Monday, August 31, 2009

Supposed Former Pop Music Junkie

Author's Note: I wrote this piece in 1998, between my junior and senior years of college. I had just read Nick Horby's High Fidelity, and it loomed large in my mind. The piece was printed my college newspaper, the Augustana Observer that same year. I present it here (mostly) as it appeared there.

There was a troublesome stage of my youth when I had insomnia for a ridiculously long series of nights. I would lay in my bed sometimes three to five hours with no sleep, my mind a tangle of confused thoughts and anxiety. My parents only advice: Listen to the radio before you go to bed, it’ll calm you.

I know one thing, that radio was my insomnia’s worst enemy. The songs were almost inevitably about something complex, with minor chords and sad lyrics. I hated the radio.

It soured me on listening to music for a long time. Oh, I would tune in to Casey’s Top 40 to hear Milli Vinilli, and I almost never missed the “Top Five at Nine” where “Do the Bartman” was always number two. But MTV was never on in my house (I missed a lot of good videos), and the only music I ever bought were “Weird Al” Yankovic tapes. And life was grand with just Al and me.

Later there was K-Mart, where I worked for two long years and was subjected to forty hour-a-week exposure to “The K-Mart Radio Network”. How many times can one man listen to Afternoon Delight and Seasons in the Sun and keep his wits about him? I seemed in no danger of being corrupted by pop music.

But the musical fates would not let me be. In late 1993, my best friend mentioned that he had really been into the Beatles lately. On a whim I bought a greatest hits tape and within two weeks I had at least seven tapes. I immersed myself in the lads from Liverpool. I bought biographies and read them voraciously. I watched documentaries attempting to become a Beatle expert. When I got a CD player the next year, the first CD I bought was Revolver.

And then an unfortunate thing happened. When I became briefly burned out on the Beatles, I found myself with a desperate need for more pop music. I had become a junkie, a pop music addict. I started out with groups who were significantly Beatle-esque: Oasis, Elton John, XTC. Then I began seeking out bands I had loved as a kid: the Monkees, Van Halen, the Beach Boys, the Police. And this led to more. The early to mid-'90s, was a great time for new music. I got into R.E.M., Talking Heads, They Might Be Giants, Toad the Wet Sprocket. Each group I listened to and liked led me to another group. My CD collection grew uncontrollably.

That's not even the worst part. As I became more and more saturated with pop music, the quality of my life diminished. It was subtle at first. I began to wake up in the mornings with that distinct feeling that something was terribly wrong. Not being able to attribute that feeling to anything, I wandered aimlessly through my days, restless and hazy. My grades began to drop, my friends stopped calling, my parents grew to strongly dislike me; even my dog shied away. One day I awoke to a Police song on the radio (Wrapped Around Your Finger), and despite never having been in a situation remotely like the one described in the song, I found myself desperately wanting to.

I genuflected. Why would I want to succomb to a manipulative, slightly evil woman, as the song seems to detail? What if the music was messing with my psyche? What if those pop albums were screwing with my brittle emotions? What if I was purposely making my life worse just to identify with sad, tortured songs, while at the same time robbing myself of the better life hinted at in the happier songs? I became afraid.

One day soon after, I was enjoying pizza at a local establishment. On the placemat, I read about scientific study under the heading “Did You Know?”. It said that in the 1970s, experiments proved that plants relentlessly exposed to pop music died quickly. That was all the proof I needed. No way was I going out like a plant. So I went home, disconnected my stereo, packed up my CD’s, and sold them away.

My life immediately improved. My parents loved me again, I got on the dean's list, the dog returned to my lap, and I began to once again find myself with social plans on the weekend.Take it from me, pop music is evil. Sure, if you must, keep on listening to your John Coltrane and Mozart and Vivaldi, but heed my warning, avoid pop music. It will destroy your life. Oh, an occasional Tears of a Clown or Vogue won’t do too irreparable harm, but go no further than that!

As for me, I’m still recovering. I’m trying to be “clean”, but every once in awhile you might catch me as I’m walking to class, humming a few bars of We Can Work it Out with an embarrassed smile of indulgence on my face.

Friday, August 28, 2009

So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic: Lesson 3

Welcome to So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic, a ten-part instructional feature that will provide you with all the tips and tricks you need to become a real life music reviewer. As a matter of process, I've taken these lessons from exhaustive research into printed music reviews in Entertainment Weekly, Q, The New Yorker, Musician, Rolling Stone, and Spin. Additionally, I've looked into the uberhip perspective of Pitchfork.com. I also read many pieces by the godfather of music reviewing, Lester Bangs. And finally, I have not shied away from an examination of my own work here on 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds.

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Lesson 3: Birth Of the Cool

We spent Lesson 2 discussing the value of comparing and alluding to other artists in your reviews. We discussed making references that are obscure and specific, and the importance of withholding explanations for said references. But there's something more, a vital piece of comparing and alluding that every reviewer needs to know. Here it is. Are you ready?

Some artists are inherently cool. Others are not.

Thus, the basic premise is simplicity itself. When you want to make a positive comparison or allusion, you use a cool artist. When you want to denigrate the album or artist you're writing about, you compare them to someone uncool.

The complexity of this lesson lies in two questions you might be asking yourself.

1) How do I know who's cool and who's uncool?
There is no definitive list of cool and uncool artists. If you find yourself in need of such a list I'm sorry to say that it doesn't exactly bode well for your music reviewing future. HOWEVER, the purpose of So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic is to instruct, so I'll begrudgingly forgive you for your lack of knowledge. Here's a general rule of thumb. If a band is commercially successful and loved by teenagers and people who shop at Wal-Mart regularly, then they're not cool. If your mom likes them, they're uncool. If people who are members of fraternities and sororities like a band, they're uncool. If you are the first one in your inner circle to "discover" an artist, they're cool. If the band was considered cool when you were a teenager or in your twenties, they'll always be cool. If the college radio station plays the band, they're cool. There's a little bit more to it, as we'll see, but that gives you someplace to start.

2) Who decides who's cool and uncool anyway?
Ah, this question is more like it. It shows an insightful mind. And I think you'll like the answer: You do. Sure, you inherit pre-existing lists, but ultimately, you, the music critic, have the power to deem a new artist cool or uncool, to turn an uncool musician cool, or to create a backlash against a previously-cool artist. This is a great power, and you must use it responsibly.

Here's how:

Most music critics use the existing cool/uncool lists in an almost offhand way. Often they will make a comparison or allusion to an artist or album and not even explain whether they intended it to be positive or negative. But it's there in the subtext, relying on the reader's assumed knowledge of who's cool and who's not. For example, look at this bit of work from Ann Powers' 2001 review of U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind in Spin:
"After Pop, 1997's uncomfortable tip-toe into techno, they've realized that the rash pursuit of the moment only works for Madonna. Self-respect demands U2 ignore Kid Rock and eliminate the need for Creed."
Now we're meant to understand that Madonna is cool and Kid Rock and Creed are not. Powers gave us some clues to that conclusion, though we're not told specifically why Kid Rock and Creed are uncool. We're just meant to know it intuitively. Plus she got some rhyming in there, which is always good.

Let's look at a more obtuse (and thus superior) example, courtesy of the folks at Pitchfork.com. In his 2000 review of Steely Dan's Grammy-winning Two Against Nature album Brent DiCrescenzo compares the record to a "Daniel Lanois-produced collaboration between the Dave Matthews Band and Kenny G." The scathing nature of the review (we'll actually look at it in more detail in Lesson 4) alerts the reader that Daniel Lanois, DMB, and Kenny G (and Steely Dan, for that matter) are all obviously uncool, so no further explanation is needed.

BUT, you may ask, what if the reader thinks that Kid Rock's Cowboy and Creed's Arms Wide Open are pretty good songs? What if he or she loved the Dave Matthews Band's Under the Table and Dreaming album? What if he or she thinks that Lanois did a pretty darn good production job on Peter Gabriel's So, Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy, U2's Achtung Baby, the Neville Brothers' Yellow Moon, and Ron Sexsmith's debut? Won't that reader be confused and not quite understand the point you're trying to make? Maybe, but as the writer you must divorce yourself of that responsibility. If the reader is ignorant or has bad taste, it's not your fault.

So we touched on what's uncool. But what about the flip side? Well, here are some artists that you could never go wrong with using as a measuring stick for coolness: Neil Young, Radiohead, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, all pre-1970 jazz musicians, Public Image Ltd., Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Sonic Youth, all rappers (except isolated white ones and, ironically, Coolio), Van Morrison, Frank Zappa, Sly and the Family Stone, all blues artists, Led Zeppelin, Spoon, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Big Star, all Motown artists, Jeff Buckley, Iron and Wine, Cocteau Twins, Wilco, and all pre-1970 country artists. Even if you have never heard a note by an artist on this list, you can still drop their name and appear in the know.

But again, do NOT take this list as gospel. The music critiquing business is a mercurial one, and that brings us to your power as a critic. If you boldly declare a new artist to be cool (usually by comparing them to other cool artists), most other critics will follow suit, because they'll assume you know something they don't. Likewise, you'll want to follow others' leads from time to time when you don't feel like creating your own opinion, or are afraid of looking stupid.

There also comes a time in every critic's life where she uses her power to create a backlash against a cool artist, effectively making them uncool. This power should be used with great discretion, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't sort of fun. And you'd be surprised at the collective unconscious of pop music critics. Once a backlash starts, it takes hold quickly. Let's take the example of R.E.M. When they started as an obtuse indie band they were immediately cool because they were obtuse and indie. 'Round about their fifth album, Document, the band started to become less obtuse and had a top 10 hit, The One I Love. This automatically made them less cool. Then they signed with a major label and had two more hits (Orange Crush and Stand), and they got even less cool. When Out of Time came out, the wild success of Losing My Religion, and the inclusion of an ultra-poppy tune Shiny Happy People, signaled that it was time for a critical backlash. This process, you see, has nothing to do with the quality of the work, only with the reception or the imagined intention. The band made it through the next album, Automatic For the People, with their cool mostly intact, but it was all used up from there on.

We'll cover this more in lesson 6, but you might look to Pitchfork reviewer Duane Ambroz for guidance here. In his review of R.E.M.'s Up, he puts forth a theory that states that every long-lasting musician goes through three stages: Vital, Catch-Up, and Old Fart. The gist of the theory is that all artists hit a wall wherein their creativity is all but gone. Ambroz claims it happened to R.E.M. after 1991's Automatic for the People (see?).

On the flip side, you are allowed to bestow retroactive cool. This involves taking a commercially successful-but-uncool band from the past and elevating them to cool status. This has happened with groups like ABBA and the Carpenters. This also works for forgotten bands who few people ever really cared about in the first place. Simply label them "influential" and your work is done.

Some artists reach a point where you might be afraid to challenge their coolness. Trust this instinct. Ask any wolf; it doesn't go well when you try to stray from the pack. Many of the artists listed above fit this category, and even though most of them have done several uncool things in their careers, they remain unscathed. Why? Because even though you, as a critic, may recognize that an artist has done something not-so-cool, you does not want to be the one who reveals that you don't get it. It's easier to laud the artist for "challenging the mainstream" or "following their muse" or being an "iconoclast." For example, if Neil Young releases an album of traditional Persian yodeling, it's a "visionary move." If a former member of the Backstreet Boys does it, it's fodder for derisive jeering (this is just a hypothetical, by the way, don't waste your time looking for either album).

As always, there are those who break the rules, with disastrous results. Ever the rebel, Lester Bangs often attempted to challenge the critic culture of cool. Consider his novel-length screed "Bob Dylan's Dalliance with Mafia Chic: He Ain't No Delinquent, He's Misunderstood" (March 1976, Village Voice). Most critics worship at Bob's feet, and justifiably so. Normally, Bangs could be counted among this number, but two songs on Dylan's '76 album Desire got under Lester's skin, and not in a Sinatra sort of way.

Bangs first posits that Hurricane (the true story of imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter) is not the result of impassioned feelings about race and injustice, but instead just something controversial Dylan wrote about to make himself appear socially relevant. He claims the same thing about George Jackson, a '72 single release about a communist Black Panther who died in prison in 1971. Check out this quote: "Dylan doesn't give a damn about Rubin Carter, and if he spent more than 10 minutes actually working on the composition of George Jackson then Bryan Ferry is a member of the Eagles." (Even while doing something wrong, Bangs does something right. Check out the savvy use of the cool/uncool dynamic in that analogy).

Bangs spends the rest of the article systematically demolishing Dylan's hypocritically celebratory Joey, an 11-minute paean to New York mobster Joey Gallo. The song hails Gallo as a folk hero, whereas in real life he was misogynistic, racist and murderous. Bangs appears to have done significant research into Gallo's life, and includes relevant quotes from his research and Dylan's song. But his whole thesis is terribly flawed for one simple reason: You don't question greatness, you make apologies for it.

Bangs also wrote a piece in the September 1973 issue of Creem praising Anne Murray's Danny's Song album song-by-song and calling her "the real thing." Yes, Anne Murray, the mom-approved Canadian light rock songstress. So, we know he can't be fully trusted.

You, however, can trust that I'll be back next week with Lesson 4: Viva Hate. Until then, stay, well, you know.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Rock Bottom: Weezer

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not alw
ays agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

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I saw the news the other day that Weezer's seventh album, Raditude, is due October 27, and you would have needed a very sensitive scale to measure my interest. Oh, how the mighty hath fallen. Circa 2002, after their Green Album return and before the release of Maladroit, I monitored Weezer.com daily. Let me repeat, DAILY. I was desperate for any news I could get.

Now granted, I'm not web-obsessed with any bands these days. Part of it is that my life is a little fuller than it was then, and part of it is that all of the artists who were the object of such an obsession gave me reason to quit. One broke up (XTC), one might as well have (Smashing Pumpkins), and one has only put out three new songs in the past 12 years (Van Halen). Weezer has no such excuse, save an alarming descent into mediocrity.

Let me stop here and qualify that statement. I admit that I have a bias on this. Weezer's first two albums (1994's Weezer and 1996's Pinkerton) hit me at an extremely impressionable time, and I hold them in very high esteem. But I would never take my bias and use it to pan an artist's new work, because that would suggest two insidious things. For one, it implies that no new album could ever possibly live up to the beloved early favorites, that the artist is incapable of ever again achieving such greatness. That's a closed-minded, cynical view (and would any music writer want to be told that the the first reviews they wrote were perfect and that they'll never be able to write anything as good?). Two, hating a new album because it isn't like an earlier favorite is basically a refusal to allow for change. An artist may subtly or drastically change his or her style and as fans and critics we don't have a say in that, even if the new status quo isn't to our liking. We're allowed to complain, sure, but eventually we have to let it go.

So when I say that Weezer has descended into mediocrity, I really mean that I haven't found any of their latter-day records to be as compelling as I found their first two to be.

But enough about what I think (at least for now). What do the critics and fans have to say about Weezer's worst album? The margin on this one was razor thin. My three usual go-to sources, AllMusic Guide, Rolling Stone, and Amazon.com, split the difference between Make Believe (2005) and the Red Album (2008). In fact, they ended up dead even, with AllMusic giving the rock bottom nod to the former and Amazon.com bestowing it upon the latter. I had to go that extra mile, to Metacritic.com. The site, which averages all available reviews of an album into a score out of 100, settled it. Make Believe got a 52. The Red Album got a 64.

Shows you what I know. Make Believe is solidly in the middle of my Weezer album quality scale. I'd rank it at forth (possibly even third) out of their six albums. So why do so many others have it dead last? Of course, I did some research to find to know exactly where the disconnect happened. It wasn't easy at first.

AllMusic Guide's Stephen Thomas Earlwine spends two paragraphs comparing the album to Pinkerton before deciding that "something separates Make Believe from previous Weezer albums: a palpable sense of optimism, a feeling of hope, a new positivity." That's all well and good, but Earlwine is pretty sure that the fans don't want positivity in their Weezer songs. He also allows that "it's pretty much a given that [fans] won't respond to Rick Rubin's sleek, layered, propulsive production, which makes Weezer sound far more new wave than Ric Ocasek [producer of their first and third albums] ever did. But let those fans pine for the past, because the very things that they'll find irritating about Make Believe are what make it yet another first-rate Weezer record." His final conclusion is that fans will need time to accept and love Make Believe, just like they did for Pinkerton. It's a fair point, but does that sound like a description of the worst album in a band's oeuvre? Well, the truth is that Earlwine is just a big Weezer fan, judging by the baffling 4.5 star rating he gave the Red Album.

Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield is similarly positive about the album. He says it's a "breakthrough" for the band, and that "Cuomo's songs are his most plaintive and brilliant since Pinkerton." So, again, not really what you typically hear about a band's worst album.

Things start to make more sense when we look elsewhere. Pitchfork.com reviewer Rob Mitchum writes a savage but mostly well-argued critique of the album. He finds little originality or personality in the songwriting and feels the song-selection could have been much better given how many tunes the band had to choose from (songwriter Rivers Cuomo is very prolific). I don't agree with most of his points, but he makes them the minimal amount of unnecessary negativity and hipster posturing (regular Pitchfork readers will know this is nothing to take for granted). In fact, the only petty thing about Mitchum's review is his final rating of the album. He gave it a 0.4 out of 10. That's right, four tenths of a point out of 10. His reasoning? Not listed, and probably arbitrary. I understand not liking something. Give it a zero then, or a one. A 0.4 is just an attempt to be cute.

But, Amazon.com reviewers back him up. The complaints about the album are fairly consistent: The band sold out (T.Gore: "This album goes beyond cheezy, I mean its like listening to a bad version of the Monkees"), the music is unoriginal and overly-polished (Pixies Fan: "Whats up with the crappy 80's metal guitar solos Rivers. You can tell their manager told them what to write and to write it like all the other crappy music going around these days"), the lyrics are laughable (Rusty Camino: "Every time Rivers lays down a lyric, you hope, pray, burst blood vessels begging the gods of art to not allow the couplet you're about to witness end with the most obvious rhyming counterpart you've ever heard. Then you forget to think there must be no gods of art, because you're too busy cringing at "sometimes I let you go/sometimes I hurt you so.") More than a few reviewers used some combination of the following comments: "I used to love Weezer but not anymore", "say it ain't so", and "make believe this album is actually good".

So, who's right? Earlwine, Sheffield, and myself? Or Mitchum and the legions of former Weezer fans who took their anger to Amazon.com? Well, it seems we all have valid points. Make Believe isn't a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination, nor does it approach the quality of the Blue Album or Pinkerton. But is it really worth 0.4 out of 10? Is it really "garbage" or a "career killer" as Devin S. Carney and C. Davis assert? No.

Here's my theory: I think the rancor directed toward Make Believe was really a long-burning frustration finally boiling over. I think most early Weezer were slightly disappointed in the Green Album, but most of us were just happy that the band was back after 5 years. And the songs were buzzy and sugary enough to forgive their lyrical shortcomings. But when the same thing happened on Maladroit and the songs that weren't nearly as memorable, serious doubt began to creep in.

I seriously think that by the time Make Believe came out most fans were finally coming to terms with the fact that the Weezer they loved was probably not coming back. And that's somewhat ironic, because the album actually goes some way in rectifying the problems with Maladroit. In fact, that was the focus of my 2005 review of the album. I found a lot to like then, and upon relistening now, I feel the same. The lyrics find Rivers opening up again, perhaps not to the level of the lonely admissions of In the Garage (where the narrator takes refuge in role-playing games, comic books, and dreaming about being a member of KISS) or the somewhat creepy thoughts of Across the Sea (impure fantasies about an 18-year-old Japanese fan), but opening up nonetheless.

Why then, if Make Believe got an unfair rap, why wasn't last year's lackluster Red Album the final nail in the coffin? How did it get a higher ranking from critics? Well, I have answers for those queries. Though that album continued the band's return to more personal territory, it also had the benefit of low expectations and general apathy. Critics had used up their epithets on Make Believe, and were now looking for a sniff of redemption. That's always a good angle. The album was "quirky" and "experimental" too, and critics are always hesitant to dismiss anything they may not fully understand. The fan reaction is more telling. Most of them gave up on Weezer with Make Believe, so the Red Album was met with general apathy and major boredom (apologies to Ben Folds). This shows in how few fans actually bothered to even review the album on Amazon.com (Make Believe has 344 reviews, the Red Album only has 120).

My final argument for Make Believe not being Weezer's true Rock Bottom is the iTunes Test. To keep the number of songs manageable on my iTunes, I rarely upload entire albums. I cherrypick favorite tracks. The iTunes Test, then, is a simple numbers game. The better an album is, the more tracks I've kept in my music library. The first three Weezer albums are there in their entirety. I have 6 tracks from Make Believe, two from the Red Album (Pork and Beans and Heart Songs), and one from Maladroit (Keep Fishin').

By that test, then Maladroit would be the worst Weezer album. At first I thought maybe the test had failed me. I was more likely to name the Red Album, with its combination of over-the-top goofiness (The Greatest Man That Ever Lived and Everybody Get Dangerous) and boring tracks (Dreamin', Cold Dark World, etc.), as the band's nadir. But then I realized that Maladroit has something worse on its resume. None of the songs are truly terrible, but it was the first time the band really disappointed me, the first time I realized that maybe they weren't what I thought.

That's a tough realization, and a definite Rock Bottom moment.

Friday, August 21, 2009

So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic: Lesson 2

Welcome to So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic, a ten-part instructional feature that will provide you with all the tips and tricks you need to become a real life music reviewer. As a matter of process, I've taken these lessons from exhaustive research into printed music reviews in Entertainment Weekly, Q, The New Yorker, Musician, Rolling Stone, and Spin. Additionally, I've looked into the uberhip perspective of Pitchfork.com. I read many pieces by the godfather of music reviewing, Lester Bangs. And finally, I have not shied away from an examination of my own work here on 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds.

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Lesson 2: Artists Only

As we learned in Lesson 1, using words to describe music is hard (at least as hard as math is for Barbie). Evoking the instrumentation, melody, harmony, etc. of the music, or elaborating on the way a certain lyric makes you feel, is difficult work. Figurative language can help, but even that is limited in its reach. So what's left? Two words: Artist Comparisons!

It's a tested-and-true didactic principle: Introduce something unfamiliar by using something familiar. By referencing an artist or song the reader knows, you can create a frame of reference for the unheard music. However, as we'll learn, the best music critics don't worry if the comparison point is familiar or not. You may ask: How can a reader comprehend my review if I use something unfamiliar to describe something unfamiliar? You should understand now that this is not your concern as a music writer.

Similarly, you'll want to make allusions to artists, songs, and albums whenever possible. Allusions, as I have defined them here, are cases where the writer references an artist, song, or album in a thematic, circumstantial, or historical way, instead of a musical way. Allusions can help place a new album or artist into the context of the current pop music market, or in pop music history, but, more importantly, they allow you to show off your extensive musical knowledge.

There are times when songs really do resemble each other in melody (such as The Strokes' Razorblade parroting the chorus of Barry Manilow's Mandy) and times when artists are intentionally or unintentionally evocative of another artist in style or sound (like when Prince does homages to Al Green, as he does on Adore, The Most Beautiful Girl In the World, and Call My Name). Pointing these sorts of incidences out in your review is a start, but it's also base level stuff, amateur hour. Too many reviewers get stuck there.

Let's look at how we can go deeper and use comparisons and allusions more effectively and extensively.

First, I've done some informal number-crunching. In the 30 professional, published music reviews I've studied as part of this project, there were 102 total comparison and allusions, making for an average of 3.5 musical references per review. This seems like a low number, but some reviewers pulled more weight than others. There were actually 5 reviews that contained no comparisons or allusions AT ALL! Can you imagine? That left the British and the Internet reviewers to do the heavy lifting.

David Cavanagh and Danny Eccleston (both of Q) and Ryan Schreiber (Pitchfork.com) each gave us a whopping 8 or more comparisons and allusions in their reviews of Radiohead's OK Computer and Amnesiac. Now that's more like it.

As a reward to these hard-workin' fellas, lets use their reviews as exemplars. See, it's not enough to make lots of comparisons. You want to think strategically about what kind of comparisons and allusions you make, and for what reason. (I'll mention here that some comparisons are inherently negative and some are inherently positive. You'll learn to discern those in Lesson 3.) Anyway, what you really want to do, as stated earlier, is think about the quality of your comparisons or allusions. How specific can you get? How obscure can you get? Let's look at some examples:

Cavanagh plays it fairly safe in his OK Computer review, bringing up the typical touchstones: U2, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, the Doors. He throws some King Crimson, Smashing Pumpkins, and Leo Sayer in there for good measure. But here's where he really distinguishes himself: "Karma Police," he says, "is what might have resulted musically had The Bogus Man period Roxy Music ever tried to play Sexy Sadie by the Beatles." Now THAT's got what you want. It's specific, obscure, and mostly inexplicable. My only complaint is that Cavanagh saw fit to say the artists' names instead of just giving the song titles and letting the reader figure the rest out.

Eccleston recycles the King Crimson, Bowie, and U2 mentions in his review of Amnesiac, but mixes it up with some Belle Stars, Tom Waits, and Joy Division comparisons. He brings up Miles Davis' Bitches Brew album (always a good one to add in there because it sounds cool and few people have actually ever listened to it) and one-ups his colleague by bringing up unattributed song titles The Lambeth Walk, Black Dog, and I'm Horny (the first is from the musical Me and My Girl, the second is a Led Zeppelin tune on Zoso, and the latter could be one of any number of songs by that title, but again, none of this is rightly explained in the review itself).

Finally we have Schreiber, who makes it three-for-three on U2, seconds Pink Floyd, and adds Talking Heads, Talk Talk, Can, Neil Young, and Louis Armstrong into the discussion. He references "IDM artists" which allows him to be both oblique AND maximize the number of comparisons, since that term could include at least 50 different artists. I'm loathe to tell you this, but if you really don't know, IDM stands for intelligent dance music, which includes electronica artists such as Aphex Twin, Future Sound of London, or The Orb. Finally, Schreiber claims that Amnesiac resurrects a long-dead style of music, which he labels "Edison-era big band." Edison (and I'm assuming he meant Thomas Alva) died in 1931, and the Big Band era started in the early '30s as well. So, really, the term makes no sense. But it sounds like it does, and that's what's most important.

In fact, that's the reason for all of this. Making allusions and comparisons isn't really something a critic does to help the reader hear the music you're describing. If that happens, well, it's a pleasant side effect. The best music critics use comparisons and allusions to sound self-important, impress other music geeks, and show off their extensive knowledge of pop music ephemera.

And that brings us to the final part of this lesson. You might have already gleaned this, but it's worth repeating: Don't waste time or energy explaining the reasoning behind your references. It levels the playing field too much. In fact, let's look at what it sounds like when a reviewer stoops to this level. Sasha Frere-Jones, in his New Yorker review of Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine, compares the album to Elvis Costello's 1982 opus Imperial Bedroom. Instead of just letting the reader puzzle this out, he actually justifies the comparison! Both records, he writes, concern romantic relations and "display a similar balance of attacks and retreats." Garbage, that.

One last note. Should you be inclined, there's no need to limit your comparisons and allusions to the genre of pop music. You can reference politics, movies, literature, philosophers, etc. as long as you follow the same rules as above, in other words, no explaining. We can use Lester Bangs, the godfather of music criticism, as a model here. In a 1981 Village Voice piece, Bangs wrote about British band Wire. In his intro he pokes gentle fun at other VV writers for always including "cross-cultural references" in their work, and then proceeds to throw in a barely-relevant quote about French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine to complete the joke. However, Bangs goes on to make no less than 12 allusions. In addition to the requisite musical ones (Ramones, Angel, Pink Floyd, the No New York compilation, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Tommy James and the Shondells) he throws in Allan Ginsburg, Andy Warhol, Samuel Beckett, Papa Lou, Thomas Alva Edison (him again!), and Buck Rogers.

In my own work I've occasionally tried to ignore the inherent truth of this lesson. Here are the 2004 words of a bright-eyed and horribly misguided young man, in a review of the Delays' Faded Seaside Glamour album:
"I enjoy writing CD reviews, but sometimes find my musical vocabulary so limited as to be frustrating. I take comfort in the fact that I'm not alone. Just a glance through the latest issue of Spin reveals that the prevailing method of describing an artist is comparing them to another artist. You know: This songwriter has the lyrical dexterity of early Dylan combined with the gloomy soundscapes of the Cure, or that band takes the pomposity of Tattoo You-era Stones and adds the sensitivity of Dashboard Confessional. Or: It's like Trout Mask Replica as recorded by Sweetheart Of The Rodeo-era Byrds."
and
"As for this tendency to compare artists, I'm going to start right now and be one small voice that doesn't do it, as strong as the temptation may be. Instead, I'm going to keep it personal, and seek out new ways to express in words what I hear."
Ahhh, the manifesto of the naive. Despite my intentions, I soon reverted back to my old ways, because I realized the folly of attempting to change a perfect system that has already been in place for years. It wasn't until 2007, when reviewing Rilo Kiley's genre-hopping Under the Blacklight, that I once again tried to rebel. I vowed to write that review without making any comparisons, and I did it, though it took every iota of willpower I had to not write that the song Dreamworld could have been a Tango In the Night b-side. The review would have been that much better for it.

And I must admit, though I've learned the error of my ways, my comparison and allusion average is still lower than it should be. In a random sampling of ten of my reviews, I averaged only 2.5 comparisons or allusions per review, and that number is probably inflated, helped mightily by a piece on Keane's Hopes and Fears that contained a whopping 11 artist references. So I will continue to work on this myself, perhaps using that review as my model. I still have lots to learn.

I hope YOU learned something from this week's lesson as well. Join me here again next Friday for Lesson 3: Birth of the Cool. See you then.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Monkees Wrap-Up

In January of this year, I decided that I would take on the task of relistening to and reviewing every single Monkees album. Boy, am I glad to be done with that project. I've done the same concept before, both faster (every Talking Heads album in two weeks) and larger (all 15 Beatles releases), but this one somehow felt more epic. Perhaps it was the rollercoaster history of the group, or the variable quality of the releases, but it was sort of exhausting.

What conclusions, one might ask, did the reviewer draw from the experience? Well, most of all, I find my admiration of the Monkees concept and execution to be as strong as ever. This is despite the many wonky decisions made by those involved. I also think that the Monkees' story, when viewed as a whole, is a sad one, despite all of the joyful music they made. I have the feeling that Davy, Peter, Mickey, and Mike will never be fully appreciated for their contributions to pop music history (certainly it'd be a huge surprise if they ever made it into the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame).

Do you want more Monkees? Maybe read my review of the '80s reincarnation of the band, the New Monkees. Then seek out the Missing Links CDs from Rhino. I declined to review them, but all three volumes feature many great tunes that never made it on to a Monkees album (even as bonus tracks). They really are a testament to the improbable amount of quality material the Monkees were able to create in a very brief window of time (basically less than 4 years). Plus, where else are you going to find (Theme from) the Monkees in Spanish? Finally, Monkees fan Al Bigley found me via these reviews, and shared his podcast, which contains lovingly remixed versions of several Monkees tunes. AND, Dartman's World of Wonder is doing A Month of Monkees, with several imaginative and informative posts (plus MP3s).

That should keep you busy for awhile.

As for me, you might be wondering who's catalog I'll take on next. Believe it or not, I've chosen to take on another titan of my musical youth, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and all 12 of his albums.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, August 14, 2009

So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic: Lesson 1

Welcome to So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic, a ten-part instructional feature that will provide you with all the tips and tricks you need to become a real life music reviewer. As a matter of process, I've taken these lessons from exhaustive research into printed music reviews in Entertainment Weekly, Q, The New Yorker, Musician, Rolling Stone, and Spin. Additionally, I've looked into the uberhip perspective of Pitchfork.com. I read many pieces by the godfather of music reviewing, Lester Bangs. And finally, I have not shied away from an examination of my own work here on 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds.

* * *

Lesson 1: Language in Our Lungs

Music critics, like most writers who wish to be universally beloved, must be maestros of the symphony of language. Metaphors that sing, similes that sting, and adjectives that assault the senses are the engine that drive the intricate machinery of pop music writing. Additionally, the importance of hyperbole can never be overexaggerated. Also vital is a mastery of wordplay. The expert use of pun, double entendre, and idiom will enhance your musical musings, providing a devil-may-care insouciance. Finally, there are certain vocabulary words every music critic must learn and utilize liberally.

Don't worry if that lesson seemed to go fast. That's just the introduction. Let's go deeper...

A) Simile and Metaphor
Poetic license by nature has no set limits, but I made up some rules anyway. As we'll see in Lesson 2, describing music with language is a daunting task. Simile and metaphor are your loyal soldiers in that battle, but you'll want to be strategic about the ones you choose to deploy. Let's look at some examples from real-life professional music critics. In her review of U2's 2001 album All That You Can't Leave Behind, Ann Powers (Spin) remarks that "the record detours into eddies U2 have explored before." Is an eddy really something to be explored? Is the album a river? That metaphor sent me on an unwanted mental detour. Just as bafflingly, Rob Mitchum (Pitchfork.com) compares two versions of Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine, and says that on the redone version "the fleshing out is kept skeletal." Whahuh?

David Cavanagh (Q) reviewed Radiohead's 1997 masterpiece (can I say that?) OK Computer and says that Thom Yorke's voice "has the terrible shiver of a toddler who can't for the life of him stop crying." Perhaps Cavanagh has been spending too much time at a preschool, but no matter, it's an evocative comparison. Another David, Browne this time (Entertainment Weekly), takes on another Radiohead album (2000's Kid A), and says it "make the daunting OK Computer seem as accessible as a sitcom theme song." I'd like to watch that show. He also calls Radiohead "the Ralph Nader of pop" but I'm not sure if that's a compliment or insult.

But the ultimate power of the simile and metaphor rests in their ability to put sounds into words. Examples of this are rare because it's kind hard. Danny Eccleston's (Q) comparison of the piano in Radiohead's Pyramid Song to "water lapping on the shoreline" is a touchstone for this type of metaphor. But doing this kind of comparison work may take some actual knowledge of the music-making process (or at least the ability to fake it), and thus is recommended for only sparse usage. Take Will Hermes' (Rolling Stone) review of Death Cab For Cutie's 2008 album Narrow Stairs. In comparing it to the band's previous effort, he says, "Elaborate multitrack recording has been replaced with the sound of a band in a room: drum hits elbowing through overmodulating bass lines, feedback squalls obscuring piano and vocals, clotting the air like smoke. The sense of claustrophobia even extends to the breaks between tracks, which are nonexistent or fleeting; songs are cut off by noise bursts or begin with the lurch of a tape-machine capstan." Pretty, wasn't that?

B) Hyperbole
Often it isn't enough to give an album a negative, middling, or positive review. Readers want sweeping, audacious, unverifiable statements about their music. Thus we have comments such as Jim Macnie's (Musician) belief that N.W.A's Straight Outta Comption is "the most severe record that hip-hop has produced" and his Musician colleague James Hunter's assertion that John Cougar Mellancamp's Jackie Brown is "one of the most unblinking portrayals in rock of the tragedy of poverty" (where was his editor on that one?). We'll get more into it in Lesson 10, but one must always remember not to qualify statements with weak language such as "in my opinion." Instead, do like Cavanagh does in his OK Computer review and call Paranoid Android "the song of the year." This way, a reader knows that he doesn't just like the song, he thinks that it is better than ANY OTHER SONG released in 1997.

C) Colorful Language, Adjectives, Technical Terminology, and Puns
Good writing is always sensory and memorable, like the last tiny bit of melted chocolate that lingers on the tongue. Consider the effect when Macnie says that Straight Outta Compton "gives race relations an uzi up the ass" or Brent DiCrescenzo's (Pitchfork) rather ironic assertion that Bono's lyrics are written with "reckless chops of the hackneyed sword."

Likewise, you'll want to start using your thesaurus whenever possible. The more obscure the adjective you use, the more intelligent you'll seem to your readers. Here's a sampling of words culled from reviews in the above-mentioned publications: Ecclesiastical, messianic, scrofulous, milieu, Christmassy, hermetic, masturbatory, and neurasthenic.

Music criticism is resplendent with technical terms you'll want to use as much as humanly possible. Creating a complete list of these is beyond the bounds of this project, but you might want to refer to a 2005 publication called The Rock Snob's Dictionary. In it, you'll find definitions for terms such as trad jazz, supergroup, AOR, MOR, Stax/Volt, jangle, Muscle Shoals, EP, acetate, dub, skronk, Krautrock, emocore, underground, and rewards repeat listening. You might also want to become intimate with words like pivotal, seminal, dated, overproduced, and underproduced (you might be tempted to label these as subjective terms, but again, just you wait until Lesson 10).

Finally, and this one is so important that you might want to consider getting it tattooed somewhere on your body (preferably somewhere you can see it without the help of a friend or two mirrors). NEVER PASS ON A PUN!!! If you can somehow create a pun based on the artist's name, the album name, a song name, or all three, you are absolutely obligated to do so. This is always the professional thing to do. To whit, when Fiona Apple's 2005 album Extraordinary Machine was released, writers for Spin, Entertainment Weekly, and The New Yorker used the following titles for their reviews: "One Bad Apple", "Apple 2.0", and "Extraordinary Measures".

This is, I'll admit, an area where my own reviews are often deficient. Looking back, I realize I missed several opportunities. For example, in my recent review of The Monkees' The Birds, The Bees, and The Monkees album, I should have included one of the following sentences in my conclusion: "This album is for the birds" or "There's no need to have a serious talk with your children about The Birds, the Bees, and The Monkees." See what I did there? Oh, and here's a freebie. I probably won't write about Owl City's new album Ocean Eyes, but if I did, my first line would be, "Here's why you should give a hoot about Owl City."

In summary, I leave you with this thought about the importance of today's lesson: If we didn't have language, how would you be reading this right now?

I hope you are smarter now than you were before you started reading this entry. Come back next Friday for Lesson 2: Artists Only.

Monday, August 10, 2009

233. The Monkees: Justus (1996)

In keeping with their let's-get-together-every-10-years schedule (debut in '66, Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart in '76, Then and Now... in '86), the Monkees convened in 1996 to make a new album.

This was significant for a couple of reasons. For one, it marked the first time since 1968 that all four members agreed to participate in a Monkees project. For another, they decided that, like their landmark Headquarters album, they would do everything themselves. And the result was Justus (get it?).

I suppose the boys had the idea that the album would, once and for all, establish them as a true band. Even Headquarters featured an outside producer, a couple of session players, and songs by professional songwriters, but Justus, is really that, just the Monkees. They wrote, played, and produced everything themselves.

Now keep in mind that at this point Mickey, Davy, Peter, and Mike were rusty. In the early '90s Mike had picked back up music-making after a decade-plus hiatus and Peter, Mickey, and Davy had toured sporadically as the Monkees since 1987, but this was hardly musical heavy-lifting (I saw them in the fall of '95 and they had a full backing band; Peter was the only one with an instrument). I refuse to believe musical talent ebbs with age, but any underexercised muscle is bound to go weak with disuse. And let's face it, the Monkees' music-creating muscle (Nesmith aside) was never that toned in the first place.

Put simply, Justus is just not that good.

The Classics:
Nothing to see here. Let's move on.

The Pleasant Surprises
The album's first pretty good song is its second one, Never Enough. The song has a nice chorus, and all the boys get to sing along. Mickey wrote and sang lead.

The biggest surprise on Justus is that Davy Jones more than holds his own. Both of his composing contributions, Oh What a Night and album closer It's Not Too Late, come on like typical Davy fluff. The latter even starts with the cringeworthy line, "If I had a penny for everytime I thought about you / I'd be a millionaire." But both get better as they go along, delivering strong choruses, straightforward arrangements, and the whole band singing together (something I always wished would happen more). It's Not Too Late's big finale even features Mickey trying to outsing everyone, and Davy ratcheting it up a notch himself to overtake Mickey at the end.

You and I is a remake of the Mickey and Davy tune on Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart, and it's a good one. The arrangement here is slightly more prosaic than the original, but it has the same charm. I even had a dream where this song was performed in a karaoke bar and everyone in the place sang along and harmonized. Speaking of recycled songs...

Comme Ci, Comme Ca:
For whatever reason, the boys decided to re-record 1968's Circle Sky for this album and make it the opener. Maybe they thought that it would be new to the scores of people who didn't see Head or buy the soundtrack album? At any rate, despite some clearer enunciation by Nesmith the new version isn't much better or worse than the original, and thus seems unnecessary.

Unlucky Stars is Mickey's shot at a '50s style ballad. It's a successful attempt overall, but doesn't really stand out.

I Believe You, Peter Tork's only singing showcase on the album, is a kind of a free-form jazz experiment. It's not something I personally want to listen to repeatedly, but the choral bits and the fact that it's Peter's only lead vocal make it worthwhile.

WTF?
What happened to Mickey? He's still the dominant Monkee as usual, but his once-reliable vocals are not so trustworthy on Justus. On Dyin' of a Broken Heart and Regional Girl his voice sounds strained. The former is a half-hearted rocker with some good guitar work and some lame lyrics ("You lived through Nixon and a drug or two / Just to get your due / Dyin' of a broken heart"). The latter is not bad lyrically, but has no real melody or hook.

It's My Life is Mickey's crooner moment, wherein he looks back on his life and the hard-earned wisdom he's earned (but no regrets, never those). He might has well have have covered My Way and been done with it. And again, his vocal is just not strong enough, which just kills a song like this one.

Run Away from Life is another Peter composition, but Davy takes the lead vocal. I think that was a mistake. The song's lyrics are okay, if a bit disturbing in their insinuation ("Let's go off into the heavens / In eternal happiness for free"), but the whole thing is strangely amelodic.

Finally, there's Admiral Mike. Mike wrote it (thus the title, I suppose), but Mickey sings. Why didn't Mike sing and showcase his involvement a little bit more? Who knows. Anyway, this is a vaguely psychedelic, vaguely punk, very angry song. What's Mike angry about? Ads and the people who sell them, and that's all he'll really say. I'm sure there's a story there, but it's not clear from the song itself. I don't mind the anger, really. I'm sure it's justified. But would it hurt too much to make it more fun to listen to?

Thus ends the long and twisty history of the Monkees. It's a difficult story to summarize, but I would say it's about four men who got caught in a huge commercial juggernaut and tried to make the best of it. Sometimes they were victims (More of the Monkees), sometimes they took over the controls (Headquarters, Head), sometimes they shot themselves in the foot (Instant Replay), and sometimes they just willingly surrendered in hopes of keeping the machine running (Changes, Pool It!).

If the sole purpose of Justus was for the Monkees to prove once-and-for-all that the Monkees could be a self-contained band, then they accomplished that in spades. The group followed their own muses, writing the types of lyrics and melodies they wanted to. They ignored the specter of commercial appeal and didn't try to recreate their classic sound in order to make a buck. That's definitely admirable (though the record company may not have agreed).

Unfortunately, good intentions alone do no a good listening experience make.

Grade: C-
Fave Song: It's Not Too Late / You and I

Friday, August 07, 2009

So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic?

Let's start with some existintial questions:

Why write review albums? Why read album reviews? What is the raison d'etre of music criticism? Is it a soapbox on which the writer spouts his or her opinions, thoughts, and philosophies? Is it a survivor's guide, providing the readers with trustworthy advice? Is it an encylopedia, providing information? Is it affirmation, or a conversation starter, or merely entertainment?

The answer is yes.

When I started as an unprofessional music critic nearly 6 years ago, I flew by the seat of my pants, with no flight plan, or air traffic control. Everything I learned about being a music critic, I learned from reading album reviews by other music critics. In fact, that's how every music critic learns. It's an incestuous process, but one with a clear logic to it.

Indeed, as I have continued to work at my craft over those 6 years, a clear pattern and set of rules emerged. I had been following them unconsciously, and my fellow music critics were doing the same. I realized that if I could categorize and summarize patterns and rules of the music writing business into lessons, it might be of great benefit to humankind.

So, every Friday for the next 10 weeks, school will be in session. At the end, you, too, will be a highly-respected and emotionally-fulfilled music critic. I'm calling it So You Wanna Be A Rock 'n Roll Critic, and I hope you're ready to learn.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Rock Bottom: The Monkees

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not alw
ays agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

* * *

Unlike some of the other rock bottoms, where several of an artist's albums vied for the lowest rank, there's clear fan and critic consensus on the Monkees. Their worst is the 1987 reunion album Pool It!.

Rob Theakston of the All Music Guide gave the album 1 and a half star, where every other Monkees album got at least one full star more than that. He says the record, considering how it squelched their comeback, "was a bit like watching a prized race horse's legs give midway through a race." He also says, it's "unquestionably their worst output of all time."

Monkees fans who reviewed the album on Amazon.com were somewhat kinder. Fuzzy Lizard calls Pool It! "silly." One anonymous reviewer calls it "banal" and "pointless" (which begs the question, when we listen to pop music are we really looking for it to have a point?). Another nameless fan says it's "forgettable in a big way" (isn't that an oxymoron?). Finally, a cranky reviewer called Bucket warns, "prepare to hear a group you love tarnish their canon."

As usual, Amazon brings out the album's defenders and apologists as well. Elaine Downey says, "The music is fresh and is of a excellent timbre to say the least." She adds her belief that a person has to be "at least 45 years old" to "grasp" and "understand" the Monkees' music. "I am mid 50's, she says, "and have NEVER heard a badly sung or done Monkees song. I honestly do not believe they are capable of that, they are above that and would never settle for anything less." Mark Ebert (Roger's less-famous, music-reviewing brother?) offers the insightful observation that "what makes [Pool It!] a great reunion album is that it is loaded with reunion songs." A man named Monkees (Johnny) summarizes: "So if you are looking to buy this one, you won't go wrong. Enjoy it. I own five of this copy."

Pool It! came hot on the heels of the successful 1986 Then & Now... hits collection and its three new songs. The three Monkees (Peter Tork, Davy Jones, and Mickey Dolenz; Mike Nesmith chose not to participate) had toured extensively and wanted to sustain the renewed interest in the band. Rhino, the record company who had reissued the band's early albums, offered to record and release the album. It was a big investment for a small company that normally specialized in nostalgia releases.

Recording was quick, just like in the band's early days. Also like the early days (Headquarters aside), the guys chose not to write their own songs, play their own instruments, or participate in each other's songs. Some Amazon.com reviewers saw this as the heart of Pool It's problem, assuming that it indicated a lack of care or supervision. I don't think that was the case. In fact, I'd be inclined to argue the opposite: That the album had a bit too much say from the three Monkees.

The liner notes to Rhino's 1995 CD reissue of the album, written by Harold Bronson, executive producer, offer some insight into this. Bronson details how the album came to be, including the process by which a producer was chosen (Davy wanted Quincy Jones) and how the songs were picked. Though he never states it explicitly, Bronson suggests that the boys made bad decisions out of unrealistic expectations (Mickey "envisioned a yearly tour, film, and record for the Monkees") and meddling wives ("Mickey ignored his impeccable taste in songs and deferred to his then-wife's preferences.") Bronson adds that the album was more "polished" than Rhino expected, but that "the Monkees made the album they wanted to make and were happy with Pool It!" I can't help but feel that those words were not intended positively, and that Bronson is attempting to absolve himself from blame. That's never really something you want in your liner notes.

Something else to consider when assessing the album is the time period in which it was created and released. Some Amazon reviewers sing that favorite old tune about the album being "dated," but Burritoman offers some perspective. He points out that, "'80's pop hasn't weathered as well as the '60's pop has." This is especially true of the specific age group that didn't grow up with synths and drum machines. Anyway, as I always say, production should only be called dated if it ruins an otherwise well-written song. It didn't matter that That Was Then, This Is Now or Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere were full of synths, because those were good songs. But what about the line-up on Pool It!?

The Classics:
Probably none, but let's be generous and add the first single, minor hit, and album opener Heart and Soul into this category. The song features a great vocal from Mickey (what else is new?), and a multiple hooks. In the middle, there's a nice little breakdown with just drums and vocals. The liner notes even point out that Nickelodeon viewers voted Heart and Soul their favorite video of the year in 1987.

The Pleasant Surprises:
Secret Heart, a Mickey showcase, features skipping guitar, a driving rhythm, and a sax solo. It's a fun pop song, and that's no surprise since its co-writer Martin Page was responsible for co-writing the hits We Built This City by Starship, These Dreams by Heart, and Go West's King of Wishful Thinking. He also had a had a hand in All For Love on the Say Anything... soundtrack!

Pool It! features Peter Tork's first leading role as a Monkee in 19 years and he makes the most of it. He wrote and sang Gettin' In, a surprisingly unconventional ditty that reminds me of Oingo Boingo, with its strong rhythm, basso profundo vocals (with just a touch of falsetto thrown in for good measure), and the spooky Halloween keys. There's also Since You Went Away a break-up tune. The funny lyrics ("the plants have grown, the dog came home, the bills are all getting paid, things are much better since you went away") give the song a bit of a novelty feel, but the boppy arrangement sells it.

Don't Bring Me Down, believe it or not, was co-written by Tommy James of Tommy James and the Shondells (Crimson and Clover). Micky takes the lead on this pop tune with a very singable chorus and an admirable instrumental performance.

Comme Ci Comme Ca:
(I'd Go the) Whole Wide World is a cover of a 1978 tune by New Wave singer/songwriter Wreckless Eric, a contemporary of Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. The original song had a sort of '60s garage feel, so it wasn't a bad choice for the Monkees. However, the beefed-up production and Mickey's failed attempt at a "rough" vocal on the chorus make it worse than the original.

Davy's first Monkees work of the '80s is exactly what you'd expect. Long Way Home (a song by Hart and Eastman, who also wrote Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere) is a sappy ballad. The chorus isn't bad, but Davy's vocal is forced in places, and the awful female backing on the outro is unnecessary.

Every Step of the Way is for those who've always wondered what it would sound like if Davy Jones was the lead singer of Poison. This is actually a cover of a 1983 Ian Hunter song. It's not a bad song, and Davy gives it his best (even channeling his namesake David (Bowie) Jones a bit) but I can't help but feel that Mickey would have knocked this one out of the park.

Midnight, mentioned by many Amazon.com reviewers as a favorite, is not a bad song, but Mickey's vocal doesn't seem to fit exactly. The song seems to call for a subtler touch. Strange to say, but Peter might have handled it better.

WTF?
(I'll) Love You Forever, which boasts perhaps the most superfluous use of parentheses in a song title ever, is more Davy Jones crappiness, with strings, acoustic guitars, sighing keys, and terrible lyrics. I hate to rag too much on Davy, because he has shown himself very capable of delivering good songs and performances. This just isn't one of them.

She's Movin' In With Rico is Davy does calypso. That's all I need to say.

Album closer is Counting on You, and lest you think the title of the song isn't literal, Davy spends much of the time actually counting!

* * *

The critics and fans may agree that Pool It! is the Monkees' worst album, but I'm not quite convinced. In fact, take away Davy Jones' contributions, and it may well count among my favorite works by the band. I also must admit a slight and strange bias. I didn't hear the album until it was released on CD, but I remember clearly being 10 years old seeing Pool It! on the racks at Appletree Records in downtown Normal, Illinois. I thought the album title and cover were soooo clever and was very excited about the idea of there being new Monkees music! I didn't have the money to purchase the album that day, but I sure wanted to.

Since I disagree with the critics and fans, this is the point where I offer a considered alternative. Since I have been intimate with every Monkees album over the last 7 months, I'm uniquely qualified to do just that. To make it slightly less subjective, I assigned point values to each of my four song categories (3 points for classics, 2 for surprises, 1 for comme ci comme ca, and -2 for WTF), and went back through each review and did the math. Though Pool It! definitely resides in the lower tiers of the Monkees' output, tying with Changes for the second-to-last-place, it's not the rock bottom. That honor, unfortunately, goes to the group's final effort, Justus.

It's a tough break, because if one compares Justus and Pool It!, the former is definitely the more admirable effort. It featured the Monkees doing everything themselves and putting their all into self-created music. It's much less crass and commercial than Pool It!, but it's also less fun. And isn't fun what the Monkees were about, ultimately?

Grade: C+
Fave Song: Gettin' In

Author's Note: This is album review #232