Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Learning Is Fun

Wow, I had an educational day. One of the guys at my work is a real drummer; I found out my first day he drums for Hank Williams III's metal project Assjack but I have been avoiding going up to him and peppering him with questions because, well, that's not my job description. During the day anyway. But today he overheard me nattering on about my blog (as I will do) and without even having read it he gave me three hugely important points of advice that I'm going to repeat here. In 2011, I hope to hold myself to them.

1. If you're going to give criticism, write "I feel" or "I think" or "the way I hear it." I am really stupid for doing a blog for this long and not figuring this out. Well, not stupid, but emotionally disabled. I write exactly as I think and as I speak. It doesn't occur to me when I'm writing to be more careful about what I say will be received. I read everything intellectually because my brain doesn't process feelings naturally, so to me there isn't that much of a difference between "the band's performance was awful" and "In my opinion, the band's performance was awful." I am very fond, perhaps too fond, of my particular writing style, and including lots of wussy qualifiers makes me think I've deliberately weakened my point. But, now that people are actually reading from time to time, it's not all about me any more. I need to have more empathy for bands and I hope people will call me on it whenever I forget about this... while remembering to respect my point of view as well.

2. Most people only read what's written about themselves or their friends. That's why #1 matters, and why I end up having the same argument with people who get their noses bent out of joint over something I've said every couple of weeks. I have been assuming that people are following along as I am, reading every post. Boy, I am incredibly naive in a lot of ways. At least I know how to recognize when I've been obstinate about something for no reason! For the first few days at work I wouldn't use the handcart to move books because... I dunno and three days later when my back, legs, and knees were killing me I realized that there might be a reason why every other person who worked there was using a handcart. I want people to read Big Western Flavor as a story, because that's what it is: Anna and I and our adventures in local music. If I say something particularly overblown and realize it later, I often correct myself and apologize in a later post. Of course that does no good to the many fans of the band I offended who will never read my stuff again and tell people I'm a jerk. But even if I did write something mean about your band, I hope you will give me a little bit more of a chance to convince you I'm not just out to help myself or my own band.

3. Style matters. This is the biggest problem I have as a music writer... everybody, especially nowadays, is conditioned to hear everything first in terms of what genre it is and then move outwards critically from there (if they ever move beyond mere comparisons). I don't hear that way. I prefer not to give comparisons at all until I've seen a band a few times, which means sometimes I see a band once, don't like them, and end up totally missing the point. Of course I understand that garage bands aren't supposed to be tight, and punk bands aren't supposed to have complicated progressive songwriting, and for some bands the thing that makes them great has nothing to do with anything they're doing musically. Although I know this intellectually, it is very, very hard for me to listen to a band and immediately figure out what "style" they are. I have to listen to and absorb all the parts first. I examine all the details before looking back at the whole, and that's the total opposite of most people. So... again, I owe some bands an apology. I wish more bands' fans would react to negative reviews the way Quiet Company's did... when I dismissed them, I got a number of really smart, civil comments and e-mails from people who cared about the band pointing out a bunch of things I had missed. I saw them again with more to listen for and liked them a lot better. If you feel I was unfair to you last year, please e-mail and tell me -- nicely -- and I'll come to another show, look you in the eye and shake your hand, and write another review.

And I'm going to add my own #4, because I talk about "supporting local music" all the time and seemingly people don't know what I mean. Here it goes. Supporting local music does not mean writing show previews for the Austinist that include factual mistakes that make it clear you have never seen the band in question. It doesn't mean telling somebody you love their record when you don't because they have a trust fund and if you kiss their ass they might use their parents' money to press your seven-inch. It means going to shows. That's it. Go to local shows. Not just Free Week, all year. If you're in a band and you don't have infinite cash resources, pretty much your only chance of building an audience is going out to kajillions of shows and making lots and lots of friends, especially friends in other bands. If you're playing in an Austin band and you don't see at least two or three local shows a month that your band isn't included in, shame on you.

OK, finally, last night at the U.S. Art Authority, Anna and I checked out She Sir and Hidden Ritual. She Sir we'd seen once before at Emo's, and I'm glad I saw them a second time because it really drove the point home about what people keep telling me about the huge differences in sound from one Austin venue to the next. At Emo's, which has a great, powerful, PA, what stuck out most about She Sir to me was their vocals, not quite harmonious in the traditional sense but using two different voices in an arresting way. Their drummer was fantastic both shows. But at the USAA, perhaps in part because I was standing much nearer the stage, also probably because the PA sucked and the vocals couldn't be heard, all I could fixate on was the way one, both, or all three guitarists (they don't have a bass player, just two guitarists who trade off faking it on bass) seemed to be strumming up and down in the same pattern on every song. I would have liked to see more moments like the set highlight where they suddenly switched from vocalist to the other right as a dramatic change kicked in. I really love bands with multiple lead vocalists.

Anna didn't really pay attention the last time we saw She Sir... she is prejudiced against four-dude bands, but is working on it. She really quite liked them at this show, with the vocals, the drums, and the key sounds among the things she mentioned as digging. I kept trying to make myself listen for their keyboards, since that was a new addition from the Emo's show, and although there were a few sounds and rhythms that came from that direction that were interesting, I was preoccupied the entire time waiting to see something besides choppa-choppa-choppa tambourine guitar playing. Is it totally out of bounds to play the guitar that way? Of course not, but if it you do it, something else has to play off of it. As I heard it last night, She Sir only occasionally got the bass playing splitting the difference between drums and guitar. That Austin tragically lacks for bass players is common knowledge. Am I ever tempted to get the instrument I have played for 20 years out again and "go for it?" No. One look at the Austin Craigslist Musicians section is all it takes to remind me that I really like being in a no-pressure, having-fun-and-making-friends band with Anna C. Even if I am the worst rock and roll drummer since Meg White.

Hidden Ritual were a good band to catch for the first time last night, as my mind was buzzing about ways to keep giving my honest opinions while perhaps not needlessly making so many enemies. I don't want you to get an inflated opinion of their quality because I'm in a lenient mood -- I thought more than half of their songs were drab, and if it were up to me I'd flip the ratio of slow songs to fast completely. During the slow ones I started wondering if the enthusiastic applause I'd given them after their first song was too generous. But they gave me a lot of things to notice besides their mistakes. They used shaker a lot, which I always love... it's really hard for somebody not to dance while playing the shaker, and when one comes in and out over a drumbeat, it's a whole different layer to an arrangement that throws all the other parts to new places. The errors I heard by their drummer and keyboardist were totally overshadowed by their good part choices. The drummer used an unusual setup that had hand percussion instruments instead of big toms and (I think) a cajon instead of a kick drum. The guitar player shows a lot of awareness in the many different sounds you can make on the instrument even without years of instruction. I never heard anything in the least flashy, but I never started getting impatient waiting for something different to happen on guitar like I did with She Sir. The best thing about Hidden Ritual's set was that first song, which was an extended number with long building sections that, while keeping the same basic underlying structure, kept escalating the tension with new details from the guitar or keyboard. At the very end they juiced up the tempo suddenly and after all the gradual building it was a nice gust of wind in the face. They seemed more comfortable doing the long, slow drawn-out thing. My suggestion would be to try tightening up the ballads -- just cutting out a lot of repetition and making them short and sweet -- so they contrast more against the longer-form rockers. Almost forgot, their bass player is terrific,  and I could hear others in the audience pointing out the same thing. He really helps the band out when it comes to those long builds. His parts are well worth hearing for longer stretches. And I feel I should reserve judgement on the singing, which was not quite loud enough.

Oh, man, this is going to be hard. I really hate putting lots of "I" statements all over the place in my writing. Obviously I'm the one writing, who else would it be? I feel already like my points are being obscured. Oh well. It's a new year, time to be a grown-up and act with some consciousness about how the rest of the world sees me. (Update: Nah, I was wrong. No one cares what I think really and the few people who do think "gentle talk" is the enemy of clear communication. That resolution went by the board fast; it's good I am getting the feedback I need as I continue to evolve the blog.)

Speaking of seeing me... if you want to see Anna and I wearing really slutty outfits while eating donuts (you can write a nasty review if you want, even one without "I" statements), Wednesday at Barbarella we have a show.


  1. Don't hate on Meg White. She is a delicate flower, and I don't think it can be easy keeping up with Jack.

    Also, in terms of #2, while it is mostly true, don't worry too much about these sensitive artist types. They will be pissed whether you say, "You suck" or "In my opinion, you suck."

    It isn't your job to blow wind up their skirts. But your critiques are constructive, and you give really thoughtful notes. The more mature musician will be able to improve their performances if they are humble enough to use your input instead of react to it.

  2. The Meg White comment was really deliberate. The White Stripes are a huge dividing point in my relationship. Anna loves them; they are one of the bands that made her want to become a guitar player. But I have always felt deeply sympathetic for Meg, since I suffer from social anxiety too. I feel like Jack took advantage of her to get famous and ruthlessly discarded her. Because of that, I tend to be VERY skeptical of bands with women who are clearly not quite as technically good as the men they're playing with. That's why I switched to an instrument I'm not good at in my band -- I don't want anybody to ever think that I play with Anna for any reason other than that she's really talented and hardworking.

  3. Respects to your friend from the office, because Assjack is really great, but he couldn't be more wrong about number 1. That shit may fly when you're trying to have a "difficult conversation" with a co-worker or the teacher at your kid's school, but in the realm of criticism, it is always assumed that opinions are that of the writer. Throwing in a lot of unnecessary "I believes" and--shudder--"I feels" (gag) just clutters up the works. My first editor verbally flogged anyone who used "he/she felt" when we meant "he/she said" or "he/she believes".

  4. This was awesome! I threw it out there as an experiment, tried doing two reviews in that style... and obviously, it's horrible. That's the purpose of criticism! Thanks for the feedback.