Making book on rock 'n' rool

By MARK MOSES  |  November 6, 2006

Although Christgau has written many insightful full-length pieces – including two 1977 Village Voice pieces on punk and one on the “middle-age spread” of the rock audience that I hope are anthology-bound – it could be argued that the Consumer Guide is his best medium. He’s a garish stylist; the cacophony of his ready-made hyphenations, joky alternative spellings, and constant parentheticals is lent an economy under the paragraph restraint of the Consumer Guide format. Granted, nearly everyone seems wittier (after all, what is brevity the soul of?) when you know he’s going to shut up pretty soon, yet Christgau, by now, can actively manipulate his form. He compresses the appeal of Van Morrison’s Moondance into the tag “Visionary hooks his speciality.” The grades often take on the humorous weight of punch lines, as in one of my faves: “Stephen Sinclair: A Plus (United Artists ’77). Wrong. D+”. Clearly, that guy was just asking for it.

Because the premise of the Consumer Guide is one of utility, Christgau is forced to reach out to an audience rather than merely respond to another critic's theories in the incestuous, baton-passing tradition of the Voice Riffs or the section you’re reading. It’s only during those rare moments when Christgau’s humor deserts him that you glimpse the smugness of a fanatical product fiend. Surely there exist less bratty ways of explicating the growing complexity of Joni Mitchell’s melodies as heard in Blue than “I’ve even heard one woman complain that she can’t sing Joni’s melodies anymore. Well, too bad – they’re getting stronger all the time.” A simple “nyah-nyah” would have sufficed. The tunnel vision of the Boho-On-Parade ethic that can often permeate the Voice also rears its stingy little head. Christgau, like many critics, appreciates political relevance from a rock lyric, especially when the sentiment jibes with his own leftist views. But he seems loath to plumb the emotional depths beneath a viewpoint he disagrees with. His capsule evaluation of Aretha Franklin’s gospel LP, Amazing Grace, opens with the snotty line, “Because I don’t think God’s grace is amazing or believe that Jesus Christ is his son, I find it hard to relate to gospel groups as seminal as the Swan Silvertones and the Dixie Hummingbirds and have even more trouble with James Cleveland’s institutional choral style.” You’re told nothing here about Franklin’s performance, just about Christgau’s atheism. I guess the records are piled so high in the Christgau abode that they block the windows.

On the whole, though, I prefer to allow Christgau his myopia, his self-advertisements, as long as his critiques remain as funny, accurate, and revelatory as they are here. No other rock critic would include his name in his column and book title, but few rock critics approach Christgau’s breadth. Christgau’s Record Guide will surely enlighten even the most rabid discophiles to some record or performer they’ve missed. Me, I already bough The Best of Laura Lee on the man’s advice, and I’m on the lookout for Hot Chocolate’s 10 Greatest Hits. Anyone can be enriched by this book, and anyone can be enervated by it. Christgau may well be more pleased with the latter; the rest of us can surely make do with the former. Oh yeah, I almost forgot: A Minus. Docked a notch for his being an existential bully.

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