Parsing posthumous Coltrane, grading Big Star and Lil Wayne, and the uses of critical esotericism and formalism
|Robert Christgau||Jan 15|
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.
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.
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.