North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

On Love Letters to the CD Shelf

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Ove the past few days, I’ve poured through The AV Club’s Popless archive. You might remember the project: in 2008, one of their music critics took a year away from listening to anything new, combed through his music collection and tried to write something about every band he owned at least one song by. As such, it contains paragraphs on everything from R.E.M. to Gay Dad, a band I’m sure nobody’s even thought about since that post went up four years ago.

The other day, I was listening to a song that reminded me of something I read about on Popless, only I could half-remember the song’s title and the artist, so I pretty much went through the entire thing, trying to find the song and artist and listen to the damn thing. At some point, all the mp3 on that series went down, but with some Googling, I was able to find the thing and… well, at least I know why I didn’t download the song back then. But it was still fun going though the entire series, start to finish.

I remember enjoying Popless a bunch when it was still active, since it was a good way to hear stuff and get an instant evaluation of stuff I hadn’t heard. I have surprisingly vivid memories of listening to them on my old laptop in class and thinking how cool it’d be to have a collection this interesting, let alone a space to write about it as large as The AV Club. But I was really struck by something when re-reading it: it’s horribly self-indulgent. Every post is prefaced by a short essay which inevitably includes backhanded bragging about how cool he was in college (He went to University in Athens, Georgia! In the 80s! He prepped by watching Inside/Out! He probably even saw Love Tractor play a gig!), some mild bragging about how he was doing music stuff in the 90s and was ahead of the curve in enjoying acts like The Replacements or Pavement. At one point, he writes a bunch of words about how he liked Steely Dan, then didn’t but now he does again. Alright, cool.

And to me, Popless is two things: it’s the kind of thing that drives me mad, because it’s so bluntly a love letter to a record collection. And it’s the kind of thing I’d still love to write.

Everyone I know who likes music likes to talk about it, too. Maybe not in detail, but it’s something that comes up every so often: did you hear the latest song by X, the newest album by Y, I just heard an old song by Z on the radio. It’s fun, like arguing about sports or politics. And it’s pretty easy too: everyone listens to music, even if only while driving in the car.

And that’s why writing about it is fun, too. I own a bunch of albums and it’s nice to take them out once in a while and listen to them front to back and write down some reactions to them, maybe throw a little history in and try to explain why they provoke certain reactions from me. It’s more or less simple stuff: write some words about Elvis Costello’s fun wordplay or why The More Serene Republic’s music is frustratingly obscure sometimes. But am I being honest with myself? With the idea of what music criticism should be?

That’s a tricky question. By and large, what I’ve been doing here is positive stuff: these are albums I like, albums I’ve paid money for and more or less represent where my tastes lie. I’m being honest in that sense: I’m not bashing stuff I secretly like, nor am I pretending to like stuff I don’t care about. So maybe the question should be re-phrased: is what I’m doing really all that different from Popless? From stuff I find annoying? Am I writing love letters to myself?

For my money, the definitive music critic is Lester Bangs (sorry Christgau). I’ve recently gone back to my paperback copy of Psychotic Reactions and Carburator Dung and all but taking notes on what a review should look like. And just last night, I picked up a battered copy of Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste, another collection of his stuff. The easiest way to explain why I like Bangs writing so much is when liked something, he praised it. And when he didn’t, he didn’t hold back. Like Bukowski, he cared about art being honest: he didn’t like it when somebody put on airs. It’s something the good critics are able to cut through. I don’t always agree with Bangs or Christgau, but I respect how they’ll call what they see as bullshit. Bangs didn’t like Zappa, Christgau threw King Crimson’s first album under the bus. But over at the AV Club and Rolling Stone, I feel like there’s a need to find something nice to say about everything. I used to subscribe to Rolling Stone back in high school and when I noticed no album seemed to get less than three stars, save the occasional easy target, like a N’Sync album.

I’ve been thinking about the way I approach this column in light of that. I’ve been careful to avoid first-person too often: I could regale you with stories about concerts, record store and stumbling across copies of stuff in the newsroom of my college newspaper or radio station. But why would you care? How does the way I found something affect your judgement of it? Will you be any more interested in Elvis Costello if I say I got into him through a used copy of Girls Girls Girls? What if I tell you I bought it at a place called The Record Works, a seedy little store that used to be on the main street here in town. What if I told you it closed maybe seven ago, that probably nobody else remembers it, let alone the posters on it’s walls, the wooden racks of CDs, the big bin of discount cassette tapes off to one side. These details mean nothing to you.

Details like that are a kind of curse on a lot of writing now, I think because there so easy, it’s lazy. I can pull details out of my memory without straining myself. I can write 500 words about buying Armed Forces, but putting together a cohesive list of reasons why I think it’s a better album than My Aim Is True might take a little more time. But that’s why I enjoy doing what I do, even when it doesn’t pay much and barely attracts any attention. Because I enjoy the process of refining thoughts into words, the struggle it sometimes is to explain what it is about any given album that elicits a reaction. Those details, or at least the results of them, are what people should care about.

Just a thought, anyway.

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Written by M.

November 24, 2012 at 1:47 pm

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