I’m pissed off about the press. Not the news press - I gave up on that scaremongering nonsense years ago - the music press. I rarely read it these days, but as a musician I’m forced to engage with it all the time.
Little Fish is working on the second album, so we’re going to be releasing things soon. And when you release something you have to do the press thing. You have to find the angle. What will make the press write about you? The usual options (Triumph Over Childhood Adversity, Mental Illness And/Or Drug Addiction and Sleeping With Celebrities) won’t really work for us. Eventually we’ll find a catchy way of telling our story and when we do, we’ll hopefully be lucky enough to get some reviews.
I used to think there was a point to music reviews. When I was younger I remember reading lots of them, building a mental map of which bands sounded like which combination of other bands and borrowing ideas and arguments from music journalists about bands who I mostly never listened to. I didn’t listen to much current music, so the only magazines that ever reviewed the albums I was discovering in the racks at Avid were Record Collector and Rolling Stone and reading those only reinforced my own inherited ideas about the music of the 60s and 70s.
But I also used to religiously read Nightshift, Oxford’s local music magazine. Its mix of snarky reviews and snarky news always made for an amusing read, and it was the glue that held the local music scene together. I was really rather proud when Papa Yam & the Moose ended up in the Demo Dumper back in (May?) 2001. Nightshift (and Ronan, who has written most of it since day one) was never really into sincere, middle of the road faith-flavoured songs, so we weren’t expecting a glowing review.
Speaking of bad reviews…
Two musician friends of mine had their releases reviewed in the May issue of Nightshift and I can’t help thinking that, ten years later, the exclusive snarkiness seems almost absurdly immature.
Miriam Jones is a Canadian singer/songwriter living in Oxford. I’ve recorded some great video sessions with her and she’s supported Little Fish at a couple of small acoustic gigs. She recorded her previous albums in Nashville, but her latest album Fire Lives was made here in Oxford. It’s a beautifully produced, Nashville-esque album of incredibly well-crafted country songs. I can see why Ronan doesn’t like it. Indeed he tells us in the last paragraph:
‘Fire Lives’ is everything contemporary Nashville-centric country music has become – tasteful and polished, mawkish and ultimately asinine, a world away from the raw, dirty soul of its 1920s origins.
But for the previous 300 words he wrote it off completely without even trying to write a sensible review:
Thus, as local singer-songwriter Miriam Jones drawls, “And I hear the helicopter drowning your life out with every beat of its terrible wings,” we can only sit in gobsmacked awe at the utter what-the-fuckedness of what we’ve just heard. There are tins of food in our kitchen cupboard that know helicopters don’t have wings, and if they did they’d be aeroplanes and aeroplanes’ wings don’t beat.
It’s a metaphor, Ronan. Helicopter as bird of prey. Not too difficult to understand.
Still, it’s no more than we’d expect from someone who’s recently supported Sandi Thom, a woman whose contribution to literary genius was “I wish I was a punk rock girl, with flowers in my hair.”
I thought getting a support slot for a famous artist at the Academy was exactly what local bands should be trying to do. And as a singer/songwriter you can’t afford to be picky, especially when the scene is dominated by spiky indie boy bands.
Right next to Miriam’s is a review for When The Crisis Comes, a new EP by Roger Dalrymple, an ex-bandmate of mine. His review is not bad, but carries an almost identical ending:
the most lasting impression of the entire EP is that next time maybe dump all the attention to detail and create something that come out of the speaker at least looking like it’s prepared to put up a fight.
It’s not what you know…
I get it. Ronan like his music with a bit more bite. So do I for the most part. I also get that Miriam and Roger aren’t cool. Neither am I. But I also love listening to Miriam and Roger’s music because I know them. I know them through the local music scene, and I know them as friends. When I think about it, all the music I’ve ever loved is by people I know, either as a friend or a fan.
If Ronan had been there when Miriam played in my flat at the Little Fish house concert he would have got to know her. Her music may not be his favourite sort of music, but Miriam’s difficult not to like in person. And once you understand where she’s coming from the music makes a lot more sense.
I don’t want to be down on Ronan. He does a great job, and I’d be disappointed if I didn’t disagree with him sometimes. It’s more the whole idea of music reviews and the music press that I have trouble with. In real life people just don’t engage with music by listening to a CD twice in a void and forming an opinion. People connect with the people behind the music. They take time to get to know them. It’s partly a failing of the “CD and one-pager” press release format for albums. However well-written your press release is, it won’t be enough to get to know the people behind the music. All a critic can do with that is slot you into a particular category, pick two bands to compare you with and take the piss a bit.
That’s enough ranting. I’m going to listen to Fire Lives again. It may be my Canadian half showing through, but I find Miriam’s voice strangely soothing…