Thursday, July 24, 2014

The last few weeks have been pretty busy with “real” work, writing, and travel, so here are some quick and dirty links to reviews that have been published during that time:

  • I reviewed Slow Club’s excellent new album Complete Surrender for Pitchfork.
  • I reviewed Woman’s Hour’s promising debut Conversations for Pitchfork.
  • I reviewed Jenny Lewis’ strong return to the spotlight The Voyager for Myspace.

I also had a lovely time in Chicago for Pitchfork’s music festival. It was great to see plenty of friends who come up often (or did, once) in this dashboard or my Twitter feed. I love going to P4kfest because it’s the rare chance I have to put on my music critic drag; when I went back to work on Tuesday, all I could think about was the time I spent living my second life in a different country. I can’t wait to go back next year. 

I hope you’re having a nice week, and thanks for reading. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Oh, also: I’ll be in Chicago next weekend for Pitchfork’s music festival. This is the third year in a row I’ve attended; I start looking forward to the next year’s edition about a day after the previous one finishes. It’s a great time for any attendee, well-run and still relatively small and packed with good music, but there’s an added “adult summer camp” layer for music writers: lots of people you know from the Internet show up, you run into people you might not see all year (or ever) otherwise, you can drink together and talk shop and shoot the shit and hang out with all of your favourite Twitter avatars and bylines. (I don’t know if the weekend has this feel for writers who work out of major media centres, i.e. New York. But I write in isolation, connect with peers and editors online, and work full-time in a non-writing field; P4kfest is the one weekend a year where I really get to dress up in my “legitimate music journalist” drag and play around, and I love it.) I’m especially excited for this year because a) I’m bringing a friend, for the first time ever, and b) this is my first visit to the U.S. since turning 21. 

I know a few of you are attending for sure, but if you’re going to make it out next weekend and you’d like to meet up and chat for a few minutes and catch a few songs or something, feel free to put a message in my askbox and we’ll sort it out. Can’t wait!

Monday, July 7, 2014 Sunday, July 6, 2014

Victoria Duffield, “More Than Friends”

This is a very minor Canadian hit right now, and I think some of you will really like it; a genre we can call post-Kiss (that’s Carly Slay Jepsen’s, natch) may only live in our hearts, but this is a great example of said genre if I’ve ever heard one. I would write more but I’m behind on a few reviews. Enjoy.

(This is also notable for its hyper-ridiculous video; I hope Duffield’s getting some of that Google gouda for all the Glass usage, she’s really earned it.)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Anonymous said: Who are your writing influences?

A complicated question, to be sure — hope you don’t mind if I turn it into a little meditation on process and personal growth before talking about actual people. 

I spend a lot of time thinking about the kind of writer I want to be, and the answer I give myself has changed over time. When I first starting writing in earnest, I was really concerned with voice and style. I wanted to be distinct, to write with a certain panache and flair, to handle sentences in ways that would make people sigh behind their monitors and think, “Damn, I wish I had written that.” But as time has gone on and I’ve gotten more practice I’ve come to believe that I’m just not that kind of writer, and transforming into such a writer would take an amount of time and energy that I’m not in a position to expend, not with a full-time job and other commitments and a natural inclination towards a different style. 

So now I focus on expressing my ideas with the most clarity and precision I can summon, and I try to do it with a kind of grace. I was thinking about this question and my response earlier tonight and I kept coming back to the word “gentle,” which can be a dangerous word for a critic: you need a bit of incisiveness, a willingness to cut and slash whether you’re editing or explaining why something rubs you the wrong way. But “gentle” works for me, I think, if you believe a well made bed or a nicely manicured park can be gentle. I try to come at each new topic with an open mind and a positive attitude, and I try to keep everything very clean, and I focus on ideas and structure instead of agonizing over the perfect word or the knock-out punchlines I don’t really have a talent for anyway. This is where I’ve settled right now. I don’t know, maybe people see my work in an entirely different light, and I’ve got myself all wrong; the way we see ourselves is inevitably warped. But I think I’ve got it pretty close. 

I can start by mentioning a few writers who have influenced my conscious practice of this particular style. Some non-musical authors include Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami, and Michael Chabon when he tamps down his experimental streak and focuses on direct sections of prose. I’m currently reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies and that’s a good example too, it’s a book that explores the tangled and long history of cancer in a very clear and understandable fashion. As for music critics, I tend to think of them in two groups: writers who are a fair bit older than I am (like, at least a decade or so), and people who are closer to my age (or a little older) that came up around the same time, whether on Tumblr or somewhere else. Without getting into specifics — because I’m going to ask them to read this post via a bunch of networks, and I don’t want to make people feel bad about getting left off some off-the-cuff list of writers I like — I’ve derived the most influence from the writers who I think are doing the best kind of work I described above: not overly showy or reliant on voice or gimmickry, very precise, impeccably structured, leaning towards kindness, open to new sounds and perspectives. (And if you really want some names and links, send me an email.) 

Anonymous said: Just out of curiosity, how did you become a writer? Im interested in becoming a writer myself but I'm not sure how I should improve my writing.

I’ve written about this a few times before (and will include relevant links below) but for me, it was as simple as firing up a Tumblr and making connections with the writers I admired who were also active on the platform. They noticed my work and shared it with some of their colleagues, and the resulting attention was enough to help me build a small audience of peers and make a few connections. This was a little over three years ago, and it might be more difficult now — the dynamics of the music writing community on Tumblr have changed a little bit, and if you look around you’ll find plenty of good writing on that topic — but I think the same principles apply no matter the platform: practice your craft and make an effort to participate in what we casually term a “community of practice” in my “real” workplace, and good things will happen for you. 

In the same vein, the best way to improve your writing is to practice, and to supplement that practice with active reading of the writers you admire and who have different experiences than your own. I think everyone from the greenest blogger to the most successful and respected critic in the country would tell you the same. 

I wrote about joining the music writing “community” on Tumblr here, about a year and a half ago; I shared some thoughts about coming up as a writer, and the field in general, here, last summer. And I stand by pretty much everything I shared in those two posts, though of course I’d flesh them out with some new bits now. If I could only add one, it’d be something like this: work really hard at treading the line between seeming professional and sounding like a robot. Re: professionalism, it seems obvious, but you see it all the time: don’t get into mindless beefs with other writers, don’t shit talk publications you’ve worked with on Twitter, support your peers and people whose voices might not be as prominent as yours, be timely with your copy and invoices, etc. etc. The “seeming human” thing is harder, somehow, but there are so many little things that matter: don’t plug your pieces too many times (a fine line, to be sure), don’t engage with other writers just for connections or “networking” purposes, don’t hop on memes if you don’t actually get what they’re about, show some personality. You can just tell when someone in your feed is really, really sweating their self-promotion or their conversations with someone. You don’t want to be the person sweating. 

And I know I’m saying all this like it’s super easy and intuitive, but of course it’s not! It’s really, really hard work, and I think people who are inclined towards writing might have an even harder time navigating the line than your average extrovert or social butterfly: many of us are interior, semi-awkward people. That inward focus and unflinching eye yields some of the best writing out there. I think I’m pretty good at maintaining the balance, but it’s something I think about all the time, both as a writer and in every other realm of my life. Like any other skill worth cultivating, it takes time and effort to make it work. 

Anyway, thanks for giving me the opportunity to wax poetic — I’m always happy to talk process, I think it’s healthy to do it once in a while. I have another writing-related ask coming up tonight, so keep an eye out for that.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Anonymous said: top10 songs/albuns of the year, so far?

Sure, here are 10 albums: 

  • Chromeo, White Women
  • Katy B, Little Red
  • Lone, Reality Testing
  • Mac DeMarco, Salad Days
  • Mariah Carey, Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse
  • Real Estate, Atlas
  • Röyksopp & Robyn, Do It Again
  • Todd Terje, It’s Album Time
  • Tony Molina, Dissed and Dismissed
  • The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream

And 10 songs that don’t appear on the albums listed above:

Can’t believe the year’s half over already! Give me a shout if you have any other Qs.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sam Smith, “How Will I Know”

Getting the purely musical commentary out of the way first: this is a good cover, even beautiful in parts — his navigation of those tender little descending chorus in the pre-chorus @ 2:30ish is sublime — but probably not worthy of the insane hubbub that it’s generated over the last few days. (It cracked Facebook’s inane “trending topics” section for me, which has to mean something.) There’s an instant familiarity at work because the chords that open the song up sound almost exactly like the ones that crack open “Stay With Me,” the song that’s truly broken Smith here in North America. He’s graceful and mealy-mouthed as ever; when I watch him sing I can just imagine notes rising out of his stomach, bubbling up through his throat and fluttering out of the corner of his mouth. But ultimately I resent this take on this song for robbing the original of its joy. Whitney chose to revel in the uncertainty, thumbed her nose at it, chose hope and sought counsel. Smith is never farther than an inch away from utter heartbreak. I get it, I really do, because I was there once too, but as a listener it’s frustrating. You want him to let the light in, if only for a minute or two. 

(An aside, about his physical presence: when the camera takes a moment to capture the whole room you see Smith standing incredibly still, those notes pouring out. He looks statuesque in the most basic sense of the word. A result of his intense and well-documented training, an expression of his extreme control, I don’t know, I find it fascinating. There is so little movement.) 

I’m really torn up about the pronouns thing, I’ll be honest. Smith is resolute in choosing “you” over “he” and “him” when he’s singing about love, which is always, and it’s a choice that says so much about him as a person and a performer: ambitious, unabashedly seeking commercial success, “intensely private,” whatever. I respect him for it, because he’s absolutely right when he says that a straight performer wouldn’t get hounded about the subjects of their songs like this, and I think it’s admirable that he’s trying to write and sing love songs that possess both power and universality. And this sort of anguished hand-wringing over the absence of a simple “he” is probably something he’s been dreading long before coming out to the Fader! But I think his decision is impractical, and working against the widespread appeal he’s fighting so hard to cultivate.

Sam Smith’s biggest problem right now is that he occasionally seems like a machine custom-built to conquer the pop charts: golden voice, classic style, relatively versatile with respect to genre, polished to a fault. In this context, something as simple as neutralizing the pronouns on a Whitney Houston cover can seem like oppressive quality control from an automaton and his team. The whole thing reminds me of the old Michael Jordan adage about sponsorship and politics: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Straight people buy records, too. But is a man singing about his love and lust for another man really going to make them stop? In trying to render his music applicable to any relationship, regardless of sexual orientation, Smith is draining it of the heart and character that rings through many great love songs. (Even the rare Smith songs that doesn’t grapple directly with love are possessed of an ineffable queerness: look at the smash “La La La,” a thinly veiled indictment of hate speech if I’ve ever heard one.)

Smith’s straightwashing stings a bit more for me because I’m intimately familiar with the romantic struggle documented throughout In the Lonely Hour. Smith has talked about the unrequited love that inspired much of the album, but that’s not all I hear: it’s also an unyielding document of a young gay romantic running headfirst into the unfamiliar paradigms that govern sex and dating for gay men. “Stay With Me” is more than just a needy chronicle of an one-night stand that didn’t pan out: it’s the sound of someone who was trained from birth to view monogamous heterosexual relationships as an ideal, violently crashing into something a little more blurred and learning to deal with it. It’s a journey that’s capped off by bonus track “Restart,” where Smith finally figures out how to quickly step in and out of failed flings and broken promises; he finally finds the “restart” button, and it’s one of the best tracks on the album, frothy pop-soul that feels practically weightless compared to the goopy balladry of the album proper. 

I embarked on that same journey, with most of it taking place over the last two or three years; much of it has been chronicled on this Tumblr, in sometimes raw and embarrassing fashion, and more of it has been deleted at 2:00 a.m. or later after getting 1 note’s worth of comfort. That’s why it’s frustrating for me to watch Smith scrub himself clean, diluting his experience and his message and his music: I’ve been there, and I know the feeling, and I’m really rooting for him. His choice could be the difference between creating art that’s successful and art that’s truly resonant.