Archive for October, 2010
The good thing about writing music reviews is that they attract more comments than most of my posts here. The downside to it is that the new commenters are largely assholes, especially if what you write is not 100% positive. I understand that people care about their favourite music a lot; I do the same. But if you are getting your knickers in a twist over me saying something negative about your bestest most favouritest music ever, keep it to yourself. Specifically, don't write me a one-line post telling me I suck. It won't get approved. It will be your time that is wasted, not mine.
Criticism, on the other hand, is always welcome. How can you tell whether you're writing criticism or being an asshole? Criticism is usually more than one line, it usually does not attack the person being addressed, and it takes issue with specific points in the review under consideration. For example: "I don't think Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero did such a bad job mixing Trash; why do you single them out like you did in your review?" is criticism. So is "I found the ideas in your review poorly organised and think you might want to write shorter reviews", for that matter (I will ignore that because I want to work on how I organise my ideas by writing longer reviews, but it the thought was on my own mind. What I got in my comment box today: "Reinder, you know absolutely nothing about music." from someone with an e-mail adress at "alicerocks.com" (a site that apparently does not exist), is being an asshole. To the complete stranger who wrote that, I'm sorry a negative review on your Google alert spoiled your morning. If you want to whine about it, YouTube will let just about anybody comment. Here, we have standards.
Randy Newman (composer): The Princess and the Frog Original Soundtrack
2009, purchased via iTunes, January 2010
I used to dislike Randy Newman's music, or at least the music he released under his own name. I hated his voice: slurred, mumbly and capable of communicating only one attitude: sarcasm. I found his choice of subject matters lazy and the endless stream of character-based songs tiresome. I was aware that some or all of these criticisms could be leveled at some of my favorite songwriters (I'm a rabid Richard Thompson fan, and he writes in-character songs that he performs with a severely limited vocal ability), but in Randy Newman's case, I found the combination particularly grating.
Over time, though, I did learn to appreciate that Randy Newman could put words together like few other songwriters could, and that his melodic and lyrical style and piano arrangements were always instantly recognisable. And I did like his soundtrack for the movie Ragtime when I watched that many years ago. Unsurprisingly, then, I was delighted while watching The Princess and the Frog last Christmas, to recognise Newman's style from the first few notes of the first song that was played. I would get to hear Newman's writing for characters that weren't set up for him to mock, and I would get to hear them performed by singers who aren't Randy Newman. In my review of the movie, I already mentioned that the songs fit the characters and pace of the movie well. A year later, I can also confirm that they stand up well on their own. My favourite of the songs is "Friends on the Other Side" performed by Keith David and with irresistably menacing, bass backing vocals that are just barely under control. "Down In New Orleans" performed by none other than Dr. John, is another great performance that makes me wonder what Randy Newman's regular albums would sound like if Dr. John performed them. On the other hand, it took me a while to warm to the instrumentals without the visuals to accompany them. They are perfectly listenable, but on their own, they are incomplete.
One odd track out is "Never Knew I Needed", which I don't even remember from viewing the movie, but which must have been played over the end credits. It's a straightforward R&B track written and performed by Ne-Yo. It's a good song that managed to break through my resistance against electronics-heavy R&B, but it does not belong in the same musical universe as the rest of the music on this record.
Lately I've been reading more music blogging, both from my perennial favourite Popular and the now defunct but fully archived The War Against Silence. Popular is of course Tom Ewing's rundown of every UK number 1 since the charts started. The War Against Silence was a deeply engaged, deeply subjective run-down of all the albums and singles glenn mcdonald bought and found worth writing about - and boy did he buy a lot! TWAS comes very close to my ideal of how to write about music, and indeed has already helped form that idea within weeks of me plunging into the archives: glenn's writing is passionate, informed, based on a catholic taste with few genre-related biases, and most of all explicitly rejects the Robert Christgau model of music reviewing as consumer advice, a model of which the limitations become painfully obvious from diving into Christgau's own online archives or checking his reviews of older albums that have since become foundational records for entire genres of music.
Reading TWAS has made me more interested in writing more music reviews myself, and writing them in a manner that is more similar to his approach, hopefully without copying it wholesale. So I've decided to go back to where I mostly stopped writing about music and review the records I've bought since, in more or less chronological order based on when I bought them. I rarely actually buy music the year it comes out and am often happy to get to know an artist more than a decade after I've become aware of them. This is why I don't do End-Of-Year-Lists: they'd all be full of albums released ten years before the year under review.
Richard Thompson: Daring Adventures
1986, purchased in Nashville, Tennessee, November 2009
Of course, the first problem I run into is that I might as well copy wholesale what glenn mcdonald wrote about Thompson's Amnesia, swap out the album title and call it my review of Daring Adventures:
I love [Daring Adventures]. I rarely see anybody else cite it as one of Richard Thompson's finest moments, and if I had to weigh in on that subject in front of a critical audience I suppose even I'd probably chicken out and side predictably with I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight or Shoot Out the Lights. Those are important albums. [Daring Adventures] is not important. But it is, I've discovered, [a] Richard Thompson album I [enjoy a lot], even more than Watching the Dark for all its stunning live recordings. I pull out a whole row of them, and look over their track listings, and even though there are dozens of great Richard Thompson songs that [Daring Adventures] doesn't have, I remember what listening to those ten songs in that order feels like.
And so on. See? That works quite well. The individual songs don't have exact analogues like that, but they do have "Jerry Scheff's gruff bass and Thompson's berserk solos". I don't quite see eye to eye with mcdonald about the other albums, mainly because I don't think the rest of Thompson's Mitchell Froom-produced work was on quite as bad a downward trajectory as he thinks it was (though as someone who got on the Thompson train with Mock Tudor - in the year it came out, no less - I was glad that he changed producers and approaches). But there is a freshness to both Daring Adventures and Amnesia that the albums from Rumor and Sigh on did not have. Some of the songwriting sounds like a repeat of earlier work: "Baby Talk" for instance has a clear ancestor in "Tear-Stained Letter" from Hands of Kindness, but is still enjoyable on its own terms. Daring Adventures is not a great album, but it is a very good one that fulfilled my need for Richard Thompson music between November 2009 and the day I bought Dream Attic.
Alice Cooper: Trash
Alice Cooper: Hey Stoopid
Alice Cooper: The Last Temptation of Alice
1989, 1990, 1994. 3-pack of CDs, bought in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in December, 2009
But by December of that same year, after months of buying no music because I was stashing all my disposable income into my savings account, I needed a larger music fix. At that point, it would not even have to be music I loved - I was quite happy to get some music I knew I would kinda sorta like, knowing it is cheese. So when I saw a rack full of cheaper-than-iTunes, 3-in-one CD packages and noticed that one of the items on sale was an Alice Cooper three-pack, I told Aggie: "I know this is cheese, but I'm buying it anyway."
At the time, that might not have been entirely fair on Alice Cooper. I knew the singles that came from these albums, "Poison", "Trash", "Bed of Nails" and "Hey Stoopid", but not much else. I knew that Trash was the third album after Alice had come out of rehab, and that the post-rehab albums tended to alternate between commercial (Constrictor, Poison) and heavy rock-oriented (Raise Your Fist And Yell, Hey Stoopid, but I had more or less lost interest by the time The Last Temptation came out, even though it was cross-marketed with a comic written by Neil Gaiman.
But even with that in mind, I realised that the only way I'd be able to handle three Alice Cooper albums at once was by sticking them in the random iTunes rotation. So I did, and a year later, each of the tracks on the albums has only been played six or seven times. And they're wearing out their welcome. There are a few standouts, mostly "Hey Stoopid" the single, but the songs from Trash in particular have started getting on my nerves. Back in 1988, I thought the combination of Alice Cooper's gruff voice and the writing/production of Bon Jovi producer Desmond Child was a brilliant idea, a good contrast artistically as well as a way to bring Cooper's ideas to market. Now, it sounds like Child has tamed Alice Cooper more than Cooper managed to adrenalize Child. The backing vocals grate, the drums reverberate to simulate power rather than projecting it, and the songs just plod along. Listening to the album on headphones is even more uncomfortable - Steven Thompson and Michael Barbiero's mix sounds anemic and unassured when listened to that closely. I am sure the album was exactly what Cooper needed and intended, and the formula worked as it was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic. But to say it has aged poorly is putting it mildly. It's not so much cheese as sludge. I do like the guitar playing on this record, when it's audible, so it's not a complete loss. Those arpeggios in "Poison" never get old.
Hey Stoopid is a big improvement. The sound is leaner, with the backing vocals in particular taking a step back, and the guest appearances on the opening title track by Slash and Ozzy Osbourne manage to catch my attention every time, and while nothing else on the album is quite as good, the songwriting, including the songs co-written by Child, is more varied and interesting. There are nice details in the intros and at the ends of the songs that reward listening on headphones, and I loved that moment when my oldest stepson walked by just as "Wind-Up-Toy" ended. "That is WRONG!" he said, clearly spooked. And it is. On the downside, there's a little too much reliance on epic ballads, particularly "Might As Well Be On Mars", which seems to go on forever, but I do like this one a whole lot better. Still, it's not much to get passionate about, which is unfortunate for the type of review I want to learn to write. Maybe it's simply not a good idea to buy records you expect will be cheesy, because you may end up being right?
The Last Temptation also has the nice productional touches, decent songs, a guest appearance by Chris Cornell and slightly more time for ballads than it should have. It's a little closer to the sort of album Bob Ezrin would produce than to a real hard rock record, but that's not a bad thing. It lacks stand-out tracks but hangs together well and is easily the least cheesy one of the three albums. It's nice. Just right now, I don't want to hear any more Alice Cooper. Three albums in a row really is more than I can handle.
Fleet Foxes: Sun Giant
2008, purchased in Murfreesboro, Tennessee
So let's talk about Fleet Foxes instead! I first heard them in 2008 when my then driving instructor, of all people, played them in his car. He thought they sounded like the Byrds, I thought they sounded like Fairport Convention. I loved them right away. I bought their debut album on iTunes, loved it some more, but did not investigate them any further. The five-song EP Sun Giant was more or less contemporaneous with the debut album; Wikipedia says it was even recorded before the debut album. I like it every bit as much, but both records do have the same problem: the songs are very nice and pleasant to listen to, but don't really stick in my head afterwards. In this case, I don't think this is such a bad thing; I get enough of a kick out of the shimmering, stately, post-folk-rock sound they make not to mind that these songs are for living in for as long as they last, rather than for recalling afterwards. Both Fleet Foxes records remind me of the air vibrating off a hot pavement on a warm summer's day. Even without memorable songwriting, they have quite enough to offer.
Indeed, if these students are bullies, according to the law, what does that make the rest of us? Massachusetts’s anti-bullying statute defines bullying as repeated behavior that, among other things, "causes emotional harm" or "creates a hostile environment" at school. If it were applied to the real world, wouldn’t most of us be bullies?
The rest of that article is a weird mix. I think the author tries to add some shades of grey to what has so far been a very black and white account of a high school student being "bullied to death", and she does make some good points: Phoebe Prince's death may not have been completely attributable to the bullying, the perpetrators are now themselves being bullied quite viciously, and treating their behaviour as criminal risks wasting the potential they still have to grow up to become better adults. But what Bennett ends up sounding like is someone who excuses the bullies on the grounds that they are such bright, preppy kids; someone who shifts part of the blame back to the victim on the grounds that she was no angel herself; and someone who has some scary ideas about how normal adults relate to each other.