For a little over a year now I have been interested in music criticism from a popular music standpoint. Every time I listen to a new album I pour over the reviews and comments about the work. I’ve always favored the writings of Alex Ross and Robert Christgau because they take reviews beyond explaining what you have just listened to. Each review or article is never just about about how the album sounds, both writers connect the music to its creator, history, and the world around it.
Robert Christgau reviews encompass every genre of popular music. His roots are in Jazz and Rock, but he has successfully made every leap in the development of popular music, from gangtsa rap to modern pop without ever loosing his biting sense of humor and brilliant incites.
Alex Ross’ specialty is contemporary classical music, writing for the New Yorker since 1996. His articles have a rare mix of historical reflection and explosive story telling energy that makes any casual music listener excited to jump in. His two books, “The Rest Is Noise”, and “Listen to This” are essential reading to anyone in the music world today.
My goal is to also start writing reviews and articles about the music world today. I believe that commenting and debating what we listen to is helpful with understanding, memory, and enjoyment. Mainly though, it keeps new music relevant to our everyday lives, and as a composer, this last is most important.
So far I have been using a “letter rating” system of approach to new music.
“A+” ratings are reserved for timeless classics, the kind that may not be made every year, but that will be listened to past the generation gap and only gain reverence over years.
“A” ratings are kept to just a few a year. Every track or section must fit together expertly and also be a stunning final product, worthy of numerous evaluations throughout a persons life.
“A-” rating are given for music that is especially relevant upon release; either hyped up or happen to be very powerful at the time of creation, but either has obvious faults to prevent an “A” rating or is destined to live radioactively, loosing significance every day after it’s been made. This is the largest gap, a ton of great musicians will churn out nice products with faults. Higher then an “A-” is where masterpieces live.
“B+”, either has obvious faults that will frustrate the listener because there are a few or numerous moments of greatness, or is a failed experiment that moved the artist in a different, possibly promising direction.
“B”, most music released on the planet requires a “B” rating, for numerous reasons. Mainly, enjoyment decreases over time. This may be because it is so stuck in a minor genre that it will be left there when the next fad comes around; its simplicity is marred by a lack of energy or variation; it’s complexity becomes clutter to prevent a vision from getting to a listener’s ears.
“B-”, must be a disappointment, but not a failure. There must be an absence of a vision for the work as a whole, or so much filler that the highlights are haphazard and arbitrary. The artists control over their own vision is minimal, or even lazy. A first listen should put doubts in your mind as to why you have chosen to listen all the way through because you feel no real content. It should feel like wasting time.
“C+”, albums that receive overwhelming sales attention, but are otherwise not influential or notable in any way.
“C”, below this, any promise for an artists career should collapse, or move them completely away from that term of endearment: “Artist”. Many chart toppers will fall into this category because of a lack of depth, personality, or soul.
“C-”, figure heads of a project that has little or nothing to do with vision or effectiveness. As Boulez would say, “mass shit”.
“D”, music that only critics and masochists should subject themselves to. No cohesion, no vision, and boring.
“E”, is so awful that it is possibly enjoying to listen to. You wonder how something this dreadful could even exist. Or is so boring that you will make bets with friends to see if anybody could sit through it.
To end this week’s blog, my review of Bob Dylan’s most recent studio album: “Tempest” (released September 10th, 2012)
Bob Dylan has released 35 studio albums in his 71 years on the planet and is considered an American Icon (I’m betting partially against his will). Whenever and wherever someone steps up onstage holding an acoustic guitar, they will always be compared to the master. This, his recent track record of stunning comeback releases (“Love & Theft”, Modern Times), and the albums name, put immense pressure and anticipation on his latest project, “Tempest”. After rumors were quashed about its relation to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, the hint is still important. How much it connects to Dylan’s personal life is (as he always has claimed) irrelevant, but we are still left with a sense of finality and grandeur.
As with the last few studio albums Dylan delves into the roots of American music: early rock n roll and blues. Most songs do not have a chorus, and it’s this simplicity that many previous Dylan songs have flourished. Early Dylan masterpieces, “Shelter From the Storm”, and “Tangled Up In Blue”, have no choruses. But there is a difference between those and the songs from Tempest. First of all Dylan’s voice has always been known for its faults, but now it is almost tonally useless. “Soon After Midnight” is one of the only breaks from his difficult rasp. Luckily, the lyrics of every track are characteristically interesting, quirky, and image laden.
One of the most interesting things about Tempest is the pervasive violence. “Two timing Slim, who’s ever heard of him? I’ll drag his corpse through the mud” The same song ends with, “it’s soon after midnight, and I don’t want nobody but you”. Dylan knows how to make a listener ask questions, the ones that nervous laughter only begins to describe.
Tempest has three great songs. “Pay In Blood”, which gives us the tempo and energy needed to picture the heated atrocities described. “Tempest”, the 14 minute sea song about the sinking of the Titanic. It reads like a doomsday prophesy but sounds more like a late night drinking song (complete with fiddle). It is by far the most disturbing track on the album, hinting at some great and terrible event in the near future, or an autobiographical Dylan acting as the watchman to his own 71-year old body headed to its end (however long away that will be). Or, much more likely I believe, examining an event in which hope simply doesn’t matter. There is no class difference, or conventions for an entire group of people’s unavoidable death. The album ends fittingly with a tribute to John Lennon, “Roll On John”. The song starts with an important account of the murder, “They shot him in the back and down he went”. It is not a single assassin who kills John Lennon, it is much more then that. The questions resulting from the one word change are key to understanding Bob Dylan’s artistic sense of himself in today’s world: a walking relic. He is one of the last ones left, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, and so many other original rockers and songwriters from his hey day are dead. Now, how does that feel??