This week writers came back from the holiday break ready to play. From David Denby unloading in the New Yorker, to John Jeremiah Sullivan working a mention of the Fruit Jar Guzzlers into a Paris Review piece, Robert Christgau beating his breast over Das Racist's breakup and an examination of the visuals of extreme music, there wasn't a lot of taking it easy. Lucky you.
After Das Racist's members awkwardly announced the end of their band last month, the Internet responded with a disappointed sigh. DR was a perfect group for this era — highly intelligent jokes about life and love and music layered over highly stupid ones in a way that felt so casual (yeah, you could say sloppy) it concealed the anger, education, purpose and personality behind them all. Maybe the break-up was shrugged off as just another example of the web giving and taking away and there's nothing we can do about it because who are you going to ask to fix it? But it was a tragedy. Das Racist was like Pavement, but with jokes about Rap Genius and The Wackness instead of California politics and Stone Temple Pilots. Robert Christgau, who called the band's only album, Relax, his favorite of 2011, post-mortems the trio in Barnes & Noble Review with the palpable sadness of a mourning fan who's so bummed he won't get to hear more that he can't help but try to puzzle out why. —Jacob Ganz
"I realize that we are not supposed to argue about taste," New Yorker film critic David Denby says, before launching into a tirade against the new movie adaptation of Les Miserables, particularly the score, which he calls "juvenile stuff—tonic-dominant, without harmonic richness or surprise." "I was so upset by the banality of the music," he fumes, "that I felt like hiring a hall and staging a nationalist rally. 'My fellow-countrymen, we are the people of Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin! Cole Porter and George Gershwin, Frank Loesser and Burton Lane! We taught the world what popular melody was!'" You don't get to read such dogmatic criticism very often. And you can argue that this approach is condescending or that it exemplifies the role a critic should play in our culture. Or you can just take his advice and watch Judy Garland's stunning rendition of "The Man That Got Away" from A Star Is Born. —Amy Schriefer
This Paris Review essay, about the recently-released box set of religious-themed country music called Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good Time & End Time Music, 1923-1936, but really about the way of loving Christianity without always agreeing with its dictates, was written by John Jeremiah Sullivan, who also contributes to the box's liner notes. The songs here were mostly collected by a Louisville man named Don Wahle and saved from a trash bin after Wahle died by producer Nathan Salsburg. But like most things Sullivan writes, it's really about John Jeremiah Sullivan. That's no knock. Sullivan's simply telling you — as is his tendency — where he engaged with this long, ongoing story. And thank God, he's saying, that this particular story is still around to be told. —Jacob Ganz
The occult and its symbolism is par for the course in heavy music. Devil horns, goat heads and pentagrams — they're evil, rebellious and look pretty bad-ass on a black T-shirt. Few metal bands actively practice the dark arts, but Jonathan Dick says that the geometric symbols, in particular — pentagrams, dodecahedrons and nonagrams — that grace artwork in extreme music are naturally in tune with its efforts to "balance sound, energy, emotion, and the hopeful achievement of elemental equilibrium." Even if most metalheads would rather academics keep to their books, it's a provocative thesis, one that warrants deeper investigation than what's been published. —Lars Gotrich