Archive for NY Rocker

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.

Thurston Moore and Byron Coley’s “No Wave”

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on June 2, 2008 by johnbuckley100

Thurston Moore and Byron Coley have just published a gloriously scuzzy high-end artbook cum conversation among the participants of New York’s No Wave subculture, which existed in the blink of a crusted eye between 1976 and 1980. 

The difference between historians Thurston Moore & Byron Coley and Edward Gibbon is that Gibbon didn’t have documentary photos of Rome’s decline and fall.

The difference between archaeologists Thurston Moore & Byron Coley and Walter Alva is that when Alva unearthed those Sipan tombs, none of the mummies could speak in whole sentences about what life was like in the Moche heyday.

They’ve done a really good job of letting the participants speak for themselves (thank you, ur-historian George Plimpton for producing “Edie” lo those many years ago), while ransacking the NY Rocker photo vault for some great black and white pics.

I arrived in New York too late for Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and I never really liked Mars and DNA, though I admit to having enjoyed the Contortions (at least for the novelty, and from the back of the room, where it was safe.)  I got there just in time for 8 Eyed Spy, though, and because Byron was incredibly generous in introducing his fellow Hampshire College grad (that would be me) to Andy Schwartz at NY Rocker, I think my very first published review, entitled “Love for Lydia,” was of one of their early shows at Max’s.

Byron was the coolest person any of us knew, and still is.  When he says in the author’s bio here that he was the “resident editor” of NY Rocker, it’s an in-joke — he actually lived in the offices at Fifth Avenue and 23rd in late ’78 or so.

This brings it all back, and does so really intelligently.  It’s Moore’s and Coley’s insight that New York was never really about punk, but always about art rock.  That’s right, and very smart.  The narrative, if that’s what it is, of “No Wave” is built on the story of how two sets of multiple bands — one from the East Village, the other from Soho and points south and west of Houston and Broadway — got essentially pared down for history by Brian Eno choosing only the aforementioned four — Mars, DNA, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and the Contortions — for his “No New York” sampler.  Eno undefensively tells the tale of kismet that led to that record, including a wonderful sense-making detail about the cover: the reason all the bands showed up as individual pictures was he was influenced by the wanted posters for the Baader-Meinhof Gang!  Those were the days.

Anyone could pull together a compilation of the CBGB bands like Blondie and the Ramones and Television and the Talking Heads.  Possibly no two other people — okay, Chris Nelson and Andy Schwartz — could have pulled together “No Wave.” Not just because of the cred needed to get all factions to participate, but just the very sensibility needed to try!

I arrived in New York for good (until I moved four years later) in 1979, and by that time the half life of a movement was over.  That didn’t bother me, for there was still lots going on in ’79, including the first sightings of Thurston Moore on the way to his forming Sonic Youth.  Besides, I liked bands that played rock’n’roll — the Fleshtones, the DBs, etc.  But many of the second-gen No Wave bands, from the Raybeats to the Bush Tetras, gave us plenty of fine nights at Tier 3, followed, as Byron remembers, by egg creams at Dave’s on Canal.  This book brings it all back.  

Go buy it before books themselves go the way of Tier 3 and Dave’s Luncheonette.

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