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’)