From The Side of the Road… Have you seen my latest review?

No recording artist likes bad reviews. In fact, most recording artists are pretty unhappy with reviews that are even mediocre. When was the last time you heard an artist say, “Well, it was a pretty bad review, but it was fair. Our material was a ‘weak blend of trite and poorly-written originals and tired and badly-executed covers.’ It was pretty much what I had hoped for.”

Nowadays, there are so few album reviews being written at all (nicely matching the trend of how few albums are being sold in hard copy form) that we have even fewer to choose from when looking for usable quotes for the web site or press release. 

Reviews still matter a lot to artists and labels, though, and in the era of streaming and shuffling, reviews are one of the main reasons artists still care and put effort into the album sequence.

Reviewers may ask: “What do they want from me? A rave?” The simple answer is, “Yes,” and preferably, a well-written rave. 

Sadly, only in a perfect world would all our CDs receive glowing reviews. And even if that did happen, it wouldn’t really matter if everyone else was getting them. Still, a world of CD reviews that’s a little more predictable, and maybe a little less like going up on a rickety roller-coaster run by a grizzled ex-con, would be nice.

Part of the problem for recording artists is that there are so many ways that reviews can go wrong, often because of factors that have nothing to do their CD or their music, and so few ways that they can go right. “Straight is the way and narrow’s the gate,” to quote Hank Williams.

Below are some of the reviewing styles that cause artists to toss and turn at night. I wish I could tell you there was a way to avoid getting these kinds of reviews. There isn’t.

The Just the Facts style: This is the kind of review that makes it clear that the reviewer read the liner notes thoroughly, and may or may not have actually listened to the CD: 

“The new CD by Gerald Lambert and Windy Heart has just been released on Grasscatcher records. It’s their third release for the label, and features 12 songs, including four originals by Lambert, two instrumentals, two gospel selections, and four covers from various sources. Mr. Lambert does the lead singing on all but one of the songs, sharing the spotlight with his banjo player Arnie Crump on their version of Take This Hammer.”

And on it goes in this style, until you eventually skim to the bottom looking for an opinion to be expressed, but it never happens. What is the point of this kind of review, unless its purpose is just to provide you with the information in the booklet, in case you’re only planning to download it. It’s really a non-review.

Then we have the over-the-top, Everybody Gets A Rave style (i.e., be careful what you wish for). In this kind of review, no matter how average the recording or the artist, every release is a life-changing gift from God, a jewel of pure artistic genius hand-delivered by angels on a golden platter of musical pricelessness:

“I’ve recently been given a gift of music profound enough to warrant 35 straight plays on my iPod, and I’m still left wanting more and more. It’s the new project lovingly given to the world by one Gerald Lambert and Windy Heart, humbly entitled Our Kind of Bluegrass. From the opening mandolin licks from the fleet-fingered Ronald Cranston on their heart-wrenching original, My Mountain Home, to the final fiddle pull on the last track, the band’s inventive cover of Blue Ridge Cabin Home, we’re treated to a smorgasbord of real and powerful musical performances, steeped in bluegrass tradition but never held back by it. If there was ever a worry among true bluegrass aficionados about who will carry the torch of bluegrass music into the next generation and beyond, I submit Gerald Lambert and Windy Heart and this collection that is destined to go down in tradition.”

This writer stops just short of recommending the Nobel Prize for Lambert and band. Yes, this would be worth splashing all over the Windy Heart’s web site, if the same reviewer hadn’t just given similar praise to Angela Stoughton and Mountain Fire the previous week. I guess it’s nice that someone is still that positive and unjaded about music. 

Could we at least banish the word “steeped” from all writing that isn’t specifically about brewing tea?

These are two of the kinder ways an artist can receive a review that isn’t particularly helpful. Things could be so much worse, and next week we’ll take a look at some of the ways it could. We’ll have examples of the following reviewing styles: The Jaded and Bitter, The Rock Critic Wannabe, and the I’d Rather Be Reviewing Someone Else schools of album reviewing. 

For the record, Gerald Lambert’s Blue Ridge Cabin Home cover wasn’t that inventive.