Xgau Sez: April, 2023
To B+ or not to B+, all-time Yankees, pondering the limitations of AI singer-songwriting, reelin' in the Minutemen, God and Clapton in Pasadena, and 15 cultural fundaments (Backstreet Boys included).
Most of your B plus reviews seem to be saying that the album is for fans only. Since you’ve been grading albums for over 40 years I’m curious what B+ albums have entered your life in such a way that you play them often because you are a fan of that artist. Artists with huge catalogues like Neil Young and the Grateful Dead come to mind. And have you revisited Garcia’s self-titled debut lately? — Mike R, New Jersey
One of the rare grade-niggling questions worth answering. I’ve been grading albums since 1969, 54 years ago, which is way over 40. There’ve been three periods in this endeavor. The first was 1969-1989, when in theory the grades ran A plus down to E minus, although grades below C minus and especially D were always very rare. In 1990 I decided I was sick of writing pans and ran only reviews that ran from B plus to A plus, though within a few years Eric Weisbard convinced me to include one “Dud of the Month” in each CG, which could be as high as B minus (was there a B or two in there? don’t recall). Then sometime during my Microsoft run I decided to add condensed “Honorable Mentions” marked ***, **, or *, all of which count as B plusses lower than the B plusses I write full graded reviews of, though a few *’s might end up B’s were I doing that mental labor. So how many B plusses do we figure that makes now that I’ve graded somewhere over 15,000 albums and EPs? More than I have any inclination to count even with my webmaster Tom Hull helping—assuming those numbers aren’t already hiding in some cranny of the wonderful site that transformed my career. MOREOVER, EVEN IF I COULD COUNT THEM ALL I COULDN’T REMEMBER THEM ALL. And moreover moveover, B plus doesn’t mean for fans only. It means not an A but pretty damn good. So how many B plus records do I hear? Not many except when I’m doing retrospective comparisons for an essay or new album review. True, since all B plusses and Honorable Mentions are in what I call my A shelves, which among other things means full jewelbox or original packaging for visibility’s sake, picking one out half-blind by feel is always a possibility—happened recently with Timbila’s 2010 ** Remembering the Future, which sounded good, like at least a *** and maybe more. But basically, I listen to few B plus albums and very few HMs except when I’m backgrounding for a longer essay. True, I bet I played Garcia when he passed. And I suspect it sounded pretty good. But that was, oof, 28 years ago. So the details are lost forever.
Opening Day (with Volpe wearing the #11 once worn by Hector Lopez, etc.), plus the recent death of Joe Pepitone, has me wondering if you’re willing to construct a lineup of your all-time favorite Yankees, limiting yourself to those players who have played during your decades of fandom. You’re allowed a DH even if they weren’t around during their careers. Also one right-handed and one lefty starter, plus a reliever. — Ben Greene, Vancouver Island, British Columbia
How can I say no? C: Yogi Berra; 1B: Don Mattingly; 2B: Bobby Richardson; 3B: Graig Nettles; SS: Derek Jeter (sorry Phil, I’ll never forget you); LF: Dave Winfield; CF: Mickey Mantle (though DiMaggio did hang in there till 1951, I never saw him at his best); RF: Aaron Judge; DH: Reggie Jackson (yah yah A-Rod); RHP: David Cone (fuck Roger Clemens); LHP: Ron Guidry (sorry, Whitey); Relief (duh): Mariano Rivera.
Do you think the recent AI developments, like chatgpt or the technology that is able to replicate famous people’s voices (specifically musicians in this case), will be a detriment to the music business? I already dislike many of the newer technological tools like autotune and in my eyes these will further allow artists to let AI do all the work for them, thereby removing personality, soul, creativity, etc. from their work and make their music sound synthetic. I’m curious to know what you think and whether or not you find this to be a step in the right direction. — Juan Zubizarreta, Paraguay
I worry about this stuff, in part because the technological details are so far beyond my ken. But as someone who never got all that upset about Auto-Tune, I find some of the more dire predictions unlikely. Will there be catchy or physically compelling new AI-generated subgenres? Probably, and they could be fun, though I bet some programmers’ AIs will generate better results than others. What I’m much more skeptical about is emotionally resonant songwriting. A computer being able to replicate a voice is one thing. Being able to transmute an emotional experience into art is another, because though the appropriate language may be at the AI’s disposal, the experience is another story. My favorite AI in art is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pauline in Aurora, who does in the long course of the book experience something like love and something like grief. But those capacities are many years in the making—more years than most human beings can live. And her/its aesthetic response, while real and quite touching, is relatively primitive. I recommend anyone who’s interested in these questions to tackle Aurora and maybe 2312 too.
When is the last time you listened to the Minutemen? — Another Adam, Arlington, Massachusetts
Oddly enough, within the current year, when a conversation revealed that Carola didn’t remember them, though she’d heard their records in their moment. I thought the replays sounded good but not as remarkable or compelling as I’d hoped. Carola more or less concurred.
Hi Bob! I’d like to pick your brain as someone who was there. What was it like hearing Eric Clapton in the 1960s? I know plenty of lore about him, but struggle to detail his specific “contribution” to rock music (I ask this as a fan of his). I suspect he was an early conjuror of identiriffs but have never read that anywhere. I know about the lengthy solos with Cream, which you’re not a fan of, but in your reviews I sense there is something else about his playing in general that both appealed to you and was well- regarded among your peers—that he was a known quantity for aficionados going into the seventies and Layla. I’d love to know more about your opinion of him at the time and the general, on the ground experience of his early career. A reflection back on that career from the vantage of 2023 would be a lovely bonus. — Bradley Sroka, Sterling, Virginia
As my Clapton piece in Grown Up All Wrong explains, I respect Clapton’s facility as a player but have warmed to him only intermittently. Not a big Yardbirds fan though they were certainly OK, not a big Cream fan ditto—Disraeli Gears is my favorite in their rather tiny catalogue, and always there’s Jack Bruce’s portentous proto-art-rock vocals to get past. The first Derek and the Dominoes album I love and still play occasionally because it fills a special need, and I also still go for 461 Ocean Boulevard. But except for one story that’s where it ends and that’s all I’m writing. The story is about seeing Derek and the Dominos in Pasadena in November 1970. Great show—that truly was a terrific band. But what I always recall is what my date had to say about it. She was a very intelligent and openminded colleague of mine at Cal Arts and we had a good time together even though she wasn’t much into music. But this concert she loved loved loved, and in the course of telling her about the band I mentioned the silly way fans had of calling Clapton God. Judy didn’t think it was silly at all. “I can see why,” she said. So maybe there was something there I missed.
In the years since “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” what other turning points in the history of popular music stick out to you the most? — David, Fairfax, Virginia
Aretha on Atlantic. The first Ramones album for sure. Multiple hip-hop moments—Sugarhill Gang, Bambaataa, “That’s the Joint,” “The Message,” Public Enemy too. Bikini Kill more than Sleater-Kinney, better though S-K were. Maybe the Backstreet Boys, who got that ball rolling. As much earlier did Sunny Ade, who I’d argue made Youssou possible. Arguably electric Miles. And Bob Dylan oughtn’t be left off this list even though he slightly preceded “Brand New Bag.” Indeed, ditto for the Beatles. “Brand New Bag” is musically fundamental. But culturally fundamental has to be in the mix.