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.

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