your vague outline: on rock criticism

Barry: You wouldn’t know most of our immediate influences.
Rob: Try me.
Barry: They’re mostly German.
Rob: Kraftwerk? Falco? Hasselhoff?
-from High Fidelity 

A creature of habit has no real protection
-The Shins, “Bait and Switch”

 Should you find yourself without a new album to explore, listen to the new Shins record, Port of Morrow, or give it a second chance. At first, I didn’t hear much beyond the obvious single, “Simple Song,” but that by itself was almost enough. The song finds a midpoint between vulnerability and grit; the production still sounds a lot like Pet Sounds, as with everything they do, but the chorus is a stack of power chords. During the first verse, there’s only half a melody — the guitars thrash about, echoing like trapped hopes. The beginning only hints at how the melody will open up and deepen. It’s another Shins song about holding onto feelings; that’s a rich vein for them, and the source of their most passionate, graceful songs. “I know that things can really be rough / When you’re going alone / Don’t go thinking you gotta be tough,” Mercer sings. The other songs are slower, and less distinctive at first. That fits the theme: this is an album about the quietly powerful moment when somebody decides to make a change. Instead of taking a long journey, though, Mercer is travelling up and down rabbit holes. If things have gotten bad overnight, as on “Bait and Switch,” perhaps they can get better just as suddenly. “Maybe try the lost in found,” Mercer sings at the end of one song, and at the beginning of another, “we can figure this thing out / And turn it back around.” There’s a lot of acoustic guitar, which makes sense, since these are very personal anthems of encouragement, intended for specific partners and friends. The swooping melodies and lush harmonies change subtly in intensity, delivering both singer and listener from terrible doubt.

*** has made my day by re-posting the most incomprehensible set of rock reviews I’ve encountered in a while. I’ve been reading other reviews a lot like these ones, naturally, but never a whole collection this absolutely pristine. I don’t mean that these reviews use arcane or pretentious language; instead, they shuffle through every critical cliché in the book, so doggedly that I couldn’t tell you anything about what any of these records sound like. So, without further ado, allow me to present A Few Things That Rock Critics Must Never Do Again, dedicated to you, “Brandon from the Burning Ear.”

Here’s Brandon on Wildlife’s album Strike Hard, Young Diamond:

It doesn’t take more than a minute of Strike Hard, Young Diamond’s opening track, “Stand In The Water,” to know you’re in for a ride — it fairly twitches with kinetic energy. The rest of Strike Hard, Young Diamond is packed with big guitar sounds and even bigger wordless choruses. It’s perfect music for picturesque summer days like the one on the album cover, but it works just as well to scatter the chill of winter.

  1. Aside from rock critics, does anyone still use “fairly” like that? Since the answer’s no, let’s agree that it’s only permissible when the band itself is prone to wearing velour and recording chamber pop.
  2. No to “kinetic.” Another word that you only hear on PBS science programs and in rock reviews. Nobody has too much coffee and complains that they feel “overly kinetic.” Calling a rock record “high energy,” which is all that “kinetic” means here, is like informing us that it was recorded in real stereophonic sound.
  3. The band is already being a little too phallic; let’s not make matters worse with “big” and “bigger.” I have no idea what a “big guitar sound” sounds like. AC/DC? Slayer? “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”? Hasselhoff? Also, there’s really nothing appealing about “wordless choruses.”
  4. We’ll come back to the issue of “summertime music,” but at the very least, don’t say a band is summery just because of the album cover and then add that the album works just as well in winter. Does it ever not work well? Oooh, I know! I bet it’s incompatible with April showers!

Now for Walk The Moon’s instant classic, i want! i want!:

Walk The Moon’s 2011 summer jam “Anna Sun” had me thinking of these guys as just another one-hit flash in the pan. Ignoring, for a moment, how lame it is to release a summer single called “Anna Sun,” let’s focus on “just another one-hit flash in the pan.” As opposed to what? A one-hit wonder that isn’t a flash in the pan?

But I got around to picking up their full album I instantly regretted the months it took me to get on board. I do love peer pressure, and so should you. Every track on i want! i want! is a solidly-crafted pop gem with big hooks, melodies, and harmonies. “Solidly-crafted pop gem” should spend the rest of its natural life in jail. So, so meaningless. Does it mean “Beatlesque,” or not? Does it mean the song sounds like Phil Spector? WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Just try not singing along to “I Can Lift A Car.” OK, I tried, and I succeeded. Now what?

Walk the Moon’s live show is about as good as it gets — these guys bring it! Catch them soon, because they’re on a major label now, and destined for big venues and long ticket lines. Who are you, their marketing department? Does anyone actually still wait in long ticket lines nowadays, except via a web browser? Finally, how can these guys possibly “bring it” when they’re also using “big harmonies” to finely craft their pop gems?


We’ll do a quicker run-through of Brandon’s review of The Human Condition by Jhameel:

He’s a total oddball, but packed with charisma and talent — hopefully, it’s only a matter of time before that spills over into success. This always gets me — in the first sentence, Brandon assures us that Jhameel won’t need his “backstory” for very long, but now he’s hoping the same guy won’t have to labor in obscurity. He’s trying to hook both the people who like sure things and the people who like to be among the first to champion some young striver.

The songs on The Human Condition run the gamut of subjects from religion to jealous lovers to smoking tons of weed. This is not a complete gamut of the human condition. Honestly, it isn’t even a half-gamut.

What do you have for us now, eponymous debut by The Fantasies?

Nine songs in twenty-three minutes. Viva brevity! One-third of The Fantasies’ tracks on their debut LP clocking in at under two minutes: this dirty little rock band doesn’t mince words. Those words are mostly variations on “fun,” “party,” “girls,” and “bubblegum,” which make the album perfect summer listening. There’s an instrumental song about Christmas, but I can still see some serious sunset BBQ action soundtracked by that jam, so we’ll let it slide.

  1. “Viva brevity!” I will bet any sum of money that I have, meaning up to $10, that Brandon praises other bands for their “epic” 14-minute fuzzed-out jams, complete with wailing and Glenn Frey imitations.
  2. “Clocking in.” A phrase that brings to mind, irresistibly, the image of a critic clocking in for the day.
  3. This “dirty little rock band,” whatever that means, absolutely minces words. A band that actually puts the word “bubblegum” in the lyrics, on top of the already borderline “girls,” “fun,” and “party,” is mincing words like it’s on an episode of Iron Chef.
  4. “Perfect summer listening.” Yes, because during the summer, you should have an IQ of 35 and pretend to be at really cool parties. (Or, wait, I mean that you are at really cool parties, so you should play this record for the other guests!)
  5. “I can still see some serious sunset BBQ action.” No more of this! The fact that you can imagine some scenario in your head does not mean a particular song is good! I can’t even guess how many imaginary worlds, concocted by reviewers at Pitchfork, Spin, and elsewhere, have led me to purchase albums I never played twice.

Really, Brandon’s review of Motopony is pretty OK:

Motopony came to my attention on two sublimely tender songs that still stop me in my tracks every time I hear them. Both “King of Diamonds” and “Wait For Me” topped my “Best Of” list last year, and it was only out of fairness to other bands that “God Damn Girl” didn’t make the cut. The fact that they didn’t play any of those tracks at their SXSW showcase and still delivered one of the best shows of the forty-six I saw that week is a testament to their massive talent. Live, they turned an album of sad-sack heartbreak into a rollicking rock show.

But, still, a couple things. Brandon, nobody cares that you went to SXSW. It would be one thing if you could describe their live show, but just calling it “rollicking” is actually more confusing than anything else. Also, being a “sad sack” is not cool. A lot of songs have started magnetically attracting that description, and it’s just silly, because none of the bands aspire to be pathetic…and they’re not automatically pathetic just because they’re heartbroken. It was only out of fairness to other bands… Come on, B. It wasn’t out of a deep concern for fairness. It was in order to avoid seeming like a fanboy. As for “showcase” and “stop me in my tracks,” well, that’s just garden-variety bad writing.


A pop review doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be dashed off in ten minutes, and in some cases, it’ll still be great. But it will only be great if the reviewer conveys something about his experience as a listener. Brandon’s an especially wild case of a severe illness that causes modern critics to write entirely in terms that refer exclusively to other record reviews. I couldn’t tell you how Wildfire differs from The Fantasies. I really don’t know anything at all about Jhameel, other than that his lyrics sound unappetizing; I don’t even know what genre(s) he’s in. My guess is that Motopony is more sensitive than Walk The Moon, but I’m not sure, nor am I sure whether Motopony sounds like The Hidden Cameras, or The Shins, or The Pernice Brothers. The only sound is that of somebody urging me to buy these albums, because things can really be rough, when you’re going alone. These albums can help! They’re like other albums I’ve purchased before — when it was summer, and girls were having fun, dancing to bubblegum, at parties.