I bought the newest Tame Impala album, Currents, recently. I listened to it while filing other CDs and I thought it was pretty good. It’s different from the hazy psychedelia of the first two records, which I think is the point. Kevin Parker, from what I can gather, didn’t want to make another album in the same style, so he’s added synths and took, what seems to me, inspiration from 80s synth pop. So far, so good, right? Well, folks who don’t like the album keep pointing to a review over at Tiny Mix Tapes, by Will Niebergall. This review, to them, sums up what is ‘wrong’ with “Currents”.
I decided to go and read the review, to see what insights Will had about the record. Instead, he waffled on about how T.I. ‘are the rock equivalent of Instagram’. I didn’t get the analogy and I don’t have an Instagram account, so the stuff about the settings didn’t make any sense to me. I guess I’m not cool enough to know what Will is on about. On the same Google page as the review, there was a link to site where the Tiny Mix Tape review was itself being reviewed. I visited the site, called RipFork and found myself agreeing with the meta-review. There’s an archive section on the site, so I went back and started reading those posts, too.
The aim of the site is simple – taking the piss out of pompous reviewers on various sites, but mainly Pitchfork, which has gained a reputation for dense, academic reviews filled with jargon and asides completely un-related to the album being reviewed. David Cross, the comedian, posted a really funny Top Ten List of ‘albums to listen to while reading over-wrought Pitchfork reviews’. I’m not quite sure why Cross was invited to do so and even he expresses surprise at being asked to mock the ‘house style’ of Pitchfork.
Matt Wendus, who posts at RipFork, was an online music critic and before anyone accuses him of hyprocrisy, he gives a couple of his own past reviews the ‘rip’ treatment. There’s a list of five ‘writing disorders’ on the site and yes, I recognised some of them in my own writing. I don’t read reviews much anymore, as there’s so many sources of just hearing the tracks on an album before I buy it. Matt makes a good point of this, when pointing out bits of reviews that are confusing. Reviews need to be concise now, because the reviewer is competing with YouTube, with streaming services and download sites. Why read a review which appears to be more of a term paper or doctoral thesis, than someone describing the sounds of a record they listened to? Academic vocabulary and clunky phrasing can’t substitute for genuine love of listening and documenting what you actually heard. I’m not saying that everyone should suddenly start turning into Lester Bangs clones, but is having a bunch of Robert Christgau clones any better? Most of them don’t even have the wit of X-Gau, anyway.
I do occasionally read articles at UK-based site The Quietus and while there are informative ones, the reviews can be as tough of a read as Pitchfork. I suppose it’s a hang-over from the glory days of the NME in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the reviewers were eager to flaunt their knowledge (and degrees in literature and philosophy) by describing records as ‘cathedrals of sound’ and other indecipherable terms. RipFork has tackled a few Quietus reviews as well and I’ve had to agree with Matt’s opinions on them. Seriously, read this review and try and work out what the record actually sounds like, based on what is written in it. I couldn’t – I’ve got no clue what that person was on about.
Inevitably, some people will object to reviews of reviews and some comments on RipFork attest to that. As Matt says, though, he doesn’t have over 200,000 Twitter followers and a festival in his name. Like it or not, Pitchfork has influence and some of its reviews can hurt sales of albums. Sloppy writing and dense language shouldn’t be why an album fails – it should be all about the music. If a reviewer can’t communicate why he or she doesn’t like the music in a concise way, then I can’t see why they can’t be ‘ripped’ for it.