Rock Criticism with Jonathan Lethem, Mavis Staples & Björk

Lester Bangs

Jim and Greg indulge this week in a deep look at their own profession: rock criticism. They’re joined by novelist Jonathan Lethem, co-editor of a new anthology of rock criticism, who makes the case for music journalism as great American writing. Plus, they look at the life and career of legendary critic Lester Bangs and review new albums from Chicago gospel legend Mavis Staples and Icelandic multimedia artist Björk.

Download Subscribe via iTunes

Jonathan Lethem

This week, Jim and Greg take a close look at a topic very close to their hearts: rock criticism. They talk to author Jonathan Lethem to make the case for rock journalism as great American writing. Lethem is an award-winning novelist and MacArthur Genius grant recipient. Along with Kevin Detmar, Lethem co-edited an anthology of rock criticism called Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay-Z.

Jim and Greg also discuss the life and impact of Lester Bangs, one rock critic who, in many ways, made Jim the critic he is today. We also get a glimpse of some of the critics that deeply influenced Greg, from Greil Marcus to Nelson George.

If All I Was Was Black Mavis Staples

If All I Was Was Black

Mavis Staples is a national treasure and gospel legend, but has only recently blossomed into a successful solo artist. She recently released If All I Was Was Black, a record she collaborated on with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Greg, who literally wrote the book on Mavis, is loving this new record. He loves that Mavis is getting mad and speaking out against racial injustices in the United States in her most political album yet. He also loves Tweedy’s guitar and arrangements on the record, as they give Mavis room to improvise and shine. He gives it an enthusiastic Buy It. Jim couldn’t agree more, and he points out that while Mavis is certainly more angry on this album, she shows through her lyrics and singing that she still has her tender, golden heart. Jim thinks this is the best record of Mavis’s career on the Anti- label and her strongest collaboration with Tweedy. Jim gives If All I Was Was Black a Buy It.

Utopia Björk

Utopia

Björk has been on top of the world of pop and experimental music for decades, yet she’s still regarded as an independent, avant-garde, cult artist. But Jim says that her new album, Utopia, gave him no joy for the first time in her career. He calls her collaboration with Venezuelan electronic artist Arca a collection of tuneless, wandering dirges filled with flutes and bird sounds. Although he’s always loved Björk, Jim says the album is a Trash It. Greg concedes that Utopia is hard to pin down and lacks the pop accessibility of her previous work. But he gets lost in Björk’s world, a combination of avant-garde classical influences that evokes the soundscapes of the Icelandic wilderness. Greg cites her recent albums in this vein as the inspiration for a new generation of artists like FKA Twigs and Solange. It took him a while to figure it out, but Greg feels Utopia is a Buy It.

Dear Listeners,

For more than 15 years, Sound Opinions was a production of WBEZ, Chicago's public radio station. Now that the show is independent, we're inviting you to join the band and lend a hand! We need your support more than ever because now we have to do all the behind-the-scenes work that WBEZ handled before (like buying insurance and paying for podcast hosting, ugh). Plus, we have some exciting ideas we'd like to try now that there's no one to tell us no!