Friday, June 23, 2006

Sasha Frere-Jones: critic?

Sasha Frere-Jones is one of the most prominent and talented music writers working today, and he was that way well before he joined the prestigious staff of the New Yorker. He typically does a remarkable job making experimental music and hip-hop understandable and even enjoyable to many readers unfamiliar with those fields, something a good deal of music writers can't usually do, even with a captive, in-tune audience. Heck, the fact that S F-J even gives hip-hop the time of day sets him apart from 90% of white, older than 30 music writers.

But is he much of a critic? I'm not sure. His current piece on Radiohead never quite makes clear why he never followed, let alone respected, the British band. Or, in his words, why "until recently, I hadn’t seen much point in doing so,” especially considering the band, for the past ten years or so, has been extremely worth following. At the very least they were worth following because (again by his own admission) he knew so many people who urged him to do just that. Critics should keep abreast of things, you know? The number of people I know who still respond with knee-jerk antipathy to the suggestion they listen to, say, Justin Timberlake or, even better, see him live, are missing out. Heck, maybe S F-J was just exaggerating for effect, since this Slate piece on Radiohead from a few years ago seems pretty well informed, if a little pretentious. So maybe I misunderstood

More to the point, however, the New Yorker piece goes on to explain what changed his mind, and frankly here's where it's my turn not to follow. Based on three recent concerts, he constantly compares Radiohead to haze-inducing, pot-smoking jam-bands, ending with a flat-out comparison to the Grateful Dead. Huh? As a musician, S F-J should know better. Indeed, as someone attuned to the creation of electronic or other sample-based music, he clearly knows the difference between "jamming" and improvisation and composition, and points it out in the piece. Radiohead's songs are obviously very composed, S F-J concedes. That's why they're relatively concise. The Grateful Dead's music as well as that of their followers, by and large, is not.

Further, there's nothing remotely psychedelic about Radiohead, a band currently indebted to '90s Brit-pop (by way of Morrissey) and electronic (by way of Warp) than anything close to the '60s or that hippie aesthetic.

So why bring up the Dead in the first place? Just because some Radiohead fans dance badly and smoke pot? Get out much, S F-J? Welcome to concerts. At least Radiohead fans don't smell like Dead fans. Maybe that's the key difference.

Much better than the New Yorker piece, albeit more esoteric than outright funny, is the Radiohead bit S F-J posted on his own personal website, which reveals a much greater contempt for the group (or at least a general snobbishness) and makes you wonder whether he was somehow pressured into a positive take in the wider read pages of the New Yorker, a magazine whose classical critic, Alex Ross, wrote what could be the definitive take on the braininess and creative brawn of Radiohead.


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