Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Non-Review in the Age of Youtube

The Onion AV Club, an outfit that I generally respect, has a pretty bad review up about the latest Old Crow Medicine Show album.  I don't say it's bad because it's a 'C-' and I like the band in question (though I wouldn't have noticed or cared if it was, say, Lana Del Ray).  I don't say it's bad because it gets the album's name wrong.  I don't say its bad because I necessarily disagree with the rating.  I haven't heard the album, and so I don't know if it's any good.  But here's the thing -- reading the review, I still have no idea of whether the album is any good -- and that's the purpose of a review - "I haven't heard this, should I check it out?"  The reviewer is clear that they don't like the album, but since their tastes aren't mine, I need information beyond their simple opinion -- that's why I'm reading a review and not just browsing letter grades. 

There's about 2 sentences describing the actual music (and they're vague and uninformative) and a lot of tangential comments about the hokiness and authenticity (or not) of Old Crow Medicine Show's lyrics.  In truth, the review takes 2 paragraphs to say 'More of the same from OCMS."  As a sentiment, that can be a valid part of a review, but it is not, in itself, a review.  There's no substantial comment on how individual tracks compare to their previous work and only a vague idea of how the album sounds as a whole (I'd guess its more like OCMS's middle period and less like Tennesse Pusher, but I don't know for sure because the reviewer doesn't actually tell me.

I wonder if this kind of music non-review is becoming more common these days, when Youtube makes the old role of reviewers that I just described somewhat obsolete.  After all, if I wanted to I can hop onto Youtube, fire up some tracks off the album and form my own opinion.  This being the case, its understandable if reviewers treat their reviews as a blog post to share their opinion and whatever else they want to talk about.  But this new model misses something -- at its heart, good reviews are a formalized way of recommending a work to someone (or not).  When I recommend my friend a record, I don't say 'I like it, you should check it out' or even just why -you- like it, but you try to convey the contents.  I might say to a friend 'I like The Gault because it reminds me of a mash-up of Joy Division and black metal.  The production is reverby and stripped down, the vocals are emotive and the guitar riffs are repetetive but really compelling.  Oh, and the female vocalist is an alto, and I like the deeper range.'  And a good music review echoes that tone.  Artificiality has its place in writing, but I do think writing is most effective when it echoes the way we talk to each other (albeit in a more formal form).  If we abandon that, we really lose something.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Book Review: A Frenchman in Lincoln's America

My interolocutor RMB bought me books for Christmas, because RMB is the best.  The Library of America Collected Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and a two-volume work I'd never heard of before, Huit Mois en Amerique by Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne, published in English as A Frenchman in Lincoln's America. At the simplest level, it is a Frenchman's travellogue of America in 1864 and 1865.  More ambitiously, it was an attempt by its 22-year-old author to update Tocqueville's Democracy in America by showing America 30 years later and in the middle of its civil war.

To cut to the chase, A Frenchman in Lincoln's America is a very good book.  Not an all-time great like Democracy in America, but a well-written and well-thought-out portrait of America during the war.  In general, it is more of a travellogue than Democracy in America; it is organized like a journal, and follows the author day to day across the US and Canada.  This organization makes it less overtly philosophical/sociological and yet more vivid than Democracy in America -- de Hauranne has plenty of broad-brush mini-essays about the American character, but they are interspersed with detailed observations of what New York or Cincinatti or Boston or the mountains of Vermont or the oil fields of Pennsylvania are like.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Wonders of Optimism

My interlocutor, myself and our housemates have been watching a lot of Stark Trek: The Next Generation: over the past month or so.  We're skipping the bad episodes and sticking to the good to great ones, us the Onion AV Club's excellent episode guide.  The result is extremely impressive (no doubt in part because the show was of variable quality, and we are skipping the bad parts).

The good things about the show have been talked about a lot -- as everyone probably knows, Patrick Stewart carried most of the show on his shoulders through most of its run; his incredible acting skills and sense of dignity give everything Picard does a kind of gravitas.  His line delivery is incredible, and yet his acting is overall so good that it is worthwhile just to watch his face, even when he's saying nothing.  I could say more, but Stewart's awesomeness is not what interests me here.

Watching the show again, I've become completely charmed by its determined optimism.  Coming from my college and teen years, where I gobbled up 'dark' art and entertainment like grimdark candy, a show that wears its optimism on its sleeve is quite captivating.