Category Archives: music

A Song & a Story #10: Pere Ubu, “Heart of Darkness”

This one goes out to Marc M.

Magenta sun here, air humid, copper-purple sky at sunrise, dark coming early, the city and its many arteries feeling frail until the subtle steady pressure of the fires global warming has set. After a day-long freeway trip back home to Seattle, I had to then catch a bus in the 7 p.m. twilight to pick up a friend’s car. Walking in the dark. Everything in Madison Valley felt drugged, cruelly neat, Stepford Wives-y: I felt around in my pockets for my headphones: this song was the only living thing in 20 blocks.

One of the untold stories of indie rock is its intersection with class. Punk’s chief myth about itself is that it is an organic, realist, proletarian artform, the musical equivalent of a spontaneous revolutionary uprising. But many of the early New York punks were actually suburban kids (Ramones from Queens, New York Dolls from Staten Island) hungry for the dilapidated mystique of an downtown culture they then helped advance: middle-class dreamers chasing a glamorous myth of urban poverty. (Twelve years later, Sonic Youth would then shift post-punk culture into something solidly middle-class-bohemian: a myth of the art-school genius replacing a myth of the junkie poet.)

But, outside of New York, in the netherworlds of tape-loop noise, hardcore, and basement roar, many more of the early indie rockers were actually poor and small-town, part of what SST Records guru Joe Carducci proudly called “new redneck.” Pere Ubu, Cleveland artistes from public housing (the buildings echoing in identical blocks like dub reggae), made music whose scorched buzzy busted rattle reflected an urban decay they’d experienced firsthand, in a city no one mythologized. It could be clownish and violent; it could be pretentious and odd; it could be desperate. It’s a thread not many later bands have picked up. Could class have something to do with it?


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(2015 and) 2016: Albums

Following my posts from this morning, here are my favorite albums from this year. Here’s a playlist.


ALBUMS: “Afraid of the cops when I was outside, afraid of my friends when I was inside”

camp-copeCamp Cope, Camp Cope. Georgia Maq’s shame and desire and excruciating self-consciousness are painfully bright— you have to squint— and our witnessing of it would all be for nothing if the space of liberation her songs long for weren’t blasted out by the big jarring drums and melodic counterpoint of the bass and that jangly basic guitar. Makes me think of Defiance OH or Your Heart Breaks: the way good music creates in moments the better world it desires.

car-seat-headrestCar Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial. Not shame and desire on this one, but depression and falling-inward; a self-consciousness not excruciating but ironic, curious, and ultimately sort of redemptive. Will Toledo’s music is sad shit, but it’s never sluggish or stark. Teens of Denial attests to a rich imagination for arrangement: it’s rowdy and dynamic, decorated by horns and answering voices and a complex sense of construction (yes, you’ll listen to all eleven minutes of “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” without your mind wandering). You make music like this because you survive, and maybe part of the reason you survive is your musical imagination is your friend, or it represents the sustaining power of some buried self-belief and resistance under the sinking weight of your own biochemical hopelessness, or it’s a taunt that stirs some despondency in you into raging loud life.

chance-the-rapper-on-gma-aug-2016-billboard-1548Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book. Exuberance and hope. Faith and a little licking flame of anger. A gymnastic verbal gift. Open-heartedness and a sense of collective grief rather than a personal chip on the shoulder. “Giving Satan a swirlie.”

kaDr. Yen Lo, Days with Dr. Yen Lo. Modern life is war: Ka is part of a long hip-hop tradition (Genius, Rakim, the Poor Righteous Teachers) of solitary mystics cultivating secret learning and esoteric insight to actively resist, not elude, systemic oppression: “slave body, master mind.” Ka the drumless rapper: an FDNY fire captain by day deprogramming his listeners into mind-freedom out in Brownsville by night: murmuring on this record (a collaboration with producer Preservation) over cutups from The Manchurian Candidate like the last unbrainwashed POW. If you want his album, he’ll mail it to you himself, but be cool because he doesn’t make it to the post office every day.

grimesGrimes, Artangels. Claire Boucher’s songs are political but they aren’t built to rally around: her personae are solitary in their feminist rage, anti-capitalist dread, and declarations of freaky independence. But, as on Lemonade, you speak your truth right and other people hear themselves in your words and live bigger lives because of you. I could never get the hang of Grimes before, but here Boucher’s elastic sugar-high voice and the production– calling back with its breakbeats and bright guitars to Ray of Light and other late-90s “progressive” pop– makes me feel fifteen again.

kevingatesKevin Gates, Islah. In rap as in rock, plenty of smart people become stars by figuring out how to make enlarged retweetable cartoons of themselves, but Kevin Gates is Kevin Gates: an unapologetically complete and contradictory character, dangerous and tender, rough and sensuous, pitiless and lonely, supremely confident in the broadness of his talent. On Islah (named for his daughter), every, I mean every, song has hooked my ears; some unsettle me, others move me, and many stick in me as aphorisms I’ll be repeating until I hear another rap album this good.

fatou-1Fatou Seidi Ghali & Alamnou Akrouni, Les Filles de Illighadad. Some of the Portland label Sahel Sounds’ collections of northwest African field recordings succumb to folkloricism: music whose interest is mostly that it’s “an enriching example of the diversity of” your topic, the best players you’d find in any dusty small-town courtyard presented in a geographic sweep. But these two Tuaregs, a guitar player and singer joined by drummers on the long single B-side track, make intricate and hypnotic music that keeps compelling my ears, played casually and recorded intimately.

carly-rae-jepsenCarly Rae Jepsen, EMOTION and EMOTION Side B. Seems like she’s turning her energy toward having fun with her (huge) cult instead of trying to compete with Taylor, Katy, etc., which I think is just fantastic. Hip critics called Emotion overly professional, but at a certain level you’ve got to trust that Jepsen’s hyper-developed sense of craft is one expression of artistic personality, not a concealment she needs to grow out of. Likewise her very particular taste in collaborators (turning down multiple songs from Max Martin to work with Devonte Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid). Her B-sides album is more idiosyncratic and giddily expert bangers: just what she wanted, and I bet a few million fans, too.

kelela-2Kelela, Hallucinogen EP. The blue-robot cover of this EP is the least human thing about it: my pleasure of replaying Hallucinogen is in the contrasts, the heat of Kelela’s hunger, regret, power, and dread over cool and spacious electronics, the wingbeat of her voice over the digital pulse and skitter. I bet the next record will be better– Kelela was first celebrated for her sound when she was still a maturing artist– but this EP is already a sign of sharpening artistic vision: the songs all sound like her, whether she’s got five collaborators or fifteen.

KING, We are KING. Natalie and I got to see Amber and Paris Strother and Anita Bass on their second pass this year through Seattle, and seeing KING live helped me untangle the production on their debut. Through my laptop speakers, I thought it was pretty but a little gauzy and samey; with it booming in my face, I could separate out the doubled voices, feel the edges of the big washes of old-fashioned synthesizer, and let the fuller-bodied bass rumble my body. Afterward I came back to the record with more open ears, loving the drama of KING’s sense of melody, letting the lyrics’ assurance and tenderness contribute to atmosphere rather than needing them to tell me a story.

knoxChris Knox, Seizure reissue. This is what it takes to be the godfather of a scene: a spiritual generosity that springs out of your own generative fluency— if I can do this, why don’t you give it a try?—; a real committed child-like eccentricity and an affinity for Beatles-y melodies; a cassette machine. Knox had been pouring his heart into New Zealand indie music for a decade when he released this solo album in ’89, playing everywhere, engineering everyone who needed it, and distributing his friends. I first met most of these songs thirteen years ago, when Cait played me Knox’s anthology Meat (comprising a weirdly partial selection of this record, its followup Croaker, and a few other tunes). I met them again on Stroke, the tribute assembled by his countless admirers, friends, and mentees in and out of New Zealand to pay his medical bills after he lost his speech and much of his mobility in a grand mal seizure five years ago. In that time, my love for them hasn’t faded in the slightest. I’ve never heard a song about sexism like “The Woman inside of Me”; “The Face of Fashion” and “Not Given Lightly” are love songs, real heart-widening miracles; when you tune your ears to their timbres, you’ll whistle along with “Wanna!!”

kaitlynaureliasmithKaitlyn Aurelia Smith, EARS. The sense of a huge damp respirating landscape, mossy stone and fir trees and water bluer than the sky, synthesizers creating an effect that feels pre-human: music whose rhythms reflect not an arc of bodily ecstasy but the minute motions of creeping roots and dripping rain. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the pride of Orcas Island.

speedy-ortiz-2-by-shervin-lainezSpeedy Ortiz, Foil Deer. It’s not always good news when poets are lyricists, but Sadie Dupuis’s arch, bitter, self-delighted, and swiftly-moving lyrics are a real joy, and her band’s music is awkward in a way I love, all jabbing elbows and tangled feet. I’ve always said I’m just not a child of 90s indie rock– Archers of Loaf are never gonna move me like the Replacements– but Speedy Ortiz makes me love that era’s mixture of spasmodic whiz-bang energy and delighted irony enough to make me wonder. Maybe I’m wrong!

tribe-called-quest-a-51b910fd1d61dA Tribe Called Quest, We Got It from Here… Thanks 4 the Service. I was a teenager when my body was swept up by the sound of Low End Theory and an aspiring cool kid when I found Beats, Rhymes & Life and I loved them both and never expected I’d hear another, let alone one even more musically various, politically exact, lyrically virtuosic, whatever other overjoyed adverb-adjective pairs you wanna throw at this astounding thing.

kanyeKanye West, The Life of Pablo. I tried to hate this one and I just completely failed. Coming back to it on a car trip with my brother on a sad fucking day, I finally heard how each unpredictable production choice and every obnoxious or grace-starved lyric and off-the-wall musical element lean on each other and I put my head down on the glove compartment and surrendered to loving it. The Life of Pablo is full of loose ends and unfinished threads, but what unites it is a sense of shame and redemption: it’s religious as nothing he’s done since “Jesus Walks.” And throughout Pablo, there’s that unique genius of West’s, those reckless ingenious acts of musical balancing: cramming samples into “No More Parties in LA” until the song bursts like a torn quilt; tucking Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” into the last third of “Famous.”

bebey_francisRough Guide to African Rare Groove, Vol. 1. A serious damn party record: in less than an hour it hunts everywhere for pleasure, from buzzy solid-state Ethiopian funk to Tanzanian open-air dance music and a Malawian one that sounds like calypso with a drum machine, wrapping it all up with a Celestine Ukwu song that dissolves in soothing guitar and saxophone prettiness (the comedown tune?) and a really busted kooky Francis Bebey song (that’s him pictured) for your 4 a.m. seizures of inspiration.

Imaginational Anthem Vol. 8: the Private Press. This label, which specializes in rare guitar music, here does itself one better and shares an hour-plus of rarer-than-rare guitar music: Imaginational Anthem Vol. 8 consists of selections from three decades of privately printed LPs and 45s, by artists I’ve never remotely heard of: a world of one-offs, flashes of brilliance, prayers and musical tangents. My favorites are the stuff in the British-Isles line, but there are Delta- and Latin-inspired tunes, dabs of psychedelia and jazz, multi-tracked cascades; anything you could want, annotated with fondness and curiosity (“according to YouTube…”). A treasure.

urgent_jumpingUrgent Jumping: East African Musiki Wa Dansi Classics. From Stern’s, an East African dance music anthology that’s a little too overstuffed and (as above) folkloric/collector-y to really knock me out start to finish (as say African Pearls: Pont Sur le Congo or Golden Afrique Vol. 1 have): “twice as good if it were half as long,” as they say. But it’d be churlish of me to complain against the variety— benga, rumba, lilting Arabic-mode Zanzibarian tunes, and fuzzy soul alongside the sublime liftoff of the soukous tunes I’ll always like best. Favorites include L’Orchestre Grand Pisa’s “Oboti Kolisa,” L’Orch. Moja One’s “Dania ni Duara Pts. 1 & 2,” and Victoria Jazz Band’s “Anyanga.”

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(2015 and) 2016: Songs

Life is basically sad and hard as well as a sublime gift, a cliffdrop as well as a stargaze, and this year I tried to be less consumerist in my relationship to finding new music since why let capitalism pollute more in me than it already has. This was the year, of course, of groundshifting political cataclysm as well as death after death; it was also the year, for me, of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Anonymous 4’s medieval Marian hymn anthology The Lily and the Lamb, Captain Beefheart’s Doc at the Radar Station, Billie Holiday’s Solitude, Ornette Coleman, Atrium Musicae’s Al Andalus, Unwound, Incredible String Band’s Wee Tam, Augustus Pablo, Paul McCartney’s Run Devil Run, and finally getting the hang of Elvis through his Valentine Gift for You collection. So through it all I chose not to rush or cram; I listened, then, to less new stuff. Here’s what I loved best of what I did hear.

First, songs I loved this year (including songs from last year I got around to in the last twelves months) that I loved even if I didn’t love, or never heard, the rest of the albums they were from. Playlist here. Starred songs aren’t on Spotify.

Edit: In talking about a few of these songs I shared stories of folks’ experiences that weren’t mine to share. These have been cut.

Songs: “Doing my face with magic marker”


Adele, “Send My Love (to Your New Lover).” Seattle’s Top 40-ish, silly “hip hop and hits” station, KUBE, got amoeba’d into the even more Top 40 “Power 93,” where you can hear a lot of Justin Bieber and Juicy J and Taylor Swift and Drake and, it turns out, Adele, who I’ve never intentionally listened to, until this song made something more joyful out of a rainy drive home in a borrowed car with a cranky kid and groceries.

Afous D’Afous, “Tarhanine Tegla.” I knew this Sahara-wide hit only because of Sahel Sounds. C cried watching the music video for how it made her miss what she knows is her heart’s home.

Beyonce, “Sorry” and “Formation.” My two from Lemonade.

blood-orange-dev-hynes-west-drive-leadBlood Orange, “Best to You.” Dev Hynes, like few other male singer-songwriters besides Tricky, can write R&B for women singers that (in this one male listener’s opinion) centers their own emotions and their own consciousness– treats them, in other words, like subjects— instead of as props for male ego or furnishing for male fantasy. This was my favorite from Freetown Sound. Honorable mentions: “E.V.P.,” “But You.”

Jherek Bischoff, “Ca(s)siopeia.” The least filmic and for me most affecting from this record of ambient chamber music. Really this whole record stirs my heart when I put other things down and attend to its big visual gestures and eerie textures, but this is the song whose emotional effect was biggest for me.

Christine & the Queens, “Tilted.” 

Chromatics, “In Films.” The second pre-release single from a record by now more than a year delayed, one of those hooks where the doubled-keyboard-and-guitar has been compressed into one big heavy blur of sound and Ruth Radelet floats over the whole thing.

chrDIIV, “Dopamine.” Still trying to understand what to make of this self-mythologizing martyr wreck of an artist, but I get this one now. This song, trebly and echoey and delicate and nervous and sexless and circling back on itself, sounds like drugs to me.

Missy Elliott, “WTF (Where They From)” (ft. Pharrell). Finally got this one at Dance Church.

Ariana Grande, “Into You.” Whenever I listen to it, I wind up listening to it three times in a row. Max Martin’s clockwork sense of song construction complements Grande’s impeccable vocal control (which I find annoying on her plentiful dippier material) and I nod along until there I am lipsyncing. Honorable mention: “Greedy.”

*I.F.O., “Nibiru” (ft. Afrika Bambaataa)Afro-futurist old school party music building to a single hot-blooded climax/blastoff.

Janet Jackson, “No Sleeep” (ft. J Cole). Honorable mention: “Dammn Baby.”

youngthug-thefuturefmJulia Brown, “All Alone in Bed.” My favorite from the last album by Caroline White and the busy Sam Ray (also of Ricky Eat Acid) under this name. An Abundance of Strawberries feels a little historical— a “notes on the canon of bedroomy indie pop”-type record, with less ecstasy and sparkle than (say) Unrest or the Spinanes or Saturday Looks Good to Me— but this song’s unprepossessing lift and joy still moves me.

Junior Boys, “Over It.” I like how these guys, album by album, refine and tend to their sound in that studious, grownup way of studious, grownup bands; I like the move on Big Black Coat toward chilly, Detroit-ish techno, though the sound means that Jeremy Greenspan is more reserved about his desperation and mopeyness than on their earlier records.

Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts, “Back to Manhattan.” Sometimes a single emotional moment can contain a whole world; sometimes very gentle and gradual change is best at conveying a shock or unexpected loss (I won’t spoil this song’s).

Main Attrakionz, “My Story.” My favorite from a whole album of rapping over New Age!

Massive Attack, “The Spoils” (ft. Hope Sandoval). Now that Daddy G Marshall has rejoined Robert Del Naja, “bringing the black back to Massive Attack,” my hopes and longings for their next full-length are currently astronomical. This one, with Hope from Mazzy Star over a slow-moving hibernal melody, is my favorite from their stuff this year.

0002327945_10*Joanna Newsom, “Time, as a Symptom.” I wish I were different, but a decent chunk of Ys, half of Have One on Me, and most of Divers missed me completely. I connect with Newsom’s presence live, and her empathy means the preciousness of the music doesn’t feel self-absorbed, but only when the tune is perfect (“’81,” “Cosmia”) or she’s seized and shaken by her own poetry (“Sawdust and Diamonds”) do I love it on record. This one’s the latter. Dig the Finnegans Wake quote!

DeJ Loaf, “Hey There” (ft. Future). Liz! Remember driving across the California desert in our rented gas-monster listening to rap on satellite radio?

Frank Ocean, “White Ferrari.” I love the weird paradoxes of Frank Ocean’s music— luxury blues alongside sensory pleasure; gnawing loneliness alongside grownup reflection; musical asymmetry and refined, detailed production— but I wind up finding the albums too subtle and slippery when I take them as a whole. This tune, movement by movement (Cait pointed out the Beatles quote to me, and now we sing the title to each other during any odd pauses in conversation), is my fave from Blond. Honorable mention: “Self Control.”

Rihanna, “Needed Me.” Honorable mention: “Kiss It Better.”

0008025823_10Swet Shop Boys, “Zayn Malik.” Haven’t listened to the new full-length. Honorable mention: all of these guys’ recent singles are fantastic.

Tinashe, “Ghetto Boy.” The difference, I guess between an album and a mixtape-you-pay-for, like Tinashe’s Nightride, is expectation, I guess: “this till the next thing.” Tinashe is a great, weird, mystically-inclined R&B singer stuck treading water with poppy material (so-so features with Juicy J and Chris Brown) while her label looks around for a way to make her big; Nightride‘s neither as broad as Aquarius or as idiosyncratic as Amethyst, but I’ll take it till the next thing, especially this sublimely beautiful tune. Honorable mention: “Company.”

4d7453a830e4d3d16c5e20e803d863ccWaxahatchee, “Summer of Love.” Gabe finally got me to listen with open ears. Honorable mention: “Under a Rock.”

Wimps, “Old Guy.” I’m 33; my already huge forehead is growing into a widow’s peak; I fall asleep after three drinks; my sister-in-law had to explain to me what “turnt” meant; I’m the old guy at the party. Honorable mention: “Take It as It Comes.”

Young Thug, “RiRi.” JEFFERY was the first of these syrup-thick Auto Tune’d contemporary Atlanta rap records I could fathom. The loopy childish brutality of Thug’s lust and neediness are sometimes too much for me, but the guy has a sound out of which he can sculpt endless musical shapes and he sounds so happy doing it– like E-40. This one (maybe named, with fannish enthusiasm, because of that hook?) was my fave. Honorable mention: “Webbie.”

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Songs I Like #9: Dead Kennedys, “Moon Over Marin”

Our normal is another’s crisis: our tank of gas puts Tuvalu under water; our cheap tropical fruit grows in a rain of Guatemalan bullets. We— the we of the educated and decently-secure Global North– don’t experience this directly, not without a certain counter-socialized moral effort. But then, there will always be people who don’t notice that the world has ended. Marin: unthinkably expensive fixer-uppers, chilly moss-blanketed redwoods, virtuous grocery stores, sheer red rock, hideous traffic (since 50 years ago upscale neighbors turned down the chance to have the BART come) dotted with nonpolluting cars. It takes seeing another’s comfort sometimes for me to remember that my, like anyone’s, comfort is breathtakingly fragile, and is also a force that gives me meaning, a frame for life, a sense of what’s normal. “Moon over Marin” is a serious, stark tune, an outlier amid the laughing hysteria and vivid contempt of the Dead Kennedys’ Plastic Surgery Disasters. A solemn and comfortable last survivor– park ranger of the ruined shore? a last resident whom this life suits just fine?– walks their section of the oil-choked, poison-leaching beach in uniform and gasmask, then returns home for a sacramental cleanse in a “scalding wooden tub.” Above it, the clean bright unspoiled Moon is as permanent as our life, its tidiness and predictability and comfort, is transitory. We have more power than we realize.



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Songs I Like #8: King Tubby, “Hijack the Barber”

I started this during a music-writing activity I did during the July swelter with my students at King County Jail.

These last couple weeks have been so steady-hot that I’ve had to cultivate the art of slow: slow moving, slow eating, slow love and slow days so I can (hopefully) not break that first sweat; club soda with lime, strawberries, rose wine, frozen coconut bars, and, finally, dub reggae.

I’m probably one of the only non-stoned people in Seattle to love dub–the languorous, liquid species of instrumental reggae that cuts the vocals into echoing shreds, turns the horns into punctuation, and soaks the drum accents until they sound like they were played in a cathedral, adding a third dimension to the music and making its tricky editing sound sensual, and above all easy. In a dub track, only the bass remains untouched, the song’s heartbeat and soul, and I have a subwoofer that turns the bass into a kind of heavy massage.

Dub was the only music my dad forbade; he forgave Suicide Machines screaming “I don’t give a shit about you stupid motherfuckers!” and Sublime’s porn samples and Snoop Dogg and Dre spelling out their revenge on Luke, but when I put on Lee Perry’s Arkology box, he said, “God, please turn off that mind-rotting stuff!” Up to my room with it I’d slink. But now, I think even he’d agree that it’s just too damn hot for verses and choruses.

One day I’ll convince Cait that we need to put a $1,000 stereo into the $2,000 Camry we share with our housemate, but until then, I can get rattled and stretched and beaten by my dub LPs only at home on my couch, letting our ceiling fan stir my hair, letting the music accent the dreaminess and dusty heat of these summer days.

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A Premature Eulogy for Robert Christgau

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 at home. Image lifted from Brooklyn Magazine profile "The Dean's List"

Christgau at home. Image lifted from Brooklyn Magazine profile “The Dean’s List”

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.


1978. Lifted from Pacifica’s website:

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.



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Songs I Like #7: Papa Wemba, “Adida Kiesse”

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.


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