Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Savoir Frere: skip the wit, Sasha

(Now that there are so many out-of-work headline pun writers, can I get a little help here? This post's headline is killing me.)

So I'm reading Jody Rosen, in Slate, discussing the state of rock criticism...

This turn of events isn't all that surprising. Inevitably, each generation of critics will swoop in to adjust the excesses of the previous, and besides, current pop is dominated by sonically adventurous hip-hop and dance music while rock's commercial power and cultural influence is on the wane. I also suspect that many of my colleagues, like me, have embraced the anti-rockist critique with particular fervor as a kind of penance, atoning for past rockist misdeeds—for the party line we'd swallowed whole in our formative years and maybe even parroted under our bylines.
...and I'm reading about Sasha Frere-Jones (if I were Spiderman, he and David Denby would be Venom and Carnage) sorta calling poor, whiny Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields a sorta-racist because he included so few black artists in his awesome list of one awesome piece of music from every year in the 20th century (though Public Enemy, Michael Jackson, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Dionne Warwick, and Screamin' Jay Hawkins did make the cut)...

...and I'm reading SF/J (Sasha's self-assigned moniker) prose like:

And what to make of “Underwater,” a lighthearted and goofy song produced by the rapper and producer MF Doom, who is responsible for four of the album’s twenty-three tracks? The sound is odd and noisy, reminiscent of early Wu-Tang songs produced by The RZA. Flutes swoop around the beat and gurgling water punctuates Ghostface’s ungangsterlike reverie of being “lost underwater”...
...and I'm thinking, who needs it? When was the last time, besides the condensed Lester Bangs, that I actually enjoyed reading music crit?

What I want from music criticism is a tiny bit of wit and a lot of worthwhile recommendations. Or to be more precise, very few recommendations, that are really worth it. That's more or less what I get from the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics' poll, but it's not hard to see the bias towards popular-and-good-but-not-great that a poll brings.

Really, wouldn't most music reviewers be better if each of his/her articles consisted of just a single album recommendation, together with 50 words? "Try 'Underwater', track 8--Ghostface gets silly." Or "New Pearl Jam album--better but still bad. Just listen to Ten again." Done.

I've pretty much stopped reading movie reviews because the recommendations I get on Movie Lens, which are based on my ratings of the movies I've seen, are so much more useful. (To their credit, few music reviewers demand that their readers waste their time on stuff as bad as Crash and Russian Ark, although then again there's The Streets...)

Maybe it's time to try last.fm, which:

...creates personalized radio stations for every profile, so if you find someone you like the look of you can tune in to a station that plays their sort of music. Last.fm radio is a good-quality (128kbps) MP3 stream which works flawlessly with the Last.fm Player. (pictured left). The player is Free, Open Source, and available for Windows, Mac and Linux.
I wonder, in fact, why in this age of ever-briefer media why publications like the New York Press don't focus their unspectacular music reviewing (as opposed to their movie reviewing, which is good) into something that could attract the impatient millions who never pick up their paper: running a single, big, recommendation of an unknown album every issue. It would play a practical function: you don't have time to listen to 100 albums per week, we do; this was the best one you would never have heard of without us. Wouldn't that move papers and sell ads?

Or is music just inherently more subjective a matter of taste than movies or books? I hardly ever read a rave review of a book, only to buy it and decide it's not so great (although this has been happening more lately, for example with Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore). This sometimes happens with movies, but for the most part I can trust that approval from the NY Times or Village Voice means a movie is worth seeing. But as for music, I'll dislike a recommended album as often as like it, and there's no one whose advice I've had good luck taking. Is it that way for other people?

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Blogger Alice on Thu May 11, 06:10:00 PM:
You think the movie reviews in New York Press are good? Armond White's bombastic, occasionally incomprehensible reviews are terrible. Too often, he resorts to damning other critics and artists in parentheses or asides--a cheap move if you ask me. Are movie reviews suppose to ridicule readers, or do they invite them to look at a film in a different way? Even when I agree with one of White's criticisms, I find myself disagreeing with the ends to which he takes them (for instance, I saw what he was saying about "Cache" but didn't think that other critics only liked it because it was bland):

http://www.nypress.com/18/52/film/film1.cfm

I also don't like being berated for not liking every single movie Steven Spielberg or James L. Brooks has ever done. White's music criticism--here's an example from Slate--is over-determined, too:

http://www.slate.com/id/2140918/

"Because Morrissey has few champions among those mainstream American pop critics preoccupied with business-as-usual routines by Pink, T.I., Beth Orton, and the Arctic Monkeys, the millennial vision and excitement—the progress—of Ringleader has been overlooked."

Can Morissey's new album be good without other music critics being fools? (Also, the only Beth Orton I've heard lately was on a car commercial, so her new album can't be that overhyped, and saying the Arctic Monkeys are overexposed is like shooting [to quote D.Sloane] monkeys in a barrel). There's more:

"That doesn't mean he's made a political record in the conventional sense. Morrissey, too clever for Bono's po-faced sincerity, eschews the self-congratulatory earnestness of the maudlin sloganeers and the peacenik righteousness of Vietnam-era pop musicians. Instead, Ringleader is aggrieved—candidly personal yet vividly reportorial. The songs are full of the mixed emotions that characterize our conflicted allegiances. Whatever one's position on Iraq, Gitmo, or that mosque down the street, Morrissey's perspicacity fits the mood through his indulgence of complex, contradictory feelings."

That's a lot of big words and backhanded insults to characterize a "complex" album.