Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The art/science/agony/fun of music reviewing

I've given this subject a lot of thought lately, mainly because I have been writing a lot of reviews - and have come to several (possibly erroneous) conclusions:

* "star ratings" HAVE TO BE relative! One might give a lesser album by a great artist 3 stars, but those are not the same 3 stars one would give a surprisingly okay album by a generally crappy artist

* Musical taste is entirely subjective, but reviewing  (for me) has to try be a balance between objective and subjective; just listening to something and saying what you think of it IS also valid of course.

* Objective factors alone (see pie chart below) can never make an otherwise bad album good but subjective factors can.

* 'Classic' albums make a nonsense of all other rules.

Let's examine in more detail, with graphs! (are pie charts graphs?):

Objective factors:

Objective factors (see pie chart above) are really only very important when the reviewer doesn't like the music: when you love a song, whether or not the people performing it are technically talented musicians/pitch perfect singers etc is completely irrelevant.

When an album or song (or movie, book etc) is dull or just blatantly abysmal, some comfort can be gained from the knowledge that at least the participants were at least good at the technical aspects of what they were doing, even if they are using those skills for evil.

Subjective Factors:

Although there are many subjective factors that may be relevant; nostalgia for the artist/period, personal associations, all of these amount to either you like it or you don't; simple but not necessarily straightforward.

The positive subjective feeling 'I like it!' can override all else, so that an album which is badly played, unoriginal, poorly recorded and awful even by the artist's own standards can receive a favourable review (though the reviewer will probably want to point out those things)

Meanwhile the negative subjective feeling 'I don't like it' can't help but affect a review, but should hopefully be tempered by technical concerns if (an important point) the reviewer feels like being charitable. S/he may not.

Ideally, a review should be something like 50% objective / 50% subjective (as below) but in practice it rarely happens

"Classic" status:

The reviewing of reissued classics can be awkward as 'classic' status is completely separate from all other concerns, therefore said classic status can affect ratings just because the album is iconic and everyone knows it. Popularity itself shouldn't play a part in the reviewer's verdict; just because 30,000,000 people are cloth-eared faeces-consumers, it doesn't mean the reviewer should respect their opinion, but s/he should probably acknowledge it, even if incredulously. Sometimes classic status is attained for cultural, rather than (or as well as) musical reasons*, and it should be remembered albums are as much a 'cultural artefact' (in the sense of being a mirror and/or record of their times) as cinema, TV, magazines or any other zeitgeist-capturing phenomenon.

* in their very different ways, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,Thriller and The Spice Girls' Spice were all as much 'cultural phenomena' as collections of songs

SO ANYWAY; how does this  all work? Some examples:

Recently I offended a Tina Turner fan with an ambivalent review of the 30th anniversary edition of Ms Turner's 1984 opus Private Dancer.

As a breakdown (of 'out of 10's, for simplicity) it would look something like this:


Objective factors
* musicianship - 9/10 - hard to fault the adaptability or technical skill of her band
* songwriting   - 6/10 - in terms of catchy, verse-chorus-verse efficiency & memorableness these are perfectly good songs, if a bit cheesy & shallow & therefore a waste of Tina Turner
* production - 9/10 - no expense was spared in making the album sound good in its extremely shiny, 80s way
* originality - 0/10 - as an album designed to make TT into a successful 80s artist, it wasn't really even supposed to be original, so hard to fault it in that respect
* by the standards of the artist - 2/10 - in the 60s/70s Tina Turner made some great, emotionally forceful, musically adventurous and just great records. In 1984 she didn't

Overall: 26/50 = 5.2/10

Subjective Factors

* I don't like it: 1/10 (but not 0, because Tina Turner is a legend and it would be wrong to deny that somehow)

Overall 5.2/10 + 1/10 = 6.2/20 = 3.1/10 = 1.55/5 (round up rather than down, out of respect for Tina) = 2 stars

and in fact I did give the album two stars, though I didn't actually do any of the calculations above; but it's pleasing to find out that the instinctive two stars is justified by fake science.

by way of contrast, a favourite that seems to be an acquired taste at best:


Objective factors
* musicianship - 1/10 - David Vora's guitar playing is not very good, plus the guitar is out of tune anyway, and his drumming is oddly rhythm-free
* songwriting   - 2/10 - the songs on Honey Girl are not really songs, they may be improvised, they don't have actual tunes as such
* production - 0/10 - David pressed 'record'
* originality - 10/10 - Vora doesn't sound like anyone else, his songs are mostly not about things other people sing about
* by the standards of the artist - 9/10 - I like all of Venusian Death Cell's albums, they are mostly kind of interchangeable, but Honey Girl is one of the better ones (chosen here  over the equally great Abandonned Race only because of the uncanny similarities between the cover art  of Honey Girl and Private Dancer).

Overall: 22/50 = 4.4/10

Subjective Factors
* I like it: 9/10 (but not 10, because if encouraged too much David Vora might give up and rest on his laurels. Though if he did that  I'd like to "curate" a box set of his works)

Overall 4.4/10 + 9/10 = 13.4/20 = 6.7/10 = 3.35/5 (round up rather than down, out of sheer fandom) = 4 stars

And in fact I did give Honey Girl four stars, but I've yet to hear of anyone else who likes it. Which is of course fuel for the reviewer's elitist snobbery; win/win.

Monday, 26 October 2015

...doth suffer a sea-change. Into something rich and strange

Shakespeare wrote the title above, but Michael Moorcock wrote this: Then the earth grew old, its landscapes mellowing and showing signs of age, its ways becoming whimsical and strange in the manner of a man in his last years... And it does seem to be true that the career trajectory in all of the arts follows that kind of a pattern; 'maturity' or success followed by a period of eccentricity or reinvention in the artists ‘autumnal phase’ (or one of its autumnal phases, as we shall see).
Age need not be a factor;  the eccentric period can  come towards the end of a period of collaboration (especially in the case of musicians) or work within a particular style, as the outcome of a kind of creativity-fatigue. All great bands and artists have made an album which breaks a cycle of straightforward good-ness; often these albums are good in a different way, but almost always they are disappointing and thus judged more harshly than their quality warrants: most famously perhaps,  The Beatles (‘The White Album’), which appeared not just at the end of an unparalleled period of inventiveness for the band but also at the end  of the whole flower power phase fashion/culture-wise. It may or may not be a good album padded out with lots of inconsequential fluff, but even if it is (it isn’t) it’s still better than most albums by most bands.

Aaanyway... The Beatles is my favourite Beatles album, and there's a t-shirt design that says You Can Only Trust Yourself And The First Six Black Sabbath Albums, but my favourite Black Sabbath album is the seventh one (okay, joint favourite), hence all this. And because it wasn’t already a flimsy enough thing to be writing about, I have separated two distinct strands, firstly....

The Last Fling...
A band usually consists of a complicated set of relationships, and for most successful bands, the decision to end their activities rarely usually comes one or two albums after their artistic peak. That said, the decline and death rattle of something great is infinitely better than the sound of talentlessness in its prime, so it’s always worth checking out notoriously bad stuff by good people, even though it often is bad... These are good though:
Pixies – Trompe le Monde (1991)
It seemed like the Pixies forgot how to be the Pixies in 1990 with the release of their third album Bossanova, which jettisoned almost everything distinctive about their sound and lyrical/aesthetic approach, while also being definitely still good. Trompe le Monde reinstated the screaming and dissonant elements and a pinch of the lyrical sleaze while still being somehow wrong and un-Pixies-like, an impression cemented by the solo career of Black Francis (as Frank Black), which took Trompe le Monde as its starting point, in terms of artwork as well as sound. Having said all that, Trompe le Monde is, in its noisy, chaotic way, the equal of Bossanova. Some of the best songs, like ‘Letter from Memphis’, ‘Motorway to Roswell’ and the cover of the Jesus & Mary Chain classic ‘Head On’ have an emotional quality different to that of their early work, but no less likeable for that.
Kiss – Unmasked (1980)
Kiss (or more properly, KISS) chickened out on ending their gimmick-laden early image/lineup three times before finally making the leap with 1983’s Lick It Up. Of all the ‘chicken-era’ albums, only ‘82’s Creatures of the Night (on which, significantly, the band admitted to at least one lineup change, while clinging to their makeup) has anything approaching widespread critical acclaim, while Music From “the Elder” (1981) is at least often seen as a brave, but mainly flawed attempt at trying something different. Unmasked, on the other hand, is seen as the chicken-est of them all, a weaker follow-up to the already commercial, compromised (but in fact great) Dynasty (1979). In fact, it’s a collection of mostly excellent power-pop songs, kicking off with a perfect cover of Gerard McMahon’s sleazy ‘Is That You?’ and with Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley writing some of their catchiest songs, highlights being Stanley’s cheesy semi-ballad ‘Shandi’ and feelgood anthem ‘Tomorrow’ and Frehley’s ‘Talk To Me’. Gene Simmons manages one good song, ‘Naked City’, which he sings instead of barking; it’s nice. It’s sad for fans that Peter Criss wasn’t present (except on the cover), but on the other hand Anton Fig’s crisp, new wave-ish drumming suits the material better than Criss’ more rock ‘n’ roll style would have anyway. Recommended if you like The Raspberries, Cheap Trick and of course KISS.
The Bay City Rollers – Strangers in the Wind (1978)

Teen idols probably deserve more sympathy than one ever feels like giving them. Having gone from successful local band to international phenomenon with the recruiting of singer Les McKeown in 1974, Edinburgh’s Bay City Rollers had by ’78 taken over the creative direction of the band themselves, continued to have chart success, played to vast audiences worldwide and been swindled out of lots of money while still being pretty young. From the peak of their success in ’75 though, old audiences were dying away as new ones were emerging and in 1978 the band was in the extremely peculiar position of appearing in a TV show aimed at their youngest fans while trying to make music that they as rock music fans in their 20s might actually want to listen to. Hence Strangers in the Wind; surely one of the most wistfully dour teenybopper albums ever made. Though theoretically very successful (not many British bands get a US TV show), the songs (especially the elegiac, world-weary title track) seem to emanate from the knowledge that fame is fleeting and empty and on those terms it’s a pleasant and strangely comforting piece of work; by this time Faulkner/Wood was a veteran writing partnership, and their material is easily the equal of the well-chosen (but also miserable) covers included here. But apparently the sourness of success wasn’t something the viewers of The Krofft Superstar Hour wanted to hear about. And nor, to all appearances, did Arista Records, who gave the record one of the worst sleeves ever to grace the work of a major artist. Bummer.

The Smiths - Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

It's often been noted that post-The Queen Is Dead Johnny Marr was feeling constricted by the jangly, guitar-based 'indie rock' idiom that The Smiths had helped to define. That is borne out by the band's last album, which is (to me at least) easily the equal of its The Queen Is Dead, but is very different in its texture, with pianos, strings, horns and (best of all) autoharp setting the band aside from the torrent of wannabe-Smiths that flooded the 80s indie chart. To be fair, Morrissey's debut solo album Viva Hate is just as different, suggesting that he too was perhaps ready for a change, whether he wanted one or not.
The bands above were reaching the end of their definitive periods, but it’s only natural that bands are sometimes reluctant to let their art die with dignity; and in some cases a new beginning is called for. Sometimes these pay off (these successes are not our concern here) and sometimes they don’t...
The Abortive New Beginning
Girlschool – Running Wild (1985)
By the mid-80s, the leading ladies of the NWOBHM had already made some of the toughest, least ‘effeminate’ (in the sense people usually mean it; it is of course completely effeminate in a good way) heavy rock of the decade. The momentum couldn’t last however; by ’84 the most exciting metal was coming from the US and, like most of their peers, Girlschool turned their attention “stateside” and like half of their peers, they made the mistake (from a commercial/critical point of view at least) of deciding to Americanise their sound. To this end the band hired a new singer/keyboard player, Jackie Bodimead, who made her only studio appearance on this album. On the title track, Jackie sings “You haven’t seen the best of me yet”, but posterity has begged to differ. To these ears, though, the sound of the erstwhile tough & scruffy NWOBHM girls trying to be commercial and USA/MTV-friendly is highly appealing, they did it with style and heart and deserved to do better (it wasn’t even released in their own country, but it has been now; finally).
 The Rollers – Elevator (1979)

It’s those Edinburgh tearaways again, this time definitively turning their backs on tartan trimmings and memories of Rollermania and attempting to live in the post-punk now of the late 70s. To that end they not only overhauled their wardrobe, but also hired a new singer/guitarist/songwriter in the shape of Duncan Faure of hit (in South Africa) South African pop-rockers Rabbitt. Elevator is and was widely sneered at for its attempts at seedy rock ‘n’ rollness (lyrical references to drugs, transvestism etc etc) but it should be remembered that however wholesome their music (at least their singles) may have been, the (Bay City) Rollers had spent the previous five years or so touring the world as a band, with all that entailed. Anyway; Elevator is in fact a pretty good album, the band sound reinvigorated, the songs are catchy; but it was just too late really.
The Velvet Underground – Loaded (1970)

Extremely uncoolly, Loaded is my favourite Velvet Underground album. Before hearing it I had heard and liked their first three (critically approved) albums, but the only reference I had come across to Loaded was a dismissive mention in either NME or Melody Maker which sneered at Doug Yule, who sings the nicer songs on the album in a voice that sounds like a musical Lou Reed; it’s nice. Therein lies the problem, presumably – Venus In Furs, Heroin et all may be great, but they aren’t nice; presumably in hiring a young guy who could sing and writing more cheerful songs Lou Reed was hoping to revive the band’s commercial fortunes. Didn’t work, but Who Loves The Sun, I Found A Reason and even Sweet Jane are very nice indeed; great early 70s atmosphere, great songs, great album. Shame about the Reed-less follow-up Squeeze though. I wanted to like it.
Black Sabbath – Headless Cross (1989)

The first album with a new singer by an established group is usually awkward, but can be (as with Sabbath’s own Heaven and Hell) a triumphant rebirth. As fans will know, Headless Cross isn’t the first Black Sabbath album to feature singer Tony Martin, but it should have been. Martin (for me the best non-Ozzy singer BS ever had) had turned up to save the day with the okay-ish The Eternal Idol when the late Ray Gillen’s vocals were found wanting, but that album, solid though it is, is a slightly bland rock album with little of Martin’s personality and less of a Black Sabbath feel than any of the band’s previous albums. Headless Cross was written for and with Tony Martin and, as well as delivering some of his best ever performances (indeed, it’s hard to think of a better hard rock performance than he gives on ‘Kill in the Spirit World’. Unfortunately, as far as the world was concerned it was probably too late for Black Sabbath to regain their throne as metal overlords. Not only had the metal world evolved so that the band sounded a little tame and even old-fashioned, but the public had also, within the previous few years, already welcomed the Ronnie James Dio Black Sabbath, gotten excited and then let down by the Ian Gillan version (which however is quite fun in its Spinal Tap way), been made curious by the never-appearing Ray Gillen configuration and then been introduced to Tony Martin with an underwhelming and not-really characteristic album. So when Headless Cross, a strong collection of atmospheric, catchy and only occasionally silly songs (albeit heralded by a cheap-looking video that made the band look kind of foolish), who can blame the world for not being interested. And in the years since then, the return (and sad passing) of Ronnie Dio naturally overshadowed it. But it’s definitely good...

Postscript: A few honourable mentions/exceptions/etc...

It seems odd not to have included anything by David Bowie here, but where to begin or end? The stylistic changes in his work were so frequent and major that it's hard to say what 'normal' or even 'classic' Bowie is. The same is true of The Cure, but on the other hand, a band like AC/DC have weathered changes in fashion and taste and major upheavals like the death of a lead singer/founder member without ever significantly altering their style. The same, barring the tragic element, is true of Parliament-Funkadelic; George Clinton is far from a one-trick pony, and it's not like he doesn't experiment masterfully in different genres, it's just that he makes them all funky; and why not?
In some fields (metal and punk mainly) these kinds of evolutions are endemic; bands that start off extreme usually reach a point where they either become bored with the limitations of their style, or with the lack of its commercial possibilities.