Friday, September 25, 2009

So You Wanna Be a Rock 'N Roll Critic: Lesson 6

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 6: History Never Repeats


If this were a how-to manual for musicians instead of music critics, this lesson would be about quitting when you're ahead. I would tell you that the minute you create an album that is simultaneously loved by critics and purchased by millions of people you should retire. If that happens to be your first album, even better. I don't care if you love making music and want to continue. Quit. You can be the Harper Lee of musicians.

The reason for this advice is directly related to the advice I'm about to give those future critics. That is, in short, you must always use a musician's own history against them. There are two parts to this lesson:

1) As a continuation of Lesson 2, which taught you to take every opportunity to make comparisons to other artists and songs and never judge a new album or song on its own merits, this lesson will teach you to always judge a new work by an artist against his or her older works, make comparisons to their older songs and albums, and never judge a new album or song on its own merits. This also allows you to show off your extensive knowledge of the artist.

2) You should use your review to propagate the accepted storyline and cliches that have been assigned to the artist. The specifics will vary, but basically all of the storylines read like this: Artist starts out well, builds their reputation some amazing beloved albums, then the artist makes a couple of missteps, then they lose whatever it was that made them great, and every subsequent album is a desperate attempt to get it back.

Let's look at each part in detail, with examples from real life music critics!

When an established artist makes a new album, as a critic you basically have two paths to choose from. You can a) compare it (favorably or unfavorably) to older work, or b) say it sounds nothing like the artist. Or you can cover your bases and do both. Alan Light, writing for the New Yorker, took that route in his review of Bruce Springsteen's 2001 album The Rising. He spends the first 25% of the piece talking about Bruce's older work, with no less than 8 songs and 4 albums mentioned before he comes to this conclusion: "The Rising is like nothing that Springsteen has ever done before." And yet, less than a paragraph later, while discussing the song Mary's Place, Light compares it to 1973's Rosalita, describes the chorus, and then says, "This is the part in a Springsteen song when the music should lift of irresistibly - but nothing happens." Then he adds, "All the signature Springsteen narrative and detail has been stripped out." As you can see, Light is clearly not letting the new songs be judged on their own merit.

Finally, Light spends the penultimate paragraph of his review finding "resonances with Springsteen's earlier work" which is basically just an excuse to show off his intimate familiarity with the Boss' catalog. That's something that every critic should master. Lester Bangs certainly could do it. His review of Miles Davis' 1981 album The Man With the Horn contains no less that 21 references to older Miles Davis songs and albums. Ray Cummings (writer for Minneapolis' Citypages) follows in those footsteps in his review of Sonic Youth's 2009 album The Eternal. Cummings spends most of his piece imagining the band's oeuvre as an "uber-leftist liberal arts curriculum" and giving one-sentence synopses of each of their records on his way to a simple conclusion: The Eternal is your standard Sonic Youth album.

Our friend David Fricke (whose work we focused on in our Midterm lesson) also knows this lesson well. In fact, he even applies it to artists who are attempting to move on with new projects. In his review of Velvet Revolver's debut album, he refuses to let the reader forget that the band is comprised of former members of Stone Temple Pilots and Guns 'N Roses. In fact, he compares or alludes to GNR or STP no less than 10 times in his review.

David Browne is another master of using his preconceived notions about an artist to make judgments. Take his review of Elvis Costello's 2002 album When I Was Cruel, which he begins with the line, "On When I Was Cruel, Elvis Costello is himself again" or his comment in his review of Kid A where he says the album "doesn't sound like Radiohead." These two examples, despite their similarities, also show the divergent approaches you may take as a critic. In the case of Costello, Browne is clearly pleased that Elvis decided to start meeting the expectations set by his past work again and praises him for it. Browne is also praiseful of Radiohead, but in this case for defying expectations. Why the seemingly opposite standards? As a critic remember that you set your own rules, and aren't even obligated to follow them.

Browne's colleague at Entertainment Weekly, Marc Weingarten, is on the same wavelength when he opens a review of David Bowie's 2003 album Reality with a question. "Where have you gone, Thin White Duke [Bowie's nickname, by the way]?" One might wonder if both Browne and Weingarten believe that rock stars are regularly replaced with impostors, like what allegedly happened to Paul McCartney in 1966. Otherwise, why so much questioning of identity, of people being away or "not themselves." Well, as I said before, it's basically inevitable that a once-beloved artist is going to "lose it" at some point in their career. They might get it back briefly, and once in awhile that will make for a great review from you, but once "it" is lost "it" is pretty much gone for good. Even a band ceased to be "vital" or "groundbreaking" 20 years ago, the critic is obligated to continually lament the fact that the artist is just not as good as he or she used to be.

This brings us to the second part of the lesson. Every established artist has what I call an "accepted storyline," a set of ironclad truths about an artist's career path and the various albums within it. It's sort of like a musical Cliff's Notes. For example, in the David Bowie accepted storyline, Never Let Me Down is one of his worst albums. So whether you've heard it or not, you can safely deride it, as Fricke does when he says, "And, yeah, mere is plenty of music out there today that sucks big time (Did someone mention Never Let Me Down?)" in his review of Tin Machine. It's also safe to say that even though we critics hate anything that's popular, when an album isn't popular with the buying public we aren't above using that as ammunition against a band. Alan Light's review of The Rising that we looked at earlier has an example of this, wherein our critic finds it necessary to bring up that Springsteen "has had only one album reach No. 1 on the charts since Tunnel of Love (1987), and it was a greatest-hits album released in 1995." His point? Springsteen needs a comeback.

But you have to be careful as a critic, because the storyline can be fluid, especially when it comes to recent history. Take the example of R.E.M., whose last four albums have caused consternation for critics attempting to construct a storyline. The common factor we have here is drummer Bill Berry's departure after the band's 1996 album New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Every critic recognizes this as a red dot on the timeline. If the reviews of the band's 2008 album Accelerate are to be believed, it took the band a full 11 years and three meandering albums to return to form. David Fricke (again!) said that, "Ultimately, the best thing about Accelerate is that R.E.M. sound is whole again, no longer three-legged but complete in their bond and purpose." Pitchfork's Joshua Klein is not so unabashed and believes the band should have ended with Berry's departure. However, he does admit that the album is a "move in the right direction" and contains a "glimmer of renewed relevance."

It's not enough to praise Accelerate though; both reviewers, in prime storyline-creating mode, choose to denigrate the previous three in the process. Fricke isn't mean enough. He merely calls Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun "wounded but determined." Klein, on the other hand finds those three albums to be "not quite rewarding," "uneven," and "lackluster," respectively.

Storyline told, right? Well wait, it gets a little tricky. See, if we go back and look at Rolling Stone's actual reviews of those previous 3 records, we'll see that other reviewers have actually been telling contradictory storylines. Rolling Stone's Ann Powers gave Up four stars when it came out in 1998, and was inspired to wax downright lyrical: "The music that Up most often recalls is Nightswimming and So. Central Rain, Wendell Gee, and Pilgrimage – the stuff of countless personal epiphanies as R.E.M. made the romance of the inner world as compelling as all the lust and rebellion that rock had mustered throughout its loud history. Up continues that romance, on a morning after that promises a good day."

When Reveal came out, Rob Sheffield found it alluring and called it "an album of gorgeous, woozily sun-struck ballads." Finally, Barry Walters tackled 2004's Around the Sun and said, "that intrinsically R.E.M.-y vibe makes a tentative, muted comeback. Unlike 1998's Up, on which the band crafted beautiful but belabored studio experimentation, and unlike 2001's Reveal, where they relaxed but didn't deliver many memorable melodies, R.E.M. here resemble their classic selves." Each critic tried to create a storyline. Powers was sticking with the "R.E.M.-can-do-no-wrong" approach, Sheffield felt Up took too long to grow on a listener and didn't seem R.E.M.-y enough, but that Reveal was a return to form, and Walters tries to dismiss the first two and call Around the Sun the comeback. And we already know what Fricke said about the next album, and you can probably imagine what the next critic will say about the next album!

My point here? As the critics, we get to create the story, or the history, if you will. Readers will believe you because you're what's right in front of them at the current moment. Sure, other critics may come along and try to change the story, but you have to recognize that it's the nature of the game.

At the beginning I advised fledgling musicians to quit while they're ahead. I'm going to heed my own advice. Join us next week for Lesson 7: Pretzel Logic. It's sort of a catch-all, covering 3 important mini-lessons that will pave the road to our final lesson and exam. Until then...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rock Bottom: U2

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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Innovative as always, U2 have given us another first. In every other case where a band has had two or more albums vying for Rock Bottom status, I was able to find some tiebreaker. In U2's case, they have two records that are statistically indistinguishable. What's more, neither is the record I expected to be considered their worst.

I was sure 1993's Zooropa would be the musical nadir of Bono, Edge, Larry, and Adam. It has no real standout tracks and is definitely my own personal least-played of their CDs. But according to my established criteria, that album is only the band's fourth-worst. Their second album, October, is not exactly beloved, but it still ranks above two others, 1989's Rattle & Hum and 1997's Pop.

Here's how the numbers fell out. Rattle & Hum received 3 stars from the AllMusic Guide and a four star average from Amazon.com reviewers (with 10 % of reviewers giving the album a low rating). Rolling Stone gave the album 3 1/2 stars. Pop, on the other hand, received 2 1/2 stars from AllMusic Guide and an identical four stars from Amazon.com (with 9 % of reviewers giving the album a low rating). Rolling Stone gave the album four stars.

Therefore, we have our first co-rock bottoms.

Let's start with Rattle and Hum. After the massive success of The Joshua Tree, a plain old follow-up album apparently wasn't sufficient, so U2 made a documentary of their 1987 tour of the U.S. The accompanying soundtrack album is a mix of 7 live tracks (including 2 covers) from that tour and 10 newly-recorded tracks.

Good old Stephen Thomas Earlewine labels the album "tentative" and "all over the place." Most Amazon.com reviewers center their hatred on 1) the cover songs, 2) Bono's between-song banter on the live tracks, and 3) a lack of cohesiveness. For example, E.Becker says U2 "are not very good live musicians and that juxtaposed with their self important preachiness has not worn well through the years." Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis said in his 1989 review, "But for all its excitement, Rattle and Hum seems a tad calculated in its supposed spontaneity" and that the album is "the sound of four men who still haven't found what they're looking for."

I agree with the criticisms overall. Rattle and Hum has a lot of problems. The cover songs only serve to illustrate that U2 shouldn't do cover songs
. Album opener Helter Skelter, which Bono portentously introduces with the comment "This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles; we're stealin' it back," is plodding and awkward, with Bono flubbing lyrics left and right. Dylan's All Along the Watchtower was an unoriginal and self-defeating choice since Hendrix already did the ultimate version. Same story with the brief guitar version of The Star Spangled Banner. Stop me if you've heard that one before. The live versions of songs from previous albums, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (with a gospel choir), Pride (In the Name of Love), and Bullet the Blue Sky are all fine for a film, but feel superfluous on the album. The latter ends with some stage patter from Bono, affecting a southern accent and denouncing TV evangelists.

Where Rattle and Hum shines is in the studio tracks. The U2 classics Desire and All I Want Is You hail from here. Angel of Harlem shows up. Collaborations with B.B.King and Bob Dylan (When Love Comes to Town and Love Rescue Me, respectively) are serviceable if not outstanding. Hawkmoon 269 sounds like the title of a sci-fi film but is actually a tough-minded ballad, and has to be one of the band's greatest lesser-known songs. And God Part II, despite its dodgy premise (let's make a sequel to John Lennon's God but not use the same lyrical structure or melody at all), presages the electronic-tinged lowdown-and-dirty rock of Achtung Baby that would soon follow, and is redeemed by Edge's guitar pyrotechnics. Heartland and Van Dieman's Land (featuring Edge on vocals!) are worthwhile as well. The only real clunker is Silver and Gold, which is a fine song, but ends with a laborious spoken passage wherein Bono delivers a sermon on apartheid. Save it for VH1 Storytellers and let the lyrics speak for themselves.

So, overall, Rattle and Hum is an album that simultaneously contains everything that people might love and hate about U2. But what about Pop?

That album was the follow-up to Zooropa, and was released at the height of the electronica "craze" that swept across music, allowing acts like Fatboy Slim, Massive Attack, Daft Punk, Portishead, and even Bjork to creep into the mainstream. What's more, established acts like Madonna and Smashing Pumpkins made albums influenced by the sound (Ray of Light and Adore, respectively). Pop was part of the same trend, though to be fair the band had already been moving steadily in that direction since Achtung Baby in 1991.

Earlewine found merit in the album, but little joy. He sums it up as "easy to admire, hard to love." Amazon reviewers were less kind. Masochistic Carl Mack says, "I still have this CD and every once in awhile I pop it in to see if maybe by some miracle I am missing something." Joseph A Gaizutis remarked that, "the latter part of the CD is complete crap. Sort of like some of early Pink Floyd's worst songs." Curiously, Neel Aroon finds the album to be "a weak attempt to recapture the time when their music was still groundbreaking and well written." One wonders if he would be happier had U2 not tried make well written music. Fransicso Jose Villanueva finds an interesting comparison, "This Pop of U2 it is equivalent to at the time to Hot Space of Queen," which despite the tortured translation is actually a pretty good analogy in that both albums find established bands trying their hand at dance music. The comparison fails when you learn that Hot Space was a huge success, with Body Language and Under Pressure becoming hits.

Barney Hoskyns, writing for Rolling Stone, gushed over the album and addressed those who wanted to jump on the "U2 have lost it" bandwagon after being disappointed with Zooropa and Pop: "Well, if people have stopped caring, it won't be U2's fault. With Pop, they've defied the odds and made some of the greatest music of their lives."

My take? Pop is not as bad as all that, nor is it as good as all that.
There are gems, especially among the disc's first six songs. Discotheque makes a righteous stomp and If God Will Send His Angels is a great ballad. But the second half falls off dramatically, with If You Wear That Velvet Dress and Miami especially stretching the limits of a listener's patience. That said, the album is certainly no worse than Zooropa, which also starts somewhat strong before wandering off into the wilderness at its midpoint. So why then, does that album get a pass while Pop gets the shaft?

I think it's the same effect I mentioned in my Weezer Rock Bottom, wherein Make Believe suffers a worse reputation than its inferior predecessor, Maladroit. My hypothesis is that fans and critics will forgive a band one disappointing album, but if another follows it immediately, they turn like a jar of mayo left out in the sun.

And thus my final word on U2's Rock Bottom is as follows: While Rattle and Hum is bizarrely sequenced and features some poor choices, it still contains some amazing highs. Pop probably doesn't deserve the level of vitriol it receives from fans and critics, but it's not a great album by any stretch. My choice then, is Zooropa. Even though the fans and critics may have found several merits in it, I really don't. I'd rank it just a hair's width worse than Pop, and thus, Rock Bottom.

Author's Note: These are album reviews #237 and #238.

Friday, September 18, 2009

So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic: Midterm

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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We're now slightly beyond the halfway point of this educational journey, so I figured it might be worthwhile to see how a real rock critic puts the lessons to use and gets PAID for it! Below, you'll find a full annotated version of David Fricke's 1989 review of Tin Machine's first album. Before we get into it, let's have a quick review of what we know so far.

Lesson 1 concerned the use of figurative language and the way it can color up your writing. We focused on metaphor and simile, interesting adjectives, technical terminology, and hyperbole. Lesson 2 was about the vital importance of making comparisons and allusions to other artists, songs, and albums in your reviews. It's also important that these comparisons be obscure and that you don't waste time or energy explaining them to your readers. Lesson 3 was closely related to that, and was about the inherent dynamic of cool and uncool musicians. Lesson 4's motto was "forget joy". Reviewing music is not about what you love, it's about what you hate. And lesson 5 taught us to always seek out (or manufacture) deep philosophical, social or cultural significance in the music we write about.

As you'll see, Fricke has mastered many of our lessons, including some I have yet to enlighten you about. My comments are in red.

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Tin Machine: Tin Machine
4 Stars
David Fricke
Rolling Stone, June 15, 1989

Life's a bitch. Love's not much better. All your idols have turned into whores. And even the music sucks these days (Fricke deftly employs lessons 4 and 5 here, with some broad philosophical statements and a suggested disdain for his chosen field of interest). Here beginneth, and endeth, the lesson of Tin Machine -- the most cynical, indignant and acidic record David Bowie has made since The Man Who Sold the World (nice use of hyperbole, lesson 1 and he's got some lesson 8 going on too). And that 1970 horror show of violence, corruption and emotional treachery was a tea party compared with the physical, aesthetic and spiritual disaster areas (again, Fricke stresses that this isn't just music, it's a commentary on life itself, lesson 5) mapped out on Tin Machine.

Lofty success and a guaranteed place in history, combined with the inevitable pensiveness of middle age, can do weird things to a pop star's world view (Fricke is using lesson 6 methods here; we'll get to that soon). But did you think you'd live to hear Bowie spit out words like these: "Piss on the icon monsters/Whose guitars bequeath you pain…. Corrupt with shaky visions/And crack and coke and alcohol/They're just a bunch of assholes/With buttholes for their brains"?

That's just a taste of the acrid Crack City, scored to an oppressive scrap-metal Wild Thing thump (an unexplained comparison, lesson 2 in action, though I think Fricke could have gotten a bit more obscure if he had tried). Then there's the title song, ostensibly an indictment of Thatcherite Britain ("There's more than money moving here/There's mindless maggot glare") (Fricke does a nice job here of finding a lyric that is generic enough that it could mean whatever he says it does, in this case that Bowie is unhappy with Britain's prime minister, lesson 5 all the way). At the end, though, Bowie takes a hard right turn into reactionary rock criticism, roasting the new generation of howling punk-metal mutants: "Blue-suede tuneless wonders/Mass confusion -- faithless blues…. Fractured words and Branca-sonic [a reference to New York avant-guitarist Glenn Branca]/Anger trapped behind locked doors/And right between the eyes." (Fricke starts off well in verbalizing his-via-Bowie theory about "modern" music, but then decides to explain Bowie's lyrical reference to Glenn Branca! I'm not sure why Fricke so blatantly violated lesson 2 there, but it doesn't sit right with me.)

Actually, that's pretty funny coming from a record that at times sounds like Sonic Youth meets Station to Station, with telegraphic Bowie verse that crackles like some Morse code from Armageddon (Holy crap, he just used lessons 1, 2, 3, 5, AND 6 in one sentence! He's got an obscure comparison to something obviously cool, wrapped up with a clear grasp at deeper meaning expressed in a simile. Well done, sir. Well done.). After the half-baked Let's Dance reruns on Bowie's last two albums (again lesson 6, you're excited for it now, aren't you?), Tin Machine is an all-too-welcome feast of aggro-guitar flamboyance and bass-drum body checking. When he's at his best, newcomer Reeves Gabrels attacks his lead-guitar chores with a relish and dynamism that suggest Mick Ronson with a CBGB apprenticeship (lessons 2 and 3, obscure, unexplained comparison to something inherently cool). Rhythm siblings Hunt and Tony Sales, who worked with Bowie on Iggy Pop's 1977 resurrection tour, maintain maximum whack. Meanwhile, Bowie revels in the maelstrom (nice with some of his most animated and least affected singing in years.

Bowie contends that Tin Machine is a real band, an equal partnership (can we see the paychecks?), that it is not just another solo vehicle for rock's consummate role player. But there is no denying that he is a, if not the, pivotal (lesson 1, "pivotal" is a word every rock critic should use liberally) figure on the album. Better than half of Tin Machine's fourteen songs -- two of which, Run and Sacrifice Yourself, appear only on the cassette and the CD -- are prime Bowie rock, rooted in the spangled raunch of the Spiders From Mars but updated with late-Eighties postpunk freneticism (more lesson 6). Under the God storms along like Ziggy Stardust fronting a slightly slower Ramones (lessons 2 and 3), with Gabrels jacking up the blitzkrieg-bop quotient with a jackhammer-guitar intro. Pretty Thing cooks like -- what else? -- high-speed Pretty Things, a serrated variation on those Sixties mod-beat covers on Pin-Ups, complete with a feedback-and-drum-orgy coda (lessons 2, 3, and 6). "Sacrifice Yourself?' which is too good to be merely a cassette-CD tease, sounds like a long-lost shrapnel fragment of Suffragette City or Queen Bitch given a hardcore work-over (lessons 2 and 6).

Tin Machine, the album, and Tin Machine, the band, both falter when frenzy outstrips ideas, when Bowie pours on the recriminating lyrics without providing a redeeming melody. Crack City and Video Crime are undone by gorillarock simplicity and relentlessly poisonous wit ("Don't whore your little bodies/To the worms of paradise…. Don't look at me you fuckheads/This nation's turning blue," from Crack City). Both songs are bereft of tune and subtlety, and Gabrels, lacking a good hook to play off of, noodles around in Van Halen-Satriani hyperspace (lesson 2 and 3, his first use of the "uncool" dynamic). John Lennon's Working Class Hero, the album's only cover, is also hopelessly overwrought, padded out with kitschy heavy-metal angst. A more restrained reading along the stark lines of Lennon's original, with Gabrels going for more discreet ambient effects (like the sobbing sea-gull sounds and distant airraid sirens he uses elsewhere) (good use of metaphors there, lesson 1), would have created a striking dramatic contrast and probably have been more appropriate to Bowie's Tin Machine theme of social and emotional disenfranchisement (lesson 5, all good songs and albums have weighty - and preferrably depressing - themes, of course)

Ironically, it's when love, however battered or bruised, comes to town -- Amazing, Prisoner of Love, Baby Can Dance -- that Tin Machine most effectively reconciles the bracing noise of a full-tilt electric band with the nuances of Bowie's writing craft. In Prisoner of Love, Gabrels heightens Bowie's mix of urgent apocalypso rock and moody desperation with a collision of punctuative effects -- moody Frippertronic dervish lines one minute, car-horn honking the next (wow...we're looking at a strong use of figurative language, a sense of social and emotional importance, an obscurely cool reference - guitarist Robert Fripp of King Crimson - turned into an adjective, and even a portmanteau, that's lesson 1, 2, 3, and 5 in full effect). Amazing, which makes up in romantic simplicity what it lacks in poetic profundity, recalls Bowie's brilliant marriage of Dylanesque folk and lightly applied T. Rex glitter à la All the Young Dudes, (lessons 2, 3, and 6, and bonus points for fitting 3 cool, unexplained comparisons into one sentence) Gabrels echoing Bowie's haiku valentine ("I'm Lazy/You Crazy, girl/Stay by my side") with sensuous strands of taffylike fuzz guitar.

Baby Can Dance is the beauty, though. It ends the record with a potent combo of desire and resignation, guitar chaos and melodic allure (in the addictive, bittersweet chorus).

It also provides welcome relief from the preceding, almost nonstop hammering. In its own way, Tin Machine is a kind of balls-to-the-wall counterpart to Lou Reed's New York, an opera of social and moral collapse, except it lacks the finely tuned irony and the nightly-news immediacy of Reed's LP. Bowie's Book of Revelations reads more like A Clockwork Orange: "Washington heads in the toilet bowl/Don't see supremacist hate/Right wing dicks in their boiler suits/Picking out who to annihilate" (from "Under the God"). (okay then, we've got a Lou Reed comparison, though Fricke loses points for kind of explaining it, but then he gains the points back for explaining it in the context of the current social climate and managing to throw in allusions to both the Bible and a hip Stanley Kubrick movie, lessons 2, 3, and 5).

Frankly, Bowie belabors the obvious on much of Tin Machine. Yeah, life is a bitch. The future looks grim. Your idols are bound to turn into whores if the temptations are great enough. And, yeah, mere is plenty of music out there today that sucks big time. (Did someone mention Never Let Me Down?) (ah, a nice little pot-shot, lesson 6 again) But some of the best songs on Tin Machine are about not giving up, about finding the will to love and survive (lesson 5, naturally). And the rest of the best transcend their grim lyrics with the electricity of performance. If Tin Machine is a hit-and-miss proposition, there are still enough direct hits to send you, as Bowie puts it in Under the God, "one step over the red line … ten steps into the crazy." And with "crazy" like this, you can put up with anything (a final lesson 5 addition, I'm not positive, but Fricke appears to suggest that listening to this record will solve any problem a person might have. Bravo!).

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Lesson tallies: Lesson 1 - 6, Lesson 2 - 8, Lesson 3 - 10, Lesson 4 - 2, Lesson 5 - 9, Lesson 6 - 7

Total points on my top secret scale: 21 out of 24

And there you have it. Do you see what can happen when you put it all together? I'll warn you; don't expect to be as masterful as Fricke right away. His work is the result of many years of toil and study. You'll get there eventually, but it'll take patience and a lot of time spent on Pitchfork.com to get there. I hope this has been illuminating, and that it has whetted your appetite for our final 3 lessons (and for destruction as well). Join us here again next week for Lesson 6: History Never Repeats.

Friday, September 11, 2009

So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic: Lesson 5

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 5: I'm Looking Through You

Once you become a real life music critic, you may find that a certain segment of the population doesn't afford you the respect and admiration you deserve. You may feel the need to justify spending your career devoted to something that, for most people, is little more than a pleasant diversion.

That means it's up to you to show them the grim seriousness and undeniable gravity of pop music. It's not enough to simply write about an album and whether or not you like it, you must find some historical, cultural, or philosophical significance in the music. Through your writing, you must elevate the artform into something magnificently transcendent.

Many songs and albums have themes to them, and in these case all you have to do is point them out. It doesn't take a PhD to suss out that Beck's Sea Change album is about romantic loss. But it does help to dress it up into universal philosophy, as New Yorker critic Alec Hanley Bemis does. "Beck offers no solution to the problem of loss," Bemis writes, "but he describes how tightly we grasp our illusions and misperceptions. Even in a reflective mode, he suggests that the meantime is all there is." Or take Jan Dolan's (Entertainment) assessment of the Scissor Sisters song She's My Man in her review of the band's second album, Ta-Dah. The song, she says, "is a hugely catchy ode to New Orleans set to the tune of Elton's I'm Still Standing, a Mardi Gras regular's lamentation of the 'rains like Revelations' that turned our nation's den of decadence into an apocalyptic hellhole." In addition to the historical significance she describes, Dolan gets two gold stars for using a comparison (Lesson 2) and slightly vague figurative language (Lesson 1).

But this stuff is child's play; you shouldn't concern yourself with simply explaining painfully obvious intentions behind songs. Listeners can figure that stuff out for themselves. Extrapolation is where the master music critic makes her mark. By extrapolation, I mean inferring or conjecturing meaning that might or might not be there. Luckily, most musicians can't help but being a little bit vague in their songs, and this leaves the field wide open for your own lofty interpretations.

Take Kristine McKenna (Musician) and her summary of David Bowie's Never Let Me Down album. She calls it "an apocalyptic manifesto masquerading as a collection of dance singles...rooted in an unrelenting anxiety that threatens to explode into hysteria." Given her limited word count (it wasn't a lead review) McKenna doesn't have space to provide any specific examples of this statement, and nevermind that half the songs don't really fit her stated theme. All that's important is that she makes the album seem socially relevant.

Entertainment's David Browne usually can't be counted on for tangential meaning-making, but he goes admirably off his usual path in his review of Bruce Springsteen's 2002 album The Rising. Many songs on that record did concern the 9/11/01 attack on the World Trade Center, and Brown rotely points this out. But then he ups the stakes with a bravura display of bravura. After calling Springsteen's '90s work "soggy" he says, "in what could be called a positive development in light of so many negative ones, the post-Sept. 11 world has refocused [Springsteen's] songwriting." In this case Browne's not elevating the music with a connection to real-world events, he's elevating the events for their effect on a musician, putting the music at the center of it all. Sure 9/11 was awful but it made Springsteen good again, so we can't complain TOO much.

And once again Lester Bangs proves himself to be the master. He had a unique ability to conjure whisper-thin connections between what he was listening to and whatever seemed relevant to him at the time. In fact, to Bangs, a record's worst offense was to not have any meaning, which is how he felt about The Rolling Stones' 1976 Black and Blue. In fact, he takes this as an irreversible condition: "They really don't matter anymore," he says of the band, "or stand up for anything." He goes on to say that now they can adequately compete with Aerosmith (a frequent target of Bangs' derision) and Barry Manilow (this, by the way, displays an frighteningly strong grasp of Lesson 3).

And why should Bangs not be upset? An album with no real meaning prevents a critic from working himself into a hyperbolic lather, as Bangs does when he claims that Patti Smith's Horses album "has done more for woman as aggressor than all the Liberation tracts published, and has pushed to the front of the media eye that it is just as much of a process (ordeal) of learning to 'become' a 'woman' as it is for men wrestling with all of this ballyhooed 'manhood' business." If Bangs lost you there, that's okay. I'm pretty sure he was trying to lose you.

Bangs gets that often criticism is not even really about the music, it's about working out your own issues with the world, giving them an everyman quality and making it all seem so terribly, terribly grave. One last example: The Talking Heads' Fear of Music album elicits from Bangs a long rant about the modern culture of neuroses. "We're all terminally psychotic," he says, "and no doctor, pill, book, or guru holds the cure." Nor does music, obviously.

I'm glad you've chosen to spend your few precious lucid moments with me here today, and I hope you'll join me again next week for a midterm review.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Chuck Klosterman: Idea Stealer

In the newest Onion AV Club (dated September 8, 2009), pop culture essayist Chuck Klosterman celebrates the release of remastered Beatles albums on CD by reviewing the band's entire oeuvre. He operates under the premise that they were a commercially-unsuccessful, barely-known band.

Sound familiar? If you've been reading 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds for awhile, it should. Last year, I reviewed every single Beatles album, pretending as though they were an obscure, unpopular band I'd recently unearthed. Here are some links:

Please Please Me (1963), With The Beatles (1963), A Hard Day's Night (1964), Beatles For Sale (1964), Help! (1965), Past Masters 1 (1990), Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966), Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Magical Mystery Tour (1967), The Beatles (1968), Yellow Submarine (1969), Abbey Road (1969), Let It Be (1970),
Past Masters 2 (1990)


I don't claim to be as funny as Klosterman, and I love his bit about the Rolling Stones, but I DID have the idea first. You can compare for yourself. Klosterman's reviews are here.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Back to School Special

The summer of 2009 is not one I'll remember as being especially fruitful for new music. Even so, here are brief reviews of the three albums that got the most spins from June to August.

234. Rhett Miller: Rhett Miller

Miller's third solo effort is all about the dark side of romance, and works best when Miller matches his downer lyrics with exuberant pop melodies. This happens a lot in the album's first half, with Nobody Says I Love You ("celebrate love when it's over, celebrate love when it's gone"), Like Love ("she wanted things that I couldn't afford, like love"), and I Need To Know Where I Stand ("you tell me that you love me, but you won't even hug me") leading the way. Additionally, Caroline, If It's Not Love, and Resisting Temptation hit most of the right notes.

A couple of songs find Miller branching out lyrically, with mixed results. Happy Birthday Don't Die is a futuristic garage band rave-up with shades of Dylan's nonsensical lyrical imagery ("colony planet spins / the new unified government sleeps"). Another Girlfriend is a country lilt with funny lyrics: "the last thing I need / is another girlfriend / two's enough for me / and you would make three". Both are interesting, but neither begs for repeated listens (unless you're trying to parse out the story in Happy Birthday Don't Die).

The album drags in the second half thanks to an overdose of slower tempos. The hypnotic Lashes is a pleasant exception, and it's no coincidence that it's the only truly positive song on the album ("I could live on your love / and nothing else if I had to"). So while Miller's gift for songcraft is still fully intact, I wish he'd spent a little more time thinking about sequencing.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Like Love

235. Owl City: Ocean Eyes

Adam Young started out making songs in his basement in Owatonna, Minneota. Then he put them on MySpace and things went a little crazy. The song Hello Seattle caught on (it currently has 6,604,145 plays) and Owl City became a sensation.

Ocean Eyes is his Young's major label debut, comprised of new and old recordings. The music is straight-up '80s synth pop with a bit of electronica and dance thrown in. This, combined with Young's boyishly open vocals, tendency to write metaphor-heavy lyrics, and frequent use of a female countervocal (there are three different ones on Ocean Eyes) bring to mind one very specific comparison. Do you know what it is? Yep, the Postal Service.

Normally, this type of specific aping would be a turn-off, but since the Postal Service apparently has no plans to make a second album, why shouldn't someone else pick up the torch? Highlights are many, including Cave In, Tip of the Iceberg, Fireflies, The Saltwater Room, and Tidal Wave, all of which evoke a carefree road trip with a widescreen landscape laid out in front of you.

Young is young (he was born in '86!), and his lyrics sometimes show it. The dramatic romantic thing can get old over 13 songs, and some of the songs are catchy to a fault (The Bird and the Worm is the worst offender; I will not be voluntarily listening to it again for fear of having it stuck in my head for two weeks following). But overall Ocean Eyes is a strong debut that reveals a clear new talent.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Tip of the Iceberg


236. Wilco: Wilco (The Album)

I haven't truly enjoyed a new Wilco album since Summerteeth. Don't get me wrong. I admired Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost Is Born, and Sky Blue Sky to varying degrees, but admiration is not the same thing as enjoyment.

The good news is that I really enjoy Wilco (the Album). The bad news is that I can't really tell you why. I'd like to be able to tell you that the band has returned to their roots or that Jeff Tweedy has found his singular songwriting voice again or that there are no more psychedelic freakouts, but none of that is truly the case.

Fact is, sometimes music just hits you in the right way and the reasons are basically ineffable. That said, Wilco (the Album) is full of good stuff, like the opener, Wilco (the Song). I truly believe every band should have a theme song. One Wing, a look at a crumbling relationship, is kind of haunting. You and I, the duet with Feist, may be a naked hitmaking effort, but it sure sounds sweet. I also like the long-view perspective (and bouncy pianos and pretty harmonies) of You Never Know: "Every generation thinks it's the worst / Thinks it's the end of the world."

I could keep listing highlights, but in the interest of time and space I'll simply tell you to seek out this record and enjoy the hell out of it.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: One Wing

Friday, September 04, 2009

So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic: Lesson 4

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 and read several 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 4: Viva Hate

Let's think about the word "criticism" for a moment. By definition it's simply another word for "evaluation" or "analysis", which could have a negative or positive connotation. But in common usage, it's usually considered to be something bad, a pointing out of flaws. You must keep this latter definition in mind as you write. Being a critic is not about joy, it's about finding fault.

As a teenager, I told my dad that I might like to be a movie reviewer for a living. At the time, I couldn't imagine a more alluring lifestyle: I'd see three to five movies a week, write about them, and cash the check. My dad had wisdom about this that. He told me that becoming a movie critic is condemning yourself to hating films. I didn't understand him at the time, but now I see it clearly. The critic's job is find imperfection. Imperfection leads to abhorrence.

So it is with music criticism as well. If you work hard enough, you will come to a point where your tastes become so refined and finely-tuned that you will rarely find pure joy in a song or album. I must point out that Lesson 3 is key in this case. Just automatically, because of the sheer volume of uncool musicians out there, you're going to hate about 90% of what you hear.

As usual, this begs some questions:

1) If I have a hatred for a musical artist, is it unfair for me to agree to review their album?
No. Your hatred will fuel some of your best, most pithy writing. If you become a professional music reviewer it will be easy, because you'll often be assigned albums by crappy bands. However, if you are an amateur and make your own review choices, resist the urge to only review albums that you adore, or about which you have conflicted, complex feelings. Pick the easy targets. That way you'll never miss.

That's how the professionals do it. Consider Spin's Andrew Beaujon's review of Fiona Apple's 2005 album Extraordinary Machine. In the second line of his review (the first being a paraphrase from Apple's song Criminal), Beaujon claims, "six years ago, it seemed like Fiona Apple was out of our hair forever" and goes on to detail her history of erratic behavior. He throws some backhands when he praises Apple for avoiding her usual "tendency to plod" and "reigning in her fondness for fingering her thesaurus." In this case, Beaujon was pleasantly surprised by the album, but still displays a clear bias against its creator.

Rob Mitchum (Pitchfork.com), in a piece about Red Hot Chili Peppers' Stadium Arcadium record, says the band's career consists of "progressively diluted funk songs about California, sex, and having sex in California." A more incisive summary of 8 albums and 22 years worth of work you'll never find.

In my review of Fountains of Wayne's Traffic and Weather, I pointed out that Paste magazine writer Marc Hirsh was writing with a clear hatred of the band. The second sentence of his review goes like this: "Still writing songs as if the goal was simply to get from rhyme to rhyme, they remain far too impressed with their own cleverness...". At the time I condemned him for even choosing to review an album by a band he hates, but now I see the light.

2) What about keeping an open mind?
No. You don't even need to listen to the new Sarah McLachlan album to know it sucks. The bad part is that, should you choose to review it, you will have to listen to the album. But take comfort in the fact that you only need to listen once, and even then probably not all the way through every song. You'll just need to hear enough to be able to reference the songs, some lyrics, and to find anything that fits with your preexisting theory that it is awful, awful music.

Pitchfork.com's Brent DiCrescenzo (who once told the Dallas Observer that "writing about music is not all that interesting to me.") took on Steely Dan's 2000 comeback album Two Against Nature with that exact approach. In fact, he took it even farther. Not only does he display a contempt for the band, but for those who he imagines as their fans as well. His intro begins with the following line: "If you are a die-hard Steely Dan fan from 'back in the day' let me congratulate you on figuring out how this whole 'Internet' thing works." He goes on to label them as "pony-tailed Jeep drivers and terrier-walkers." Do you see what I mean about writing from a hateful place? It allows you to throw around bon mots like confetti.

And DiCrescenzo doesn't even mention a single song in his entire review. It's as if he didn't even listen to the album. Indeed, it seems DiCrescenzo is offended by the very idea of Steely Dan, not just the fact of them coming back after a 20-year gap, but by them ever having existed at all. "Amazingly," he says, "Steely Dan's name has been popping up as a hip musical crush. Remember, this glossy bop-pop was the indifferent aristocracy to punk rock's stone-throwing in the late '70s. People fought and died so our generation could listen to something better." If you, as a writer, can similarly concentrate your vitriol so well, the world of music criticism will be your oyster.

3) What about new artists? How do I know if I should hate them or not?
This is one of the toughest parts of the job, because often you don't know right away. Of course there are certain artists, ones with Disney shows or ones who are movie or reality stars, that you can dismiss easily. But some new artists are difficult to peg. My best advice is to rely on your instincts and do your best. There is a trick to saving face, and I will reveal it to you if you promise to use it well. Here it goes. If you end up praising an artist that later turns out to be uncool, you just wait until their second album and say that the band obviously used up all of their good ideas on the first album. If you give a bad review to an artist that turns out to be cool, you just use the occasion of their second album to express your utter shock at how they've improved.

4) Is it possible that someone else might have a different opinion about an artist or album I hate?
Yes, but that person is an idiot. Lesson 9 will provide more detail.

5) If I hate 90% of music, am I really a music fan?
Yes! Remember, music criticism is not about joy. It's about image and lifestyle. If you meet a smoking hot girl with a terrible personality and she takes a liking to you, the only smart choice is to marry her, right? You're going to be miserable most of the time, but everyone will be jealous of you. That's what it's all about.

And that's about it for this lesson. I hope it has helped you realize that your cynicism, rage, anger, and general unhappiness can be a powerful force for good. Next week we'll learn about music criticism as academic pursuit. It's called Lesson 5: I'm Looking Through You. See you then.