Q and A

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Tom Hull.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

January 05, 2021

[Q] The December 26, 2000 Consumer Guide on the Christgau website has a Postscript note you added saying that the Merle Haggard review originally included in that CG was "withdrawn by Christgau." The issue was that when he reviewed it, Christgau thought the Music Club compilation included original Capitol recordings when in fact they contained later remakes. When you say that Christgau "withdrew" the review, does that mean he asked you to remove it from the body of the CG and add the post-script, or did Christgau actually rescind the review somehow? I ask because I'm curious if he reviewed the CD simply by looking at the track listing rather than playing it. I can't believe he'd do that - but even a single spin is enough to realize that those aren't the original Capitol recordings. If he did listen to the CD, perhaps that A grade applies to the re-recordings even so. Did your conversation with him about adding the Postscript note address that? P.S. I know this could just have easily been a Xgau Sez question but figured you might know as well. -- Joe Yanosik, NY [2020-12-31]

[A] I hope "withdrawn" was clear enough. The review was removed from the main body of the column, and never put into the Consumer Guide database. I kept it in the endnote to the column in case someone checks it against the original print edition and wonders about the discrepancy. I don't recall the detailed discussion, but I wouldn't have removed any reviews without having been directed to do so. As you've painstakingly pointed out, there are reviews on the website that no longer reflect Christgau's views, but they still appear, because I haven't been directed otherwise, and because the spirit of the website is to archive the printed word.

What's still missing from the website is the letter (as best I recall) published in the Village Voice explaining the withdrawal. I'd be happy to add that if someone can track it down and forward a copy. Music Club was a pretty dodgy label, sometimes programming terrific records but never providing details about where they came from. Christgau reviewed 31 of them, including grade A collections of Lee Dorsey, The Everly Brothers, Los Van Van, Charlie Parker, and Huey "Piano" Smith, and a This Is Ska! compilation that's been permanently lodged in my travel case. Sure, any off-label Haggard collection should be suspect, but he seems to have found the label worth the risk. Even so, he admits he didn't check the authenticity (as he evidently did with This Is the Everly Brothers -- by the way, turns out that the first Everlys best-of I owned was a re-recording, and I'm still partial to some of those versions).

Your speculation that Christgau may have reviewed the album without listening to it is, well, scurrilous. I'm certain that he's never done such a thing. (On the other hand, I did once, based on a single radio cut that I heard too many times under a very high fever. He refused to run the piece until I bought a copy of the LP and played it. He didn't, however, insist that I change any words, and I didn't. He just needed to know that I had listened to the record. See Let's String Up the Outlaws.)

These days I do occasionally (but rarely) flip a record off after I'm satisfied with having written something about it, convinced that the last few minutes wouldn't make any difference. I've also been known to review something based on an incomplete stream source, although I have minimal standards, leading to my recent "Further Sampling" sections. And I often review records based on a single (complete) play, so a degree of uncertainty is baked into the very process. I'm not out to break records (although with 34,698 records graded I may have). I'm just trying to use my limited time effectively.

[Q] Ok, a response not a question. You said you might get back to fiction reading. As a public librarian for 42 years and a voracious reader across genres, I'm taking the liberty of recommending a list by foreign born authors:

  • A Long Petal of the Sea - Isabel Allende
  • Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing - Madeleine Thien
  • Exit West - Moshin Hamid
  • My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante
  • The Inheritance of Loss - Kiran Desai
  • The Sympathizer - Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota
  • Waiting - Ha Jin

Heavy on social and political themes, and all readable.

PS Yes, classic jazz has been a great source of comfort this year. -- Thomas Viti, Westwood, MA [2020-11-23]

[A] I'm slowly working my way through Kurt Andersen's Evil Geniuses (highly recommended), and have several more non-fiction books on the immediate horizon, so my hopes/threats of switching to literature are still premature. When I do, I'm likely to scrounge around the house and see what catches my eye. One book I started long ago and always means to return to is Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and I know exactly where it is. I have a few hundred novels I bought speculatively in the late 1960s and never got around to -- a mix of classics and then-contemporary yarns -- so there is quite a bit to choose from. I recovered most of my late-teen books when we moved to Wichita, so they're in pretty good shape. (Still, I wonder where my copy of Ulysses disappeared to.)

Beyond that, my wife is a voracious reader, usually alternating mysteries with heavier tomes. She has, for instance, already read three books from your list. (I recognize My Brilliant Friend from the HBO series, and The Sympathizer from her raves.) She has managed to keep fewer books, aside from the bits stored on her Kindle and its cloud, but that is another option. I've never had much interest in e-book readers, but one would have come in handy during yesterday's lengthy blackout.

[Q] Hi, Tom. Over the years, I've found that I align with you with respect to most jazz, other than, for example, the WSQ, and with respect to most rock (although you're way more caught-up than I am). We've never aligned, though, with respect to African music. I'm pretty sure that my first record within that broad category was purchased in the early 1980s, soon after the Village Voice named King Sunny Adé's Juju Music one of the top albums in its annual Pazz & Jop Poll. Since then, every so often, your or Christgau's recommendations have prompted me to listen to other African music, usually compilations. Nothing has really rung any bells for me yet, but now that I'm (stuck) at home, playing a lot more music throughout the day, with all the music available to me via Spotify, what would you recommend if you were trying to sell me on African music--current or historical, or both? Thanks!

PS [2020-11-12]: I guess this is more in the nature of a follow-up to my question. Today, looking for something new to play, I scanned your list of top records, and saw King Sunny Ade: The Best of the Classic Years (1967-74 [2003], Shanachie), Franco: The Very Best of the Rumba Giant of Zaire (1956-87 [2000], Manteca), and Fela Anikulapo Kuti: The Best Best of Fela Kuti (1972-89 [1999], MCA, 2CD). I'll start there. -- Ronnie Ohren, Chicago [2020-11-10]

[A] Sorry for not trying to answer this earlier, but I doubt I can offer much of an answer -- nor am I likely to improve on the well-researched list offered in the follow up. At the time, I replied directly, and offered one more suggestion: Mzwahke Mbuli's Resistance Is Defence (1992, Earthworks), adding a South African example, also one mostly in English with accessible political themes. A few more individual records that stand out, not least for their variety, are: Konono No. 1: Congotronics (2004, Crammed Discs); Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck: Djam Leeli (1989, Mango); Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens: Thokozile (1988, Earthworks); Thomas Mapfumo: Ndangariro (1984, Carthage); Daniel Owino Misiani & Shirati Jazz: The King of History (1973-79, Sterns); Youssou N'Dour: Nothing's in Vain (2002, Nonesuch); West Nkosi: Rhythm of Healing (1992, Earthworks); Orchestra Baobab: Specialist in All Styles (2002, Nonesuch); Rachid Taha: Made in Medina (2000, Ark 21); Dr. Sir Warrior & Oriental Brothers International: Heavy on the Highlife! (1990, Original Music). Also, of course, the big Serns retrospectives of Franco and Rocherau, and the early Etoile de Dakar compilations. My long list is here (although a detour is needed to pick up North Africa).

I started running into African music in the mid-1970s: Osibisa, a popular band in England in the 1970s led by Ghanaians was probably my first, or perhaps I got to South African jazz (Abdullah Ibrahim and Dudu Pukwana) before. Christgau dates his own interest in African music to John Storm Roberts' Africa Dances, which came out in 1973 but he didn't hear until 1976 -- about the time I moved to New York, where I would have heard it. Since then, I've mostly followed his leads, with slight differences in taste (e.g., he's more into the dry regions of Sahel and Sahara than I am, though I enjoy much of what I've heard).

The appeal of African music to me has always been rhythm, and I don't mind not being able to follow the words (not that I don't enjoy what little French I recognize -- I noticed early on that the former French and Belgian colonies often kept the language, while the former English ones almost never did). I especially like the exuberant pop from 1950-80, like highlife, juju, early soukous, and township jive, much like my taste in Jamaican music runs toward the ska and early reggae periods (and calypso). I play less contemporary African music than I did before 2000 -- partly because my jazz duties have pushed it to the back burner, but also because I never felt like I had the expertise, and it's becoming ever harder to keep up. Back in the '90s Christgau tried to recruit me to review African music (specifically Mbuli), but I shied away. It's even harder to jump in now, not just because the diversity within Africa probably exceeds that of the rest of the world -- that's always been true -- but because global music has soaked in everywhere (not just the rhumba and reggae that always looked back to Africa, but everything, like metal in Kampala).

Of course, I shouldn't have to reassure you that there's nothing wrong with not liking things that others acclaim as genius, or in liking someone else's garbage. Such choices are too complex to be judged.