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The Nasty Review(er)

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A guy I know often accuses me of being unendingly positive in my reviews.

…which of course totally misses the point.

And the point is? Well, for the moment I’ll just say that it’s more than giving a thumbs up (or down) to a recording. First, a little background.

Like most teenagers, I got the music bug in high school. This was the late 70’s. Everybody had the bug. The new Blue Oyster Cult record came out…everybody got it. We drew the band logos on our book covers. Over and over again. This stuff was important.

It went far beyond just buying records for me. I started cultivating my inner music nerd around the same time. Any rock publication I could get my hands on I would ingest. Cover-to-cover. Sometimes twice. Crawdaddy and (later) Kerrang, music articles in Time, Newsweek, People Magazine, the local paper. Anything….but especially Creem and Rolling Stone. They were my bibles.

I had a collage on the back of my bedroom door. The usual stuff. Photos of rock stars, band logos, Farrah Fawcett, etc. The collage had a border around it made of the little albums covers clipped from the record reviews in Rolling Stone. I tell ya, there was a lotta paste and paper on that door. And I spend a lotta time starin’ at it.

Yep, I was a rock nerd. Remember the night of the keg party in the movie Dazed And Confused? I would have been in the station wagon with the nerdy redhead and her geeky cohorts. No doubt.

One of the things that really stuck with me about my early love affair with music was the absolute sense of joy & wonder upon discovering something new and delicious. The first Van Halen record comes to mind. It was almost like winning the lottery. This cool…thing…it just drops into your lap. It makes your life better and asks nothing of you in return.

As far as writing reviews goes, it’s something that to me, a sixteen year old kid, looked like a glamorous job. If you couldn’t actually be a rock star, this seemed like the next best thing. Heck, some writers truly seemed like rock stars (Lester Bangs for sure). The job also (to me) looked impossible. I was no writer back then. I knew it.

After college I easily managed to avoid the only-listen-to-what-I-liked-in-high-school-or-maybe-college thing. Yep, the fever was strong. I also got interested in record review anthologies (just in case I missed something, I suppose)…and the first one I bought was The New Rolling Stone Record Guide. While the book exposed me yet again to tons of music (feeding that never-ending musical bloodlust) it also drove home the fact that some writers can be just plain nasty.

This is something that’s always bugged me. I’m not talking about saying, for example, that the latest Lou Reed album is sub par. No, that might actually be useful (or at least interesting) information. The nasty review is the one that basically says “I Hate This Band…I’ve always hated This Band…their fans Suck…and, by the way, their latest record sucks too”. Wow. So impressive. Here’s an example from the afore-mentioned Rolling Stone Guide. It’s a short ‘review’ of all of Jonathan Edwards records, each of which gets the dreaded ‘black box’ rating.

The most unctuously dumb of all the hippie singer/songwriters. His hit, “Sunshine” (on a now-deleted Atco LP), sells what he usually does – peace and bliss in the country, contempt for anyone who’s not following along. It’s the best of a truly miserable body of work.

That ‘review’ was written by Dave Marsh. The guy definitely has an encyclopedic knowledge of rock history, so I do have some respect for him. But…that is some nasty writing. Oh yea, the ‘black box’ rating is defined as: “Worthless: records that need never (or should never) have been created. Reserved for the most bathetic bathwater”.

Sorry, that kind of writing just isn’t for me. It seems like a pointless task to review a style of material that you’ve never liked. Heck, even if I don’t particularly like a genre, it’s more fun (and interesting) to try to relate to it. There just might be something good in there.

Ok, now that I’ve spouted off about why I’m such a fricken’ egalitarian, Zen Buddhist-type reviewer, let’s try a ‘practical’ example. I’ve had a couple of CD’s sitting around here for a while that I just don’t know what to do with. They come from the world of smooth jazz…definitely not my thing.

The first record is saxophonist Kirk Whalum’s tribute to Memphis soul, Into My Soul. It starts off with the strong (and very Steely Dan-ish) “Do You Feel Me”. With a great rhythm guitar part and a playful melody line, it’s a loada fun. A happy tune. After that things get a little too happy. Not enough soul, too much programming. But…a big surprise on track number 6: “I Loved You In Memphis”…a great ballad with guest vocal from Isaac Hayes. Things heat up on a funked up “That’s All Right” featuring Kevin Whalum on vocals (Elvis this is not…but still good). The rest of the album is just a little too happy for me. Maybe if I knew more about the Memphis soul sound this’d resonate more. Dunno.

Next up, Esperanto, by trumpeter Rick Braun. The first problem is that there’s just too much programmed percussion. It sucks the life out of the music…which is too bad because there’s a fantastic break a short way into “Green Tomatoes”..with a snazzy guitar solo flying above some tasty funk rhythm guitar. But then it’s back to the regularity of straight, programmed 4/4 (with the accent on the 1 and 3 where, as Jerry Garcia once said, even a white person can find it). “Latinesque” begins with a beautiful, echoey Miles-ish trumpet that unfortunately gives way to more ‘rock solid’ percussion. It’s sorta like a Sade record if you substitute a trumpet for the vocals….and it’s a little frustrating to the instrumental music fan in me: I can hear the good parts, but they’re not allowed to breathe.

So there, not exactly four-star ratings for those records. But no name-callin’ either. And, who knows…maybe somebody’ll pick up one of these things and they’ll be started along their own road to fan-dom (or obsession, take your pick).

It could happen.

My first ‘jazz’ record? Chuck Mangione’s Feels So Good.

(First posted on Mark Is Cranky)

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About Mark Saleski

  • A guy I know often accuses me of being unendingly positive in my reviews.

    I see nothing wrong with that. I tend to review things I like – I just don’t have the desire or energy to put the same effort into something I dislike as I do the ones I like. Like you, I can’t abide by the “negative because it’s fun” reviews. That, to me, is not doing your job as a reviewer. These reviews tend to spend more time finding unique and humorous ways of poking fun at what they see as an easy target. I can’t review Britney Spears because I know I would probably resort to this – I don’t respect her or her music, and I therefore have nothing positive to say about it. Why critics can’t stick to the kind of music they do actually like, I don’t know. I don’t understand why critics can’t turn down certain reviews. Forced to listen to something I know I’ll never under any circumstances, I’m likely going to rebel and give it a really nasty review. Maybe that’s how it works for these critics. Or maybe they just like being mean (I think that’s definitely true.)

    King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp has said many things on this subject, as he has been the target of many nasty reviews from people who obviously hated the music he was creating (and any music in that genre, King Crimson or not.)

    But what really bothers me most is, these people are getting paid to do what I happily do for free. I love listening and reviewing music. Given the chance to do it professionally, I’d jump at it, probably even if it paid less than I make now. When I read these sour reviews, I wonder why these people are even bothering – they’re so negative in general about music that it seems they don’t like anything. Most of all, I come away knowing that that critic isn’t any good – I should be able to read a review and regardless of the critic’s actual rating of the album should be able to discern whether it’s something I’d like or not. That, to me, is the biggest part of reviewing – you have to make it certain what your biases are, so readers can adjust their views and their own biases too.

  • Dawn

    Well Mr. Saleski we are kindred spirits. I was a liner notes person and read every single word printed on any music I bought. I was orgasmically delighted whenever I would recognize a producer’s name or a featured artist. That’s what drove me to stalk Eric.

    As for Dave Marsh, if I recall (and Eric can correct me if I am wrong) he is a short prick of man with more attitude that ability. In essence, he sucks, his taste in music occasionally sucks, and his fans suck.

    But what doesn’t suck, is The Enclopedia of Record Producers
    with half written by the greatest living music writer in the world – Eric Olsen.

    (was a that a gratuitous plug or what?)

  • JR

    I once saw an interview with Dave Marsh where he said that Elvis Costello deserved to get punched out for what he said about Ray Charles. I thought that was an interesting comment coming from someone who’s spent years making statements that infuriate people.

  • The Theory

    I enjoy writing the random negative review the same as I enjoy writing the random positive review. But I’m not going to just dip into a random genre i’ve never enjoyed before and pick a cd to rip apart. However, if I’m familiar with the genre and enjoy music that genre outputs and as a result, come across a cd which, in effect, sucks (especially if it’s one which often gets praised), I’ll tell it as it is.

    For instance my Figure Four review… http://blogcritics.org/archives/2003/08/06/123409.php

  • the Elvis Costello thing (this might not be entirely accurate)….was that he was in a bar (and drunk) and refered to Ray Charles as a “blind, ignorant nigger”.

    Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett were there….and i think Bramlett decked him.

  • But what doesn’t suck, is The Enclopedia of Record Producers
    with half written by the greatest living music writer in the world – Eric Olsen

    i just found a copy of that a coupla weeks ago. it’s even signed by eric and you. (unless there’s another Dawn Olsen)

  • Eric Olsen

    it’s her

  • Eric Olsen

    what I want to know is who the signed copy is written to – that person is an asshole

  • the photographer (i think) signed it too…if that gives you any clues.

    i can’t really see why somebody would get rid of the book (of course, i can’t convince myself to get rid of any books)

  • Mark — What a great article! I could relate to every single thing you said, almost. Me, I have no problem with writing nasty reviews; I’ve written my share. And I have to say, Dave Marsh has been one of those critical constellations in my life of rock appreciation. I read the Rolling Stone Record Guide — the first one, with the red cover — over and over. I well remember that Jonathan Edwards slam, but my favorite was the one that summed up the Osmonds in just a few short, merciless words. I think I can almost quote it from memory:

    The only people I know of who actually deserved Andy Williams. Sometimes I wish they’d go skiing — and meet his wife.

    (For you youngsters out there, Andy Williams was a popular TV entertainer of the 1960s and 1970s who got the Osmonds their start. He was married to the singer Claudine Longet; after their divorce, she had a long-running affair with the famous skiier Spider Sabich, whom she also shot and killed. She always said the gun went off accidentally, and the jury eventually bought her story.)

    Anyway, I read the first edition cover to cover, I’m sure, bought many records on the basis of its five-star reviews, and found myself ashamed for owning the ones with the little black box. Yes, I’m afraid, Rolling Stone kind of controlled my impressionable taste somewhat.

    The second edition of the Record Guide had a blue cover — it was even nastier than the first. Where the first had a variety of voices, the new one, with Marsh as sole editor, seemed mostly to only have his voice; even when he didn’t write the review, you sensed his nastiness creeping in. Several positive reviews from the first edition got downgraded; where Linda Ronstadt came off okay in the red book, Marsh saw to it she got nailed viciously in the second.

    I thought Marsh was often very sharp, but in perspective I think he had his head way too far up Springsteen’s ass — his books on the Boss are the essence of hyperbole — and once he had it in for someone, he found it hard to step back. I recently read his piece on Neil Young in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll; he was completely out of step, I thought, missing the point totally on On the Beach, which he found unlistenable(!) But — and this is what made the article so fascinating — he was clearly wrestling as he wrote that piece with the fact that Young had done some stellar work. It was as if he wanted, more than anything, to slag Young’s career, but his own intellectual honesty (and he did, does, have it) wouldn’t let him. What he wound up writing is a mixed review of extraordinary proportions, in which Young comes off as a minor star who has somehow made lots and lots and lots of great records.

    I miss that kind of criticism. Maybe it’s just nostalgia on my part, but the Rolling Stone reviewing back then was so fiery and provocative. I still read the magazine, but it’s not the same.

  • “what I want to know is who the signed copy is written to – that person is an asshole”

    Unless they died and someone sold the book. 😉

    As far as reviews go, it drives me nuts when a review isn’t productive. The acidic hatred-filled review from the Dave Marsh doesn’t serve it’s purpose in my mind. Reviews need to be opinionated, but without some perspective other than “I hate this damn album” you can’t really communicate anything useful to a potential listener.

  • when i was in college i used to go to the microfilm room and spend hours reading old Rolling Stone issues.

    …which was when i found out that they used to give away a free roachclip with every subscription. the ad for it was great. there was a picture, above the name/address cutout box, holding the clip.

    the text at the top of the page said: “Dig It”.


  • The Theory

    Maybe the person who had the book realized the great potential for a book like that and gave it to a charity to sell for big bucks.

  • Marsh’s reviews were hate-filled usually when there was a genuine object to hate; otherwise he veered between contemptuous, scornful, arrogant and blind adoration.

    Here’s the longest interview with Dave Marsh ever written. Still very much his old self, I see: “I’m trying to write from the point of view of an informed, intelligent, and at this stage I would guess it’s fair to say ‘expert,’ audience member…”

  • i have to admit that i loved his books on Springsteen (the early one) and The Who…mostly for all those great details.

    but they were a little too fawning…even for me, a huge springsteen fan.

    (who’s still bummed he didn’t go to a Rising 2nd half show….because they brought back Rosalita)

  • One learns a lot about Springsteen from Marsh, no doubt — in fact, I’m certain it was Marsh who turned me on to him in the first place. But the years have not been kind to a lot of his undigested enthusiasm for Springsteen; he became less a critic than an architect of the whole Bloated Boss Myth.

  • How coincidental. I was just talking to a friend about nasty reviews the other day. I always wondered why reviewers even wrote reviews on artists they despised and didn’t understand, the end product would rarely ever be helpful to anyone who wanted to know more about the music. It’s a lot of, “It’s just crap” with no explanation and lots of fancy/hip/wise-cracking words. In the end, it provides me with no information on the music and I’m still left with, “should I get the album?” Oh and the same goes for those reviews that worship an artist.

  • Eric Olsen

    I like the Marsh Springsteen books, and I think his Heart of Rock and Soul singles guide is seminal, but he is set in his ways and knows where his bread is buttered just like everyone else.

  • I love the parody of the “Nasty Review” in the film “This is Spinal Tap”, where their ‘Shark Sandwich’ album got a two word review ‘Shit Sandwich’

    And then there’s Melissa Mills’ legendary review of the first Uriah Heep album.

    I think the ‘Nasty Review’ is as much the fault of the editor as it is of the reviewer. Why else does he give an album for review to someone he knows will hate it?

  • If you want to be an informed listener, read several reviews, not just one.

  • JR

    Why do you think I’m here?

  • Taloran

    I was never a Rolling Stone reader – I never cared much what others thought of the music I liked, and less what they thought of the music I hated.
    I’ll admit it – I still like the Jonathan Edwards album with “Sunshine” and “Shanty” on it. Yes, it’s trite, breezy pop with a hippyish mentality, but it’s fun.

    And to counter Mark’s final line in his original post, my first jazz album was George Benson’s “Breezin'”. Just as poppy and upbeat as Feels So Good. We all have to start somewhere. 😉

  • i just bought a copy of “Jonathan Edwards” on vinyl a couple of weeks ago.

    “Sunshine”, “Shanty” and “Everybody Know Her” are fun songs.

    when we were in college we loved this line from “Shanty”:

    “…fill it, light it, shut up & close the door…”

  • Taloran

    “Emma” is nice too.

  • Jonathan Edwards well of course he was a stupid hippie.

    I mean that’s a terrible hippy name. /scarcasm.

    As a reader I rarely read reviews to help me change my mind. I usually already know what I want. i read reviews to see if the writer has got to the essence of the artist or has some special insight.

    And when I don’t like the author/group/ whatever it can be a fun read. So yeah – a mixture of reviews is best.

    And this post was well-written especially the description of the feeling of new music in your lap.

    [I avoided the cheap shot of trashing this post. I was tempted, but then it wouldn’t be true]

  • Temple: “scarcasm” – sarcasm so searing, so true, that it leaves a scar.

  • Agreed, Mark. A review that says “this cd sucks, every song on it sucks, all of this artist’s releases suck” says nothing about the artist. It says the writer is unable to form and develop an argument. If a writer does not like a cd, there should be a rationale behind that dislike, even something as simple as “it’s just not my style.” If that’s the case, the reader knows how to gauage the writer’s reaction.

    And yes, I too would be one of the geeky music-nerds in the station wagon…

  • Taloran

    “joy & wonder upon discovering something new and delicious.” I’m going through that right now, as I scour MP3.com for Flamenco guitarists. I’ve always been filled with awe by Paco De Lucia and Ottmar Liebert, and I knew a guy in college who could do some amazing Flamenco stuff, but it never really grabbed my attention until I noticed that there were no Flamenco guitarists in the RS top 100 poll (not surprising, but that’s a different argument).

    So I’ve recently discovered a tasty new flavor!

  • You’re just too nice, Mark. For there really is music that absolutely stinks and undermines almost every decent musical and cultural idea known to humanity. Such work deserves to be ripped apart!

  • good, then you go right ahead and waste your time writing about it. i’ve got better things to do.

  • You sure seem a little testy for someone who likes to be positive. Chill out, dude!

  • christopher, it’s just a smidge past 6 am here, i am about as chill as i ever get. i guess i should have added the little smiley face after that last comment…but my fingers haven’t really woken up yet.

    the funny thing about your comment, is that you like some of the music that a lot of people do think is absolute crap, Christina Aguilera being one of them. i don’t agree, but you what i mean?

    geezuz, i need coffee…

  • Hi Mark, good morning to you. As an ageing rocker, I’m more used to going to bed at 6am than getting up at that time!

    Before I was a Rock fan, indeed before there was Rock, I was a Mod and the Mods loved Soul Music, the whole Motown/Atlantic/Stax deal of course, plus stuff as diverse as The Drifters, The Platters and so on. Dress codes were of vital importance and wearing the wrong brands was desperately uncool, as were things like your scooter had to be a Lambretta, not the much laughed at Vespas. We actually believed that we hated Teddy Boys & Hells Angels and had more than one serious ruck with them back in the day.

    You probably know that The Who were a Mod band before they turned into the Rockers so many of us so rightly loved. In Britain, many Mods, including me, morphed into Rockers and then Hippies as the times changed, although I also spent one summer as a Skinhead, which taught me to understand and love Ska and Reggae.

    Even in later years and during the Punk revolution that saved music from the bloated, pretentious muso crap that it was at the time, I’ve never stopped loving all those other strands of music.

    I’d agree that Christina’s early work was undistinguished but “Stripped” and “Back To Basics” are brilliant works of pop art and if some people don’t get that, I would most respectfully suggest it calls into question their claims to be music fans, as opposed to fans of music of a certain limited tradition and lineage only…

  • well see, we can agree on Christina but as much as i totally dig tunes like “Ain’t No Other Man”, i am absolutely certain that there are a bunch of people out there (including some of my friends) who just can’t stand anything that she does…and i really don’t see that as any sort of deficiency on their part. the music just doesn’t do it for them.

    ok, more coffee…

  • Does this mean you won’t be reviewing Kenny G’s Duotones? I was especially looking forward to seeing you cover that one. ;&)

    All kidding aside, I agree with your philosophy. I just don’t see the point in writing about something you have little or no interest to begin with. If it’s a style or an artist whom you like and were disappointed in a particular release, that’s one thing. But to bash a record of a style of music you don’t like to begin with serves little value to readers who do like that style, IMO.

  • Does this mean you won’t be reviewing Kenny G’s Duotones? I was especially looking forward to seeing you cover that one.

    It would fit right in with his professed love of Chuck Mangione and Van Halen.

    What always amazes me about music is how so many songs can sound so different and still be utter crap.

    Maybe it’s time for me to start reviewing music again as a counterbalance to Mark’s world of sunshine and light.


  • To the best of my admittedly incomplete knowledge, there are no good musicians called Kenny! Who killed Kenny? lol

  • Let’s see, among the “Kenny’s” of whose music I like. There’s:

    Kenny Barron
    Kenny Garnett
    Kenny Neal
    Kenny Burrell
    Kenny Drew
    Kenny “Klook” Clarke
    Kenny Wheeler
    Kenny Dorham
    Kenny Drew, Sr & Jr
    Kenny Werner
    …and if I got friendly enough with Ken Vandermark, I could probably include him, too.