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Putting the "Art" in Arts Criticism 

Soundbites: Putting the "Art" in Arts Criticism, The Jazz Guys Say Goodbye, Bite Torrent

In last week’s column I alluded to an interesting conversation I had via email with local sax man Bryan McNamara of Strength in Numbers and Souls’ Calling renown. (Total aside. This is the text message I received from a buddy of mine, let’s call him “Shark,” who attended the latter group’s show at Parima last Friday: “McNamara is off the hook!” Shark loves him some wild-ass jazz.)

Anyway, I had toyed with exploring some of the arguments presented in that conversation and others in last week’s column. I decided against it because it seemed a little heavy for the issue before Thanksgiving. But I think it illuminates a troubling trend regarding how arts criticism is increasingly viewed — and in some cases, written — both locally and beyond. Is your turkey dinner fully digested?

To begin, let’s get one thing clear. (I’m even going to use incomplete sentences for dramatic effect — just be thankful I’m not going ALL CAPS.) Here it is: In Seven Days. CD reviews. Are. Not. Promotional. Tools.

Maybe that’s how other publications roll — I can think of a few, actually. But not this one. Got it?

I bring this up because of a disconcerting number of requests I have received recently to treat our album reviews as little more than press releases. In the last two weeks alone, I’ve had no fewer than four such requests from local artists suggesting 7D review their albums for the explicit purpose of promotion. (Point of order: None of these were from McNamara.) To be fair, most were simply cases of either misspeaking or honest misunderstanding. However, one individual, who really should know better, actually went so far as to tell me he wanted me to write up his disc so he could quote me for his press kit. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so insulted professionally. And as anyone who reads my blog knows, I’m something of a lightning rod for insults — thanks for reading!

Look, people take clips from articles I and other 7D writers have written and use them for promo all the time. And you know what? They should. Hell, once upon a time I did the same for bands I was playing with. As McNamara put it, it’s part of the game. I get it. A positive review in these pages is kind of a big deal — locally, at least. But it should never be the expectation going in. And it should never be asked for. Ever.

(As another aside, here’s something else you really shouldn’t do: Take clips from a negative review and use them out of context to make it sound like we paid you a compliment. You’d be amazed how often this happens.)

The only reason my words — or any other 7D writer’s, for that matter — carry any weight is because our readers expect us to give our honest, objective and informed opinion based on what we hear. Or see. Or taste. The principle is the same whether we’re critiquing music, movies, art or food.

Sometimes that means fawning praise. Sometimes it means a public evisceration. Usually, it’s somewhere in between. Should you submit an album for review — and I heartily encourage anyone to do so — be prepared for any of the aforementioned outcomes to occur.

Above all else, the obligation of critics is to their readers and to call ’em like they see ’em. And that obligation is founded on trust. You might disagree with my take on a certain album. And to be honest, I hope some of you do. If I wrote with the intention of pleasing everyone, I wouldn’t be doing my job — there’s nothing less helpful than a milquetoast review.

But if you read this paper with any regularity, it means you trust us to give you a useful opinion. And that is a responsibility we take with the utmost seriousness. If we didn’t, would anyone read us? I certainly wouldn’t.

Arts criticism has long played an important role in our culture. But it’s a role that has begun to diminish in certain circles, specifically because many writers either don’t have the stomach for it or they’re unscrupulous and/or lazy enough to essentially regurgitate press releases and call it criticism. Or maybe they just like to see their names attached to some inane, PR-ready quote on a band’s one sheet. Whatever.

That type of writing has no place in a forum for serious arts criticism, which is what the album review section of this paper is intended to be. And the day it ever becomes anything less is the day I lay down my pen.

And with that, I will now hop off ye olde soapbox, thus ending the great arts criticism rant of 2009. Thanks for reading.

The Jazz Guys Say Goodbye

Well, the people have spoken. The votes are in. And the winner of the 7D blog poll for which current pop hit will get The Jazz Guys treatment, à la their ridiculous cover of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” is … drum roll, please!

“Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus! (That sound you’re hearing is a collective groan from the folks who launched a bizarre write-in campaign for Weird Al’s “Amish Paradise.” I’m guessing it was the crazy Nader dude from Church Street.)

Unfortunately, Miss Cyrus was unavailable for comment regarding her landslide victory. But she’s probably pretty psyched, right? Her pops, Billy Ray, on the other hand … maybe not so much. Regardless, look for the new video to go up sometime before the holidays.

In a related story, that vid will actually serve as something of a parting shot for the JGs. A recent email sent by guitarist Max Schwartz reveals that the band has decided to call it quits, since Schwartz is moving to San Francisco in January. We’ll get into the ramifications — there actually might be some — in coming weeks. But for now, a farewell show is planned for Friday, December 18, at Muddy Waters.

Bite Torrent

You wanna know why it’s pretty cool that Anders Parker has settled in Burlington — I mean, aside from the “crazy talented” thing? Because he’s playing shows at wee little venues, such as the 1/2 Lounge this Saturday. Awesome.

A little shout-out for my favorite annual Vermont Youth Orchestra gig, “Orchestrapalooza,” which goes down at the Flynn MainStage this Sunday. I still say they should change the name to “Gathering of the Vibraphones.” But what do I know?

After what seems like forever, The Fatal Flaws’ monthly Foofarawk residency is back in action at Radio Bean this Saturday. And they’ve even managed to score a primo late-night slot. Joining them are The Persian Claws.

And last but not least, ’tis the season for Christmas music. Usually we don’t see much of it made locally. However, local pop prince Gregory Douglass has just released a nifty little holiday EP on iTunes appropriately entitled Merry. But get this: That’s actually only the second coolest thing to happen to Gregory this holiday season. The first is his recent engagement to longtime partner Glen Nadeau. Congrats, you crazy kids!

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About The Author

Dan Bolles

Dan Bolles

Dan Bolles is the Seven Days music editor. His column "Soundbites" appears weekly.


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