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.