Les Savy Fav are both savvy & fab: discuss

11Jan08

Christgau’s review of Les Savy Fav’s Let’s Stay Friends was misleading — as a listener guide, although not as a consumer guide, i.e. I’m glad his review prompted me to buy it, but would have saved a month of wondering if he’d zeroed in on what’s actually to love about it.  Spends a third of the paragraph describing the content of the lead track,  then veers into a laundry list of other songs’ concepts. As if this was a song band, or a concept band even. They’re a band band, which is to say that the for the most part it’s not the tunes or the verbal content that makes you come back to these tracks.  It’s the forward momentum, the collective energy, the guitar asides, the reliable-to-explosive riffs and basslines, the  occasional synth/horn counterhook.And also the  vocals, which at first seem whiny-to-yowly but (thus?)  end up seeming like the indie equivalent of soul – yearning, passionate, outraged at the drop of a hat, reflective when he’s cooled down some.  Sure this one’s a heap better than their pretty-good last album, 2001’s Go Forth (yeah, OK, I just bought it last week) . But not because the tunes or the words got all that much better, but because now they’ve subsumed their jagged harshness in a musical whole that’s rich, full and versatile,  loose and cohesive at the same time, fun and committed. In fact, only after I felt the full impact of the music did the words start to signify, did I start to sense their often kooky, often self-referential or obscurantist lyrics as neither a careless mess nor willfully perverse, but rather the candid and untidy markings and ventures of real lives.   The proof of their musical instincts, and that they know their songwriting strengths, is   “Comes and Goes,” an astute analysis of the way relationships tend to fall apart.  It’s the most stand-alone tune and lyric on the album, and they honor it by scaling back the onslaught and bringing out an acoustic. 

This is up there with the most satisfying hard rock & roll band albums of the ‘00s – explosive like Listening Around’s pet band Wussy just isn’t, concise like The Wrens The Meadowlands isn’t,  less gimmicky and hypheny than Gogol Bordello, less narrow than the Libertines’ debut, and less gimmicky and narrow than White Stripes White Blood Cells  or Elephant, funnier than One Beat And if you don’t get it right away, play it louder next time.

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2 Responses to “Les Savy Fav are both savvy & fab: discuss”

  1. 1 Kenny

    Since the Les Savy Fav album hasn’t kicked in usefully for me — in any direction — this comment is not about LSF at all. It is about the issues surrounding our appropriation of Robert Christgau’s good name, etc. etc.

    I have commented to you personally many times that I think that Christgau’s reviews themselves have declined dramatically since he was fired by the Voice. The MSN reviews are regularly not sharp. The irrelevance of the Archers of Loaf reference in the LSF is an example; to me right now an even bigger example is the new Rilo Kiley review. I haven’t listened to “Under the Blacklight” yet, and love RK less then you or Christgau, but as someone who knows Christgau’s work thoroughly, I know that listing sexual acts mentioned on an album rather than making a useful point about its sexuality in context is a dumb way to praise something. (Cf. the Exile in Guyville review, 14 years ago, for a point of comparison.)

    I do believe there are two issues: Christgau knew the Voice audience intimately, and even after the Voice audience changed, he kept acting like it was the same one from when we started reading him in the early 1980s. With MSN he can’t figure out who he is writing to. And — this is of course related, as it is related to my difficulty writing about music these days — as a guy in his mid 60s who doesn’t have any practical, day to day relationship to a subculture of young listeners anymore (and he did for a very long time), he simply has a lessened ability to find a context for the sexual writing in RK then he did with Liz Phair. And the importance of the point is that 14 years ago he was over 50, more then 10 years older then I am right now. This is not about “old people”, but it is about reference points. The Liz Phair review I refer to was contextual precisely because it invokes the history of bohemian for 30 years before Liz Phair, and in doing so produces a precise description of her accomplishment, all in a couple of sentences. What is the reference point for the commentary in the Under the Blacklight review? Who cares that Archers of Loaf, now there’s an obcure band, once wrote a song with the same theme as a Les Savy Fav song?

    Now, having said all this: we are tied to Christgau’s work on this blog in two dramatic ways. Historically, our listening practices have been shaped dramatically by reading, indeed studying, Christgau’s words. We don’t always agree, but we always respond. To this moment, what we actually listen to is deeply tied to his recommendations. in fact, in my case it is MORE now then it was pre-2000. From say ’82 to ’00 I always had lots of ways to find new records, and indeed of the 75-100 new records I heard a year, perhaps a good half of my recommendations came from sources other than Christgau. A quick perusal of the 35 new albums I’ve heard this year shows about 6 or 7 I’ve have listened to without his review and/or your reamplication of his review.

    If I’m right that Christgau’s writing is just weaker and less contextual then it was, this doesn’t mean that his recommendations will be invalid so much as they will be more random — will give us less of a picture of where any of the records we’re listening are actually coming from. To say anything useful ourselves, we need to theorize the effects of this on us.

    I promise, in the next few days: a piece on shuffle, and a piece on 2007. Collectively these two pieces will attempt to contextualize my real listening practices as a fourty year old father & businessperson. Only after I do that can I even consider writing something about a random song that comes up on shuffle.

  2. 2 schweitzito

    Well, he relates to Jenny Lewis a mere public figure where he felt Liz Phair as a much of a person as phonographic reproduction ever allows, but as someone who thinks that More Adventurous is approximately as great an album as Exile in Guyville , I insist that on Under the Blacklight, this isn’t Christgau’s fault — it’s a significant fall-off, not just from Adventurous , but from Lewis’s Rabbit Fur Coat. Except of course that Christgau thinks the new album’s great, which is confusing. Also confusing is how an album whose “pretty Fleetwood Mac homage” is worth noting isn’t pop, unless he means pop as in radio-ready ’07, in which case the Dre reference makes no sense.
    As for the alleged topic of this thread, Les Savy Fav, Christgau’s mention of the Archers of Loaf song at least internal logic — he spent a fair amount of an Archers’ piece on it back in the day. But I’ve never known why, and it certainly threw me off “Pots & Pans” for some time — as I said, the thrill of “Pots & Pans” isn’t its thematic thrust.
    For all that, I’m not convinced that the shift to msn has indeed put a strain on Christgau’s CG work — I’d need to see more specific examples of this. Yes, I was pretty sure a year ago, but all I notice now is that the paperless format has freed him from the need to use his famous condensed style. He still uses it because he believes in economy — values readers’ time the way values listeners’ time. But he’s obviously no longer in thrall to the number of words that you can fit on a page. As for the inconclusive audience, I don’t know what kind of feedback he’s gotten, but I’m sensing that after a few columns trying to figure out how the new setting signified, he’s gone back to doing what he always did.


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