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Reviewing the reviewer: The Christgau picks
« on: June 14, 2019, 07:46:57 PM »
In the grand tradition of threads about listening through a set of recordings with a collective theme, I have decided to review all of the top album of the year picks from the supreme cuntface himself, Robert Christgau. As it turns out, these are all albums I have never heard before, which makes things a lot more interesting. Christgau tends to be pretty scathing about the sort of music I do like, so who knows how this will turn out?

For each album, I will first listen to the music and review it, and only then read Christgau's review and add my comments (except for the first pick, which I've already glanced at his review for). I will then give his grading of the album a grade. Sounds fair, right?

The list of albums included is nicely collated from his yearly (since 1974) Dean's Lists on Wikipedia, for those following along at home.

See you (hopefully) tomorrow for a review of Joy of Cooking, FES.
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Re: Reviewing the reviewer: The Christgau picks
« Reply #1 on: June 16, 2019, 12:28:39 AM »
1971
Joy of Cooking
Joy of Cooking



Band lineup

Terry Garthwaite (lead vocals, guitar, clarinet)
Toni Brown (keyboards, guitar, kalimba, lead vocals on "Too Late, But Not Forgotten" and "Red Wine at Noon")
David Garthwaite (bass, lead guitar on "Only Time Will Tell Me")
Fritz Kasten (drums)
Ron Wilson (percussion)

All tracks authored by Toni Brown, except where noted.

Side A

1. Hush (traditional) (2:48)
2. Too Late, But Not Forgotten (4:22)
3. Down My Dream (4:20)
4. If Some God (Sometimes You Gotta Go Home) (3:45)
5. Did You Go Downtown? (Terry Garthwaite) (7:39)
6. Dancing Couple (:58)

Side B

1. Brownsville / Mockingbird (Furry Lewis / traditional) (5:55)
2. Red Wine at Noon (3:39)
3. Only Time Will Tell Me (5:16)
4. Children's House (6:55)

Review

Can these girls sing or what?

Things get off to a somewhat shaky start, with some of the least interesting material clustered on side A. I enjoyed "Hush" and "Too Late, But Not Forgotten" -- the latter has some beautiful vocal harmonies -- but the next couple of tracks got a little repetitive and I started to think this was going to be an album full of nothing but harmless pop ditties.

But suddenly, Side A is rescued from the world of listenable but mediocre pop rock by "Did You Go Downtown?", Terry's only writing credit on the album. The lyrics aren't particularly meaningful, but the vocal performance is spectacular, with some group improv involving both the instrumentation and the vocalists in the latter half of the tune. Nearly 8 minutes of the band plodding along with the same one-chord groove, and I didn't find myself getting bored once.

Side B opens with a bluesy tune consisting of a mashed-together cover of Furry Lewis's "Brownsville" and the lullaby "Mockingbird", leading into some more of the amazing improvisations that are the highlight of this album. This really has to be heard to be believed. Just wow.

We then go back into a few more conventional songs. "Red Wine at Noon" and "Only Time Will Tell Me" are my favourite two of Toni's tunes. "Red Wine" has some lovely dissonant chord progressions and vocal harmonies, and "Only Time" is based around a funk groove that represents this band at its tightest.

Sadly, "Children's House" returns us to the repetitiveness from the start of the album. It's obviously an attempt at a dramatic ending, but the writing is just so dull. The only thing that saves it from total disaster is Terry's vocal performance, which is consistent as always on this album.

This record is nicely balanced between Toni's pop rock songs and Terry's lengthy blues vocal improvisations, and while I personally have a strong preference for the latter ("Did You Go Downtown?" and "Brownsville / Mockingbird" being by far my favourite tracks), the two provide some nice contrast and relief from each other. I just wish there was a little more of the improv based around silly lyrics and a little less trying to fit into conventional pop structures.

Christgau sez...

Led by ex-folkie Toni Brown (the principal composer) and ex-blueswoman Terry Garthwaite (whose three rhythm songs sizzle joyously), this may not be your idea of rock and roll. The music revolves around Brown's piano, which rolls more than it rocks, and the band goes for multi-percussion rather than the old in-out. I find it relaxing and exciting and amazingly durable; I can dance to it, and I can also fuck to it. The musical dynamic pits Brown's collegiate contralto against Garthwaite's sandpaper soul, and the lyrics are feminist breakthroughs. "Too Late, but Not Forgotten" remembers a trailer camp while "Red Wine at Noon" touches international finance, but the two protagonists are united by one overriding fact--they're victimized as wives. And it's about time somebody in rock and roll said so. A

Knowing what you can and can't fuck to is a little TMI. Aside from that, this is a much more reasonable assessment of the album than I've come to expect from Christgau, and put more eloquently than mine. While I'm still sour over the D+ grade awarded to Atom Heart Mother in 1970, I have to admit that I can think of no better album from 1971, except perhaps for , which he also awarded an A. I therefore have no choice but to accept this review as valid, but I'll still knock it down to a minus for the TMI. A-
« Last Edit: June 17, 2019, 06:55:20 PM by Parsifal »
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Re: Reviewing the reviewer: The Christgau picks
« Reply #2 on: June 25, 2019, 01:21:08 AM »
1974
Steely Dan
Pretzel Logic



Band lineup

Donald Fagen (keyboards, saxophone, vocals)
Walter Becker (bass, guitar, backing vocals)
Jeff Baxter (lead guitar, pedal steel guitar)
Denny Dias (guitar)
Jim Hodder (backing vocals)
plus a bunch more I'm not going to write here

All tracks authored by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, except where noted.

Side A

1. Rikki Don't Lose That Number (4:32)
2. Night by Night (3:40)
3. Any Major Dude Will Tell You (3:05)
4. Barrytown (3:17)
5. East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (Duke Ellington, Bubber Miley) (2:45)

Side B

1. Parker's Band (2:36)
2. Through with Buzz (1:30)
3. Pretzel Logic (4:32)
4. With a Gun (2:15)
5. Charlie Freak (2:41)
6. Monkey in Your Soul (2:31)

Review

The four tracks that bookend each side of this album are some of the grooviest head-bopping music you'll ever find. Sadly, in between these catchy numbers are sequences of meandering, mediocre pop rock that do little to nothing to stand out from anything else the early '70s gave us. The best track on the album is a Duke Ellington cover that makes me want to go listen to some traditional jazz instead.

I wanted to write more but this album was thoroughly uninspiring. Oh well, hopefully the next one will be better.

Christgau sez...

This album sums up their chewy perversity as aptly as its title--all I could ask is a lyric sheet. "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" blends into AM radio with an intro appropriated from Horace Silver, while the other side-opener builds a joyous melody of Bird riffs underneath a lyric that invites one and all to "take a piece of Mr. Parker's band." The solos are functional rather than personal or expressive, locked into the workings of the music. And even when Donald Fagen's voice dominates as it comes out of the speakers it tends to sink into the mix in the mind's ear--recollected in tranquility, the vocals seem like the golden mean of pop ensemble singing, stripped of histrionics and displays of technique, almost . . . sincere, modest. Yeah, sure. A+

Honestly, I just have no fucking idea what any of this review is supposed to mean. It's a generic pop rock album with no noteworthy features other than its sole Ellington cover. Couple that with the fact that Zappa's Roxy & Elsewhere from the same year, featuring some of the most diverse and captivating works of his early touring career, was awarded a C+. No, this review simply will not do. D+
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Re: Reviewing the reviewer: The Christgau picks
« Reply #3 on: July 14, 2019, 12:51:57 AM »
1975
Bob Dylan and The Band
The Basement Tapes



Band lineup

Bob Dylan (acoustic guitar, piano, vocals)
Rick Danko (bass, mandolin, backing vocals)
Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, bass, vocals)
Garth Hudson (organ, clavinet, accordion, saxophone, piano)
Richard Manuel (piano, drums, harmonica, backing vocals)
Robbie Robertson (guitars, drums, backing vocals)

All tracks authored by Bob Dylan, except where noted.

Side A

1. Odds and Ends (1:47)
2. Orange Juice Blues (Blues for Breakfast) (Richard Manuel) (3:39)
3. Million Dollar Bash (2:32)
4. Yazoo Street Scandal (Robbie Robertson) (3:29)
5. Goin' to Acapulco (5:27)
6. Katie's Been Gone (Manuel, Robertson) (2:46)

Side B

1. Lo and Behold! (2:46)
2. Bessie Smith (Rick Danko, Robertson) (4:18)
3. Clothes Line Saga (2:58)
4. Apple Suckling Tree (2:48)
5. Please, Mrs. Henry (2:33)
6. Tears of Rage (Dylan, Manuel) (4:15)

Side C

1. Too Much of Nothing (3:04)
2. Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread (2:15)
3. Ain't No More Cane (traditional) (3:58)
4. Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood) (2:04)
5. Ruben Remus (Manuel, Robertson) (3:16)
6. Tiny Montgomery (2:47)

Side D

1. You Ain't Goin' Nowhere (2:42)
2. Don't Ya Tell Henry (3:13)
3. Nothing Was Delivered (4:23)
4. Open the Door, Homer (2:49)
5. Long Distance Operator (3:39)
6. This Wheel's on Fire (Danko, Dylan) (3:52)

Review

This is mostly an album of typical Dylan jingles performed along with The Band, interspersed with a few The Band pieces without Dylan. I've never been a great Dylan fan, so this is likely to be a very biased review.

The Dylan tunes typically consist of repetitive folk themes, sometimes a tad on the bluesy side, that almost consistently fail to progress anywhere musically. The focus seems to be on the lyrics, which almost consistently fail to make any sense whatsoever. At their worst ("Apple Suckling Tree"), these pieces even sound under-rehearsed, to the point that I question their inclusion on this album even for Dylan fans.

However, it's not all doom and gloom. A couple of Dylan's songs are quite passable as stupid but pleasant rocking out -- my personal favourites being the intensely bluesy "Don't Ya Tell Henry" and "Long Distance Operator", with honourable mentions going out to the more acoustic "Crash on the Levee" and the calmer ballad "Nothing Was Delivered".

The songs without Dylan are, for me, much more consistently listenable. "Bessie Smith" and "Yazoo Street Scandal" in particular are very enjoyable, and quite different from each other stylistically, leaving the potential for a decent single album or EP if the more disappointing half of the material were stripped out.

I'm not going to say this is bad, and particularly if you enjoy Dylan's style, it's well worth a listen. But personally I would have been more selective with which cuts to include and produced a shorter, but more consistently enjoyable, record.

Christgau sez...

These are the famous lost demos recorded at Big Pink in 1967 and later bootlegged on The Great White Wonder and elsewhere. Of the eighteen Dylan songs, thirteen have been heard in cover versions, one by Dylan himself; the six Band songs have never even been bootlegged and are among their best. Because the Dylan is all work tape, the music is certifiably unpremeditated, lazy as a river and rarely relentless or precise--laid back without complacency or slickness. The writerly "serious" songs like "Tears of Rage" are all the richer for the company of his greatest novelties--if "Going to Acapulco" is a dirge about having fun, "Don't Ya Tell Henry" is a ditty about separation from self, and both modes are enriched by the Band's more conventional ("realistic") approach to lyrics. We needn't bow our heads in shame because this is the best album of 1975. It would have been the best album of 1967 too. And it's sure to sound great in 1983. A+

"The best album of 1975", he says. Ah yes, 1975. The year he gave Godbluff, the greatest and most cohesive 37 minutes Van der Graaf Generator ever committed to vinyl, a solid D+. I'm sorry, but if you're going to give such high praise to material that, by any artist other than Bob Dylan, would be considered so "lazy as a river and rarely relentless or precise" as to constitute a rehearsal and not an album, could you perhaps give at least a smidgeon of credit to actual musical talent when it pops up in the same year? E
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