Grassy-as-funk and capo-driven

| February 27, 2013 | 10 Comments

Chris JonesLast week, we deliberately inflicted pain on ourselves and discussed the topic of album reviews, with actual samples (that I made up, but does it really matter?). Specifically, we examined the categories of the Everybody Gets a Rave and the Just the Facts styles of reviewing music.

This week, I promised we would delve into some other categories of reviews that are not necessarily negative, but which do damage to both the artist and reader nonetheless.

The acclaimed writer and theologian C.S. Lewis wrote this about literary reviewing (thanks to Ron Block for providing this quote): “We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it as if it was very good and ended by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment.”

Lewis’ brief tenure as Mac Wiseman’s bass player in the 1950s was overshadowed by his writing career, and therefore consistently overlooked by historians. Still, it’s clear from this statement that Lewis hadn’t read a lot of bluegrass album reviews at the time.

The opposite approach is to bring all of your dislikes and bitterness about various artists, styles of music, CD artwork, green leafy vegetables, and the Texas Rangers’ trade of Alex Rodriguez to the table when writing a review. Thus we get the Jaded and Bitter school of album reviews. This applies, even if the review is meant to be a good one, like this “positive” review of Lonesome School District’s latest release, boldly entitled Our Third Album:

I see more and more evidence every day of bluegrass music going to the dogs. First there was the introduction of the rock and roll-influenced electric bass stylings that practically ruined a decade of the music from 1976-86, then there was the airy and whispering style of almost-country female vocalists that became the scourge of another decade or two. Now the current decade has brought us auto-tuning and digital editing, enabling bands that can’t sing or play in time to record anyway and just “fix it in the mix.” There’s not a chance they can pull it off live, and my recent bad experiences at every bluegrass festival I attended last year are a testament to this painful fact. This is to say nothing of the outrageous prices we’re now playing for instrument accessories.

Fortunately, I find overdue exceptions to these sad and pervasive trends in the latest release by the northern Virginia quintet Lonesome School District.

Poor Lonesome School District. The entire first paragraph of what turned out to be a good review of their release was taken up with a negative rant. Even the opening sentence of the next paragraph (for anyone still reading this review), meant to introduce the “positive” side of the review, contains the phrase “sad and pervasive.”

The Jaded and Bitter approach isn’t the only school of reviewing that produces confusing reviews that appear to be about one thing but turn out to be about something else entirely. There’s also the I’d Rather Be Reviewing Something Else method, in which the reviewer uses most of the review talking about a completely different artist.

Take this review of an album by mandolinist Harold Harbinger called Four Pairs of Two:

Mike Compton has consistently provided examples of how the Monroe style of mandolin playing can be put into different musical contexts and fit naturally. The Mississippi native was a key element in the original lineup of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, later returning for a second stint with the NBB. Very few mandolin players have managed to capture the Bill Monroe right hand approach—and therefore the tone—the way Compton has, and yet he manages to turn this derivative style into an original art form. His recent release “Rotten Taters” is one of the most important mandolin releases of the last decade.

Mandolinist Harold Harbinger has released his second solo album, and while his style would not be considered Comptonesque, or even Monroesque in the strictest sense, he pays homage to the Father of Bluegrass by virtue of the fact that he plays the mandolin at all. Harbinger’s new album is a worthy continuation of that bluegrass mandolin tradition.

Even discounting the use of “Comptonesque” and “Monroesque,” this is a very flawed review. The reviewer clearly loves the music of Mike Compton, and would rather be reviewing a Mike Compton CD, but alas, he’s stuck trying to review Harold Harbinger’s album instead. This didn’t stop him from trying to turn it into a Compton review anyway.

Harbinger may have the last laugh here, though, because he can lift the phrase “one of the most important mandolin releases of the last decade,” and use it for years in his own promotional material.

Last, and probably least, is the Rock Critic Wannabe reviewing style. These are the reviews that seem to be saying, “Rolling Stone wouldn’t hire me, so I guess I’ll just have to bestow my literary genius on these bluegrass CDs.” The reviews tend to be full of hyperbole, long strings of adjectives, with the occasional made-up word sprinkled in. These reviews are never about the recording itself; they’re all about the reviewer.

These days, you merely have to check out online customer reviews to read the product of some of these great unpublished reviewers. This one is real, I promise:

“. . . filled with quietly epic, powerfully permeating, thoughtful paeans of hope rising from a bleak, desolate existential soundscape tundra. There’s a strange, subtle tug of undismissible joy and developing wisdom among the choral avant-folk/pop explorations.”

This was a review of a Bon Iver CD , but I don’t think it really matters. Whenever you see alliteration like “powerfully permeating,” it’s best to run for the hills.

Applying this style to the latest release by the bluegrass band Debbie Zapruder and Restless Pond, we get something like this:

The latest disc by the neo-traditionalist Appalachian powerhouse singer-songwriter Debbie Zapruder and her attitude-imbued, grassy-as-funk, capo-driven band, Restless Pond hits all the marks it chooses to hit. Some may listen with tentative trepidation to track one, an exhilarating reenvisioning of  “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” But by the second round of the delicious banjo broadside from five-string maven Clay Houser, you are drawn inexplicably into Zapruder’s deepest heart, where you hear every plaintive cry and the throbbing of every love-strained ventricle. The captivating milieu of stormy, post-Crowe, gravel-road virtuosity, Zapruder’s timed-release, über-melismatic, emoti-licious vocal firestorm, and the semi-deconstructed, Goblesque originals and reincarnated covers, create a triumvirate of NOW-grass.

I don’t know about you, but I’m now too exhausted to even care what this CD really sounds like.

Chris Jones

Chris Jones wears many hats in his bluegrass career. In addition to leading his own band, with whom he tours and records, Jones is an award-winning broadcaster and songwriter.

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