By Beppe Colli
Nov. 26, 2008
And so, those chilly winds blowing left and right notwithstanding,
Clouds and Clocks has finally - and surprisingly - managed to reach its
(temporary) destination: its Sixth Birthday (Congratulations! Hooray!,
etc). There's no assurance, of course, that it'll ever get to be Seven,
but not because we've lost any of the intellectual spirit, joy, and willpower
we had at the start; it's what it's usually referred to as the framework,
the scenario, the narrative, that today appears to be in quite miserable
conditions, maybe beyond the point of any reasonable hope. Not to mention
the ever-decreasing literacy rate, and so the difficulty most people have
when trying to understand a complex line of reasoning.
So, it's a "brutal" analysis that
Not many words were spoken as often as the word "crisis"
during the... crisis that occurred in the Western World after the First Oil
Shock of 1973-74. A crisis that became even more difficult to deal with
when the USA renounced the treaty they had signed at Bretton Woods in
1944 - this happening on August 15, 1971 during the Nixon administration,
while the Vietnam War was in full bloom. This crisis went on for a very
long time, also due to the Second Oil Shock of 1979. It so happened that
the word "crisis"
became so common, in all fields of human activity, that saying it aloud exposed
one to the danger of being considered quite ridiculous (a few articles even
appeared bearing such titles as The Crisis of the Crisis Concept). And so,
for a very long time the only safe way one could say this word was when referring
to the nice album by Ornette Coleman (it's been out-of-print for quite some
time now, I think) titled Crisis.
News that most US journalistic firms - both
of the "paper" type, and (who could expect this?) as
"immaterial" as the Web - have been sending pink slips happen
so frequently that nowadays the only reaction one gets is one of boredom
(not on the part of those who were fired, of course). But the news of the
most recent crisis (still underway as I write) have been met with a certain
amount of disbelief, the last firing salvo being so fresh in everyone's minds.
Considering quite different realities all together for brevity's sake, it
appears that the historical US weekly Time was about to close its London
offices; that the historical US bi-monthly Rolling Stone was about to fire
some people (apparently, only in its clerical sector); while the highly celebrated
New York "alternative weekly" The Village Voice was about to eliminate
some staff jobs - this less than one year after the firings that had so impressed
audiences worldwide (for instance, the firing of The Dean of the American
Rock Critics, Robert Christgau).
We all know the reasons why: the hemorrhage
of readership, decreasing revenues when it comes to advertising (with only
some of this money migrating to the Web), the rising costs of paper and
transportation (when it comes to the latter, it's the long-term trend that
counts, and it goes in the opposite direction of today's temporarily decreasing
price of oil). The present freeze in consumer spending due to recession,
and the obvious freeze in ads by firms, only add to the pressure. "But
these trends are fuelled less by the current state of affairs than by the
belief that things won't get any better anytime soon", was what a
few friends whose opinion I had asked for wrote to me.
While this is basically true of the Press
in all their different guises, it's interesting to notice that when it
comes to music magazines an additional factor appears to be involved: their
being a subgroup suffering from "collateral damage" due to the
collapse of CD sales (to which somebody adds: the decreasing of the "strong" type
of interest for music of which the collapse of CD sales is a symptom or
As soon as they went online (even in the case of one being a
"minor entity" when compared to its "paper" size), papers
started adding audio (and video) files, also Podcasts. Sometimes it's almost
like being back in the old Radio Days. Here opinions are fatally bound to
differ. But while it's obvious that the audio file is a worthy chance for
all artists, groups, labels, and distributors that are "cut off from
the distribution circuit that really counts" (this nowadays being the
one dealing with news, I think, and not with the actual distribution of any
physical entities), it appears that when those (music and video) files work
as a kind of "special, quality content", they are bound to undermine
the domain that's unique to the Press: the verbal.
When looking at those colourful announcements that appear on many paper
magazines (but from the little that I know about the Web World, things
there don't seem to be much different) that advertise the sheer amount
of albums reviewed, one has to ask him/herself about the kind of readers
these magazine are trying to lure. What kind of reader would prefer buying
Magazine A - featuring 250+ CD reviews - instead of Magazine B - featuring
"only" 200+ CD reviews? All reviews, by the way, being of the
"four lines" kind (as we know so well, time is money) where nothing
of consequence is ever said. Here one could ask whether readers would not
be better served buying a magazine featuring "only" four or five
quality features - sure it couldn't get any worse, but this is only a "theoretical"
And it's easy to see why: if we think about
the Sixties, and the limited number of critics and publications then on
the market, it's easy to see that there was a strong selection process
then at work. (It's not that there weren't a lot of artists around, as
proven by the sheer amount of nonentities that many have been trying to
sell as having been
"unjustly undervalued" in their day and age to an unsuspecting
audience.) But when it comes to appreciating an album, the "average"
Rock fan of the Sixties invested a lot of time and effort. (Entertainment
attorney Bob Lefsetz recently reminded readers of his blog that in the Sixties
a respectable collection of Rock music consisted of fifty albums.)
(It goes without saying that discussing this
stuff is like arguing against the fog and the hail, but I still think that
a selection process, however imperfect, is preferable to no selection process.
But it's a complex issue.)
Today's perspective goes in the opposite
direction. There's an enormous amount of stuff that has to be dealt with
in a specific way. All this stuff "looks for" the right place
to be featured, at the lowest possible cost - something which in this day
and age, when one's chances to "make it" are about the same as
those in any lottery, but with meager prizes for the winners, coincides
with those few minutes one needs to write a "review" while having
a look at the press release kindly sent along with the music. One way or
another, all pages have to be filled. Which goes a long way in explaining
why even the most horrible, amateurish reviews (also articles and "interviews")
get to be printed, instead of being thrown into the waste basket.
I think it can be said that 2008 was not a bad year for music. And
even if it could be said that when it comes to "unconventional" music
a bit of patience is all one needs in order to find good music, it's been
a while since the days when "mainstream" music could be said
to be in good shape. Alongside good music, the best mainstream releases
of 2008 had the unpleasant effect of making me aware of the horrible quality
of most reviews.
Sure, it could be argued that as a kind of
"discovery" it doesn't account for much. Fact is, the more
"unusual" kind of material I usually listen to doesn't get many
reviews. So it goes without saying that a "bad review" can look
like being "one writer's fault", not a trend of shoddy work. While
doing a search (via Google, or an "aggregator" such as Metacritic)
about a release that got many reviews gives us a field so wide that one's
conclusions are more sound.
When talking about the various reviews of the recent Ani DiFranco album, Red Letter Year, one could say: good for
DiFranco that she has a new fiancée and a new daughter, at least reviewers
had something to talk about! Having said about a quite embarrassing similarity
of some reviews to the album's press release, it's quite funny to notice
that not many (better said, nobody) talked about the rhythmic realignment
of the songs featured on her new CD.
No better fate for Ben Folds's recent album,
Way To Normal: having said about a strange similarity between some reviews
and the album's press release, it was quite funny to notice how nobody
took the time to comment on the CD's horrible sound (one of the worst example
of excessive compression since the introduction of the CD format). Sure,
one can't ask too much of reviewers when it comes to similarities and even
direct quotes (not even one from a song by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young!).
But was it too hard no notice how harsh this particular CD sounded? While
accessing a fan Forum and reading the opinion of a sound engineer on his
personal blog immediately gave me lots of material.
(We'll see how the boys will deal with the
announced Beatles 2009 re-releases, in what promises to be a "Beatle
year", when all the group's newly remastered albums - for the first
time ever since the days of the original albums, also in mono! - will go
on sale. I wonder on what "platform" different editions will
Ignorance and shoddiness abound, without
any limits. I've even had the pleasure to read reviews where the "critic"
re-wrote the history of rock, according to his "selective" knowledge.
What one can't help but notice is the hysterical tone of many reviews, an
absurd combination of the need to sell something and an absolute lack of
faith in the possibility of ever convincing anybody to actually fork one's
My first prize for Best Shoddy Work for the
year 2008 goes to a review of Harps And Angels, the recent album by Randy
Newman. Nowadays musicians whose albums occupy a "niche market" don't
get too many reviews, and usually in cases like this reviewers know what
they're talking about. But it's not a rule. Things went OK when it came
to Walter Becker's Circus Money, an album that - being self-produced and
almost self-released - got few reviews (just in case, there's always the
press release). But the Randy Newman album was on Nonesuch, a fact which
logically entails... many reviews.
Since one is supposed to know about Randy
Newman's ideas, and his use of the narrative device called "the untrustworthy
narrator", it goes without saying that a song going by the title A
Few Words In Defense Of Our Country should make one cautious when drawing
any fast conclusions. Alas, one particular reviewer threw all cautions
to the winds, calling this song "Patriotic, decidedly over-the-top",
so clearly showing that he had no idea what he was talking about. I was
not glad to hear things like "he's not one of the worst", or "but
don't you remember...?", or "nobody reads this magazine anyway".
So this is what we've come to, that we hope nobody will read a review?
What if - 'cause of this review - even just one reader will get the impression
that Randy Newman is a kind of "right-wing hawk"?
What about the audience? Well... Just as a quick note about a very
serious matter, let's say that I believe the present crisis to be the first
global economic crisis when one is actually able to read fantastic op-ed
pieces - even by Nobel prizes! - that are written in a way that's quite
easy to understand, for free, on the Web. But a quick chat is all one needs
to know not many people bother with this stuff.
For the most part, people's interest lay
elsewhere. And the new instruments called "aggregators" - the
most recent one I know of being Tina Brown's The Daily Beast, whose motto
"Read this, skip that" - promise to put at one's disposal only
what one is really interested in, and nothing else. Something that, under
the present conditions (type of interest, type of attention,
"pointillistic", not "cumulative", type of experiences,
having as one's concept of "excellence" one that's more suited
to a reality show), could have disastrous consequences.
The traditional media (Press) - from which
Web media still appear to get their moves - are still on their feet. One
can't help but wonder what will happen when they'll be around no more.
We already know what happened with music.
© Beppe Colli 2008
| Nov. 26, 2008