The language of the music review

Assignment: Write a music review for the next ragtime performance you attend.

In a recent book review about “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” I quoted a neat passage by author Jess Walter that parodied the odd dialect of the music journalist. (“The state Senator’s speech ‘lumbered along like a fussy cover musician scatting a complex hook.'”) I like that passage because it acknowledges the unusual burden writers must place upon words to describe the qualities of sound.

I’ve been collecting music reviews that catch my eye, or my ear, or whatever piece of the soul is engaged by written descriptions of notes. I find the art a little amusing, as Walter does, and also rather beautiful. Not because it always works — some billows of words chosen by gabby reviewers defy understanding — but because I admire the discipline of defining one medium by using a completely opposite one. Like re-creating a solid by using only gas.

Here are just a few I’ve clipped and saved over the last year or so. They are examples of bravado and silliness and subtlety, sometimes successful, sometimes ridiculous, but all of them fun to observe in their natural habitat:

The Dead Weather, “Horehound” (reviewed by Greg Kot for the Chicago Tribune ; July 14, 2009)

(White’s) production and songwriting once again embrace a raw, fuss-free vibe, with robust guitar riffs and drums that force the action. The recording has a you-are-there immediacy, with dramatic swings in volume and density and touches of sci-fi keyboard atmosphere. … The music grinds and lurches, as if writhing through a fever dream or crawling through glass. It’s tense and claustrophobic, with Mosshart sounding appropriately misbegotten, while Fertita’s guitar jabs in and out. The low end positively vibrates at times, the rock equivalent of a gangsta-rap rumble.

Kot takes a poetic and kinetic approach. He uses concrete concepts like a “raw, fuss-free vibe” and “dramatic swings in volume” and he uses some very evocative descriptors (tense, claustrophobic, misbegotten, jab). He also likes to dare my imagination — maybe a bit much. How do “drums force the action”? What is a “you-are-there immediacy”? Who knows. I like reading those passages if only to marvel at what they could mean. He also really goes for it when concocting his similes. Saying the “writhing” music is “crawling through glass” lays it on a bit thick for my tastes, but bless him for swinging for the fences.

Here’s how another reviewer, Noel Murray of The A.V. Club, reviewed the same album the same day:

Even before The White Stripes broke wide, the alt-rock scene harbored a goodly number of loud, minimalist electric-blues acts steeped in echo, bash, and gothic misery. Jack White injected a necessary dose of wit and personality into the genre, laced with an understanding that while a bluesy sound is easy to replicate, a credible swagger takes a leap of imagination. … But about half of Horehound is very much in the same spook-boogie mode that’s been done to death by thousands of Allmans/Winters/Hendrix/Zeppelin-worshipping bar bands.

A more restrained approach. He too uses a lot of practical words (loud, minimalist, wit, bluesy) with words that make you work to visualize how they apply to music (credible swagger, “spook boogie”). I don’t know what that last phrase is, but it sure evokes something. Also, a really obvious way to describe an album is to compare it to the other bands it might remind you of. I don’t know if there’s some sort of music journalist code about how often to dip into the “Sounds like…” well, but they don’t have to hold back on my account. It works for me.

Florence and the Machine, “Lungs” (reviewed by Ryan Dombal for Pitchfork; Aug. 13, 2009)

Lungs is a cloud-headed introduction to Welch’s world, where It Girl hype, coffins, violence, and ambition combust on impact; it’s a platinum-shellacked demo reel drunk on its own hi-fi-ness. Instead of giving this gothically pale 22-year-old with megaphone vox some classy pop-soul to work with à la Duffy or Adele, Lungs takes the smorgasbord approach. Welch bursts mouth wide wide over garage rock, epic soul, pint-tipping Britbeat, and– best of all– a mystic brand of pop that’s part Annie Lennox, Grace Slick, and Joanna Newsom. A lesser talent might fall prey to such veering stylistic change-ups (cough, Kate Nash, cough), but Welch powers through, her ear-snapping alarm call of a voice making Lungs sound like the work of a courageous artist rather than a group of well-paid producers.

Wow. I can’t tell if that’s some beat poetry escaping there (“Welch bursts mouth wide wide over garage rock…”) or just some note-drunk typing, but I admire this greatly. It helps that listening to Florence Welch (especially her waterfall of a song, “Dog Days Are Over”) fills me with a kind of heart-bursting enthusiasm, too. When you share the reviewers excitement, it’s hard not to go right along with their excesses. What is a “platimun-shellacked demo reel drunk on its own hi-fi-ness”? You might have your own picture of what that means (or no idea at all), but since I believe Welch’s music to be smart stuff that transcends its medium, I can’t blame the writer for trying to keep pace by transcending his.

Of course, not everybody likes this kind of grandiloquence. Webcomics creator Jeph Jacques had this to say about Gui Boratto’s “Take My Breath Away” album:

Whereas Chromophobia was like a strobe-light rave on the beach, Take My Breath Away is like a disco-ball freakout by the poolside. Wait that sentence is USELESS AND PITCHFORKY NEVERMIND

Basically this record is melodic, syncopated, accessible techno that doesn’t mark a significant deviation from Boratto’s previous work, but adds a slightly different flavor to the mix. Basically the record is worth buying/downloading/whatevering for the track “No Turning Back,” which is the single most epic thing Boratto has yet recorded. Yeah, the vocals are a little cliche, but JESUS when the main hook kicks in it’s a hell of an adrenaline rush.

This is how a non-journalist music-lover tells a friend about an album. Obviously I don’t agree that all aggressively poetic descriptions are USELESS AND PITCHFORKY, but when you really want to be clear why music is meaningful to you, it’s hard to beat communication like “accessible techno that’s not much different from their previous work,” and making special note of what you have to endure before the “adrenaline rush” kicks in.

Sometimes non sequiturs and free-association imagery can convey meaning more clearly than simple, declarative sentences. Read this description of the “Southern Gothic rock band” The Lobster Quadrille, then listen to a sample of their music. You’ll say, “Yes, that’s exactly the sound that I was expecting from that description.”

The Lobster Quadrille’s eponymous debut is a walk down willowed lanes and marshy backwaters, accompanied by pillars of smoke and flame. The album’s tracks drift from ante-bellum, southern socials through dark forests, consumptive sick rooms, and fantastic hells amid whispers of murder, sex, damnation, elation. The tone shifts from Old Testament dirge to roof-raising Satanic gospel and everything in between. Perfect accompaniment to dining, dancing, fornication, or drug use.

You can hear the washboards, reedy clarinets and woozy electric guitars already, can’t you?

Now, a trio of trips: The award for Most Crazy-Pantsed Similes (First Runner Up) goes to:

Mikael Wood, Entertainment Weekly (Sade, “Soldier of Love”; Feb. 12, 2010)

Beyond the surprisingly hard-thumping title track, the group’s first album since 2000’s Lovers Rock sticks faithfully to the lush quiet-storm sound … Given the singer’s still-incredible voice — imagine the world’s sexiest yoga instructor leading an epic om — that lack of evolution hardly presents a problem. Sade exhales peerlessly while the boys behind her fluff one heck of a sonic pillow. Weary bones, rest here.

The award for Most Crazy-Pantsed Similes (Grand Prize) goes to:

Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly (Ke$ha, “Cannibal”; Nov. 29, 2010)

Her herky-jerky rhymes still sound like they came from the bathroom wall of a reform-school kindergarten, and the beats are as el cheapo electro as ever. …Cannibal does have a sulfurous end-of-days whiff about it. As Armageddon parties go, though, this one should leave plenty of sweat and confetti on the dance floor. (Leah Greenblatt)

The award for Most Evocative Use of the Middle Ages to Review Death Metal (Booby Prize) goes to:

Monica Kendrick, Chicago Reader (Skeletonwitch. “Breathing the Fire”; April 29, 2010)

The low, mean chugging in the guitars and the demonic cracks in Chance Garnette’s voice both come out more on this record, and the extra coating of murk gives it a bit of the ominous feeling of an old blues 78. … Their NWOBHM underpinnings give them an infectious momentum, like a stampeding army driven forward by classic Saxon or Celtic Frost — it sounds like they barged straight through later trends like thrash and death metal, picking up influences from them the way a horseman on a battlefield might get spattered with gore.

Love them or eyeroll them, those last three entries represent what I love best about music writing: the quest for the elusive metaphor. Whether or not you experience an epic om, a sulfurous reform school bathroom or the frickin’ gore of invading Saxons when you listen is entirely up to you. These writers found the words to capture the experience as best they could in a way that will never be more than imperfect. That’s where the wonderment of the art is. To me, it’s as if the moment you catch the leprechaun his magic begins to fade. (Yet if you never caught the little bugger to begin with, you would have nothing at all.)

Let’s close with a palate cleanser. I heard pianist Reginald Robinson for the first time on my local NPR station last week, and found myself sitting in my parked car until he finished his subtle composition, something that I could only identify as “modern ragtime.” He wasn’t playing relentless Scott Joplin-style ragtime, which can sometimes have a mechanical quality as if it’s being cranked out of organ grinder’s box. This bore the hallmarks of ragtime, while still embracing changes in tempo, dynamics and … and something softer that I’ll call tone for lack of a better music-writer’s word.

To save me, here’s the clear, unpretentious way that an accomplished jazz writer (Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune) described what he hears in Robinson’s work:

Robinson’s compositions, in other words, are not simply re-workings of familiar ragtime conventions and never were. Instead, Robinson has extended the definition of the genre, expanding its harmonic palette, enriching its rhythmic vocabulary, altering its underlying structure.

No unnecessary similes or over-reaching adjectives here. Do yourself a favor and listen to Robinson play the pieces I heard that morning, and see if you can agree he’s an artist who is “extending the definition of the genre.” Or maybe you’ll find he’s just a guy who plays a real sweet tune just like they used to.


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4 responses to “The language of the music review

  1. solomonblaylock

    On behalf of the Lobster Quadrille, thanks for the kind words!


    • jdrewscott

      Happy to spread LQ’s renown in my humble measure, Solomon!

      While you’re e-here, can you tell me if that passage I quote is original to Phonovault, or is it something crafted by the band? The link I have for it is now broken, and I can’t find evidence of such a paragraph ever being written — aside from my notes. (And I’m pretty sure, no matter how liquored up I may or may not have been, I didn’t write it myself…)

  2. solomonblaylock

    I’m actually rather glad you reproduced it, as I did write it for Phonovault to use and was a bit disappointed to see it disappear along with their site.

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