like Passion Pit's, it's somewhere in the never-to-be-published twilight world? And if so, is encouraging us to make that assumption a more satisfactory "grading" than a public pronouncement of its "Weed" or "Neither" status would have been? Because this blog entry seems to suggest that, at least on occasion, a "Neither" album or two warrants mention, if only to show that your methodology is concerned with lyrics, or something somewhat tangential to the appeal of the albums themselves.

Just curious for your thoughts. Maybe this opens up a ball of wax about musical marginalia and what to do with it.

By Adam on October 1, 2009 9:48 AM


I submitted a comment on this blog entry a few days ago and it hasn't been added. I'm wondering why not. Did it not send properly? If it did, I'm wondering why it wasn't posted. As a potential writer of future comments I'd like to know if these are being screened for any particular reason, so I can decide whether or not to spend time carefully composing a response to these blogs. If my addition wasn't sent properly, it would be good to know, so I can be more careful in the future to make some sort of backup copy. Sorry for a procedural inquiry rather than a stimulating response, but I want to know if future contributions will be lost in a void or not. Thanks.

By CamelsWithHammers on January 12, 2010 12:30 AM

Adam, while I don't know if Christgau bothers to make note of every single piece of music that crosses his ears, he does indicate the "neithers" in his consumer guide. They're the little face icons.

By Alex on January 19, 2010 5:13 PM

I know you feel that things can be learned from using Metacritic but I save that reservation to Rolling Stone (e.g. historical information (why not Wiki?). I find Metacritic just totally spastic and I usually don't find things spastic. I hate Pitchfork more but at least I can laugh sometimes with a pinch of salt with the "cooler-than-thous" (you should copyright that it's coming up more often). Metacritic is a cesspool. Excuse my frontin'. I just think it's too easy to see that it's a democracy and get excited - no offense. I really can't serve up a place I can find decent reviews apart from you and although you name a few friends and/or colleagues I'm sure when push comes to shove I would value your opinion more although that may be nit-picking. But I'm anal retentive and I can't see how you find these places interesting? That naturally makes me interested. Why do you?

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