Archive for the ‘Music Criticism’ Category

Awesome WaPo piece about Joshua Bell, sort of

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

More nifty music content in a major national newspaper — this past Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine featured an article about how Joshua Bell, acclaimed classical violinist, played in a busy DC metro station at rush hour as a kind of social experiment. Surprising no one who has ever been in the DC metro at rush hour, he was resoundingly ignored, despite the predictions of Leonard Slatkin, director of the National Symphony Orchestra, who either has never been in the metro, is shockingly out of touch with the modern world, or both:

“Let’s assume,” Slatkin said, “that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician… Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe… but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.”

So, a crowd would gather?

“Oh, yes.”

To be fair, it seems that a few people did stop and listen for at least a few seconds or minutes, which is generally more than you can say for most street musicians in this city. But in any case, Bell’s reactions to the stunt are especially fun to read: “‘I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.’ This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.”

The article includes audio of the full 45-minute “performance,” plus selected video clips which are good fun.

NYT op-ed slams RIAA

Friday, April 6th, 2007

Yesterday, the New York Times published an excellent op-ed by a couple guys who owned an independent record store in NYC that went under in 2005. What’s great about this piece is that it puts forth the argument that, while downloading and file-sharing is hurting not just the major labels but also the little guys, a good portion of the blame can still be placed on big industry (RIAA being the figurehead of course) rather than the inherent selfishness or evil of consumers (the stock RIAA argument — “they don’t play by the rules and we’re the victims!” — that makes me severely uncomfortable, to say the least).

Basically, the argument is one that I’ve put forth before and read in a few other places, but rarely in so concise and cogent a form: that the record industry is guilty of mishandling the onset of new technology and basically just been flat-out stupid, not only trying to defend a technology that is over two decades old (CDs) and grossly inefficient and out of date, but actually jacking up prices on them in some cases. It’s akin to paying $5,000 for an IBM PC-AT or an Apple IIgs.

The recording industry association saw the threat that illegal downloads would pose to CD sales. But rather than working with Napster, it tried to sue the company out of existence — which was like thinking you’ve killed all the roaches in your apartment because you squashed the one you saw in the kitchen. More illegal download sites cropped up faster than the association’s lawyers could say “cease and desist.”

Also, they bemoan the record industry getting in bed with the likes of Best Buy and Wal-Mart to undercut prices, “[b]ecause, ideally, the person who came in to get the new Eagles release with exclusive bonus material would also decide to pick up a high-speed blender that frappéed.” It’s a great article, arguing that not only has the RIAA put profits before music, which is something that should surprise no one at all, but also that they’ve put short-term profits before long-term business savvy.

Progcrit boneheads

Tuesday, March 27th, 2007

It doesn’t seem particularly appropriate for me to identify myself anymore as a “prog fan” in the sense of a fan with a single genre focus — that stopped being true four or five years ago. Yet I still perk up whenever I see prog mentioned in non-prog media, and such was the case when, in reading the new issue of Signal to Noise, I ran across a very provocative review by Mark S. Tucker of Ed Macan’s new book, The Endless Enigma: A Musical Biography of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. This is a fun review that includes things like this:

[Macan's] Rocking the Classics offered much-needed relief from silly magazinic “What is prog?” maunderings and it alone may explain why authors like Jerry Lucky and sites like Gnosis have remained completely irrelevant… as a platform from which to consider aesthetic questions, Endless Enigma is hardly being touched by progcrit boneheads… The book is a high-water mark in progrock literature, and I’m afriad we’ll see little of its like in the future.

It’s an article about prog in a non-prog publication, so there has to be some dissing going on. But Tucker isn’t poking a stick at prog fans per se, the way most non-prog media does, so much as he is doing so at prog critics. “Progcrit boneheads” is a pretty great phrase that I wish I could use as a Ground & Sky subtitle; but alas, I think Tucker might actually like this website, or at least applaud our general refusal to treat with the whole “what is prog” nonsense. Other than that one thing, actually, it’s not really clear why he considers prog critics to be “boneheads” and “completely irrelevant,” but tossing around such perjoratives sure does make his article more fun to read.

Of course, the rub is that Tucker is actually a pretty “true” prog fan, whatever that means, having written for such publications as, uh, Exposé and Progression (what makes these magazines more “relevant” than sites like Gnosis is unclear to me). In this article he namedrops Porcupine Tree, Univers Zero, and Henry Cow, and in reviews elsewhere in this issue of Signal to Noise alone he mentions Tasvallan Presidentti and 5uu’s. This makes his critique of prog critics, such as it is, much more interesting than it would be if it had come from a total outsider. In any case, he spends a lot of column-inches lauding Macan’s analytical style mostly through trashing progcrit boneheads (and Chris Cutler and Dave Kerman for their “weirdly perjorative” takes on prog as a genre), and pulls off a near-miracle in getting me actually interested in reading this book. Considering that I hate ELP with a passion and basically regard them as concretizing everything I don’t like about prog, that’s quite an achievement.

John Kelman (AllAboutJazz) on Soft Machine

Monday, March 19th, 2007

Good reading: John Kelman’s reviews of all the Soft Machine remasters at AllAboutJazz. Believe it or not, when I recently bought the new remasters of Fourth through Seven, it was the first time I’d heard any of these albums. The first three I’d heard, as well as a couple of the archives, but nothing after Third. So far, I’ve only managed to give Fourth the attention it deserves, and I dig it, but a single cursory listen to Fifth makes me think I’ll like it more. Funny how that Fender Rhodes really makes the sound much more immediately accessible for me. Anyway, I’m looking forward to familiarizing myself closely with all of these albums. I think my experience with listening to jazz over the past several years has probably made them much more palatable to me than they would have been before.

New column by Dominique Leone @ Pitchfork

Thursday, March 15th, 2007

Somehow I missed it when it first went up, but Dominique’s latest Out Music column at Pitchfork was posted a couple days ago. To my delight, he reviews Zs‘ new album and some other good stuff like the reissue of Soft Machine’s Third. I wish it were a longer article, but hey, how often do you see a link to NEARfest at Pitchfork?

Gibberish rearticulated as gibberish

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

You gotta love the Internet sometimes, for providing a medium for people to write bloated, rambling, aimless 2000-word “review” essays that include sentences like this:

The pig Latin-ish morphemes “-sa,” “-si,” and “-sa” encode Jung’s technical term to child-code foolery; Norwegian geek-squad the Shining use the reference (I think) not because of the psychoanalytic implications of men unable to access their feminine sides, but because the structural modification of this theoretically loaded term into meaningless, magical words encapsulates the way the band views music: importance disguised with inanity, erudition breathed through giggling lips, lucidity rearticulated as gibberish.

And that’s just in the first paragraph (and yes, I read the whole damn thing). If you couldn’t tell (what’s wrong with you?), this review is about Shining’s new one, Grindstone, which is pretty cool if just as disjointed as its predecessor. I might be reviewing it at some point in the near future, but I don’t think it’s quite good enough to inspire me to write 2000 words.

Dominique Leone is still writing

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

If you, like me, have been wondering about Dominique Leone’s recent low profile over at Pitchfork, have no fear! He has a new monthly column, “Out Music,” the second edition of which was published yesterday. There’s good stuff in there, including reviews of reissues of News From Babel, Koenjihyakkei, and Faust, plus a gratuitous Art Bears reference thrown in for good measure. And if you missed last month’s column, check it out, too, as therein lies even more interesting weird-music coverage (and Dominique’s entertaining ramblings).

In other news, it looks like Masada is finally calling it a day, which is probably for the best as it might allow Zorn to focus on his other projects. Hopefully it will also mean his $500,000 Macarthur grant won’t go to issuing the 500th through 600th Masada live recordings. (I mean, I really like this band, but in terms of documentation, only King Crimson overdoes it more.)

The Decemberists

Saturday, February 3rd, 2007

DPRP posted a week or so ago a very long-winded, genre-obsessed review of The DecemberistsThe Crane Wife. I am always interested in reading prog sites’ reviews of non-prog albums, although often as not I come away frustrated with the naiveté that is inevitable when reviewers write about an album that is not quite within their area of expertise (of course, I myself do this all the time — and if I start reviewing the contemporary classical music I’ve been listening to lately, watch out!). Anyway, as far as these things go, this is actually quite a good review.

Speaking of The Decemberists, a friend really wanted to see them, so I plonked down a cool $45 for their upcoming show in the DC area, at the Strathmore, a large, swanky (this is the kind of place where you can have “afternoon tea”… to the tune of $18) seated venue. I’m excited, but a little leery — the last time I saw these guys live, it actually kind of turned me off from their music for a few months. I’m not sure why, and I think that’s the only time something like that has ever happened. Maybe it was the impossibly stereotypical hipster/indie-kid appearance of bandleader Colin Meloy (not to mention a large plurality of the audience). Maybe it was the audience participation that I just found forced and silly. Maybe it was the attempt at an improv that was pretty much just awful. Not sure, but hopefully it won’t happen again. Hopefully it won’t happen again with any band — it was a distinctly weird feeling, especially since all in all, I did enjoy the show.

Wonder if this has happened to anyone else? You go to a show you’re excited about but you come away actually feeling more negatively about the band than you did before?

End of year shenanigans

Monday, December 18th, 2006

Late December means lots of good end-of-year reading on a bunch of the better independent music sites. My favorite of the bunch by far is Dusted, which runs a full two weeks of end-of-year ruminations, including your typical lists but also full-blown essays that are often well worth reading.

For DC, it apparently means unseasonably nice weather (it’s in the mid-60s today and I am working outside) and the beginnings of the 2007 concert schedule — just as I did for 2006, I have begun tracking all the concerts in the area that I am interested in going to in 2007. Might be of interest or use to some of you out there…

Joanna Newsom: Just give me all your best-of-2006 awards already

Sunday, December 10th, 2006

Usually, my favorite album of any given year doesn’t start to become clear until well into the next year — hence my penchant for posting best-of lists a year late. This year, though, there’s a runaway candidate already in Joanna Newsom’s Ys. Newsom is one of the more polarizing figures on the current indie music scene, although she’s gotten pretty much universal plaudits from the critics (just look at the Metacritic page for Ys). She’s got a voice that’s pretty much instantly unlikable, like a five-year-old singing in a falsetto. But if you can get past the timbre of her vocals, her music is rather astounding. I like The Guardian’s quote: “It may well be the most off-putting album released this year. After playing it, there seems every chance it is the also the most astonishing.”

Also revealed by The Guardian is that Newsom’s been listening to her Henry Cow. In retrospect this is perhaps not entirely surprising, considering that her vocals are about as conventional as Dagmar Krause’s. With that said, I am endlessly amused that in the coffee shop where I’m sitting right now, playing very loudly on the speakers is Newsom’s first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender. Evidently this is not a place that really cares about playing non-intrusive, inoffensive music so as not to scare off potential patrons. (And I do see at least one annoyed face turning up the volume on his iPod.)