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.