Rock Critic Criticism

A Recap of the Time a Music Publication Mocked Me With My Own Writing

Insecurity can spur people to commit reckless deeds, including going above and beyond to lash out at perceived threats.  I can understand the desire to protect one’s reputation and integrity, but I will never comprehend the extent to which it motivates some to create mountains out of molehills.  As you may expect, the stupidity began where you would expect it most these days: Twitter.

Two weeks ago, a few folks I know in Twitter ended up getting into an argument with an online music publication, and upon witnessing their treatment by this supposedly professional organization I inevitably waded into the muck to defend their honor.  Their unforgivable sin was to share a link of a particularly bad review and to comment on its alleged quality; the publication saw their interaction, and proceeded to insult them for their opinions.  What made this a particularly bizarre interaction was that neither party had included the publication’s Twitter handle in their discussion, yet the company decided to interject anyway and express their displeasure.

It is one thing to defend your honor, but it is another to go out of your way to impugn someone else for providing their opinion.  The publication then doubled down on their rude behavior by browsing through the profiles and timelines of these folks to use as fodder for insults.  I was appalled at this trollish behavior, and specifically called out the company for engaging in such petty tactics.  I want to stress that it was not the author of the review that was officially engaging in this behavior at this point, but the person who ran the Twitter account for the entire publication, a person who felt that it was a good idea to drag the name of the entire company through the mood to harass others.  At a certain point, this person then directed some insults in my direction, and condescendingly attempted to explain how internet searches and Twitter works, as they apparently took offense to my acknowledgment of their shady behavior.  Their final reaction was the coup de grâce, as they proceeded to look up this site (which is linked in my personal Twitter bio, for the record), and then spit back to me the first line of the review that was at the top of the page.

Let us review: Company engages in shady behavior, gets called out on it, proceeds to mock person for calling out said behavior, then engages in the very same behavior in order to taunt the critic.  Excellent work all around.

So, what sparked this entire nonsense that took up several people’s afternoons?  A terrible album review.  Rest assured, it was an absolutely awful piece of writing, and as a service, we will provide some constructive criticism.

* * * * *

– Roughly half of the review centers around “cum” and its use in the very first line of the album, and the term is mentioned in all four paragraphs of the review, as if its presence is emblematic of the whole.  Despite the paragraphs dissecting its particular usage, the case is never made why the reader should care that Father John Misty mentions it or how its use represents the album.  In other words, the author assumes the argument has been made merely by bringing it up, but does not make any relevant connections himself.

– Xiu Xiu should never be used as a positive example.  If you are unfamiliar with Xiu Xiu, they are the embodiment of every negative connotation that one has when he/she hears the term “performance art”; creating worthwhile music is definitely not their goal.  Back when I worked in radio, I played one of their songs for our new music show, which deviates from the usual playlists and allows us to temporarily indulge in numerous offbeat tastes, and it was the one time I had a listener call in and say terrible things about what we were playing.  And that guy was totally right.

– If we are to indulge in the comparison of the use of “cum” by each act and look at the reviewer’s argument on its face, it is unclear what kind of distinction is being made.  In both cases it is an attempt to juxtapose the sacred and the profane, and in both songs it is used literally to convey a particular image.  It seems to be merely the author’s opinion that Xiu Xiu did a better job of this, which is fine, but there is no objective distinction in the two cases.

– The reviewer attempts to mock Father John Misty by claiming that the use of the term “Rorschach” was a pretentious attempt to display intellectual superiority says more about his impression of basic psychological concepts than FJM’s.  The reviewer gets this completely backwards, since it is much more likely that “Rorschach” was used not to impress the listener, but as a descriptor that is universally known.  Who is unfamiliar with Rorschach ink blots?

– It is hilarious that the reviewer attempts to call out FJM for his “PSYC101” analysis, when the fact that so much of this review is devoted to “cum” indicates that the author has some sort of obsessive fixation.  Or do they not cover Freud in PSYC101?

– The use of “Bro?” as a complete thought says way more about the review and the reviewer than anything else he has written.

– Hidden in the third paragraph is a legit criticism about irony and the nature of the “Father John Misty” character.  Many can find the different levels exhausting, as it can seem to be an attempt by the artist to always be able to escape criticism.  Tillman walks a fine line, and the fact that some say he crosses it is fine.  Personally, I think he comes close several times, but I am ultimately swayed by the record’s charms.

– The reviewer spends half of the final paragraph completely botching the analysis of a particular song because he spent no time doing any actual research on the record and neglected to include a key lyric in his assessment.  I Love You, Honeybear is a concept album of sorts loosely based on Tillman’s recent marriage, so the fact that he is undercutting himself in the lyrics to “The Ideal Husband” carries more weight than for which the reviewer gives credit.  The author does acknowledge the fact that Tillman is purposefully undercutting himself, but he is clumsy in his criticism by calling out “a dumb lyric about ‘putting a baby in the oven'”, since in the song itself Tillman sings, “said something dumb like ‘I’m tired of running.  Let’s put a baby in the oven.'”  I can see the point the author is trying to make, but when you call out a lyric for being dumb when the singer himself says it is dumb, it makes you look like an idiot.

– As you may expect, seeing “a hodgepodge of Suburbs (2010)-era Arcade Fire strumming” makes me want to scream.  FOR FUCK’S SAKE, ARCADE FIRE DID NOT INVENT GUITAR STRUMMING!  IF THEY HAD A DISTINCTIVE SOUND, THE WAY THAT THEY STRUM THEIR FUCKING GUITARS WOULD NOT BE A PART OF IT!

– “Did you know Joe Strummer got his name when he heard an Arcade Fire song?  He actually came to the future, heard one of their songs, asked ‘what is this?’ and when told it was ‘strumming’, he went back in his time machine and recorded The Clash’s debut album.”  I imagine this is the exact belief of this idiot.

– To sum up, the entire review consists of an analysis of a single line whose significance is never established, and the one reference to the actual music involves a band to which there is no actual resemblance and involves a comparison that sheds no light whatsoever.  It is not as if it is impossible to compare Father John Misty’s music to anyone, but it may involve looking back further than 2010.

* * * * *

I hope that the professional music publication which created this entire mess is now satisfied that it now has constructive criticism as to why its review was completely awful.  I also hope that someone somewhere within that company learned that it is probably unwise to act like a complete dick on Twitter.  But I am also a rational person, and I doubt that either of those hopes will come to pass.

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Possibly The Worst Three Paragraphs Of Music Criticism From Last Year

I refrained from discussing this Vox piece for weeks, mainly because it was the holidays and there is no need to try to make them a miserable affair.  There is also the fact that the general mission of this site is to focus on promoting music instead of finding ways to be negative all the time, so writing a critical piece on someone else’s opinion is something we would prefer to do only on rare occasions.  But the calendar is no longer a concern, and since Vox has decided not to bother making any corrections (more on that later), we figure the time is ripe to tear this article apart.

The title was an immediate red flag: “5 Songs I’m too embarrassed to name Song of the Year.”  It’s a fancy way of saying “I find these songs to be guilty pleasures,” when the entire concept of a guilty pleasure is a completely ridiculous notion, especially for a music critic.  As a critic, you have an opinion, and we expect you to defend it; if you like a song, it’s your job to explain why you like the song.  Usually we as an audience don’t have exacting standards, and will accept simple explanations along the lines as “it’s catchy” or “it has an infectious melody”; reasonable minds may disagree, but clearly this is merely a subjective assessment, and it’s hard to argue against it.  The “guilty pleasure” also operates under the assumption that there is an objective standard as to what is good, when that is certainly not the case.  Sure, critics like to discuss things in absolutes and will proclaim something to be good based on certain common criteria, but in the end this is a creative field that is subject to personal interpretation.  If these songs are your picks for “Song of the Year,” then say so–we can’t say that your opinion is wrong.

However, one can give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that perhaps the idea was that the article would provide a list of songs that, while not considered “Serious Art”, are at least fun or worth taking a listen.  Looking over the list, I see mostly songs with which I have only a passing familiarity (beyond the expected inclusion of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” (because that’s a song and artist that now requires THINKPIECES in order to appreciate/bash)), but notice one artist that sticks out like a sore thumb from the list: Spoon.  Now here is an artist that would never be considered for a “guilty pleasure,” so there has to be some unique rationale behind this selection.  After reading the explanation, I can say that “unique” roughly translates to “I have no idea what I’m doing.”

The primary sin that Kelsey McKinney commits is contradicting herself between the first two paragraphs.  She first states that “[t]he groovy, guitar-heavy tracks are easy to listen to, but sadly just as easy to forget” (which I would say is debatable, but hey, that’s how music criticism works), but is followed later with “[b]y far the standout off They Want My Soul is ‘Inside Out,’ a mellow, dreamy rock song…instead of the catchy, lyric-heavy, piano-backed songs Spoon is famous for.”  Logically, the songs can’t all be easy to forget if there is one standout track, so that argument should probably have been woodshedded a bit longer.  Then there’s the fact that somehow Spoon is both “guitar-heavy” AND known for “lyric-heavy, piano-backed” songs (we’re going to slide over falling back on the “-heavy” trope for a second, but don’t mistake that for us forgiving that sin).  It’s hard for Spoon to be both of these things without sounding like a total cacophony, and even more so considering that they’re known for their “minimalism.”

What is even worse than these clumsily-constructed arguments is McKinney’s thesis that too many critics love Spoon and therefore give them a free pass: “They Want My Soul is an album with songs that are mostly passable not because they are great songs, or even good songs, but because they were released on an album that said SPOON at the top of it.”  From an outside perspective, that may seem reasonable–how else to explain that Spoon has gotten consistent praise throughout their career?  The idea that Spoon is actually a good band is too easy an explanation and should be dismissed, because this is clearly either a case of groupthink or an example of a massive conspiracy among music critics!  No, the problem with McKinney’s theory is that this is precisely the opposite problem that Spoon has–they’ve been consistently good for too long so that critics take them for granted and as a result they try even harder to find faults.  The piece’s central argument fails to hold up even under the barest scrutiny; the final point that “[p]icking a Spoon song for its production in a year where we had incredible productions from rappers like FKA Twigs and new pop stars like Rita Ora” just adds fuel to the fire, indicating zero understanding of what “production” is, especially when discussing a rock band.

Now, I could easily have let this pass and ignore this article, except that Vox kept promoting it for weeks and weeks after it was originally published.  So I was reminded every couple of days of this horrible article’s existence, and I was forced to wonder once again “if you don’t care for Spoon at all, why are you saying that you’re ’embarrassed’ to name one of their songs the best of the year, when you can just leave them off the list?”  Of course, that would have been too easy.

And to think, after all those promotions, they never bothered to go back and correct the spelling of the name of Spoon’s frontman.

*Also, we’re sorry for not even being able to go a day without mentioning Spoon.

Enough With the Fucking Arcade Fire, Already

One of our primary goals here at Rust Is Just Right is to provide an alternative to a lot of the dismissive snark that is the hallmark of a lot of contemporary music criticism these days.  We believe that in a world that’s overflowing with great music, it’s better to analyze and promote what’s worth listening to instead of attempting to tear down what’s already popular.  Sure, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation of writing something bitingly clever about a band that we don’t like, but it’s not really going to accomplish all that much.  Besides, it’s not our place to decry other people’s tastes.  If you enjoy something, we’re in no place to tell you why you’re wrong–life is simply too short and awful to take away any such joy like that.

Given those parameters, this editorial may seem to run counter to that mission.  Yes, we are going to slag on Arcade Fire, but that’s not the main purpose of this piece.  No, our qualms are with the breathless adulation and coverage that the band receives on an infuriatingly and consistent basis, and how Arcade Fire has somehow in the past decade became shorthand for what’s “good” in “indie rock”.  This unabashed love of the band has frustratingly led to the ridiculous need that many publications and writers to shoehorn a mention of “Arcade Fire” in pieces that are completely irrelevant to the group.

First, we’ll lay all our cards on the table and explain why we don’t like the band in the first place.  Well…Eels wrote a superior album about coping with the deaths of close family members, Pavement did a much better job of writing seemingly-tuneless melodies, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor along with Broken Social Scene did a far better job of simply being a collective of Canadian musicians.  Hell, even the cover of Funeral is infuriating, since it comes off as a rip-off of the art associated with Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea–shit, it even has the same goddamn font that NMH used.  The art just screams “WE REALLY LIKE NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL AND WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT WE’RE COOL LIKE THAT!”  If you want more substantial criticism (beyond this standard rock-critic trope of accusing a group of being derivative of all these other influences), it boils down to the fact that their music is boring, they can’t sing, and have never written an insightful lyric.  They wrote a two-chord song, and they couldn’t figure out how to do it in a key that was in the range of their singer–LCD Soundsystem managed to do that, and came up with one of the greatest songs of the decade despite James Murphy’s limited vocal abilities.  This is a band that ruins their one decent moment, the song “Wake Up”, with an abrupt and inexplicable shift into fucking “Walking On Sunshine”.

Perhaps my frustration with the band can best be explained by their presence in the film “Her”.  It’s an absolutely amazing film and further cements in my mind that Spike Jonze is a true genius, and I was glad that he won an Oscar for his work.  However, I had significant issues with the score.  There was one key scene where the OS “Samantha” composes her own music, and we in the audience here it played back.  It’s twinkly piano music that sounds pleasant on the surface, even if it has no real melodic ideas, and sounds like something an entity with limited knowledge of songwriting would create.  Which seems to fit the idea of a computer attempting a human behavior and approximating that behavior except…it was frustratingly obvious that the piano was played by a human, since the rhythms were wildly imprecise and fingers were lingering too long on certain notes and making the notes stick together and therefore ruining the illusion.  That’s Arcade Fire in a nutshell: humans attempting to mimic machines which are trying to pass off as humans, and failing miserably.

For the most part, it hasn’t been an issue and aside from their presence in an otherwise magnificent film, I’ve been able to avoid Arcade Fire rather easily.  It doesn’t take much to avoid clicking links like “Watch Arcade Fire’s 25 Best ‘Reflektor’ Tour Cover Songs”, even if those links appear everywhere and on multiple sites.  No, the true problem is when the band makes a random appearance in an article that has absolutely nothing to do with them, as illustrated in this review.  Pitchfork’s review of M83’s re-release of their first three albums marked the moment when we officially reached Peak Music Critic Insufferability, as the reviewer attempted to describe M83’s style with this statement: “Arcade Fire are perhaps a better touchpoint for their overall approach: lead with emotions telegraphed big and wide enough to fill a stadium, and let the guitars and synthesizers fall into place around them.”

Now, let that sink in for a second.  Not only is it ridiculous to compare the music of the two bands (since no one who has ever listened to both bands would find a connection beyond “these are two acts that create sounds”–just listen to that video above and explain how it resembles Arcade Fire in any fashion), note that the connection between the two seems to be…that the two groups are both emotive.  This assertion that somehow Arcade Fire was the first group to emphasize emotion in some capacity in their music is completely insane (especially in an era where “emo” was huge) and demonstrates the myopia that afflicts a generation of rock critics in which in order to convey that a musician is “serious” that it must be compared to this one band.  To further underscore how clumsily the point is made in the review, note that the comparison to Arcade Fire is immediately dropped and no further mention is made in the rest of the review.

However, the most ridiculous aspect of the comparison is just simple chronology.  M83’s first two albums were released before Funeral, while their third was released a couple of months after.  Unless those crazy Canadians can bend the rules of time and space, it can be definitively stated that they had absolutely no effect on the French electronic duo.  If you’re dead-set on making some sort of comparison, perhaps another article can be written about how M83 influenced Arcade Fire, but why bother.  I mean, this is a great song that displays subtlety and mastery of melody–something that is difficult to find in an Arcade Fire song.

That’s not the only irrelevant mention of Arcade Fire I encountered this month–in a review of Death From Above 1979’s new album, I learned that apparently we started measuring time in terms of Arcade Fire album releases in the past decade.  To be fair, that isn’t the worst problem with that ridiculous review (which includes gems like finding out that Wolfmother was apparently a dance-punk band), but it once again points to the annoying habit that many rock critics employ of needlessly dropping references to Arcade Fire.  DFA1979 are as bad a comparison as M83 in terms of music, but why the hell should that matter?

These are all symptoms of the general problem of giving Arcade Fire way too much credit than they deserve.  In this feature, we see the band get praise for…incorporating “whoas” in a song, as if having an instrumental swell accompanied by a wordless chorus was a fucking revolutionary act (just one year later, we would see a much better example of this technique from My Morning Jacket).  Arcade Fire somehow also gets credit for “having an auxiliary floor-tom for intermittent bashing” when Radiohead had a hit the previous year doing exactly that (and to great effect).  Even the most diehard Arcade Fire fan has to admit that Radiohead is a much more influential band.  Besides, has this been a real trend?  Sure, White Rabbits used it to great effect on “Percussion Gun” and it helped get people to listen to their fantastic album It’s Frightening, but for fuck’s sake, it isn’t worth tricking me into clicking a link for a goddamn Imagine Dragons video.  More than anything, it just seemed like an excuse for this poor excuse for a Canadian collective to employ extra people to play random percussion, seemingly ripping off Slipknot of all bands (hey, I knew I forgot another random influence of Arcade Fire).

Arcade Fire fans, I mean you no harm.  But please, if you end up working as music critics, please refrain from constantly mentioning your favorite band.  It reflects poorly on all of us.

How to Spot a Charlatan

A few days ago, we linked to an interview with Peter Matthew Bauer that the AV Club hosted, but expressed a bit of trepidation with our comments in advising whether or not one should read it.  Though we were big fans of Bauer’s solo album, we feared the potential for it to be an irritating piece because of the particular writer responsible for the interview.  It turns out our concerns were well-founded, as Rick Moody once again provided his unique combination of pretentiousness and ignorance.

The actual interview was rather illuminating, since Moody generally let Bauer lead the conversation, and the reader didn’t have to bother with Moody’s attempts at rumination and conjecture.  Bauer provided several insights into his journey into discovering his voice as an artist, as well as details about both his upbringing and the dynamics of his previous band, The Walkmen, as the group eventually dissolved.  The problem was the first half of the article, when Moody attempted to provide some background by contemplating over the place of Bauer’s old band within a grand theory of rock music, as well as comparing Bauer’s Liberation! with the his other bandmates’ solo efforts.  There were several irritating individual lines that landed with a thud, with various descriptions and theories that alternately showed Moody’s haughtiness or laziness.  Consider the statement “[t]his band made two short recordings, EPs as they used to be called and are still sometimes[.]”  Why add all this unnecessary verbiage?  They’re still called EPs, even when people weren’t buying vinyl, and nobody calls them anything different.  There’s also the mini-rant about the press release announcing The Walkmen’s “extreme hiatus”: it’s “an example of the overuse of extreme that I have come to find denotatively irritating. It’s either a hiatus or it’s not, and it’s only in retrospect that anyone will be able to evaluate the adjectival qualities of this hiatus.”  Within the context of discussing the careers of different bands, this kind of terminology is actually useful–declaring that a new album should not be expected any time soon but to make sure not to rule out a reunion at some point–but for Moody, I guess it’s his chance to take a stand against the fact that the kids just don’t know how to speak any more.  And he does so in the most irritatingly pedantic manner.

It’s not just Moody’s shitty writing, it’s his lack of professionalism that’s also infuriating.  When talking about Hamilton Leithauser’s solo album, Moody writes “I feel like the single, “Alexandra,” is about Alexander The Great, merely changed to a feminine ending, and is, accordingly, a tribute to the idea of attempting to rule the world.”  Sounds like a great theory (when divorced from the actual song, but whatever (seriously, read those lyrics and try to figure out any connection to the historic ruler)), except that the song was written about Hamilton’s daughter, and he just changed the name because it fit better.  I would not expect everyone to know this fact, but I also would imagine that a professional writer like Rick Moody would bother to do at least some cursory research before writing his piece.  Then again, Moody spent multiple paragraphs talking about Jonathan Fire*Eater, one of the two predecessor bands to The Walkmen, to make some grand point about rock and roll.  The problem is that Bauer was in the other predecessor band, The Recoys (a group he was in with Leithauser, the person with whom Moody makes the most direct comparison).   Of course, Moody does not mention The Recoys at all; in essence, Moody’s entire thesis about the nature of rock and roll is irrelevant to the interview, and is just an excuse for him to ramble about “private schools” and class.

This was not a surprise.  Moody had previously caught our attention when Salon published an exchange he had with Dean Wareham (former member of Galaxie 500, Luna, and others), where they discussed the relative merits of “Get Lucky” and the new Daft Punk record in general.  The problem was not with his opinion about the song, to which he is perfectly entitled.  It’s the fact that there were several arguments and lines throughout the discussion that indicated that either Moody had no idea what he was talking about or that he would miss the point entirely.

For example, he simply refused to understand the basic artistic conceit of Daft Punk itself, that the duo’s goal was to produce music that was as mechanized as possible (seen in their previous work), or in the case of Random Access Memories, an album that was supposed to resemble a robot’s attempt to recreate human music.  His condemnation of the method used to record the album (using live session players from the era) also betrays a total lack of knowledge of how disco music was produced (using live session players).  And for further proof that Moody doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, consider his praise for Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, who employed the same method of hiring musicians to bring his vision to fruition.

Or take a look at this word salad: “But the French robots apparently do not know about “Trans,” [ed. note: he’s referring to the Neil Young album] or rather, they are too cynical to care about “Trans,” and they bank (it’s the operative word here) on the audience’s lack of knowledge about the history of the vocoder. So they use it again and again like a neurological tic, and given that this vocoder section is the only appearance on this song of the actual robots rather than their surrogates—the musicians who are hired to make the song sound as though it has actual soul—it is inadequate as a sign of the auteurs.”  At no point does he explain why the history of the vocoder is necessary to understand the song, and that it is apparently unsatisfying for the songwriters to only make a cameo appearance in their own song.  And all this occurs before an unhinged rant that touches on the “tyranny” of four-four music, that it’s wrong for French guys to pay tribute to the black music of their youth, and a total misunderstanding of the basic concept of Kraftwerk.  That’s right–at one point, Moody asserts that Kraftwerk used the vocoder to hide the weakness of their vocals…instead of further entrenching their entire philosophy of mechanizing and dehumanizing music.

More than anything, it’s so hard to believe that Moody never understood that the title of the album should have tipped him off to its goals.  Random Access Memories combines both the robotic nature of Daft Punk (with its allusion to RAM) and a tribute to the past with the slight tweak to the plural of the last word.  These songs were written to represent facsimiles of past musical genres, as interpreted through the “minds” of robots.  So, if despite the human touches in producing the album it still carries an air of artificiality, that’s the point; if it sounds like a reproduction of black American music from the 70’s, that’s the point because that was the music that Daft Punk enjoyed in their youth.  If you don’t care for the concept, then fine, but at least acknowledge that this was the intention.

Rick Moody is a fucking idiot.  Not your normal idiot, mind you–it’s clear that along the way he’s learned a lot.  It’s just clear that he never understood at all what it is he learned.

The Folly of the Never-Ending Search of the Rip-Off

We recently saw the release of new albums from Jack White and The Black Keys (events which readers of this site should be very much well-aware), and while we were happy to hear new music from these great artists, that was not all that returned.  If you were to read up on any of the news surrounding these releases or the reviews themselves, you were bound to find the same tired joke/trope/criticism in every piece: these artists were merely “ripping off” old music.  Often this would be accompanied by the added attack that these were white men getting rich off of black music.  While there is an element of truth to this, it’s time to stop resorting to this same hackneyed cliche.

In the past, this was once a novel and significant complaint.  There were vast amounts of people that had overlooked or were  ignorant of the exploitation of artists throughout our history, and this form of criticism helped illuminate the struggle they endured.  It’s why Chuck D’s lyric that “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me” could strike a chord with so many people, both in the fierce resistance by some of an attack on their idol, but also by the support of other communities who could point to how they were left out in the process of cultural appropriation.

It’s taken for granted at this point by many that Elvis built his “revolutionary” rock’n’roll sound off the rhythm and blues music of contemporary black artists like Little Richard.  But this attitude that Elvis “stole” black music is an ultimately shallow analysis and illustrates a pointlessly reductive attitude.  It’s a charge made without context.  Elvis acknowledged the influence of black music and performers throughout his career, and made sure to point it out to others; his career shouldn’t be viewed in the same way as say, Pat Boone’s.

The problem with approaching music in only this way is that it completely reduces the role of the performer.  A song is made up of several components, from the chord changes to the rhythmic patterns to the lyrical content and so on.  While the strength of one part may dominate over the others, to rely solely on that part would make for boring and crappy music.  The fact that we have a whole feature on this site (Covered) where we analyze different performances of the same song helps emphasize this point.  Personal interpretation as well as individual technical skill are both vitally important elements and can significantly change the effectiveness of a song.

[This is where I would put up a video clip of the scene from Spinal Tap where the band spontaneously begins singing “Heartbreak Hotel” at Elvis’s grave, but you’ll have to make do with just the audio.]

The focus on deconstruction of the elements of a song to a simple common origin ignores the collaborative nature of music, and how new works of art are always indebted in some way to past works.  New music is built on the ideas of old music, often through slight tweaks or modifications.  A slight change may seem insignificant on paper, but the effects in reality are often significant–by changing the emphasis of the beat, you can switch a polka (hit the 1 and 3) into a rock song (hit the 2 and 4).  Therefore to identify a song as employing a traditional 12-bar blues structure and then calling it a day is ridiculous.  It invites the assumption that we have already found the One True Blues Song, and everything post Robert Johnson has been a waste of time.

You can play this game with just about any artist.  The Ramones play sped-up Beach Boys songs, Nirvana is a slicker version of the Pixies, Rachmaninoff puts the bombast of Beethoven and the lyrical romanticism of Chopin in a blender, and so on.   I’ve been guilty of this myself, namely when I complain that the EDM scene today is solely a rehash of the work Aphex Twin did over a decade ago, that it’s just “Windowlicker” with a heavy dose of “Come to Daddy”.  But why limit ourselves to music?  I mean, there’s no need for new video games when we already have “Pong”.  And for that matter, what are you doing on your computer, when you have a perfectly good television over there?  It doesn’t take much to show that the entire exercise is pointless.

None of this is to say that “rip-offs” don’t exist; artists still have to contribute something to the exercise.  But pointing out that elements of a song bear a resemblance to previously recorded music is not an end in and of itself.  Because Television used the double-hit ringing guitar in “Marquee Moon”, does that mean that Interpol can’t use a similar figure in “Obstacle 1”?  It should be obvious to any listener that the two bands achieve different results using the same concept, with each having their own merits.

This should be just as clear with Jack White and The Black Keys.  Yes, they are heavily indebted to old styles (namely the blues, but country and folk play roles as well) and they wear influences on their sleeves, but to deny the fact that each of them add significant personal twists on old ideas is idiotic.  They’re also ready and willing to point out their influences and to try and convince their audience to check them out–Jack White is quick to mention Son House, and The Black Keys released an EP of Junior Kimbrough covers.

The “rip-off” argument at this point is close to outliving its usefulness, and comes off now as lazy and a desperate attempt to impress others with the appearance of some music knowledge.  Hopefully we’ll see the end of it soon.

Sometimes A Cigar Is Just A Cigar

Sometimes I get in the bad habit of finishing an article, and then deciding to stick around the site by clicking on an attention-grabbing headline to a different story.  Yes, I understand that this is the very foundation of the online publication model, but there are some sites where that strategy is not a good idea and that it is best to disengage from standard internet protocol.

We recently posted a link to an article in Slate that explored the mystery of the time signature of the theme from The Terminator.  This was an interesting and fun story that allowed the reader to indulge in harmless music nerd-like tendencies, while also revisiting a great film.  It’s a perfect time-waster that also benefits by adding a little bit of knowledge of music theory and production.  However, instead of closing the tab and continuing with my previously-planned surfing, I made the (figuratively) fatal error of clicking on this article.

Sexism worthy of more concern

Sexism worthy of more concern

There’s not much to this article–an NPR producer has an extensive record collection, and his wife started a Tumblr where she criticizes his albums called “My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection”.  Sounds innocent enough, right?  But apparently when constructing a personal Tumblr examining a record collection, one needs to be hyper-aware about the possible gender politics, and the politics of the gender politics as well.  The initial criticism derived from the premise of the Tumblr itself, with Slate mentioning that “[f]emale music writers Annie ZaleskiMaura Johnston, and Ann Powers have pushed back against the blog’s conceit, arguing that it reinforces negative stereotypes about the role of women in the music world.”  This of course assumes that a personal response to a shared relationship concern is somehow supposed to be a reflection of music criticism as a whole.  If someone can clue me in on why this assumption exists, I would appreciate it.

In addition, according to the critics cited in the piece, not only should there be concerns about the blog itself, but with the reactions to the blog and their possible sexism.  To quote: “Flavorwire‘s Judy Berman initially appreciated the blog’s charm, but then, ‘as acquaintance after acquaintance—almost all of them men—enthusiastically shared the blog, I noticed a more powerful, gendered slant to their appreciation of it,’ she wrote.”  Is the point then that an author should then be concerned not only with the reactions of readers to the piece itself, but then how they then frame their appreciation of it later?  The article continues, “[b]ut seen another way, her exercise is not very funny at all, because it helps those same music-nerd dudes who have boxed women out of the subculture—keeping them on the periphery in the roles of wives and girlfriends—to share the link as confirmation that women just don’t get it.”  At this point, anyone’s reaction should be “Who gives a shit about what these people think, and more than that, why should anyone believe that this Tumblr is great evidence of their point?”  The fact that I’m reading an analysis that amounts to a reaction to the reaction to the (initial) reaction means that we are ever closer to fulfilling the prophecy that the internet is merely an ouroboros of shit.*

The article itself makes a half-hearted attempt to justify all this wrangling over nothing, and the best the piece could do was talk about the premise of art from the perspective of the outsider.  Congratulations for explaining how a significant percentage of comedy works (to the piece’s credit, the author acknowledged this).  The problem is that this analysis should have been the one and only paragraph that was needed.  The author of the Tumblr is not attempting to ingratiate herself within the insular culture of record collectors; she is distinctly attempting to mock it from the perspective of an outsider.  It is not her responsibility for how other insiders react, and it’s not her concern.  By criticizing her, it takes away from other issues of gender politics within the music community.  The fact that women still fight to achieve respect within the community is a significant issue, and taking on pieces like this one is irrelevant to that fight.

The ultimate lesson should be that when critics are going so far down the rabbit hole to look at third-level reactions of a piece and what it means about society, it’s time to take a step back.  There are other issues of gender politics that are worthy of concern, but this is not one of them.  And next time, I’ll remember not to click that extra article.

*Note: I am fully aware that by participating at another level of criticism can be cited as an example of perpetuating the problem, but hopefully my intentions are clear that rather than perpetuating the cycle I am attempting to end it and slay the ouroboros.

Review: The Men – Tomorrow’s Hits

Some bands take their time between albums and spend countless hours on crafting each sonic detail.  They think deeply about how each song fits within the general themes of the album.  Perhaps they also ponder how their latest release will fit within their oeuvre overall, and what kind of comment they could possibly be making on their genre or their industry as a whole.  Then there’s The Men, who see that it’s a new year once again, so that means it’s time to put out another album.

The underground punk roots of The Men still shine through in their sound as well as their prolific pace, and they have managed to keep that spirit alive even as their sound has evolved.  The days of the pure noise and cacophony of Leave Home are closer to becoming a distant memory, but The Men still believe in no-bullshit rock, even when they’re clearly bullshitting you (as seen in the lyrics to the opener “Dark Waltz” (which isn’t even a waltz): “My mom gave me this guitar in 1974, and it’s true”–a timeline that paints the band as being about a decade older than reality).  Over the course of the album, the band continues to play whatever strikes their interest, whether it be some Americana-influenced 80’s boogie, complete with backing horns (“Another Night”) or a winsome country-tinged ballad (“Settle Me Down”–a song that will probably make it the second year in a row that The Men will have released my favorite country song).  The standout track is “Different Days”, which manages the neat trick of morphing the keyboard line of “Walk of Life” into the hook of a blistering punk blast.

Everything about Tomorrow’s Hits gives the listener the feeling that they’re hearing a bar band playing a rundown of the  Most Played Songs of that dive’s particular jukebox, from the title itself to the neon light cover art.  The Men even look to their own recent material for inspiration, re-working the riff of “Half Angel Half Light” from last year’s New Moon into “Going Down”, exchanging the lo-fi swing of the former for more hard-charging straight-ahead rock.  Some older fans of the band will complain that they’ve softened or mellowed out since the Leave Home era, but as someone who was first introduced to The Men with the stellar Open Your Heart, I have no problem with the shifts in style within and between albums.  It’s not an issue that they’ve traded in Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth influences for Crazy Horse and Tom Petty, because no matter what it’s still clear that the band is having fun.

There’s a looseness and a joy to the music, even when they’re pushing the tempo or stepping back for some reflection.  It’s just a whole lot of…fun.  And while the title Tomorrow’s Hits is at most wishful thinking and most likely meant to be ironic and tongue-in-cheek, I would be glad if its prediction held true and I was getting a nice blast of “Pearly Gates” as I flip on my radio and hit the highway.

That said, what I find most amusing about The Men is the way that they’ve become the focus of a bunch of ridiculous thinkpieces for more than a few rock critics.  These listen to an album of straightforward rock, and then look at a no-nonsense band, and then think that they need to ask “What does it all mean?”  This is a band that has no social media presence (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), doesn’t print out a lyric sheet, have a name that’s practically useless to Google, and plays whatever style fits their mood at the moment–all this points to a group that really doesn’t give a fuck about “their place in the industry”.  You read reviews like this and you just have to wonder who the author is trying to impress with this pseudo-intellectual nonsense.  Just grab a beer and have some fun as the band decides to have some fun.