Friday, September 7, 2007

The Art of Music Reviews

Sifting the coals to review Tuesday's release Strawberry Jams, I started reflecting on a recent conversation regarding music review criteria. We all know when we hear something good, but what makes it good, exactly? I'd like to share some thoughts and hopefully spark a discussion on what is arguably as much an art as the music itself: the art of reviewing.

- First and Foremost -

Before I start getting technical with how and why an album does it for me, I first have to decide whether an album does do it for me. What does this mean, exactly? It means, do I want to listen to the album beyond the first two or three tracks? Does something reach out and grab me, whether it's the music, the vocals, the lyrics, the production, etc.? Longterm this means, do I think about the album when I'm not listening to it? Do I find myself singing it in the shower? Above all, do I have that itch to blast the volume, mix a drink, rifle the album's innards, and start pontificating to the nearest comrade/victim?

- New Bands -

When I listen to a new band, I first ask, have I heard this before? Does this album have something new to contribute to the music universe? If a band's immediate influences are easily detectable, have they tweaked those influences to create something fresh and innovative, or is it merely plagiarism? Debut albums are tricky business, because they can either take risks and assert a band's individuality or make an album that sounds good but is one we've all heard before.

Somewhat recent debut LPs that have impressed this listener: Annuals - Be He Me (pictured), Battles - Mirrored, The Twilight Sad - Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, El Perro Del Mar - El Perro Del Mar.

- Old(er) Bands -

Reviewing a band's subsequent releases is far more difficult. Whether we loved, hated, or were indifferent to the band's earlier attempts, our perpeptions of the new release will be tainted accordingly. I try to look at an album independently, though this is nearly impossible (see my last week's rant about Interpol.) Ideally a reviewer should review whatever sound the artist is currently putting forth, rather than what he/she wishes the artist would have done. Again, a difficult task.

When I approach an older artist's newest work, I ask similar questions that I ask of debut albums. Does this album add something to the artist's palette that we haven't seen from them before? A complete reinvention is not necessary, and may in fact be a shot in the foot (see, once more, Interpol), but the artist's approach, be it musically, lyrically, etc., should be reworked in some significant way. (If not, then it better be damned good.) Essentially, why should I listen to At War with the Mystics when I could listen to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, or Sky Blue Sky when I could listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? (I don't.)

This leaves a vital question simmering over the weekend: Does Strawberry Jams offer this listener something she can't get from Feels or Sung Tongs?

Somewhat recent new albums from older artists that have impressed this listener: Arcade Fire - Neon Bible (pictured), Feist- The Reminder, Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Grizzly Bear - Yellow House, The National - Boxer, and yes, Animal Collective - Strawberry Jams.

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