January 8, 2012
Liner Notes

This Christmas I handed out two homemade mix CDs to friends and family: one has the unoriginal title “Alternative Nation,” and the other, “Robert’s Robyn,” recreates critic Robert Christgau’s preferred version of Robyn’s Body Talk. Three years ago I handed out fun single-CD histories of both rap and jazz, and this is my attempt to make it some kind of holiday tradition. I also asked my friend, visual artist Wes Stitt, to provide album covers for this year’s selections; the cover for “Robert’s Robyn” is posted above.

As you may expect, “Alternative Nation” is an overview of early ‘90s rock, which we called “alternative” back in the day, though that label doesn’t seem as necessary or descriptive now as it once was. Here’s the track list:

1. R.E.M., “Pop Song 89”

2. Nine Inch Nails, “Head Like a Hole”

3. Sonic Youth, “Kool Thing”

4. Pixies, “Velouria”

5. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

6. Pearl Jam, “Alive”

7. Ministry, “Jesus Built My Hotrod”

8. L7, “Pretend We’re Dead”

9. Radiohead, “Creep”

10. Smashing Pumpkins, “Today”

11. Liz Phair, “Divorce Song”

12. The Breeders, “Cannonball”

13. Beck, “Loser”

14. Soundgarden, “My Wave”

15. Hole, “Miss World”

16. Pavement, “Gold Soundz”

17. Veruca Salt, “Seether”

18. Green Day, “Burnout”

19. Elastica, “Connection”

20. PJ Harvey, “Down by the Water”

Perhaps it would have been hipper of me, and maybe even easier, to compile mostly lesser-known favorites for this CD. But I decided instead to stick with the fairly obvious stuff, presented chronologically. Except for “Down by the Water,” the songs end in 1994, which is the year many of my friends and I graduated from high school. I expected the CD to be nostalgic, and I expected it to rock, but I didn’t expect so many of the songs to be feminist and political, and then, further, to present these lyrical themes so baldly on each song’s surface. While I read plenty of press at the time concerning the “apathy” of such songs and performers, I didn’t remember this apathy carrying so much philosophical and political weight. And where hits by Tracy Chapman, Midnight Oil, Springsteen and Mellencamp from the ‘80s brought attention to the Other who struggled to get by both emotionally and economically within a large, relatively wealthy Western society, these ‘90s writers scoffed at the validity of the entire Western system and presented mainstream society as the Other. They naturalized what was once considered the margins, both musically and lyrically. And many of them were funny about it. And smart. Super smart.

None of this is news, of course, but I was surprised to realize just how present this ideology remains in the musical artifacts. R.E.M. parodies small talk and the basic assumption that verbal communication is inherently effective in “Pop Song 89.” Sonic Youth ends the bridge of “Kool Thing” with the sarcastic, “when you’re a star, I know that you’ll fix everything,” which digs hard into the self-righteousness of such late ‘80s star-activists as Sting and Peter Gabriel. L7’s “Pretend We’re Dead” is a call to political action: the title hook is set up by, “they’ve got us in the palm of every hand (when we)” and continues, “they can’t hear a word we said/when we pretend we’re dead.” And I’m convinced Veruca Salt’s “Seether” is about the very real fear surrounding the untapped power of the feminine spirit.

And so on. Even less direct songs such as “Loser” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are wracked with disillusionment, and yet the speakers do not come across as powerless. At the time I figured the apathy discussed was a kind of resignation. But now I don’t think so. I think it was an assertion that a better world requires changes at a fundamental level. And in retrospect that fundamental change seems to have been a dislodging of the primacy of modernism in our daily lives. Not that we aren’t still trying to do things better, faster and stronger. But modernism isn’t the driving engine of mainstream society like it once was. Formally marginalized boutique cultures have an economic and social validity now that was not present in the 1980s. And I think this music provided a commentary for that change.

The second CD, “Robert’s Robyn,” was originally a gift to me from Robert Christgau. I met and interviewed him just after Christmas 2010, and before I left he handed me a couple of mix CDs. (I think these are CDs he was mailing to friends and family for Christmas that year.) Besides Robyn, he also gave me a Das Racist mix alluded to in the title of his review of their first two mixtapes. Anyway, I wanted to share this with my own friends and family because meeting my idol was a big deal, and I consider this gift from him a symbol of what I now consider a friendship. So here you have a small piece of an important moment in my life. The track list itself was later published in an essay for Christgau’s Rock & Roll & column at Barnes & Noble Review. Read the essay for an explanation of the CD.

Both mix CDs are burned from Apple Lossless files and are therefore CD quality. So enjoy! And Merry Christmas!

January 2, 2012
In Defense of my own Cockiness

To the apparent surprise of many of his readers, Robert Christgau posted a rather positive review of Rihanna’s latest album Talk That Talk on his Expert Witness blog two weeks ago. In the comments section, several of Christgau’s fans complained of how R.’s music is beyond terrible because 1. it is hopelessly derivative of other, better music, and, 2. tracks such as “Cockiness” and “Birthday Cake” are too overtly sexual to be of any aesthetic value. Me, I immediately put “Cockiness” and “Birthday Cake” on repeat because I find them both exhilarating on a formal level, and, truth be told, crass sex talk doesn’t really bother me very much, especially when said sex talk includes puns and wordplay. So I posted a rundown of musical events in “Cockiness” that I find particularly meaningful, and I presented my analysis in the best way I know how: via terms and methods associated with academic musicology. Here’s an excerpt:

I have a particular skill set, and music like “Cockiness” and “Cry Me a River” and “A Milli”—to choose three seemingly unrelated songs—make my brain get a buzz on in a way that I don’t read about too often. I streamed “Cockiness” for a third time today just to see if its novelty had worn off, but I still totally love it. I typed some notes as I listened, and here’s the cleaned up version:

The first thing I love is the 3 against 4 “chop. chop. chop.” sample that underlies much of the song; you notice it most when it is left unadorned right at the end. I love when producers do this at the ends of songs—Timbaland does the same thing with “Cry Me a River,” when he strips away each layer near the end to reveal the song’s astonishing, effortless complexity. I also love the fanfare horns and the “YOU!” samples that punctuate the lyrics in the pre-chorus.

Another fun surprise is the song’s structure. When you map it out, it’s not like, “wow, such complexity!” But where the different parts fall in the series compliments the whole brilliantly. It opens with a brief intro, then we get the main refrain, a verse with killer call and response in R.’s trademark vocal effect, a “pre-chorus” with the aforementioned horns and “YOU!,” and then the “I love it when you eat it” before returning to the refrain again to repeat the sequence. Then we get a bridge or “development,” then pre-chorus, “love it,” and outro breakdown. Each piece is very different, but each also fits together with the whole perfectly, and with harmony that is never actually performed; it is only suggested by the melody. Listen close and there is very little toned music aside from the voices, some of the sound effects, the “chop.” sample, and the toned bass drum. Which is kind of like “Single Ladies,” but with elements that sound less disparate to these ears. It reminds me more of “A Milli.”

I didn’t intend my post to stir up too much controversy, but it did, and the subsequent debate concerning the value and assumptions of such formal analyses of music was compelling and valuable if you enjoy discussing aesthetics. On Christgau’s blog, readers are able to thumb up or thumb down comments if they wish, and within a few minutes I had already earned a thumb down. I expected a few of these, but what I didn’t expect is for Christgau himself to immediately, and sharply, criticize the aforementioned thumb bomber, calling him or her “a know-nothing and an imbecile.” In a later post he explained that what I had written could not be refuted with just a simple thumb-bomb: that he believed my formal discussion of favorite musical events was a list of facts, and that—as long as they are accurate—could therefore not be disagreed with.

Just as compellingly, however, the thumb-bomber in question, who goes by the handle Jackson Cage, fessed up to his crime and subsequently wrote a strong defense of his opinion. He complained that my post was arrogant because of how I introduced myself as a musicologist with special skills—a detail I included so as to justify my inclusion of a potentially controversial formal analysis (see Not. Milo. Miles. post for an explanation). Jackson C., however, thought I was simply showing off how I could complete an intellectual task I expected others were not intelligent enough to do on their own, which irritated him. But, ultimately, he seemed most frustrated by how my analysis did not add up to anything of value—that I simply stated information about the song rather than actually cracking open the song’s meaning and larger value. At first I disagreed with this—I explained that the musical events create musical meaning in and of themselves, and that the matter needn’t be elaborated upon further. “Sometimes sounds are pretty when put together in a clever manner,” was the extent of my reasoning. And I left it at that.

But now I think Jackson Cage’s criticism pointed out a serious flaw in my reasoning, and now I agree my analysis was indeed missing something important. I was making too broad of an assumption concerning musical meaning and how that meaning is produced in my mind grapes. Though I still believe the formal elements in R.’s song are what arouse my cranium’s spongy head, I don’t think it’s just the confluence of these events that provides for me such a reaction—by which I mean that it takes more than just the impressive and efficient combination of musical ideas to excite me as much as this song does.

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November 21, 2011
"[Ellen] Willis’s partisans aver that she got out [of rock criticism] while the getting was good, while [Paul] Nelson’s mourn the loss of his genius. I believe the opposite. Nelson was right to get out. Rock’s hero quest has been a dead end since circa 1980 — there’s Springsteen, that’s one, and then there’s, well, Bono, who it’s impossible to imagine Nelson taking seriously for a host of reasons good and bad. But I think Willis would have been better off staying. She was a powerful thinker, and though she never wrote enough she almost always wrote well when she did. But as someone who spent 15 years extricating himself from her politics and is so glad he did, I say continued attention to her beat would have changed those politics for the better, sensitizing her to mass pleasures, countercultural anxieties, class antagonisms, and racial contradictions she lost touch with. Mere attention wouldn’t have done it, though — she would have had to enjoy it. And it’s my guess that for writers as gifted as Willis and Nelson never to have found language to describe music means that in the end they didn’t enjoy music for all it’s worth. When Ellen and I were feeling our way through the music of the ’60s, we scoffed at such notions. But we were wrong."

— Robert Christgau, in his article “Pioneer Days,” just published online at the Barnes & Noble Reader. This leaves me completely breathless. He’s not my favorite writer for nothing.

November 1, 2011
EW Jazz Poll: Best Jazz Albums of the 1960s

Today I revealed the results of the Expert Witness community’s first-ever jazz album poll over at Robert Christgau’s MSN.com music blog. For this poll I asked voters to choose their ten favorite jazz albums recorded in the 1960s. Voters could define “favorite” and “jazz” however they wished, and were asked to allocate points to each of their ten albums as per the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll's points system. A full list of the EW Jazz Poll's rules is available here. I wrote some pre-game commentary here, and some post-game commentary and individual ballots are available in the comments section of Christgau’s MSN blog. Below are the results, compiled from 29 ballots. Please note that Robert Christgau did not vote in this poll.

1. Miles Davis, In a Silent Way 238 (19)

2. John Coltrane, A Love Supreme 233 (17)

3. Charles Mingus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady 136 (9)

4. Miles Davis, The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 92 (7)

5. Albert Ayler, Spiritual Unity 80 (7)

6. Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch 79 (8)

7. Duke Ellington, Meets Coleman Hawkins 61 (6)

8. John Coltrane, Live at the Village Vanguard 60 (5)

9. Duke Ellington, Money Jungle 58 (6)

10. John Coltrane, My Favorite Things 57 (6)

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October 29, 2011
"[Slim] Gaillard stands as jazz’s premier comedian-eccentric, the hepcat as novelty artist to end all novelty artists. Gaillard laughed in rhythm, barked in rhythm, clucked like a chicken in rhythm; he made up his own language, then adapted it to Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Incan; he was so fond of the suffix “rooney” (as in “You got the federation blues-o-rooney”) that when introduced to Mickey Rooney he asked what his last name was."

— Robert Christgau, reviewing the Slim Gaillard compilation Laughing in Rhythm: The Best of the Verve Years in 1994. “He was so fond of the suffix ‘rooney’ … that when introduced to Mickey Rooney he asked what his last name was”—that, my friends, is some funny shit. Like an idiot, I didn’t realize Gaillard is the Slim in Slim & Slam. You might know “The Flat Foot Floogie.” If you don’t know it, what are you waiting for?

October 20, 2011
"In the interest of bad vibes I have agreed to appear on a panel discussing ‘progressive music.’ I am booed when introduced; the booing continues when I utter the single word ‘Ramones’ into the microphone."

— Robert Christgau, reporting on Giorgio Gomelski’s “Zu Concert,” which was announced as a 12-hour “manifestival” of “progressive music” from Europe and America. Village Voice, Oct. 23, 1978. Every day is a battle; how we still love the war.

October 18, 2011
"Seth Rogen is a great American artist. He can think whatever he wants about Steely Dan far as I’m concerned."

— Robert Christgau, in a comment on his Expert Witness blog at MSN.com. He was responding to Ryan Maffei's remark that “the only truly objectionable part of Knocked Up… is when Seth Rogen says that Steely Dan can gargle his balls.” I suppose this could be considered objectionable except for the fact that Donald and Walter likely spit scotch and soda out of each of their respective nostrils when they heard Rogen’s line. An honor.

October 12, 2011
Vote in the First EW Jazz Poll!

I am hosting the first ever Jazz Poll for the online community active at Robert Christgau’s Expert Witness blog. The rules and parameters for this poll are available here, and the poll closes Oct. 30. This first poll concerns the best jazz albums recorded in the 1960s. If anyone wishes to vote—and I hope you do!—please be sure to read the rules carefully and submit your ballot to the email address listed there. Voters are asked to provide their ten favorite albums within the poll’s parameters (or the ten “best,” or however else you wish to define your ballot). You may either rank these using the Pazz and Jop points system (as explained in the rules), or weight them each equally; either is just fine.

Since a lot of jazz was recorded in the 1960s, I put together this list of recommendations culled from the texts of two book chapters by former Village Voice critic Gary Giddins: “Postwar Jazz: An Arbitrary Roadmap (1945-2001),” as reprinted in his book Weather Bird, and “Collecting Jazz Recordings,” in the appendix of Jazz, written with Scott DeVeaux. For a few of the recommendations below, Giddins had merely mentioned the existence of the album, or only explicitly recommends one song from the album (“Three Little Words” from Sonny Rollins on Impulse! for example). But I’ve sought out enough of these albums to know that when Giddins mentions one, it’s probably worth hearing.

Brief caveats: these are not the only great Jazz recordings of the 1960s. Notice Giddins does not mention Thelonious Monk’s work on Columbia, John Coltrane’s Ascension, or Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way, nor any albums by Davis’s second great quintet in either of these chapters. Don’t get mad; he discusses and recommends each of them elsewhere, if memory serves, but just not in these two chapters. He doesn’t mention any singers either, except Armstrong with Ellington, nor any European recordings, unless you count the albums by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Albert Ayler, each of which is identified with American jazz anyway. He recommends such contenders elsewhere as well, just not here.

If you’re not as familiar with Jazz as you would like to be, or just have some gaps in your knowledge of ’60s Jazz, you’re going to have a good time with this list. Check these albums out, share them with friends, and don’t forget to have fun. Because Jazz is fun, and polls are fun. Most will be available on any one of several streaming services. I use MOG. Now dig in! The list is after the jump (click “Read More”).

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October 8, 2011
"Rarely has the pomo practice of trashing history while you honor it reached such a pitch of accomplishment."

— Robert Christgau, reviewing Red Hot + Blue, on p. 271 of his Christgau Consumer Guide: Albums of the ’90s. This tribute album, which features c.1990 pop performers re-interpreting Cole Porter songs, relates to my previous post concerning aesthetics and Maria Schneider. “Trashing history while you honor it”; conceptually this could just as likely lead to crap as quality. But the proof of its validity is in the pudding—Red Hot + Blue beats dozens of albums I’ve sat through by the more accomplished and educated jazz divas of the last forty years. It’s garish, novel, exciting, sometimes crude, and the words matter, not just as content, but as sound and play. Would Mr. Porter like these interpretations, or would he prefer the more sanctimonious alternative? I don’t know. That’s a topic worth investigating.

October 3, 2011
Passive voice is fine, good writing is even better

At this Chronicle of Higher Education blog, a linguistics professor posted a defense of passive voice, and a larger criticism of the grammatical rule that passive voice is always incorrect. To support his argument, he quotes several corrections a friend and colleague had given him concerning a piece of writing that uses passive voice, and the professor demonstrates how active-voice revisions of these passages actually distort his original, truer statements made in passive voice.

Of course, any real writer knows that the professor is correct: sometimes using the passive voice gives us the best or most appropriate sentence. If I may transfer this idea to music, it’s like disparaging the Ramones (“Rockaway Beach,” say) because Johnny plays parallel fifths on his guitar. The idea is simple: if what you’re playing sounds good—if it works—then you should play it or write it regardless of the “rules” of composition.

In his article “Writing about music is writing first” for the academic journal Popular Music (24, no. 3 [2005]: 415-421), critic Robert Christgau explains how “the craft [of music writing] is best learned the way most rock and rollers learn to play, not through formal training but by paying it the same level of attention you pay music itself.”

Of course, formal training can provide us with valuable tools, but that’s all they are: tools. If music or language could be successfully and completely broken down into some kind of formula, then a strict adherence to that formula—to the “rules”—would produce the best music, or, at the very least, good music. But as you and I both know, this is rarely-to-never the case.

These “rules” are really for the writer or composer apprentice—they’re a means to learn a craft, but they are not the craft itself. The craft itself requires reading and listening and copying and mimicking and working and writing and writing and writing. No rules can provide a shortcut to this process. I know this because, trust me, I’ve been looking for a shortcut for decades, and I still haven’t found one.

Speaking of writing, though I do appreciate the professor coming out in defense of passive voice, someone needs to help him with his word choices: for example, “these critics are often clearly inexpert at accurate identification of what they deprecate” and “recently a colleague and friend with an American doctoral degree did me the kindness of commenting on a draft of mine.” These sentences lack every kind of grace. Note to writing apprentices: always read your work out loud. If you need a rule to follow, make that the one.

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