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The Pen and the Axe

“I don’t know that anyone’s ever done both at the same time with any seriousness,” fast-talking and frank Sasha Frere-Jones says over the phone from his apartment in New York City. “I mean, the closest I can think of .?.?. well, I can’t actually think of anyone who’s done both for money in a high-profile way.”

The New Yorker’s pop-music writer is talking about occupying the somewhat unprecedented position of being both one of the most influential critics in the game — his colorful, incisive critiques are accessible enough for the layman, yet are revered by the cliquish music-crit community — while simultaneously moonlighting as would-be rock star.

And he’s mostly right. Ira Kaplan wrote for now-defunct New York Rocker before forming Yo La Tengo. Robert Palmer (not the ”Addicted to Love” dude) was a jazz musician prior to joining The New York Times as its first full-time rock writer. Lenny Kaye drifted in and out of freelancing while playing guitar for Patti Smith (who wrote for Creem before starting the Patti Smith Group, just like Chrissie Hynde wrote for NME before starting the Pretenders) — but now he writes regularly for eMusic. Strangely enough, his editor there, former Rolling Stone contributor Michael Azerrad, is the exemplar of the lot, having just completed a tour with his band the King of France. Even so, he’s a drummer, whereas Frere-Jones is the Sands’ front man (he wrote and sang the songs, and played most of the parts on their record).

A 40-year-old father of two, Frere-Jones probably didn’t score any points with his wife by putting up his own money to self-record an album, but the Sands isn’t his first foray into rock & roll. Back in the ’90s, Frere-Jones played with Ui, a nearly instrumental jam band whose cross-pollination of Fugazi, Medeski Martin & Wood and Bela Fleck became less of a priority as Frere-Jones began cutting his teeth as a critic at The Village Voice and started gaining more notoriety as a writer.

“I’m getting back to playing because I really missed it,” he says. “I took too long a break from it, and it really started to hurt my health.”

The Sands pulse with the exuberance of a Pitchfork-endorsed Next Big Thing, but without the hype. For someone whose first instrument is a bass, Frere-Jones manages wonderfully loosey-goosey guitar hooks. His self-deprecation on “Write, Die,” an insider’s take on the drudgery of filing endless reams of copy, permits his sarcasm on “Hey, Cripple,” in which he encourages a one-armed girl to use her teeth if necessary. Overall, the songs, which Frere-Jones posted on www.sashafrerejones.com right before Christmas (don’t let the May 27 date throw you), are similar to the elliptical vignettes of his blogs.

Despite Frere-Jones’ insistence on rerecording the album “properly” with producer John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Son Volt), it remains fresh and well conceived. “So much bullshit is put into the world,” he says. “And I just don’t feel like I can bring another record into it without trying my hardest.”

Inevitably, a label will snatch up Frere-Jones’ record and a tour will follow — he’s too hot of a commodity to pass up — and that’s when things in his world will get more curious. The Hold Steady, about whom Frere-Jones ?wrote a favorable piece, has already offered the Sands some opening slots on their summer tour — an offer he’d be crazy to pass up, but which would also leave him vulnerable to the slings and arrows of fellow crits, and even musicians, should he accept. What if Jack White counteracts the backhanded compliments Frere-Jones paid Get Behind Me Satan by doing him like he did the guy from the Von Bondies?

When it comes down to it, though, the guy who writes his checks at The New Yorker has the potential to make things the least comfortable. “I don’t know how [New Yorker editor David] Remnick would feel if all of a sudden I was in some big rock band that people were paying attention to,” Frere-Jones said, adding that his boss digs the songs. “That might make him feel funny — he might not give a shit.”

When asked which is his true love — writing about music or playing it — ?Frere-Jones responds that his kids take ?precedence over everything, and that the feeling of wanting to pick up an instrument is not the same as wanting to write.

“I’m not going to make a lot more records. I just know logistically I make more money writing. And I can write faster. And I can write in my apartment. Music is an incredibly logistically and financially difficult thing to do. As much as I like to do it, I don’t love touring. I don’t have the time to tour. I can’t be unrealistic about it. Music has sort of got to be a hobby for me. I can’t pretend it’s my profession anymore.”

“Well, this might just be the time when .?.?.”

“Wouldn’t that be ironic?” he interrupts. “Finally when I have no time, somebody finally, actually wants to hear my music.”


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