Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1990 Pazz & Jop: Hard News in a Soft Year

The night Voice music editor Joe Levy and I began tabulating the 17th (or 18th) Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, the war had been on for more than a week, and my CNN habit was in remission. So we played music uninterrupted as we counted from 8:30 till 4 and 9:30 till 1. Though Public Enemy led for the first quarter (wouldn’t that piss people off?) before giving way to Sinéad O’Connor (who dominated straighter, smaller polls), by bedtime Neil Young looked like the shoo-in we’d figured. We were having fun, sampling dark horses (matched Replacements surrogates Soul Asylum and Goo Goo Dolls) and cracking wise about other people’s tastes (today Tim Buckley, tomorrow Essra Mohawk). Glimpsing the top of the mountain (289 voters, 34 more than the 1989 record), we broke for lunch, picked up a paper, and there it was: oil slick all over the front page, for me an even worse nightmare than the bombing of Tel Aviv. Suddenly fun was beyond us. Back upstairs, after a brief TV fix, I felt compelled to hear music that was painful and familiar: Wild Gift, Exile on Main Street.

As it happened, our return-mail date was January 17, so that many out-of-towners found themselves trying to say something clever about their fave albums as the UN deadline passed and the countdown began. Geopolitics put our little world in perspective — or so it seemed in late January. But one reason the gulf war is the most disastrous event of my conscious lifetime is that it tempts us to obsess on it at a time when so much else desperately requires our attention. Culture vulture though I am, I wouldn’t put the death of rock and roll up there with nationwide bank robbery, semitropical winters, the future of excommunism, or even the budgetary suicide every public school parent is up against — especially since I suspect the obituaries are premature yet again. But there they were, set off by Billboard chart-watcher Paul Grein’s observation that 1990 was the first year since 1963 that not a single guitar band had a number one album. And as I pored over the mountain, I realized that for many critics, especially sharp young ones and bitter old ones, 1990 seemed like a turning point. Something is happening, and nobody really knows what it is — me included, so don’t get your hopes up.

Poll results reflect this uneasiness only insofar as they represent small departure from recent trends — fail to provide so-called trendmakers the breakthrough they crave. Never have albums seemed more irrelevant. As Mike Rubin notes in the “Yesterday’s Papers” section — and I recommend you read the conversations I’ve constructed from the ballots before winding through my inescapably inconclusive comments, which I’ve held down to make room — 1990 was a year in which press coverage of the usual profusion of product gave way to larger thematic concerns. Or maybe smaller. Hard news, maybe. Or maybe just what hard-news hardheads (the guys who churned out videogame criticism and called it military analysis) dis as “back-of-the-book copy” — reported, even investigated, “stories” instead of celeb profiles or (ugh) reviews.

Censorship was the heavy deal all year, and don’t tell me it’s a red herring, not with retail chains prescreening sex ’n’ violence and so-called parental warning stickers keeping tapes out of Saudi Arabia. Though metal took its licks, rap obsessed the watchdogs, generating racial controversy and racist hysteria even as the Oreo and the Sno-Cone topped the charts, and rock/rap sexism (though not, fancy that, homophobia) ballooned from boring old left-lib plaint into national nightmare. Everywhere, Public Enemy and Madonna angled for the ink Sinéad O’Connor dove into. Predictably, all these headline-stealing issues and personages inspired mucho respondent analysis — especially rap, which remains “the new punk” on formal and cultural momentum alone. But to my surprise, it was Silli Vanilli that really stirred the critics up. I assume you know how dumb the shit was — John Leland found ghostsingers behind Frank Farian’s video-friendly concoction a year before Rob and Fab confessed their sins. And the voters were hip, only rarely bemoaning the shame and scandal of it all. But among many conservatives, as I’ll label them — the Clubrats described toward the top of the long section called “Mass Culture Theory,” or professionals like Geoffrey Himes, who spends his life reviewing the “news events” hardheads demand (the reason concerts rather than records dominate daily rock coverage) — the story struck a spark.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692594″ /]

So suddenly I get eight or 10 letters hyping live over Memorex, and with common sense on their side. After all, which came first — the juke joint or Sun Studios? But even if Sam and Elvis did recreate a roadhouse music, which is highly debatable, so what? The medium may not be the message, but the medium sure changes the message, and Stayathomes like different kinds of messages than Clubrats. Or vice versa. Himes’s “unmasked emotion” is cant — it happens once in a while, usually when the sound man fucks up, but the most you can expect from someone who’s singing the same song for the 200th or 2000th time is the variation on authenticity quote-unquote that the forgotten popular culture theorist Reuel Denney termed “self-stimulation.” David Sprague’s “wild abandon,” on the other hand, is more subject to performance discipline and its obverses, though it sure gets faked a lot. And the question of who can “really” play or sing isn’t altogether meaningless — while technical skill obviously doesn’t guarantee artistic innovation or listening pleasure, it does help sometimes, even on record. But the main thing that happens at shows is that you see other people there. The artiste first of all, with all the extra inflections that fabricated intimacy, physical detail, and interpretive variation can afford. Even more important, listening to music live puts you in contact with other listeners. Instead of imagining a pop community, you encounter one.

This isn’t the main thing the conservatives care about, of course. That would be art in all its truth and beauty — especially truth, a truth associated with unmediated perception and “human” scale, though some wise guy might wonder why it so often comes in a four-four box. Relatively speaking, their opposite numbers, who I’ll call the couch potatoes, are relativists, skeptics, pop intellectuals. Truth and beauty aren’t their game. One reason they stay at home so much (almost as much as the average fan!) is that they like to read and watch television, which ain’t so easy when you hang out in bars three-four nights a week. Whether this makes them smarter or stupider is beside the point — either way they feed on secondhand information. I say civilized human beings have always shown this sort of bent for abstraction, though not to the extent of fashioning pomo theories out of it. And although that doesn’t end the discussion — people who like rock and roll have always had their problems with the way civilization quote-unquote defines the civilized (as non-Islamic, say), not to mention the human  it’s why I side with the couch potatoes even as I dream of getting out more.

So say it loud — what all our deliberations and computations add up to is a bunch of ABSTRACTIONS. The points are abstractions, the results are abstractions, and, oh fuck, in many ways the albums are abstractions too. Sure they have physical reality, even in the digital form so few critics resist any more. And sure our judgments proceed (can proceed, should proceed) from our aural experiences. But not only are these experiences intangible in themselves, they generate intangibilities of a greater order of magnitude. We have the presumption to construct imaginary communities around them even though we can’t swear our significant others went to the same heaven we did last night. And we assume they can stand in for barely expressible ideas — certainly when we write about them, and too often when we vote for them as well (many critics feel obliged to augment their favorite records with representative black/white/female/male/indie/pop/disco/metal/jazz/worldbeat mentions, a piety I deplore). One reason voters are forever discovering that they prefer singles to albums is that singles aren’t so burdened with abstraction. They’re usually experienced publicly, on the radio or the street or the dance floor, and — in the famous guilty pleasure effect — less subject to superego review (although I confess to leaving Bell Biv Devoe’s jack-swinging “Poison” off my list solely because I found its sexism intolerable). Albums are still supposed to resonate like Great Works even though we suspect the concept of the Great Work is an oppressive fiction.

Statistically, that fiction held this year. As music has factionalized and consensus softened, the top Pazz & Jop albums haven’t been getting such Great numbers — in recent years only Prince’s Sign ‘O’ the Times has won big. So it’s no surprise that the 1990 triumph of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Ragged Glory was less than sweeping — its points-per-voter quotient fell about midway between that of 1988’s controversial It Takes a Nation of Millions and 1989’s flukey 3 Feet High and Rising, which had the shallowest support of any winner in poll history. Although the point strength of the top 10 albums was respectable, the wan kudos volunteered on The Rhythm of the Saints and Interiors and Graffiti Bridge and even Time’s Up made you wonder how much the critics raved about their faves after their reviews were in. But I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got and Fear of a Black Planet were powerful second- and third-place finishers in both votes and corroborating commentary. Different as the top three records were — the Young an atavistic garage stomp, the O’Connor a singer-songwriter effusion bursting with rock/rap/worldbeat juice, the PE the impossible followup to a revolutionary LP — they obviously entered many different voters’ lives (61 named at least two, 10 all three). And most of us can take comfort in the one overarching value all three artists share: they don’t have much use for the American flag as it’s currently displayed. Ragged glory indeed.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692594″ /]

In general, though, the album list was inconclusive if not stagnant if not meaningless. Though rap is said to be hurting artistically, it landed exactly as many albums in 1989 as in 1990 — six, with Queen Latifah placing the same record twice, 3rd Bass a late-’89 release, and the other full-fledged debuts by unreconstructed middle-classniks Digital Underground and A Tribe Called Quest in a year when street Afrocentrism was the power move. More debut albums charted in 1990 (10 counting Ice Cube and the Texas Tornados) than in 1989 (eight counting Bob Mould), but only sophomore-in-disguise Cube made top 10, whereas last year De La Soul–Neneh Cherry–N.W.A–Soul II Soul placed 1-5-6-9. Thanks partly to inspired poaching by Deee-Lite, Lisa Stansfield, and 3rd Bass, the top 40’s black-artist total dipped from 14 to 11, but once again half the top 10 was black. There were seven albums by women in 1989, six (counting Deee-Lite) in 1990. Dance heroes Soul II Soul broke in a little higher in 1989 than dance heroes Deee-Lite did in 1990. Non-English-speaking Caetano Veloso finished 27th in 1989, non-English-speaking Youssou N’Dour 25th in 1990.

In fact, the only album “trend” I see is, of all things, white rock and roll. Early in the decade new indie groups bum-rushed Pazz & Jop every year, but not lately. In 1989, the only indie-style poll debuts came from NRBQ, who are older than Gavin Edwards, and Galaxie 500 (who plunged to an astonishing one mention in 1990); in 1988 the Cowboy Junkies (who plunged to a less astonishing zero mentions in 1990) were the new kids on the block, though art-rockers Jane’s Addiction and metalists Metallica and Guns N’ Roses also made their dents; in 1987 it was two more sad stories, 10,000 Maniacs and That Petrol Emotion. This year five newish bands charted for the first time: the Black Crowes were 31st, Faith No More 27th, Yo La Tengo 19th, and World Party 15th, while the Chills scored our cult record of the year, finishing 12th even though they made 11 fewer ballots than 13th-place Deee-Lite. Precedent suggests that some of these artists will never darken our poll again; except for the smart, sublime jangle-pop of the Chills’ Submarine Bells, I found all their music slightly annoying myself. But flashes in the pan they’re not — only the flashy Black Crowes placed a debut album. With the junk syncretism (kitchen-sink eclecticism? styleless mish-mash?) of Jane’s Addiction up from 34th to 24th, it’s my reluctant conviction that Faith No More will be around. And World Party might just turn into a Squeeze for our time — Beatles fans (also Tim Buckley fans) with their fun-filled conscience on Karl Wallinger’s sleeve. Hold the obits, please. Critics can be so stubborn.

On the singles list, meanwhile, things changed plenty, and in the opposite direction. Women sang lead on only four of our 1989 top 25; in 1990, the figure was 12. And for all the rap-dance futurism of last year’s comments, 12 rock/pop singles underwhelmed seven rap and six dance singles on the list itself; this year, rock/pop singles were down to eight and dance up to 11. For all you category-haters out there, I’ll hasten to emphasize that mine are dubious. People obviously dance to rap, especially the likes of “Bust a Move” and “Humpty Dance,” while dance records like “Buffalo Stance” and “Poison” get half their shit from rap (to make matters worse, I counted Snap’s “The Power” as dance and Chill Rob G’s as rap even though the tracks are identical). “Tom’s Diner” is a dance record that owes an immense debt to rock (or folk, or whatever); “Epic” is a rock record that owes a medium-sized debt to rap. In fact, though dance singles obviously achieved some critical hegemony in 1990, with the crucial side effect of a surge in female voices (a bow to Martha Wash, who belongs on MTV no matter what you think of authenticity as concept and construct), this category-hopping is the story. For all their syncretic dreams and cute little experiments, the Pazz & Jop albums categorize pretty easy. The singles, which in the top 12 or so all got airplay in a dismal year for pop radio, ignore genre boundaries the way Neil Harris planned it.

I don’t think rock and roll is dying, even in its square old guitar-defined form. Not because Warners signed the Chills, or because the Black Crowes are younger than the Rolling Stones, or because Yo La Tengo is the most shameless critics’ band since the Pet Shop Boys. The poll has never had that kind of precise predictive value. It’s just that after 17 (or 18) years I know years are funny things — they’re all atypical. Grein didn’t count Sinéad or Bonnie Raitt because girls who play rock and roll ruin neat theses. Two rappers, one worse than the other, topped the pop charts for more than half of 1990, and though rap isn’t dying by a long shot, I bet that never happens again. Springsteen takes over the racks in April. And so forth. But though it hit a blank with the commercial shortfall of Amerindie (a hardy cottage industry in any case), the poll has always had general predictive value. What it predicts is that’s something’s gonna happen and we don’t know what it is. What I’m hoping is that eventually we’ll figure it out.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692583″ /]

For years young critics have been pointing toward the rock-dance fusion Billboard has been bruiting lately — maybe not in the form of one famous professional (Phil Collins, say) jiving up his schlock by hiring another (Shep Pettibone), but that’s biz for you. Critics rarely understand biz — they just sense what people need to hear a little quicker than bizzers do. So for a neat thesis we can posit rock-dance fusion as if no such thing had ever happened before — though in fact it was a fad (and a Pazz & Jop theme) 12 years ago, and what Brit New Pop was about, and also, from another angle, what rap was, is, and will be about. This thesis carries with it the usual unexceptionable abstractions — serious fun on the mind-body continuum. And not only is it all over the singles chart, it’s revitalized the EP chart, which is topped by some postpunk guitar heroes’ dance record (because they’re reserving the real stuff for a new label?), a gangsta rapper moving on indie-rock turf (or getting paid more per song), and guitar uglies gone New Romantic (really new age). Extry, extry: Amerindie redoubt goes DOR.

But the thesis doesn’t explain the out-of-nowhere showing of pop pigfuckers Pavement, who finished fourth (surrounded by Two Nice Girls and major-label product of wildly disparate quality) on one of the tiny labels the EP list is supposed to give a crack to. It doesn’t explain a reissue chart dominated by Brobdingnagian CD reclamations of music that safely predates postmodern fuss. It doesn’t explain the top three albums, each of which honors the great god beat in its own cerebrally undanceable way. It doesn’t explain Sonic Youth even if their drumming’s better, much less Living Colour, whose jagged, pretentious art-rock qualifies as DOR only if you subscribe to the theory of natural rhythm. It doesn’t explain Rosanne Cash, whose songs sang clear when she toured without a drummer. It doesn’t explain Los Lobos or the Texas Tornados, roadhouse-rooted though each may be. It doesn’t explain Jane’s Addiction or the Black Crowes, Iggy Pop or Eno/Cale, Reed/Cale or Robin Holcomb, Van Morrison or Bob Dylan, the Pixies or the Replacements. It doesn’t even explain the Pet Shop Boys.

All right, we’ve been here before. Electoral processes are rarely unanimous, trends are never monolithic, and different critics like different kinds of music. Big deal. Radical pluralism or a thousand points of light, it’s an old story, and as such a long way from the divine rupture of something-is-happening-and-we-don’t-know-what-it-is. Indeed, I’m almost as sick of the metaphor as you must be. Like any concept, pluralism risks turning into a shibboleth unless it absorbs new data — it’s losing its explanatory aura. But what can I do? According to many respondents, 1990 was the latest in the endless line of worst years ever, yet having freed myself to seek out only good records, I put together my longest Dean’s List ever. And as usual my picks were all over the place, including 13 and counting representatives of a black Africa that from Ladysmith to the Oriental Brothers has far more to offer than the estimable Youssou N’Dour. Internationalism is built into the dance-rock thesis — I don’t just mean Hull’s own Beats International, I mean Snap — but as the term is usually understood it remains a far-future projection of indeterminate shape. Even for this radical pluralist, whose list was dominated by what we jokingly call rock and roll — 17 guitarslingers as far-flung as Ministry and the Flatlanders and the Beautiful South, as differently same-old as Sonic Youth and Living Colour and the Chills and the Pixies and, well, Neil Young.

As Elena Oumano says somewhere hereabouts, we dance to Armageddon to the beat of our own drummer. And as Joe Levy says somewhere else hereabouts, there’s no reason to think guitar rock won’t be a viable residual subgenre for a long time to come. It would be tasteless to make any grand claims for its ability to save or even improve the world at this horrible moment, but it certainly speaks to a little group of paras and professionals who’d like to see the world save or improve itself, and who take hope in the best of popular culture — “people’s” culture, to and/or from as the case may be, generously accessible in both its renegade-seeker and utopian-hedonist forms. Looking over my own list, I was struck by all the high-ranking faves I’d classify as pop rather than rock, pop with historical perspective — Red Hot and Blue and The Civil War, and also Evan Lurie’s all faux, all true tango and Madonna’s blindly underappreciated camp. They reminded me of Jason Weisbard’s modestly visionary suggestion — a grander version of whatever inspired a vocal minority to campaign for the return of the video ballot — that our interest group comprises not just rock critics but all popular culture fanatics. And what are our interests? How about free expression for those human X-factors Victorians referred to as the dangerous classes? Spiritual growth from the ass up? Pop history as art history? The old ideal of art as community? Trial by disco for Allan Bloom? Like that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692580″ /]

Reclaiming mass culture is a couch potato’s dream. Insofar as live-over-Memorex partisans hope to encounter a community instead of imagining one, it’s a community fixated on difference — a community of people who already agree with them. There’s admittedly something very abstract about the commonality couch potatoes posit as an alternative — real human beings are far more unpredictable than any work of art, however “complex,” “vital,” and so forth it may be, which bothers aesthetes no end. But there’s something even more abstract about the Clubrat-Stayathome polarity itself — most of us fall somewhere in between. So let me tell you a story and turn the speculation over to my colleagues.

Like most of the voters in this pluralistic interest group, I didn’t put Ragged Glory in my top 10 — thought it dragged, basically. But though those who don’t get Young may dismiss his victory as pure reaction, I like the record, which makes good on several potent fantasies — eternal renewal, the garage as underground, the guitar as shibboleth and idea. And I wasn’t going to miss his gig, especially not with Sonic Youth opening. When’s the last time two such Pazz & Jop eminences shared a bill anywhere, much less Madison Square Garden? (Answer: in Chicago a month before, when Chuck & Flav and Kim & Thurston occasioned a police riot you may have read about.) But between the display ad and the event fell the bombs, which transformed the concert as they have everything else. Ordinarily the kid from the cheap seats wearing an American-flag T-shirt with the legend TRY BURNING THIS ONE…ASSHOLE would have served as a neat symbol of mass culture and its contradictions. Now he brought to mind Toby Goldstein critiquing Madonna’s morality one minute and nuking the barbarians the next.

Young has made some exceptionally asinine political comments in his time, so I didn’t know quite what to think when he skronked out an invisible Hendrix-style “Star Spangled Banner” after Sonic Youth went on and off. Wasn’t so sure about the giant yellow ribbon hung around the giant microphone prop, either. Sure was nice to see that peace symbol up there, even if it was Freedom’s logo. But though I’ve heard complaints about the predictability of his set list and the automatism of his abandon, I don’t think he’s ever exalted me like that. I admit his every-word-counts claim on “Blowin’ in the Wind” — as if to say, “This is my song now, Bob, but I’d love for you to try and take it back” — put me in a receptive mood, especially after the huzzahs for “Before they are forever banned.” But though he didn’t utter a nonlyric for two hours, that painful and familiar beat provided respite from Armageddon, with warhorses like “Powderfinger” and “Cortez the Killer” and for that matter “Rockin’ in the Free World” ideologically focused for once. And when during a delirious encore of “Welfare Mothers,” he kept yelling “Day care, day care,” I felt he understood. I didn’t especially deserve the respite, of course — not the way they do over in the gulf. But we haven’t figured out how to effect the transfer. All we can do is contest symbols and abstractions — rhythms and sonorities, flags and ribbons — as we mourn and marvel at the incursions they make on our physical lives. Ain’t much, is it?

Oh shit. Peace. And salaam.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1990

1. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Ragged Glory (Reprise)

2. Sinéad O’Connor: I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (Ensign/Chrysalis)

3. Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam)

4. Sonic Youth: Goo (DGC)

5. Living Colour: Time’s Up (Epic)

6. Ice Cube: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (Priority)

7. Paul Simon: The Rhythm of the Saints (Warner Bros.)

8. Rosanne Cash: Interiors (Columbia)

9. L.L. Cool J: Mama Said Knock You Out (Def Jam)

10. Prince: Graffiti Bridge (Paisley Park/Warner Bros.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1990

1. Deee-Lite: “Groove Is in the Heart”/”What Is Love” (Elektra)

2. Sinéad O’Connor: “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Ensign/Chrysalis)

3. Digital Underground: “The Humpty Dance” (Tommy Boy)

4. Madonna: “Vogue” (Sire/Warner Bros.)

5. (Tie) Faith No More: “Epic” (Slash/Reprise)
Lisa Stansfield: “All Around the World” (Arista)

7. Black Box: “Everybody Everybody” (RCA)

8. Madonna: “Justify My Love” (Sire/Warner Bros.)

9. Soho: “Hippychick” (Atco)

10. Public Enemy: “Welcome to the Terrordome” (Def Jam)

—From the March 5, 1991, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1986 Pazz & Jop: Township Jive Conquers the World

Over at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, where an accounting firm more reputable than Dean & Poobah is totting up the Grammies even as I write, the year ends October 1, to give the electoral machinery time to rumble into action. Here at the Voice, where small is still sometimes beautiful, the year begins whenever the voters tell us it did and ends the natural way, on December 31. Yet by October 1 I knew damn well who was going to take the 13th or 14th Annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, and though I suffered a few doubts when Peter Gabriel snuck in first at the L.A. Times, my confidence returned as I glanced over the early returns. Graceland for sure — in a small landslide, actually. And if Simon & Phiri — to let Simon’s guitarist and bandleader, Ray Phiri, stand in for the black South African backing musicians whose beat is the backbone of the star’s triumph — take the Grammies as well, which I predict they will, they earned it.

Many indicators fed my hunch, small competition and instant buzz prominent among them, but what convinced me was my direct experience of the music: opposed though I am to universalist humanism, this is a pretty damn universal record. Within the democratic bounds of pop accessibility, its bicultural synthesis is striking, engaging, and unprecedented — sprightly yet spunky, fresh yet friendly, so strange, so sweet, so willful, so plainly beautiful. Not that I expected the universe to agree — tastes differ, many dissent from Simon’s refined literary liberalism, wimpophobes have hated his guts for years, and the electorate now includes a smattering of convinced pigfuckers who think Hüsker Dü is Julio Iglesias in disguise. Yet even sworn enemies were stopped short at least momentarily by the drive and lilt and sway of Simon’s South African band, and many neutrals were won over to his Manhattan lyrics. Graceland’s victory didn’t approach the dimensions of Born in the U.S.A.’s, or Thriller’s, or London Calling’s. But by Pazz & Jop as well as NARAS standards — by the standards of any respecters of critical consensus outside the Elvis Costello Fan Club — Simon had made what sounded like the album of the year. This was certifiable township jive, to use one of the Soweto beat’s many overlapping nicknames. But it was cosmopolitan in a New York way.

Imagine my consternation, then, when I ransacked the ballots in search of quotable tributes to this ear food and found almost nothing but dim political disputation. Not that this was altogether surprising. The fact of apartheid is intrinsic to Graceland’s aesthetic interest, especially for the P&J electorate, which leans more precipitously to the left than any comparable sampling of film or book or dance or art or (God knows) classical music reviewers. Yet at the same time rock critics are almost pathologically impatient with political orthodoxy. So maybe the recent flurry of controversy — in which Simon was blitzed by hostile questions at Howard University and criticized by the chairman of the UN’s apartheid subcommittee — got their goat. Or maybe it was just Dave Marsh, who declared Simon an opponent of the South African revolution in Rock & Roll Confidential. Maybe it was even yours truly the Dean, whose more moderate censure of Simon’s political performance has come under fire from universalist humanists. Still, I’d hoped for a higher level of discussion. Certainly the music that occasioned all the hot air would get its due. And just maybe the political horror that the music was too fucking transcendent to illuminate directly would gain new resonances as a result.

No way. You can bet the outnumbered naysayers proved somewhat smarter than Simon’s aggressively defensive champions, but you can also bet that a bilious “beneath contempt” isn’t going to get us much further than a blithe “Simon’s intentions seem to have been noble”: if it’s true that nobility is too rare a thing to waste on intentions, it’s also true that you can’t get much lower than some people’s contempt. What I missed on both sides was some rudimentary grasp of the South African reality Graceland is supposed to trivialize and exploit or extend and enrich. Musically, the old bridge-between-cultures line is supported by the 10th-place finish of what has now been my own favorite current record for about a year, the Earthworks-via-Shanachie mbaqanga compilation The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. In 1985, with Graceland yet unborn, Indestructible was showing up on UK critics polls, and it would certainly have placed here as well, but without Simon’s album — and the accompanying press coverage, a phenomenon in itself — it sure wouldn’t have gone neck-and-neck to the finish line with R.E.M. and Peter Gabriel. (Only with the last ballot did Blood and Chocolate sneak into a virtual tie with Indestructible — and Springsteen overtake Run-D.M.C. Craig Zeller has broken my heart before. He may not vote next year unless he changes his name to Muhammad Ali.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”692572″ /]

Nevertheless, I’d be more inclined to see in the pleasing anomaly of Indestructible’s showing irrefutable evidence of the universal language in action, of a link to black South Africa stronger than mere analysis could ever achieve, if just one of the indignant defenses of Paul Simon’s virtue had indicated that apartheid isn’t just the Afrikaans word for segregation. It’s a system, damn it, a political system; like the bicultural music that nobody pro or con described very satisfactorily either (though once again the cons made their points more cleverly), it has specific attributes. Its strategy is to reserve for whites the economic and psychological advantages of segregation while fobbing itself off with a rhetoric of racial equality and cooperation. As far as Pretoria is concerned, Graceland is for the most part quite consonant with such rhetoric. Which is why, Bruce McClelland, it’s naïve at best to claim that “Graceland is inherently political and inherently anti-apartheid.” Right now, nobody can know that — not me, not you, not Botha, not Simon. God don’t love no ignorant, boy.

Okay, I’ll stop. I’m writing about a poll, and though Simon is emblematic enough to warrant all this attention and more, it’s context time. Perhaps I’ve procrastinated because 1986 didn’t seem to add much news value to the critics’ by now traditional dour view of popular music’s immediate past and uncharted future. Wrap-up pieces made much of the nostalgia factor in a year when MTV engineered a Monkees revival, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame hosted a reissue boom, and numerous same old songs returned to the hit parade, most spectacularly “Stand by Me,” back among the living in Ben E. King’s quarter-century-old version. In fact, several respondents thought it amusing to point out the aptness of the late-night typo in which I neglected to change the “1985” of our previous letter of invitation to the “1986” of this year’s model. But both poll and biz showed 365 days worth of historical movement by me, and while the nostalgia thesis has the look of a desperate stab at a headline — it’s a rare year when the pop merchants aren’t systematically sentimentalizing the past — it might be adapted to our purposes.

Lefty that I am, I often focus these ruminations on how the pop of the present relates to past and future, and in general my conclusions are fairly clear-cut: future good, past bad. Thus I’ve always been suspicious (right, Rob Tannenbaum, with exceptions) of roots moves and critical (also with exceptions) of rock conservatism from Springsteen to Fogerty and Stones to Smithereens. Middle-aged professional that I am, I’m also a respecter of history — I love the old stuff going back way before 1955, and believe absolutely that aging (and even young) rockers can do exciting work in styles that are no longer modish or commercial. But in general I’ve reserved my sharpest enthusiasms for music that breaks new ground within the aforementioned bounds of democratic accessibility, a parameter I interpret more liberally than the most progressive bizzer and nowhere near radically enough to suit your average pigfucker. And what strikes me as I ponder both my list and the critics’ choices is that such distinctions seem to be falling apart. In fact, I descry only four unequivocally “progressive” artists in the P&J top 40, three of whom I don’t like much. There’s old prog Peter Gabriel, who broke pop with an Otis Redding rip, young progs Throwing Muses, whose singularity is indistinguishable from their awfulness, and two artists whose explorations are rhythmic, as so many of the most significant rock and roll explorations always have been: Janet Jackson a/k/a Janet Jam-Lewis (whom I’m developing a taste for, actually) and young reliables Run-D.M.C.

Everywhere else, either the past is a live issue or the future a quiescent one. Among the half dozen or so artists doing strong work in established personal styles (including Elvis C., Hüsker Dü, Ornette, the Smiths, Robyn Hitchcock), only the Minutemen’s album holds out any vivid promise of significant future movement, and they’re now gone forever. Anyway, Elvis C. scored higher with a roots move, and in addition he produced the Pogues, the most coruscating of an unprecedented explosion of folkies — at least two of whom, Billy Bragg and Timbuk 3, chafe conspicuously at folk’s musical limitations. In addition we have a new wave band going folkloric (and downhill) (Talking Heads), a nuevo folk-rock band going pop (R.E.M.), and a new wave band going nuevo folk-rock (the Feelies). We have the biggest and best blues album in the history of the poll. We have mbaqanga, a folk-based style, and mbaqanga-rock, a roots move in cunning progressive disguise. We have two or three country neotraditionalists. We have unabashed homages to torch singing (Anita Baker), Sgt. Pepper (XTC), Sgt. Pepper plus Sly Stone (Prince), metal (Bad Brains), AOR (David & David), Spector/Ramones (Jesus and Mary), roots-era Clash (Screaming Blue Messiahs), and Bruce Springsteen (Bruce Springsteen). We have an overrated record by a New Zealander from El Lay and a sloppy record by some North Country anarchists who love American music and not America. We have the impressively eclectic unestablished punk-rock of That Petrol Emotion (barely beating out the avant-gone-neoclassicist Ellington homage of the World Saxophone Quartet). We have debuts by the nuevo retro Bodeans and the nuevo retro Smithereens. And we have debuts by Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692493″ /]

I trust you understand that I’m having fun with these swift characterizations — a few of the artists I’ve summed up so cavalierly, like Simon and Prince and Bad Brains, are recombining at such a furious clip that their homages qualify as syntheses if not something altogether new, and many of the others are self-starters perfectly capable of counting their winnings and moving on. Nevertheless, only Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, both spawned around the corner from Dean & Poobah on the Lower East Side, would seem blatant exceptions to the prevailing future’s-so-dull-I-gotta-look-back mood — and in typically blatant fashion, both spit in the eye of any such historical or personal consistency. I’m accused of mistreating Sonic Youth, the old farts of pigfuckerdom, who made their surprisingly belated (and at 29, modest) P&J debut with a third (fifth?) album that certainly deserved to finish higher than True Stories or Peter Case, while overpraising the sixth-ranked Beasties, the white motherfuckers of metal-rap, as rock and roll future. Actually, I don’t see where the Beasties can go from here and do see that Sonic Youth could wind up almost anywhere. But what I’m almost certain of is this — that any future progress either achieves will partake of that annoying Lower East Side sensibility known as postmodernism.

Like you, I hope, I’ve made a principle of resisting this hotsy-totsy and all but meaningless term, only recently settling on a definition that tickles my rock and roll chauvinism. My postmodern has not much use for the decrepit modernist edifice that is high art, but that goes without saying. What’s crucial is the way it simultaneously undercuts its own seriousness and reconstitutes history by taking as primary material every piece of pop junk that ever existed. This tactic will recall for rock and rollers of a certain age the pop irony we perceived in the way the Beatles dragged “Please Mr. Postman” through the guitars until it hollered uncle, as well as the multifarious recontextualizations of the New York Dolls or the Ramones’ and Blondie’s congruent visual and aural images. My postmodern is the same only more so, often too much more so — too campy, too junky, too pop. Like rock and roll three decades on, it finds history inescapable, so inescapable that its only recourse is to seize and twist it into some shape that can pass for “new.” When Sonic/Ciccone Youth tops “Papa Don’t Preach” et al. on our singles chart by sampling bits of the Madonna “original” right onto “Into the Groovey,” when the Beasties and Rick Rubin (especially Rick Rubin) hook up their def-forever electrobeats with literal Jimmy Page and Angus Wilson licks as well as a line stolen from sucker-ass Schoolly-D, ordinary notions of retro and progressive and their reassuring Hegelian synthesis, historically conscious, seem, well, dated. If these two bands represent the wave of whatever usable future the 1986 poll points to, most likely as precursors, roots will presently shrivel up and history start stretching back from when it had oughter, about 15 minutes ago. And that can’t be all bad, can it?

Needless to say, this somewhat narrow and abstract speculation won’t add much glow to most voters’ memories of 1986, and I understand why — I found the year depressing myself. The barrenness of the ordinary flush fall release climaxed a series of alarming flops from old hands and young hopefuls alike. Get Close was 82nd, and while Chrissie Hynde has come back from follow-up jinx before, this time I have more faith in Cyndi Lauper, who made just one ballot after finishing 11th in 1984. George Clinton was 121st, and neither Tina Turner, fifth in 1984, nor Aretha Franklin, ninth last year, garnered a mention. Astonishingly, neither did John Fogerty, though I suspect Eye of the Zombie would have done respectably if 1985’s 10th-place Centerfield hadn’t already taken the edge off the cosmic Creedence craving. After three straight albums in the top 10, Lou Reed was fortunate to place 106th, while Iggy Pop’s Bowie-produced “comeback” finished an even more generous 102nd. The Golden Palominos got five mentions, Jason and the Scorchers four, Lone Justice two, Let’s Active one. Sade added five points to the 56th-place 1985 finish of her late-release follow-up Promise.

And though by now my trusty A/A minus total has risen comfortably above 1985’s bare 49, I did have to sweat my top 10 once infatuations with King of America and Psychocandy flagged. Last year like most years, I would have been happy to give some points to my number 13, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s live double (a December release that topped 1986 reggae albums at 51); this year 10th-ranked New Order (relegated to a fickle 92nd by their doom and/or novelty-hooked support group) would have been more at home around 13. But in the end the self-censorship movement — the warning stickers, interviews lauding “subtlety” that sounded like farina, and craven, faux-hip condemnations of psychotropic indulgences that faux-hip lifestyles had once cravenly endorsed — sharpened my hunger for the deliberately offensive, preferably within the aforementioned parameters and especially after those three jerks from Stuyvesant rubbed my face in it. Thus I found that the Rolling Stones’ hardass farewell, which earned notes of censure from PMRC bluenoses and finished a fickle 52nd with the voters, and Motorhead’s 55th-place return to the front, in which Bill Laswell added craft and speed to the old Edward Shils nightmare of “brutal culture,” hung tougher as the countdown approached. I can live with my final selection, and I will.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692493″ /]

Many voters complained of top-10 dearth, but then, some always do, and the statistics were ambiguous. Prorated, the top 10’s cumulative point support was slightly stronger than in 1985. And when I let my calculator do the walking down to Timbuk 3 at 34, where the pattern reverses, I find points running almost 10 per cent ahead of 1985. Now, this could indicate intense critical enthusiasm for the top records. But it could also indicate that down below 34 the voters found bubkes, at least bubkes in common, and that’s how the also-rans make it look. After WSQ Plays Duke, 42–50 went Big Black (young farts of pigfuckerdom), Madonna (whose frontlash failed to materialize), Phil Alvin, Bangles, Christmas, Van Morrison, the Woodentops’ Giant, the 3 Johns’ The World by Storm (Live in Chicago was 92nd), and Marti Jones — which I’d break down as three pros (Bangles included), two biz hopefuls (Alvin included), two marginal Brits, two Amerindies, and one jazz. After that Brits fade and Amerindies come on for a 41st to 100th place total that goes something like: pros 14, hopefuls 9, marginal Brits 6, jazz 3, black 3, country 1, miscellaneous 3 (LKJ, John Zorn, and Astor Piazzola), Australindies 3, and Amerindies — get this — 19.

That’s right — about a third of the also-rans were by American bands on independent labels (Georgia Satellites and Rainmakers counted as hopefuls): Big Black, Christmas, Bottle Caps, Leaving Trains, Violent Femmes (on Warner/ Slash, but they operate like an indie and four of their five votes came from Wisconsin), Lyres, Camper Van Beethoven (II and III), Cramps, Camper Van again, Dumptruck (30 points from co-leader Seth Tiven’s cheaty big brother Jon), Soul Asylum (Made to Be Broken), R&B Cadets, Swans, Golden Palominos, Fire Train (14 points from co-leader Phil Davis’s proud alter ego Phil Davis), Mofungo, Moving Targets, Butthole Surfers, Die Kreuzen. Now, this is a varied bunch of records; four made my top 58, several more please me, and others could yet do either. But while Robert Palmer and your nearby college-radio PD may see our result as some sort of consummation, I see it as localism and special interest out of control. In 1985, there was a healthier breakdown: pros and hopefuls about the same, Amerindies down to 13, Brits up to 10, and black — meaning anything from Kid Creole to Whitney Houston — way up to 11.

U.S.-versus-UK-wise, I think the critics have fallen into lazy habits — Amerindie boosterism is as rife now as Anglophilia was as the decade began. Counting the Go-Betweens as Australian, I put three Brits on my 1985 list. This year I have 11, not just world-citizen Stones and mid-Atlantic Elvis C. and old pro Motorhead, but marginals and eccentrics from Jon Langford’s two best bands (with a third on my EP list) to the leftish punk of New Model Army to the lefty pop of the Housemartins to the studio pop of XTC to the studio miscellaneous of the Art of Noise. And while it would be overexcitable to read a trend into every blip, I think this apparently anomalous upswing makes sense.

With all exceptions and amalgams granted, let’s divide the Amerindies into subgroups labeled pop, roots, and pigfucker. Now, I’m not sure why the best roots band extant hails from Leeds, England, rather than the good old U.S.A., though geographical distance — good for a measure of (shall we call it?) postmodernist irony, and thus covering the inevitable chops shortfall just as it did in the Beatles’ day — isn’t hurting one bit. The pigfuckers could wind up mucking about anywhere, and they’re welcome to their wallow as long as they don’t blame the universe for not joining in. But if you’re going to truck with pop values — which often means no longer modish/commercial biz values, with many roots types and by now some pigfuckers feeling the urge — you’re better off doing it right. Because commercial corruption was the great Brit disease a few years ago, its biz is now generating marginalia by the carload. It’s also providing a context in which young bands can cop a little attitude from garagelands on both sides of the Atlantic, then bring it into the studio for the processing increasingly refined musical concepts demand.

In its sorry way the EP situation illustrates the Amerindie dilemma. For the second straight year, Alex Chilton strode like a colossus over this godforsaken category, which was infiltrated as usual by album artists on holiday and major-label turkeys — Echoless Bunnyman, crumbled colossus Tommy Keene. (Keene’s debut album got two mentions. He gained undisputed possession of 10th place — breaking a glorious tie with Live Skull, Sonic Youth, Wire, and the Mekons — after receiving the sole EP vote of Craig Zeller, who claimed the catchy title number made him “deliriously happy after 101 consecutive spins.”) As a source of Amerindie bands, which was how the competition was conceived back when that was still a worthy cause, this list is stronger than 1985’s: Uzi dead, but Scruffy the Cat (Dollsy Boston pop) and Balancing Act (artful L.A. folk-rock) have evident talent, and pigfuckersymps insist I’ll understand Das Damen when I catch their act. Perked up by Brits once again (though the Shop Assistants’ debut album is already out in the hall), I’m actively enthusiastic about my own list as well. The tough verve of Land of Sugar’s white Dayton funk almost equals that of DFX2’s Emotion, one of my most played records of the ’80s — by San Diego Stonesers you never heard of who were never heard from again, possibly because they deserved no better. Which is the problem with EPs — they’re marginal by nature. Who outside of northwest Pennsylvania will make anything of the New Dylans’ copious if callow songwriting skills? Is Mimi Schneider’s Iowa folk trio the Stouthearted going to interest a general audience in rural displacement? Does the world want Berkeley’s Fearless Iranians From Hell to scrawl another Khomeini cartoon? These days, Amerindie bands of potential potential cut albums when the B-sides of their singles still suck. EPs are sports and hybrids, signs of surprising life rarely capable of procreation.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692491″ /]

If I can accuse the voters of stroking the Amerindies, though, I can’t accuse them of unfairness to that catchall called black. Pace Ron Wynn as usual, it was a terrible year for black popular music. Granted, my critical perspective — which is very much a white critical perspective, despite what a few pophead and pigfucker ignorami believe — biases this judgment. Granted too that Pazz & Jop’s black turnout — 13 out of a carefully updated invite of 34 (approximately, since I haven’t color-coded all of our 380 names) — was the most embarrassing of the decade. As Nelson George tells me, this must in part reflect the alienation of black music writers from the Pazz & Jop consensus — rock critics’ weakness for the rough, grotesque, and outrageous offends many of them. But George himself returned to 1985 for Sade and L. L. Cool J, and not a single voter strolled out to left field with him to shake hands with Alexander O’Neal, Paul Laurence, or Full Force. I mean, what would the black caucus have settled on? James Brown’s Dan Hartman job, catapulted to 89th by Jeffrey Morgan’s 30 points? Irma Thomas’s folk-indie Gladys Knight homage, which got the same points and two more mentions? Doug E. Fresh, tied for 100th with the third-place rap album? Bobby Womack, Steve Arrington, the misguided youth of Fishbone, all also-rans last year?

I don’t think this is a blip, either. Sure Stevie Wonder and Al Green and (let us not forget) Michael Jackson will get their share of votes next time they show their voices. Sure the electorate hears black artists even more passively and trendily than it does white artists (if five voters go for Iggy Pop, the sorely underrated Tina Turner merits equal consideration). And sure crossover will continue to throw up the occasional divertissement. But for all their overstatement, Wynn’s annual anti-crossover diatribes did come true this year, with great lover Whitney Houston leading the not-here-nor-there-nor-anywhere LaBelle-Khan-Osborne-DeBarge parade (which totalled one mention, LaBelle’s). Only thing is, Wynn’s roots futurism isn’t the solution — it’s not hostile enough to the past, encouraging the kind of up-to-date tip of the hat to the verities that has turned the respectable AOR of Stevie Winwood and Eric Clapton into a morass. I prefer the more radical thesis of the Black Rock Coalition, which includes old P&J hand Greg Tate and multithreat newcomer Vernon Reid (the first voter since Lenny Kaye to have played on a charting album, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Mandance in 1982). I also agree that with crossover’s somewhat exaggerated critical disrepute having no effect on its profitability, bankrolling some mix of Clinton, Hendrix, Ornette, and the Clash isn’t going to be easy — especially if it’s rough, grotesque, or outrageous.

What can it mean, do you think, that the one place black artists made out was in the newly instituted reissue category? This was the love child of Assigning Poobah Doug Simmons, and I warned him it would be a mess, favoring the majors-come-lately who’ve discovered a cheap way to feel virtuous over the importers and indies who have kept archival music alive, pitting the Police best-of against review-copies-by-written-request-if-you’re-lucky anthologies against music that comes shrink-wrapped by the carton instead of the disc. We sandbagged best-ofs by specifying a pre-1970 cutoff date, which given the defiant support for Gumbo and The Modern Lovers and Terminal Tower — not one a best-of — probably wasn’t fair. But indeed, the 14-disc Atlantic r&b box came in third, and I suppose it would have won if the average more rock critic could afford to buy the sucker. Only two indies placed, one with a box by the romantically dead Nick Drake, the sole white finisher. And I like the results anyway.

I like the way the indie Nevilles beat out RCA’s overdue, well-publicized, and slightly disappointing Sam Cooke set. I like the beginner’s guide to MCA’s daunting Chess reissue. I like seeing Duke Ellington’s name somewhere on our charts even though my personal rule against straight jazz records prevented me from placing Money Jungle right behind It Will Stand. I like knowing that PolyGram’s complete Hank Williams series would have come in second if we’d added the votes for all four extant volumes together. And maybe most of all I like James Brown up there at number four, where he can remind a few popheads and pigfuckers that obituaries for black music are invariably premature. No comparable electorate would have acknowledged the existence of Brown’s dance groove in 1970. So if some equivalent happened in 1986, it’s still waiting for the critics to find it.

Not that I’m about to lead you there. You’d never suspect black music was in trouble to look at the first three singles on our list, crossover moves so daring and astute that without a hint of wimp-out they obliterated the competition both commercially and critically. “Walk This Way” broke Run-D.M.C. CHR (though not AOR, further proof that the format refuses to challenge its market’s presumed racism). “Word Up” was the most undeniable funk single ever, and “Kiss” reestablished Prince’s repute as a powerhouse innovator — at year’s end it was one of two gold singles released in 1986. But after that we have Janet Jam-Lewis, James Brown-Hartman, and a rap novelty by a now broken group. And though I was rooting for Gwen Guthrie (early-year releases are always forgotten by some voters) and recommend Mixmaster Gee’s metal manipulation, I can’t claim to have heard tell of much else — go go went went, house is a local disco revival, and while I’ve written down the titles of some word-of-mouth rap obscurities, the great ones rarely remain that obscure.

By acclamation and any normal standard, the oft-maligned (and oft-wrong) Chuck Eddy was on the one when he charged in November that CHR had deliquesced into pap, mulch, and worse. My own singles choices are partial because it’s been years since I had ear time for radio and I no longer club much. I would have been delighted to vote for Motorhead’s “Deaf Forever,” Simply Red’s “Money’$ Too Tight (To Mention),” Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,” or God knows Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” each of which meant more to me than anything below “Word Up” on my list, if I’d experienced them as singles. I doubt radio would have been much help, though — I discovered both AC/DC and Karen Finley in 45 ’tween-set minutes at the Beasties’ Ritz show, but in three weeks of vacation came across nothing more compelling on my car radio than Jermaine Stewart and “On My Own,” the year’s other gold single. Which remarkable statistic may point to what’s wrong, so let me emphasize: nobody buys singles anymore. Just because albums are now designed to contain two or more CHR-compatible hits, those hits aren’t singles as we’ve traditionally understood the concept. They’re not objects to be consumed, aural fetishes we can cherish into the ground and then call back to life in a day or a decade. They’re promotional devices, not all that different from, well, videos.

Our poll is intended to resist such promotional function, and in both categories the critics did their bit. Gabriel & Johnson earned their video landslide, and though I dislike the song so much I could never get properly worked up about the ad for it, the aural “Sledgehammer” did well enough to indicate no inconsistency. The voters generously acknowledged Madonna’s overarching cinematic métier and David Byrne’s only cinematic gift. And the political foretexts that become permissible as Reaganism’s media clout deteriorates are hailed with Bruce’s shamelessly (and instructively didactic) “War,” and, more tellingly, with the nasty anti-Reaganism of a band mentioned on one album and zero singles ballots — Genesis, whose all-powerful leader took a vague “protest” and turned it into near slander and deliberate offense. The singles chart, meanwhile, singles out misleading promotional devices. In addition to Madonna and the Pretenders, beware of Stevie Winwood (eighth, album 57th), P.I.L. (ninth, album tied for 87th), two CHR-compatible Bangles tunes they didn’t write, the most tossed-off and convincing thing Talking Heads did all year, and de facto one-offs by the Pet Shop Boys (who deserve better), the Robert Palmer who sings (who deserves worse), and Bruce Hornsby (who’s just deserving enough).

[related_posts post_id_1=”692489″ /]

In the comments headed “Alternative Formats,” you’ll find a dissenting and indeed abnormal standard applied to these issues — that of rock criticism’s great dissenter, proud crank, and undeconstructed postmodernist Greil Marcus. My friend in California and I disagree more than we agree, at least about music, and I somehow doubt that his daily dose of kilohertz would convert me to his philosophy of art — if I spent that much time in my car I’d install a tape deck. But where my slightly kooky and definitely doomed attempt to give every halfway promising record a fair hearing submits to the modernist assumption that music is created and perceived by individuals, Marcus’s dial-spinning honors music as social fact, and especially given his elitist tendencies I admire how persistently he subjects himself to other people’s musical will. It’s one more variation on a theme of his criticism, which often focuses on moments when intense individual expression is so difficult to distinguish from random outpouring that it comes across as the world calling — that is, when what some call the bourgeois subject approaches the verge of realization and/or disintegration.

I’m aware that such talk strikes many as bullshit; it often strikes me as bullshit, too. But only orthodox know-nothings think it’s completely off the wall, and I bring it up partly to remind everyone that there are far more abstruse and radical ways to conceive rock and roll than anything hinted at in this year-in-review. The fun I had with postmodernism, for instance, was an easy way out of a thorny, multifaceted problem, one rock and rollers are stuck with as surely as legit artistic types — what to do with your tradition of the new when it gets old. In fact, Simon Frith, who chooses his words quietly and with care, described none other than Paul Simon as “a lonely, rich American in the fragmented world of postmodernity” just a few months ago in these pages. And while that may make our pollwinner sound a little hipper than he is, it’s accurate. In fact, substitute “loquacious, embittered Englishman” and “urbane black neotraditionalist” and you’d be describing our two runners-up, each of whom confronts the paradoxes of progress at least as stalwartly as the champ.

Each pulled off a coup as big as a landslide, too. After years of humdrum domination and a slight slip, Elvis Costello fell right off the chart with the aptly titled Goodbye Cruel World in 1984, so his double return to the top 10 (with more total points than Graceland) turns a comeback into a triumph. And Robert Cray’s Strong Persuader is the poll’s all-time sleeper. I mean, blues is for aging hippies who drink too much, right? Yet despite Chuck Eddy’s paternalistic surmise that Cray is a “white-man-in-disguise,” he attracted half our black critics as well as 48 of our white boys (though only four of our 30 women) to pile up just two fewer mentions than King of America and nine more than Springsteen. Talk about exciting work in supposedly outmoded styles — this record had to knock down a lot of preconceptions to break through so huge.

Of course, the preconceptions weren’t formal — that is, what the critics already knew prepared them for Cray’s steady beat and terse eloquence. With Costello abandoning his band for the T-Bone Crew on the bigger of his two entries (which in the end I find softer, a chronic weakness of roots moves), they’re as different as two Costello records can be, but both also fall comfortably within those old pop parameters. And yet Costello — who ranks with the Mekons, John Rotten-Lydon, Lora Logic, and Rosanne Cash in Marcus’s postpunk pantheon — has always strained at assumed limits. His wordplay is so obsessive that Costello-the-subject disappears into it, and the juggled readymades of his music — Blood and Chocolate makes “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sound as primal as “Honky Tonk” — work the same kind of nasty deconstructive pranks on linear notions of history. Personally, I pay him back for his cold cool by remaining an admiring nonfan, but there’s no question that he confounds past and future and expressed and found as defiantly as any pigfucker. Cray doesn’t deal consciously with such issues, but within soul-blues’s parameters he achieves a cool so unprecedented it’s beyond modern — which isn’t to say he ain’t hot. I was dismayed at first to learn that Dave Marsh dismissed his album as not-blues and Ron Wynn preferred Anita Baker and James Brown-Hartman, but upon reflection I’m encouraged that Cray makes conservatives uneasy — in a world where the young can do exciting work in unmodish forms, I wouldn’t want to except postmodern blues.

No matter what he or she thinks of hotsy-totsy terminology, anyone who reads rock criticism lives “in the fragmented world of postmodernity.” Compulsively novel yet yoked to its roots, rock and roll is a good match for this world, and in their useful if ultimately unsatisfying ways, Elvis C. and Robert Cray and Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys (and Janet Jam-Lewis and the Pogues, but not, I’ll warrant, Steve Winwood or the Smithereens) try to help us live in that world. What attracted me to Graceland from the start was that in its details and its defining bifurcation and its significant groove it tackled this problem in a rock and roll way. As Dave Marsh has pointed out, Graceland’s limitations are summed up in its final line, “That’s why we must learn to live alone” — because there’s no must about it. Simon has said that one reason Graceland never confronts politics directly is that political art doesn’t last. Putting aside the always dubious equation of durability and quality, that’s a hoary modernist myth, proof of modernism’s submission to what some call the bourgeois subject. However dim their analysis, the way our critics intersperse the personal and the political in their annual choices reflects not trendiness but an inevitable evolution of sensibility, because the truth of this myth is drying up before our collective ears. Although ultimate satisfaction may be a dying myth itself and is certainly too much to expect of this fragmented world, today’s partial solutions are promises. They leave room to hope that the divisions Graceland adduces and arouses and fails to address can someday be part of our past — but not that the transcendent power of music alone can make them history.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1986

1. Paul Simon: Graceland (Warner Bros.)

2. The Costello Show (Featuring Elvis Costello): King of America (Columbia)

3. The Robert Cray Band: Strong Persuader (Mercury)

4. Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band: Live/1975–85 (Columbia)

5. Run-D.M.C.: Raising Hell (Profile)

6. Beastie Boys: Licensed to Ill (Def Jam)

7. Peter Gabriel: So (Geffen)

8. R.E.M.: Life’s Rich Pageant (I.R.S.)

9. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Blood and Chocolate (Columbia)

10. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (Shanachie)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1986

1. Run-D.M.C.: “Walk This Way” (Profile)

2. Cameo: “Word Up” (Atlanta Arists)

3. Prince and the Revolution: “Kiss”/”Love or Money” (Paisley Park)

4. Peter Gabriel: “Sledgehammer” (Geffen)

5. (Tie) Billy Bragg: “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” (Go! Discs import)
R.E.M.: “Fall On Me” (I.R.S.)
Timbuk 3: “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” (I.R.S.)

8. Steve Winwood: “Higher Love” (Warner Bros.)

9. (Tie) Public Image Ltd.: “Rise” (Elektra)
Talking Heads: “Wild Wild Life” (Sire)

— From the March 3, 1987, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Ed Palermo Big Band

The saxophonist-bandleader combines perfect pop with eccentric wizardry for the next two nights – think “Hello It’s Me” into “Black Napkins” – when he leads his dynamic 18-piece big band through “Zodd Zundgren,” a promisingly demented mash-up of music by Todd Rundgren and Palermo’s longtime focus, Frank Zappa. Expect brief stopovers in the halls of King Crimson and Paul Simon.

Fri., Aug. 29, 8 & 10 p.m.; Sat., Aug. 30, 8 & 10 p.m., 2014

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events Listings MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

GOING TO GRACELAND

Rhymin’ Paul Simon gets the all-hands-on-deck treatment at The Music of Paul Simon, the latest iteration of past Knitting Factory and present City Winery impresario Michael Dorf’s annual benefit for music-education nonprofits. With afrobeat purveyors Antibalas as house band, you can bet that at least a handful of these semi-household names will address Graceland’s music (if not the controversy surrounding its creation). Allen Toussaint, Angelique Kidjo, and Bettye LaVette will undoubtedly ring the rafters, while solid citizens such as Joe Henry, John Doe, and Madeleine Peyroux can do no harm with the material at hand. But it’s wild cards like former Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes and Phish’s Mike Gordon who should provide the big surprises at this high-quality nod to a tunesmith worthy of tribute.

Mon., March 31, 8 p.m., 2014

Categories
Bars CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events Listings Living MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Robert Ellis Gets “Stylistically Ambiguous” on His New Album

The past two years have been a crash course for Robert Ellis. The Texas-born, Nashville-based musician spent most of his days touring extensively, crafting new songs, and adjusting to the daily rigors of becoming a professional musician. Despite the initial success of Photographs, his powerful 2011 New West Records debut, the 25-year-old songwriter wanted his next musical pursuit to be far different than the countrified sounds of his last effort.

“I just wanted to put myself in a place with this record where people will hear what I’m trying to do and actually hear it for what it is, rather than the genre classifications people like to throw on things,” Ellis says.

With his latest record, The Lights from the Chemical Plant, the Houston expat has pushed his creative boundaries, incorporated a wider range of influences, including folk and free jazz, and brought outsiders into the fold. The songwriter recruited famed producer Jacquire King, and asked Jim Lauderdale, Dawes’s Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith, and Deer Tick’s Rob Crowell to contribute parts on his album. The result, he says, is a “stylistically ambiguous” effort that spans from folk to free jazz yet sounding distinctly like an Ellis record.

His agenda won’t be clear anytime soon. Ellis recently kicked off a hectic 40-plus show American tour that includes a February 18 gig at the Mercury Lounge. Before he hit the road, Ellis shared some thoughts about Chemical Plant, learning new instruments, Paul Simon’s greatness, and the road ahead.

What prompted your 2012 move from Houston to Nashville? It had nothing to do with the country music machine that’s here. I’m obviously not a part of that. If that was something I wanted to do then I would have made that decision before Photographs came out. I was just feeling, writing-wise, and just in general that I needed a change. I’d lived in Texas my whole life and I wanted to go somewhere and it was between Nashville and Los Angeles.

Last year, you told me you felt Chemical Plant was “stylistically ambiguous.” Do you think that’s still an accurate description? Yeah. I think the record sounds like itself. I don’t think it sounds like a country record. But I’ve been giving it to some people and having some time to sit with it. I have realized that no matter what you put behind my voice, that’s immediately what a lot of people are going to think of. And I’m fine with that. I’ve kind of come to terms with that. With the instrumentation, songwriting, and choices in production, I think we’ve definitely made a record that, if I wasn’t singing over it, you wouldn’t be like, “Oh, this is a country record.”

Your last record, Photographs, took on some pretty personal issues in your life. What’s going on thematically with Chemical Plant? I haven’t had nearly as much personal conflict and turmoil to write about. I feel like I’ve had to look outside of myself. A lot of the songs on this record [were] written from my perspective as if I was someone else. So, first-person, but they’re not about my life. These are songs that are kind of character studies of other people.

Tell me about the title track. It was Dow Chemical. Lake Jackson is a little town I’m from south of Houston. As a kid, it was a small town, and the chemical plant is twice as big as the town. We’re on the coast, but from anywhere in the city you always could kind of see this chemical plant lit up at night. It looked like a city. It looked like skyscrapers and buildings and there would always be smoke billowing out. Just about everyone’s dad works for Dow. The chemical plant served as a metaphor for what was always there and what was always consistent in their lives. Then at the end of the story, the song, she’s sitting next to him in this hospital bed and talking about losing him but using the chemical plant as a metaphor.

[Months later], I’ve realized that they’re not near as impersonal as I thought. Even if I’m not the subject in the song and I’m not writing from first person. A lot of this stuff is dealing with things that I keep inside me. With “Chemical Plant,” it’s a character study of two kind-of fictitious people falling in love that I loosely based on what my great-grandparents might have felt like. I realized later that a lot of those things that I was talking about were things I personally struggle with. It’s kind of like therapy to me. To be the therapist and not the subject, I can break apart how I feel about things.

It seems like you’re trying to create different types of music. What’s inspired you musically over the past couple of years that shows up most on this record? Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years is probably my favorite record, period. We wanted to consciously borrow ideas from that. Paul Simon, to me, is one of the coolest artists, because genre- and stylistically-wise, there’s not any one thing you can pin him down to. All his stuff is rooted in really good songwriting. At the core of every album, he plays amazing songs. [He’s] able to bring in a band from South Africa, the rhythm section at Muscle Shoals, or whoever he decides to have on the record. It’s got to be really liberating. What Paul Simon does as a songwriter is massively relatable to millions and millions of people, and I don’t know if there’s anyone else who can do that.

Where do you see yourself going from here in terms of your songwriting? I’ve written a ton of songs. I think about four or five are really good and are keepers. I demoed one of them in Houston. Recently I bought a drum machine. It’s called the Groove Production Studio. Basically it’s a really awesome drum machine and sampler that has lots of drum kits and lots of customizable electronic sounds and sequencing programs. So I’ve been playing with that a lot. I’ve bought a synthesizer. When you practice guitar a whole lot you get to where you have a bag of tricks: Every time you pick up a guitar, you naturally go to certain places. That’s been kind of limiting. So I’ve been writing a lot on piano. I’ve been trying to distance myself from instruments altogether and just write using melody — start with a drum loop and write over a drum loop.

I don’t know where the next record is going to go exactly. I think I’m still getting all the material and tools together that I need to go where I want to go. But I’m hoping the next record will be more in the direction of some of the electronic ideas that we kind of dabbled in on Chemical Plant. And hopefully a more realized idea of that. Not to say that Chemical Plant wasn’t realized; it was its own thing. But at the heart of it will always be songwriting. I’m always going to gravitate toward narratives and gravitate toward stuff that people consider probably country or very country — personal songs that have a strong narrative. It’s what you do around that stuff that I’m trying to push myself with.

Robert Ellis performs at Mercury Lounge on February 18, 6:30 p.m., $12–$15

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

SET THE WORLD ON FIRE

With a military drumbeat and a story that’s equal parts Billy Joel and Paul Simon about getting “higher than the Empire State,” NYC indie-pop group fun. began one of the most infectious earworms of 2012. That anthem, “We Are Young,” went on to win a Grammy, go quintuple-platinum, and hit No. 1 in at least 12 countries. Since then, they’ve released two more hit singles, and their album Some Nights has attained the increasingly rare achievement of platinum status. Tonight and tomorrow, they return to their hometown for a pair of gigs on Pier 26, overlooking the Hudson River. Joining them are the equally indie-pop minded duo Tegan and Sara, whose latest album, Heartthrob, found the twin sisters diving into catchy synth backdrops. Wear dancing shoes.

Mon., July 22, 6 p.m.; Tue., July 23, 6 p.m., 2013

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Living NYC ARCHIVES

Mark Greenwold Paints Public Nightmares

First it was slow food, the European social movement that made Ronald McDonald quit Rome’s Spanish Steps in the 1980s. Then came slow gardening, slow traveling, slow fashion, slow media, and slow parenting (Park Slope helicopter moms take note). Isn’t it high time we considered the possibility of slow art?

This is just one of the big ideas that springs to mind when exploring the tiny, perversely detailed paintings of Mark Greenwold. Other oddly compelling concepts to describe Greenwold’s disturbingly dream-like pictures include sex, shame, old age, self-portraiture, the discomfort of friends, and the nothing-left-to-lose freedom connected to figurative painting, which the artist describes as “a bad idea, a stupid idea, a failed concept.” Think Vermeer meets Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Larry David.

A 70-year old painter who has long said meh to Jay Gatsby-like success, Greenwold became infamous in the 1970s after pouring years of his life into diminutive representational pictures of sex and violence. His first Manhattan solo show consisted of just one canvas; Village Voice critic Lucy Lippard loved it so much she pegged it “the item that made me maddest last season.” Another confoundingly obsessive work from the era titled Bright Promise (for Simon) featured explicit sex, a Better Homes & Gardens boudoir, and a bedspread with 1,200 precisely rendered chenille balls. “The biggest miniature in art history,” according to the artist, it took him four long years to complete.

Greenwold’s enduring weirdness is best captured in his own words: He struggled, he says about Bright Promise, “solidly for a year on those fucking balls.” A funny feeling echoes throughout his show at downtown’s Sperone Westwater gallery, where Greenwold’s comic discomfort as a painter gooses a raft of 15 new-ish paintings and drawings, which represents the entirety of his output from 2007 to 2013. Consisting of pocket-sized renditions of people in various states of undress occupying cramped interior spaces, they feature recognizable likenesses of the artist and his often famous friends mugging gawkily, even lewdly for the viewer.

In one painting, titled The Banker’s Daughter, Greenwold’s best friend Chuck Close appears as a grinning gorgon delivered straight from R. Crumb’s shit-eating universe. In another, As a Man Grows Older, Paul Simon sports a huge, liver-spotted head; like a lump of cold schmaltz, it looks like it could slide off at any moment. Elsewhere, the painters James Siena and his wife, Katia Santibañez, pop up in several canvases in their birthday suits—every fine-grained wrinkle giving new meaning to the term “swinging couple.” In these and other paintings, Greenwold marshals painterly put-downs, compositional jabs, and psychological insults like a roast master. The overall effect is 50 percent Jeff Ross and 50 percent Kafka. Short of looking like beetles (though the artist goes there in one self-portrait), Greenwold’s characters instead undergo a cruel Gotham metamorphosis—from respected members of New York’s intelligentsia, his figures mutate into a mini-me Mermaid Parade for the menopausal set.

The opposite of Eric Fischl’s painted idylls of genteel art-world types lording it over mere mortals on St. Bart’s, Greenwold’s scenes resemble common nightmares everyone has about being naked in public. A freak show of fictional inadequacies, closet apprehensions, and ambiguous revelations, Greenwold’s world wraps itself around his figures tightly, with narcissistic abandon. The off-kilter scenes also contain disturbingly crisp detail, the result of shifting perspectives brought about largely by Greenwold’s insistence on covering up large parts of his paintings while he works. His finished canvases enact a burlesque of intimist painting that uses precursors such as William Holman Hunt and Pierre Bonnard as straight men. Their paintings, we know, once found beauty in the observation of the near and dear. In Greenwold’s case—well, let’s just say it’s kind of awkward.

Which brings us back to the idea that Greenwold’s paintings need time to unpack their self-effacing digs. No shiny balloon tchotchke or one-line conceptual bomb, his canvases instead deliver a refreshing, Campari-like bitterness. Failure that turns into something else is to be savored slowly or not at all—it is, after all, success’ dirty little secret.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Amy Poehler’s New Comedy Partner Is David Simon

Officially, the crowd crammed into the basement of the Paley Center on Thursday night had come for edification. Here was a panel discussion on the topic of Excellence in the Media, featuring Peabody Award-winners and -bestowers, hosted by documentarian (and class of ’98 Peabody winner) Pat Mitchell, who actually kicked things off by declaiming from the Wikipedia definition of “excellence” — certainly an homage to a beloved old Simpsons, that once-excellent show that scored its Peabody in 1996.

Really, though, most people were there to enjoy excellent TV people Amy Poehler and David Simon being told how excellent they are. There was lots of this, along with insightful commentary about the state of documentary filmmaking and broadcast news from journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Horace Newcomb, outgoing director of the Peabody Awards. (The nut: There’s still some good work, sometimes, and people know to submit it for Peabodies.)

None of that was surprising, especially. What was: the way David Simon and Amy Poehler hit it off, dishing out compliments, losing it at each other’s jokes, and even building on each other’s best lines, like they’d been doing it for years at Poehler’s beloved UCB. (The two first met backstage just before the event.)

Among the highlights:

• After everyone else has batted politely at the question of what makes excellence excellent, Poehler started her first chance to speak by holding her arm out to the panel members and saying, “First, I’d like to introduce this audience to the next judges of American Idol.”

• Not long after Newcomb and Hunter-Gault discussed the excellent BBC documentary series Putin, Russia, and the West, Poehler declared, “I definitely want to do a comedy about Putin.”

Simon pitched himself as showrunner: “This is where my stunted career in half-hour begins! I will ruin your career!”

“I will play Putin,” Poehler said, over his laughter. “I’ll catch fish with my bare hands. It will be called Putin!, with an exclamation point. Maybe a musical!”

• Mitchell asked Poehler how “excellence” is achieved in comedy, a question that seemed to make Poehler a little itchy. She responded, politely, “What makes comedy excellent? I have no idea. When excellence and comedy come together, everybody gets nervous. Nothing is worse [in comedy] than trying to write something important.”

Then she went on to describe a good, important joke anyway. Her first Saturday Night Live episode was the first to air after September 11, 2001. (“When I started, comedy was over,” she said, before adopting a higher, sillier voice than her own: “‘Oh, shit, what a bad time to start!'”) That was the show where Paul Simon sang “The Boxer” with 9/11 first responders, and the one that opened with a joke Poehler credits to Lorne Michaels. As the show opens, Michaels asks Rudy Giulani, “Can we be funny?”

Giulani’s response: “Why start now?”

• Poehler on Parks & Recreation‘s commitment to character-based dialogue: “For a while [in TV comedy], eight-year-olds and old women spoke like the 25-year-old Harvard-educated writers. On our show, characters can’t know what they don’t know. … It’s hard not to go for the best joke. But if you have a character who’s not cynical or naive in that way [of the best joke] you can go for it, but you lose something.”

• Simon on writing material that might lead to the kind of honors that he often receives: “If at any moment you stop and think, ‘This will be good for the Peabody or the Emmy or the Pulitizer,’ you’ve lost your way. When I write something, all I want is to not embarrass myself in front of the person who knows about the real event.” He listed Marines, cops, trombone players, and other Simon characters, saying that as he writes about their lives and professions he imagines them sitting at home, watching his show, and being surprised that someone for once actually nailed the details. “If I get that right,” Simon said, “the world will follow.”

• Several minutes after Simon mentioned that he and his writers planted 18 or 19 quotes from The Wild Bunch into the second season of The Wire, Poehler told him, “I’m still freaking out about the Sam Peckinpah thing. Does Ziggy say something?”

Simon: “Who’s Ziggy?”


Mitchell: “Is comedy excellent if it makes people laugh?”
Poehler: “It’s a start …”
Mitchell: “Is comedy excellent if it makes people think?”
Poehler: “No.”

• “You threw me there,” Simon said to Poehler a few minutes after she flatly denied a relationship between comic excellence and consciousness-raising. Poehler elaborated: “Jim Carrey falling down in Dumb and Dumber doesn’t take me to a place of thought. The freedom of the person, the joy of performing—it’s enough. It doesn’t have to connect to a bigger theme.”

She faced Simon. “Does comedy have to make you think?”

“No,” he said. But before he could get out whatever words he was poised to speak, a beeping interrupted him — from his own pocket. His cell phone. “This lesson in professionalism has been brought to you from HBO,” he said instead. Then, to Poehler: “That’s a $25 fine on my sets. How about yours?” Then, to the rest of us, in the room and on the Paley Center’s livestream: “Comedy is fucking ineffable.” And: “It’s a gift from God.” And to Poehler: “I look at what you do and think ‘This is so hard.” And how when you laugh “you feel like you have a brief, fleeting window into the human condition—you recognize the humanity in the people you love, or your own foibles.”

• Someone in the crowd asked if these panelists’ award-winning excellence took courage to achieve. Poehler would not claim courage, but she did cop to labor: “Doing the work is so hard and boring. Writing is a toil.” And she would admit to sacrifice: “This is not courageous, but I made a decision in my twenties to own nothing and not have kids or get married or have health insurance.” (This follow-your-dreams hardship was made more palatable, she said, by being a white girl from a middle-class family: “I had a big ol’ safety net.”)

• Simon is a great talker, a guy you can imagine will still be reeling off killer anecdotes and quotations long after the waiters have cleared your table — and all the while doling out his own epigrammatic marvels. Asked about that Guardian article currently making the rounds, the one that asks why the New Orleans Mother’s Day shooting isn’t considered a national tragedy, he says, “If we were to fly the flag at half-mast every time there was a mass killing in America, we’d never raise again.”

Earlier, during one of his many laments for the death of journalism, he said, “I’ve been surprised at how many reporters don’t want to get caught asking a stupid question. I thought that was a technique.”

• A woman identifying herself as Carol Channing’s former manager asked Poehler for advice about getting a client an audition with Lorne Michaels for Saturday Night Live. “She’s the new you,” the manager insisted. “She’s just your size!”

“This is the plot of All About Eve,” Simon told Poehler, “and you’re Bette Davis.”

Poehler’s eyes crinkled as she held her polite smile.

• As the evening wound down, Mitchell tilted one last time at the question of just what “excellence” is supposed to mean. “Is it like pornography?” she asked.

She was referring to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s thumbnail rule for identifying obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” But before she could offer this context, Poehler announced with solemnity, “I speak for all of us when I say we have seen some excellent pornography.”

This brought the house down. When the laughter and applause crested at last, and Hunter-Gault tried to move the panel along to another point, Mitchell pleaded, “Dig us out of this hole!”

“You can’t top that!” Simon said. “That was our button out!”

The talk continued. The journalist in him even offered a few more opinions, but the showman in him—who is excellent — knew the performance had already ended.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook FOOD ARCHIVES Listings MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Theater VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Tom Wopat

Wopat has left Hazzard far behind but become even more hazardous in his recordings. With his subtle macho, he gets the most from the material included on his moody new I’ve Got Your Number CD. Aside from two obviously autobiographical songs—“Summer Dress” and “I Still Feel That Way”—the duke explores nifties by Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and Bruce Hornsby with somber aplomb.

Mon., Feb. 25, 7 p.m., 2013

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Listings MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

First Aid Kit – Music Hall of Williamsburg – 9/30/12

First Aid Kit
Music Hall of Williamsburg
Sunday, September 30, 2012

Better than: Somebody with a beard.

Johanna and Klara Soderbergh walked to the edge of the stage at Music Hall of Williamsburg on Sunday night. “We’re going to play this one without the mics,” Johanna said, slightly sliding her fingers down the fretboard, a quiet pop of reverb coming through the speakers before going silent and turning the sold-out, 550-person venue into an intimate, lo-fi basement session. The duo popped into a rendition of “Ghost Town,” one of the singles from their debut album The Big Black & The Blue. Like much of the band’s repertoire, the song’s lyrics dwell on love lost, regret, and the inability to move on. “I remember how you told me all you wanted to do, that dream of Paris in the morning or a Brooklyn window view,” they sang together, quietly using a lyric change to wink at the local audience. “I can see it now you’re married and your wife is with a child, and you’re all laughing in the garden and I’m lost somewhere in your mind.”

See Also:
First Aid Kit Are Ladies of the Fjord

]

First Aid Kit is a folk duo from Sweden. Formed a couple years ago by sisters Johanna and Klara, they are respectively 22 and 19 years old. They write songs about broken hearts, life’s challenges, and sometimes overcoming obstacles. They have a song called “Emmylou,” which has lyrics that name drop so many famous folk musicians it could be mistaken for a trivia game about the genre of Americana. They recorded their sophomore record The Lion’s Roar in Omaha with assistance from a guy named Conor Oberst, and the record released this past January. They wear long, hippy-like floral dresses on stage. Often, they sing in very beautiful harmonies. The music probably sounds best on a Sunday morning as you drink coffee and read the paper with a significant other.

In other words, First Aid Kit is a band that a lot of people probably hate on the surface, especially people who don’t enjoy Music With Feelings. But what separates the Swedish duo from a band like, say, chart-topping Mumford & Sons, is that there doesn’t seem to be anything manufactured or overtly produced about their music. Sure, okay, First Aid Kit does sing songs with earnest lyrics about traveling the world and how “the pale morning sings of forgotten things,” but Johanna and Klara don’t act like these revelations are anything special or precious. Their sweet, haunting harmonies offer an innocent perspective of just trying to figure shit out. Whether its purposeful or not, they come across as naive. Even though much of their lyrics center on heartbreak or missing someone, the ideas and symbolism behind it is all very romanticized. To these sisters, it seems like the grass is always greener–and that blatant ignorance can be strangely enticing.

This perspective also gives the duo a confidence. On stage, they aren’t afraid of expressing themselves, sing from their guts and strum their guitars powerfully. Flowingly dancing around, both sway and sing with mannerisms that I imagine Joni Mitchell had. They scoot towards the mic, nod at the crowd, sway in circles, and fluidly toss harmonies back and forth. At times last night, though, they weren’t perfect. Certain renditions felt a bit sloppy–typically in situations where the duo would get too quiet and too introspective. There were also moments where they’d offer idealistic advice about the way the world works, which felt a bit too much like a kid in high school telling you how to be successful in life.

Then again, as First Aid Kit walked back onto stage for their encore and slipped into a cover of Paul Simon’s “America,” the couple in front of me wrapped their arms around each other. As they rocked slowly back and forth to lyrics of hitchhiking and Greyhound buses, the boyfriend quietly singing along into his girlfriend’s ear, the fact that I was taking notes on miscues and frustrations in the music seemed obsolete. The night may have been emotional. It may have been full of too much earnestness. But what was expected? First Aid Kit unashamedly puts what they feel on display and, by doing that, connect intimately with their audience. Perhaps ultimately, that’s the only involvement that matters.

Critical Bias: I recently went through a breakup, and this all just got too real, man.

Random Notebook Dump: Hope everyone is having a nice date night.