YOUR GUIDE TO UNDERSTANDING MUSIC REVIEWS
By Thomas Hocknell
I should have known. Tame Impala’s latest album has been a unanimous hit with the critics, being described as sparkling with kaleidoscopic experimentalism. It’s even gone to no.3 in the album charts, where it remains, unless returning my vinyl copy to Rough Trade slides it to no.4. Rather than the joyous sound of someone redefining pop it sounds like someone’s fallen asleep on a synth arpeggiator. In a rare display of subtle solidarity not a single reviewer had a bad word to say about it.
Reviewers have mellowed since the 80s/90s reviews of NME and Melody Maker, where hangovers, indigestion or missing a train would result in the sort of damning judgment more suited to high court verdicts of a particularly horrific murder case than the description of a ropey debut album.
The classic question to expose pop stars’ slim grasp on reality is to ask them the price of a pint of milk. Equally, you might ask music critics the price of an album, although sadly that applies these days to anyone under 30.
I’ve been reading music reviews for longer than I’ve been buying music. A limited teenage budget meant it was crucial not to buy a dud. It required reading between the review’s lines, and Experimental is an example of a key word that actually means: run a fucking mile.
Experimental means that a band has turned its back on what initially made them popular – MGMT for example – and breaking the golden rule of show business: Give ‘em what they want. Unless of course they thought fans actually WANTED self-indulgent psychedelic guitar noodlings akin to taking a song blindfolded into the desert and forcing it find its own way home.
Summer is a good time of year to release music, as critics aren’t listening in cities at temperatures suited to the throat of volcanoes but breezy pool-sides, which is an environment particularly forgiving of under-par songwriting. So I really should have known better than buy Tame Impala based upon unanimously good feedback. It’s the season for the phrase feel good in reviews, which means catchier than Velcro, and the inability to remove it from your head until Autumn. It’s also a phrase that’s impossible to read without thinking of Beach Boys or the Boo Radleys.
The skill to reading music reviews is to look for key phrases. The Difficult 2nd Album means the band has been too busy spending tour bar tabs without realising it’s coming from their rapidly decreasing advance to actually write any new songs. Meanwhile, the Grower Album means it has no hit singles on it, and the sound in the background is of record company execs screaming down telephones to prolific remixers asking if there’s any hope of a catchier radio edit.
As a reviewer you need to be careful when writing an overly enthusiastic review, which might be the result of writing too near, or even during, a memorable after show party, where the lead singer is briefly your best mate whom you’re telling is the best front man since Freddie Mercury. You wake up in the morning with a hangover that could walk itself to the medicine cabinet and a review that the band will never live up to.
Another warning trigger is the Concept Album. At the time of its release, the artist will be convinced their magus opus will change pop music/destabilize governments/redefine capitalism forever, but actually ends up about as interesting as two men on coke talking about golf; albeit with overblown cover art and six producers who kept falling out with the band.
Often, following this, is the Return to Form, which is a band returning to their roots.
This means belatedly accepting what people want from them, i.e. to sound like themselves and not some other band. Other bands often have that covered. There’ll be a rewrite of their biggest hit and instruments are played with fingers crossed that the fans haven’t abandoned them.
Then there’s the Personal Album, which means a lot to the artist but little to anyone else. It’s often the sound of divorce lawyers licking their lips, unanswered answer phone messages set to music, or in the case of Marvin Gaye’s pithy Here my dear, heart-bled soul with the royalties going to his ex-wife.
Of course any female artist who writes and produces her own stuff with a touch of the ethereal is instantly compared to Kate Bush. If men were similarly judged, they would be constantly compared to David Bowie. Meanwhile, anything that has a chance of getting played on the radio without causing upset is dismissed as Middle of the Road, despite this actually being a very dangerous place to be.
Christmas is an easier time for everyone, including critics and bars, as it is ‘rinse that back catalogue’ time. There’s the Greatest Hits Album, which sells itself, and the cover versions or duets album that sell the artist short. These albums are so artistically redundant that the record company executives might as well be singing the overplayed cover versions themselves. The covers album seals artistic redundancy; a farewell note written by someone else. Annie Lennox’s last album of standards included Indigo Blue (‘woke up this morning and I’d be better off dead’), which simmered with the anger of someone who had narrowly missed their Ocodo delivery.
Another tip to music journalism is: never review genres you know nothing about, particularly jazz. Purists will know the if the trumpet’s reed is real cane or synthetic, who made it, why the farming family embarked on supplying to the wind instrument industry in the first place, and why their products never recovered from the river reed shortage of 1967. You can never blag a jazz cat.
The sad fact remains that often the review is the best thing about an album, so sit back, and enjoy what you think the music might sound like without ruining it by actually hearing it.
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