Whether you’re writing it or receiving it, music criticism is not for the faint of heart. And I offer that statement as someone who has been on both sides of the firing line. To wit, I will never forget how angry I was when a certain local music critic for a now-defunct publication compared my singing voice to Rick Astley’s when I was a young whippersnapper fronting a ska band in the late 1990s. Nor will I ever forget how mad I was that said critic was, um, pretty much dead on. I’m still kinda pissed about that, come to think of it.
The thing is, though good critics strive for objectivity, beauty is in the ear of the beholder. Was the critic who Rick-rolled me more than a decade ago out of line? Not at all. He was simply and honestly relating what he heard to the best of his ability. His assessment was just as valid as the glowing review of our debut EP that appeared in this very paper the following week — and was written by my then future editor, Pamela Polston. (Thanks, boss!) Different strokes for different folks, as they say. Moving on…
Last October, in advance of their show at the Higher Ground Ballroom, I reviewed The Bear, the latest album from Massachussetts-based alt-country outfit Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers. And when I say “reviewed,” I mean I tore that sucker to shreds. There’s no need to revisit the blow-by-blow account. But essentially, my take was that, while Kellogg has talent, his music was a weak approximation of the giants of the genre, specifically Ryan Adams. I also may have insinuated that he was a big, honkin’ phony. Ahem.
A few days after the review ran, an email from Kellogg appeared in my in-box. Uh-oh. Now, it’s not unusual for artists to write in following a harsh review. But most often those missives consist of little more than two words. I’ll let you guess which two. Clicking open the message, I prepared for the worst.
Hello, Dan, the letter began. First of all, thanks for covering the group and for going for it with the review. Not since Oberlin College’s piece “Kellogg’s Corny Flakes” has anyone trashed us on that level. We always prefer that someone have a passionate stance (ideally in a good way), rather than a “middle of the road” sort of review. While I obviously don’t agree with your assessment of our music, you are an eloquent writer.
I was stunned. And honestly, I felt a twinge of guilt for laying into the guy — and also regret that I hadn’t thought of the cereal pun first. Well played, Oberlin.
Don’t get me wrong. My opinion of that album remains unchanged. And had I known Kellogg was a good dude beforehand, it would not have affected how I wrote the review. Like I said before, as difficult as harsh criticism is to swallow, it can be equally gut wrenching to write.
Kellogg and I exchanged a series of pleasant emails over the next couple of days. We figured out that I had actually seen his band back when they were playing smaller local rooms and that we may have actually shared the stage while I was the front man for, um, an alt-country band that shamelessly ripped off Ryan Adams. Hey, at least I moved on from Rick Astley, right?
Anyway, our interaction was refreshing. Kellogg bore me no ill will. Nor I him. After all, my review was just one guy’s opinion. And really, what the hell do I know? (Plenty, actually, especially when it comes to alt-country. But that’s beside the point.)
This Friday, back at the HG Ballroom, Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers will play their 999th career show. The following night at Irving Plaza in NYC, they will reach the 1000-show milestone. Clearly, they are doing something right. And clearly, plenty of you disagree with me about their music.
So, do I recommend you go and check them out? Actually, yes, I do. If that’s your bag. It just doesn’t happen to be mine. Still, 1000 shows is one hell of an achievement. And as I discovered, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
Speaking of email interactions with musicians stemming from reviews, I had another interesting one with Guides for the Future bassist Tom Mason following a review of their self-titled debut in February. The only difference? The review was positive. And Mason was actually a little miffed about it. But in retrospect, he had a right to be.
In the review, I suggested that the group’s guitarist and primary front man, Robb Spensley, was the band’s main “creative force.” While it is true that Spensley handles the bulk of the band’s lyric writing, Mason was adamant that the band’s creative juices flow equally among its three members. His missive sparked a spirited back and forth that, long story short, was not as touchy-feely as my conversation was with Kellogg. I mentioned the review was positive, right?
Anyway, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to Mason and Guides. My mistake, guys. Help me make it up to them by catching their set at Langdon Street Café on Wednesday, April 7. Because, after all, I really do like their band.
Phish 3-D: Insert Punchline Here
This just in from the Department of Things I Couldn’t Possibly Make Up: On April 30, local jam legends Phish will unveil a brand-new 3-D concert video entitled, um, Phish 3D. Clever, no? However, the real news is that there will be a special screening of Phish 3-D — which is in 3-D, and is about Phish — at theaters in nine select cities around the country, including the Majestic 10 in Williston. The date of said special screening — which I reiterate, I am not making up — is (drum roll, please!) April 20. Yes, really.