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.

November 20, 2018

[Q] How do you feel about the listening habits and practices of current generations compared to that of previous? -- Giorgio Tolaini, London

[A] Big question that I will answer partially. I stream all the time. It can't be avoided if you're to review seriously, much less as comprehensively as I do. And for economic reasons I never hear a good portion of my Honorable Mentions any other way. But anything that sounds like a possible A I buy--mostly from Amazon, to my chagrin, though I do sometimes use Amoeba or CDUniverse and check with Bandcamp when appropriate. In my art-friendly nabe the only generalist CD retailer is Barnes & Noble, where the shelves are scanter all the time; at Best Buy the clerks barely know what a CD is (of course, they also barely know one charger from another, or where the air conditioners are). My preference for physicals isn't about audio primarily. It has to do with what I've come to call externality. Streaming creates the illusion--greatly magnified by headphone use, which is another matter--that music is a utility you can turn on and off; the water metaphor is intrinsic to how it works. It dematerializes music, denies it a crucial measure of autonomy, reality, and power. It makes music seem disposable, impermanent. Hence it intensifies the ebb and flow of pop fashion, the way musical "memes" rise up for a week or a month and are then forgotten. And it renders our experience of individual artists/groups shallower. In a promotional 500-worder for the now defunct Borders to help promote Grown Up All Wrong in 1998--which now ends the introductory section of Is It Still Good to Ya?--I wrote about getting to know "musicians themselves, not as they 'really' are, but as they create themselves in music." This year I'm feeling that way about two rather different acquaintances, both from Chicago: Noname and Rich Krueger. The physicals were crucial to that.

[Q] Wading through 12 takes of "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," I'm wondering what Xgau Sez about the musical anthropology enabled by digital technology, record company desperation and rabid fandom. I appreciate Paul Williams' comment that "If a great artist singing a great song results in a precious work of art once, why not twice, or as many time as inspiration and accident allow?", but life is short and there's lots of music. Has it changed the way you listen to certain artist or changed your opinion of certain records? And do you think things like More Blood, More Tracks ultimately factor in to CG-focused reviews? -- Steve, Seattle

[A] Basically I have less than no use for this stuff. Moreover, I think Williams's rationalization speaks poorly of his aesthetic range. As a democrat, I prefer variety, plenitude, and meat and potatoes to delectation. Those Prince piano etudes that someone raved about in Pitchfork a while back sounded like nothing much to me, and though I did play a single-CD distillation of More Blood, More Tracks they sent me--imagined it might be a way to commune with the classics while pretending to work--I thought it was dead on its feet. My buddy Greil, not a guy averse to delectation, dismissed it in Rolling Stone.

[Q] I've noticed that for some artists you more or less continue to regularly review all of their new releases (e.g., Neil Young, Willie Nelson). For others you've pretty much stopped--Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney come to mind here (with obvious exceptions like Memory Almost Full). Two questions. First, for artists like Costello and McCartney, does that mean that you've stopped listening to their new releases, or does it mean you listen and decide they're not worth commenting on? Second, if you have listened to most of the McCartney albums since 1990 or so (and leaving out Run Devil Run): if someone were to take the strongest cuts from these albums and compile them on to a single CD, would that be a great album? A very good album? That is, are there hidden jewels sprinkled throughout these albums, or just at best some skilled and polished songcraft? -- Charles, Canberra, Australia

[A] To begin, I've failed to find even a * in so many Neil Youngs I was chastised here for it, and right, usually I've tried. But in the case of these two artists, I always listen once and seldom get past twice. So though I don't have the knowledge to answer your question, I would certainly check a compilation out were someone else to give the job a shot. But while I actually respect both these men quite a bit as public figures, including the relationship to music that's a key part of who each of them is, I doubt anyone could extract better than a strong Honorable Mention from either of them.

[Q] What are some records that you would recommend to start with for someone who wants to get into African music? -- Ian Carroll, Dublin

[A] Many of the best are old, expensive, and hard to find, in part because I've helped make them cult records, probably: Trevor Herman's glorious Guitar Paradise of East Africa comp, for instance, which he failed to license properly and kind of disappeared. But The Rough Guide to Youssou N'Dour and Etoile de Dakar, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Franco & Rochereau's Omona Wapi (the four-track Shanachie condensation of the original), the first volume of Ken Braun's Rochereau anthology for Sterns and the second of the Franco (not that both volumes aren't great in each case), Ladysmith Black Mambazo's Classic Tracks, King Sunny Ade's The Best of the Classic Years, Youssou's Rokku Mi Rokka and Egypt, and Oumou Sangare's Worotan seem findable as I write and are all records I'll put on for visiting newbies or casual, who tend to become intrigued. Congotronics 2 and the first Staff Banda Bilili records are post-soukous Kinshasa music that's worth a dip. Get 'em while supplies last. And in addition, a listen to the Riton and Kah-Lo record I just reviewed might make sense. It's slighter than any of the above, but it's also a contemporary fusion that might be a good intro.

[Q] You recently said in this forum that Sex Machine was an A+ even though for years you said it had its flaws (I remember you bitching about "If I Ruled The World" and the Blood, Sweat and Tears cover). It made me ask myself if, in the end, you named it an A+ because it's a great JB album. Do you think that the fact that it is one of the best albums of one of the most important artist of the 20th century gives it more value than a great one-shot of similar quality by an "inferior" artist? Like, I don't know, Hole's Live Through This or Big Star's Radio City or Manu Chao's Proxima Estacion or the Pogues' Rum Sodomy and the Lash? -- Nicolas Auclair, Montreal

[A] Before I answer, let me commend your choice of plausible A plusses, two of which--the Big Star and the Pogues--are reasonable candidates. (The Chao nah because replayable though it is it only has four or five real tunes on it, the killer one keeps repeating, and the Hole not good enough by me but I'd understand why others disagreed.) But you made me wonder if I'd thought sloppily about Sex Machine, given the dubious tracks you single out, so as I seldom do with these queries I replayed it. And not having thought in that kind of judgmental detail about it since 1981 I was astonished by how much more inventive and accomplished it was than I remembered. For one thing, Brown is still a real singer. He hasn't yet blown out his pipes using them as a rhythm instrument the way he was already doing in his popcorn phase of 1969-70--this version of "Man's World," hardly my favorite James Brown song, is sharper musically than the single. The segues are so cannily designed--using the 1:29 "I Can't Stand Myself" as a transition, for instance--and the groove is so deep yet so changeable. As in "Live" at the Apollo, the crowd noises, which as I recall without looking it up are not provided by an actual live crowd, are deployed to both musical and dramatic effect. On and on. As for the Blood Sweat & Tears and Tony Bennett numbers, they both work within the flow of the album, organ feature plus vocal demonstration--not high points, but of conceptual use. So, yeah, A plus.

[Q] What's the joke behind your constant misspelling of Philippe Wynne's name in Spinners reviews? -- Mark Desrosiers, Minneapolis

[A] I no longer remember the details, but it was Wynne (Wynn?) who began fooling around with his name. I just ran with it. I once watched Win do a 10-15 minute dance improvisation (maybe it was shorter, but that's how it felt) out on the west tongue of the Apollo stage in the early '80s after George Clinton absorbed him into P-Funk. One of the most memorable performances I've ever seen. A few years later he was dead of a heart attack at 43. Fuck cocaine.