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Thursday, November 11, 2004

Sympathy for the Artist

I'm not arguing in favor of some sort of totally relativistic form of criticism, but I do think it's necessary for a writer to have some sort of understanding of the artist's efforts. For example, you wouldn't review a noise-rock band and complain that there's no melody, or review an avant composer and bemoan the dissonance. I've read two reviews in the past week that really reveal this problem.

The first article comes from Tiny Mix Tapes. The reviewer here gives the new Woven Hand album, Consider the Birds, a 1 out of 5 rating. Why? Too much Jesus. The problem is that Woven Hand is deliberately making a Christian album (the title's even drawn from scripture). The reviewer doesn't critique the delivery of the message, but the message itself. The writer says, "The instrumentation is an excellent starting point and Edwards and crew should be commended for their work. Edwards voice is unique and his delivery is emotional and expressive." So the music's that good, but the religious content of a religious album merits it getting nearly the lowest marks possible?

To quote the reviewer once more, "It may be rough to give the music and the vocals fairly good marks while giving the album on the whole a bad review merely based on the message, but that's just how she goes." But that's not how it should go. It's lazy, irresponsible journalism.

I won't say more now, because I'm saving it for my own review, but the music on Consider the Birds is stunningly georgous, in a Nick Cave sort of way, and even if the lyrics were utter nonsense, it would be worth more than a 1/5.

The second is from The Michigan Daily and is on the new Liz Janes album. Here's the opening paragraph:
Rock‘n’roll is a boy’s game. Although female musicians exist, there is little crossover, inter-gender appeal. This isn’t because rock‘n’roll is inherently sexist; rather, most men simply can’t relate to the concepts preached by mainstream female artists — like Sarah MacLachlan — in the same way that most females have little in common with Robert Plant. Sufjan Stevens protégé Liz Janes has created an album that manages to sound musically asexual while still expressing femininity through its lyrics.

So are we to praise this "asexuality"? Are we stuck with gender examinations worthy of discussion 40 years ago? It's a terrible gambit and I should have stopped reading there.

I'll skip the mis-reading of the lyrics and go on to: "When the soft instrumentation occasionally reaches a breaking point, the transition between Janes’s quiet and loud dynamics is startling." Yes, that's what she's trying to do. You don't need to enjoy it, but this isn't poor arranging or mixing; it's a deliberate (and not uncommon aesthetic style). The reviewer sounds like he's caught out of his element, listening to something that's not all that weird, but too weird for him.

Finally we get: "Poison & Snakes does little to erase the gender lines in rock music today. The lack of innovation in its music and lyrics results in an album that is unremarkable, but inoffensive; there is little in Janes’s work that is noticeably (or notably) bad, but, unfortunately, little deserving of praise." I don't understand that first sentence at all. Is the object of women in music to disavow their femininity or to own up to it or what? Moreover, does the gender issue arise because her album's "unremarkable." There's huge confusion on how to read gender here, along with the problem of how to listen to it.

For what it's worth, my own take on the album (admittedly not my best writing) is available at Stylus. I thought it was a very good album, just a step down from her much more abstract debut.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike from AK Records again...
Thankyou for your thought out response to Liz's record. Your review on Stylus is very well written and analyzes the record from an effective form of criticism as opposed to some of the recent nonsense that has been thrown at it...(see Pitchfork). I think your review, while not a rave review, was very well thought out and constructive. Thanks!

10:10 PM  

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