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Entries in Irish Times (4)

Sunday
Nov212010

On rock critics

For musicians, facing the rock critics is always one of the most daunting and perplexing aspects of putting out an album. Daunting because of the fear of rejection; perplexing because of the multiple responses from critics to the same music.

It was a particularly baffling experience encountering the reaction to my current album, Lady Gasoline. A critic from The Irish Times thought the album was rubbish, focusing as much on my hearing problem (or as she put it, ‘angle’), hyperacusis, as the music; two days later the Sunday Business Post critic remarked that my hearing condition was completely irrelevant and the album was a complete triumph. Q Magazine applauded the record's stylistic diversity at the same time that Gaydar Nation bemoaned its wearing of copious influences on its sleeve; industry bible Music Week approved of the album's production values while some at BBC Radio 2 found fault with them. Dubliner Magazine loved the ELO references that pop up on the record; certain hip music bloggers definitely didn't, being far too cool (or perhaps young) to appreciate anything to do with Mr Jeff Lynne. And some of the lazier critics or bloggers just printed my press release verbatim (in which case the album was naturally the greatest thing since sliced bread – result!).

Whilst I obviously cut out all the positive reviews – to show our soon-to-arrive baby how fantastic a musician his/her father was when he still had time to do that sort of thing – and consigned the poor ones to the dustbin of rock history, I couldn't really ascertain from either set of reviews how good or bad the album was. I was left with the sense that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, one man's meat is another man's poison, it’s a very postmodern world we live in and so on.

Reading all the reviews got me thinking about rock criticism though, and the relationship between those who produce music and those who write about it. This relationship is a fascinating, symbiotic, love-hate affair.

It’s symbiotic because both groups currently rely heavily on each other for their jobs. A simple take on the situation is this: with no music produced, the critics have nothing to review (and no music magazine/supplement sales); with no reviews, the artists have no exposure (and no album sales). It’s a love-hate affair because critics love or hate the output of musicians, and musicians love or hate the reaction of the critics.

It gets more fun than this though, because another layer of criticism can also kick in – when the musicians start to become critics of the critics. From my scouring of the rock press for reviews of Twisted City and Lady Gasoline, I’ve noticed that some music critics can simply write better prose than others; some have a greater knowledge of rock history than others; some are more familiar with how recording works than others; some only like stuff that sounds like Radiohead’s Kid A; some are clearly straight out of college. You can spot the more informed critics from the charlatans a mile off, and you start to judge their output accordingly. In the circle of musicians I move in, conversations about the quality of the various rock critics’ output crop up time and again. It sounds daft, doesn’t it: musicians hanging around rehearsal studios, engaging in metacritcism.

The other thing I’ve noticed about rock critics is that just like the musicians they review, they jostle and compete with each other for attention. At best, this leads to some hilarious crimes against the English language being committed; at worst, it leads to some critics being cruelly dismissive of albums just to make a name for themselves. There is a constant – albeit understandable – struggle going on amongst rock critics to establish themselves as the most acerbic / wittiest / able-to-use-flowery-words scribe on the block; but we musicians are sometimes the unwitting casualty of this. The battle for rock critic supremacy and reputation means that music is often not judged on its own terms but on the basis of how cool the critic will look if s/he gives it a thumbs up or not.

For me, the best rock critics are the ones who invest energy in understanding how music is made and explaining this to readers. The late Ian MacDonald – who penned the authoritative Revolution in the Head tome about the Beatles – was particularly good at this. He was meticulous in explaining how melody structures, chord selections, key changes and close or open harmonies affect emotional responses to music; he also brought explanations of production techniques into his reviews, showing how compression or equalisation bring tracks to life – or not.  Most critics can impart opinions, and some do so very clearly and wittily, but very few seem to want to go near the actual nuts and bolts of how the music is actually made and operates on listeners – possibly because they simply don’t understand this area. A shame, since it’s the combination of all these nuts and bolts which ultimately make a listener fall in love with music.

Whatever about musicians’ views on critics and critics’ views on music, the relationship that I’ve described above between both groups is going to change massively; and predictably, this is down to the internet. On one level, thanks to digital technology, there is now far more content to review (recording and distributing music is now easier than ever) and far more people to review it (in the form of online journalists, bloggers and armchair critics). However, due to the web’s decimation of both newspaper and album sales, we may in time see the end of both professional recording musicians and reviewers – or at the very least, a massive decline in their numbers. This will mean that the relationship between both groups becomes less symbiotic, as recorded music and reviews of it cease to be mutually essential for income generation.

Perhaps this lack of reliance on critics for (non-existent) album sales will lead to more outspoken attacks by musicians on their reviews – such as the hilarious (but in some respects, arguably justified) reaction by Chris de Burgh to a dismissive Irish Times write-up. And maybe rock critics will become even more honest about musicians’ output, not having to worry about keeping (non-existent) record labels and advertisers sweet.

Either way, we musicians will no doubt continue to dismiss rock critics as irrelevant and say it’s the audience's views that matters. Unless, of course, it’s a good review we’re talking about, in which case we’ll slap a nice juicy quote from you on the next press release, thank you very much.

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Friday
Nov072008

The luxury of daft ideas

I read an article in today's Irish Times by a guy called Turlough O'Sullivan. He's the director general of Ibec, the Irish employers' representative body. In the article, he complains that "Ireland simply cannot afford the luxury of public service" and calls for cutbacks and dramatically reduced headcount in them (in the light of the current recession).

This got me thinking about the quality of Ireland's public services. Or lack thereof.

Let's be clear about this: Irish public services, by comparison with those of most other European countries - including some much poorer ones - are pretty awful. Let's take some examples. There is no free healthcare. Going to see a GP will cost you 50-60 Euros. Seeing an ear consultant (and I speak from experience here) can involve a waiting list of one year. Dental care is inordinately expensive (so much so that in the light of the economic downturn, people are starting to view it as self-indulgent - and I have that information from a dentist). There is still no train to Dublin airport (and rail travel between regional towns/cities doesn't really exist). A letter posted from outside Ireland will take about 5 days to be delivered, after it has arrived in Ireland. There is no underground in Dublin, and the two tram lines there don't even connect. Buses are infrequent and the capital still doesn't have an integrated ticketing system.

I know I sound like one of those annoying people who's lived outside the country for too long, and maybe I've become said irritating type, but whenever I come back to the country I really am shocked at how poor the public services are. The contrast with Ireland's nearest neighbour, the UK - a country not renowned for the quality of its public services - is unbelievable. British public services start looking incredibly good once you've come back and tried to use the Irish ones.

Which brings me back to Turlough O'Sullivan. He is clearly having a laugh when he uses the word luxury in conjunction with Irish public services. There is absolutely nothing luxurious about them.

There is an obvious counter-argument to his recommendations of cutbacks: investing in quality public services, its staff and associated infrastructure can create jobs, and thus spending, and thus economic growth. Not to mention an improvement in the quality of life.

But I think the real reason why O'Sullivan likes the idea of cuts in our public services (and for the people who run them) is because people like him don't use them. I would suspect that he can afford a very nice health insurance package, generally travels by car instead of public transport and pays extra to courier mail when he needs quick and reliable delivery of it. These kind of people are not best-placed to make sweeping pronouncements on services that they don't use, and which other people rely on.

Ultimately if Ireland wants to be the modern country that its political and business leaders have been waxing lyrical about for quite a while now, it needs proper, sustained investment in its public services. What it definitely can't afford is cutbacks - or the luxury of daft ideas.

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Sunday
Oct052008

Noel Gallagher is Irish!

I just had to laugh at this from Noel Gallagher in the Irish Times:

"I clearly remember my mam saying to me and my two brothers when we were growing up: 'You're only English because you were born here.' And with a mother from Mayo and a father from Co Meath, there's not a drop of English blood in me. I recently had a child with my Scottish girlfriend, and there's no English blood in him at all.

"I feel as Irish as the next person. The first music I was ever exposed to was the rebel songs the bands used to sing in the Irish club in Manchester. Do you know, I think that's where Oasis songs get their punch-the-air quality - from me being exposed to those rousing rebel songs. It was all rebel songs and that godawful Irish country and western music."

Now, not that I give a shit as I'm not into any form of nationalism, English, Irish, Welsh or otherwise...

...but Noel, you're famous (amongst other things) for playing a Union Jack guitar and inventing Britpop.

Good try though to get the Irish fans onside. I might go on about my Irish roots for the next record I put out...hang on though, I think I might actually be Irish?

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Thursday
Sep132007

Where's my head at.

I noticed that we're about mid-way through September and I haven't written anything here for a bit. So I thought I should put some drivel down!

I'm gearing up for the final release from 'Twisted City', Pieces/Gimme Something, on Monday. It's a double A-side, and with this last single, I've got a real 'end-of-term' feeling about the album now. I'm getting ready to stop plugging it and to pick up a guitar and make a new racket.

Releasing the album has been a very interesting, often challenging thing to do. For years I sat on the material and I think I almost didn't want to put it out, because it wasn't ready. I wanted to get it to a stage where it sounded so good that everybody would like it. Obviously that's a very silly idea, and, once the album came out I got over that pretty quickly. I'm pleased with the reviews - particularly Tony Clayton-Lea's in the Irish Times - but you can't please everybody with an album, and the idea that you can perfect a record indefinitely until it reaches some ideal condition is daft. But you don't always realise that when you're in the middle of making it.

With the new album that I'm recording at the moment, I'm taking a different approach - I'm speeding through stuff. That's not to say that I'm holed up in a studio with a bunch of amphetamines (although that might be one way of doing it), but I'm trying to get takes down quickly and have a slightly more 'warts and all' approach to it.

I haven't come up with a name for the album yet. Whereas 'Twisted City' is all about London, this record is entirely concept-free and any themes that come out of it are not planned. I think there's going to be more emotion and more styles in the new record.

I'm hoping to put some rough mixes up on Myspace soon enough for people to listen to. For now, stay tuned to Radio 2, as 'Pieces' is getting the odd spin. I still think that's one of my better tracks, and one day twould be nice to see it riding high in the charts. But alas, until the powers that be take a chance and do a bit of playlisting, I'll just have to be content with considering 'Twisted City' as a cult classic (as it was referred to in a recent review) rather than a multi-platinum selling one.

That new album title - answers on a postcard please...