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Bluegrass Rambles

Everything you need to know about bluegrass, whatever that is

Ted is an IBMA-nominated music writer who travels to bluegrass festivals with his wife and picks guitar in as many jams as he can.

Bluegrass Rambles

Everything you need to know about bluegrass, whatever that is

Ted is an IBMA-nominated music writer who travels to bluegrass festivals with his wife and picks guitar in as many jams as he can.

What Happens When Reviewers are Too Nice?

Ted,

As usual, you are speaking to things that cross my mind. Because my writing is my own- not sold to publications, etc., I can write about whatever is on my mind. That's good and bad. Perhaps that means I'm not pushed as hard as I could be at times.

Also, time is an issue for me. My writing time has to be carved out after work, family and radio shows of late.

That to say: I chose when beginning this to only review projects that I could (in large part) promote in a positive light or that affected me in some way other than negative. The good part of this is that I'm selective about what I review. The bad is that I run the risk of being seen as Pollyanna or a fan and nothing else. Sure, I am a fan of singers and writers who devote their life to their art and communicating ideas to the world. It's a risk I'm willing to run. I don't mind saying something critical (in the truest sense of the word) of a piece of music. I don't want to be critical of the people involved and while it's a fine line for me as a writer, it's a nonexistent line to many others. That means, there's an immediate 'backing up' before any caveats can be explained, etc.

I hope that I cause readers to think about those songs and artists in different ways from time to time and introduce them to projects they might not have otherwise known about/paid attention to.

Not every CD is great, or even well done. Sometimes, great artists put out mediocre work, sometimes the blind squirrel finds a nut, too...

To the last part of your piece- words' meanings are often lost. We live in a time of excess rather than subtlety, I suppose. I would be very happy with a 'par' golf game... unless I was comparing myself to Jack Nicklaus, et al. You are correct, though- superlatives should be rare so that they are not exhausted and we are left to create new, murky adjectives to try and take their place.

Much appreciation to you, as always.

 

I think there's a good reason for Nate's numbers. What's the purpose of writing a review about something you don't like? With a few hundred thousand releases each year, we want to know about what you're listening to and enjoying, not the ones to keep away from. Second and more important, everyone's tastes are different so one persons treasure...etc. Especially in a world of free access via You Tube or Spotify, it's easy as 1-2-3 to sample anything. 

Excellent points and very thought provoking. There are many reviewers out there who only write puff pieces and they are easy to spot if you read enough of their work. You really nailed it Ted when you implied that the recent "participation trophy" phenomena may be in part to blame. You are correct. This younger generation doesn't know how to deal with criticism, they believe they are entitled to everything. If they find criticism, then they are determined to stamp it out by shaming via social media. Its disturbing to say the least. We had a music critic in my town who wrote reviews of albums and concerts as he saw them.Often he was harsh on music legends and sometimes he was spot on. He made lots of enemies, in fact he was more hated than appreciated. Needless to say, he doesnt do a lot of reviewing anymore as he lost jobs along the way. I don't have a good answer on this, I write myself and generally like Ed says, pick subjects I like so I guess that makes most of what I do on the positive side. When I read a review though, I want to know why I should buy into it, what is compelling about it and if it isn't then tell me so.

    Ted,

       These guys before me generally have said everything that I was going to bring up. When I was reviewing, it got to the point that I only reviewed artists that I liked. Once I wrote a negative review, and a guy threatened me physically. I enjoyed the time I did review music, especially bluegrass. I started out when country was still pretty good. Then I switched to bluegrass.  I quit because of health reasons and there was no money to spend so much time on a review. Keep at it Ted.

Jim

Thanks for the very good discussion on this issue. I appreciate the postures various people have taken and share the experience and the ambivalence. What strikes me most powerfully is that people can bring a variety of useful viewpoints to bear on issues of genuine interest and, even, import. That inceases my optimisim, not just for our musics, but for our troubled world.  I look forward to more of the same. - Ted

Do you mind a comment from a radio show DJ on the topic?  I'm not a critic in the sense that this article deals with the term, nor am I a "bluegrass" guy - - my show covers mostly off-the-beaten-track (in the big commercial sense, not in the No Dep sense)  Americana/alt-country/roots rock/modern folk/indie singer-songwriters & bands/twang territory, but I do include some bluegrass on occasion.  I've listened to all or significant parts of 500-800 albums each year for the past 14 years of doing my show.  Most get a single listen, with a song or two selected out for further consideration.  In other words a lot of breadth, but not a whole lot of time for depth on an individual album basis.  So take my conclusion below with that rather gigantic grain of salt.

There is a vast wasteland of "good music" out there.  It's the rare album that I can't find at least one good song to air.  It's also the rare album that I can find more than 3 or 4 songs to choose from, and most of those albums end up on my year-end "fave albums" list.  Almost everything else I hear is just "good music" more or less - - nothing to really harshly criticize; nothing to really praise to the rafters.

Doesn't stop me from looking & listening, though!

I wrote about this subject in response to a bloated review several years ago and was treated in responding comments like a leper. And since I'm not a part of the social circle many of you who are conversing about this seem to be, being very polite about not ruffling one another's feathers, I can and will risk going there again.

If as a critic you are not writing about the quality of the art, then why write anything? It seems to me the answer is that, as part of a generally enthusiastic community of supporters of a relatively small niche in the world of music - making it vulnerable for careers - you and the musicians know and rely on one another too much to independently review recordings or performances. That's ok, it's just more in the nature of a social column and doesn't necessarily encourage quality, the inspiration for which must come from elsewhere. 

What you might consider is that this "it's all good" BS does not tend to encourage people not already part of the community, and thus predisposed to listen, to be interested.     

  It is certainly true that many musicians have very thin skins when it comes to even the slightest criticisms of their work.  I tend to dislike extreme positive or negative reviews, because they often serve more like evidence of the author being part of a fan club, or asserting their "superior knowledge."   Someone who really listens picks up nuances,including such things as incomplete musical ideas, inconsistent lyrics, odd but interesting symbolism, or genuinely inventive work.  Stay with it! 

Thanks for writing this article, Ted!

Like what others have sad, I don't see the point in writing about something I hate. The field is crowded so if something is so mediocre/awful that most people ignore it, then it means the better stuff and sometimes even the cream rises to the top.

I've been using SubmitHub to get new music for my blog. It doesn't seem to be as popular with Americana artists, but it's basically a service where the artist can choose to pay to send a song to multiple blogs. We have to write back at least 10 words of critique if we don't like the song. A very professional PR person just started a Twitter feed called @bestofsubmithub to complain about the negative feedback they've received. None of it is particularly harsh. Most of it is just "X part of song is good but it's not my thing." And people are still aggrieved!

I don't mind telling my readers whether or not something resonates with me and what I think could have been done better, but I keep it framed as "my opinion." Maybe I shouldn't pull my punches.

These days, most any new album release can be previewed via YouTube, band sites, etc., so listeners can determine for themselves if they personally like the music and want to purchase it. This dramatically changes the reviewer's role. And the incredible, never-ending, unceasing onslaught of new releases also has changed that role: There's no hope that a critic can cover 'em all, sifting out the good from the bad from the vast, vast majority that fall in between. So, the new role of the critic and the review is to recommend: Give this album a spin — you'll like it! And in the process of not recommending the other hundred albums released that week...well, read between the nonexistent lines.

If NoDep had a like button, I'd have just hit it. Recommendations are exactly what I need and want. 

I know I've mentioned this on this site before but I think it's worth repeating in response to this post. When I read the the memoir by singer-songwriter, pianist, producer and writer Ben Sidran's 2003 memoir, "A Life in Music" he said that when 'Rolling Stone" first lauched its magazine he was asked to be editor of the Music Criticism section and he said he only would if they didn't print negative reviews. He said if no one on the staff liked an album they would just ignore it instead of damning it. (They turned him down.) His view is that there are only two kinds of music--music that moves you or doesn't. After many years of lombasting music I hate I now try to keep Sidran's maxim in mind and simply ignore the types of music I dislike and not put down people who like it. Enjoying music and its healing effects is what's important--not who is hipper than Thou.