Christgau’s cameos

Some writers were meant to create grand epics. Think James Joyce and Ulysses, or John Dos Passos and U.S.A. Others were meant to create small masterpieces. Think Saki and his brief, punchy chillers, or Ambrose Bierce and his three-page evocations of minds on the verge of snapping.

In the latter category, place Robert Christgau. Nobody calls him the “Dean of American Rock Critics” anymore without at least a trace of a smirk, but the short, sharp shocks he meted out while doing his “Christgau’s Consumer Guide” column for three decades at the Village Voice — collected in three successive volumes — remain models of economy and wit. True, the 1990s volume contains a distressingly high ratio of clinkers to nuggets: Christgau tried to expand his range into world music and specialized areas of hip-hop, and ended up stretching himself too thin. But as one who was there, I can recommend the 1970s volume and to a lesser extent the 1980s collection as not only impeccable criticism but stellar examples of a critic at the top of his game.

And yet Christgau’s muse apparently only functions in bursts of about a hundred words. His feature-length articles (sampled in the collection Grown Up All Wrong) are frequently blowsy and overwritten, but that’s nothing compared to the annual horror of the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll, which Christgau used as the springboard for a lengthy survey article that read like a scholarly dissertation from a field of no particular interest — translated from the original Mayan.

Christgau was unceremoniously fired from the Voice this past summer, so I’m pleased to see his “Consumer Guide” has been taken up (in abbreviated form) by Microsoft Networks. The first installment finds Christgau in a lenient mood: not only does he give Bob Dylan’s Modern Times an A-plus (it’s an A-minus or B-plus if ever I heard one), but he gives an A to Maria Muldaur’s collection of Dylan-penned love songs. Music fans of A Certain Age will never forget the sexy kick Muldaur gave to “Midnight at the Oasis,” but the trouble with Heart of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan is that she sings every song as if it were “Midnight at the Oasis.” That’s fine for “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Lay Lady Lay,” but on “Wedding Song” she sounds as clueless as Linda Ronstadt singing “Hasten Down the Wind,” until now the pyrite standard for misconceived interpretations.

Well, it’s Christmas and time for good will toward all musicians. Now that his job prospects have been settled (and I’m sure MSN pays a lot better than the Voice), Christgau will no doubt recover his acerbity in time for the next installment.

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