Apart from some well creepy collages of children, animals and flowers, the inside liner notes to Panda Bear's Person Pitch feature a big, bold, unpunctuated list of musical acts, which I guess are like his favourites or influences. Well, at least that's what everyone on the netz has said about them if they mention this thing, that it's a name-dropping, 'check list' of inspirations for Person Pitch.

But, for me, far from acting like a helpful roadmap into understanding the territory he covers (well, makes, would probably be a better word, Person Pitch certainly beats it own path - even though I still do believe that it's largely the submerged, slightly theistic treatment of the vocal and samples that reviewers have mistaken for some kind of transcendent quality), this list is basically arbitrary and contradictory. For one, trying to join the dots between bands like The Police, Moodyman, Black Dice, King Tubby, Air, Jay-Z, Kylie Minogue, Spaceman 3, Duran Duran, Kraftwerk, The Kinks, Black Sabbath, Theorem, etc. etc. is a completely fucking futile exercise, and the multiplicity of sounds and styles this list references is not so much an indication of Panda Bear's 'eclectic' tastes (fuck I hate that word) but the unnerving, incommensurable, overriding difference that all sound is founded upon. And then as if trying to join everything back to Person Pitch was some way to make the connection - as a certain animated lizard might say, bull shit, no way.

In fact, it's almost like an affront or challenge - just you try and pinpoint the exact moment, sample, structure, whatever, on the record where X influenced me, Panda Bear seems to be saying. Because we're not dealing w/ Night Ripper here. Sure, you might be able to go, "oh his harmonic sunniness is clearly Brian Wilson", or "the repetitive nature of his samples is very 'Insert Hip Hop Act'". But have you actually said anything meaningful whatsoever? Have you even begun to understand how this record works, let alone sounds? Nein!

For me, this endless (ellipses cap it off) list ultimately affirms the uselessness of listing other bands as a critical practice - it's just not a matter of correspondence. Actually, it's only ever a connection made by the listener, wholly biased to their own history and potentially a very real impediment to actually considering the music in question. Sure, everything is a tissue of quotations, blah blah, but every combination is something unique and novel within itself. So deal with that! It just makes me want to try to vow to never listing another band name or genre as reference in a review, even if I can't quite help myself. But, then, at times, this almost tips over into a wish to just stop trying to describe sound at all, as if that were ever possible anyway. It's always connotation, metaphor, tangent - but then, isn't everything?

6 riffs:

James said...

It's been a while since I've braved the pages of (con)temporary.

This list is the work an 'tard. This list is at once both an egotistical challenge (as you've pointed out) and obviously just a list of 'Shit I like'. He may has well have put down 'Green Tea', 'Walking' and 'Vinyl'. The notions of influences are something much more tenuous and vague then simply a 'checklist'.

I think the notion of listing other bands as a critical practice is a different thing all together, although fraught with difficulty and bad analogies. Bands are a mesh of three/four/five/thirty people's individual tastes, record collections and styles of playing, something which is hard to be quantified. By that description alone it is essentially 'new'. The worst band in the most badly soundproofed garage by simply playing three chords together is doing something no-one's ever done before by simply being three individuals with three instruments.

However, I think the role of the critic is to create some outside perspective and contextualise this newness within a framework of what's come before. Because as the work I'm doing at the moment explains nothing is ever shitted out on its own, untouched by the world around it. This is seen through movements like cubism, late 70s punk etc. (although I'll readily admit that the collections of these artists into definable genres is often something that's done in retrospect, not something that's actively thought about at the time by the artists in question).

I agree the worst music review is something that is like 'The angular guitar, reminiscent of The Strokes circa 2001 bounces off the vocalists' Patti Smith styling's', turning the review into an endless field of reference with no acknowledgment of what's new/fresh directly in front of them. But likewise (much like a literature review or thanking a workplace predecessor after a promotion), it'd be re-miss not to acknowledge what has come before, especially if the band wears such influences on its sleeves. In many ways by accentuating where the band has come from it may expose what it is they do differently.


rob said...

I agree the worst music review is something that is like 'The angular guitar, reminiscent of The Strokes circa 2001 bounces off the vocalists' Patti Smith styling's', turning the review into an endless field of reference with no acknowledgment of what's new/fresh directly in front of them. But likewise... it'd be re-miss not to acknowledge what has come before, especially if the band wears such influences on its sleeves.

See I don't see it as about situating an album (etc.) in a historical tradition. The first question, for me, would be, "what is a (this) review for? what's its purpose". Now the purpose of reviewing might be to locate the album in terms of precedents/influences, though I think that's just one possible objective of reviewing.

I agree with Lawson's critique of the banality and disingenuousness of the whole name-dropping/check-listing phenomenon, and I also appreciate James's point about that "accentuating where the band has come from ... may expose what it is they do differently". But I can't stand reviews, particularly of relatively "unknown" artists, that fail to describe (to the extent that's possible) the sound. My favourite kind of review is the one that provides a way of making sense of the album, but any review that fails at the same time to describe the sound(s) of the album in question becomes pure evaluation. (Of course, there's a whole detour we could take here about the possible inseparability of description and evaluation, but let's pretend for the moment that these are discrete activities.)

There are different strategies/vocabularies for describing sound. One strategy seeks what we might call "pure description" -- e.g. speaking of the "warm fuzzed guitar", the "high-fretted bass", etc. -- and such descriptions can be more or less successful; on that question, I won't go any further. But another strategy is to describe the sounds of an album in terms of what or who it "sounds like", and to say that an album sounds like the Mary Chain's Psychocandy (plus dashes of Automatic) laced with the Cure's Pornography isn't necessarily to say anything about influences, or even to map a history. Or if it has anything to do with music history, then that move creates that history anew, otherwise; it even inverts the history, insofar as it places the latest event (the album being reviewed) at the beginning of a tracing of the event's supposed precursors (and so now Psychocandy sounds not quite like A Place to Bury Strangers rather than the other way round).

Yes, like all languages, the language of band/album names is structured by difference and deferral. "The Mary Chain" means to some simply distorted guitars and feedback with a healthy dose of black leather and attitude, but to me it also refers to a very particular approach to song-writing (simple chord progressions, etc.), such that it's "wrong" to describe Black Rebel Motorcycle Club as sounding like the Mary Chain. And, of course, the sign, qua repeatable form, always fails to account for the singularity of the event, etc., etc. But as a strategy for describing (more accurately, translating) the sound, I much prefer the "sounds like X band" approach than the kind of review that seeks to account for the "experience" of listening to an album in primarily subjective-affective terms. (Though, again, I think there is a good way of talking about music in terms of affect, but the subjective-affective take is banal.)


Lawson said...

Well, some interesting stuff going down, thanks guys.

I guess it does hinge on the question of 'what is this music review for?' - and one's answer sort of determines the approach.

But, for me, I think reviews are not simply for description or evaluation, but a kind of 'elaboration' of the music in question - tying it to things a little wider than 'just the music', be that otherwise described in 'historical'/referential ways, ie. "sounds like a Bollywood group with a side interest in Animal Collective attempting Led Zeppelin stomps" (Yeasayer); or subjective/experiential-affective terms.

So, whilst I'm guilty of using both these 'descriptive' (lets just call it that for now) strategies, I prefer to account for something extra when I can - I think if one takes this as their task then the way in which they account is only really secondary to what's being told.

Regardless of this, I still see far more of a interpretive disconnect or lack of resonance for the reader in the willy-nilly work of picking out supposed 'influences' or similar sounding bands/songs to the more 'text-directed' work of affective description. I certainly can appreciate, Rob, your implication (if I'm reading it correctly) that 'affective description' might simply slip into a very narrow kind of account that only really means something for the person that wrote it, but I'm still convinced that band/song references are even more arbitrary than this. I think it's nice that by doing so we can create our own kind of "preposterous history", but I still see that as one that is entirely made up in relation to the writer's own listening history and the particular style or sound they have identified in whatever band they quote. So, for example, me saying 'Animal Collective' up there could mean all manner of things: a focus on tribal drumming; screeching vocals played off against more harmonic ones (Avey Tare vs Panda Bear); a willingness to experiment with song structures; a completely arty approach to songs that go for 15 minutes and explode like a chimpanzee for five seconds every minute or so (Here Comes the Indian, early work); or songs that just sound like a whole lot of buzzing noises (Strawberry Jam) - I have not even noted what particular style or sound I'm calling up in dropping Animal Collective, and furthermore, I have also assumed that you know what I'm talking about.

That last point, actually, is mainly why I'm against the 'referential' mode, simply because their is something elitist or at least exclusionary about it - it assumes far more prior knowledge to simple subjective-affective description. And furthermore (here's the rub) - by calling up a band or song or whatever, aren't we really only putting another impediment in the way to getting to the music, because this reference itself is only a reference to a particular kind of affect or style the writer has in mind, no? So why bother?

And still, I think affective description (if done well enough) can create its own mood that might then prepare the reader/listener for the experience of the album (which is what it's all about, really) far better than name-dropping. And the fact that nothing will ever quite account for sound, that slippage between description and experience, is what makes it necessary to redirect things towards the song itself, no? Why push them off in different directions?

But, then, of course, that's what I'm attempting to do in one way or another with the 'elaboration' thing, right? But, I suppose this kind of elaboration still takes as its pivot or focal point the music in question, bringing in relevant things rather than launching across.

In the end, I think it comes down to the problem of textual 'boundedness' or 'veracity', even limits - how well can we hold the waters of a text in when describing/evaluating it? The answer, of course (for anyone following literary theory, I guess), is that not very well. But rather than reconceive of the work as a nodal point in a criss-crossed network of intertexts (which, for me, too strongly vacates the object), I like to think more in terms of resonance - "The regular vibration of an object as it responds in step (at the same frequency) with an external force" - does that make sense?

PS - soz for the proliferation of italics, just like to emphasise, you know?

Dave said...

This blogpost and ensuing conversation was tight.

The one thing I have to say is that if you were to read an interview with Panda Bear, you would notice he's got a very complete pacifism/idealistic innocence in relation to listening to music and being influenced by it. You guys have used words like challenge and egotistical - I just reckon it's in the name of peace - kinda like the exact opposite of scene politics.

And as a guy who reads a lot of music reviews, I find the WAY in which the reviewer uses influences and references can often tell me a lot. For instance, if there are three bands listed and they're all kinda similar, then you know that the album's not so ambitious and knows its genre - whereas if there are three bands listed and they're all really different, that's a pretty effective way of communicating that the album's creative, especially if the reviewer struggles with the references a little, using words like "kinda" or "almost".

No wait, one more thing. Can I just say, (again as a reader of music reviews), I fuckin' hate the whole vague subjective "warm fuzzed guitar" and "high fretted bass" thing - the most you could do is pique some interest if you made it seem idunno, mysterious or fresh or something ... Successfully describing the sound is out of the question.

That's all

rob said...

Hi Lawson

I completely agree with your point about elaboration, which is pretty much what I mean when I say that the best reviews are ones that offer a way of making sense of the album. (I also think you're right, btw, to stress that the kind of elaboration I/you/we are after is an occasional thing, "account[ing] for something extra when I can".) But I'd also say that both description and evaluation are also forms of elaboration -- not particularly creative forms but elaboration nonetheless.

My point about description via reference to other artists is (1) that such references needn't be framed in terms of "influence" (i.e. they may do the work, rather, of describing the sound); and (2) that description constitutes one of an array of forms (or techniques, rather) of elaboration, such that we could think of description as providing the evidentiary basis for the elaboration rather than as charting the album's influences or stroking the music aficionado's ego by making them feel in the know.

Sometimes a descriptive term -- within a given (yet indeterminate and unavoidably open) community -- either is so charged with significance or refers to the most general features of the sound that it doesn't need much else to support it. So you only need to use the term "lo-fi" in your No Age review to ground the elaboration. At other times, some more precise (if also, at the same time, vague and arbitrary) terms are needed. But the point is that, insofar as it functions as evidence, the "sounds-like" strategy is text-directed, and it's no more an impediment to "getting to the music" than many other strategies. Indeed, to the extent that this strategy does depend on contingent listening histories, etc., I wonder whether this very arbitrariness might actually drive text-directed elaboration (i.e. in the form of the objection "it doesn't sound like this; it sounds like that"). But again, I don't see description as the goal of reviewing but only as one of its techniques, so I'm not really wanting to insist on the value of that kind of "sounds-like" debate.

On the subjective-affective thing, I'm referring to particular ways of talking about the affective dimension to music. You characterise one of those ways: "a very narrow kind of account that only really means something for the person that wrote it". The flipside is a way that talks about the music as an expression of a mood/emotion that is intuitively comprehensible to all (because we are all human, after all). So one is subjective-individual the other is subjective-universal. By contrast, I prefer to approach affect as pre-subjective... but sadly I can't, at the moment, elaborate on what I mean by that...


Lawson said...

pre-subjective, eh? try my 'ribs out' post - getting there?