Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Musical Vocabulary

After reading a bunch of reviews for the new Coldplay album today (most ranging from tepid to luke-warm), I'm struck not by the fact that I might disagree with the opinions expressed, but by the fact that a surprising number of music critics seem to be unable or unwilling to write about actual music, beyond the cursory use of words like "falsetto" or "chord." While we seem perfectly content to rip into an artist's ability to write lyrics, much of what passes for music criticism these days has very little analysis in terms of musical attributes. How do the individual instrumental parts fit together? Does the harmonic progression make sense? What about rhythm? Melody? Production values?!?

It could be my imagination, but precious few writers provide musical/sonic evidence as to why they like or dislike a song or album. To give the benefit of the doubt, it's certainly possible that publication word counts are just too restrictive for such analysis. But that can't account for the problem completely, as reviews of classical and jazz records almost always find space for this type of criticism.

Maybe the problem is that music journalists are just that, and thus, may lack the vocabulary to adequately describe the sound of music.

I've linked to a few samples below, from some widely read publications.

The Toronto Star > Normally I find Ben Rayner to be a wonderful writer and an intelligent critic. But in 1000+ word story, there are probably less than 300 words devoted to the music on the album, and even then, with little evidence behind the opinions. I want to know how there is "an emphasis on even bigger sonics," not just that there is such an emphasis!

Rolling Stone > An occasionally reasonable effort to (in the very least) employ some actual musical terms to describe the album's sound. But the argument falls apart completely in the final paragraph, where the writer states baldly that one song "gets less catchy as it goes along," while another "might actually be too Coldplay-ish." How so? I guess we'll never know.

Pitchfork > Although this review does have a modicum of musical analysis, for the most part (as seems to be the norm with Pitchfork's reviews) the writer seems to be content referencing older and more obscure artists to make the point that Coldplay aren't as good as The Smiths or Echo and the Bunnymen. But what if the reader isn't familiar with these other bands? I guess Pitchfork appeals to a niche market, but that assumption doesn't make for a better article.

PopMatters > Finally, a decent review. Paragraphs three and four actually contain reasoned musical analysis to support the critic's opinion about particular songs.

More analysis (and evidence!) post-jump.


Blogger The Fresh Young MikeyD said...

Another fine point made. It's also why as much as I like music I could never be a professional critic. I simply don't understand all the intricacies that go into crafting a good tune sonically.

6/07/2005 2:22 p.m.  
Anonymous dog in water said...

Is it just me, or does anyone else find it unfortunate that the music critic for the NEW YORK TIMES(ouch!) needs to be told never to begin an critique with "Unlike Radiohead..."?

He should worry less about "suffering" Coldplay, and just wait for the next Radiohead album to come out.

Craig, help us all out and get your career into second gear.

6/08/2005 11:45 a.m.  

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