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October 26, 2009 - Image 5

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The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com

Monday, October 26, 2009 - 5A

The Michigan Daily - michigandailycom Monday, October 26, 2009 - 5A

I

The caviats of criticism

We all fuck up. And
reviewing music can
be seen as one, big,
elaborate fuck-up - mascara-ed by
layers and layers
of frilly language
and Michael
Moore-esque
logic. One could
say I've been
feeling a little bit
cynical recently.
One could also JOSH
say I've been BAYER
feelinga little bit-
cynical ever since I started taking
psychology classes and reading
Kurt Vonnegut. But that's its own
thing.
When rookie writers first get
on music staff, the vast major-
ity of them come to me with the
exact same query: How do I review
music when I don't know what the
hell I'm talking about? And instead
of quellingtheir doubts, I'll feed
them something along the lines of:
"None of us know what we're talk-
ing about. I don't even know what
I'm talking about, and I'm the one
who's supposed to be helping you
learn how to review music. So, in
that sense, we all know what we're
talking about." Which is basically a
sophistic load of cheese-stuffed hot
air. But hey, false confidence is the
gateway drug to all happiness.
"Why so pessimistic?" you might
ask. Last week I reviewed Embry-
onic by The Flaming Lips and I
awarded it three stars - slightly
above average. I've been listening
to it relentlessly ever since. Not
because I'm audio-masochistic, but
because I've actually been enjoying
it quite thoroughly. At no point dur-
ing my relationship with the album
was I not at least highly intrigued.
But when I actually sat down to
critique the thing, my mind jumped
immediatelyto words like "flawed,"
"filler" and "disjointed."
Then there are records like The
Antlers' Hospice; records built to
be critic-proof. "Lush" composi-
tions? Check. Atmospheric variety
and build-and-release dynamics?
Check. An intricate lyrical narra-
tive that begs for "concept album"

status? Check-plus. Naturally, I
awarded the album four stars - an
entire heavenly body better than
Embryonic. But I haven't revisited
Hospice once since I lauded it about
six weeks ago. Why? Because, in all
honesty, it just isn't that much fun.
And Embryonic's about as fun as a
barrel of space monkeys.
But in order to snap into "critic
mode," I've conditioned myself to
systematically hate fun. All right,
maybe that's a complete overstate-
ment. But I have forced myself to
develop a set of concrete criticisms
with which to evaluate music. A
sort of flexible, revolving, subjec-
tive pseudo-heuristic that I like to
take with me when I go out poach-
ing albums. A set of "criteria" that
just so happened to clash with
Embryonic and mesh with Hospice.
This said, I archly stand by all
of the comments I made in both
reviews. It's just that, in the limited
space of an album review, I feel
it's my duty to expose the negative
underbellies of songs. And this is
where the whole Michael Moore
Fascinating and
flawed co-exist.
thing comes into play. Oftentimes,
I write a review with the muck-
raking mindset that, the more
criticisms I can come up with, the
worse an album is.
While the word "critique"
technically means "to analytically
assess the good and bad qualities
of something," we tend to attach
a much more negative connota-
tion to the word. If you heard that
I was coming over your house to
critique you, I'm sure you wouldn't
be overly thrilled. It's a cognitive
fact that humans are much more
affected by negative thoughts than
positive thoughts. I'm a particular
slave to this camp. Sois Michael
Moore, probably.
So is language in general. Nearly
every language in the world has
more negative words than posi-
tive words in it. And our language

determines, to a large extent, our
thoughts. When I go out critiquing,
with my cynical taint and limited
linguistic toolbox, it's often easier
to go for the knees and vomit all my
frustrations with an album into the
500-to-650 word doggy-bagI'm
given.
And in the case of Embryonic,
a highly flawed but endlessly fas-
cinating nut-cluster of a double-
album, I will admit that I nitpicked
at it. Over the course of 70 minutes,
there's a lot of room for sloppiness.
There's also a lot of room for bril-
liance that I had more trouble con-
verting into words.
So I guess this is sort of an apol-
ogy letter. An anonymous reader
commented on my review of Embry-
onic, suggesting that it definitely
deserves four stars. And itprobably
does. It was just such an easy album
to pick apart and chastise. But I'm a
little disturbed by the fact that my
bold attempts at critical objectivity
have led me to bash Embryonic, a
gleefully wild album that not only
pushes but steamrolls the envelope
(and succeeds more often than
not), while praising safer but ulti-
mately less gut-busting albums like
Hospice. So if my ho-hum review
somehow swayed you to bypass the
album, I apologize and urgently ask
you to reconsider.
Recently, one of my friends
lectured me on the difference
between modal jazz and chord-
based jazz. And it gave me an
appreciation for just how much I
don't know, musically. I'm a drum-
mer. I know about rhythm. When
it comes to melody and harmony,
I have no field experience - just a
gut. I understand overall structure
and chord progression. But, like
most of us, I don't have a trusty
decoder for what, objectively,
makes a great album. But I know
when something kicks me in the
ass. And Embryonic kicks me in the
ass. So if you haven't listened to it
yet, please do. I'll leave the rest to
subjectivity.
Bayer wants you to critique his
performance, if you catch his drift.
E-mail him at jrbayer@umich.edu.

At least it's not Detroit.

Uneven Stevens

Hipster hero Sufjan Stevens
gets muddled with the music of
the big city on his latest album
By KRISTYN ACHO
Daily Arts Writer
It's no surprise that in the hype-driven hipster
world fans have fallen for the seemingly unique
and whimsical stylings of Sufjan
Stevens. While the singer-song-
writer's ethereal stage presence
- Sufjan dons bedazzled wings SAan
at many of his shows - and wide-
ranging use of instruments both Sv
vie for innovation, his showman- The BQE
ship falls under the weight of its Asthmatic Kitty
own pretenses. Although raving
fans are boldly calling Sufjan
Stevens our generation's sole musical genius, the
musician may be more aptly described as one of its
most overrated composers.
This doesn't mean that Sufjan Stevens should
be written off as a mediocre musician. One of his
most noteworthy albums, Greetings from Michi-
gan, is a meticulously crafted homage to his home
state, and his latest record The BQE is a captivat-
ing orchestrated suite. Just as Sufjan describes
the doomed plight of Detroit in Michigan, his
new venture delves into the hardships of New
York's boroughs, specifically due to the poorly
constructed Brooklyn-Queens expressway. Here
Sufjan's true talent shines through: his ability
to compose simultaneously heart-wrenching yet
uplifting ballads that portray the adversity of the
cities dear to him.
The album, which was recorded at the Brook-
lyn Academy of Music in 2007, comes with a long
list of extras including a DVD of the performance,
a 40-page comic book, photographs of urban
chaos and a "stereoscopic 3-D Viewmaster* reel."
Although Sufjan is known for being ambitious (hell,

the guy planned to write an album for each of the 50
states), all the extra fluff seems a bit excessive.
But all distractions tossed aside, The BQE is
basically a 40-minute instrumental symphony,
full of twists and turns as the sounds of the bus-
tling city meld with dreamy xylophones and brass
instruments. The BQE uses every instrument and
electronic tinkering imaginable. The juxtaposition
of jingle bells and synthesizers with flighty flutes
and blaring trumpets is supposed to convey the
fast-paced movement of city life, but it comes off as
a jumbled, wonky mess.
The album begins with what feels like an over-
ture of a 1950s Disney movie - the boasting of
trumpets and whirlwind of wood-percussion
gracefully flow into a romantic and sleepy melo-
dy that initially captivates listeners but falls flat
due to the synthetic retro vibe that encompasses
the beginning tracks. Not until the middle of the
record does the album use any sort of composition-
al variety. But when it finally picks up, it catches
listeners off guard. In "Interlude I," Sufjan suc-
cessfully creates a climatic shift within the album,
disturbing the peace and leading the listener on
with fantastical ballads.
In accompaniment to the album, the DVD
depicts the urban chaos within New York's bor-
oughs, contrasting the vibrant architectures of
Brooklyn and Queens with images of congested
highway traffic. The footage, which uses slow-
motion and still-screens, feels disconnected from
the composer's orchestra, despite the fact that Suf-
jan intended for a cohesive multimedia experience.
While the music has a lively, frenzied quality, the
film proves to be a stagnant and drawn-out effort,
leaving the album feeling muddled by the extrane-
ous side-project.
It seems rather unnecessary for Sufjan Stevens
to create a sort of novelty album while fans await
the long-overdue release of a follow-up to Illinois.
Some may call it procrastination, but despite its
flaws in continuity and awkward juxtaposition of
sounds, the utter enormity of The BQE experience
should be commended.

HPV Fact:
Your boyfriend
scren ed fo r
H PV-the viru,
that causes
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