[Coming out of the back room] “I got your book here, Ben Hur.”
"You messed this up. It was immaculate. Had a cover and everything."
"No, I just found it on a shelf and put it in a box."
"And then your kids took it out of the box?"
"No, they didn’t touch that."
[Taking a library card out of a pocket on the inside of the front cover] “Grand Army Plaza. October 13, 1961. I checked it out for a book report…Only one date on this. No one else ever checked it out.”
"No one had a chance."
[Reading] “‘Please return on the date due so your neighbors can enjoy. Five cents for adults for every day late, two cents for children.’”
"You better bring that back. You could just take it there and say you found it on the street."
"Naw. I heard they don’t even have books there anymore."
[Reading the author’s page] “Hey, it says he was from Brooklyn! Oh wait, he was from Brookline, Indiana.”
"Who, Judah Ben Hur?"
"You know, you better be careful. One of our customers works at the library."
[To me] “Are you going to rat me out?”
Following the (possibly ill-conceived) experiment that led me to write about Shea Seger for the most recent CCL, I felt an itch to keep hunting through my CD collection for the few albums about which I know or remember next to nothing. As I suggested in that earlier post, there aren’t many. I tend to obsessively research the music I acquire. Nonetheless, I was able to dig up five more that remain more or less a mystery to me after all these years.
To the hardcore fans of these artists who are no doubt lying in wait (like those quick-trigger Castilions!): I’m not saying nothing is known about your darlings. I’m sure a halfway rigorous Google search would yield plenty. They are not “lost”— the next Rodriguez, Death or Lavender Country. If they were, I have no doubt an enterprising record label like Light in the Attic, Drag City or Paradise of Bachelors would have championed them already—and nerds like me would’ve been all over it.
No, these are artists I encountered years ago on the basis of one or two skimpy facts and, after a brief dalliance with their music, never heard from again. I never encountered elegies to them in the media, never saw their names attached to new projects, never cultivated lasting memories for which they were the soundtrack, never even really wondered, “Whatever happened to…?”
I found that these albums had a couple of things in common: 1) I bought them all, along with Shea Seger’s May Street Project, at Disc-o-Rama, where the price was always right to take a flyer.
(Not this one, the one that used to be right around the corner from the West 4th Street basketball courts.)
2) With one major exception, they all share the same flaw, a kind of smooth professionalism that works against a lasting impression. It may be you need some rough edges, a few juicy peculiarities, to get people talking and wondering what you’re going to do next. (From Chuck Klosterman’s recent Kiss retrospective in Grantland: “There is just no group that’s more fun to think about. There are some that are more fun to listen to, but that’s a different question. Whatever Kiss did, they did it right, including the things they did wrong.”)
Or maybe all it takes is some scrappy blogger with a dozen or so followers to spread the gospel. I believe that’s my cue!
"I like to entertain myself by imagining what might happen if the equivalent of poptimism were to transform those other disciplines. A significant subset of book reviewers would turn up their noses at every mention of Jhumpa Lahiri and James Salter as representatives of snobbish, boring novels for the elite and argue that to be a worthy critic, engaged with mass culture, you would have to direct the bulk of your critical attention to the likes of Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer. Movie critics would be enjoined from devoting too much of their time to “12 Years a Slave” (box-office take: $56 million) or “The Great Beauty” ($2.7 million), lest they fail to adequately analyze the majesty that is “Thor: The Dark World” ($206.2 million). What if New York food critics insisted on banging on about the virtues of Wendy’s Spicy Chipotle Jr. Cheeseburger? No matter the field, a critic’s job is to argue and plead for the underappreciated, not just to cheer on the winners."
—Saul Austerlitz, "The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism," The New York Times Magazine
The other hand-wringing critique of contemporary music writing I cite in the new Cold Case Logic.
This is a tough one for me. I’m an enthusiastic consumer of big-ticket pop. Lorde’s Pure Heroine was, without question, one of my favorite albums of last year. Pharrell’s “Happy” has probably gotten more plays on my ipod in 2014 than any other song. And in general, I’m sympathetic to the project of making music criticism more friendly to art created by, and appealing to, women, black people, gays, and others marginalized by classic rock purists.
I didn’t intend to say any more about Ted Gioia’s take-down of contemporary music criticism (for a brief run-down check out the latest Cold Case Logic) but I kept coming across responses I wanted to post.
First and foremost, there’s Steven Hyden’s unsurprisingly cogent rebuttal in Grantland:
"I sort of see where these people [people like Gioia] are coming from, but I never understand what exactly they’re asking for. Do they really want record reviews to be more pedantic and inscrutable? Is their ideal for pop criticism ‘less jokes, more guitar tablatures’? Do they also hassle film critics about talking too much about the actors and not enough about the gaffers?”
This by way of introduction to a review of the Pixies’ new album, which Hyden uses as a convincing example of why Gioia’s preferred approach to criticism (all close listening, no reading of context) doesn’t always work:
"If all that mattered were the music, I wouldn’t even bother writing about Indie Cindy. It is thoroughly pedestrian, exceptionally unexceptional, and spectacularly slight. But I am writing about Indie Cindy, and the reason is, it is the first full-length album by the Pixies since 1991’s Trompe le Monde. Like that, Indie Cindy suddenly seems important. If lifestyle reporting didn’t exist, Indie Cindy would have virtually no reason to exist, either.”
In the last Cold Case Logic, I argued that “one of the primary purposes of a song is to provide enjoyment to the listener.” True enough but, as a reflection of how I actually relate to music, somewhat misleading. Of course, I listen for pleasure, but I almost always have an ulterior motive: to expand my knowledge and understanding, basically to learn. One implication of this is that I spend far more time listening to new music (new to me, I mean) than to old favorites I already know I enjoy. Another is that I probably spend just as much time reading about music as I do listening to it. (I could say the same about one of my other main sources of pleasure: NBA basketball. Online analysis is as big a part of my media diet as the actual games.)
The way I relate to a piece of music is intensely influenced by context—what I already know about an artist’s history, what the critics have to say about her latest work, who produced it, even what record label it’s on. I’m not sure how typical this is. I suspect, though, that I give external signifiers (an endorsement by a critic I admire, the appearance of familiar names in an album’s credits) too much power over my listening experience. I’ve acknowledged elsewhere that “I’m highly susceptible to the storylines of the moment” and that “part of the motivation behind the Cold Case Logic series is to get back to a one-on-one relationship between me and the music by turning my attention to albums that haven’t been part of the critical conversation for a long time…that are meaningful to me, in most cases, for entirely personal reasons.”
Of course, that’s just swapping one type of context (critical opinion) for another (my own memory). In any case, you may have noticed that, for a guy trying to get back to a one-on-one relationship with the music, I sure quote Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus an awful lot in these posts.