Worst Review Tactics

Art, Film, Movies, Music

“It’s like [name of thing you love]only so much better!”

Has this ever happened to you? A friend or a “professional” reviewer of books, movies, records, etc. tries to sell you on some new thing by citing a comparison to something you love and then insulting that thing by telling you this new thing is aesthetically superior, the platonic ideal only glimpsed at by the thing you already love, exclaiming, “You should be so pumped to abandon that thing you already love in favor of this new thing that I am suddenly telling you is the more appropriate thing to admire!”

What’s funny about all this is that the reviewer/friend is really only trying to connect with you, to personalize their recommendation within a framework they know you will understand. But often, by going this route, they inadvertently demean your love for whatever the thing is, and what ends up happening (for me anyway) is the exact opposite response they were trying to get from me:

I end up hating this new thing.

The earliest example I can remember happened in college when I was on the phone with a dear friend when he asked (unfortunately):

“Have you heard this album Michigan by this guy Sufjan Stevens? It’s basically like Jim O’Rourke’s Eureka but the songwriting and arrangements are way better”

And on that day, at that moment, I gave birth to an infinite unquenchable hatred for Sufjan Stevens.

And why exactly did this happen? Because my discovery of Jim O’Rourke, (which had occurred a year or so before that conversation) was as close to a life-changing event as is possible with the consumption of art. Jim O’Rourke represents the nexus of so many wide-ranging creative ideas and disciplines, the perfect marriage of avant-garde and pop, melody and dissonance, improv and structure, (etc.) that I was obsessed with him to the point that he became a kind of index of creativity for me; I sought out every band or artist he had worked with; I read every interview with him published on the internet; I even kept a running Word doc where I copied and pasted the titles of any book or movie or album (or anything) that he mentioned liking.

 A brief list of a few of my favorite things I learned about via Jim O’Rourke:

John Fahey

Tony Conrad

Dusan Makavejev

Robert Downey Sr.

Derek Bailey

Faust

CAN

Whitehouse

Arthur Russell

Merzbow

Ray Russell

Bill Fay

Van Dyke Parks

Kevin Drumm

Masayuki Takayanagi

Otomo Yoshihde

Keiji Haino

Judy Sill

Curt Boetcher

Nic Roeg

Luc Ferrari

Robbie Basho

Robert Wyatt

Ivor Cutler

Smog

Scott Walker

And the list can go on and on. Basically this man is my hero. And my friend knew this when he called me; maybe he didn’t quite know the depth and breadth of my love, but he knew as much as I was able to communicate verbally. And he certainly knew that at the time Eureka was my favorite of Jim’s albums. (I’ve since decided that Insignificance is the superior of that era of Drag City albums, although I prefer his instrumental, electronic or improve records to the songwriting ones in general).

So what was my friend expecting me to do in response to his absurd claims? Drop all my built up love for the guy who has had the biggest influence on my creative life and suddenly take up with some dude whose name I couldn’t even pronounce yet? At his insistence I picked up Sufjan’s album and listened to a few songs, but all I was really doing was picking it apart, looking for all the ways it simply did not stack up to Eureka. Because of course, how could it stack up? That’s an impossible proposition considering the circumstance. I’m even willing to say that in a “blind taste test” situation it may be possible that 9 out of 10 listeners would prefer Sufbag Stevens to my Jim but I don’t care, I was and am so biased it’s not even worth pursuing.

So why am I thinking of all of this now?

Well the other day a dear, dear friend of mine wrote an article for NPR music where he outrageously overpraised an upcoming album by singer/composer Julia Holter—and it has been driving me nuts for the week or so since he posted it.

I should preface by saying that my friend’s taste in music is among the sharpest most well-rounded of anyone I know. I take his word on basically everything and there is a reason he has this NPR job: he is better informed about music than almost anyone and he can keenly articulate his thoughts. So when he writes about an album, I almost always give whatever it is a listen—and in most cases I wholeheartedly agree with him.

But in the first paragraph of this Julia Holter article, he pulls this shit on me, going straight for heart in the second sentence by referencing Scott Walker’s The Drift and Gaspar Noe’s film Enter The Void. My jaw dropped when he pulled those references; I may have spoken out loud to my wife, calling out to her in the other room, “Holy shit Lars just compared this girl to Enter the Void and Scott Walker!” Here’s Lars’s lede:

When the world is at the tip of anyone’s fingers, there’s little space for a true vanguard of sound. Think about it: When was the last time you heard or saw something entirely new? Experiences like Gaspar Noe’s film Enter the Void and Scott Walker’s album The Drift shook me to my core, and questioned my ideas of not only art, but also life itself. But trace the steps and you’ll find Ennio Morricone and Krzysztof Penderecki in Walker, or Kenneth Anger and 2001: A Space Odyssey in Noe.

One sentence further my heart was no longer the target; I felt that I had been kicked in the balls:

We’re a culture that recycles — no revelatory observation — but with Ekstasis, Julia Holter has created a radically new world from a crystalline Venn diagram of sound.

A “radically new world,” not recycled like Scott Walker or Gaspar Noe? So she’s more original than these mere recyclers? Well. Okay. I guess I’ll see about this.

And so with that attitude I approached the listening to Holter’s album, and I can’t shake the comparison, I can’t get past the bitterness, the sour taste in my mouth of having two of my favorite things evoked and then dismissed in favor of This Thing

I made it about halfway through Exstasis before I gave up. For all the grandstanding in the article, all I can hear is a younger Enya who is less interested in consonant melodies and who has probably seen Joanna Newsom live a few times–and even that description should sound cool to me! But it doesn’t. Lars’s overpraise acts as a numbing agent—sort of like when you eat pizza too soon out of the oven and it burns your tongue and you are doomed to taste less of the pizza for the rest of the meal, punished by the eagerness.

Am I crazy? Is this album really as good as Lars is claiming? I fear now I won’t ever be able to judge it accurately. All week I’ve been linking my friends to his article to try to gather responses from others to try to help me get a more holistic, less reactionary understanding of what is going on here. So maybe that’s why I was moved to write this article as well. Please tell me that I’m way off base and that Ekstasis is totally amazing or whatever. But if you harbor any love for Scott Walker or Gaspar Noé maybe just go ahead and avoid it.

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One thought on “Worst Review Tactics

  1. Most reviews of music are not informative and often exist to explain to the reader that the critic knows a lot about music made by lots of other people. Describing music is very, very difficult to do well. Everything is compared to something else because it is very hard to describe what is going on, objectively, in any particular song or album. Words like jangling, atmospheric, minimal are thrown around because they were appropriate in other circumstances and are supposed to signify something now. After reading the review (twice) I still have no idea what the record actually sounds like. I blame Pitchfork and the fact that most music has already been made at some point in the past.
    It’s difficult to discuss books, but at least with a book you can try and summarize the story, talk a bit about the author’s tone, the characters, etc.
    What does it mean to to compare a pop singer to Ornette Coleman? Is this woman a pop singer? What is a Venn diagram of sound? Isn’t there a keyboard on a harpsichord?
    I haven’t heard the record.

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