Music Opinion Blog

Opinions and occasional rants about the state of the music scene. The views expressed are entirely my own, and do not represent those of any artists or publications with whom I may be connected.

The Song Bar

Song-BarThe situation with The Guardian’s Readers Recommend has got unpleasantly messy, and we’ve ended up with in a position where the vibrant music-loving community risks being split into two rival camps.

After weeks of prevarication, the Guardian have relaunched Readers Recommend in cut-down form, run by the community section rather than anyone from Guardian Music. The launch appears to have been handled very clumsily, so it’s got off to a rather poor start.

Meanwhile, an enigmatic figure known only as “The Landlord” has launched a new music blog The Song Bar as a Readers Recommend in exile, with “Songs about moving on” as the first topic.

I am sure I’m not the only person who doesn’t know which way to jump. Is it better to keep a foot in both camps and see how things pan out, or is best to throw our lot in with The Song Bar on the grounds that Guardian Communities have demonstrated that they can’t really be trusted? My gut instinct is to go for the latter, provided the site can draw in a critical mass of people.

Anyway, for Songs about moving on, I’ve nominated the superb title track of Karnataka’s “The Gathering Light“. It’s a song about moving on from a broken relationship, but it’s also by the band who appear to have been cheated out of appearing in The Guardian’s end-of-year reader’s poll for reasons that have never has a satisfactorily explanation.

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“The Big Snub Dept” on Genji Press is well worth a read. Can someone really be an artist unless their art manages to resonate with an audience?

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Of Genres and Canons

If you divide music into “Classical” and “Pop”, but don’t make any distinction between “Pop” from “Rock”, a record like King Crimson’s “Red” gives a divide-by-zero error.

It’s one of the high points  of the progressive rock movement, an ambitious and powerful collection of music far removed from simple top-40 pop songs. Yet it’s performed by a rock band with electric guitar as the main instrument rather than a symphony orchestra.

If you’re reading this blog, you almost certainly know all that. But this post isn’t really about Red, but about the wider divide between “high” and “low” art, and whether such a divide is still meaningful, or even if it ever was.

It reminds me a bit of my old school music teacher, Mr Macey. He was an old-school traditionalist for whom only orchestral music in the Western classical tradition qualified as real music. Anything played on electric instruments was ephemeral nonsense. I suspect he genuinely believed rock’n'roll was a passing fad and none of it would pass the test of time.

He was wrong, of course, but back in the mid-1970s it was still possible for someone to hold that position without looking like a ridiculous old reactionary. Much of what we now consider as the rock canon was either less than a decade old, or had yet to be written. The fact we’re still listening to some of that music forty years on shows that it has stood the test of time rather better than the so-called “squeaky hinge” work that some classical composers were writing at the same time. But it’s also notable that the way rock fans dismiss music made from samples and computer-generated rhythms sounds a lot like the arguments used against rock by my old music teacher.

The whole high art vs. low art thing is really about social class. In past centuries, “classical” was the music of the rich, and “folk” was the music of the poor, and the former was put on a pedestal at the expense of the latter because the people with the money wrote the histories. The rise of the middle classes and the development of amplified electric music disrupted that hierarchy, but old prejudices die hard.

I wonder how the music of the past fifty years will be regarded in a hundred years time? What will pass the test of time, and will today’s genres of classical, folk, jazz or rock still make any sense to listeners who encounter the music in a completely different cultural context?

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Why It’s a Critic’s Duty to Be Wrong

Interesting post on Criticwire; A.O. Scott and Why It’s a Critic’s Duty to Be Wrong. It’s really about film criticism, but it’s the sort of thing that’s more widely applicable, including music criticism.

Criticism isn’t meant to be the final word but an opening statement, or, increasingly, a volley in the potentially unending ping-pong match between writers and readers — to the extent that distinction is even meaningful anymore. Critics should try to be right, of course, whatever that means in the context of a largely subjective medium. (My definition: Passionate but controlled; true to the aesthetic and moral principles you’ve articulated and evolved over the course of your critical career. Also, try to spell the names right.) But there’s nothing more dangerous to a critic than the ironclad belief in their own rightness.

A couple of things resonate quite strongly here. The first is that anyone who’s too afraid of being wrong will be less effective as a critic. We’ve all seen reviews where the reviewer won’t commit to saying whether the record is good, bad or indifferent, and instead dances around the subject with a load of anodyne waffle. Worst still is groupthink, when the reviewer is afraid to be the one who’s out of step with everyone else. It’s the reason I  never read other reviews of a record before I’ve written my own.

The second is that reviews are ephemeral compared to their subjects. For new releases a review is only relevent during a record’s release window. Once a critical mass of people have had the chance to hear it for themselves, anything you write is old news. In the case of a high-profile major act that window is measured in days. For a small independent release that relies on word-of-mouth for promotion it’s more like months, and reviews are an important part of that word-of-mouth process. In many cases the most significant thing is the fact that you’ve chosen to review it at all.

Eventually the record will either become part of the canon, for some given value of canon, or it will sink into obscurity. Either way, subsequent writing about them will read in a very different context, even if the writer or reader is discovering the actual music for the first time.

To give an example, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” now has an assured status in the rock canon, with Dave Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb” recognised as a rock standard. Few remember or care about Sounds’ Dave McCulloch’s one-star review that complained that there were too many guitar solos.

I’ve just written a strongly negative review of a record by one of the biggest names in progressive rock. Judging by subsequent conversations a lot of others share my opinion. But there are some strongly positive reviews out there of the same record that declare it a masterpiece. And here’s the important thing; none of these reviews are wrong. They’re all part of the conversation. Eventually a consensus will emerge, even if that consensus is that it’s a Marmite record that divides opinion.

And yes, sometimes you will look back at a record you praised or damned, and realise you were completely wrong about it.

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Now that Terry Wogan is up there, Heaven can hold a Eurovision Song Contest with Lemmy as the British entry. Something that should have happened when the two of them were still on Earth.

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“If only they  realised that their favourite genre didn’t just stop when fashion moved on” – Comment from Paul E in this thread.

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David Bowie, Suede, Mantra Vega, Steven Wilson, Dream Theater, Megadeth. Can anyone remember so many high-profile releases in January?

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The Earth Is Flat! Internet Memes Say So

I have no idea of the source of this meme

The above image is comes from a Tweet by the rapper BoB quoted in The Guardian. Did you know that the West Coast Main Line is single track and isn’t electrified? Neither did I.

I am not entirely sure whether the recent emergence of the Flat Earth Movement is a terrible consequence of rising anti-intellectualism and wholesale rejection of enlightenment values, or whether the whole thing is an epic wind-up that a few ignorant suckers have fallen for. I suppose it’s orders of magnitude less harmful than the celebrity anti-vax moement.

Occams Razor and Poes’ Law both suggest rapper BoB’s public embrace of this nonsense is nothing more than a clever publicity stunt. It’s entirely possible that astrophysicist and cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson is in on the joke.

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Phil Anselmo and Racist Idiocy

There is very good piece in Metal Hammer on why Phil Anselmo’s ‘White Power’ outburst shouldn’t be ignored. Plenty of metal fans are quite disgusted with this, and as the Metal Hammer piece notes, it’s not an isolated incident; he’s got past form for this sort of thing. He really ought ton have know better and not be such an idiot.

I wouldn’t blame any concert promoters for refusing to work with him or festival organisers who’d rather not have him on the bill. Getting dropped from a festival or two might concentrate his mind. Like Eric Clapton’s infamous endorsement of Enoch Powell in the 70s, he deserves to have this haunt him for years.

I guess I’m lucky that none of my biggest musical heroes have said or done indefensible things while off their heads on drink or drugs. There are one of two people for whom the less I know about their socio-political views the better. And no, I’m not going to mention any names.

The cultural climate is such that the metal world needs to go into damage limitation mode at the moment. The worst-case scenario would be an outbreak of ignorant thinkpieces by the usual suspects who have little understanding of metal subculture using Anselmo’s drunken idiocy to denouce metal itself as inherently racist. That would be followed by the inevitable defensive reaction from knuckle-dragging idiots screeching “SJWs are attackig metal”.  The metal world can really do without an equivalent of the toxicity surrounding Gamergate.

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Good to see Nellie Pitts honoured as one of the ten Women of the Year in Prog Magazine’s end-of-year reader’s poll. The people who do all the work behind the scenes to make music happen don’t get the credit they deserve.

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