Monday, May 31, 2010

Some plugs, some thoughts on music criticism

I had a road trip this weekend for a wedding. As the weekend approached, I thought I would make good use of the 8-hour drive to get some work-related reading done, and maybe even some recreational reading. What really happened was that I took a series of power naps, ate too much trail mix, and listened to music. The only reading I did in the car was from The James Brown Reader.

But I also got to catch up on one of my very favorite regular podcasts. I've mentioned Popdose here before. The site is one of the most consistently entertaining and informative pop culture news sites out there, and the writers lack the pretension that oozes from so many other such sites. They've also got a great podcast. Which brings me back to the purpose of this post.

Popdose's most recent podcast
featured an extended chat with Steve Almond, author of the new book Rock and Roll will Save Your Life. I haven't read the book yet, but it's on my short list for summer reading. Listen to the podcast, and I bet you'll add it to your own list.

This is all rather serendipitous. Marc Morrison (my co-host on First Impressions and fellow music geek) recently had on- and off-the-air discussions about the level of pretension and snobbery in music criticism. Now, don't get me wrong - we all have some level of snobbery here (mine tends to shine in discussions about Journey and the Black Eyed Peas). But it's to the point where I generally don't even bother reading reviews until after I've heard an album, if at all. It's not even just that reviewers tend to be pretentious, but also that other peoples' reviews often steer me wrong. Most recently, I was looking forward to the new Band of Horses LP, Infinite Arms. The night before the album's release, I read Pitchfork's scathing review. Within moments, I went from planning to buy it the next morning to vowing not to buy it at all. I won't get into the specifics (you can read the review for yourself), but this is a perfect example of the pretension that tends to shape Pitchfork reviews and by extension, frustrates the hell out of me. (I ended up streaming the album from NPR and buying the damn thing anyway. Because it's good.)

A former music critic, Steve Almond shares this frustration, but articulates it much better than I. A month or so ago, Almond wrote a sort of teaser editorial for his book in the Boston Globe. Almond's piece so perfectly expresses my own frustrations with much music criticism and my feelings on music more generally. It's a short piece that I recommend you read. But I want to quote Almond's basic point, which resulted from an epiphany while covering an MC Hammer concert:


The very idea of music criticism — of applying some objective standard to the experience of listening to music — suddenly struck me as petty and irrelevant. I spent several more months as a critic, but my essential belief in the pursuit evaporated.

I’d come up against a concept I’ve since come to think of as the Music Critic Paradox: the simple fact that even the best critics — the ones, unlike me, with actual training and talent — can’t begin to capture what it feels like to listen to music. Because listening to music is a collaborative endeavor. Fans don’t just sit there (as critics do) parsing the technical merits of a song. They bring to each song their own emotional needs: their lust and sorrow, their hopes and heartbreak.


Criticizing a particular band or song might make you, and some of your readers, feel smart or sophisticated. But it rarely does anything to advance the cause of art. After all, you can’t rescind the pleasure someone derives from a particular piece of music. All you can do is deride that pleasure, which strikes me as a fairly stingy way to make a living.

I myself still write about music a good deal. But I devote myself almost exclusively to spreading the gospel of those bands that I love. As for the bands I don’t like (and there are still plenty of those) I tend to assume someone else will.

I love music, and I love reading. Ergo, reading about music is one of my favorite things. But I read so little in the way of what is traditionally thought of as music criticism or hell, even music journalism (looking around the house, it appears I only buy music magazines when one of my favorite artists dies. I bought more magazines in the weeks following MJ's death than I probably ever have). But two things that I do love reading are 1) legitimately informative writing on music and 2) peoples' personal experiences/relationships to certain works. To put it in Almond's terms, I enjoy reading proselytizations of pop music. This is perhaps why I love the 33 1/3 book series - they're clearly labors of love. Moreover, the books in the series tend to be deeply informative (as in the books on Bowie's Low and the Stones' Exile on Main Street) or personal ruminations on what a particular album means to the author (Michaelangelo Matos' take on Prince's Sign 'O' the Times is a particularly good example of this) or a combination of the two.

What Almond's point boils down to is that being a music fan isn't about consuming a product, being duped by tastemakers or any other externality. Being a music fan is ultimately about emotion. In short, music criticism becomes less about criticizing the music, and more about criticizing the listener and their enjoyment of that music.

I'll stop here, but the discussion the Popdose boys had with Almond was really smart and insightful, and I can't wait to read the book. I'll try to report back when I do.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dr. Gonzo's Dance-o-Rama , 5-27

Barry White/Love Unlimited Orchestra-Satin Soul
Fat Larry's Band-Here Comes the Sun
Diana Ross-I'm Comin' Out
Donald Byrd-Think Twice
Sly and the Family Stone-Thank You for Talkin' to Me Africa
Roxy Music-Love is the Drug
Rolling Stones-Miss You (12" mix)
Blondie-Call Me (ext)
LL Cool J-I Can't Live Without My Radio
Herbie Hancock-Rockit
Zapp-More Bounce to the Ounce
Indeep-Last Night a DJ Saved My Life
Nelly Furtado-No Hay Igual
Sheila E.-Holly Rock (12" mix)
Power Station-Some Like it Hot
Ready for the World-Oh Sheila (12" mix)
Cherrelle-I Didn't Mean to Turn You On
Madonna-Burning Up

Dr. Gonzo's Dance-o-Rama , 5-20

Forgot to post this last week!

Barry White/Love Unlimited Orchestra-Satin Soul
James Brown-Get on the Good Foot
Ohio Players-Skin Tight
Toba-Movin' Up
Stevie Wonder-I Wish
Michael Jackson-Workin' Day and Night
Morris Day-Fishnet
The Ting Tings-Shut Up and Let Me Go
Brazilian Girls-Losing Myself
New Young Pony Club-The Get Go
A Tribe Called Quest-I Left My Wallet in El Segundo
Digital Underground-Same Song
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five-Beat Street
Duran Duran-Notorious
Daft Punk-Around the World
Bjork-There's More to Life Than This
Groove Armada-Paper Romance
Santogold-Say Aha

Happy 53rd to Siouxsie Sioux!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rainbow Arabia

One of my favorite discoveries from the last few years is Rainbow Arabia. They've only got two EPs (2008's The Basta and 2009's Kabukimono), but both are stellar. They're American, but they're well versed in a number of foreign musics (they often profess a debt to Syria's Omar Souleyman).

I was just over at their blog, where they posted a video for "Holiday in Congo" from last year's Kabukimono:

I also just discovered that they made a video for 2008's "Let them Dance":

But my favorite video (and perhaps my favorite song) of theirs is "Omar K," also from The Basta:

I would absolutely love to see them live, but they stick mostly to the west coast. Alas.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Dr. Gonzo's Dance-O-Rama , 5/13

Love Unlimited Orchestra-Satin Soul
The Bar-Kays-Money Talks
Tower of Power-What is Hip?
Kano-Can't Hold Back (Your Loving)
Slave-Just a Touch of Love
The Gap Band-Can't Believe You Wanna Get Up and Dance (Oops!)
Alan Wilkis-N.I.C.E.
Chromeo-Fancy Footwork
Prince-Black Sweat
Run DMC-King of Rock
Kool Moe Dee-Wild Wild West
De La Soul-Me, Myself and I
George Clinton-Atomic Dog (ext)
Goldfrapp-Rocket (Richard X One Zero mix)
Yoko Ono-Walking on Thin Ice (Pet Shop Boys mix)
Cut Copy-Lights and Music
New Order-Bizarre Love Triangle (Shepp Pettibone mix)
Kylie Minogue-Wow (CSS mix)
Capsule-More More More
Lady Gaga-Telephone (Electrolightz mix)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

New New Young Pony Club!

New Young Pony Club's sophomore disc, The Optimist is finally out in the US! I've been spinning it heavily this week in the house and on runs. Here's the video "Chaos" :

Hoping they tour the States. The Optimist will also be one of the albums under review on the second episode of First Impressions. Tune in Monday, 5/17 to hear what Marc Morrison and I think of it! (Also on the docket: The New Pornographers' Together.) That's Monday night at 8pm EDT on WIUP - 90.1FM in Indiana, PA, everywhere else.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Gonzo on the air, 5-10

Sex Pistols-Holiday in the Sun
The Raveonettes-Love in a Trashcan
Dum Dum Girls-It Only Takes One Night
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion-2 Kindsa Love
The Blue Up?-Breathe You Out
The Pierces-Boring
Portishead-Machine Gun
Massive Attack-Angel
Antony and the Johnsons-Aeon
Beach House-Walk in the Park
Dr. Dog-Stranger
The Hold Steady-Our Whole Lives
Frank Black-I Don't Want to Hurt You (Every Single Time)
Phantogram-Mouthful of Diamonds
Stereolab-Les Yper Sound
The Normal-Warm Leatherette
Kraftwerk-The Man Machine
Neon Indian-Deadbeat Summer
Hot Chip-We Have Love
Crystal Castles-Celestica
MGMT-It's Working
Brian Eno-The True Wheel
Sean Lennon-Photosynthesis
Was (Not Was)-Dad, I'm in Jail
Don't forget - the first edition of "First Impressions" with Marc Morrison and myself airs Monday night from 8-9pm EDT. And I'll be back on thursday night for Dr. Gonzo's Dance-O-Rama, from 10pm to midnight.

90.1 FM in Indiana, PA and streaming to the rest of the world at

Friday, May 7, 2010

Dr. Gonzo on the Air this Summer

Hello, friends. Just a brief update on some sweet summer action on the airwaves.

Beginning Monday 5/10, Marc Morrison and I team up for First Impressions: each week we'll both select a new or recent release, play a few cuts, and evaluate the discs via our interpersonal banter. Music news, upcoming releases and other features round out the hour. That's Mondays throughout the summer, from 8-9pm.

Thursdays from 10pm-12am, we have Dr. Gonzo's Dance-O-Rama. I'm approaching this program as if each show were a dance mix. My definition of dance music is broad, but you can expect to hear: funk, electro, hip hop, indie pop, soul, synthpop, etc. spanning the decades. This program will run from 5/13-5/27. It will possibly run through the summer, though that's yet to be determined.

And of course, my regular show will (for now) be running Sunday nights from 10pm-12am (this may change once June hits, depending - Dr. Gonzo isn't sure that he can manage three shows a week).

Tune in on 90.1FM in Indiana, PA (and surrounding areas) - or stream online at

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Gonzo on the air, 5/2

Gogol Bordello-Trans-continental Hustle
Cold War Kids-Audience
Yeasayer-Ambling Alp (Alan Wilkis remix)
Ani Difranco-Shameless
Dresden Dolls-Girl Anachronism
David Bowie-What in the World
Broken Bells-The Waiting Game
Frightened Rabbit-Skip the Youth
Iggy Pop-Nightclubbing (request)
Love is All-A Side in A Bed
CSS-Reggae All Night
Solex-The Burglars are Coming!
Elvis Costello-No Action
The Dollyrots-A Desperate SOS
Keth Richards-Take it So Hard
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings-I Learned the Hard Way
The Noisettes-Never Forget You
Jamie Lidell-What's the Use? (request)
Ryan Shaw-Do the 45
The Exciters-Blowin' Up My Mind
Terrence Trent D'arby-Dance Little Sister (12" version)
Aceyalone-On the One
The Herbaliser-Geddim!
Shuggie Otis-Inspiration Information
Jimmy Radcliffe-Long After Tonight is Over
Marvin Gaye-Hitch Hike

Another favorite

Great track, and I've always loved this performance. I also feel like this was the last year the MTVAwards were worth watching. The MJ and Lisa Marie kiss, that great performance of "Sabotage" from the Beasties, Salt N I used to love MTV.

Blood on the plow

Hands down the best Mellencamp tune.