The Music Club

TV on the Radio Unites Us
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 22 2008 12:19 PM

The Music Club

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Dear Allies/Colleagues,

Looking over your lists—including Ann's list, embargoed from Slate just in case Sam Zell needs to put it up as collateral—has me thinking more about music and fellow feeling. Ann is one of my best friends, Jody by now a warm acquaintance; together with Sasha Frere-Jones (Kelefa Sanneh having spit the bit), they're my favorite critics working. Yet I examine the 30 choices on our album top 10s and find 26 different titles; unanimity only for TV on the Radio, which I promise to close with. In addition, Ann and Jody share Nashville neotraditionalist Ashton Shepherd, Christgau and Jody Lil Wayne's inexhaustible Tha Carter III. Moreover, the three faves to which Ann devotes her second entry—Hercules and Love Affair, Nick Cave, and Martha Wainwright—are all records I've had to struggle to like just a little, a struggle that may never succeed in Wainwright's case. My initial attraction to Shepherd and another Jody fave, the Cool Kids, failed to deepen after too many exposures; Jody fave Sugarland (also cited by Ann last time) I'll buy for a coupla singles (including the glorious womanist "Take Me as I Am"); and his beloved Jamey Johnson, which he Absolutely Guaranteed when he hipped me to it months ago, will be a Dud in the next Consumer Guide. Johnson's drug-advisory "High Cost of Living" resembles Blake Shelton's environmentalism-tweaking "Green" (That's funny? I'll take my hundredth replay of Elmo and Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" any day) in begrudgingly acknowledging a pointy-headed urban modernity it doesn't understand as well as it presumes. I sympathize with the messages of both. But I got minimal pleasure and learned not a thing from either—not even about country music. Hayes Carll's "She Left Me for Jesus" on Ann's singles list? That one goes somewhere. But he's really an alt-"Americana" guy.

The reasons for these disconnects are worth explaining briefly. Like more female than male critics, Ann has always favored the kind of unabashed emotionality I've been panning as melodrama for 40 years; like many contemporary "poppists," only with deeper schooling in pre-rock history, Jody strives to find meaning in the calculations of the hit-making dynamic. In both cases, I'm down—rock criticism has always been way too male, and in its first dispensation, I was an outspoken "poppist" myself, though back then the opposition was folkies, not "rockists." Also, I'm a devout pluralist, an early adherent of the Orthodox Church of Universal Heterodoxy. But I lived through the monoculture—from approximately 1964 through 1968, Jody, well over half of what we heard on a pop radio that counted to 40 rather than 15 were songs whose artistic value is undisputed by nobody but turf-scrounging contrarians. And then I lived through a period of consolidation when albums achieved a degree of critical and cultural consensus that's been slipping statistically for decades as pop's demographic has widened and its subgenres proliferated. I'm not nostalgic about these glories because nostalgia still nauseates me. Nevertheless, something has been lost, and even if it turns out that what's replaced it is just as good or better, which is unlikely, for someone my age to completely adjust his tastes accordingly would be an unseemly self-abnegation. I'm just glad I really like hip-hop. And I'll keep looking for music that lives in the present but speaks to values formed by the past I've outlined—and arguing for it.

So now let's talk a little Auto-Tune, shall we? I'm delighted I misunderstood Jody on T-Pain—his take on the new album is much like mine, though I wouldn't be quite so psychoanalytic about it. But I like Kanye's album, too—the man's such an adept that I find its sound subsumes its self-indulgence (as the almost unlistenable but meta-meaningful live track at the end illustrates—consciously, I suspect). But if Auto-Tune is the pop story of the year, as some claim (Jody's more judicious), it's an ominously minor one—especially as regards the meaningful distortion Jody cites. Those meanings don't promise much in the way of expansion, and though this may be partly generational, I find that the distortion limits the music's listenability—physically accelerates sonic fatigue. Most important, Auto-Tune's primary industrial function is supposedly inaudible—it's supposed to fix singers' bum notes electronically. I don't worry about the "inauthenticity" of that process—authenticity is usually a red herring. But I do believe tiny increments of error help make music interesting, subconsciously. And as with the limiting technologies that have so drastically encroached on pop's dynamic range, my guess is that the secret ubiquity of Auto-Tune is literally making music slightly more "boring," a concept almost as dubious as authenticity.

So, question. How much Auto-Tune did TV on the Radio slather onto the redolently titled Dear Science? My unresearched hunch is a lot more than Drive-By Truckers did on Brighter Than Creation's Dark (where I suspect, perhaps unjustly, that Shonna Tucker needed at least a little help). And really, so what? I am not a big or natural TVOTR fan—took me months to break through to 2006's acclaimed Return to Cookie Mountain. The big reason, redolently enough, is that lead vox Tunde Adebimpe favors a variant on the melodramatic emotionality I can do without in Martha Wainwright and Antony Hegarty (whose own arresting and idiosyncratic vocal affect, come to think of it, has a hint of organic Auto-Tune to it). Although Adebimpe's referents are less European and more gospel-doo-wop, hence more to my highly personal liking (especially the doo-wop part), I always wondered just how bad things could be to have him moaning like that. But in the end—and these 180-degree reversals happen, that's why pluralism is such a boon—the very intensity of his moan became one of the things I savored about Cookie Mountain. This time I came in softened up, and although I resisted the bad poetry of a few early songs, the engaging music soon swept me away. No other album this year came near to providing such rockist consensus. It's significant and probably essential that, despite Dave Sitek's crucial musical role, this consolidation was achieved by a band comprising Sitek and four guys of African descent, all of whom, in the manner of our president-elect, assumed they had every right to this particular piece of American pie. Fusing Africa and Europe into music that is definitely "rock" but just as definitely dance-, pop-, and hip-hop-friendly, TVOTR elected to curtail the public suffering and—especially in the defiant "Red Dress"—joyously confront the contradictions of their undertaking. That's why all three of us, different as we are, can't resist it. Which is great, right? 

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Yet formally and presentationally, Dear Science is still a little conservative—especially compared with Tha Carter III and Feed the Animals, the two other major Album of the Year contenders. I hope I have room for them before I sign off next time.

Xgau

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Veteran rock critic Robert Christgau's "Consumer Guide" column appears monthly on Microsoft Networks. He is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a contributing critic for "All Things Considered" and is archived at Robertchristgau.com and Rhapsody.com. Ann Powers is the chief pop-music critic of the Los Angeles Times. Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He lives in New York City and can be reached at slatemusic@gmail.com. 

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