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Music Review: Pere Ubu’s Why I Hate Women and a Review of Music Reviews

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Over the past decade and a half, I have probably written a couple hundred reviews of albums by artists from Sam Cooke to Samhain. When the PR firm handling the fifteenth album by the formerly Cleveland-based new wave band Pere Ubu, Why I Hate Women, asked me for a review, I agreed to give it a shot. I'm a big fan of Pere Ubu frontman David Thomas, and his last couple projects have been right up my alley. But as I sat there staring at the blinking cursor on a blank field of black, I tried to write a straight review and found I just couldn't do it.

What I turned out instead was (very kindly) kicked back to me by an editor, who asked in essence, "um, this is very nice… what is it?"

Well, long story short, I love music, but I'm damn sick and tired of writing music reviews.

The usual formula goes as follows:

"Band X formed in Year A and influenced Y1, Y2 and the incredibly obscure Y3, who had one single on the Kankakee, MI based Fancypants label. Their newest album, X', is a (adjective) non/departure from their previous work. Adjective, adjective adverb quality assessment, subordinate clause hedging previous assertions. X' is recommended to fans of A, A', and A'', but is not as essential as classic album X''. "

There's a lot you can do with that basic template, and a quick glance back through my Blogcritics archive will reveal a number of (if I do say so myself) pretty good variations on that classic theme. Unfortunately, templates are limiting. If you'll permit me to disappear up my own bunghole for a thousand words or so…

The novel form was stale as long ago as the 1760s, when Laurence Stern broke all the rules of narrative and continuity in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Ever read that book? It's awesome. Ostensibly the autobiography of Tristram Shandy, the 900-odd page novel only gets up to recounting the events of a few hours after his birth before Shandy (Stern) gives it up and quits.

The entire book is a sort of deconstruction of the novel form, as well as a very smart parody of the eighteenth-century penchant for flowery apologies. I mean, the first four or five chapters are an extended explanation-by-way-of-apology for his parents' moods at his moment of conception, followed by a chapter following young sperm-Tristram on its journey to meet egg-Tristram!

The rest of the book is a study in digression, with fake-but-accurate musings on noses, names, women, and tragic groin injuries, and every so often an entire chapter apologizing for not ever getting to the point of writing about his life. That book was written a good hundred years and more before Dickens and Hardy would perfect the English novel, and already the form was done!

The modern record album review dates from – what? 1966? That's when Paul Williams published "How Rock Communicates" in the inaugural issue of the rock-zine Crawdaddy, which was just about the first time that anyone took rock music seriously as a worthy subject of critical examination. Only five years later, Lester Bangs was kicking back against that staid and hoary 'tradition,' writing first-person-heavy rants and love letters only thinly disguised as "reviews." That's less then five years between the genre's inception and jumping the shark.

So little wonder that, after writing a couple hundred-odd album reviews, some of which are perfectly normal and some of which have merely nibbled at the boundaries of what a review normally is, I've gotten dangerously bored. As if you care.

Here's the trouble. I think many, if not most, of the people who write about music for Blogcritics would agree that it's impossible to be perfectly objective about music. Part of its attraction, after all, is the intensely personal reaction that it evokes in someone. That is, part of music's appeal is its subjectivity – how it makes you feel.

Long ago, I gave up trying to be The Voice of Authority. What the hell do I know that other people don't? Nothin'. So, I figure the best I can aspire to is to relate to music fans and prospective buyers what exactly a certain album does for me; yep, how it makes me feel. Whether or not someone else will encounter a song or album the same way as I do is a one in a million shot, but still I can't see it any other way.

I can't possibly imagine for the life of me why my good friend Ron doesn't think Neko Case's Wolf Confessor Brings The Flood is the best album of the year, and I have no idea why anyone thinks the Black Eyed Peas have made a half-decent single since "Joints and Jam" in 1998. So, all I can do is make sure when I write a review, that the reader understands where I'm coming from, because that's as important as what I say about the music. But how do you make what you feel about the music relevant to the album, without tipping too far over into mere masturbatory autobiography?

When I sat in front of that blinking cursor trying to write a review of Pere Ubu's new album, I just couldn't do it. I couldn't bear to write another X-Y-Z review, especially of a band that has spent nearly three decades deconstructing rock music. That would just be weak. So, instead I ended up with a short story (or something) that summed up how the album made me feel. By a stroke of luck, the lyrics (which I hadn't even really absorbed by that point) matched the story in my head pretty much exactly, so in they went.

Was the result a review? I guess, but only at a remove. My wife read it and opined that she never ever wanted to hear any album anything like what the story described, and she's right. It's totally not up her alley. So, success! Okay, what I wrote won't tell you whether Keith Moline's guitar work is reminiscent of Robert Fripp (sure it is, why not?), but that's not really as important as knowing whether the album is going to make you run screaming, and I figure a story can do that just as well as a sober transmission of data.

Anyway, after all that hoo-ha and bullplop philosophizing, if you still hunger for a more straightforward review of Why I Hate Women, here you go.

The press release I have describes Why I Hate Women as "a disorienting mix of Midwestern riff rock, 'found' sound, analog synthesizers, falling-apart song structures and careening vocals," and that's about right. Having had someone already write this is a load off my mind, as I don't have to struggle to come up with the appropriate metaphors on my own. I really am sick of writing descriptive music reviews, even about such a disturbing, fascinating, and very nearly brilliant piece of post-rock.

Pere Ubu frontman David Thomas (a bearish Clevelander who now makes his home on the English coast) has spent thirty years tearing at the fabric of rock music. His first band, Rocket From the Tombs, wrote songs that were for the time (the early 1970s) and place (Cleveland), practically from another planet. His singing voice was then (as now) a strangled whine that seems to emanate from that part of the chest that clenches when you puke (Neil Strauss of The New York Times describes it as "David Byrne with a plugged nose,"), and the lyrics to Rocket From The Tombs songs like "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" and "Final Solution" toyed with the outer reaches of suicidal disaffection with a surprising amount of wit and grace. Even before there was such a thing as punk rock, Thomas and RFTT band members Peter Laughner and Gene O'Connor (better known as Cheetah Chrome of The Dead Boys) seemed to be trying to move right past it to the next thing.

Thomas has made fourteen albums, with Pere Ubu, none of which I'm incredibly familiar with. But I do know Rocket From The Tombs, and I do know Pere Ubu's reputation for making difficult and stand-offish music that attempts to reinvent the wheel to varying degrees of success. How could I write a straight review about a band fronted by a guy who was postpunk before there was a punk to be post of?

All of this was in my head when I gave Why I Hate Women its test spins. The first time I listened to it through, I didn't like it very much at all. Nearly every song on the album features a heavy dose of Theremin (the electronic instrument that gives cheesy old horror movie soundtracks their noooWEEEEoooo factor), and through my bargain-basement earbud headphones, listening to the album was like taking a power drill to my eardrums. Upon repeated listens through better speakers, the music took on more focus and balance, and the underlying attractions began to show through. Jackhammer guitar riffs alternated with queasy atmospheric soundscapes, and Thomas' nasal vocals lend a suitable sense of dread and foreboding to his elliptical and impressionistic lyrics.

Thomas claims that Why I Hate Women was written with an overarching story in mind: "the back story is more or less detailed and peopled with characters. The purpose of the album then becomes to capture a specific psychological moment from one of those characters." I figured, why not take a shot at that story?

David Thomas has compared this album to a Jim Thompson novel, and I can see his point. Thompson was another stylistic innovator, a crime writer who wrote pulpy and disturbing novels from the point of view of the unredeemable killer rather than the rugged and flawed (but likeable!) detective. Although not easy, the album does bear repeated listens, in the same way most people have to experience Frank Zappa's music as unpleasant twaddle a few times before things finally click and his approach begins to make sense.

So I wrote a story for a review. Have I jumped the shark? Have I inaugurated a rich new genre of music writing that will sweep the world in the weeks and months to come? Or, in the immortal words of Mel Brooks, am I just jerking off?

I'm positive that a number of the finer Blogcritics and hangers-on have been rolling their eyes at me since word one. Well, I'm interested to hear what people have to think. Now that I have written about music and written about writing about music, anybody care to write about writing about writing about music?

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About John Owen

  • http://www.butterflyfiction.com/journal/ Connie Phillips

    You hit the nail on the head when you talk about music evoking emotion. And both your story/review and this one gets to the heart of it.

    Nice job!

  • Mark Saleski

    well, i don’t think you’ve jumped the shark (although i don’t think Lester Bangs did either).

    But how do you make what you feel about the music relevant to the album, without tipping too far over into mere masturbatory autobiography?

    take a look at my blogcritics back catalog. some of it pretty much defines masturbatory autobiography. see, i never really bought into that whole “objective reviewer” concept. it’s all subjective.

    by the way, nice writing..er…review…uh…whatever.

    😉

  • http://perfidy.org John Owen

    Mark, I wonder myself whether and when Bangs jumped the shark. In my less charitable moments, I think it’s the mid seventies when his stuff became schtick, although he was still turning out some good stuff at the time. In my downright misanthropic moments, I think it would be the moment he took his last breath and accidentally became the exact kind of self-parodic self-indulgent drug casualty he didn’t have much time for.

    Even though I never read any of his stuff until well after I started my “career” writing about music (I’m only 32 so was still playing with Tinker Toys when Bangs checked out), I owe him a lot. He was inspirational, maddening, brilliant, repetitive, full of shit, full of piss and vinegar, and the punk rockest rock reviewer ever to vomit on a brick wall, and I (like many others) stole some of his best ideas when I was running dry.

  • Mark Saleski

    i read a lot of Bangs when it came out. much of the time, i had no freaking idea what he was talking about. still, the one thing the man did not lack was passion….something i think is missing from a lot of modern criticism.

    part of the reason that i started doing reviews was that i just plain got tired of (as you mention) “the template”. particularly when it comes out of the Pitchfork school of “i hate everything”. very boring stuff, if ya ask me.

  • zingzing

    the pitchfork school of “i hate everything…”

    hrmm. people bash pitchfork for the wrong reasons. they don’t hate everything. i’d like to think they have their hearts in indie heaven, which is where mine resides (most of the time), and it’s not that they hate everything, it’s that they view reality from a skewed perspective. see the prince review today for what i am talking about. if you want to bash them, bash them because their taste does not correspond to yours. and then realize the hypocrisy of that. i’m not saying they can’t be bashed for some reason or another… but it certainly isn’t because they “hate everything.” because it’s clearly not the case.

    the main problem is that they go on far too long. it’s not that the writing is bad, but i don’t always want to read all that mumbo jumbo and it is impossible to find the meat of the review sometimes. still, pitchfork is a good source of information and news and should be taken with a grain of salt, just like any other review site. except amg, which is god-like.

  • Mark Saleski

    i should have been a little more clear about that….maybe Pitchfork shouldn’t have been used to label what i was getting at: which is the tired sort of jaded review where the writer hates just about everything and just sits around with a thesaurus, coming up with clever ways to put stuff down.

  • http://www.knownjohnson.com Tom Johnson

    I’m just tired of Pitchfork’s completely unreliable nature – one thing they go completely insane over, something else they give 0.3 to. They rank with modern Rolling Stone for how realistic and reliable their reviews are – and they will soon be ranked by everyone else with them, too if they keep it up. Too much of their writing drips of cleverness for the sake of cleverness, or snark just to be snarky, with no actual substantial, quality criticism going on behind it. They’ve also had at least one (and possibly two – I forget now) instance during which a writer (Brent DiCrescenzo) fabricated stories – the only one I can recall at the moment was about meeting Radiohead for an interview prior to a show there and it turned out that the band wasn’t even playing in the city where this interview was supposed to have taken place. I’ve given up reading PFM because of stuff like that – you can read here at Blogcritics my criticisms of PFM, just do a search.

    That said, I can’t get behind fictional pieces “inspired by” albums as reviews – I don’t think it does the reader any good because everyone comes away with a different impression. But here’s the thing – a piece like this HAS gotten me curious about Pere Ubu, much moreso than the fictional piece mentioned would have (had I even bothered to read the whole of the fictional thing, and, to be honest, that would be unlikely.) This is the kind of reading I want to see – it not only talks about music, it talks about the writer and in doing so talks about why the writer likes the music. It’s done its job – it got me intrigued.

    It’s funny that I read this now – just after I wrote a very long, meandering Overlooked Alternatives post that spends more time talking about why I love Iron Maiden than the fact that their new album is actually out today. Same idea, I guess.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    What I find annoying about Rolling Stone and others is how one reviewer can give U2’s Pop 4 or 4.5 stars when it is released and then when All That You Can’t… comes out some other critics for the same magazine acts like Pop was uniformly criticized and hated. I’m thinking, “Do you even bother to read your own magazine?”

    Sure, different critics have different tastes and the like but I have seen writers for RS and other places talk out of both sides of their mouth. They’ll hail it today and trash it tomorrow. I get tired of that.

  • http://perfidy.org John Owen

    Tom, I completely grant you your point about the uber-subjectivity of ‘short story’ reviews. What they do, I suppose, is privelige the subjective over the objective completely and without pretense, and maybe that pretense of objectivity makes all the difference.

    Hell, I dunno. I doubt I’ll write a review much like the short story again, much less write this review again. Sure as heck wouldn’t get published in Pitchfork, that’s for sure.

    And as for pitchfork, I think the main problem is that they’re young kids with an overabundance of music knowledge and confidence. I personally don’t give a dead skunk’s ass whether the new Deerhoof record a 7.8 or an 8.2, but I’m glad they’re out there thinking about things. Much better than Rolling Stone, who can apparently bend 3 stars into anything from “flawed but brilliant” to “snooze” to “essential” to “avoid! avoid!”

    Y’know? Frank Zappa once said “sometimes you can’t write a chord ugly enough to say what you want so you have to rely on a giraffe filled with whipped cream.” I guess, The Flaming Lips can’t play “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” without Wayne Coyne getting fake blood all over his head and putting on a nun puppet glove to sing into a pinhole camera on his mic stand. I guess sometimes what you need to say about an album involves a car wreck on a New York highway.

  • Mark Saleski

    snarky. yes, that’s exactly what i meant.

    as far as Pitchfork, or honestly, any publication…what really bugs me (on top of the snark factor) is the false competition set up between this music vs. that music.

    a person can certainly say that their preference is indie rock over, say, classic rock (though that’s a bad example, but i’ll use it anyway). but to just shut out possibilities is what i find disappointing.

    many times, a review’s “outcome” is written before the new cd is even cracked open.

  • http://www.butterflyfiction.com/journal/ Connie Phillips

    Congrats! This article is an Editor’s Pick this week!