Xgau Sez

Parsing posthumous Coltrane, grading Big Star and Lil Wayne, and the uses of critical esotericism and formalism

Hey Bob, I’m so excited for this newsletter. Your writings old and new have been an enduring resource and source of enjoyment for this hip twenty-something from Texas. Will there be a comment section like the one Expert Witness had? At least to me, that comment section revealed the existence of your wonderful, articulate following, which had its own contributions to my listening at the time. Also, I’m considering leaving my good-paying but tiresome job to pursue music professionally, following my dream. Do you have any advice for a young person considering entering the industry—even if it’s “don’t quit your day job”? — Nathan Walker, Austin, Texas

Always special to learn I’ve reached someone half a century younger, so thanks. As for the comments question, thanks too—for getting me to set my mind to it. Once I did the answer was a clear no, for two basic reasons. The first is that it’s work to oversee a comments section, even lightly as I did back when Expert Witness was at MSN. The work I do for And It Don’t Stop should be more writing, sometimes subscriber-only and sometimes not—I have several things in mind that I’ve yet to get to. Moreover, as you don’t quite say, that comments section was a miracle—believe it or not, there was apparently a discussion group in China devoted not principally to my writing (although once a young Chinese speaker came to a reading of mine and told me he’d been part of  it) but to the commenters themselves (here’s to you, Cam Patterson, Blair Fraipont, Jason Gubbels, Michael Tatum, Liam Smith, Bradley Sroka, Nicky Farruggia, and so many others). It was so rare to find comments almost devoid of backbiting and trolling, which in many ways was the greatest thing about it—I made many friends including a few close ones there. In the Twitter age of course, the situation is worse. Even subscriber-only, I very much doubt the temperature would remain as temperate as it did back then, and keeping it down would be not just labor-intensive but emotionally taxing. As for quitting your day job, let me try and be a good dad. Is your good-paying job a stroke of luck or probably replicable in the absence of an economic collapse? If the former, I’d be cautious; if the latter and you’re chomping at the bit, well, assuming you don’t have kids yet this might be the time. I’m surprising myself  somewhat by writing this, because I’ve been preaching since I started teaching at NYU in 2005 that the US economy is designed to exploit your generation.  So please don’t just ask me. It’s a big decision.

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Surprisingly, you only reviewed one CD by John Coltrane—with the perfect line “It gets really good after bass and piano sit out so Coltrane and his friend Jones can bash and blow at each other undistracted,” which refutes your claim that you don't have the chops to review jazz. You wrote about sets by Monk and Miles and Bird but never Trane. Did you never find a great compilation on his Atlantic or Impulse or Prestige years, or perhaps you prefer the original albums? Can you recommend Lush Life (Prestige) or Crescent (Impulse) or Blue Train (Blue Note) or Ole' or Plays the Blues (both Atlantic), or any others? You've provided me with guidance through Hendrix’s tangled discography but I remain lost in Trane’s. — Mark Reidy, Park Slope

First of all, I’ve reviewed three Coltrane albums, not just one. Let me remind you that I’ve also done lots of Ornette, who like Davis made rockish moves. Monk is about my favorite artist except maybe the Beatles, and Bird was the shit when I was getting into jazz in college. And how about Sonny Rollins? Coltrane, meanwhile, wasn’t helped discographically by his early death— not unlike Hendrix’s various would-be canonizers, Impulse pushed the posthumous catalogue till distinguishing among newly fabricated albums became a game for specialists and suckers (and I should add that the old jazzbos I know don’t think much of the “newly discovered” 2018 album the younger set was so impressed by). However. If only because my most trusted aesthetic advisor is always ready to hear more jazz at dinner and for that matter breakfast, I’ve been doing some exploring. So far I can report that neither the Atlantic nor the Prestige “Trane plays the blues” albums seems like a standout to me, and that there will definitely be Coltrane reviews in future CGs, with details yet to be determined.

Your glowing Consumer Guide reviews of the three Big Star albums have aged quite well in my eyes and ears. Does your original ranking of Radio City then Third then #1 Record reflect how you feel about the albums today, assuming you've revisited them in the past few decades? — Jacob H., Madison, Wisconsin

Yes, in that order, and these are records I still put on occasionally, as I do Chilton’s solo work—at least once after early 2019, when I was checking out Chilton reissues including the Ocean Club recording and reading Holly George-Warren’s excellent if dismaying Chilton biography, A Man Called Destruction.

At the risk of sounding like a “grade grubber”: you gave Tha Carter III an A- in your review, but then ranked it third in your best of the 00’s list, suggesting it’s really an A+. As a huge fan of that album I’m wondering: what changed for you between when you first reviewed the album and when you published that list? — Jake, Canada

Thanks for apologizing, but you know you’re grade-grubbing anyway. Look, fellas (and I do mean fellas), it’s not hard to understand.  In part because I’ve set up the Consumer Guide to be relatively free of normal deadline pressure, I don’t generally jump the gun on grades and remain remarkably steady in my judgments over the years. But this is still journalism, and some sort of news value is the responsibility of all but its most perverse practitioners. The Carter III was one of the most long-anticipated albums of the ‘00s. So you can be sure that I felt more than the usual pressure to get to it sooner rather than later—and also that I didn’t stop checking it out after I’d weighed in. I dimly recall that there was a lag before the brilliance of “Phone Home” hit me, but it was more than that—the album is remarkably substantive front to back, playable too. So as I listened, I grew to appreciate it more and them love it some.

Great 10’s round-up, a blast to get into Americana and American Honey again, though both surprised and sad New Gods didn't make the cut, probably my most played album this decade. In your intro you draw attention to the discrepancies between your list and those of Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. This made me wonder: What's your overall take on the past decade in music and music criticism? — Adam, Aarhus, Denmark

Basically, I read other people’s reviews to find albums to check out on Spotify and am gratified when I’m actively moved to then replay such a pick even once. This means I don’t keep close enough track of current rock criticism to comment on it with any special insight. It’s obvious enough that the two major outlets are caught up in self-branding, as they have to be (and as the also-rans are as well). P4K tries to stay ahead of the curve, often to what I hear as needlessly (also perishably and/or abstrusely) esoteric effect. This year, however, I was also struck not just that P4K’s year-end list was dominated by women (as my 2019 list stands at the moment, it’s almost half female), but by how many of the mag’s female choices favored a rather retro singer-songwriter aesthetic—slow-moving, lyric-enunciating, strophic, and oft genteel—I’ve never had much use for. One more setback for catchy songs with a good beat, I suppose. Meanwhile, while doing a decent job of keeping up with young trendies, Rolling Stone serves as a counterweight to P4K’s esotericism, finding aesthetic distinction in “residual” formal commitments that I too often find kinda just old. Wayne Robins, a very longtime acquaintance who replaced me at Newsday when I moved on to the Voice in 1974, wrote a Pazz & Jop-hooked essay (in the first year there’s been no Voice-linked P&J, and by the way I’ve yet to glance at the Facebook-based self-proclaimed “Rip-Off” Pazz & Jop I’m told someone’s launched) that deals usefully with many of these issues. 

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How have you built an incredible career reviewing records even though you don’t know anything about music and your writing isn’t that good? — Rich Sackett, Nashville

Stick-to-it-iveness and the love of a good woman.

Lock Him Up

Jim DeRogatis: Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly (2019, 306 pp.)

There’s plenty of Jim DeRogatis in Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, and he deserves the ink. dream hampton’s six-part Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly was the proximate reason that early this year the washed-up r&b hitmaker finally began to face serious prosecution for the kind of atrocities he wiggled out of in a long-delayed 2008 trial of dubious jurisprudence, and we owe her for putting her prestige and crusading spirit behind the cause. But for two decades, DeRogatis pursued the case so unstintingly as the Chicago Sun-Times rock critic and then a freelancer that ultimately the music world was forced out of denial—it was his tireless Christmas 2000 follow-up on an anonymous tip that brought to his door the notorious videotape of a man who’s the spitting image of Kelly urinating on a teenaged girl. And though Kelly is the focus of this precise, detailed book, its subtext is the painful, grueling, sometimes perilous slog of DeRogatis’s investigative reporting, much of it with his Sun-Times colleague Abdon Pallasch. Unfortunately, DeRogatis’s utilitarian prose loses use value as he rushes to a close. But his book remains gripping, alarming, and revealing on both themes.

Soulless soon establishes that Kelly isn’t simply a hebephile or ephebophile, terms more precise than pedophile for an adult sexually attracted to adolescents. A lifelong mocker of pointy-headed distinctions that get in his way, DeRogatis scoffs at these niceties. But he makes clear that in addition to exploiting showbiz-crazy young teenagers with the help of yes-men procurers and equally vile lawyers I’d like to see in the slammer themselves, Kelly was a Charlie Manson with actual musical talent and too much cash—a gifted spousal abuser skilled at “training” small harems of women to abase themselves before him voluntarily even after they’d passed the age of consent. Having myself ducked the critical complexities by boycotting Kelly’s music once I was convinced he was everything his accusers claimed, which didn’t take long, I do wish DeRogatis had steeled himself to assess the music Kelly continued to fabricate and RCA continued to sell, thus contextualizing, for instance, Lady Gaga’s disquieting 2013 collaboration and Pitchfork’s shameful decision to have him headline its music festival that year—for which both have retrospectively apologized, Gaga more convincingly than Pitchfork. Maybe after Kelly is put away, a more acute musical thinker will expand on the interrelation between his insinuating artistic gift, which was real, and his insinuating brand of evil, which was realer.

Dean's List: The 2010s

The 25 best albums of the last 10 years

For me, constructing a best-of-decade list isn’t just a matter of boiling down my annual Dean’s Lists. It’s serious work—done thoroughly, more work than any fulltime critic has time for. Recalling music that came out eight or nine years ago doesn’t come naturally to anyone. And more than with year-enders, striking the right balance between pleasure and gravitas is a challenge, because gravitas counts for more in stabs at provisional canonization. One reason the Roots’ How I Got Over began atop my provisional top 25 and stayed there was that, yes, my most-played 2010s album had a theme even if black middle-class angst proved so specialized the band would leave it behind for true-crime tales on their two-and-counting later albums. I note sadly that it made neither Rolling Stone’s 100-album countdown or Pitchfork’s 200-album monster—a distinction it shares with 14 of my other selections, most obtusely Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog and M.I.A.’s Maya. Check those out, kids.

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I could go on for paragraphs, pages, but damn it I won’t. Instead I will note that when you review 200 albums a year the older stuff has a way of shuffling off to Buffalo—my collection of sound recordings includes 4000 A minus or better albums. So while longterm playability has to figure prominently in deciding how much I truly like what I like, it can’t be the definitive criterion. Sometime in the past 10 days, for instance, I concluded that I probably hadn’t put on Neil Young’s Dean’s List-topping 2012 Americana since 2013 because it’s filed on the floor next to the rear file cabinet along with some 30 other Young CDs I didn’t even alphabetize until a few years ago. In the past week I’ve played it four times as I whoo-hooed over its conceptual brass. It had also been a while since I pulled out that dickhead Kanye’s perversely superb 2010 album and even Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What, one of three also-rans I finished my labors by comparison-playing alongside Wussy’s Strawberry and Das Racist’s Relax, which made the cut, and the Pistol Annies’ Interstate Gospel and Yo La Tengo’s Stuff Like That There, which didn’t.

Another album I hadn’t heard forever required no relistening: Heart of a Dog, which I played on a whim while Carola and I packed up a Florida motel room in early 2017, kept on to the end after we were done, and loved the one time I’ve played it since. Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me is similar but darker—a death album so bleak and concrete it’s hard to get through even on the rare occasions when nothing else will do. Records like those two you love for their impact, not their fun quotient or use value. But love it nonetheless is. A giddier kind of love comes with my two most eccentric picks, which finished two and three on sheer playability: Mast’s Thelonious Sphere Monk, a rockish instrumental survey of my favorite musician in any genre including Chuck Berry and the Dolls (though maybe not the Beatles) and the unheralded American Honey soundtrack, which makes a single living thing of Rae Sremmurd and the Raveonettes, E-40 and Steve Earle as the must-see Andrea Arnold flick it’s attached to follows a troupe of young magazine-subscription hustlers across flyover country more humane than its taste in presidents might lead cineastes to believe.

Obviously there’s lots more to say about all 25 of these records. But the main thing is that, while this project was too much work, I was glad it gave me an excuse to replay more good albums than 25—40 or so, I’d guess. But now it’s time for me to return to 2019, which this year-end like all year-ends will have me checking out many overrated albums and a few finds from other people’s premature best-ofs for a 2019 Dean’s List I hope I finalize by late January. Sad to say, that Dean’s List is unlikely to include anything else that will sneak into my decade list behind 17-year-old Billie Eilish’s phenomenal fourth-place When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? No teenager I can recall has ever made such an impressive album, though I guess Elvis’s Sun Sessions gets an asterisk, and who knows what will become of her? She’s so young anyone who identifies dad has to worry, and some of her public pronouncements have been kind of dumb. I gave her debut an A in April, so the phalanx of my unofficial fan club my manager calls the grade grubbers will no doubt be wondering whether said debut is really what I foolishly decided half a century ago to designate an A plus. Guess it is. So it would seem is everything down to 10 here except Mount Eerie, even though it comes before the Tribe Called Quest effort I rashly awarded that grade in the wake of Donald Trump’s electoral coup. May that apparent inconsistency rankle the bowels of the anal until a Christmas Eve I hope is jolly for every one of you.

1. The Roots: How I Got Over (Def Jam)

2. Mast: Thelonious Sphere Monk (World Galaxy/Alpha Pup)

3. American Honey (UME)

4. Billie Eilish: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (Darkroom/Interscope)

5. Noname: Room 25 (self-released)

6. Randy Newman: Dark Matter (Nonesuch)

7. Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog (Nonesuch)

8. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-a-Fella)

9. Mount Eerie: A Crow Looked at Me (P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.)

10. A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic)

11. Neil Young With Crazy Horse: Americana (Reprise)

12. The Uncluded: Hokey Fright (Rhymesayers)

13. Tierra Whack: Whack World (self-released)

14. Wussy: Attica! (Shake It)

15. Frank Ocean: Nostalgia, Ultra (self-released)

16. Wussy: Funeral Dress II (Shake It)

17. M.I.A.: Maya (Deluxe Edition) (Interscope)

18. Tom Zé: Estudando a Bossa: Nordeste Plaza (Luaka Bop)

19. Rihanna: Anti (Deluxe Edition) (Westbury Road/Roc Nation)

20. Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran (Sham Palace)

21. The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (Collected Works/Concord)

22. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope

23. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (XL)

24. Wussy: Strawberry (Shake It)

25. Das Racist: Relax (Greedhead)

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Xgau Sez

In praise of differenter things, suggestive titles and (relatively) unmediated aesthetic pleasure

Hello, Bob. Glad to hear your knee is doing well post-surgery. You have reviewed, mostly favorably, all of the Cloud Nothings albums except for the most recent, Last Building Burning, even though its tone and approach are not demonstrably different. But perhaps that’s the problem? — Jeff Callahan, Flat Rock, North Carolina

First, this gives me a chance to mention that although my knee is doing well I can barely walk due to a related IT band problem that affects my thigh. This is not so-called IT band syndrome, a nasty variant of runner’s knee. It’s in my thigh specifically, and finding effective treatment has thus far been alarmingly difficult, although I’ve just met a trainer who impressed me. So if anyone has undergone a similar problem I’d appreciate learning about it. As for the Cloud Nothings, you’ve nailed the issue exactly. Look at the last Cloud Nothings review and note how I dismiss complaints about his sameyness—a little defensively, I’d say. No surprise that the new one sounded to me like one of those marginally differentiated Honorable Mentions I’ve vowed to cut down on. I could be missing something, of course. But the likelihood is small. I’d rather check out something differenter.

Is there any chance of seeing your review for Artpop? Just out of curiosity after seeing it make zero appearance on the lists of critics for the best albums of the last decade. — Thomas, Beijing

There is no review of Artpop. It came out during the Consumer Guide’s 2013 hiatus between its long Microsoft sojourn and its brief stay at Medium. Played it recently out of curiosity and did not feel compelled to play it again, hence wonder whether I would have rated it so highly had I been compelled to write about it, a process that my ears invariably find educational.

Do you have any favourite album titles? Or book titles, for that matter. It seems like coming up with titles would be fun. How did you decide on the titles for your books? I know they’re music / literature references, but you surely had a lot to choose from and probably a few good final ideas before deciding on Any Old Way You Choose ItGrown Up All Wrong, and Is It Still Good to Ya? — Brandon, Waterloo, Ontario

A good title should be intriguing, suggestive, and accurate. Magazine editing is perfect training, because it compels you to think of a lot of them. Basic method: find some good language in there and work on it. Great album titles that come to mind are Rubber Soul and good kid, m.A.A.d city. Two great book titles are by people I’m close to: Mystery Train and The Only OnesI don’t remember how I came up with Any Old Way You Choose It, but it came pretty easy and I’m more than proud of it—it was definitive, thank you master phrasemaker Chuck Berry.  Is It Still Good to Ya? came to me early in the compilation process because it was the hook of what I always knew would be the prologue; Book Reports took forever, landing simultaneously with its subtitle, which just popped into my head one day. Going Into the City was there from the start. Grown Up All Wrong, on the other hand, was hard labor. I wanted to raid the New York Dolls and call it If I’m Acting Like a King, That’s Because I’m a Human Being. My editor Lindsay Waters vetoed it, never budged, although we had and still have a warm personal relationship. I was stubborn about it but finally gave up, just started thumbing through artists’ albums for something to filch. After half a glum hour, up popped the song title “Grown Up All Wrong.” I relistened to the lyric to make sure there was nothing I’d regret, rejiggered the intro to rationalize it, and have been very happy with it ever since—better than the Dolls one for sure.

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The best music for me is by bands like Hüsker Dü and the Go-Betweens and artists like Bob Dylan and Warren Zevon. I also like Mississippi Fred McDowell, the Carter Family, the Ramones, and Wire. All names that fit well into an intellectual aesthetic spectrum. But I also like bands like Blink-182, who I’m glad to see you also like, and Ace of Base, who is often frowned upon in the intellectual community. I enjoy those bands more than the music of say, Lamont Young and Terry Riley. What are your views on the above-mentioned underlying expectations to a person’s taste? Does your answer have something to do with the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, ‘cause that would be pretty intellectual? — Martin Moeller, Aarhus, Denmark

I’ve never gotten very far in Bourdieu’s Distinction, an important piece of aesthetic theory I assume I agree with to some extent but in a less absolute, judgmental, dare I say snobbish way. So I can only wonder what if anything meaningful Bourdieu has to say about aesthetic pleasure itself, a real phenomenon however much it’s compromised or tainted that is clearly inflected by what we know and how we grew up but I very much doubt is coextensive with our social positioning dramas. You and I like the same kind of bands, it would seem, but if you also like Ace of Base, who I’ve never gotten into, go with it. There’s obviously real craft there. The idea is to let the music reach your ears unmediated insofar as that is possible, and although that’ll always mean relatively unmediated, there are various ways to trick yourself into being more spontaneous about it. I’ve made it a discipline to figure out the real reasons I enjoy individual pieces of music and put my conclusions into writing for over half a century. I’m real good at it and never perfect. It’s a contingent world. It’s also the only one we got, and music generally makes it better.

In your 2002 interview with Rockcritics.com you mentioned classical music as one of your blind spots. In one of your asides in Going into the City you referred to "a Germanophile musicological establishment that protects its academic suzerainty to this day.” Is your disposition towards musicology academes less than amiable? Do you have any friends at WQXR? — Tim Getz, Vernon, New Jersey

When the category is as vast as “classical music,” it’s not a “blind spot.” It’s something I’m not really interested in, like biochemistry or astronomy or sculpture, although in recent years I’ve come to care more about the first two than I do about classical music. That said, I’ve read a great deal of classical music history in passing, most recently when I was reviewing Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History for the L.A. Times. Most germane, however, is what I’ve written about the late great not-actually-a-musicologist (which-was-probably-a-good-thing) Christopher Small. My Voice piece about Small was eventually reprinted in a classical music journal whose title now escapes me. More to the point, the entirety of my long interview with him, transcribed over several days by none other than moi because like many who knew him I loved Christopher Small, was published in Jason Gross’s long-running online music mag Perfect Sound Forever and reprinted in Robert Walser’s posthumous Christopher Small Reader. I know no one at WQXR and have very little to do with academic musicologists, although onetime Times critic John Rockwell, who in “retirement” writes regularly for an opera magazine I can’t keep straight from the other opera magazine, is one of my closest friends. Of course, he was also a rock critic for a while.

Can your readers expect a decade-end list from you on your Substack newsletter? —Tom, Philadelphia

Soon come.

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