Friday, October 16, 2009

So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic: Final Grades

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

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And so we've reached then end. I've taught you everything I know. If I were giving a final exam to my middle school students, I would have them write a music review using everything they've learned. Instead of waiting for submissions, I've instead decided to pretend that David Browne (Entertainment Weekly) and Ann Powers (Spin) have read the entire So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic series and are trying to apply its lessons.

Who grasped the material better? Who will get the better grade from the professor? Let's find out. To make things fair, I chose reviews of the exact same album, U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind.

First, a quick review of our 8 lessons.

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. Lesson 6 was about using an artist's own history against them. Lesson 7 taught you to ignore the concepts of subjectivity and logic, and to always say double albums would be better as single albums. And, finally, lesson 8 told you never to apologize for, regret, or change your mind about a misguided review.

Not all lessons are applicable to each review, but my rubric awards points based on frequency and degree of implementation of the lessons that are used.

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"Past Perfect"
by David Browne
Entertainment Weekly, November 3, 2000

U2's current single, Beautiful Day, opens not with a bang but a murmur [1]. Gray-sky strings give way to a faint rhythmic pulse; slipping into the track like an errant husband coming home late [1], a hushed Bono paints a dreary picture of traffic jams, luckless circumstances, and sundry frustrations both everyday and cosmic [5]. Then, suddenly, drummer Larry Mullen crashes in, and the song erupts into a euphoric bellow so uplifting Day was played during the recent Olympics telecast. We know it's a corny move, and U2 know we know; as the Edge unabashedly told Entertainment Weekly last month, the song has a ''classic U2 arrangement.'' [6] But damn if it isn't effective. For a few minutes, one is transported back to 1988 — a time when so much rock, be it mainstream, indie, or hair metalish, actually sought to be sonically and emotionally uplifting. [4]

For anyone still puzzling over 1997's half-baked Pop, this type of U2 song is a welcome reversal of fortune. [6] Even more startling in light of the band's seeming obsolescence, the mood of Beautiful Day rarely lets up for the remainder of the accompanying album, All That You Can't Leave Behind. It's as if the band — and Bono, in particular — left the PopMart tour's space-age goggles and inane costumes on the bus [6]. And as hopelessly antiquated as it may sound in the year 2000, it's as if they decided it was time to write and record an album of very good, extremely substantial traditional rock songs with an underlying inspirational bent. [4]

Pop had its substantial moments too, but the band came across far from confident blending electronic swooshes into their songs, and the music seemed to slip through their fingers (and ours) [6]. Starting with Beautiful Day, which opens All That You Can't Leave Behind, the new album is as unwaveringly assured as Pop was tentative [6]. Wild Honey, all sexual charge and emotional ambivalence, finds a melodic groove and stays there; the equally lusty Elevation and Walk On (one of many songs with lyrics straight out of a self-help manual) have the charging-horse feel of U2's youth, with a bumpy-noise upgrade courtesy of producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois [1]. Not to denigrate their early-'90s one-two punch, Achtung Baby and Zooropa, on which the band let its freak flag fly to often lustrous effect, but the new work focuses on songs, not sonic gimmicks, and the difference is palpable. [6] Even when they frill up a track with rootsy touches, like the R&B accents of the lift-yourself-up bromide Stuck in a Moment, they shake off their stodginess. New-generation dullards like the Wallflowers would do well to scribble notes. [2,3,4]

Of course, a U2 album would not be a U2 album without assorted Bono upheavals and quests. [6] Here, the 40-year-old addresses a midlife crisis (complete with apparent affair) in New York and longs for ''heaven on earth/we need it now'' in Peace on Earth. The songs are heavyhearted, but the arrangements — the grimy urban beats of the former and the delicate balladry of the latter — aren't. (On New York, you even forgive Bono for describing Manhattan as hot and multiethnic, which is about as original as calling Dublin ''drizzly.'') Even the Edge dusts off his needles-and-pins leads. U2 no longer seem wary of their tendency toward the anthemic and grandiose, and they shouldn't be; [6] it still sets them apart from nearly everyone, with the exception of Radiohead at their loftiest. [2,3]

Unless it's on behalf of hard-to-recite album titles, All That You Can't Leave Behind doesn't stake any claims for advancing the art of pop music. At this point, U2 wouldn't be the ones to take us there anyway. But at a time when rock feels so earthbound, and dance-steeped albums like Moby's Play provide the musical exaltation guitar bands once did [2], U2 simply want to reclaim some of that old stomping ground. In their hands, falling back on old habits isn't cowardice, but a virtue.

Implementation tallies: Lesson 1 - 3, Lesson 2 - 3, Lesson 4 - 3, Lesson 5 - 1, Lesson 6 - 7

As you can see, Browne narrows his focus to lesson 6, casting his entire review in light of the band's past work. His title even tells you that's what he's going to do. Mentioning Pop four times shows a solid grasp of the principles of the lesson. It's not a bad idea to specialize, but you don't want to completely drop out the other lessons, and Browne is in danger of doing just that. I'm especially disappointed in his poor showing on lesson 5. He fails to imbue any deep philosophical weight on the album. The one place Browne uses it barely even qualifies, because he's talking about the meaning of one of the songs. Though he praises U2 for searching for deeper universal meaning, he doesn't heed his own advice.

One sly bit Browne sticks in that may not show from the raw numbers is a curmudgeonly disdain for modern pop music, which is right in lesson 4's wheelhouse. Just in this short review, he claims that then-current music wasn't "good," "substantial," "inspirational," or "sonically uplifting" which is a nice, sweeping, unverifiable claim. He also says new generation musicians are "dullards." And bonus points to him for managing to slam the Wallflowers and praise Radiohead (two bands that have nothing to do with U2) as a matter of course.

However, overall, Browne's work is strictly at the emerging stage. His prose in this review is too direct and straightforward, lacking the substantial, inspirational life-changing charge of the ideal album review. By my complex and secret grading system, Browne earns 8.5 out of 24. That's an F, my friends.

Now let's see how his classmate and competition did...

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"Is This Desire?"
On All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 finally find what they're looking for [1]

by Ann Powers
Spin, November 30, 2000

Throwing your hands up in the air can be an act of faith. Stick 'em up -- there's no resisting the way life constantly robs you of control. But open those arms wider, and defeat becomes elation. "Stretch out your hands toward the sanctuary," the psalmist instructed pilgrims seeking the Promised Land. Don't be surprised when submission turns to strength. [5]

U2 know plenty about spiritual abandon. From their early work as flag-waving Christians soldiers through the ecstatic desert wanderings of the mid-'80s, to the fall to dirty earth that started in 1991 with Achtung Baby, the Irishmen specialized in the plunge, riding rock's gravitational pull to states of unchecked emotion. [6] With a force that sometimes seemed ridiculous, each album was a dunk in the river, and loving the band meant giving in -- not to God but to the problematic idea of meaningful rock.

Yet U2 have never explored their fetish for surrender with such relaxed eloquence as on All That You Can't Leave Behind (Interscope). [6] Nor has the band ever worried less about proving its genius. After Pop, 1997's uncomfortable tiptoe into techno [1,6], they've realized that the rash pursuit of the moment works only for Madonna [2,3]. Self-respect demands U2 ignore Kid Rock and eliminate the need for Creed. [2,3]

Fact is, even after Bono stuffed piety down his vinyl pants, people continued to use rock as a source of spirit-raising [5,6]. U2 light the unfashionable fire better than anybody else, and with age have become more adept at contemplation. Bono's preaching now has an air of weathered serenity. The Edge rarely careens around as if his guitar is a flame-thrower [1], instead stressing sharp fingerwork. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, back as producers (with Steve Lillywhite and others helping), use effects -- churchy organ, backward violin, whale sounds -- but keep the colors between the lines [1]. The songs are still full of deep thoughts, but now they come from a quieter place.

Call it the happy aftermath of a midlife crisis. U2 is relaxing, reasserting some beliefs critics love to shove back in their face -- most importantly, that uplifting art is not necessarily dumb [5]. The albums opening one-two-three punch irresistibly makes this point. Beautiful Day is a hip-shakingly messianic exhortation of faith found through adversity, while Stuck in a Moment takes hope higher in a gospel arrangement that fulfills the Harlem dreams the band's been chasing since Rattle and Hum. [6] Then comes Elevation, a flat-out sex song seductively posed in an electronica bed [1]. But it's really about love as salvation [5], with Edge showing his mysterious ways, the rhythm section fluffing its funky feathers [1], and Bono testifying like he's dreaming of Aretha and feeling like a natural man [2,3].

A dip in energy would be understandable after this rush, but U2, being U2, wanna take you higher, as Walk On and Kite return to the desert of The Joshua Tree. [6] Piano, strings, and background voices expand to fill Lanois and Eno's cathedral-size mixes [1], and Bono's proclamations swell along with the sound. Every sentence is a proverb of wind and water, but the band offers its inspiration in a modest way, so it doesn't grate [1,5].

After these peaks, the record detours into eddies U2 have explored before [1,6]. The mellow In a Little While turns Satellite of Love into an Al Green song [2, 3], with Bono using his new and at times bothersome soul shout, and the real interest coming in the interplay between Clayton's fuzz-touched bass and Edge's Velvety guitar [1,2,3]. Wild Honey nods at the Beach Boys [2], and several songs revisit the darker musings of Pop [6], letting the album drift a bit toward inertia. This detour leads nowhere, especially on the embarrassing New York, a (hopefully) final bid by Bono to inhabit Frank Sinatra's moldering persona [2,3].

But the delicate coda, Grace, puts us back on solid sacred ground. The song is a parable about a woman saintly enough to be a Lars von Trier heroine [2]. Such an exercise in virtue will put off sophisticates - I mean, where are the supermodels? [?] But as Edge and Clayton spool a slow dance, sparked by tiny cloudbursts from Eno's keyboards [1], celebrating faith, hope, and love doesn't seem that bad [5]. In fact, it's exactly what U2, giving in to itself, is meant to do. [6]

Implementation tallies: Lesson 1 - 8, Lesson 2 - 8, Lesson 3 - 6, Lesson 4 - 0, Lesson 5 - 6, Lesson 6 - 9.

Immediately, it must be noted, Powers has a slight advantage over Browne. He only had 675 words to work with, where she has 731. But with those mere extra 56 words, she manages a remarkably more accomplished piece of writing.

The first paragraph alone is a masterpiece of random meaning making, a la Lesson 5. I've read it at least 10 times and I can still only find a razor thin connection to anything remotely related to U2 or their music. Well done. Also, Powers shows a remarkable dexterity with Lesson 6. She not only generalizes who exactly she thinks U2 are as a band, but every paragraph has some sort of comparison to their past history. Even the title and subtitle of the review play off of older U2 song names, which covers both Lesson 1 and lesson 6. That's worth extra credit, my friends.

Her grasp of figurative language is solid, as is her ability to allude to other bands. I'm especially a fan of paragraph 3's beatdown of Creed and Kid Rock, and paragraph 7, where EVERY SENTENCE contains an artist comparison. And check out the sly double use of lessons 1 and 2 in the line "Edge's Velvety guitar." One could take that figuratively, and say that the guitar sound is smooth, but the capitalization also allows it to serve as an unexplained Velvet Underground comparison. Again, well done.

But Powers blazes new territory in her final paragraph. The Lars Van Trier allusion is obscure and delicious, and her next line is the cherry and whipped cream on top. You'll notice I annotated it with a question mark because it is so innovative as to not even fit into any of our existing lessons. There's a vague dig at "sophisticates" (because making a reference to Lars Van Trier is certainly not something a high-minded person would do) and supermodels, and a fair amount of righteous anger. What it has to do with U2, the song Grace, or anything else, we don't know. It's kind of Lesson 5ish, with a little bit of Lesson 7's lack of logic added in, but really it's something completely different. Again, that's worth extra credit.

The one glaring fault of this review is Powers' seeming love of her job. I wonder if she forgot to study her notes on Lesson 4, or if she was absent that day. There's nothing in this review that indicates that Powers finds pop music to be a laborious burden on her life. Nothing to indicate that she actually dislikes 99% of what she hears. This is definitely something Powers should improve upon.

Powers' raw score on this review is a whopping 18 out of 24. With 1.5 points of extra credit she earned, that makes it 19.5. That's a solid B, with room to grow.

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Here ends the series. I hope it has been all you've dreamed of and more. Now, go forth and be critical.

2 comments:

Richard said...

I can honestly say that I have less idea of why you review music now than I did at the beginning of the series. I hope the bitterness that has become more and more apparent as the lessons have piled up is part of the tongue-in-cheek show! If not...dude, cancel your magazine subscriptions. They're just bringing you down.

(By the way, I like Browne's review and find his mention of Radiohead and the Wallflowers perfectly valid. An EW reader circa 2000 would know exactly what he meant by those references, Should a critic review strictly by reference? No. But without any references at all, the review becomes so insular that anyone who hasn't already heard the album being reviewed can't find a way in, thus can't enjoy the review, thus can't learn whether he or she might want to listen to the album being reviewed. Which is kind of the point, right?)

Paul Allen said...

Though the tone is tongue-in-cheek throughout, the bitterness itself is not. I'm bitter about the state of music reviewing because the majority of it is so insular and self-serving. This series was meant as a statement of purpose against that.

So basically, if you take the opposite of everything I said, that's how I think music writing should work, and that's how I try to write mine. In this entry, Browne is the true exemplar, because he does almost everything in moderation.

I'm not completely against artist comparisons or allusions, I just think they need to be done sparingly and with clear purpose. I understand what you say about providing context, so I don't mind the Radiohead comparison so much (even though Browne is making use of the cool dynamic from lesson 3).

But, The Wallflowers one seems unnecessary. It's like the middle school kid who insults others to make himself feel better. Given the timing, that reference is probably aimed at their album Breach, which came out in 2000 as well (and which Browne put on his worst-of-the-year list). I really like that album, so his point (for me at least) has the opposite of the intended effect.