Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Definition of a Horse

In Dickens' Hard Times, the model teacher, Mr. Gradgrind, warns his students about using their imaginations. "Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life." To exemplify his point, Mr. Gradgrind asks "girl number twenty" to define a horse. When she can't, he turns to a sullen, pasty boy named Blitzer who says: "Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely, twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs." In a way, this example negates the AM ideology. In an effort at times to be objective, we dismiss the consequential, we overlook the obvious, we f-up. Indeed it takes more than a rubric to recognize genius; it often takes pure imagination ("Come with me and you’ll see..."). We're not alone:

In his review of Black Sabbath's eponymous debut, Lester Bangs wrote: "The whole album is a shuck — despite the murky song titles and inane lyrics that sound like Vanilla Fudge paying doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley, the album has nothing to do with spiritualism, the occult, or anything much except stiff recitations of Cream clichés that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book, grinding on and on with dogged persistence." Isn’t that funny? Talk about murky. James Joyce would find that sentence exhausting.

Ralph J. Gleason, co-founder of Rolling Stone and critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, was incredulous of Brian Wilson's purported "genius." "The Beach Boys are a logical extension of Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson (as well as Paul Anka)," he wrote in 1967. They look like and perform like summer resort boozers, Fort Lauderdale weekend collegians. They sound like that, too." In retrospect, the fact that anyone would think "Surfin' Safari" or "409" had more "validity," and a broader scope than "God Only Knows" (or that Brian Wilson was the "logical extension of Pat Boone"!), is funny like the best episode of Big Bang.

After the critical love affair with Blue and Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns was fair game for criticism. The critics were ready to ambush, as they would for the follow-up to Wish You Were Here, waiting to pounce on the Animals. Though not the complete dismissal Lester Bangs offered for Black Sabbath, Rolling Stone reported that The Hissing of Summer Lawns was "ultimately a great collection of pop poems with a distracting soundtrack." Distracting was the term. "Four members of Tom Scott's L.A. Express are featured on Hissing, but their uninspired jazz-rock style completely opposes Mitchell's romantic style. Always distinctly modal, Mitchell's tunes for the first time often lack harmonic focus. They are free-form in the most self-indulgent sense, i.e., they exist only to carry the lyrics. If only I’d had the critic in my English class: “...not to mentioned that your review serves nothing but to scratch a critical itch. C+.”

Twenty years later, RS panned the greatest power pop album in the history of everything, Weezer's Pinkerton, (just, oh brother), and in 2005, The Killers released their sophomore effort Sam's Town, which The New York Times called "Painful." Painful.  They called it Painful. My head is spinning.

The goal at AM is to examine as closely as possible what is best about rock music. At times we are overzealous or what many would consider obvious, but rarely are we callous; never are we ridiculous. As definition for "ridiculous," here is one final sampling of the negative review as offered up by the inimitable Rolling Stone: Abbey Road ("…side two is a disaster"), Led Zeppelin ("prissy"), Déjà vu ("…only such a trio of wimps could think of him [Neil Young] as a hard rocker"), After the Gold Rush ("…uniformly dull surface…"), Aqualung ("overly pretentious, ponderous and didactic"), Sticky Fingers ("good but not that good"). For Your Pleasure, Exile on Main Street, Imagine…I'm sorry, but this is some funny shit. Maybe this article should have been titled "The Definition of a Horse's Ass."