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Monday, April 17, 2006

Critics at their worst . . .

"Critics at their worst could never criticize the way that you do"

-Aimee Mann, "Nothing is Good Enough"

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As I finished up another round of reviews for Punk Planet last night, some thoughts on criticism in general came to mind. I think about how I used to respond to it and how I respond to it now, plus the kind of feedback one gets when stating it.

In the case of the records I receive for review for PP, sometimes I get truly awful stuff and sometimes it's really incredible stuff, but most of the time it's so-so/mediocre. I hate using the word 'meh,' but I think it definitely can be used in this case. Interestingly, I think the mediocre stuff inspires me to think a little bit harder about what I want to say. But, there's a trap that used to bug the crap out of me years ago: the mentality of a critic where nothing is ever good enough. Well, after reviewing records for a few years, I can now see where that sentiment comes from, but I don't want to fall into that trap. Not everything is going to blow me away nor is everything going to drive me insane. Some records in an artist's catalog are going to be held in high regard for a wider audience, but ultimately, it's up to the critic to give his or her two cents on his or her feelings on something.

I don't know how many CDs, vinyl records, DVDs, books, zines and comics my editor Dave sorts through every week, but I wouldn't be surprised if the numbers are in the three digits. I think he does a good job of sending us reviewers stuff we may very well like, but it's not like this material will drive us to write lengthy reviews ala Lester Bangs that gush or stomp on something. Surprises come in all shapes and forms every time out for me. In the case of my reviews for issue #74, a band called Venice is Sinking sent just an album sleeve and a burned CD-R. What was encoded on the CD was some incredible moody pop with male/female vocals, violin, old pianos and big drums. Then there was the Moonlight Towers' record, Like You Were Never There, which has some incredible packaging (a crimson-colored cardboard sleeve) and a lot of amazing songs. Yes, this is like getting a box of chocolates . . .

Something else that confused me for years is the seemingly inconsistent reviews a publication has with an artist's catalog. For example, a band's then-current album gets mixed reviews, but when the follow-up comes out, all these critics rave about how the previous album was so much better. Huh? Well, there's a huge divide between which critic reviews it and which publication it comes out in. Of course there are general agreements and disagreements among critics, but they are merely statements of opinions, not binding law that represent the views of everyone involved at the publication. Since most publications have a wide variety of reviewers with varying opinions, inconsistency is always going to happen. However, I rarely hear something like this: "Barry Walters didn't like their new record." Instead, I hear: "Rolling Stone didn't like their new record."

Given the publication, from an online blog that's read by a dozen different people a day to a weekly magazine that reaches millions of people, reviews get people talking. This is a major part of the marketing of a record. Yeah, that's a big "no duh," but I must stress that even if a record gets a nice write-up or a bad write-up, that doesn't impact the life of the record. The record is there for anyone to take a listen regardless of what others think about its quality.

I know it's incredibly easy to be dismayed by a negative review if you were involved in some way with the making of the record (whether being in the band, producing the recording, releasing the album and so on). I've been hurt by negative reviews before, but I had to stop and realize that when a reviewer is given something to review, it's for the sake of giving his or her honest opinion. He/she usually sees the result instead of the whole process of creation, so some things may hit below the belt if they're cast in a negative light. It's as if the negative light is also saying something negative about that person's upbringing, personality and/or life in general. Well, just because somebody didn't like your record doesn't mean that you are a stupid, wretched person whose existence is a waste of space.

I don't know if this ever happened, but I remember Jim DeRogatis brought up a really interesting idea in an interview a few years ago. He spoke of one record being reviewed by three different reviewers and those reviews came out in the same publication. That's a really cool idea, but I'm not sure that's something people would really go for en masse. For people that read a lot of different publications (from blogs to magazines to newspapers), it's easy to compare and contrast opinions on records. For those that only read something like their local paper and Entertainment Weekly for reviews, this presents a narrow view of what's really out there. There's always great music out there, but it's just a matter of finding it that presents a challenge. However, when it is found, the results can be so incredibly rewarding that one wants to keep digging.

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