Essay # 7
FIVE PER CENT FOR NOTHING
Now, in this world of virtual reality this is not really an essay, but what the heck, I've got nowhere better to include this. Our is a lucky generation: for the third time in a row, we can say pretentious things like "The third year of the third millennium is over!" and, like, totally get away with it - not to mention that, for no apparent reason, or, rather, for a total lack of rational reasons, I have suddenly felt I've got to say something before 2004 finally takes over. In my defense, it's been two years, after all, since I've done something New Year-related, and isn't it time to resume the tradition?
So, in the language of political analysis, what new have these two years brought to Classic Rock And Pop Album Reviews? Well, one change I feel is evident - little by little I have managed to make the uneasy 'transgression' into the "modern world" and convince even some of the most sceptically minded dudes that, contrary to rumours, I do not consider all post-1975 music worthless (never did, actually, as anybody who took the time to read Essay # 1 carefully could have understood way earlier). Naturally, I have taken risks in the process; accusations of "stick to the Sixties, buddy, you're not fit to review Autechre (Bjork, Coil, Marillion, etc.)!" were pretty much inevitable. Along the way, I have also accumulated tons and tons of obligations - not only is the absolute majority of pages dedicated to post-70s artists still drastically incomplete, but I even have entire stacks of MP3 CD-Rs, many of them sent to me by friends, gathering dust and screaming to be reviewed. But it was still a beginning - and a beginning of something promising, I hope.
Some have wisely remarked that the addition of this huge lot of newer artists somewhat belies the site's name - that it can no longer be called "Classic Rock And Pop Album Reviews". That's true, if we take the word combination "classic rock" for its common radio-oriented meaning: "rock music that was popular in the late Sixties/early Seventies". But the funny thing is that not even I, perhaps the most ardent fan of that entire period in the WRC, ever accepted that meaning. To me, the word "classic" could never be applied to one particular period, be it the best period in rock music or the worst. "Classic", to me, meant - and still means - "worthy to be remembered". This leaves no space to relative evaluation; the Beatles may be better than Portishead (or worse, if you're the morose suicidal type), but both, in my humble opinion, deserve to be remembered, at least in some way. Meaning that no, I never really betrayed the name of the site. At least in the "classic" department - it's a different problem whether we can call Tangerine Dream "rock" or "pop", but I won't discuss that here.
In other words, I never really meant to be a "Sixties historian". Delving into the depths of one particular epoch is an exciting task, but it is also an endless one - and sooner or later you are gonna face the choice of whether you really want to be anal to the extreme about it or prefer to take chances in other departments as well. I'm not saying I have covered every Sixties' artist worth mentioning; there are still some extremely important gaps (Donovan, Incredible String Band, Van Morrison, etc.) as well as tons of little-known, but probably very interesting artists from the epoch that deserve my attention, but at this particular moment it seems wiser to branch out than to dig in. The important thing is that at the present state I do not feel like the Sixties can any longer surprise me. With artists such as Captain Beefheart, the Stooges, the USA, Family, the Left Banke, the Zombies, etc., covered, that territory is pretty much fleshed out. Building up on it can be fun, but it also can be somebody else's business. Greg Prato's, for instance, whose knowledge of the epoch I'll never match anyway - or, speaking of WRC members, Fredrik Tydal's, wherever he might be.
So that was an achievement, I think. Now, speaking of that "newer" stuff, most of it - mainly albums from the late Seventies/early Eighties, with an occasional Nineties record or two thrown in - was written in the form of "MP3 reviews" during my one-year 'sabbatical' at the Santa Fe Institute. This was a good year, productive in terms of both my research (today I probably know more about Bushman and Hottentot languages than anybody else in Russia - ain't it really pleasing to realize your uniqueness?) and my reviews, even if some of them were rather rushed and need serious rewriting.
But since then, yet another decision was made: to finally get rid of the MP3 section. It has long since outlived its initial purpose, that of separating the 'good' artists (deserving of me buying their entire catalog on CD) from the 'decent/bad' ones (not deserving more than a 3-buck worth MP3 CD-R with their entire catalog on it); over time, the two categories have become so hopelessly mixed that the differentiation now can be seriously deceptive. I have hoped - sancta simplicitas! - to mostly conclude the conversion process by this year's end, but I'm afraid to even think of any real deadlines nowadays. All I can say is - yes, ladies and gentlemen, the process has been launched, and THERE AIN'T NO STOPPING ME! Goodbye, MP3 section!
I can also honestly say that my reviewing style has seriously improved during this last year. In the end, it all depends very much on the amount of inspiration, but at least I don't experience the same kind of maniacal paranoia when having to reread something I wrote which I did experience those two years ago. Maybe that's an illusion, of course, and to most of my readers I'm still as boring as usual, but hey, it's not like I actually ever expected anybody to read all the crap I write, much less understand it. I can read it meself, and that makes me happy when I need it. However, that also implies some day I'll have to rewrite my Procol Harum reviews for the friggin' third time. Bother! And then again, maybe a fourth one.
Speaking of friends, of course I have to express my gratitude to people who recommended me - or directly introduced me to some of the excellent artists that now have been reviewed, or are still waiting to be "adequately represented". Rich Bunnell, the former Keeper of the Mark Prindle Lighthouse, has, among others, given me the pleasure of enjoying Oingo Boingo, Ween, They Might Be Giants, and one of the few Bruce Springsteen albums I can honestly say I like. Andrew Rennard has plunged me into the vicious world of Prince (and The Fall reviews are on their way, I promise, honest!). Other cool people mailed me catalogs of Harry Nilsson, Talk Talk, and lots of other stuff - all I can say is I hope I live long enough to fulfill their expectations. If I do live long enough, they will be fulfilled.
Not that everything was so okey-dokey, of course. These two years got me rather disappointed in the WRC (see previous essay to experience the depth of the disillusionment - I'm not willing to go into much detail over this one, though) and particularly my own message board - it's weird, but I've pretty much gotten alienated from Music Babble. The biggest problem were the three months I've spent alienated from the Internet due to my moving house: having returned to my own "house" as sort of a "guest", I no longer had the will to post there. Not much time either, and these two reasons pretty much nailed it. There's too many people there now... too many new faces, too many trolls, too many polls, too much types of activity that do nothing for me. I'm glad they're all there, and I wish them luck - but if you have any personal questions for me, let's stick to yer good old E-mail. My friends know how to reach me, anyway. Speaking of the WRC, I would definitely like to congratulate those people who managed to transform their sites from their humble beginnings into solid enterprises over these two years, particularly Adrian Denning and Cap'n Marvel, as well as to hold my thumbs up for those WRC veterans who are still going strong.
I haven't been buying much new music lately, either. Simply put, I'm overloaded; I got enough to last me a few years working overtime. It's sort of funny that with all my thousands of albums I still know shit about at least 50% of the artists discussed on MB - but then again, most people on MB know shit about late period Alice Cooper albums, and some of them are first-rate. I do not regard that as a serious problem. Hey, it's a good thing that MB attracts so many individuals so well versed in music, isn't it? But seriously, I have enough music to make a decent enough overview of both the Eighties and the Nineties, and I'm not going to waste a lot of money buying more stuff until I'm through with what I have.
Which brings me to further plans, of course. Currently, I have a list of 350 artists, from the 60s to the present, that would form the "main block" of the site; whether I'll be moving further than that depends, of course, on whether I'm able to make a solid overview of these 350. (This list includes both artists I'm already through with, artists whose pages are still incomplete and a small group of artists that have not yet been touched). With a little bit of extra time, I hope to complete the Nuggets section and maybe push forward the 'song analysis' project as well.
To be perfectly honest, many times this year I have been tempted to remove the interactivity option from the site and stop accepting reader comments. I have resisted that temptation as best I could, but the idea still haunts me. The evidence is such that most comments I receive fall into two categories: (a) useless one-liners that nobody cares about besides the people who send them, (b) "challenging" letters, ranging from intellectual treatises to ardent flames, often interesting, often irritating, but always prompting me to make up some kind of response for which I simply haven't got time. I mean, what can I say if I get a letter saying "you're a moron because you missed the hidden sense in Van Der Graaf Generator song so-and-so!" and I have to put away the Blondie CD I'm currently listening to and dig out the old rusty VdGG CD from the shelf and relisten to the song, cursing everybody and their grandmother, and then write back about how it's all a matter of opinion in the end and waste fifteen minutes of my precious time on it? All I can say is "fuck this shit". Thank God I haven't received a lot of flames this year at least, and most of those I have are predictably directed at my Kansas and Uriah Heep reviews. (Just wait until I get around to upgrading their pages, you dickwads! Got even MORE bile coming up for youse! :)
Anyway, the reader comments stay, don't worry about it. And if they really get to me in the end, well, first thing I'll do is get rid of the "Reader Comment Statistics" page, so if that one goes, there's a warning sign for you. This is really ridiculous - I get tired of the amount of "fanmail" and "flamemail" I receive, and I can only imagine what goes on in the mailboxes of those with a hundred times more 'fame' than poor little me. It's sort of shameful when somebody sends you a long letter of compliments and all you can do is write a generic 'thanks, please keep coming back' in return, but I'm not Superman. Oh well. At least I've pretty much learned not to pick E-mail battles with flamers any more. Not with dumb flamers at least.
One thing I've started noticing is rather curious and worth mentioning. Every reviewer who had the chance to listen to at least a few albums specially for reviewing purposes (as opposed to reviewing albums you've been a fan of for years) will probably understand me when I say there's a particular "threshold of appropriation" for every record - namely, that there's sort of an average number of listens you have to go through in order to "get" a particular album, to make it sink in. This threshold may be higher or lower, of course, depending on lots of factors, but for me it used to have an average of three - the required "three listens". My idea was that with time, this threshold would get lower; after all, the more musical experience you have, the easier it is for both your heart and mind to "dissect" the new stuff - wouldn't that be logical?
Well, it turns out it's been the opposite. Not only did that threshold never become lower, it actually happened to grow higher. Today, three listens are practically never enough for me - it's more like four or five instead. Examples abound - right now, I'm putting the final touches on an update consisting of five new albums, and each and every one of them produced a radically negative impression upon me the first couple of listens. To be fair, that was mainly due to them being "formally unexciting" - lacking innovation and surprise. The albums belonged, respectively, to 10cc, Blondie, Nick Cave, Angra, and Blur, and all of them seemed to mainly rehash past glories (10cc's Mirror Mirror, Nick Cave's Nocturama) or mimicking their betters (Angra copying Iron Maiden, Blur copying The Jam, Blondie copying the entire glossy pop branch of MTV rolled into one). And yet the "sinking in", the "appropriation" finally occurred - around the fourth listen, when the actual melodies finally started coming through and I actually started getting the expected gut pleasure from listening to this stuff.
And that's not just one example - today, it happens all the time. Music takes a longer time to get to me than it used to. I have no definite idea about whether that's good or bad - whether that is reason to get alarmed or get glad all over. One possible explanation is that Eighties/Nineties music, especially good Eighties/Nineties music, is superficially more complex and layered than Sixties' music; that it has more of these "defensive layers" you have to get through than Sixties music, more covers, defensive lines, and formal twists saving it from sounding too cliched and derivative (and it definitely is one of the reasons some people prefer it to the more 'obvious' sounds of the Sixties). But a more probable explanation is that the music is derivative, and that it takes much more good will and patience to see through its derivativeness to get the good stuff than it took me with the "fresh" stuff. After all, whenever I seem to hit upon a truly unique branch of musical vision - Portishead, for instance, or Morphine - the "threshold of appropriation" immediately jumps from four to friggin' one, two at max.
Hence the stupidly amazing conclusion: it's much harder to review good music than it is to review great music. Albums that get an overall rating of 13 or of 6 are the easiest ones. The most dreadful overall rating is ten - Good Stuff Not Protected By Anybody's Genius. The more potential tens there are, the lengthier the work is. And since there are always more tens than thirteens or sixes, and these aren't records I've spent a long time with previously, this makes reviewing them a real chore. Of course, it's always possible to take the easy road and dismiss the product right out of hand - "obviously there is no genius here, I'm not gonna bother with that one". This would be simple. "Genius" is a subjective notion, but, as such, I can say I always notice this subjective "genius" of mine right away. Morphine and Portishead have "genius", and it was apparent to me the first time around. But would that mean that I'd have to divide all music into stuff that has genius (quality stuff) and stuff that hasn't? Heck, Alice Cooper's real good and I love lots of his records, but he doesn't have "genius"; he's got a high IQ level instead. (So, by the way, do Frank Zappa and David Bowie, both of whom are way too smart to have "genius"; I wouldn't recommend confusing these two things). And so I just keep on listening. And eventually it sinks in.
What else is new? Well, lots. Like I said, the year I spent in Santa Fe has been really productive for my linguistic work. In Moscow, we got a new apartment so that my son finally gets to sleep in his room. I got myself a DVD player and have started a small collection of this new type of media (which also contributes to a little decline in music reviewing, as you understand - and the worst thing about playing DVDs is that you really can't multitask to them). And this month, I got a chance to finally witness the tiny airliner of Russian democracy go down in flames - a historical moment, no doubt, making me even more proud to have lived through that one brief decade of half-hearted glory. In short, we've been busy.
Since this is an end-of-the-year essay, I might as well conform and bleet out this end-o'-the-year list - demonstrating my retrograde essence for all it's worth:Greatest musical discovery of the year: Nick Cave. I always knew he was gruff, morbid, and cooky, but I never knew he was an astonishingly consistent songwriter as well. Greatest album reviewed this year: not counting Bob Dylan's live '75 archive release, this has to be Sandinista! by the Clash, although Nick Cave's Tender Prey comes close. Most difficult material reviewed this year: Autechre, hands down. These guys make records with the aim of making fools of whoever reviews them. Worst album reviewed this year: Bruce Springsteen's Ghost Of Tom Joad. Boredom is rarely offensive - this is one of the "rarelies". Biggest disappointment of the year: 10cc's evil stretch of Eighties albums. I didn't expect much, but this still managed to come without a warning... Favourite commentator of the year: Pedro Andino, I guess, or the Eternal Kansas guy (there are several but they all look the same). Favourite MB member of the year: Jim, who made me spend more time with the family. Thanks Jim. Best music-related event of the year: The Macca concert in Red Square. Worst music-related event of the year: That one time when I was flipping through the channels and caught a glimpse of the 'Me Against The Music' video. The idea of old sluts passing their tricks over to young ones isn't one I find appealing.
My cheers and congrats go to all my good friends on Music Babble and beyond - and I hope you guys managed to achieve more than I did this year. If you didn't, well, don't believe yourself about it. Life's too short to waste it not achieving something (I have no idea where I got this ridiculous strand of Protestant ethics... must be my 4th of July genetics). Hey, I'd be glad if you all wrote something below this point. Not necessarily compliments (who am I to think you think I deserve any?), but anything. Just to know somebody's out there still reading all this crap!
Interesting new essay - I've been visiting newstar.rinet.ru/music/
for years now and just love it. I *know* that given the nature of the Internet
nothing out here is, like, set in stone, but still I hope the website and
it's creator will be around for the years to come! Actually, it's reading
your reviews that made me start collecting stuff like Deep Purple and ELO
all over again, not having listened to those bands since way back in the
From Cosmic Ben:
Your New Year's essay was quite entertaining....I'm glad to know that your year has been satisfying enough to inspire such an upbeat, thoughtful essay.
Good point about mediocre albums. I feel disappointed in myself whenever I give a record three stars, almost as if I've failed to make an interesting point or notice an album's distinctiveness. But sometimes it's just not there. So I usually play up the blandness for humor, as in "Why do I keep buying this crap? DId I really expect a late-period Commodores album to be great?"
I mostly feel the same way as you about Music Babble, in that I am alienated from it. However, I still find it entertaining. I rarely read more than 5% of the posts, because like you said they're polls or random NP's or pointless feuds. I also haven't bothered to get to know "the new crop"; usually I'll cantankerously sit back and think, "I was debating September 11th issues on this board while you were still a drooling middle-schooler"....but that's now very productive, is it? I still read nearly every post from Rich, Mark, Steve Knowlton, Ben G., Oliver, and a few others, and ignore the rest. You'd be on that list for sure, except I haven't seen you there lately :).
For me, 2003 has been a "quiet whirlwind". I haven't travelled anywhere exciting but within the confines of a quiet suburban life there has been a bunch of stress and even more happiness. I started the year with an internship teaching 7th grade English; it was interesting but I ended up being depressed nearly every day because I couldn't quiet down the class or make my directing teacher happy. Teaching with someone over your shoulder is no damn fun. Seventh graders are also an unstoppable force of nature, especially to someone with no experience.
Still, I graduated from my Master's program and was quite proud of that. I quietly continued my long-distance relationship with Katie, which was approaching three years in the spring. Every two weeks, one of us made the six-hour drive or bus trip, but the weekends were little deliriously happy islands in the sea of blandness that I sometimes create for myself.
The summer was a mix of carefree liberation and body-wracking stress. I lived in apartment with my sister and neighbor and worked as a dishwasher at Ivey's Grill in Gainesville. It was the best job I've ever had, even if I was dead tired at night and my hands were shrivelling up from dryness. It was very free and fun; some of my friends are still living that life and part of me envies them.
On the other hand, it was the summer of the job search; I applied to dozens of schools, interviewed at ten (on my rare days off from dishwashing), and spent weeks waiting for the phone to ring, to no avail. Finally, when I grudgingly became comfortable with the idea of working two minimum-wage jobs and still barely making rent in the fall, I got a call from Eastside High School in Gainesville. It came four days before the beginning of the school year, and it was the end of a summer that, whatever the high points, was ruined by the stress of the job search and some very trying times between Katie and I.
August began my new, adult life. I moved in with Katie, which has so far gone amazingly. We got a little grey cat named Mia who sleeps with us at night. Teaching has been traumatizing but it's also a lot of fun. I'm teaching in a low socioeconomic status area of Gainesville and it's a real challenge, and while I wish the students would be nicer I still get a lot of energy just from interacting with them. I'm slowly becoming a better teacher, too.
On Katie's birthday, November 14, I proposed to her, and she said yes. Pretty cool, huh? And that's where I am. Working, coming home, paying the bills, trying to be a great teacher, fiancee, son, brother, friend, and adult. I expect 2004 to be more "quiet" than "whirlwind", but you never know what will happen.
I haven't updated my website as much as I'd like to, to the point where I don't blame people for only checking the site every few weeks. I haven't given up on web reviewing; I simply haven't had the energy or the inspiration to write very much. My dwindling attention span has also made it though to digest any one album through and through, rather than jump from one album to another the minute I get bored. It's one thing to have trouble analyzing a boring album, George, but how do you sit through them in the first place? In any case, I am hoping for a resurgence in 2004. Don't give up on CosmicBen's Record Reviews just yet.....it's still quietly chugging along.
Biggest musical realization this year: That I enjoy the hunt for good, cheap music as a hobby enough to justify all the bad albums that come out of the hunt. It's fun! It doesn't have to be about getting the best albums, because otherwise I'd take everyone's advice and save up for better albums. It's satisfying to bring home 16 decent tapes for 7 dollars. The hunt is a worthwhile hobby and can exist separately from the music.
Best moment to come out of the hunt: Hitting nine Miami garage sales with my dad on on a Saturday morning, looking for tapes.
2nd Biggest musical realization of the year: Usually the most you can expect from an album is two great singles and some decent filler. A few will have three great singles, and only the absolute best will have more than that. But maybe there's no shame in being a great singles band. I still like to hear the whole album, for completeness' sake.
Album that got me back into rap music, however temporarily: Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Both halves of the album are brimming with fun ideas and kickass music.
Most important album I bought this year: Rickie Lee Jones' Pirates. I spent hours making sure I was doing the album justice in a review. Its best moments are as warm and inspiring as anything I've ever heard.
Guilty Pleasure: Mike & The Mechanics' Word of Mouth. Proof that I'm getting old and tired (at 23!) but it's still fun.
Great album I will get around to reviewing one day: Disclaimer's The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss (sorry, Will!).
Worst album I've heard this year: Herbie Hancock's Perfect Machine. It's like they took a mediocre 80's album, lopped off anything that might have made it enjoyable, and served up a stew of robotic vocals, synths, and tinny drums. I'm scared to give it a second listen.
Well, George, thanks for wading through this and
posting it so others can do the same. Good luck reviewing in 2004, and
thanks again for posting such an interesting essay. It's been a long time
since I was inspired to write so much! Here's hoping it's a trend. Well,
I'm hoping, anyway.
From Raghu Mani:
Well, this is not really a comment on the essay - it's just that the essay prompted me to send you a note of thanks for creating this website and updating it at this amazing rate. I look forward to each new update of yours and find all your reviews both entertaining and informative. I don't know how you get the time for this (with a day job and a kid) but I'm glad you are doing it - and I, for one, hope you never stop.
Of all the WRC members, you (and John McFerrin, of course) come closest to my tastes. I won't use the phrase "eerily similar" like John does (because we do have some significant disagreements) but I still feel fairly comfortable that I will like most albums/artists that have been strongly recommended by you. Among the artists I have gotten into because of you are Procol Harum and Renaissance - both of which I have enjoyed tremendously. I expect to add Sparks to that list fairly soon.
Thanks once again for doing this and keep up the
From Lance Lawton:
Congrats for all your entertaining work in music reviewing this year (and I hope xmas was/will be* relaxing and fruitful). I read your essay with more than a little agreement to your opinions on MB (especially so), work, DVDs (they steal my spare time like nobody's business) and especially, music. I do believe, however, that picking a "good album", "great album" or "mediocre album" can be done after about two listens. Sure, there are some that make me want to listen to it again, but I'm not sure that repeated listenings can reveal the merits of, say, Britney Spears' meisterworks other than make me think, "geez, this is one well produced, glossy album. Next!". But writing a few hundred (intelligent) words on it is another story.
As for reader comments, I'd really really like to send in some, but I don't really get the time to put my thoughts into words. I will say, however, that I'd have to disagree with you on Peter Gabriel's Security. :)
Keeping in mind that almost gluttonous love of music that we share, I'd like to make a small recommendation: if you ever see any albums by a Bavarian sextet called the Tied & Tickled Trio floating around, give 'em a chance. Shocking name, great music. (A mix of jazz, electronica, dub reggae and just plain groove that does it for me).
Anyway, have a safe festive season and good luck to you and your family for next year. Thanks for all your efforts in reviewing that keep me pleasantly distracted at work!
You know what, George? You're right: your reviewing did improve over the year, as it has every year since I've been (semi-regularly) visiting your web site. And you were pretty damn good to begin with! I admire the hell out of you for your persistence, and the way you've been not only maintaining incredibly high standards all this time but continually raising them. By now, you've entered uncharted territory and I seriously doubt if you have any peers in the "WRC", or in the annals of reviewing, for that matter.
I'm glad you decided to retain the Readers' Comments - they're an essential part of the site. Naturally, you don't have time to respond to them, and I imagine even posting them all in the right places is very time-consuming too. What you need is an assistant. Maybe you could put your son to work as your email screener. It's about time the little brat started earning his keep, right?
George, since this is another of those pages where we fans can offer you our premeditated praise, then I shall join too. I’ve been reading your reviews and the reader comments attached to them for three years but I’ve never commented on anything. I guess the thing that keeps me coming back for more, no matter what you’re reviewing, is the overall attitude in your reviews. Even though your writing style has “improved” in that it’s even more entertaining now than it used to be with all that self-conscious wittiness and “faux stabs below the artists’ belts”, it’s still your attitude that does it the most. You’re always willing to give an album a proper chance (or as you state yourself, 3+ listens) and even though you’ve stated that you really can’t be objective, you’re at least trying to be. Maybe “objective” is not the right word here; “unbiased” would be it. And of course your skills to produce totally readable, coherent reviews as “streams of conscious” are enviable.
Since you have once again raised some good points, I might as well offer my .02$:
"Classic", to me, meant - and still means - "worthy to be remembered". This leaves no space to relative evaluation; the Beatles may be better than Portishead (or worse, if you're the morose suicidal type), but both, in my humble opinion, deserve to be remembered, at least in some way.
I endorse that attitude but of course there’s no certainty that Portishead will be remembered ten years after they have ceased to exist. I believe “classic” music is something that will be as worthy of a listen in the distant future as it was during its heyday. It would have to be able stand on its own outside the (sub)culture it originated in, and outside the “dated” production values. I guess I’m stating the same thing you did in a different way but there’s no telling who will stand out of the current bands when we can finally look back at this era with less bias. Nevertheless, I still appreciate your delving into the ‘90s artists. There’s no telling who will live on and who will be only of the interest of the connoisseurs, but already on your site there are ‘60s and ‘70s bands who are nothing more than footnotes in rock history. Even then it was important to review at least some of them because it got you closer to that “complete picture” that you strive for.
At the same time I appreciate the fact that you still haven’t reviewed bands that are still surrounded by hype. Some temporal distance is needed on them. R******** is a good example.
The following is based on my own, biased impression as a reader of this site:
When you started reviewing ‘80s and ‘90s artists on a larger scale, it was surprising to witness the unexpected high ratings that some albums received. I may not agree with everything, but it doesn’t really matter. Let it be said though that two years ago I would have predicted The Ramones receiving a band rating of two at max. A four was very, very surprising, even though not undeserved. Likewise, many bands’ “best” works received overall 13s and that surprised me too. I guess the unexpectedness of it all is explained by the fact that you had very little artists reviewed from the “punk and beyond” section (not to mention sections 5 and 6) at the time, and most of these were given ratings on the mp3 scale. But it still seems to me that there’s been some kinds of changes in your attitude towards the post-1975 music. I don’t know if your comprehension of a 13-rated work has got looser, in that you feel it’s necessary to put albums that are not “masterpieces” alongside works “reverence” like Boulders or Imagine. But what I do know of is little “fixings” here and there, such as giving Debut a 13 subsequently when you noticed that no other Bjork album appeals to you as much.
I’m not suggesting that you have any “dishonest reviewing attitudes” or the like but it appears to me that you’ve grown somewhat more forgiving and open in regards to music of all kinds, at least when compared to that man who wrote Essay #1 three and a half years ago. It makes me glad, of course, but at the same time there’s a problem involved. I occasionally start to think of things like: “What if George reviewed Close To The Edge or Mirage (not the Camel album) now? Surely he’d give those a 13 each!” Because the Starostin that reviewed those two (for example) seems to me a different man than you are now. I don’t know if you’d be able to push aside tracks like “Siberian Khatru” (“noise that's kinda inessential”) or “Straight Back” (“an inferior rewrite of 'Sisters Of The Moon', 's all”) that easily now.
I know you’ve been rewriting some of the older non-mp3 reviews as you go along (although I guess you haven’t had the proper chance to do it since 2001). Most often it’s been an album that has a short review, also it’s usually stuff you’ve given an overall rating between five and nine; you’ve raised the rating a point or two and that’s probably because of this “increased tolerance”. Yet I sometimes wonder what would happen if you gave the stuff, that a) you’ve reviewed before 2001 and b) has an overall rating between ten and twelve, a proper listen again. It feels to me that some of these albums (which are all not my favourites, note that!) are not being treated equally to those that you’ve been reviewing for the two past years, and that would be simply because of the possible “opening up” that has happened in your mind.
Again, this is all just my impression and my assumptions; I do not know if you’ve changed in this particular regard or not and I don’t know if you listen to the stuff you reviewed a long time ago these days. I know reviews are not created in a vacuum and that it would be an additional strain on you if you actually took the time to listen to these albums again once or twice. I know it’s impossible to treat every album equally; people change and so do their attitudes. But this just bothered me, so I wrote it here. No offense meant by any of this, though.
To another great point you made then:
Eighties/Nineties music, especially good Eighties/Nineties music, is superficially more complex and layered than Sixties' music; that it has more of these "defensive layers" you have to get through than Sixties music, more covers, defensive lines, and formal twists saving it from sounding too cliched and derivative (and it definitely is one of the reasons some people prefer it to the more 'obvious' sounds of the Sixties). But a more probable explanation is that the music is derivative, and that it takes much more good will and patience to see through its derivativeness to get the good stuff than it took me with the "fresh" stuff.
I’d say you’ve hit the nail right on its head here. It was natural for many bands to concentrate on the songwriting itself during the early ‘60s; there were limitations in playing skills and the recording and arrangement techniques weren’t as accomplished as they became quite fast. If you had a good song, you could make it big, not necessarily as a performer but as a songwriter. The only way to make an audience listen was through the composition itself. Of course this doesn’t apply to genres like the blues where you could distinguish the songs from each other by listening to the performance itself, not the songwriting.
When the musical sophistication “increased”, meaning that the arrangement skills grew more refined and the recording equipment improved, then it became possible for bands to express more than just the most obvious, “simplistic” emotions. Bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys questioned things; it wasn’t just a pop song now, it became a serious work of art. I can’t remember who said the following (and I’m not sure if I get the quote correctly”, but it was well said:
“If you had said in 1965 that pop music is an art form, you would’ve been laughed at. If you had said in 1969 that pop music isn’t an art form, you would’ve been laughed at”.
It was a very quick change that happened. OK, it wasn’t always a simple case of writing a “sad song” and a “happy song” before this huge turnaround but all these new possibilities opened a lot of doors. Tracks weren’t just a bunch of songwriting with the most basic of arrangements; they became like sound paintings where you could express many layers of emotions. People basically found another, larger than before, set of tone colours. At the same time the “catchy hooks” began to slowly lessen, as you stated in your Essay #1:
The number of note combinations is huge, but, first of all, not all of these combinations are pleasant to the ear, second, even this number is limited, too. No matter how long you are able to create good music using a given pattern, you won't be able to do it forever - even if you're the greatest genius on Earth.
Yet at that point it didn’t really matter too much. The fascination of rock and pop music hasn’t ever been something that you can truly capture into notation (like you can do with classical music). The notation doesn’t convey the rich world of tone colours and rhythmic subtleties that have been available to rock, pop and jazz. So whereas the “catchiness”, the immediate appeal, the obvious lines in the painting that represented something tangible, decreased, these “defensive layers” that you’re talking about started to play a larger role. Certain artists of today do not express just the “old clichés”; the whole thing is so post-modern that they can pretend they’re “beyond” such things. Instead they can express these multiple layers of emotions that can be hard to cut through sometimes. Comparing the ‘60s innovative artists to certain artists of today is like comparing Mona Lisa to one of those Jackson Pollock paintings (FYI: both ways of expression and everything in be! tween are of equal value to me). At the same time these current artists have mostly limited audiences; only very little of them are capable of cutting through like Portishead, as you mentioned.
I do agree with you about the “derivativeness” of the current music scene but I tried to show another side of the matter above. It was natural for people to add these “layers” to their music; at least for those artists who want to question the obvious. One’s artistic and financial success depends on whether you’re capable of leaving something inside the music that at least some listeners can identify with.
I think it’s good, George, that you’re not forcing yourself into writing reviews anymore (as you stated on the Babble once). So here’s to another year of quality work. Cheers!
I will express my thanks for the essay just like the above commentators and thanks for such a fantastic website. You have no idea how much I have learnt, especially about genres such as prog rock. And after reading your review to Odgens’ Nut Gone Flake I went out and bought it. Thanks George! My tastes are somewhat similar to yours, although I wouldn’t acclaim the five star bands as much as you do. I’m really sorry but I do not like Bob Dylan at all, and I have real problems listening to the The Who. However I do respect these four bands/musicians for what they have brought to music. The other problem I have is only minor and that is with your treatment of hard rock. I am not the biggest Deep Purple fan, but I think you treat Led Zeppelin and in particular Black Sabbath too harshly, but that’s ok. We are all allowed different tas! tes otherwise life would be extremely boring.
As for the essay it is helpful to explain your approach to reviewing post 1975 music. This isn’t my greatest area of expertise, but I wouldn’t mind learning a bit more about it. Although it may take a while as you seem to be reviewing at the moment in alphabetic order, I cannot wait till you reach Metallica and in particular finish U2’s catalogue. It is much better to review ‘modern’ music rather than only reviewing 60s and 70s music as you would need to look for more obscure bands or begin reviewing the solo output of every musician who was part of a major 60s and 70s band. We wouldn’t want that would we? There seems to be one glaring omission though. Where is Cat Stevens? Ok, I’m definitely not the biggest fan, but I thought his credentials would be high enough to earn a spot on your coveted review website.
Regarding your view on how long it takes to “get” an album, I have found that the period for me to decide whether I like an album is shorter than it used to be. Ok, I am not a professional (professional in quality, not regarding payment) reviewer like yourself, so it’s a little different. I used to have to listen to an album 10 times or more before I made a decision. Now I can often tell in about three listens. There are exceptions, particularly in the prog rock genre. It took me many listens before I decided that Close to the Edge is really good, and I am still undecided about Brain Salad Surgery. Anyway, thanks again for the essay and most of all the website.
I've almost been kicking myself for not contacting you more often, and I'm almost happy to note that you probably didn't want them anyway. (...Needless to say, I don't know anything technical about the music or historical facts about them ... nor do I ever care.)
I've only been in the 'music reviewing business' with any stability pretty much since August, and for the most part I've enjoyed it, even though many of my reviews consist of inane rambling! (...Er, whenever I get on something that's I self-perceivably believe to be an amusing rant, I'll take it to the Summer Olympics.) I wish I could write reviews with more speed, but, like you've indicated, doing that sacrafices quality.
For some reason, I have a different problem when reviewing albums. I almost have a hard time reviewing "great" albums ... or the ones on your scale which would get a 13-15. They're so wonderful that I just go into this void of praising the bugger out of it! And, if I don't have anything mean to say about something, then I just don't want to say anything at all. Although, the ones that would get 11-9 on your scale, I have a hard time WANTING to review, but that's a different story.
Well ... Even though I don't contact you much, I do have your web site on my links on my web browser, and I do check it constantly. So... there's at least one bugger who is 'still reading all of this crap!'
I'm glad to see that you are getting rid of the mp3 section ... I want to see how a lot of those albums measure up to the 'regulars.'