Oct 302013

Fire away!

Fire away!

Listen, I’m in an incredibly bad mood today (it has nothing to do with you), but don’t think I’m not man enough to welcome an intelligent discussion on a piece of rock criticism that appeared in The Washington Post.

On a friend’s Facebook page people are sharing mixed opinions on critic Chris Richards‘ handling of his negative review of The Arcade Fire‘s new album, Reflektor. It’s not Richards’ opinion they seem to be reacting to but his tone. I don’t get it. What’s wrong with a critic thinking an album sucks and writing about it as he or she feels? Why do I sense some candy-ass regard for the critic’s tone? It’s a stinking rock ‘n roll album and one person’s opinion of it. It’s not a dissenting opinion on a Supreme Court decision.

After winning a Grammy for album of the year in 2011, they’re still the biggest rock band on the block, still making music mysteriously devoid of wit, subtlety and danger. And now, they’re really into bongo drums, too. We should all be repulsed. Only partially because of the bongos.

Candy-asses of the Rock World: Please explain what’s wrong with this negative review of The Arcade Fire’s new album, Reflektor.

People on my friend’s Facebook page are lashing out at this guy for being “tragically hip,” for feeling slighted by the “cool kids.” In my formative rock years, these admittedly pathetic feelings were a badge of honor, a rite of passage. What rock snob worth his or her salt didn’t feel left out by the cool kids? Is it no longer cool to feel left out? Is everybody happy nowadays? Everybody but me and Chris Richards?

Just last week I was asking my 16-year-old son if there’s anything kids can be made fun of these days. We were joking around, but there was an undercurrent of snobbish pride in our joking. In a world where young people can walk around in “slides” (ie, those sporty flip-flops) and white knee-high socks without shame, how can anyone know their place, from bullies to misfits?

Listen, anyone past a certain age should grow up and grow past whatever feelings might have fueled their essential take on rock ‘n roll, but if in our judgments of rock ‘n roll music we totally deny that kid, be it a kid who sat at the cool table or one who was excluded, I’m not sure we’re fit to listen to rock ‘n roll any longer. Or maybe we’re not fit to critique it any longer. Rock ‘n roll is there for the taking, enjoying, hating, whatever. It’s not something we are obliged to approach and assess through some formal, respectful, educated, mature eye. That is one approach that can be taken, but why should it be the only approach?


  30 Responses to “Candy-asses of the Rock World: Please Explain What’s Wrong With This Negative Review of The Arcade Fire’s New Album, Reflektor

  1. cherguevara

    Remember JD Considine’s amusing, dismissive reviews? That Steve Howe supergroup, GTR, with Considine’s review reading: SHT

    Funny right? Ok, yes. Funny. But here’s a crazy idea for a music writer: Do your fucking job. Write like you have something to say, something that reflects on the music you’ve heard rather than hoping you’re going to get discovered as a writer whose music criticism is merely a premise for self-promotion and a framework for your witticisms.

    There is plenty about Arcade Fire worth mocking. Their music has very little humor in it, unlike, say, Scott Walker, whose last album is both extremely dark and, at moments, surprisingly funny. But to their fans, guess what? That’s part of the appeal.

    I’m hot to respond to this – but also have to run into a meeting now, I will follow-up. But in short, when I sense that a writer is spewing nonsense instead of actually reviewing the music, I find it neither informative or amusing – it’s mostly dickish.

  2. I feel compelled to mention that Considine’s GTR review was part of his Short Takes column for Musician Magazine. Each month, he’d usually write 2-3 sentence reviews (both positive and negative) for a bunch of new releases. Each month would also usually have one of those semi-glib one-or-two-word dismissals. Fish in a barrel stuff, but I think appropriate given the column’s vantage point. And did GTR really deserve a lengthy, measured dissertation?

    I don’t like Arcade Fire and really enjoyed Richards’ review.

  3. Thanks for kicking this off, cher. If all this writer was doing was showing off how witty he was, I would have to say he’s only so witty. I think he’s objecting to the fact that they are such a highly acclaimed band, so full of pomp and circumstance, yet he gets little more than cliched rallying cries. I think that’s a fair criticism, and I think his method for reviewing the album in this manner fits how he feels.

    How else could one criticize the album along such lines, if that’s what he intends to do? There is no measurement, no metrics for assessing a band. There’s not a validated Lennon-Boss-Bono scale to assess an artist’s Man of the People Powers. There’s not a metric for Hummable Sections Above Replacement.

    The writer’s job is to write so that we can read. I got a few chuckles out of the review. I felt good to have my general point of view on that band supported, just as others who like that band will be pissed off. What’s wrong with that? It’s a matter of reading and writing. I don’t think anyone expects the featured reviews of the new Arcade Fire album that all major media outlets will be obligated to run to be instructive for future generations of music lovers. Next week a cat will toss overflow litter on that review. So what?

  4. machinery

    I think the Bongo line is awesome, to be honest. Bravo.

    I don’t see this candy-ass-ed-ness in movie reviews. Read some of the negative review snippets on Rotten Tomatoes! They are relentless scathing. Are actors and directors now tougher than rockers? I guess so.

  5. machinery

    To wit, from Variety on that awful-looking Last Vegas: “As creaky as an arthritic hip.”

  6. BigSteve

    My problem with the ‘review’ is that it’s not a review of the album. It’s a takedown of a band that got to be bigger than they deserve. If Pitchfork had never posted that glowing review of Arcade Fire’s first album, leading to their notoriety which led to album sales and a Grammy, we wouldn’t be here talking about this review. If this same album had been released by an obscure underground band from Montreal (i.e., Arcade Fire without the hype) this same writer would have praised its ambition and downplayed the parts where its reach exceeded its grasp. Plus the write apparently doesn’t know the difference between bongos and congas.

  7. The Arcade Fire seem to mix a lot influences together to come up with something that’s not all that compelling for an “important” band.

    The bongo drum (or are those congas?) title track is a good example. When you listen to it, you say — well, there’s some Bowie, Talking Heads, 80s glam, Smiths. Too much ain’t enough.

    And this comes from someone who loves certain bands that ape others — I mean I have every Oasis album, but I’ll take “Dig Out Your Soul” over this.

  8. misterioso

    Good review. Nothing wrong with a take down review, especially if discrepancy between the pretension and the actual achievement is notably wide. I am listening to Arcade Fire right now for the first time, mind you, so I don’t want to suggest that I have exactly given them much thought. There is precisely zero chance I would ever make it through 76 minutes of this. I can’t quite see getting all worked up about it enough to hate it, it just is not that interesting.

    Now can I get back to disc 11 of the Leo Sayer collection?

  9. When writing a very negative review, it is rather hard for a critic to avoid not looking like he/he doth protest too much. At any rate, a critic should at least try to avoid coming off this way. And this guy doesn’t even try. Instead, he does the complete opposite, acting as if he’s the super-cool dude in the room for feeling the way he does. Well I’ve got news for this guy: no one really cares about how he feels–unless he can communicate how he feels to us in some sort of intelligent way. Which he fails to do.

  10. cherguevara

    I agree with Steve. I don’t care if you don’t like AF or if you hate this album. I noticed the same thing with the last album from the National, and I’m sure you can find it going back as far as rock criticism goes – a band was cool and underground and got good reviews, then they hit critical mass and the backlash begins.

    I’m resisting the temptation to write about AF here – I really want to, because I have good and bad things to say. But what eats me here isn’t about Arcade Fire, it’s about the author of this review. I think his piece is to music journalism as the Onion is to real news. It’s amusing, but it doesn’t really tell you much.

    Some of my most harsh and detailed criticisms of music (and you can find this in my history of posting here) is of music that I like. “You only hurt the ones you love.” Because when music is important to me, I want to understand it, why I like or don’t like it, what about it presses my buttons.

    This is a major release from a major band, being written about in a notable publication, and as such, I think it merits a thoughtful piece that indicates that the critic actually listened to the album more than superficially,instead of writing a self-involved, knee-jerk comedy piece about it instead writing an actual review.

    David Lee Roth once said that music critics like Elvis Costello because music critics look like Elvis Costello. I can count some music critics as my friends (and relatives) and I like them, I love to talk music with them. And I know it can be a straw man argument to say they can’t play music so why should they judge it, because they can have a visceral reaction to music without needing to understand its mechanics. Was Lou Reed a dickhead? Does that affect the value of his music, to you? Do AF have boring sex lives? What does it mean that a song sounds like “uncomfortable footwear?” They’re not distinct human beings, what the fuck does that even mean, they don’t have a sound? Argue what you want about AF, but don’t tell me they don’t have a sound, even if this time it is filtered through the alterna-dance filter of James Murphy. This album is a big stylistic change for them – FACT – but the band is “averse to risk?”

    Frankly, I’m surprised this writer could pull his hands away from jerking off his dick long enough to write this review.

  11. cherguevara

    “instead of writing a self-involved, knee-jerk comedy piece about it, instead writing an actual review.” (meant to say).

  12. The writer’s ignorance of congas is the sort of spot-on criticism of this review that I can get behind!

    The whole “how do you properly judge a band that got unexpectedly bigger than anyone could have imagined” issue is a good one. I agree with your Of Montreal example, but the fact is Arcade Fire did suddenly get so huge that the media is forced to feature each new release. Really, it can’t be a coincidence that some artist’s new releases, for at least a given amount of time, always get the big feature pieces, whether the album is actually that interesting or not. So, the Arcade Fire has the spotlight on them. Now they have to live up to some possibly unreachable standards.

    Is each album ever reviewed as a distinct piece of work, by any reviewer, “fairly” or “unfairly?” I think not. Bob Dylan will never reach the heights set by Bob Dylan of the past, but any review of a new album can’t help but be informed by that “classic” Dylan. How many times does a legendary artist get a favorable review that skirts the issue of the LP actually on the turntable? Read any review of Paul McCartney’s new album and there’s sure to be a bunch of blah blah blah parts demonstrating that the writer knows that McCartney was once so great that we will forever give half a shit about anything he turns out through eternity. I don’t see how that’s any different than this overall takedown of the Arcade Fire. The critic clearly didn’t particularly like the band from the beginning, but now he’s calling them for having flown too close to the sun.

  13. Funny, it seems like plenty of people care about his review. Seriously, dr john, I challenge you and others to do 2 things:

    1) Determine what you think the intent of his review is, not the “I’m so cool” stuff, but what he intended to say about the album itself.

    2) Attempt to phrase what you think he meant to get at in some sort of intelligent way.

    I’ve put more thought into this than I’d like, but in my eyes he’s saying 1) the album is a bunch of overwrought, stylistically bereft horseshit, the kind of horseshit he always felt was bubbling beneath the surface of their boring but somewhat better, more innocent albums. If that assumption of what he was getting at has any merit, I would then ask myself 2) How could he have said this in some sort of intelligent way? I’m not sure that he could have. Like the Man of the People Power Scale, the Bullshit Detector has not been validated. Instead he threw some mildly funny stuff out there that got to the heart of what he felt. Is it not clear what he felt? Should the first responsibility of the appreciator of any form of art be something other than being open to how he or she feels in the presence of said work of art? I can’t think of anything more important, at least at first, so I find the guy’s response and methods of responding valid. I hope I would feel the same way if he wrote a silly positive review, comparing the act of listening to the album with getting licked by a pile of puppies.

  14. misterioso

    I’m not saying that this review is the most eye-opening work of criticism I have ever encountered, but setting the takedown aspects of it aside, it communicates what the reviewer hears and does not like. The clip and save line (if you are interested enough) is “It’s something conservative pretending to be something bold.” One can agree or not, but it seems pretty clear to me what he is getting at.

  15. misterioso

    Is David Lee Roth really supposed to be our gold standard?

  16. hrrundivbakshi

    Cher said:

    Frankly, I’m surprised this writer could pull his hands away from jerking off his dick long enough to write this review.

    I say:

    Pot, meet kettle.

    For the record, I understood what dude was trying to say. Also for the record, I heard a review of the album on NPR and I thought it sounded like ass-balls.

  17. hrrundivbakshi

    The album, not the review.

  18. cliff sovinsanity

    EXACTLY, Mr Moderator. You can’t judge a band’s merits and future endeavors based on them winning a Grammy.
    You can criticize a band for pushing beyond their reach, but in this case they are simply more interested in amusing themselves.
    These are just potshots. Go after someone who deserves to be put down like Eminem or Kanye.

  19. cherguevarra FTW! Mod: your challenge is basically to do the critic’s job for him. Since I’m not getting paid for it, I won’t. Here, to compare and contrast, is another, better-written negative review of the album: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9894330/arcade-fire-reflektor-review

  20. Is “ass-balls” a good or a bad thing, HVB?

  21. Yeah, I read that review the other day. It had a fair share of blah blah blah before the reviewer got down to business. Is the fact that he showed an appreciation of their prior works a necessary chink in the protocol of reviewing a Respected Band’s works? I know it helps build credibility, but Hyden’s a pretty spotty music critic, if you ask me, despite his ability to crank out many paragraphs and footnotes, per Grantland style.

    Listen, has it really come down to ranking the best of the negative reviews? That seems to sink to a lower level than even the activities we’ve fostered here in the Halls of Rock.

    As for your “not getting paid” line, may I suggest you crack a window in case you hear this coming your way?
    Cop Out!

  22. Okay, I’ll do it, cos I don’t want to get hassled by the Man–

    1) The intent was to sharply criticize the band’s artistic strategy for being unable to think of a better strategy than to do a meta-commentary on selling out.

    2) If the band is simply copying Talking Heads, Remain in Light, then why not just listen to that record?

  23. I’m a big AF fan, but I don’t see a problem with the review (though they were at their peak on Neon Bible and have been only just fine since then, in my view). I would say, as others have, that it’s too much about criticizing the band rather than the music, and the Grantland review is better, though. And as Cher said, it shouldn’t be taken as a real critical piece. It’s perfectly good for what it is.

  24. My 6 year old son likes the song “Reflektor” — so that’s something.

  25. Thank you, Dr. Your approach makes sense.

  26. cherguevara

    Ok…. today I have more time to give a considered response, since yesterday I was just venting between some more important obligations. But then, spending time on this, I feel that I’m giving this writer exactly what he wanted, which is attention. I’m pretty conflicted about expending further energy on this internet argument, but I ramped it up, so I’ll pipe in once more.

    If you search the RTH archives, you’ll find another thread where I became irritated with a critic’s use of the term “dad rock,” which I feel is a straw-man term lobbed by a narrow-minded critic to say that a band has lost its “cool factor” or more accurately, that the critic is too cool him/herself to like this band anymore. I bring this up because the context of this usage was a review of the previous Arcade Fire album, “The Suburbs” by another critic who was satisfied to paint in broad strokes. Let’s dispel the notion that AF are critic’s darlings or an “indie” band. They’re a nice, big, fat target, and they deserve it for being purveyors of bloated anthems where the large-scale musical bombast is at odds with the introspective angst of their lyrics and a primitive, simplistic riff is propped up as the foundation for something much larger than it should be able to support. So when they fail, they fail big, when they succeed, they transcend.

    Any band that reaches to make Big Statements is willfully placing itself in peril – either you have the goods, or you have to hide behind comedic irony as a failsafe. Get to the top of the hill and everybody is waiting to push you off. Arcade Fire have been at the top for several albums now, this is well established. But we’re not really taking about AF, this is about music criticism. Just like the bands, critics also reach to make Big Statements. Lookit, here’s the “most important album of 2013” – http://dangerousminds.net/comments/jonathan_wilsons_fanfare_is_the_most_important_album_of_2013 This album sounds pretty good, but is it important? I think it actually does the artist a disservice.

    The author of this AF review is shouting for attention and admits it in the comments section (after the article), clearly stating that he felt that AF needed to be taken down a peg or two, so he wrote an extreme review because he wanted to “be heard above the noise.” He is clambering for laughs, clicks and eyeballs on the coattails of a highly anticipated album, dismissing it outright because “we should all be repulsed.” Really? The album is repulsive? That is an extreme thing to write and I don’t believe it for a moment. Maybe it’s awkward, pretentious, derivative or boring. But repulsive? Come on. Either the writer is lying, or he doesn’t know the meanings of the words he uses. The writer is exaggerating for yucks, and it undermines his credibility.

    He went into the review prepared to slam the band, reviewing the band’s image, their purview of “us vs them,” which is part of the essence of the band (and many other artists as well), dismissing the band’s influences as though no other music borrows from other artists and dismissing the facts that these influences are mixed within one song – it’s not “this is the Talking Heads song and this is the Springsteen song,” it’s all intertwined, that’s what using your influences ought to be. He says the album is painfully obvious rock music, which is amusing, since there are only maybe one or two songs on the album that you could truly even call “rock” music. He dismisses the band “taking shots at the norms” because they are “massively popular.” What does this mean? They can sell out MSG, so they should stop singing songs about alienation and sense-of-self in favor of… in favor of what? Maybe they should sing about beer? They’re Canadian, so maybe they should sing songs about hockey, but not in French, because French is a prissy language for pretentious people, even if it’s their native tongue.

    Finally, I find the endless comparisons to Eno, Talking Heads and U2 to be extremely limited and lazy (this is in the good reviews too). In the song “We Exist” I don’t hear Fleetwood Mac – I hear OMD. The “bongos” and rhythmic aspects of the album owe a lot to the NYC No Wave scene, bands like Liquid Liquid, the Contortions and ESG. James Murphy knows who all those bands are. Yes, there is rhythmic interplay, but Talking Heads didn’t invent that, and other readily apparent facets of the production are not easily pegged to Eno and his clients – particularly the use of empty space, the reverb and delay more associated with dub. I hear more Conny Plank then Eno. Between the band and producer you have an “influence stew” on par with a Jellyfish album, spotting the references as they fly past like cars on a highway. To us, maybe those sounds are perhaps old-hat, done better the first time. To the younger set, it could be an open door to discover a lot of great, older music that serves as the foundation here. That’s a good thing.

    I stand by my assertion that it is a lazy, attention grabbing review, a purposely incendiary cry for attention. The broad assertions, personal attacks and obvious bias make it clear to me that the writer had a preconceived agenda, a big assignment providing a juicy opportunity to soapbox and vent, rather than provide any sort of intelligent, informed criticism, whether positive or negative.

  27. Thanks for that thoughtful, impassioned, detailed response! This is the kind of perspective I don’t pick up from FB posts and tweets. I am a sick man, perhaps, but I long for reading how people really feel, even when I don’t fully feel the same way. Well done to you and dr john, as well as those of you who generally seem to feel more like I do.

  28. AF gives a little Skynyrd-type advice through twitter today — “turn it up.”

    Arcade Fire‏@arcadefire
    Our new album Reflektor is out now. Thanks so much to everyone that’s listening, remember to turn it up loud! Love AF http://smarturl.it/reflektoralbumit
    Promoted by Arcade Fire

  29. BigSteve

    I agree with a lot of what cher is saying, particularly the part about Big Statements. I don’t know if it was AF’s nature to go big, or if they were put into a position where they could take advantage of their ambitions (if you were a musician, would you turn down the chance to do a double album with James Murphy?), but critics in particular are ill-equipped to deal with that kind of thing. In our media culture irony is the air we breathe, and snark is standard operating procedure. I haven’t heard the album yet, but I saw them on SNL, and part of me is totally behind the band’s willingness to appear ridiculous.

    Also, this part of the review bothered me: “And when co-vocalist Regine Chassagne materializes to play Butler’s vocal foil, she toggles between cheerleadery English and breathy French, because — ooh-la-la — it wraps these bland songs in a thin cloak of cosmopolitan sophistication.” The band’s from Montreal, and Regine’s parents are Haitian immigrants. Does the writer really not know that she speaks French as well as English, as do most people from Montreal? I hate it when reviewers claim to know the artist’s intentions, and stating that she was pretending to be cosmopolitan and sophisticated by singing in the language she grew up speaking is ridiculous, more an indication of the writer’s small-mindedness that an insight into the music/lyrics.

  30. “Between the band and producer you have an “influence stew” on par with a Jellyfish album, spotting the references as they fly past like cars on a highway.”

    This is brilliant. Can we add “influence stew” to the RTH glossary?

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