Several months ago I found an ancient music review online, stored in the vaults of a defunct Steely Dan fanize called Metal Leg. Defunct.
What was I doing there? Looking for Steely Dan reviews of course.
It's a late night and I'm in the groove with the Dan. I'll keep us reminded of the background music for this post throughout.
"I learned to work the saxophone...and I play juuuust what I feeeeel..."
This review of the Aja album, written by Mr. Ken Emerson for the Boston Phoenix and published in 1977, impressed me because of Emerson's thoroughness, his almost literary analysis, and his near-academic writing style as applied to pop-culture.
I enjoyed it so much I was ready to mark it as something novel and unique, the pinnacle of review writing. In fact, this one was so darn good the guys who run the fan site put it up even though it's completely negative! But then I got to looking at reviews by Emerson's contemporaries, and I was met with similarly dense articles. Emerson's still takes the cake for quasi-scholarly, philosophical music reviews, but all in all, reviews used to be much more than they are today.
Since I do not listen to anything composed in the twenty-first century, and since twenty years is a wide enough time gap for comparing our reviews, I did a comparison of the Dan review with a 1995 review of one of my favorite 90s bands, Alice in Chains. This review was written by Mr. Jon Wiederhorn and published in Rolling Stone magazine. I chose it because I still remembered this 1995 review, though I had read it when I was only fifteen years old.
Why did I remember a review from thirteen years ago? Because I couldn't stand the writing!
"kick off your high heeled sneakers, it's party time...give us some funked up music, she treats you nice..."
The two reviews are typical of their eras. They differ in which aspects of the albums are given the most attention (i.e. lyrics, music, historical context, biographical context, etc.), types of analysis applied, and the reader's expected level of familiarity with the "text."
I will start with the last point, it will be illustrated without much effort from me once all the other points are out of the way. The authors have different expectations of the readers. We will see how the seventies author assumes that we have already listened to the album, or at least have a close familiarity (whether it be amicable or acrimonious) with Steely Dan, and that the review will give us a better understanding of the music we've heard. The nineties author assumes that we have not heard the Alice in Chains album, that we are perhaps not even familiar with the well-established band, and that his review will help us decide whether to buy their new album.
Perhaps Wiederhorn didn't hear Billy Joel when he sang, "you can't get the sound from a story in a magazine."
Now the second and first points (I've been reading too many "backwards point" essays lately), the difference in the types of analysis used and in the time spent on different aspects of the album. Luckily the structures are similar so we can easily compare and contrast.
"when Josie comes home, so bad, she's the best thing we've ever had . . . she's the raw flame, the live wire . . ."
"To twist 'Reelin' In The Years' out of context, the 'everlasting summer' of the '60s was 'fading fast' when Steely Dan began writing the decade's obit in 1972." Both reviews begin with a bit of a history lesson about the bands, but the Dan review places the music within the context of the post-1960s counter-counter-culture era. After a genius, biting introduction ("And the record is Steely Dan's first failure because Becker and Fagen have lost their arrogant sense of place and purpose."), we get a lesson on the futility of utopia and free love, and a back-handed kudos to the Dan for ". . . amassing a devastating critique of the sensibility of the '60s and . . . proffering their own as infinitely more sensible." I love that! Dan the revisionists, the reformers, the inception of "Danism."
The Alice in Chains review begins with this bland piece of historical reference: "The older generation always complains that hard rockers are an angry, unstable bunch prone to violent, antisocial and frequently self-destructive behavior." How generic can you get? While Chains members were not known for any particular acts of violence, self-destruction was certainly at the top of Layne Staley's to-do list. This, I suppose, is the author's segue into the subject of drug addiction as a background for the bands achievements and hardships. All of this is summed up in two short paragraphs.
In the body of the reviews both authors discuss song lyrics and sound, in some cases track by track. Again Emerson's analyses poke the brain! And Wiederhorn's just lie there.
Emerson picks apart the Dan's lyrics, launching into an essay-within-a-review on Steely Dan's history of misogynism, with albums like "Can't Buy a Thrill" as cases in point. The feminist or gender theory analysis here goes so far as finding phalluses in the lyrics of five or six songs, in the forms of guns and needles.
Some psychoanalysis happens as well, mixed with the author's analysis of the musicians themselves. Songs about holed-up criminals and doped up sax players lead Emerson to wonder how Donald Fagen and Walter Becker relate to these characters, what their motives are, and why we spend so much time inside their heads.
Wiederhorn's analysis of Alice's lyrics and the relationship of music to musician is again bland and superficial. "If Jar of Flies was the key that unlocked the group's creative potential, then this new disc is the musical rebirth. What really makes Alice in Chains a poignant artistic statement is the band's unflinching candor." How melodramatic.
Finally, the thing I remembered most about the Chains review was the description of the sounds. The language Wiederhorn uses is so thick and soupy, and although the album he is describing could also be called thick and soupy, I still am grated upon by his word choices. They are even more ridiculous to me because the review is written to convince the reader to buy the CD -- so the reader has not heard the music, and Wiederhorn thinks he can sell the album by describing it like this: "Alice's songs are still dipped in a quagmire of surging guitars and throbbing bass, only this time they're laced with layered, fluorescent licks and soaring vocal harmonies . . . " and then, "'Grind' shimmers and shudders beneath a web of trippy wah-wah guitar . . ." and then, "a nightmarish vista that begins with a sluggish riff, peaks with a sprawling solo layered over demonic chatter and ends with an atmospheric mélange of wailing guitars."
Can't stand it. And if you've ever heard Alice in Chains you'd know that these descriptions could be of just about any one of their songs.
Emerson's only attempt at describing sound is mixed in with his essay points, and it seems, like the entire review, to be addressed to a veteran of the Dan. During his argument about Steely Dan's studio quality sound and how their being "hermetically sealed" in a recording booth had cut them off from the music world, he describes the chorus of what he thinks is their greatest recorded performance, "My Old School": "a lurching, almost epileptic, guitar solo against a backdrop of bemused saxophones. "
And that's it. It does smack a little of Wiederhorn's style, but the Dan-fan who reads this knows that this kind of sound is atypical of Steely Dan's music. The description is funny because it's unlikely but true. And I'm pretty sure Emerson was trying to be funny -- not trying to impress us with his pocket thesaurus of Ten-Thousand-and-One Grungy Words.
If this sort of comparison interests you, or if you are an avid music review reader or even just a lover of music, I suggest checking out the two reviews for a better idea of what I'm trying to get at here.
In conclusion, I think these reviews show (among other things) that by the 90s music had become a commodity, and that musical literacy was on the decline, even among writers on the Rolling Stone staff. And now, in the era of the endless playlist, we go through tunes like paper plates. But in the 70s, that great musical decade which I am sad to have missed by a mere ten months, people bought LPs and played them again and again (often enough to do a "close-reading" of the texts if you will), and stuck to their music genres like religious beliefs.
" . . .they stab it with their steely knives but they just can't kill the beast."
Now onto the Steely Dan/Eagles feud.