The long farewell to my tenure as a Spectrum Culture writer turns this week to contributions made to the music section. As I noted last week, I was originally brought on as strictly a film writer, but I was given the opportunity to pitch in on the music review side fairly quickly. The intent was that I’d write for that section only occasionally. That’s not really the way it played out. For a sizable chunk of my time there, I was picking up as many music reviews as film reviews. I’d like to say my facility for them grew with practice, but I’m not so certain. It comes to me far less naturally that explaining my reactions to film.
Given a broader range of material to choose from (my geographic location didn’t prevent me from taking on bigger releases as it did with new movies), it was easier for me to snatch up artists that loomed large in my household, or at least my personal history. When it comes to the latter, I reviewed a reissue of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler, which gave me the strange sensation of listening to an album that had a nearly permanent place on my grandmother’s console stereo when I was still in single digits but that I hadn’t heard, aside from the title cut, in probably twenty-five years or more. (Also, while it’s admittedly simple, maybe even obvious, the closing line to the Gambler review is one I’m quite pleased with.) Unfortunately, a decent amount of the time, my new spins with favorite old artists yielded disappointment, as with new album reviews I penned on releases by Ani Difranco and Patti Smith. Still, my background knowledge makes the reviews into fairly strong pieces. On the flip side, so to speak, there were also instances in which I had the pleasure of delivering raves for new releases by artists well-represented in my personal collection. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake and Yo La Tengo’s Fade are the prime examples.
More often, I tried to pick albums that I felt would challenge me, forcing me to listen in a different way and find descriptions of the music that didn’t necessarily come naturally to me. Sometimes I flopped with these pieces. I’m pleased that there were also several instances when I felt my attempt to stretch brought about the desired result: stronger writing. I’m especially proud of my review of the Roots’ Undun and, more recently, both Washed Out’s Paracosm and M.I.A.’s Matangi. There were also occasions when I was grappling with material that wasn’t quite as far afield from my comfort zone, such as the punk punch of Trash Talk’s Awake EP, which I remember as an especially fun writing process. It was a different experience with the Au Revoir Simone album Move in Spectrums. I was almost completely stymied by it, until a good friend of mine delivered the opening line over a well-earned beer (or two). My excitement over the delivery of that opening line may have led to another beer (or two), which may have led to me being a little tipsy when writing the actual review. There’s my true confession for the week.
The other aspect of a music review that motivated me to put a little more into the piece was the blessing of a truly terrific album. Always intimated by the prospect of accurately conveying the pleasures of a paragon work, I usually felt like my review was lacking. One of the exceptions is my take on the self-titled debut of Wild Flag. I’ll admit I was an easy mark for that record. I was similarly satisfied with the quality of my review of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s We the Common. In that instance, I went out of my way to do some outside research, hoping it would help me do the album justice.
Finally, I need to cap off the music review self-celebration with my sole concert review for the site. This is probably one of the very best things I wrote for Spectrum, but it created a dynamic while watching a live music show that I didn’t especially enjoy. Concerts stand as one of the few personal interactions with pop culture that I experience rather than instinctively analyze. After trying out one concert in the hybrid zone of critic and reporter, I was happy to cede this brand of writing to my peers at the site. When it came to live music, I was happy to stick with just being there and enjoying it (and being able to leave if I’m not enjoying it) from there on in.