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Columns > Patrick Buzby

Published: 2004/06/01
by Pat Buzby

Consumer Guide

"You can’t run and try to hide away
Here it comes, here comes another day"
There’s nothing too bold about these lyrics from a
Los Lobos song, but they grabbed me anyway one night
when I heard them on the radio. In thinking about
music, especially rock, lately, it’s been hard for me
to get away from a central theme: that there is always
change, whether we want it or not, and both listeners
and artists need to either adapt or find another party
to go to.
I thought about it, for instance, looking at the
gatefold cover of a late 60’s British pop album and
seeing the members of a band and their producer in
formal portraits with somber stares, a couple of them
wearing ties, and wondering if the thought was
anywhere near their minds that the time would come
when a share of their audience would be capable of
accessing their music without buying albums, or when
there might not be much of an audience left at all.
I’ve also thought about it when I’ve thought about
Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide books. Now, many
rock artists don’t like Christgau; even a few people I
know who like rock critics (who are rock critics – are you reading this, Jesse?) don’t like him. For me,
though, finding his 70’s book as a kid at a local
bookstore was one of those events without which you
wouldn’t be reading my work on this website (and
wouldn’t that have been tragic?). His wit, sober but
not stuffy, resonates with me the most of that first
late 60’s wave of rock critics, and he’s also (Lester
Bangs’s avant jazz fascination aside) been the most
open to adventurous music of that lot.
A pleasure of his 70’s book is seeing careers unfold
over a series of terse paragraphs punctuated by grade
ratings – Bob Dylan hits nadirs (Self Portrait), new
peaks (Blood on the Tracks) and all points in between,
Pink Floyd work their way from D+ (Atom Heart Mother)
to A- (Wish You Were Here), Elton John turns from a
dark singer-songwriter to a pop machine before hitting
a temporary skid at decade’s end, Van Morrison and
Neil Young churn out albums once a year or more,
faltering occasionally but closing the decade with
notes as high as where they started.
The 80’s book is similar. New arrivals such as U2
and R.E.M. build catalogs, while Dylan, Morrison and
Young grapple with harsher times but still come close
to their old peaks. Another positive sign (both as a
demonstration of Christgau’s patience and an
opportunity for that aforementioned wit) comes in both
books when he gives unpromising artists more than one
chance – for instance, the 80’s book includes reviews
of not one but both of Van Halen’s releases of that
decade after Sammy Hagar joined.
With the 90’s book, though, things are different.
Christgau includes an explanation in the introduction
about his choice to revamp his reviewing approach,
granting full reviews to only a selection of albums
while using "choice cut" sentence fragments or
listings to describe the decent ones, a "neither"
symbol for the mediocre ones and a "bomb" for the
duds. One review of this book which I saw mentioned
that it was rather galling for a "bomb" to appear next
to a release as significant as U2’s Achtung Baby with
no further explanation, but if one has an advanced
degree in Christaguese (attainable with extensive
reading of the previous books, and necessary to
understand this one), it’s clear that he at least
discusses this more in his review of Zooropa, although
his comments remain cryptic ("damnably diffuse").
For someone (i.e. me) who starting having trouble
finding the "another day" he wanted in rock by the
mid-90’s, though, the book is a rather dispiriting
confirmation of an easily-reached conclusion: these
days, there’s more action, scattered over a wider
array of places, but less of it is truly special.
Only a handful of new artists (the renowned Nirvana,
the indie biggies Pavement and Ani DiFranco and some
lesser-knowns such as Sleater-Kinney) get more than
two full-length reviews. Meanwhile, Dylan stays in
the game with full reviews for six out of eight
releases, but Morrison is firmly in "neither" land by
the end and even Young, a pet pick of Christgau’s,
gets a dubious mix (five full reviews, six "choice
cuts", one "bomb").
Perhaps it’s not surprising that both the critics and
the artists who showed up in the 60’s seem to be
getting more overwhelmed by each "new day." It’s
troubling, though, when few artists of the current
generation get as many chances to get attention, to
reach, falter and grow, as those of the past. As the
middle-aged Lobos folks point out, though, hiding away
is not an option.

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