Hey folks, new review of Erica Mena’s Featherbone (Ricochet) and Robert Fernandez’s Pink Reef (Canarium) up this morning at Jacket2.
Hey folks— my review of Corina Copp’s The Green Ray and Ben Fama’s Fantasy is up now in the new Kenyon Review Online. Enjoy!
Robert Christgau isn’t dead. He slips on his orthotics and goes to shows; he listens closely to many hundreds of new records a year and writes beautifully about dozens of them. I don’t want to wait until the 75-year-old rock critic kicks the bucket to consider his virtues and talk about how much I love him.
Christgau’s lifelong affection for the rock and roll’s collective cultural appeal, physical pleasure, and black-led but deeply integrated racial history has made him prickly toward those who apply high-art ambitions to the genre. It’s also made him unusually sensitive, as white critics go, to the ways that race and racism play out in rock and roll.
As early as 1967, mainstream tastemakers began to embrace the more ambitious white West Coast and English rockers as “geniuses” making “art” in the mixed idiom of rock and roll, conferring a cultural legitimacy (and a European Modernist heritage) on their cryptic lyrics and heady, baroque arrangements. This legitimacy would long elude, say, black geniuses in the rock and roll tradition, from James Brown to Holland-Dozier-Holland. Surveying the white-dominated, “forward-thinking” scene at that year’s Monterey Pop Festival, Christgau noted that he didn’t see anyone there who felt their music had a kinship “with, say, Martha and the Vandellas.” As rock became “art,” with the racial baggage this implied, Christgau stuck with his own sense of pleasure as a critic, refusing to take surface opacity for depth.
And as recently as last year, he noted that the much-maligned hit-factory style currently dominating pop—where beatmakers shop their rhythms to producers who match those backing tracks to a series of hookwriters and then to a singer—had at last undone the Eurocentric tradition of songwriting credits (and royalties) being divided between the lyricist and melodist. For decades, the rhythmmakers—the crew that carries the song’s heartbeat, the people who make a good tune a hit—being consigned only to per-session payment, or at best a small slice of royalties. Now, thanks to the hit factory, they’re the first ones getting paid.
He has the kind of beautifully subtle distinction in his listening that comes from paying close attention to his own sense of pleasure ahead of—and sometimes against—critical chatter. His acuteness means he can find things to admire and enjoy even in records that make him uneasy or that he’s inclined to strongly dislike. He’s not afraid to speak in moral terms about records he finds revolting. Plus, of course, his writing’s polish and concision means he can say/evoke/riff on/crack wise about a lot in very few words. It remains damn refreshing to read criticism that (to echo a formulation from writer Carl Wilson) works hard to locate for whom, to whom, and by what channels a work of art speaks: Christgau’s criticism is social, free of bohemian chauvinism. It’s also refreshing that, though Christgau has zero interest in making himself like something, he’s willing to ask himself what it’s like for him to like something, and share the fruits of this question with his readers.
(This is not to cover up some obnoxious moments in his writing—at one point referring to Hendrix, an artist he adored, as a “psychedelic Uncle Tom”; making a nasty sexist quip about the Donnas; chastising Nas and Damian Marley’s critical Afrocentrism by informing them that critical dissent is protected thanks only to the European Enlightenment. And, of course, sometimes I find his reviews reactionary or misguided or etc. He’s written a lot.)
And then, of course, there are the fruits of his work. Through his inimitable and seemingly inexhaustible Consumer Guide (14,000 reviews there to browse), I’ve discovered easily a hundred completely-new-to-me-at-the-time records I now adore. (Surely I’m not the only one to trawl Spotify with his A-pluses in a separate tab?) This spring alone I’m getting to know Wussy’s Funeral Songs, Kate & Anna McGarrigle’s Tell My Sister rarities collection, the Three Tenors of Soul’s All the Way from Philadelphia, Sly & Robbie Present Taxi, Sam Mangwana’s Maria Tebbo twofer, Amy LaVere’s Hallelujah I’m a Dreamer, and Ornette Coleman’s Of Human Feelings. He hates metal; he’s grossed out by most jazz fusion; he detests prog rock. But he’ll listen attentively to it three times before he tells you so.
Christgau, I look forward to years of not-having-to-miss-you-yet.
Hey friends and curious strangers, just a brief note to say that my mom, a dear ardent difficult compassionate and much-beloved individual, died suddenly this week. Been much supported in all the numbing practicalities of death (insurance paperwork, event planning), and in the intense oceanic movements of grief, by my fierce and loving community.
My mom taught me to take the struggle for human dignity and liberation absolutely personally; she also treasured her relationship with God through a deep anti-authoritarian streak that made her a restless member of any faith community. She liked good food and booze both fancy and cheap, and experienced a somatic, overmastering pleasure in the music she loved (New Orleans R&B, honky-tonk, jazz, zydeco, Los Lobos, Stevie Wonder, Cuban son).
Something from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, a book she read in the last year of her life: “Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent on it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life—which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change.” My heart goes out toward someone whose changes are done.
A decade ago, someone left a CD of Franco at the zine library where I volunteered, shelving and cleaning, and I fell in immediate soul-stirring, body-tingling love with it, the way as a teen I lost it at first listen to Giant Steps, London Calling, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Country Life, feeling in the physical flow and vibrancy of the music something that fit an exact place in my spirit. Franco, a guitar colossus, declamatory singer, and ace bandleader, led the transition of Congolese music from lilting Cuban-inspired rumba to the punchy, virtuosic, sensual-then-brisk dance music called soukous. He and his rival/pal/fellow continental superstar the sweet-voiced Tabu Ley Rochereau so completely dominated the soukous scene in Kinshasa that they’d absorb nearly every gifted player and singer into their own rotating groups. One of the few exceptions to the creative duopoly was the prickly and independent-minded bandleader and composer Papa Wemba, who roared out of his Zaiko Langa Langa band in the 70s to create hard-edged, funky solo music.
Wemba, who died onstage in Abidjan three days ago at 66, could bark and wail and keen and serenade, sometimes all in the same song; he could quote village chants in a Saturday-night dancefloor tune. “La ville et le village,” he once wrote: “deux visages que j’aime!” I first met his music on the 1977-1997 anthology, then on the Peter Gabriel project Molokai. This tune– from the 90s, long after most soukous giants had fallen silent– is my fave.
When an artist you love dies, what do you mourn exactly? I can’t mourn like Prince’s family will mourn, his close friends and collaborators, his church friends, the people who knew and loved the person.
What I mourn is the possible generative future of a damn inconsistent and still wonderful artist—the next “Breakfast Can Wait” or “Black Sweat” or “1,000 X’s and O’s” that there’ll never be, much less all the stone-cold classics (I cleaned my writing studio just this morning to “Housequake” and “Slow Love,” danced just last night to “Raspberry Beret”) whose source will never conjure them up for us live. (Missed him last year here in Sattle; played four nights at a small club, $250 a ticket, extraordinary from what I heard, a 3-hour show of classics and B-sides and requests melting under the heat of his tireless energy and the crowd’s love.)
But mostly what I mourn is the projection of a possible way to be, a Prince I could live inside and love and shock myself as, a Prince that refreshed the courage of my community of weirdos queers artists mystics Christians and forever reshaped our big culture’s borders around racial and sexual identity and music.* I don’t know almost anything about what Prince was like personally. But I do know that an artist can be incredibly difficult in person but still, by extending their “I” to contain the longing and lust and will for freedom and psychedelic dreams and invention of the people who adore their art, give a gift of radical possibility. People could close their eyes and put themselves inside his music, his persona, his Prince-ness and be changed.
It’s different, I think, with the writers I love: the emptying of the personality into the written work means that there’s something primary, still-living, in their books even when they’re gone. (I still wanna take a moment and recommend round-the-clock health monitoring and security for Samuel Delany.) But Prince, now, belongs to a time that’s no longer quite reachable by the people whose lives and imaginations he changed. So that’s what I mourn.
*: Clarification added, after a few hours’ reflection, to the original post. Prince’s radical push against a homogenized white perception of black culture—his refigurement of blackness in the eyes of his pop audience—is a huge part of his art. And it’s an aspect of his work that, I wanna be clear, I can never “live inside,” as a POC fan of Prince’s music could. Prince was an artist of color in a racist society; I’m white. I can love this dimension of his work, and be challenged by it, and learn from it, but it’s not my role to inhabit.