Arts & Literature

Art in Paradise: A Headscratcher

Does it matter if a critic likes a band?

Comments (2)
Thursday, June 04, 2009

Recently, I gave the Swillmerchants' new disc The Mint Hotel a spin. The album is an odd mash-up of elements, replete with dinosaur-rock guitar, rhythmic swagger in the vocal department, and a grandiose reaching for multi-layered, multi-instrumental arranging.

But I realized at a certain point in trying to describe this unusual colliding of elements that I really didn't know if, on a gut level, I liked it. I didn't love it or hate it—I just had a hard time describing it. That's often the product of liking an album too much, of being too close to it to engage in something more measured than florid hyperbole. Not this time, though. It was something more along the lines of a critical cul-de-sac in the face of music outside of my own genre preferences pushing unexpected buttons.

I suppose it's a good thing for a critic to lose sight of whether he likes something or not. After all, unless you identify a critic with whom you always share taste or always share distaste, who really cares if Joe Journalist likes something? Isn't what's really useful knowing what something sounds like?

And I don't mean triangulation, the reductivist tool of the uberhip—you know, when someone describes some band as a cross between Bette Midler, Black Sabbath and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Where do you go from there? (I mean, besides a road trip to Vegas and Salt Lake City.) I'm talking about knowing whether the bassist plays rhythmically unhinged jazz lines or eight-to-the-bar thumps, whether the drummer gets in the way or sets the tone perfectly.

That approach also addresses a dilemma that is unique to writing about local musicians. Taking a critical cudgel to a local musician isn't fun or particularly helpful. On the rare ocassions when it's happened, as it has recently in this column, writing negatively about someone local has made me feel quite dyspeptic. Surely a talented player is talented regardless of my likes or dislikes. Local musicians are often very nice people pursuing muses of highly individual character.

But, of course, not always—which begs a different approach. So it seems far more useful to me to try to convey what a group sounds like. But is it enough? Calling attention to what's really worth a listen, trying to bring new listeners to a talented player is certainly worthwhile, and something that happens all the time in these pages. And sometimes, it seems appropriate to say when something is lacking. It's a fine line, and every piece of criticism is therefore much like a highwire walk. True, the stakes aren't that high—it's only words on a page, on one level—but in a small Valley full of music-makers constantly combining, decaying and recombining into new configurations, the inevitabilty of running into someone you've dissed can make it highly personal.

I can't claim to have a definitive answer to these questions yet, but asking the questions is often more important than finding the answers. It's clear that sticking to sycophantic praise or gratuitous bashing is limiting. In the Advocate, a medium ground of measured praising or choosing to omit seems to often prevail instead, rightly or wrongly.

I have to hand it to the Swillmerchants—they stumped me. They brought up all sorts of critical angst. They're probably fine with that. They're hardly a group of humble shoe-gazers. Their recent interview in Behind the Beat ("Selling Swill," April 30, 2009) reads like a cross between a junior high brag session and a parody of self-praise. To be surprised by a band with such eye-roll inducing habits seems like a happy outcome.

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It really doesn't -- and shouldn't -- matter whether or not a critic "likes" a band. There are a number of bands I like, but in a guilty pleasure sort of way that precludes critical evaluation. There are also a number of bands I like in an appreciated from afar kind of way that also precludes critical evaluation. IMHO, a critic's job is to not only to describe a band, but render an observation about what it brings to the musical table. This is quite different from either sycophantically endorsing or belligerently bashing an artist. For instance, it may be that a band is a great heavy metal outfit, but is a mere recreation or recap of what Ozzy, et al have done and done again. In that sense, their contribution to musicdom is relatively limited. Of course, that's not to say that any band referencing a previous musical style suffers the same limitation. As the Boston Globe recently said about Boston buzzband, The New Collisions, "some 31 years after the Cars released their debut album, fizzy pop melodies stirred by synthesizers are again in vogue. It's obviously a nod to the '80s new wave sound; it's retro but it's modern." This is an evaluation that is neither ingratiating or perjorative, but strives, instead, to talk in understandable terms about who the band is and what they add to the pop music pie. As time goes on, I see an increasing amount of emotionally-driven, adjective-laden writing seeping its way into the popular mainstream. But as the old adage informs us, "feelings aren't facts." Like New England weather, they're very fleeting and unreliable. So, my nickel on this issue is, critics, beware. You want your reflections to be informed by more by the rain and sun themselves than how cold or warm you feel about them.
Posted by Christopher Payne-Taylor on 6.3.09 at 11:08
James, I am glad that I read this article. After reading your "review" last evening it left me scratching MY head. I didn't think you had given it much of a listen and it seemed that you were predisposed to "tearing us down" rather than offering your honest opinion on the music. We are aware that reviews are simply that person's opinion and we always appreciate good honest feedback. With our music, being that MANY people have found it difficult to categorize quickly, some who hear/see us for the first time absolutely love what we do and others do not like it at all. Many people tell us that it has taken them three times to "get" what we're doing -we're not out collecting opinions. That's the way it is -some love it, some hate it and some just don't know-, we just write what we like to hear and make sure that we love it first. I guess I am glad that we "stumped" you and I do appreciate your disclaimer of our music not being in the genre that you normally appreciate (I checked out your groups Wood Green Empire and Led Heflin) but I wonder if you are more concerned with our recent article or our actual music? You have referenced the article in the actual review (not sure how that really pertains to the songs on the record?) and then again in this article. It seems that the reason you are stumped and round about-ly questioning our musicianship is because you wanted to tear us down after reading the brash comments that Rich (our singer) made to Becky Everett in the interview rather than listening to the record with an open mind. We are very integral parts of the Western, MA music scene and we do our best to offer our brand of honest, open and innovative music to our area and beyond. We believe in what we do, stand by it and we try to help as many other area musicians/bands when we get the chance, just ask around -that is the reality of Swillmerchants. Strong things were said that created lots of reactions, many people love us and many people dislike us. We just choose the road of confidence and big thinking because we want music to be our lives -really- and we understand that (confidence and big thinking) can rub a lot of people the wrong way for a variety of reasons. When I sent the disc to Tom all I wanted was for someone to review the SONGS with an open mind. If you are not able to do this I wish that it was given to someone that is able to do this. Either way, it's all good, we'll keep rolling along and so will you. I wish you success in your endeavors Jim. Sincerely, ~John St.Onge
Posted by John St.Onge -Swillmerchants on 6.3.09 at 12:36
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