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)