Tuesday, August 08, 2006

On Music Criticism

Just read a review at PopMatters of Counting Crows latest live album, "New Amsterdam." Given that "Across a Wire" (their last live album) is one of my favorite live albums, I'll probably pick this one up.

But I was struck by a line early on.
But although their intensely loyal fanbase will be ecstatic about the chosen material and its presentation, anyone returning to the Counting Crows after a prolonged absence will likely be reminded why they stopped listening in the first place.

Let's start with the fans; by which I mean, of course, fanatics.
These lines could apply to nearly any band, of course, excluding the titans like the Beatles or U2 (so far) and whoever critic-dom has crowned the current hot bands. Everyband sells out or goes off the rails or settles into easy boredom (or, in extreme cases, blows their brains out. That's why Nirvana and Joy Division will never die).

The trouble is that very few bands can have the same impact with their second album that they did with their first. Even if the new album is intellectually just as good or even superior to the previous one, you are coming to it from a different place with different expectations. Critics too. I think This desert Life by Counting Crows is, by almost any measure, a better album than August and Everything After. Stronger tracks, fewer missteps. But it just doesn't have the same effect that August and Everything After had. It can't occupy the same position.

What's true for me is probably true of society as a whole. Which is why some of the more successful and long lived bands expanded into the mainstream slowly. Take The Cure or REM. Both saw success and gained fans in the alternative world initially - a circle of fans that continued growing so that each album had new listeners. Listeners for whom this was their first real exposure to their music.

REM's Green was their 6th album, but for a lot of listeners it was their first introduction to the band. The Cure's Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me was their 8th album or thereabouts but it was the first Cure Album a lot of people picked up. So the novelty was there for enough people that had a certain novelty to the society as a whole.

On the other hand the Counting Crow's first album and it's single Mr. Jones were pretty ubiquitous. Everybody got exposed to it right off, and everybody formed their opinion of that album. The second album confirmed that opinion, and the law of diminishing returns set in. In contrast, the law of diminishing returns set in for The Cure around Wild Mood Swings (album 10?) or for REM New Adventures in Hi Fi (album 10).

Let me be clear about something, in case I wasn't earlier - the fault isn't in the bands themselves. On the contrary, both Wild Mood Swings and New Adventures in Hi Fi remain some of my favorite albums by the bands in question. The fault is in the listeners. We can't hear REM or the Cure with fresh ears anymore. They can't simultaneously astound us with innovation while giving us exactly what we loved about them in the first band. Very very few bands can, and most of them have the advantage of having broken up or died off before getting to this point.

What we need are some new ears. Or we need to settle for the other joys the band has to offer after the novelty has gone.

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