I made my first foray to the Oxford Art Factory this week to see a gig by Jenny Lewis’ new band, Jenny and Johnny, who were quite decent. They were supported by a band I’d never heard of called the Laurels, so, in preparation, my companions and I looked them up online to learn a bit about them. I shall now quote from the Triple J website to make sure I get the phrasing of this description exactly correct.
The Laurels are a shoegaze band from Sydney whose psychedelic juggernaut has accumulated accolades, guitar pedals and fans in approximately equal proportion.
Ignoring that I take anything labelled ‘psychedelic’ with a grain of salt and a pint of aggravation, and that my immediate response to the above sentence was ‘What, three of each?’, the above line tells you almost nothing about the band or their music. What exactly does ‘shoegaze’ mean? Is it like naval-gazing, but slightly less introspective? I googled it, but gained nothing from the experience. What is the juggernaut they speak of? Is it their music? A mascot? Is one of them really, really tall?
Elsewhere, the Laurel’s music is compared to that of the Velvet Underground. To explain the relationship of the Velvet Underground to the music we heard that night, I’d like you to undertake the following exercise. First, imagine the Velvet Underground. Now, take the Velvet Underground away. Now take another Velvet Underground away – yes, so you have a negative Velvet Underground. This is approximately what the bands had in common.
The thing is, this reminds me of any number of reviews I have read, which run along the lines of: ‘The new Screaming Kites album is like a mish-mash of Sarah Blasko and Michael Jackson with a pinch of Peregrine and the je ne sais quoi of Mark Ronson.’ They tell me nothing and are, frankly, irritating, and not only because they abuse the French language. I like to think that a description I once gave of a Shiny Toy Guns album as ‘the bastard child of Within Temptation and Rihanna’ is slightly better, if only because the phrase ‘bastard child’ is informatively derogative, but it’s all a bit the same.
All of which just goes to show the truth of the old adage that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, or that, in my prefered TV Tropes line, ‘Your mileage may vary’. It can differ somewhat, if both the writer and reader have some knowledge about music itself – let’s not forget Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music or Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, both rather excellent novels that rely on the reader’s ability to understand some pat of the music they speak about – but for anyone who has had no formal musical education, reading music reviews borders on being a total waste of time. In fact, I had eight years of formal musical education, and most music reviews mean nothing at all to me.
And at the end of the day, what is the most informative thing you can write in a music review? You may be able to write out the score of the music, but it isn’t what your readers are after. Anything else you put down will be, at best, a summary of what you observed about the music. I’ve read elsewhere, and earnestly agree, that all a reviewer can really say about a band or piece of music is ‘I did/didn’t like it’, dressed up in the language they choose. Which may be an excuse to abolish music mags, or to write reviews full of meaningless witticisms à la Dorothy Parker, so at least we can be amused while we remain uninformed.