23 June 2006

Sasha Frere-Jones

I thought for the longest time that Sasha Frere-Jones (hereafter called SFJ, pictured left ) was a woman. Him and Choire Sicha (and Dominque Leone, yeah). And surprise surprise! I googled Choire Sicha to find a picture of him, and I found his weblog wherein he mentions SFJ.
In Slate, John Cook says of New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones that, because he writes for a serious publication in the daylight hours, "He ought to take the things he writes on his blog seriously."

Men with effeminate names take note: By sticking together you can promote yourselves up through the ranks of NYC publishing. Music critic for the New Yorker!

I don't really want to get into the whole SFJ calling Stephen Merritt a "cracker" and a racist. (That is what the Choire blog post regards.) I don't believe in the seriousness of the weblog form, so I have to side somewhat with a man whose name is Choire (?!). Anyway. I did want to talk about SFJ's music criticism. And I may get dragged back into the whole Slate, Merrit, SFJ imbroglio anyway. Who knows--it's like jazz, I'm improvising.

Wow. Talk about improvising. I just took a moment to search for SJF's name on the Slate website and I just caught him in a lie. In this concert review in the New Yorker (the rag that hired SFJ as a critic) he says,
the band is up to more than fans will ever figure out, even if they listen to the album every day. I seem to know about a hundred of these fans, and they constantly urge me to give the band a chance. Until recently, I hadn’t seen much point in doing so.

which implies to me that SFJ hasn't much listened to Radiohead. Or it could mean he has listened to Radiohead and just doesn't much like them. Either seems to be a strong interpretation, and neither is the case. SFJ is lying. (He's creating dramatic tension in his review by writing himself into it as a character bringing something particular to the table.)

In this record review of Hail to the Thief, which was published on Chuck Klosterman's and my birthday (see previous post) three years ago, SFJ claims to have listened to and pretty much enjoyed all of Radiohead's oeuvre.

I made a best-of CD in the process and it just kills. Here it is:

1. Planet Telex (The Bends)

2. High and Dry (The Bends)

3. Fake Plastic Trees (The Bends)

4. My Iron Lung (The Bends)

5. Airbag (OK Computer)

6. Paranoid Android (OK Computer)

7. Subterranean Homesick Alien (OK Computer)

8. Let Down (OK Computer)

9. Karma Police (OK Computer)

10. Electioneering (OK Computer)

11. Everything in Its Right Place (Kid A)

12. The National Anthem (Kid A)

13. Optimistic (Kid A)

14. 2+2=5 (Hail to the Thief)

15. Sit Down, Stand Up (Hail to the Thief)

16. Sail to The Moon (Hail to the Thief)

17. Scatterbrain (Hail to the Thief)

Whether this mix "kills" can be debated. But the act of making a mixtape shows (signifies, if you will) a certain thing about SFJ's intentionality toward Radiohead. A) He likes them. B) A lot. C) He's listened to all their proper studio releases enough so that he could make an informed decision about track selection and order (which doesn't actually seem to be that important to him--the whole chronological, album-lumping approach sucks) and D) That he totally lied three years later about giving the band a "chance".

It doesn't really matter that he deceived his readers in the recent New Yorker piece. But it does show a certain disingenuous side to SFJ's writing that I would expect. He ends his Slate review of HTTT by saying,

All this flapping I'm doing is an attempt to place Radiohead in a historical context and take a position on how their stuff is perceived and consumed. None of this has anything to do with whether or not they can make good records. In the Making Good Records contest, everything is allowed, including theft, erasing history, and downright pretentiousness. Hell, I love the White Stripes but they're acting as if the last 40 years of pop music haven't happened. The context and the art certainly inform each other, but they are also separate. And my Radiohead best-of mix is going with me in the car this weekend.

which shows a certain pre-occupation with the historical context of a piece. In both the Slate article and the New Yorker article he claims that Radiohead's great musical touchstone is Pink Floyd. In this quote above (and a bit above the quote in the actual article) he claims Radiohead ignores music since Pink Floyd. Along with Wilco and the Flaming Lips, he says that Radiohead goes into the studio and hits the "pretentious button" (i.e., studio tom-foolery) in order to dupe the listeners into thinking it's avant-garde. This is probably the primary criticism (my primary criticism) of Pink Floyd. It's not a bad or ungrounded criticism.

But I would bring this criticism back to SFJ. In his New Yorker piece he claims to be won over by the band in the end, even though he didn't particularly like them. In the review for Slate he makes the exact same tack. I know he probably has more important things to do than listen to Radiohead or even remember what he's written about the band in the past. But I feel now that SFJ is being a little to Gonzo in his writing. I.e., inserting himself into the story (very cleverly; implicitly, almost) he is the pivot around which the story swings, the story arc is his discovery of the band. Twice in two articles is too many times. He ends both articles by licking Radiohead's asshole. To me, SFJ has about as much spine as Rolling Stone movie critic Peter Travers.