Friday, July 02, 2010

Farewell, Christgau's Consumer Guide

After 41 years, it appears that Robert Christgau's monthly consumer guide will be no more.

There's only a handful of rock critics that can rightly make a claim for being the most influential of all time - Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs (even though he's been dead for almost 30 years), maybe a few others - but there's little doubt that Christgau is at the top of the list.

For most of its life, the Consumer Guide was housed at The Village Voice, which is where I read it religiously from 1978 on. When The Voice bounced Christgau a few years ago, I decided it was finally time to cancel my subscription - even though the magazine had been a shadow of its former self for almost a decade. Fortunately, Christgau landed at Rolling Stone for a while, and the Consumer Guide at, although its tenure there was flawed by a maddeningly poor design and poor maneuverability. But that's just quibbling.

Christgau's ability to distill the essence of an album into a few short sentences is the kind of thing that can be good and bad. When done well, as he did it, it was magnificent. But few could do it that well, and when trends start because of a pioneer, you can never be quite sure where they'll lead.

Some of my favorite Christgau reviews:

Dirty Mind, Prince [Warner Bros., 1980]. After going gold in 1979 as an utterly uncrossedover falsetto love man, he takes care of the songwriting, transmutes the persona, revs up the guitar, muscles into the vocals, leans down hard on a rock-steady, funk-tinged four-four, and conceptualizes--about sex, mostly. Thus he becomes the first commercially viable artist in a decade to claim the visionary high ground of Lennon and Dylan and Hendrix (and Jim Morrison), whose rebel turf has been ceded to such marginal heroes-by-fiat as Patti Smith and John Rotten-Lydon. Brashly lubricious where the typical love man plays the lead in "He's So Shy," he specializes here in full-fledged fuckbook fantasies--the kid sleeps with his sister and digs it, sleeps with his girlfriend's boyfriend and doesn't, stops a wedding by gamahuching the bride on her way to church. Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home. A

Born in the USA, Bruce Springsteen [Columbia, 1984]. Imperceptible though the movement has been to many sensitive young people, Springsteen has evolved. In fact, this apparent retrenchment is his most rhythmically propulsive, vocally incisive, lyrically balanced, and commercially undeniable album. Even his compulsive studio habits work for him: the aural vibrancy of the thing reminds me like nothing in years that what teenagers loved about rock and roll wasn't that it was catchy or even vibrant but that it just plain sounded good. And while Nebraska's one-note vision may be more left-correct, my instincts (not to mention my leftism) tell me that this uptempo worldview is truer. Hardly ride-off-into-the-sunset stuff, at the same time it's low on nostalgia and beautiful losers. Not counting the title powerhouse, the best songs slip by at first because their tone is so lifelike: the fast-stepping "Working on the Highway," which turns out to be about a country road gang: "Darlington County," which pins down the futility of a macho spree without undercutting its exuberance; and "Glory Days," which finally acknowledges that among other things, getting old is a good joke. A+

Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, P.J. Harvey [Island, 2000]. If Nirvana and Robert Johnson are rock's essence for you, so's To Bring You My Love. But if you believe the Beatles and George Clinton had more to say in the end, this could be the first PJ album you adore as well as admire. It's a question of whether you use music to face your demons or to vault right over them. Either way the demons will be there, of course, and nobody's claiming they won't catch you by the ankle and bring you down sometime--or that facing them doesn't give you a shot at running them the fuck over. Maybe that's how Harvey got to where she could enjoy the fruits of her own genius and sexuality. Or maybe she just met the right guy. Tempos and pudendum juiced, she feels the world ending and feels immortal on the very first track. The other 11 songs she takes from there. A+

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