Sly Stone versus peace-and-love, Steely Dan's chewy perversity, alt-rock also-rans, and the heroines of boygenius
|Robert Christgau||Oct 16, 2019|
There is no question here. This is just an e-mail with Greil Marcus spelled correctly. You’re welcome. — Barry L., Mexico, NY
I thought I’d begin with this no-question question because it’s so Xgau Sez-specific, though the joke that Sezzers may recall it references had legs—was cited on Twitter, in fact, as proof that I hadn’t lost my gift for the one-liner although I hadn’t been sure it was worth doing that entry at all. All of which is a roundabout way of announcing that with a slight push from several advisors I am a) moving Xgau Sez from robertchristgau.com to And It Don’t Stop, as free content of course, and b) running it the third Wednesday of every month rather than every third Tuesday. That said, I should add that I am writing this edition well ahead of time on October 8, two days from scheduled knee replacement surgery, because I have no idea how functional I’ll be after the operation, which many have told me involves a disablingly painful recovery on the way to painless full mobility, which I haven’t had in that knee for years but which has become more acute since June (although pursuing a stray medical record last week I walked a total of two miles in discrete bits, hospital corridors included). Also, this is where I should point out that the kicker in the And It Don’t Stop header, Old Age, while also a joke, was in addition simple candor. I’m 77; that’s gonna come up. Maybe I’ll even address it head-on sometime. Case in point with no parity suggested: Hall of Fame New Yorker baseball writer and literary generalist Roger Angell’s “This Old Man,” the prize-winning title essay of a collection he published in his nineties.
Hi Bob, I’m excited to hear about your new newsletter. But I also wondered whether, since you started doing Xgau Sez, it had become at all apparent that the majority of your readers lean towards rock, old music, and the canon of album-orientated, artist-songwriter music—that is, people who enjoy your writing at least partly from the sense that it’s setting up respectabilities and hierarchies based on your intellectual engagement with artists’ work (even if that’s contrary to your own arguments against pretension, snobbery, “guilty pleasures,” etc.). If that is the case, would you be possibly willing to cater to that at all in your new newsletter, with, say, one review per issue of an old album that you never reviewed first time round? — Lewie Shipton, Exeter, UK
Of course I’m aware of my readership’s demographic and taste profile, although I like to think my fans are hip enough to generalize themselves as “male” above all and regret that a little. But I’d add that I get quite a few questions about jazz and African music and hip-hop and also relatively current artists. Without question the new newsletter format, consisting entirely of my fans as opposed to, for instance, some dimly imagined Noisey reader, frees me up to completely suit myself about what I cover, and I’ll need to see how that pans out once I’ve gotten through the backlog of recent releases my three-month layoff rendered inevitable. But even the next few months will include old stuff I would have been chary of covering in Noisey. If both the newsletter and my body last long enough, I can imagine going back to the ‘60s, before the Consumer Guide began, and homing in on one oldie but goodie a month. But for a while I’m just going to play things as they lay.
Like you, I love the classic music of Sly and the Family Stone. One of the main messages they pushed was the greatness of racial unity between Whites and Blacks. However, when Sly went off the rails and became a drugged out thug, this message went out the window. Do you believe Sly was sincere in his earlier message or was it just horseshit to sell records? What do you believe was behind Sly’s changed viewpoint, which I’d say began with the Riot album? — Steve Mauyer, Phoenix
I think you’ve got this wrong in several significant ways. First of all, though I may have missed something, it’s not my impression that Sly turned into a “thug”—any kind of seriously violent robber or dealer. He merely turned into a drug casualty, and since he’s still alive at 76, he’s done better by that fate than many. Not that I much admire the person he seems to be, but those are real distinctions. Second, I believe his first two ‘70s albums, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Fresh, are easily his best albums-as-albums, and though the first greatest hits album is even better, one reason there’s an argument to the contrary is that the everybody-is-a-star message of racial harmony and universal love had serious limitations that Stone was much quicker and sharper than most to see through—he was certainly no worse a drug fiend than John Phillips or several post-folk harmonizers we both could name, but unlike those bozos he figured out ways to make art out of his disillusion, art that among other things had smarter and warmer things to say about love (“Family Affair”? wow!) than most of the white druggies who were figuring the same shit out. So yes, I believe Stone was sincere in his early message without believing he was altogether a fool about it, and good on him. “Peace and love” was OK as an ideal and dishonest as an ideology. Lots of ‘6os rockers fell for it or exploited it and who can tell which? Fewer critics did.
I’ve been obsessed with your reviews of Steely Dan over the years, since I've been a fan of them since I was 12 years old. Your review of Pretzel Logic has particularly intrigued me. When you say this is the epitome of their “chewy perversity,” what do you mean? — Hugh, West of Ireland
“Chewy” is a pretzel joke, though maybe in the west of Ireland they don’t make big doughy pretzels, only the crisp dry kind. “Perversity” is posed in contradistinction to “logic.” Steely Dan’s songs are always something to chew over—they don’t parse “logically,” yet don’t seem at all meaningless. Moreover, these guys have a fairly twisted worldview, wouldn’t you say? Voila.
Whatever happened to Deerhunter? You seemed to start to really like them despite your initial misgivings, but you haven’t reviewed either of their two most recent albums. Does that mean you didn’t like their new releases all that much? — Christopher, Hawaii
That’s exactly what it means, the key phrase being “all that much.” With bands like Deerhunter, who I’ve admired intermittently with reservations—and “until he lurches off in another direction” certainly indicates reservations—I always give a listen. But I also make up my mind pretty fast about whether the album in question is good enough to review or not, and if it isn’t let it pass unless there’s some compelling reason not to. Possible A albums I put time into; Honorable Mentions I feel free to skip (and will even more in the monthly Substack format). There are too many artists capable of albums that really reach me to expend time on marginals.
Phoebe Bridgers’ recent collaboration album with Conor Oberst excepted, you’ve never reviewed any releases by the Boygenius trio. Any thoughts on them? — Adam Hart, Richmond, British Columbia
Releases plural? Boygenius released one EP, which Wikipedia tells me took them four days for four songs. I listened to it multiple times and thought it wan, merely conceptual, dare I say overrated just because people liked the idea of the thing (which I sure did). Of its three members—in addition to Bridgers, the more prominent Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker—I’ve given lots of time to the latter two. Dacus especially is considered a big deal by many I respect but has never came close to reaching me, and at a certain point you just have to throw up your hands and move on. This was long enough ago that I don’t know exactly how I’d characterize her music except to say that I could hear she had big ideas but found her expression, I don’t know, flat. Baker moved me more—her determination to address her own depressive tendencies directly seemed both courageous and educational. But in the end I found her too thin to climb into Honorable Mention territory.