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.

March 26, 2019

[Q] Sorry if this question has been asked recently, but how do you keep up with the most recent music releases these days? With so many sites covering only certain genres of music and the influx of new artists releasing music on Soundcloud, Bandcamp, etc, how does an avid music listener such as yourself make sure he is at the very least exposed to as wide a swath of new music as possible? -- Kyle E, Richmond, Virginia

[A] It's all too catch-as-catch-can. I'm on plenty of PR lists and always check my email, still get things in the mail (the Americana business remains very CD-oriented, also jazz and world), and regularly get tips from a few friends who know my tastes. The way Pitchfork organizes its reviews render it a useful source--I regularly check 'em out, locate anything that sounds vaguely promising on Spotify, playlist it, and then listen either on my phone at the gym etc. or when I don't feel like getting up and loading and programming my wonky changer. Fewer than half of these get more than one play, but the Diana Gordon EP in this week's Expert Witness, for instance, started that way (the Amber Mark was a friend's tip). Nonetheless, I miss a lot of stuff, and Carola's illness in 2018 had a distracting effect. Just from the most recent batch of Xgau Sez questions, for instance, I found out that not only did the Cloud Nothings have a 2018 album but that--somehow, some way--I missed Nicki Minaj's Queen. I'm streaming it as I write.

[Q] Stumbling (or steered) into Xgau Sez while searching for the original source of a comment you made about Nina Simone, I saw your complaint about CD changers failing and, more specifically, failing to recognize CDs. I have had this problem. A citizen of austerity ever willing to mess with a seemingly broken gizmo (although with increasingly less success as the gizmos become less mechanical), I've found the most common reason for a changer failing to read CDs is that dust and dirt have obscured the lens of the laser that does the reading. A Q-tip and gentle solvent, such as what you use on eyeglasses or a computer screen, have (so far) solved the problem for me. Of course, you have to be willing to open the device and get at the lens. That may not be your thing, but I'm sure you know someone willing and able to make the attempt. I have been a great admirer of your writing for (yikes!) four decades; you are an exemplary critic. -- Chris Breyer, Los Angeles

[A] Thank you three ways. One, for the compliment. Two, for an exceptionally well-written query sans question mark--I deleted one unnecessary word but otherwise ran it as is. Three, for your advice, which I hope to try whenever I have the time and gumption to extract my changer from under the preamp I never turn off and the tuner I never use. I also expect to enlist an advisor who can instruct me on laser location and access.

[Q] Hi Robert. Since you have no album entries for this artist, are you familiar with the English folk singer Nick Drake? Drake garnered little critical or commercial success in his short life, but has since accrued significant acclaim. His three albums move through what one might describe as tasteful folk-pop, culminating in Pink Moon, a stark collection recorded with Drake mostly alone on his acoustic guitar. If you find a spare 28 minutes in your day, that last album in particular is worth a listen--in this humble listener's opinion. -- Alex Crisp, UK

[A] In the Subjects for Further Research appendix to the '70s Consumer Guide book, findable on my site, appears the following entry: "Nick Drake: I'm not inclined to revere suicides. But Drake's jazzy folk-pop is admired by a lot of people who have no use for Kenny Rankin, and I prefer to leave open the possibility that he's yet another English mystic (romantic?) I'm too set in my ways to hear." This was fairly audacious in 1980 and I'm certainly aware that it's a lot more unconventional now. Drake is admired and beloved by many, so many that I'm sure he was an artist of real originality and, for many, appeal. Last time I tried to improve my attitude was when he was reissued to some fanfare I think in the '90s, but to no avail. Although there've been a few exceptions, I've never been attracted to hypersensitives or depressives, and Drake is both. I make no claim for the objective aesthetic value of these tastes. If you enjoy and admire him, go to it with my blessings--you have lots of intelligent company. Just not me.

[Q] In your review of the Black Panther soundtrack you state Kendrick has "the least regal of the great rap flows." This brings up a few questions: 1) Who else belongs in the "great rap flow" pantheon? 2) Which is the greatest of all? and 3) Which is the most regal? -- Ian Carroll, Skerries, Ireland

[A] It's a long list. I'd put Rakim first to this day, but there are so many others--off the top of my head, Chuck D, Biggie, Jay-Z although it took me a while to hear how brilliant his offhandedness is, both members of OutKast, Eminem, Lil Wayne in his highly unregal way, probably both Nicki Minaj and Jean Grae (although she's faded in recent years), for a while I would have said Mr. Lif but he's faded too, the highly unregal ODB. Most regal would be the early masters, Rakim and Chuck. What makes Kendrick's unregality so striking is that, unlike Wayne or ODB, there's nothing weird or goofy about him--not close. Both his accent and his timbre are so unprepossessing--he always sounds like an ordinary guy with a knack for rapping. Getting more specific would take hours of straight listening and lots of comparison--the kind of thing I reduce to a sentence or two or maybe a graf after most of a day's listening and checking with my gifted vocal consultant Carola Dibbell.

[Q] I'm originally from Southern California and your Record Guide: Rock Albums of the '70s, which came out when I was 18, helped me prioritize and qualify and fill in the gaps for the decade of music I'd grown up with. But thanks to this book I also found myself listening to a lot of music my friends weren't. Lou Reed, Television, New York Dolls. Anyway, good music can come from anywhere, but can your aesthetic develop equally anywhere? How different do you think your taste in music would be if you had spent your adult life not in New York but in L.A.? Or Memphis? Or, I don't know, Sioux Falls? -- David Tindall, Petaluma, California

[A] For sure where you grow up affects your tastes, as do all kinds of other biographical details. The South seems especially sticky musically. Moreover, I'm very much a New Yorker. But the thing about New York in particular is that the city's culture isn't just strong, it's broad--multicultural, both Hispanic and, especially, Jewish long before the post-1965 immigration wave that has gradually been making white people a minority here. And not only is it broad, it's aggressively cosmopolitan. For that reason especially, it's a magnet. Lou Reed and the Dolls were native New Yorkers, but Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell were not. They were arty rebels from cultured families who were drawn to New York and made their own New York music from what they found here. Ditto for Kim and Thurston and Sonic Youth. Would I have come here if I'd been brought up elsewhere? Who knows--as I explain in Going Into the City, being stuck in a class full of smart Jewish kids in 1953 was a revelation for me. Then again, one reason it was so earthshaking is that I was the rare white New Yorker who was brought up in a fundamentalist Christian church. Which in turn probably attunes me to non-cosmopolitan American musics as other New Yorkers are not. And so it goes.

[Q] What did you admire about Pauline Kael and how did she influence you? -- David Springer, Fairfax, Virginia

[A] You and me are lucky fellows, David Springer, because you give me the chance to simply quote a few sentences about Kael's 1965 I Lost It at the Movies from the introduction to my forthcoming Book Reports, due from Duke mid-April. Ahem. "Not yet at The New Yorker when it was published, Pauline Kael was deeply into movies for love alone. I met her once at the Algonquin and didn't dig her queen bee act. But her secular intellect and honed prose, her brassy candor and democratic gusto, her nose for the laugh line and love affair with American English, her ideas as juicy as her descriptions, and her enthusiasm for artworks from The Grand Illusion to The Sugarland Express all rendered her an earthshaking critic. And except for Raising Kane, initially a very long New Yorker essay, every one of the dozen-plus books she published was a collection. I'm no Kael--nobody is. But I've always figured that if collections were good enough for her, they're good enough for me."