What Awaits Good Criticism—An Object Lesson from SPIN Magazine

Bear with me: SPIN Magazine has a new top-100 list, headed “SPIN’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”.  If you feel like reading it, go ahead. You’re guaranteed to feel a few moments of mild vindication, and a few of intense provocation. They’ve done the same thing many times before, and it’s a recipe that SPIN, among other magazines, have down to an exact science, by now. The comment thread on their website makes for a good litmus test of their success, too; every commenter found something to rage against, even if they had to resort to reading other comments. The sort of people who like arguing about this sort of thing have, undoubtedly, brought the fight to Facebook, too. But under all the comment-baiting, this is a great example of the ‘music news churn’ in operation. And I worry that it illustrates a growing trend.

The obvious criticisms are, conveniently, justified—as the “100 Greatest” list its headline would seem to suggest, the article is baffling in both what it includes and what it leaves out. But the bigger-picture complaint is that there’s actually a good idea underneath this article: as the introduction briefly hints, it’s an attempt at a list of musicians (guitarists or otherwise) who might have made lasting contributions to the way we hear guitars, in the generation since the Velvet Underground, or thereabouts. Rather than holding up technically skilled guitarists, most of the authors are out to praise new directions. (Skrillex and Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay  both place, by virtue of their use of recorded guitar tracks.) There are certainly too many chefs in the kitchen, and the text of the article regularly disagrees with itself, both in tone and in content. But there are, undeniably, good criticism and insight on display. The big idea, unfortunately, just doesn’t jive with the editorial voice.

I don’t mean to weep for what might have been, in that particular article. But it’s a better-than-usual example of a wider problem. It would be naive to say this is a sign of the times in publishing, since magazines have been running exactly this kind of piece since long before there was an internet. And SPIN is certainly just one lemming in the herd. But I do worry that the imperative to bait traffic has begun to push the balance of content more and more towards this type of article. We sacrifice an awful lot of smart criticism to create the illusion of controversy, these days, and I don’t believe anybody wins, in that exchange.

I hear a lot of political journalists taken to task for putting sensationalism above reporting, these days. But I have to think there’s more at stake, when it happens to music. As Lester Bangs put it, art is more important than politics, in the long run.

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Sea of Bees’ Orangefarben is an engaging album from an authentic ‘weirdo folkie’

Sacramento-based singer-songwriter Julie Ann Bee, working under the project name Sea of Bees, has just released her second full-length album, following up her 2010 debut. In tone, Orangefarben is largely sentimental, semi-sweet music, of a piece with most of the folk-rock genre, these days. And the arrangements put very conventional guitars, violins and incidental percussion front and center. But the end result has some undeniably weird twists. Thanks in large part to Bee’s very expressive vocal performances, the album manages to be endearing without being saccharine, stay perpetually just-off-balance, and to spill over with personality. I’ve heard Sea of Bees compared to Sparklehorse, and while the music doesn’t bear much resemblance, the approach to writing and recording certainly does — this is an album full of strange, bright ideas, shot through with unflinching courage in its convictions.

Orangefarben also makes a tricky comparison to Bee’s last album, Songs for the Ravens. The new album is both less experimental and more confident, but I don’t get the feeling it’s any more conservative, really; the risks here are carefully chosen, but no less ambitious. What hasn’t changed, thankfully, is that sense of being let in on something intensely personal. Listening to Sea of Bees still feels like being a fly on the wall during the construction of these songs. It’s an exciting place to be.

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On Science, Language, and Great Divides

Reading Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music, among other influences, has me thinking about the relationship between music and language, lately, so I thought I’d write out a few thoughts. This is Your Brain on Music is a great read, as everyone else I know discovered at least three years ago, but if you’ve been living under the same rock I have, I encourage you to read it. Levitin brings his experience as a musician, recording engineer and neuroscientist to bear on the subject of music’s deep roots in the structure and evolution of the human mind. As a psychology student and a music geek, I experienced a lot of ‘a-ha!’ moments throughout. He speaks mainly from a perspective of neurology and psychology — that is to say, about the mechanics of human behavior around music, but connects all of his work neatly to the bigger questions.

What’s most interesting to me, in the research Levitin cites, is that music and language seem to share some mechanisms in the brain. Neurologists have some ability to examine what happens in the brain when we listen to music, now, and these experiments are informing the study of both music and language. The two fields seem to be separated by quite a wall, in science, but I think our methods are good enough, at last, that we may finally be forced into a serious conversation about where the division between the two lies.

It’s tempting to say that music isn’t language, just because it’s not a system for encoding and decoding references to other ideas. That begs the question of what music is, of course, but there’s an even more tantalizing question, to me: are we sure that’s what language is? And on this one, consider me a skeptic. We love talking about language as a tool that encodes and transmits factual assertions about the external world, but how much of our use of speech (or writing, for that matter,) actually goes to that purpose? If I described people interactively making sound for each other’s amusement, which would you guess I was talking about, and why? I have to imagine that, if we understood music better, we would begin to learn things we’ve never suspected before, about what’s really happening when people speak to each other.

I’m reminded of Ezra Pound’s line, that “the poem fails when it strays to far from the song, and the song fails when it strays too far from the dance”. If we extrapolate the possibility that the paragraph can stray too far from the poem, then what, exactly, are we measuring in all of those distances? Nice to be excited by science, once in a while.

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Terry Malts’ Killing Time Serves Up a Welcome Flashback

There’s a scene in an old episode of The Simpsons, where Principal Skinner is judging a diorama contest at the elementary school. The episode revolves around Lisa’s diorama, but it’s Ralph Wiggum’s entry, an unadorned cardboard box full of Star Wars figurines in their original packaging, that brings out Skinner’s inner nerd, and takes first prize. I bring it up because, in recommending Terry Malts’ album Killing Time, I feel a little like Principal Skinner in that scene. It’s a box of seventies punk fanservice, much of it still in its original packaging. But, as the endless re-plays on my stereo in the last few weeks can attest, I just can’t hold it against them.

Everything from the sound production to the sleeve art calls back to the age of The Ramones or New York Dolls. But the album is saved from the criticism that it’s an imitation, by the plain fact that it’s such a good imitation. Calling it creatively unambitious also seems beside the point. Maybe a more fair criticism is that there isn’t much variety in the songs, but there again, I have to conclude this is exactly the album they meant to record. Check out “No Good for You” or “Tumble Down”, and you just might be hooked. With Killing Time, Terry Malts have served up a loud, hooky half-hour of old-school noise, and pulled it off with tremendous polish. I can’t wait to hear what else they can do.

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I’m on Vacation

The planets/academic schedules were in perfect alignment this week for my sweetheart and me to spend a few days in Vegas. (There was a professional reason for the trip, too, but not so as you’d notice.) I lived in Vegas for most of the ‘oughts decade, so a trip here is a trip down memory lane, more than anything else, but it’s nice getting to play tour guide, knowing all of the choicest places to eat, drink and be merry around here. So, in lieu of a more substantial post while I’m gone, enjoy some photos from the Hard Rock Hotel’s collection of music memorabilia, and other destinations around town.

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Re-Issues Bring Feedtime out of the Post-Punk Time Capsule

With the weighty new anthology The Aberrant Years, Sub Pop is shining a spotlight on the four albums Feedtime published through Aberrant Records in the 1980s. The timing is dead-on; After 20 years on the shelf, these songs can still hit the ground running. With its exhaustive explorations of some of the less-traveled fringes of punk sound, the music here feels eerily ‘of the moment’.

Feedtime’s sound is, among other things, a mesmerizing piece of cultural diffusion. The Sydney trio played with an unguarded love of old American blues-rock rhythms, but layered in some decidedly UK punk noise over it. And at heart, there’s that indulgent, ‘dare-you’ bleakness that is distinctly working-class Aussie. To say their music falls somewhere on a continuum between Fugazi and Gang of Four is to acknowledge that there are no easy comparisons—call it alternate-universe rockabilly if you like, but the ‘something borrowed’ in their effects and rhythm parts is only background to a unique and driven sensibility for songwriting. If listening to the nearly three hours of material collected in The Aberrant Years makes one thing clear, it’s that Feedtime blazed their own trails through the post-punk landscape.

Just as they sometimes reached between continents for inspiration, though, I think contemporary listeners and musicians would do well to reach across the decades and hear what they came up with. I see a rock scene today with some awkward fissures between new and old, with progressive noise and folk-rock retreating from some of the creative puzzles they share, and Feedtime offers some important insights on those puzzles. Insofar as The Aberrant Years is the ‘roots rock’ of another time and place, it has plenty to teach us about those roots.

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The Golden Age You Could be Missing

Music geeks of my generation have lived through some interesting times. We’ve heard exciting things in music itself, to be sure. But we’ve also watched the world-changing potential of the internet rise up and clash against the intransigence and greed of an increasingly conglomeratized music industry. I suspect any one of us could recite some choice mythology about backsliding standards, backward ideas about gatekeeping in a world with eroding borders to commerce, and the RIAA’s monumental insults against the music-listening public. But a few nights ago, I was reminded that mythology has an intransigence all its own. I was using my Rdio.com account to stream the new Trailer Trash Tracys album, on the recommendation of a friend, meanwhile queueing up a few other new releases and old favorites to listen to, when it struck me that the moment we’re living in has, with little fanfare, changed.

I’m going to say something anathema to all of my generation’s gripes of the past decade: The state of commerce, law and technology, in service of connecting music with listeners, is the best it has ever been. …But with that said, of course, I should add that it’s never been especially good, before.

As a teenager, I lived at various times within range of Los Angeles’ KROQ and Seattle’s KNDD, and still couldn’t stand radio. It just had too many strings attached to the slow trickle of new music it provided. Like MTV, radio always felt a little too low-brow and mercenary, to me. To my limitless teenage arrogance, those were things people listened to if they didn’t know what good music sounded like.

In the first decade of widespread internet, we got some variations on music publishing. On one hand, there were promotional downloads from individual artists or labels, which were pleasantly direct, both in their appeal to the customer and in the nature of the marketing interaction: the product was counted on to advertise itself, which was a refreshing change from radio. And on the other hand, there was the phenomenon of “internet radio”, which took the traditional radio model, and returned it to the garage. Satellite radio did the same, and competed directly with traditional radio. To me, those movements tapped into the idea that radio used to be good, back in the days when it was local, focused and independent. And frankly, I wanted to believe it. But small-scale radio just never shook up the patterns that frustrated me about the medium. It was still someone else’s playlist.

The most intriguing thing to happen in those early years, though, was the rise of the file-sharing services that grew as broadband found a wide footing. Sites like Napster, and their collision with musicians and the recording industry, cast some dramatic shadows in the gaps between customers’ wishes and the industry’s faith in its own inertia. Many listeners (myself included) avoided those services because they went too far beyond the cassette-level piracy we’d all been doing for years; the scale of the disconnect between artists and their audience created both ethical and economic problems. But those sites did, irresistibly, articulate a vision of what could be. (Services like the iTunes Store, incidentally, made a killing by incorporating some of Napster’s innovations into industry-blessed sales portals.)

The modern batch of streaming music services has fundamental differences from both file-sharing and streaming radio (both of which are still going strong,) but it’s helpful to recognize that it’s the child of both. Sites like Spotify, Pandora and Grooveshark largely do away with radio’s core idea, the ‘curated playlist’, instead helping the individual listener find whatever she wants to hear in a particular moment. But unlike BitTorrent or the iTunes store, the streaming sites are primarily geared toward listening continuously and in real-time, rather than amassing a collection. So, at the present moment, we’re witnessing a surprising—and surprisingly effective—fusion of some widely-divergent ideas about music, publishing, and the technology of the 21st century.

The total product has surprising strengths. I’ve likened it to renting the world’s biggest record collection, but the breadth of the collections on offer isn’t quite as exciting as their contemporaneity; my subscription to Rdio gives me a back catalog that should make any music lover drool, but it also gives me near-instant access to new releases. Who needs the top-40 charts, after all, when you can listen to everything you’re interested to hear? That, for my money, makes for a fundamental leap forward in the long history of music and the audience searching for each other. Over here next to my stereo, it’s a golden age, these days. Hope you’re all getting in on it, too.

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