Friday, March 11, 2011

What the hell happened to rock criticism? (pt. 1)

Tonight, I went to the library with the daughter, and one thing I took home is the record True Love Cast Out All Evil by Roky Erickson and Okkervil River. It's great, a tremendous record, one that I'm still absorbing (no, wait, I think it's over, but still...) as I write this. But that's not exactly what this is about.

Instead, it's this: I ran into the CD completely by accident. I don't think I knew it existed, so when I saw it, I thought "In what universe does Roky Erickson have a CD out, one that looks more like someone trying to make a real record than it does a bunch of psychedelic verite tragedies hobbled together, and I don't know about it already?" I had heard that Rocky had his head together and was making music again, but maybe I'd resisted because knowing this album because, since I'd heard of them, I'd thought that "Okkervil River" was a terrible band name, one seemingly based on the idea that if you combined the obscure and the rural you'd automatically produce the authentic. But whatever, maybe they have a perfectly good reason to call their band that.

Anyway, I have the CD in the laptop, earphones on, listening and doing some freewriting, and I think, "whoa- this is good!" And then I think "Hey, I wonder what the reviews were like?" But I don't go look right then, because I remember how, before the internet, the space between getting an album and reading a review of it used to be much longer, regardless of which you did first. This keeps me off of the search engines for a good 4-5 songs, just long enough to remember the way record reviews and records used to interact in my brain, how the space between the music and what was said about it became charged with what I felt about it. so I hit the internet searching for reviews, and what do I find? Tripe! The reviewer at pitchfork doesn't even have the basic biographical data that's in liner notes right. After reading a few reviews, I'm not convinced that anyone is actually describing the record I'm hearing. Not because I like it and they don't, but because the reviews trade on Roky's biography, but do so without evocative depth, failing to communicate what's at stake when a human being gets to make a record like this after being battered and discarded. And, none of them do a very good or thorough job of describing the sounds, textures, and song structures on the actual record either. There's talk of "themes" and "moods" and assertions of meaning based on vaguely dramaturgical mobilizations of press release fodder.

There's something else here that I'll come back to: the relationships between madness, authenticity and critical and popular romanticism, and how this record negotiates with but doesn't succumb to the cult of Rocky's insanity. But that's part two. Part one is: why hasn't someone already written anything decent about this record? The internet is filled with "reviews" of albums, songs, books, videos, etc. But they mostly all suck.

It's not just the lack of gatekeepers. Some of the best and most useful reviews can be found on aggragated commerce sites, like Amazon, where the reviewers don't offer even a pretense of professional authority. Some of the worst, or at least the most shallow, are at Rolling Stone and pitchfork and other sites that sell themselves on supposedly telling people about new music, on being gatekeepers. Why are they so bad? Where is the good stuff, and, are they hiring?

1 comment:

bbwolf said...

an excellent question, urk, one that my friends and i have posed many times over the recent years. i have a real job, two youngish kids, little free time, and am too damn old and tired to be out hitting clubs to see what's up. i need someone i can trust to suggest things to me that i have missed and might like. i can backfill adequately, listening to things i didn't get around to buying or hearing in the past, but i can't keep up with new releases (to be fair, life probably wouldn't be so bad if all i did was backfill). it used to be there were enough critics writing enough thoughtful reviews that one could get a strengths, weaknesses and hobbyhorses and know from reading one or three or seven (okay obviously i used to have a lot more time)what you wanted to give a try. now, tis true tis pity, they pretty much all suck---tripe or snark or fanboy-ism. it's depressing.

as i said on TNC's place, this is a great blog. i will tell folks about it.