Archive for Jon Pareles

On Pitchfork, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s “Fishing for Fishies,”and the Death of Rock Criticism

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2019 by johnbuckley100

Australia’s King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard were last heard from at the very end of 2017 when they just barely got Gumboat Soup , their fifth album of that strenuous year, out the door. It was pretty good, and so were stretches of the previous four recs that year, but I doubt that, ten years hence, any of us will play any of those albums from start to finish.

Yesterday King Gizzard returned with Fishing for Fishies – a fun, occasionally beautiful, sometimes even profound album built around blues forms including a repeating boogie motif. For a ridiculously prolific band to have slowed down and recorded an album constructed upon a foundation of well-considered songs — and not just treat us to their let-the-tapes-roll jams — was cause for celebration.

Those morons at Pitchfork rated it a 4.8 and slagged the entire effort.

There’s a lot to say about this, but let’s start here. We viewed this event — Pitchfork, which has become the online reviewer of record, showing off their faux sophistication by condemning an effort by a cult band to produce a commercially viable, long-lasting album; sneering at a career move that would see the band seeking to be considered as something other than astonishing, amusing freaks whose mark is laid by stunts — as symbolic of the sorry state of rock criticism in Annos Domini 2019.

Time was when rock criticism, as a form of writing, was as exciting as the fiction writing of its day, as important as the non-fiction novel, the New Journalism. When Lester Bangs, R. Meltzer or John Mendelsohn could write a review or a feature with prose every bit as wild and exciting as the Flamin’ Groovies, Little Feat or T. Rex album they were loving or hating. When in the New York Times, John Rockwell or Robert Palmer were expanding our horizons by telling us how the nexus between Philip Glass and Brian Eno heralded a deepening of rock’s importance or how last night’s show at CBGB by Talking Heads was the most exciting development since Television played there the month before. When Byron Coley in New York Rocker or Roy Trakin in the Soho Weekly News, when Tom Carson in the Voice or Charles Shaar Murray in NME alerted us to a band that would change our lives.

We admit that when we wrote for New York Rocker, Soho News, the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, we attempted to combine both critical insight with lively prose, because we knew that rock writing was as much a performance art as the music that gripped our soul.

There are a number of reasons why rock writing these days is an arid landscape. The first is the decline of the New York Times; under Jon Pareles and his editors, they moved away from their essential role in telling us what bands in New York City were contributing to the culture. I mean, Brooklyn as a locus of bands circa 2008-2019 is as worthy a “scene” — to use a word editor Bob Christgau used to strip from my prose — to cover as the Summer of Love in San Francisco or the punk era in Lower Manhattan and London. And yet the Paper of Record has virtually ignored it. (In the breach arose Brooklyn Vegan, but I can’t name a single writer from that site, and I used to know every one of the NYT’s stable of writers.) Instead the Times provides the occasional listicle in its worthless Sunday Arts and Leisure section, usually letting us know about the catholic tastes of its writers, but never actually letting them, you know, write.

For a while there, Spin was an important publication, but its decline under the soap opera that was Bob Guccione Jr. unfortunately limited its tenure. Fortunately, from the consistently excellent, if limited, British magazine Uncut we have learned about dozens of bands we might otherwise never have discovered, and while they tend to grant every album they review a minimum rating of 7 out of 10 — a sort of Lake Woebegone “everyone is special” lack of critical seriousness — at least, over the past decade, they’ve alerted us to, oh, only Kelley Stoltz, Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, etc.

Which brings us to Pitchfork. Every album review they publish is as dry as a Mojave declivity. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed at a single sentence contained therein. They review rock’n’roll albums with less passion than Car and Driver forced to compare the latest minivans.

And so: the nadir of rock writing is their punishing King Gizzard & the Lizard for the sin of trying to actually produce a single album that has meaning, rather than simply recording, live-to-tape, their studio all-nighters.

The decline of rock criticism is a little understood portent of the decline of Western Civ, but if you want to know where it has all gone wrong, read Pitchfork and despair.

Sorting Through The Lou Reed Remembrances To Find The Ones That Matter

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on October 28, 2013 by johnbuckley100

The good news is that the New York Times assigned the obit to someone other than Jon Pareles, so we didn’t have to read sentences like, “Many of the group’s themes — among them love, sexual deviance, alienation, addiction, joy and spiritual transfiguration — stayed in Mr. Reed’s work through his long run of solo recordings.”  Oh wait, actually, we did have to read that in the Times, because Pareles still sets the tone there, and Ben Ratliff — no matter what his natural writing style was before he got there, has to play the tune called by Jonny.  But still, out of the long day and evening, as more writers weighed in, we got to read the good and the bad.

Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, revealed he doesn’t know very much about rock’n’roll when he tweeted, “Little known fact: his early teacher was the late Delmore Schwartz.”  Uh, no.  If you listen to rock’n’roll, you know that about as well as you know that 15 minutes served up to Geico returns 15 percent savings on your auto insurance; it is like knowing that Jimi Hendrix played guitar left handed.  It is a threshold-level fact, and if you didn’t know it, for God’s sake, shut up.  And a special dunce cap is reserved for any and all who summarized Lou’s work with a reference to “Walk On The Wild Side,” his least consequential song, even if it was a novelty hit.

But still, there were some really good things posted.  Let’s give credit where it is due: the initial Rolling Stone announcement at 1:15 PM was solid.

By early evening, we had a typically terrific remembrance from The New Yorker‘s Sasha Frere-Jones.  (Thank Heaven for Sasha, who almost always gets it right.)

Later in the evening, of course, we heard from Christgau, Chairman Emeritus of the department, the dean of them all.  And his piece was hilarious, recalling the time that Lou had denounced him from the stage as a “toe fucker.”

Now, we weren’t at that particular show by Lou, but we were alive and well and attending his concerts during that great Street Hassle phase in the late ’70s, when he was caustic and outrageous and sang songs like “I Wanna Be Black,” whose lyrics can’t be printed in a family blog.

Our last word on Lou here will state four things.

First, how grateful we were to be old enough to remember the Velvet Underground, not as historical antecedent, but as a real band, even if our particular entry point was Loaded.  Even if weren’t wise to the kismet of The Velvet Underground and Nico being released on the same day as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bandour teenage playlist included “Train Comes Around The Bend,” and we were hip to Mott The Hoople kicking off All The Young Dudes with “Sweet Jane”, creating that nexus between Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop — which would become so important to us in our late teens — in real time.  We can remember seeing that first Velvets album, with its peel off banana sticker, in the bins of a small-town record store, and passing on it to buy, with our allowance, Your Saving Grace.  But still, The Velvets lived for us, even if our obsession with them didn’t kick in until around 1977.

A-and let us proclaim how grateful we were to have been able to see Lou play with his greatest band from the early 1980s — Fernando Saunders on bass, Fred Maher on drums, and of course, Robert Quine on guitar.  While today it’s quite worthwhile to listen to all the sonically deficient but historically vital Velvets live recordings, including the tapes that Quine recorded when he was a law student following the VU around like some prehistoric Deadhead — and you should go right now to find Velvet Underground Live 1969, which was recorded before about 12 people in a club in Dallas, yes, Dallas.  But if you really want to listen to Lou live, and in his purest form, get Live In Italy.  It has both an excellent compendium of Velvets songs and songs from The Blue Mask  and Legendary Hearts, his two greatest albums, which he spent the early ’80s touring to support.

And to put it simply, and sincerely, since many have declared their favorite Lou song, let us quietly declare that ours was “Rooftop Garden,” from Legendary Hearts, which perfectly conveys two of Lou’s greatest, and most benign, influences: folk music and Brill Building pop couplets.

Finally, Lou Reed’s passing seems in some ways like a dress rehearsal for that inevitable day when Dylan dies.  The floodgates of foolishness will open on that sad day in the future, as all the wrong songs get quoted on Twitter, and it will take a few authoritative voices to weigh in and set the genuine historical record straight — Mikal Gilmore, Jonathan Cott, Jann Wenner.  Lou Reed’s death yesterday, though, was the first of the real giants of our shared rock’n’roll past dying at a ripe old age, which 71 really is.  This is not like John Lennon being assassinated or the 27-year old Hendrix succumbing to pills or even the 50-year old Joe Strummer dying of a heart attack.  This was a precursor to all the obits yet to come, of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and Mick and Keith and Charlie.  And so long as we have voices like Sasha Frere-Jones, and we pray, a nonagenarian Bob Christgau to wash away the idiocy of what we’ve grown to expect from the Pareles-era Times and Twitter, everything’s going to be alright.  We’re going to have a real good time together, remembering the greats for what they were, and what they meant to us.

Bob Christgau’s 13,000 Record Reviews

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on April 6, 2013 by johnbuckley100

Thanks to a tweet from Jack Shafer, who knows a thing or two about brilliant curmudgeons, we came across this wonderful interview in the Nieman Reports with former Village Voice rock crit nonpareil Robert Christgau.  Christgau is not *just* a brilliant rock critic who, since the 1960s, has turned a clear eye and a finely chiseled pencil toward rock’n’roll music, he is also an editor who, over his long tenure at the Voice, edited dozens, if not hundreds of writers, improving the quality of their prose and their critical thinking.  We count ourselves fortunate to have written for Christgau, and have never known an editor who was so willing to challenge every word choice, so likely to take a gleaming scythe to cliche.  He was a somewhat frightening, incredibly committed, ultimately warm person under whose tutelage many a young writer improved his or her chops.

As a writer, Christgau is in a different league from other great rock critics of the age.  Seems to us, the best rock critics have come in one broad category or another.  There are writers, such as Lester Bangs or Byron Coley, who have imbued their writing about the music they love with a stylistic freedom that essentially matches the energy of the music, with verbal riffs and broken rules that are the equal of the best fiction stylists.  And then there are other, not necessarily more serious writers who do something every bit as important and thrilling: they apply their critical facilities and writing precision to taking the medium of rock’n’roll music seriously enough to write about it as an art form on a plane with the most important writing, or painting, or yeah, classical music.  Christgau is the latter, a man who is moved, essentially, to write about the music that stirs his soul, but with the seriousness and formalism he believes it deserves.  The Bangs and Coley approach is maybe more fun to read, and those who pull it off, or even try it, are certainly a dying breed, but the Christgau approach is thrilling in its own right because the prose is so carefully wrought, if you are a serious reader, or an aspiring writer, it produces chills up the spine.  Christgau could always convey his passion for the music, which is a lost art, if you are to measure the current state of rock criticism as the distance between the unfunny in-joke self-references and bad writing of the New York Times crew under Jon Pareles’ disastrous reign and the snarky showoffism of the Pitchfork writers, most of whom score a 2.8 on scale of whether they actually like rock’n’roll music.

In the interview, Christgau make some points we greatly enjoyed.  Below is a teaser.   If you want to get a sense of the man, go to the story and read it for yourself.

Can you talk a little bit about how age impacts your work? Rock ‘n’ roll is considered a young man’s game.

It’s not. An enormous number of really good records are being made by people over 50, 60 and even 70. Because it was once the music of youth, it is now the only popular music that I know of that’s ever really addressed aging as a major issue in one’s life, the only one. It’s not the music of youth. In fact, for various formal reasons, good records by people under 30 are becoming more and more unusual.

What Sasha Frere-Jones Gets Right, And Wrong, In His Rare Miss On Bowie

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2013 by johnbuckley100

It is unusual for Sasha Frere-Jones to use his bully pulpit in The New Yorker to resist committing to a strong point of view, but when he finished his review of Bowie’s The Next Day with a taunt that “the bar rats can fight it out” over the exact status of the album among Bowie’s canon — declaring it “a fine rock record that is a few hairs away from being among his best,” and that “even the obsessives should be able to accept that” — we were disappointed.

Disappointed because Frere-Jones is, like Jon Mendelsohn, Lester Bangs, R. Meltzer, and Byron Coley before him, among the only voices in the rock criticism of his era that really matter.  While he does not write with anywhere near the pyrotechnical verve of any of these likely mentors, his perch exists at a time where Americans are given the dreary choice between reading the idiots at Rolling Stone, the even bigger idiots who labor under Jon Pareles’ Fidel-like reign at the formerly authoritative New York Times, and the onanistic closed loop in the bell jar that is Pitchfork.  Though it must be acknowledged that Ken Tucker at NPR has a wonderful sensibility, Frere-Jones may be the only main-market rock critic who really has an impact.

So yes, we were disappointed because the passive distancing of “a few hairs away from being among” Bowie’s best violates every rule of resistance to gainsaying, to soft pronouncements,  that we were taught, lo those many years ago, by Andy Schwartz, the great editor of NY Rocker, where we were once a young pup (along with Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, the aforementioned Coley, Glen Morrow, and others.)

If you want to say the album isn’t so good, say it, Sasha.  And if you want to say it’s great, say that.  If it’s somewhere in between?  Find a way of committing to exactly where it stands, without weasel calibrations like “a few hairs away from among his best.”

But that’s not the point of this post, a rare criticism of Frere-Jones.  In his review, Frere-Jones holds up Bowie’s under-appreciated 2002 album Heathen as a “magnificent” collection “with fewer good songs than The Next Day (though) a more cohesive marriage of electronic textures and traditional guitar work, and Bowie was in robust voice.  Bowie and (producer Tony) Visconti worked on that together, and it’s difficult to understand how they could have been so in synch with the moment then but not now.”  So, score a point for Sasha that the production on The Next Day does have that brittle 1980s sound that makes so many of the good albums from that epoch unlistenable today.  And he is right that Heathen, as well as the half-decent follow-up Reality, have a less bombastic, arch sound.  But come on: two of the three best songs on Heathen were written by Black Francis, as if Bowie was so out of it in the 1980s that he only picked up on the Pixies’ genius a decade later.

As between 1) having a production that sounds too much like the ’80s, but a series of great, fresh songs, and 2) a smooth sound set amidst a songwriting dry spell that necessitates having to dip into Black Francis’ bag for inspiration, we’ll take the former.  Frere-Jones is right that the production on The Next Day weakens it, but his inability to commit to what he thinks about it, leaving it to the “bar rats” to decide how good it is, is an abdication of his responsibility.  If an artist played it as safe as he does in his review, we hope he would excoriate them for it.

Playing Catch Up: Black Angels/Black Mountain at 930, Sufjan at The Beacon, And Of Course Keef’s “Life”

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on November 17, 2010 by johnbuckley100

There is no truth to the rumor that Tulip Frenzy World HQ has been shut down whilst the gang finished Life.  It is however true that those moments not taken up by the vagaries and jaggedness of ends-meeting in the business world have, in part, been given over to the remarkably informative Keith Richards, whose autobiography is for the rock’n’roll set what Speak, Memory was to fans of Nabokov.

What have we learned from Life that we didn’t previously know?  The depth of Keith’s contempt for Brian Jones.  Exactly how his discovery of open tuning led to the great riffs of the ’70s.  How not just “Street Fighting Man” but also “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was recorded with Keith on acoustic into a little cassette recorder, the tape of which played in the studio somehow gained its “electric” sound. How the title Exile on Main Street referred to the nautical ties between the Italian and French Riviera.  Let’s see, how innocent that Mars bar was.  The extent to which Britain’s policy on providing heroin to addicts led to Keith becoming one.  (And — who knew? — how they used to give out cocaine to heroin addicts to keep them from nodding off, thus providing Keef with access to the pure flake.)  So much more… An excellent book.  When you think about it, this has been an incredible year for Stones’ fans — starting with the 40th anniversary box of Ya-Yas, Ethan Russell’s great book of photos from the era, Let It Bleed, the Exile reissue with new songs, the release of Ladies and Gentlemen on DVD, and now Keith’s book.  Whew.  Best year since…’72?

We never posted about the excellent Black Angels/Black Mountain show at 930.  The Black Angels were pretty mindblowing.  Yes, it would take a fraction of a second for the Shazam algorithm-decoder to determine a song is by the Black Angels, as for the most part they all have the same number-of-words-in-a-lyric/number-of-beats-in-a-chorus formula.  But who knew that voice came out of a guy hidden between his beard and his hat?  Or that the drummer was a woman?  Or that the guitarist looked like he might have been playing for Big Brother and the Holding Company?  Or that over the course of the evening, four different people would play bass?  Black Mountain got into a groove — fascinating how all the songs from In The Future seemed to be on a loop.  They were tight to the point of metronomic regularity, but still exciting.  Amber Weber seemed to pick up strength as the set wore on.  Stephen McBean seemed downright frisky.  Methinks the next time Black Mountain come round these parts, they’ll be opening at the Verizon Center for some band you don’t really want to see… You know, the next rung up from headlining clubs.  We have mixed emotions about this, but do root for them, given their manifest excellence as musicians and sonic adventurers.

We read Jon Pareles’ review of the Sufjan Stevens shows at the Beacon and, having been there Sunday night, found ourselves for once not wanting to strangle the Chief Music Correspondent Of The New York Times, or whatever is the position of authority through which Pareles has for far too long helped destroy our enjoyment of music.  Though where Pareles sees Sufjan’s near-closing extravaganza of “Impossible Soul” as almost Lady Gaga-like — given its raw theatricality — another analogue came to our mind: we saw Max in Where The Wild Things Are, rumbling with those wild things and emerging with his crown askew.  Now we’ll admit, this was that rare show where what we most loved was what rocked the least — Sufjan as folky was far more interesting than Sufjan as David Byrne circa True Stories.  Although truth be told, one of the things most remarkable about Sufjan in his Age of Adz phase is precisely the extent to which he is sui generis, with no antecedents, not even himself.  I think that album would be better, and his music stronger, if he had the time, fortitude, and resources to construct his elaborate music around an orchestra — a real orchestra, not just the thirteen other musicians who accompanied him — rather than electronica.  (Yes, we understand that performing The BQE with a symphony was a ball-buster,  in his mind, apparently, a failure.  We don’t care; we’d rather hear strings than synth.) The theatricality of what he does is probably closer to Laurie Anderson than Lady Gaga.  And at its core is a young genius with a beautiful voice and a heartbreaking sense of melody, even though right now he seems hell-bent on encapsulating it all in something mechanical and able to withstand reentry from space. And we know he is ready to rumble with the wild things.

The Decline And Fall of New York Times Rock Writing

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on June 6, 2010 by johnbuckley100

Once upon a time, John Rockwell of The New York Times had power, and he used it brilliantly.  When he wandered down some obscure Downtown alley and found, say, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, when he used his taste-maker’s wand to deem Ms. Lunch important enough to write about, we took notice.  Wow, Lydia, way to go. Rockwell may only have one eye  but his good eye was sharp, his ears pricked, his mind open.  And the guy could write.  I would venture that in his own way, Rockwell was as important a player in our understanding that the Eno-Talking Heads nexus was of world-historical importance as, say, Clement Greenburg was in ensuring Jackson Pollack was taken seriously, or John Swarovski in getting us to understand the meaning of Stephen Shore’s arrival as a photographer.

When Robert Palmer ruled the roost, you had someone who as authentically could tell you about the Jelly Roll Kings playing in a Helena, Arkansas juke joint as he could review Bowie’s new phase.  He could wax passionately about Ornette Colman, The Rolling Stones, or Iggy Pop.  When he wrote, such was our respect that we stepped back to contemplate what he was saying, which sometimes became apparent on more than one level.

That was then. For the past twenty years, the Times has been Pareles-ized, its power diminished by the one-man wrecking ball known as Jon Pareles.  Pareles is the anti-Christgau.  Whereas everything Bob writes is well crafted, and when he offers one of his real raves, you have to give the artist well-earned props.  But Pareles is a truly horrible writer, a man who could render ecstasy on a stage into cardboard prose, filled with faux-learned music terms.  And I’m afraid he’s had the effect of ruining the writing of all around him.

Sure, we liked Ann Powers, and miss Kristine McKenna, and even Neal Strauss had his day.  But then recently, when we read Ben Ratliff pompously harumph about the Stones’ reissue, “I find Exile good, not great,” we realized: these days, the Times’ entire batch of rock critics produce irremediable mush.  Take Nate Chinen’s write-up today of the new Deer Tick album: “These are bright, durable songs, and Mr. McCauley liberates them from any telltale sign of artifice, whether he’s caressing them alone or roughing them up with his band mates, who manage a credible honkey-tonk snarl.”

Oh, puh-leeze.

Dear Mr. Chinen, and Mr. Ratliff, and your colleagues, too: you must leave the Times at once and not return Jon Pareles’ phone calls or email, if you have any prayer of rediscovering that rock’n’roll music is about passion, and feeling, and what moves the listener, not to mention the artist.

It is not to be studied in a dusty library.  It is about sweat, and gyrations, and occasionally about fearfully walking through back alleys, or into juke joints in Arkansas, on the off chance you’ll discover something that moves you.  Being a rock critic is not the same thing as being an actuary in an insurance company, no matter what Jon Pareles says.

Much has been written about the decline and fall of journalism.  It is genuinely sad to say that if you dropped the entire print run of the Times Arts and Leisure section off the Staten Island Ferry, the world of rock music would actually be a better place.

Surprisingly Intelligent Piece In The NY Times On Plastic People Of The Universe

Posted in Music with tags , on November 16, 2009 by johnbuckley100

One doesn’t generally rely on the New York Times for a correct take on the historical importance of an obscure rock band, but Tulip Frenzy could not find a single fault to cite in this morning’s quite quite excellent piece on Plastic People of the Universe.

Okay, so maybe Dan Bilefsky doesn’t truly convey what a lugubrious time can be had listening to the arty, theatrical dirges the Plastic People actually played. (This was a band that sounds better on paper than they actually did over stereo speakers, not that we don’t normally like bands that admired the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart.) But he does get their genuinely revolutionary impact: in the aftermath of the Prague Spring, after the Soviet tanks rolled, the embers of Czech dissidence were in no small part kept warm by the skronk of a single rock band.

The Berlin Wall fell twenty years ago last week, and I am all for the credit being shared magnanimously among many.  Reagan, Gorby, Pope JP II, that East German apparatchik putz who screwed up at the news conference and announced the free movements of the (newly free) East German people, Peter Robinson who authored the “tear down this wall” line for his boss in the Oval Office, the reporter who asked that East German spokesidiot the right question at the right news conference: let them all get their due.

But let’s hoist a glass to a rock band that clanged and banged  for freedom, and kicked loose at least one brick from the Wall.

Let’s also toast Dan Bilefsky, the Times’ Man In Istanbul.  And while we’re on this theme, allow us to say: Come home, Dan.  Liberate us from the writing of Jon Pareles!  May freedom ring in Times Square!  May the reign of Jon Pareles as the Times’ chief rock critic be more short-lived than communism was in Central Europe!

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