Monthly Archives: February 2012

0/10

Yesterday Drowned In Sound, who I wrote for a few times in 2008 after Stylus had ceased publication, published what Sean Adams claimed was possibly their “first ever 0/10”, a review of reformed Britpop Scousers Cast’s new album.

Now, aside from the fact that I think ratings for records are useless, reductive tropes, which are good only for inspiring mealy-mouthed, anal discussion amongst a certain kind of messageboard warrior (particularly, as I’ve ranted about before, when they add the pseudo-scientific “authority” of a decimal place [“we’re so serious, we think in fractions; you can’t dispute our opinions, we have a formula”]), I have no issue with someone thinking a record is worthless and dishing out a resultant 0; it’s entirely your prerogative as a reviewer to do so. Hell, I did it myself back in the day.

The problem here, though, is that this is just a bad review – it says nothing about the music, makes strange, unfounded and insubstantial claims (The Stone Roses as Britpop “also-rans”?) which offer a strange, skewed perspective on the past from someone who wasn’t there and hasn’t researched it properly, either. It also commits the cardinal sin of amateur and online music reviews; assuming that the reviewer is intrinsically more interesting and entertaining than the thing being reviewed. A reality check; 99% of the time, if not more, this is not the case. Very, very few reviewers have “fans”.

Thus, the prolonged, obtuse, made-up anecdote introduction seems like nothing but self-congratulatory onanism. Which is distasteful, but would be OK, just about, if the second half of the review offered cogent, thought out, understandable reasons as to why Cast’s new record sucks. But it doesn’t. Instead it moans about Britpop vaguely, dismisses Cast as pointless landfill, gives no impression that the writer has heard the record at all, and ends abruptly with yet more self-congratulation.

The writer also produced this Dodgy review – which is more magnanimous but only just; he seems to have a problem with Britpop as a whole, and that’s fine, but for someone who was ten when Good Enough was a single it seems rather strange to fixate on it to the extent that he churns out “stunt reviews” of its lesser lights in 2012.

I actually agree with him that the nostalgia circus that The Stone Roses, Blur, and Pulp seem to have exploded over the last year or so is a miserable, backwards little thing by and large. (Pity The Verve for trying to start one 24 months too soon.) A conservative nation, stuck in recession, with a Conservative government, is always going to lean towards the inward past for comfort (as an aside, we’re doing some work on the rapid decline of language teaching in schools, which as I see as another symptom). The Smiths boxset, the Olympics closing concert (marketed as a “best of British” and featuring 3 none-more-English acts); it’s all a part of the same thing, and it’s regressive and disheartening, even if some of the tunes are still astonishing. Maybe I’m overthinking.

What is a record review for, anyway? What is the responsibility of reviewing a record? Even if a record is worthless, to you, there’s a huge amount of work that goes into making a record, and there are livelihoods (and not just those of the band) that are dependent on it being successful, now more than ever. Does a review have the same power in 2012 anyway, with a multitude of voices online, merging into one homogenous mess? Are there reviewers who you would trust enough to buy a record without hearing it first, based solely on their opinion of it?

Many years ago I wrote a one-line, Spinal-Tap-esque put-down of Coldplay’s second album. (Something along the lines of “Meaningless stadium-rock bollocks; I wish they’d stop.”) A year later I went back and rewrote it, at considerable length, in order to make peace with myself for making such a lazy, attention-seeking gesture. A reviewer’s responsibility, I think, is to try and understand why a record is good or bad, and put that into words. To educate, to offer alternatives, to entertain, to help parse the cultural landscape and make it more accessible and navigable.

Mike Diver tweeted earlier about whether artists should comment on reviews of their own records. I replied that I wished more of them would, that it would help both parties if artists and reviewers understood each other better. The Cast review puts reviewer and musician in opposition, slaps the record in the face like Derek Chisora, sets up an antagonistic, passive-aggressive dynamic wherein one is the other’s enemy. This is ridiculous. I write about music because I love it, primarily, and even when I hate bits of it, this is generally because I want it to be better, to aim higher, to move me more, to change the world (even if only on microcosmic levels). Just shouting “look at me, saying this is shit!” does no good to anyone.

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Let’s talk about Destroyer

Over Christmas and New Year I read Carl Wilson’s excellent book about Celine Dion, in which he examines not just Dion’s music (and the album Let’s talk About Love in particular) but also her ontology, her place in Canadian, and specifically Quebecoise, culture, and the nature of kitsch, emotionalism, and above all taste.

Much of the rumination on what Celine means in French-Canadian culture is, of course, a little lost on a boy from South Devon, but the stuff about the nature of taste appealed massively to my interest in the utility of music, the question of what we use it for and how we choose it. In particular, at one point, Wilson describes Sonic Youth as (and I’m quoting from memory here, as I’ve lent the book to Rob, so forgive me if I’m a little wrong) a band who make music which is especially well suited to a certain kind of “aesthetic contemplation”.

This idea of “aesthetic contemplation” seemed to ring home particularly hard, more so than the stories from Celine fans about exactly what it was about the woman and her music that they loved, and more so than Carl’s own perspective of a disintegrating relationship and a kind of typical white-male emotional reserve.

(Unsurprisingly these tales revealed Celine’s fans not to be brainless housewife drones gazing into the middle distance whilst changing a nappy to the strains of “My Heart Will Go On” and dreaming of a handsome lover from the wrong side of the tracks with a heart of gold, which I suspect may be the default straw(wo)man fan in the minds of a certain kind of pop fan.)

Being well suited to “aesthetic contemplation” isn’t, I imagine, the predominant thing most people look for when they go about the business of choosing what music to listen to. In fact, most people try and avoid choosing what music to listen to as much as possible; from digital radio to last.fm to iTunes Genius, technology is getting better and better at choosing music for us.

But for many “serious” (I use the word practically pejoratively) music fans, the kind who are, or would aspire to be, “critical” and “discerning” in their listening, “aesthetic contemplation” is probably a more likely end-use of music than, say, dancing. Which is why, perhaps, drawing on Carl’s theories, music like Sonic Youth wins more critical favour than music like Celine Dion. And why albums like Destroyer’s Kaputt can inspire such fervent, frenzied discussion.

A week or so ago, Charlie on ILM drunkenly started a thread asking if Destroyer’s Kaputt is any better or worse than PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, after the former beat the latter in the forum’s end-of-year poll. I got in early, said something about Kaputt being very American and Let England Shake being very English, and imagined the thread would die off relatively quickly, as both albums have been discussed to death on ILM over the last 12 months.

But it didn’t. It went on and on and on and on and on, to over 800 posts, many of them very detailed and considered and impassioned, and most of them extolling Kaputt’s virtues.

I included Kaputt in my favourite albums of 2011, positioning at number 5, but not saying much beyond a surface reading of the aesthetic and how lyrically compelling it is. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been listening to it more and more, and even bought a second copy of it on CD in order to get another 20 minutes of it (in the form of vinyl & UK only track The Laziest River, which takes up all 20 additional minutes in a hazy, semi-ambient amble).

Kaputt is, as for many people I gather, my first exposure to Destroyer. Initially I was intrigued but not struck; Dan Bejar’s weak, walkabout voice is an acquired taste, which didn’t come across well compared to my other favourites of 2011 (Patrick Wolf, PJ Harvey, Wild Beasts, Antlers), his lyrics are complex and abstruse, requiring an amount of attention to decipher their intricate layers which I’m not entirely used to giving, and, on Kaputt at least, the song structures are so meandering and keen to avoid obvious repetition (there’s nothing so uncouth as a chorus) (and yet, somehow, it’s still catchy) that one can easily find oneself lost in a tune’s topography.

Still, there’s something exquisite here, on many levels: lyrical, musical, physical. The sound of it is a rich pleasure, with extravagant, fretless basslines and twirling horns atop a bubbling plateau of synthesizers and modernist ambience. Yes, aspects of it are descended from a very particular kind of smooth 80s sophistication, with gated, damp-sounding, synthetic drums, and echoing, distant trumpets, but there’s such care here, such love, such craft (everything is rendered and mixed beautifully), that it’s clearly not merely the homage or pastiche that some people claim.

Bejar’s claimed Kaputt to be his most ‘pop’ record, which seems bloody-minded when you take his lyrics, vocals, and winding, chorus-avoiding structures into consideration. But somehow it is: although there’s a huge amount of space between his vocal lines, acres of drifting time where guitars, synths, keyboards et al vamp off each other like cool kissing cousins, there are also an obscene amount of nagging hooks; the sudden eruption of a guitar solo, a bizarrely-phrased lyrical turn which doesn’t scan melodically but somehow gets stuck in your head, one of those glistening trumpet runs. At times the album can feel like a procession of strange, delightful moments. Because that’s what it is.

Lyrically I’ve still not got to grips with it; I’m not sure I can. When Bejar sings “Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME / all sounds like a dream to me” in the title track it feels almost as if he’s breaking the fourth wall, or whatever its musical equivalent might be, but I’m not sure how. It’s almost like Kevin Rowland exhorting Dexys Midnight Runners to “make this precious”, the sound of a ravenous, helpless, compulsive music fan singing about making music itself. But Bejar is at a remove, singing about dreaming about making music, or remembering dreaming about making music.

Ironically, he’s said in interviews that Kaputt is the album where he’s paid least attention to the words, that it’s all about the delivery and not the content. Which might seem strange given that he’s hardly Rufus Wainwright, but he’s doing something here, something unusual that I haven’t come across before, which feels avant-garde and mysterious and intriguing. I’m not a songwriter so I never know how anyone has written any given song, but here I really cannot fathom how these compositions might come together. Bejar’s said he couldn’t play you any of them on a guitar. But he could sing them to you unaccompanied.

The more I listen to Kaputt, the more fascinated by it, moved by it, and excited by it I become. That’s an amazing trick to turn.