Tag Archives: Robert Christgau

Let Me be the One – Carpenters

It may seem I bring up Robert Christgau a lot on this blog. There’s a good reason. Christgau is one of the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll writers, and his archive of reviews is digitised and freely available. Now, it’s dangerous to assume that his take on any given piece of work is representative of the mainstream critical opinion of the era – he’s idiosyncratic, sometimes ornery, frequently just plain wrongheaded, just like any critic – but if you want an authentic, from-its-time reaction to pretty much any record you can think of, Christgau’s archive is the place to go. So let’s look at his take on the Carpenters’ 1973 singles collection, the only record of theirs he seems to have reviewed:

The combination of Karen Carpenter’s ductile, dispassionate contralto and Richard Carpenter’s meticulous studio technique is admittedly more musical than the clatter of voices and silverware in a cafeteria, but it’s just as impervious to criticism. That is, the duo’s success is essentially statistical: I’ll tell you that I very much like We’ve Only Just Begun and detest Sing, but those aren’t so much aesthetic judgments as points on a graph. 

Hmm.

Richard and Karen did, from the 1990s onwards, begin to win the respect they’d always deserved, and like the Bee Gees, or ABBA, they now have critical credibility in spades, with their reputations as respectively arranger and singer bulletproof. I can’t imagine anyone in 2016 willing to stand up in public and say they find Karen Carpenter’s singing dispassionate. Time has rendered the disapproval of writers like Christgau a mere footnote.

While the Carpenters deserve any praise that comes their way, this reappraisal has had a tendency to put – and perhaps this is inevitable, after her still shocking early death from anorexia-related heart failure – heavy emphasis on the melancholy in Karen’s vocals. Tragedy, after all, is a prism through which rock fans are used to relating to their musical icons.

Karen certainly had a wistful quality to her alto and she does sound at home on songs such as Goodbye to Love and Rainy Days and Mondays. But there is a goofy, corny playfulness to many of the Carpenters’ records (I’m thinking of such songs as There’s a Kind of Hush, Top of the World and Close to You) – to downplay this and to see Karen purely as a tragic figure is to do her a disservice as an interpretive singer and fundamentally to misunderstand the band’s music.

Let Me Be the One comes from a rich seam of Carpenters songs that contain elements from both poles of their music, songs that mingle the light and shade, the major and minor, to create something idiosyncratically bittersweet, something sui generis. You find it in Superstar, This Masquerade, Yesterday Once More, I Need to Be in Love, in their version of Ticket to Ride, in the song in question and most perfectly in the first-dance classic We’ve Only Just Begun.

They can be lighter (as on, say, throwaway covers of Please Mr Postman and Jambalaya), or darker (most obviously on Goodbye to Love), but it’s on these songs that they seem to me most essentially themselves, and when Karen Carpenter is at her best vocally. There was always some hope in her delivery of even the saddest material.

It would be remiss not mention Richard Carpenter’s contribution to all this. Let me just say, then, that he’s one of the most inventive arrangers ever to set foot in a recording studio, a fine pianist, a consistently strong songwriter and, crucially, an astute finder of songs that suited both Karen’s voice and the Carpenters’ sound, of which he was the sole architect.

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It might have helped if they’d been marketed more like this and less like this:

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The sound of Hüsker Dü

This is a revised and updated version of a piece I first published in July 2013. Excuse the repost, but it’s been a heavy couple of weeks and I’m fried. Back soon!

The first time I read about Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade was in a column Jawbox’s Bill Barbot wrote for Guitar School in 1996. He was writing about how to make “a brilliant recording without spending a military budget and the rest of the decade in the process”. Zen Arcade was his Exhibit A.

Zen Arcade is the kind of album that doesn’t get made now. The most tangible change in record-making wrought by the advent of affordable digital recording gear is the drawn-out, accretive nature of the process as it is engaged in by many (perhaps the majority) of artists. When you have your own gear – and in effect your own studio – and when you are your own producer and you’re not footing the bill for an engineer, why hurry? Why not go at your own pace? Why not weigh things up over days – or weeks – one element at a time?

In 1984, a punk rock band like Hüsker Dü on a punk rock label like SST couldn’t do this. They worked quickly because SST couldn’t afford for them to work slowly. When they decided to make a double album, that meant doing twice the work in the time allotted, not doubling the amount of studio time. Zen Arcade‘s 23 tracks were recorded and mixed in 84 hours. The last session comprised 40 straight hours of mixing. The whole enterprise cost $3200 (about $7000 in today’s money), which is not a lot for a double album people still sing hosannas to 30 years on.

Total Access, the studio in Redondo Beach where the album was recorded, was not then, and isn’t now, an amateur facility. But the way the band worked – first takes being used for all but a couple of songs on the album, the whole band tracking live, the use of SST’s house producer/engineer Spot (Glen Lockett) rather than the studio’s own staff – did lead to a record with a somewhat amateurish sound, one that’s certainly had its detractors. Robert Christgau observed drily, “It wouldn’t be too much of a compromise to make sure everyone sings into the mike, for instance, and it’s downright depressing to hear Bob Mould’s axe gather dust on its way from vinyl to speakers.”

The Hüsker Dü sound was at least partly a product of choice not chance, however. When the band left SST and signed with Warner Bros., they didn’t leave their indie-era sonic signature behind them, like their cross-town rivals the Replacements did. The recordings the Hüskers made for Warners were still very spindly, given how crushingly powerful they were live. Hart never had the meaty, powerful drum sound that is the sine qua non of any rock music worth the name. Greg Norton’s bass was always a clanky, indistinct presence in the mix. Candy Apple Grey, the band’s first record for Warner’s, has a little more polish (there’s a more audible echo on the vocals, the hint of a gated reverb on the drums) than Zen Arcade, but compared to the records that Jack Endino would make in a year or so for Sub Pop (to take an example from indie land), it’s still a tame-sounding thing indeed, no matter how ferocious Mould’s guitar sound was.

Ultimately, though, Hüsker Dü were a band that demanded to be taken for what they were. Greg Norton’s bass may have been largely devoid of actual bass frequencies, Grant Hart may have sounded like he was playing the world’s smallest drum kit (and possibly a different song to the one Mould was playing), and Mould’s buzzy, fuzzy guitar was a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing (it’s nothing I’d model my own guitar sound on, but somewhat predictably I love it), but the sound of these guys tearing through their songs with absolute conviction and vein-bulging ferocity is one of the most thrilling experiences in rock’n’roll. Almost everything else sounds effete in comparison.

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The Dü: l-r Greg Norton, Grant Hart, Bob Mould

One Day in Your Life – Michael Jackson

Few figures in pop music are as polarising, with good reason, than Michael Jackson. I’m old enough to remember when Jackson was a much more unambiguous figure, a hero to millions of young pop fans, when the only controversy surrounding him was the ‘bad’, more streetwise, image he attempted to cultivate in 1987. Apparently he succeeded in convincing my primary-school teachers of his toughness, because a few of them came to believe around this time that he was not a good role model. But even for someone who can remember the place he held in Western pop culture before the Jordan Chandler story broke, it can be hard to listen to the music without everything else flooding in. Whether we even should, well, that’s a different matter.

While later Jackson hits seem positively haunted (“I am the damned. I am the dead. I am the agony inside a dying head” – a Cannibal Corpse lyric? No, it’s from Who Is It?, recorded and released before the Chandler story), you can still get a sense of what made Jackson the unassailable biggest star in the world by listening to his pre-Thriller music: the joy that’s perceptible in every bar of Rock With You and Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough; the warm humanism of Let Me Show You the Way to Go; the good-humoured triumphalism of Can You Feel It; the tenderness of One Day in Your Life.

One Day in Your Life hasn’t had the best critical reputation, with Robert Christgau the only major critic I’ve ever read who gave it much credit. Tom Ewing’s review on Popular was mixed, while Marcello Carlin savaged it (“unforgivably opts for sentimentality rather than genuine emotion”). Christgau, meanwhile, heard in it “a first-rate tearjerker that achieves just the right mix of autonomy and helpless innocence”, even as he expressed reservations about the general idea of a child singer being given a ballad to sing: “Because it’s possible to believe that their sincerity is neither feigned nor foolish, it’s good in theory for children to sing romantic ballads. The reason it doesn’t work is that the sincerity is so transparently manipulated from above.”

While sharing at least some of Carlin’s reservations about the arrangement (who thought the Ray Conniff backing vocals were a good idea?), I hear the same song Christgau does. OK, I’m a sucker for a ballad, and I love a good extended melody, and this is a record that knows the buttons it’s pressing when it presses them. What makes it a minor classic is Jackson. Even at his worst, Michael Jackson’s commitment to his material and his projects was total. It made him easy to mock, even before he became a big enough star for the world to notice and care about his alarming eccentricities, and it marked his recordings – for better or worse – all the way through his career. Whatever he was singing, self-composed or not, he went at it full tilt.

A more mature or detached singer might have found the sentiment of One Day in Your Life excessively sentimental or uncool, with more in common with Broadway than with Norman Whitfield, but the 16-year-old Jackson’s performance is engaged and therefore engaging. He soars his way through a difficult melody – a range of an octave and a half, to be negotiated both piano and forte as the dynamics of the song demand, a couple of unexpected changes (the shift to C#major7 under the word “face” in the first verse is sure to catch the unwary karaoke singer), a key change, ritardandos… Credit to the producers for getting him through it, for sure, but few are the 16-year-old aspiring pop singers with the technical facility to do it in the first place. Sure, you’ll have to make some allowances for One Day in Your Life, but the song stands as an early indication of how incandescently gifted its singer was.

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Jackson at 16

Dear Boy – Paul & Linda McCartney

Ram, released in the spring of 1971, is the highpoint of Paul’s Farmer McCartney phase. It’s not as home-spun and lo-fi as his debut, McCartney, and its mood is strange kind of low-key anger, giving it more kick than its predecessor. Too Many People sees the singer taking aim at those “preaching practices” (Lennon assumed McCartney was talking about him). Dear Boy, which we’ll get to shortly, takes someone to task for not appreciating what they had (Lennon, again, saw himself as the subject).

The early seventies saw McCartney in self-imposed exile on his farm in Scotland. Some biographers have suggested that Paul had a nervous breakdown during this time, while others have seen it more as an alcohol-fuelled episode of depression. The cover shows McCartney holding a ram by its horns; perhaps the subtext of this was less about his contentment with his lot up on his farm and more about what McCartney himself was wrestling with.

What I love about this album is how relaxed McCartney sounds, simply pleasing himself, while tackling weighty subjects and moods. None of the slightly forced jollity and cheap hookiness of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da or Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is here present, but the author’s lightness of touch (a trademark of his from And I Love Her onwards) is fully intact. The songs on Ram are as strong as anything he wrote in the latter days of the Beatles if you’re willing to meet them on their own terms and accept that they are designed to be minor pieces, not grand Hey Jude-style statements. And as always with McCartney, there are melodies here that lesser songwriters would kill to have written.

Yet Ram, famously, was not particularly well received by critics on its release (sample review from John Landau: “incredibly inconsequential… the nadir in the decomposition of sixties rock thus far”; sample reviews by Robert Christgau: “If you’re going to be eccentric, for goodness sake don’t be pretentious about it” and “Ram is a bad record”).

This was blatant nonsense, and when I listen to the album I find it hard to believe that anyone with any sort of ear for music could fail so completely to get any of it. It seems like they must have been expecting McCartney to look outwards more in his early solo career – to address the world and its ills in the way Harrison and Lennon had. McCartney’s music must have seemed insular, whimsical and self-satisfied in comparison. But it’s not valid criticism to dismiss a work because it doesn’t conform to your preconceptions of what a record should be. As Ian MacDonald pointed out in his essay on the Beach Boys, Retire the Fences, Pet Sounds is an abject flop considered as a heavy metal album. Ram seems to me as determinedly, modestly small-scale (and yes, as whimsical) as Paul Simon’s first solo record, which Christgau loved. So why the problem here?

Dear Boy – with its gorgeous harmonies and surprising chord change from Fmaj7 to Bmin7 in the verse – is my favourite track from the album, but there’s an awful lot to like here: the wonderfully daft Heart of the Country (“I want a horse, I want a sheep, I want to get me a good night’s sleep”); the proto-Waits Monkberry Moon Delight; the Beach Boys-esque Back Seat of My Car (though, in fact, the Beach Boys songs that this song most resembles all post-date Ram); the gnomic opening trio of Too Many People, 3 Legs and Ram On.

A recent double-album reissue and accompanying rapturous reviews. Jayson Greene’s 9.2 review in Pitchfork was typical in its assessment of the record’s overall quality, but atypically shrewd in its view of Linda McCartney’s role in them:

The songs don’t feel collaborative so much as cooperative: little schoolhouse plays that required every hand on deck to get off the ground. Paul had the most talent, so naturally he was up front, but he wanted everyone behind him, banging pots, hollering, whistling– whatever it is you did, make sure you’re back there doing it with gusto.

We live in twee-er times than the early 1970s, so perhaps the massive rise in critical and fan esteem for Ram is simply a consequence of that, but open-eared listeners (which is to say, the public, who voted in pound sterling, and sent it to the top of the album chart) understood all along.

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Into the Mystic – Van Morrison

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware of the veteran US rock critic Robert Christgau. He’s practically the last of his generation still doing what he does at anything like the pace he worked at in his youth. He wrote for most of career for the Village Voice, but he’s also contributed to Spin, Creem, Esquire, Playboy and Rolling Stone, and more recently online for MSN’s music site, where his writing was the only thing on the site that wasn’t half-arsed. Willfully eccentric though his views may sometimes be and gnomic as his two-sentence capsule reviews often are, he’s the originator of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock criticism. His reviews carry weight because he’s heard more or less every notable release since the late 1960s (certainly up to the start of the internet age).

I very seldom share his opinions. I love loads of records he’s panned (for example, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name), and find his enthusiasm for, say, the New York Dolls or modern Bob Dylan somewhat baffling (‘Love & Theft’ and Modern Times both A+ records? Hell, no!). But there’s a few records to which he’s given A+ reviews down the years that I agree with him wholeheartedly about: After the Goldrush by Neil Young, Paul Simon’s self-titled debut solo album, Television’s Marquee Moon, and our subject today, Van Morrison’s Moondance.

Christgau’s definition of an A+ record is: ‘an organically conceived masterpiece that repays prolonged listening with new excitement and insight. It is unlikely to be marred by more than one merely ordinary cut’.

I prefer a simpler definition. A record that couldn’t be improved upon by subtracting or adding anything to it. Perhaps it has a song or two that are a notch below the best on the record, but still, the whole is stronger for the presence of them than it would be without.

Most of the records I think of as perfect were not conceived as major commercial statements: Judee Sill, Joni’s Blue, Paul Simon, John Martyn’s Inside Out, Fred Neil – these are small, intimate, personal records, not ones that aimed for the mass market or tried to make big, generalised statements. When you try to appeal to everyone, it’s very hard to make an album that’s a coherent, satisfying listen all the way through. Even the Beatles only got near it once, with Revolver, which is damn close to perfect, but is perhaps let down very slightly by a couple of weakish Harrisongs (Love You To and I Want To Tell You) and the inherent difficulty of making songs as disparate as Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, I’m Only Sleeping and Love You To live together on one album, and that’s just the first four songs!

Moondance is an exception to this. John Lennon once described Imagine as the sugarcoated version of his solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Well, Moondance is the sugarcoated version of Astral Weeks. It has all questing, Celtic romanticism of Astral Weeks, but with condensed running times, repeated choruses, horn charts you can sing along to, tight performances and the sort of flawless engineering (by a young Shelly Yakus, his first (!) lead engineer credit) and production you just don’t come across any more. It’s the sort of music that puts a smile on your face, the sort of music that should play in pubs during long, damp afternoons, the sort of album of such sustained quality that picking one song as a highlight is close to impossible.

But if I had to – and for the purposes of this post, I did – I’d choose Into the Mystic, which I’ve loved since I first heard it for John Klingberg’s bass line, Van’s passionate, joyful vocal, John Platania’s guitar arpeggios in the bridges, and those glorious saxophones (I love their low-pitched, rising response when Van sings ‘And when that foghorn blows’ – so simple, so inspired). Astral Weeks has become the canonical Van Morrison record, the favourite of critics, poets and budding songwriters with a literary bent. Moondance is the Radio 2 staple, the people’s choice. This time, just once, I reckon the people are right.

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Luv n’ Haight – Sly & the Family Stone

In 1969, the outrageously talented multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and bandleader Sylvester ‘Sly Stone’ Stewart, was one of the most celebrated figures in popular music. His band had triumphed at Woodstock, their seemingly warm-hearted, outward-looking psychedelic soul making even Motown seem old hat and forcing them to change their game and turn increasingly to the visionary producer Norman Whitfield. Their late-sixties hits, calling for love, peace, understanding and integration, were made all the more powerful by the mere sight of Stone and his band on stage: they were both multi-racial and multi-gender in an era where such things were extremely uncommon. 1969, remember, was the year of Kent State and just one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

But by 1971 Sly Stone had retreated to a very strange headspace. Holed up inside an LA mansion belonging to John Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas, Stone sacked half of his band (the white members, supposedly at the insistence of the Black Panthers, but also master bassist Larry Graham, upon whom Stone apparently took out a contract), surrounded himself with goons, dealers, pimps and hookers, and haphazardly set about making what would be his masterpiece, There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Recording was undertaken at the Record Plant in Sausalito near San Francisco, in a room Stone had had installed there for his own use. Progress was glacial, with Stone playing much of the record himself, or inviting guests in at the expense of his bandmates (Bobby Womack, for example, is much in evidence on guitar), cutting tracks and recutting them, over and over. The protracted nature of the recording took its toll on the master tapes, and they completely lost their high end through wear and tear. The resulting murk – in a happy accident – suited his new material perfectly, the cracked and paranoid deep funk shocking those enamoured of his outward-looking pop hits.

Family Affair was the album’s most enduring hit (its only hit). But it’s not exactly representative. Riot is not an album of expansive, memorable melodies. Family Affair is one of the few songs to let a bit of light in. For the most part, it’s an intensely claustrophobic album; Christgau nailed it when he called it ‘Despairing, courageous, and very hard to take’. These days, Luv n’ Haight – the album opener – seems to me the most crucial track: all that Riot is, is contained in its churning groove and airless (literally – the mix is dry as a bone) swirl of vocals and wah-wah’d guitars.

 

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Sly, with Telecaster, 1969

Glowing Heart – Aoife O’Donovan

Happy Easter, one and all!

In 1995, Emmylou Harris released an album called Wrecking Ball. At the time it was understood by fans and critics as an attempt by Harris to position herself a step or two away from mainstream Nashville country. The Nashville machine had long seemed venal and conservative, but was now entering an even grimmer phase, of which the success of Shania Twain’s Mutt Lange-produced The Woman in Me (eight singles released, 12 million units sold) and Come On Over (12 singles released 17.5 million units sold) may be taken as emblematic. Mainstream Nashville may have its fans among poptimist critics today – many of whom will, in fairness, acknowledge the debt it currently owes to 1970s West Coast rock and 1980s hair-metal ballads – but in 1995 no one with working ears could have argued for the artistic health of contemporary pop country.

Harris hired Daniel Lanois (best known at the time for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel) and crafted a record with a distinctive aural personality. If Wrecking Ball continues to be judged an important album beyond the immediate context of Harris’s career, the sound of it will be the reason why – it’s still spawning imitators 19 years on.

Deep bass, drums (or drum loops) that abandon the country shuffle and side-stick for a funk- and/or hip-hop-derived emphasis on backbeat placement, washy synth/organ pads, heavily delayed guitars, heavily echoed everything – add all these up and you get an arrangement and production mindset that seeks to present the song as having been recorded live all together in a confined space, mushing everything up and avoiding clarity with heavily modulated time-domain effects. Not everyone likes it (Christgau called it ‘Lanois’s one seductive trick: to gauze over every aural detail and call your soft focus soul’, in a sniffy review of Wrecking Ball; he’d be even less convinced by Red Dirt Girl in 2000), but when done well it acts as a nice corrective to the sheeny, treble-boosted, hyper-real norm of modern music production.

If Wrecking Ball was the originator of this particular thing – veteran-artist soundscape rock, we might call it, or ‘the Lanois thing’ for shorter shorthand – Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind (another Lanois production, his second Dylan record after Oh Mercy) was the album that turned it into a virtual genre of its own. Perhaps Time out of Mind has been somewhat overvalued but it is undeniably a fine achievement. It had been some years since Dylan had written anything that spoke so loudly to the small of the back as Not Dark Yet. He hasn’t done it again since. He certainly hasn’t made my head bob up and down like he does on Can’t Wait (thank you, Brian Blade and Jim Keltner).

Dylan didn’t enjoy the process and has self-produced since, but the Lanois thing had now solidified into an aesthetic that others might copy and emulate. He did it again on Willie Nelson’s Teatro did it in a slightly drier fashion and T-Bone Burnett has been doing it whenever possible – sometimes with Sam Phillips, sometimes with Ollabelle (see, for instance, John the Revelator) but most notably with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, whose Raising Sand brought this sound to daytime radio, primetime TV and a level of industry recognition even Time out of Mind didn’t manage (five Grammys to TooM’s three, number two in both the UK and US album charts and platinum-level sales in both countries). Burnett may only have one production idea, an idea borrowed from someone else, but you can’t deny it’s been successful for him.

Aoife O’Donovan is the latest artist to adopt this sound.

O’Donovan sang in a group called Crooked Still, a progressive bluegrass band from Boston. Progressive in this instance means banjo picking at absolutely furious tempos and the addition of a cellist. This is not, being truthful, my thing; I remain immune to the charms of the banjo. But O’Donovan has a lovely voice and reading several raves of her latest album Fossils, which came out in the autumn of last year, convinced me to give it a listen. That it was produced by Tucker Martine, whose work (particularly his drum sounds) with his wife Laura Veirs I’ve enjoyed, was just an added inducement. Martine adds more of a rock sensibility than O’Donovan’s had before – the drums are mixed pretty high on, say, Beekeeper, and Robin MacMillan’s tom-toms mean business – but without a constant fiddle or banjo accompaniment to share space with her vocal melodies, the focus remains on her. In a good way.

The album leans very heavily at times on the Lanois/Raising Sand thing, most particularly on album highlight Glowing Heart. Yet an idea, executed well, needn’t be original to be effective, compelling, moving – and Glowing Heart is all of these things. Haloed by shimmering, delay-modulated guitars and two hard-panned strummed acoustics, O’Donovan’s gorgeous piece of widescreen melancholia – a song of vast spaces and endless night-time sky – is illuminated by touches of pedal steel (again, with heavy reverb and delay), double bass, drums (playing occasional interjections on snare and toms rather than fulfilling a timekeeping role) and, unexpectedly entering halfway through, fiddle. It’s a fantastic arrangement, weightless and graceful, a reminder that there is still room in the Lanois thing for imagination and invention.

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Aoife O’Donovan (it’s pronounced ‘Ee-fuh’)

‘Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting’, allegedly

Ted Gioia’s Daily Beast jeremiad has generated a lot of eye rolling from a significant section of music fans and writers. That’s not unexpected. It’s pretty much deserved, too. If you’re going to call out the entire critical community for not doing the job of criticism, which is a serious accusation to level, define your terms and name some names. Rule number one of engaging with a piece of work is to do so on its own terms. So who are these publications and critics who should be talking about form and technique but aren’t? Why should they? Just because Gioia wants them to? Did they used to? Why did they stop? When?

It is true that lots of critics don’t talk about form, technique, structure, harmony, production. But many of the biggest names in popular music criticism never did (when did Christgau or Marcus ever talk chord progressions?). Others have engaged in more, shall we say, musicological criticism, and managed to do so for a non-specialist audience. Critics, like all music listeners, hear music in many different ways.

The internet shapes much of what goes on in the world of paid criticism, and the issue, if issue there be, here is what Chris Ott as identified as the churn: the demand placed on writers to fill a website structure every day, or every week (as Ott points out, the need to do this is ad sales-driven). Five movie reviews, 10 record reviews a 1000-word thinkpiece on something vaguely relevant to whatever story has been capturing attention in the last day or so, over and over. It takes a very special talent to say anything worthwhile about a record in 500 words when you’ve heard it just a few times, a half-dozen at most. Few critics do it well. Few ever did, truth be told. As publications are desperate to beat their rivals and get their review of a big new release up on their site before their rivals do, this problem is liable to get worse before it gets better.

But the internet gives tremendous space to writers that do have something to say, and there are loads of good writers out there with distinctive voices and opinions and ways of hearing music. Some of them are professionals, some former professionals, some strictly amateur. Not all of them are writing about contemporary music (many of my favourites – which include Chris O’Leary, Tom Ewing, Marcello Carlin, Maura Johnston, Nitsuh Abebe, Bob Stanley – write about older music mainly, allowing them time and perspective on what they’re talking about) and not all of them discuss form. But there are, as we have said, myriad ways to engage with music: you can link it to its context in chart history, as Ewing does; to broader trends in music in both pop and semi-pop contexts, as Stanley does so well; you can place it in the context of an artist’s body of work as O’Leary is doing with his retrospective of the entire David Bowie oeuvre (and it’s a truly magnificent achievement). Some can even, like Marcello Carlin and O’Leary, do all three while also being able to discuss harmony, melody, modulation, syncopation, production and any number of words that – whisper it – don’t mean much to non-trained, non-practicing musicians.

I’m well aware that most of the time I’m not writing for the broadest audience. I’m a musician myself so much of what interests me in music is at the level of form and technique. I tend to assume others might feel similarly. I try to explain specialist terms where I think it necessary, and I assume a knowledgeable, curious and intelligent audience. There are writers all over the internet doing the same, writing, analysing and criticising as well and as poorly as they always have done. I don’t know exactly who or what Mr Gioia was reading before he wrote his Daily Beast article, but if he doubts the vitality and usefulness of contemporary music criticism, perhaps he should read more widely. And more deeply.

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Article about music criticism – contractually obligated photo of Lester Bangs

Love’s Enough – David Ackles

“I won’t get maudlin,” Ackles promises midway into the second side, locking himself in the barn as the dappled stallion gallops to join his brothers and sisters on the open range with his mane flying free in the breeze.

Robert Christgau, review of David Ackles’ American Gothic

From the facetious tone of his review, I guess the Dean found Ackles to be mendacious and phoney rather than incompetent. Quite why Christgau thought himself qualified to judge musicians’ motivations without knowing them personally, I’ve never been able to determine. While, like Christgau, I find American Gothic an unsatisfying record by a songwriter of lesser artistic value than most of his peers (both the more commercially successful ones and the unsung heroes; Judee Sill came out in 1971, Heart Food in 1973), his review seems gratuitously mean now, with Ackles long dead from cancer, and with far greater and more mendacious threats to popular music living, breathing and walking amongst us.

Plenty of other people have loved his work. Elton John’s a professed fan. Bernie Taupin, too – so much so that he produced American Gothic. Phil Collins picked Down River while on Desert Island Discs. Elvis Costello mentioned him on stage while being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ackles mostly went unnoticed in his career. Christgau’s one of the few to have noticed and dismissed him.

Ackles was nothing more than a likeable and humble guy with a bent towards musical theatre, Weill and Copland, a rather corny sensibility not entirely unlike Neil Diamond (whom in the latter’s more restrained moments Ackles rather resembles vocally). How much you like Ackles may well depend on your tolerance for sprechgesang and being told rather than shown how characters think and feel (the biggest problem with the title track, although it does end with the killer line ‘They suffer least that suffer what they choose’), but he’s unlikely to enrage you; the enthusiasm of his bigger fans is likewise perplexing.

Other than the delivery and the pedestrian nature of the lyrics (would that Ackles had possessed a flair for comedy and a taste for the macabre or grotesque like Brecht, Walker, Waits or Newman – the album title might have been a better fit for the music therein), the biggest problem with the record is the fussy arrangements, conducted by a soul sympathetic to them – Robert Kirby, known for his work with Nick Drake, and whose work has always been a bit twee, a bit callow.

Love’s Enough is sparer, could have been cut by any artist in any era with only minimal changes to the arrangement and production to make it suitable for its time. In the eighties, its almost inaudible brushed drums would have been replaced with enormo-super-mega-giant-bashing-away-in-a-cave drums. In the fifties it might have had the benefit of Gordon Jenkins’ or Nelson Riddle’s attentions. But the song would have been affecting either way.

Tonally and lyrically, Love’s Enough doesn’t fit on its parent album – it’s a very hard gear change after the opening title track – but without it the album would sink under the weight its ambitions. A moment of quiet reflection, in an intimate register, on a recognisable situation, Love’s Enough is a classic of sorts. I can’t recommend American Gothic to all but the very curious*, but its finest ballad deserves the audience that Elton, Bernie, Elvis and Phil have tried to win for their hero.

 

*Oh all right then, I do like Oh, California. I’m not made of stone.

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Rear cover of American Gothic (after Grant Wood)

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Gillian Welch, living in the now

Queen of the fakes and imitators
Time’s the revelator.

 Gillian Welch, 2001

Between 1996 and 2001 Gillian Welch largely abandoned the in-character, past-tense storytelling of her first two records and begun writing demotic lyrics in an unidentified but discernible ‘now’.

Between 1996 and 2001 Gillian Welch turned herself into (in my view anyway) the best songwriter in the world.

Are these two things related? And was the relationship between them causative, symbiotic or merely coincidental? And if causative, which was the cause and which the effect?

Playing music that places original songs within a traditional form and sound is not easy. At worst, it sounds like a pose; if the performer can’t bridge the gap between who he or she ‘really’ is and what they claim for themselves in song, the audience can become cynical and dismissive. Certainly some dismissed Welch in 1996. Ann Powers in Rolling Stone was negative about Revival:

[The album] is a handcrafted simulacrum of rural mysticism. Most of the songs place Welch and her songwriting partner, the guitarist and vocalist David Rawlings, in settings they could know only from reading James Agee and listening to Folkways recordings. […] Concentrate only on the sound, and these songs will haunt you; Welch’s musical precision is eerie, the mark of a true obsessive so deeply wedded to her subject that she has become it. Ultimately, though, Welch’s gorgeous testimonies manufacture emotion rather than express it.

Christgau even more so:

She just doesn’t have the voice, eye, or way with words to bring her simulation off. Unless you’re highly susceptible to good intentions, a malady some refer to as folkie’s disease, that should be that.

But these were uncharitable and unimaginative reviews, saying more about the reviewers than about the record. After all, Christgau never complained that John Fogerty hadn’t really been working for the man every night and day and he never claimed that The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down rang hollow because Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson hadn’t actually served on the Danville train. In fact, while neither Powers nor Christgau heard it, Welch was a young writer of tremendous promise and the album contained several undeniable successes.

What was really going on here was a willed failure on the part of some of her reviewers to suspend disbelief, a stubborn refusal to look away from the artist’s bio sheet. Consider an analogy: no actor can convince a viewer that she is the character she portrays on stage or screen if the critic simply refuses to let go of the fact that they recognise her face and know her real name long enough to actually engage with the performance. Yet Welch’s middle-class LA upbringing – her adopted parents were writers for the Carol Burnett Show – became something of an albatross.

Perhaps the reviews got to her, but in the lay-off between second album Hell Among the Yearlings (a record that still feels like the most thin and spotty album she’s made) and Time (the Revelator), her masterpiece, Welch had not only improved as a writer but had also significantly altered her lyrical style.

It’s not immediately apparent when you listen to it – because the songs are all so much more ambiguous than those on Revival – but there’s very little linear story-telling on Time (the Revelator), just meditations and recollections. And when the songs do gesture towards narrative, you’re only given a piece of it, from somewhere out the middle. It’s also a much more urban record than Revival and Yearlings. Here’s a passage from April 14th Part 1:

When the iceberg hit, oh they must have known,
God moves on the water like Casey Jones.
So I walked downtown on my telephone,
And took a lazy turn through the redeye zone.
It was a five-band bill, a two-dollar show.
I saw the van out in front from Idaho
And the girl passed out in the backseat trash.
There was no way they’d make even a half a tank of gas.

They looked sick and stoned and strangely dressed.
No one showed from the local press.
But I watched them walk through the bottom land
And I wished that I played in a rock & roll band.
Hey, hey, it was the fourteenth day of April.

This is a world away from ‘We lease 20 acres and one ginny mule from the Alabama Trust’.

*

So if it’s clear that her lyrics did change between Revival/Yearlings and Time (the Revelator), and you grant me that Time is the best record of the three, what part does the altered lyrical style play in making Time the best Gillian Welch album?

Revival showed an already highly developed sense of melody on Welch’s part, and the singing and guitar playing of her and partner Dave Rawlings was also highly impressive for a debut. But for a songwriter whose arrangements tend to be kept to two guitars and two voices, the only thing left that she could improve was her lyrics. And they did improve: more elusive, more allusive, and richer with subtext.

April 14th Part 1 is something of a test case here in that what we’re given is far less important than what we’re not. The song takes place in a recognisably modern world (mobile telephones, vans, bands playing low-rent shows), and Welch keeps drawing parallels with three different events that all happened on April 14th: the assassination of Lincoln in 1865, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the Black Sunday dustbowl storm of 1935.

Why is she alluding to these things, though? She goes to see a rock band and then goes to work, then bed – not the greatest day ever, perhaps, but a ‘ruination day’?  What have the events of her day to do with Lincoln, with a disaster at sea and with the Okies? Despite the references, the song is not about disasters; it’s about the mundane. Perhaps it’s about living out one’s mundane little life in the shadow of terrible events. Perhaps we are being led to conclude that something terrible has just happened to the narrator, or is just about to.

While they’re good songs, with lyrics appropriate to the feel of the music, the songs on Revival are a little neat, a little easy. Welch had a tendency to tie them up with neat bows: the narrator of Annabelle ends the song contemplating the girl’s life of continuing poverty and grief; the narrator of One More Dollar ends up broke and homeless. In the world that the songs have established these were not exactly unexpected endings, and not much was left to be imagined.

By Time, she’d developed the confidence to write songs that leave their questions unanswered. April 14th Part 1’s sister song, Ruination Day Part 2, does not resolve anything that its predecessor left hanging. In Ruination Day Part 2, the singer removes herself from the story and all that’s left are the three disasters and their consequences. It replaces sadness with anger, sweetness with bitterness, consonance with dissonance. It’s purposely lo-fi; the sound is edgy, filtered, straining. We are left once again to ponder the significance of that date, April 14th, without being told what it means to the singer.

Of course, some might consider raising these issues and leaving them unresolved to be a cop-out. I think, rather, it was a mark of how much Welch had matured as a writer that she was able to play this way and get away with it. Revival was a fine record, but in comparison to Time, it does feel just a little like she’s playing with stereotypes and well-worn stories, although the lyrics do not particularly harm the songs, which would be compelling on their musical merits alone.

Hers is an interesting progression, then, for a musician whose work was once so preoccupied with the past. Rather than continuing to work at achieving a sense of place and time (as Robertson did on the Band’s second album – and no one has come close to matching his work in that idiom), she instead returned to the world she lives in, rejecting the easy route of folksy archaisms and stock characters, and instead embracing contemporary language and situations.

Clive James once noted in regard to Sandy Denny’s writing the ‘awkward truth’ that ‘to separate yourself from contemporary life is no guarantee of achieving timelessness’. Welch has come nearest to timelessness when she’s done the reverse: set her songs in her own time. I’d argue that her decision to do so, conscious or not, was an important step in the creation of her magnificent early-noughties work. Time (the Revelator) may continue to cast a shadow over the rest of her career, but it’s the inevitable consequence of having created such a towering record.

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Gillian Welch, in the now. ©John Patrick Salisbury