I spend a lot of time on this blog criticising professional music journalists, unpicking their casual assumptions and questioning the dubious agendas of some of the publications they write for. I'm an amateur writer with no editors or shareholders to answer to, so I can afford to do that. It also means that I really should take more time to identify real quality in music writing when I come across it. Right now, I'm particularly inspired by those professional writers who have embraced the opportunities of blogging rather than joining the Paul Morley school of unreasonable suspicion (Simon Reynolds, Marcello Carlin, the folks over at Plan B). There are lots of flaws in Uncut magazine - but John Mulvey's Wild Mercury Sound new music blog over on their website is brilliant. It's ventures like this which allow writers to build a closer relationship with their readers, and find out what they really think, rather than what the marketing brains behind the publications believe they think. This post on Elliott Smith, written in response to a reader's comments, is particularly fascinating:
I completely agree with the poster Sam about the melodic and harmonic intricacy of Smith's songs, and that his songwriting was a great deal more ambitious than most writers have suggested. The posthumous 'From A Basement on The Hill' collection for example contains a wealth of ambitious writing and dexterous guitar playing that went largely unnoticed as people focussed, understandably, on Smith's troubled state of mind.
The debate on criticism which these comments have prompted is of wider significance, though. Whilst I am a musician (albeit one whose grasp of musical theory is probably more spurious than it ought to be - I will concede I write and play more from instinct or feeling than any conceptual process), I would certainly never argue that non-musicians are not qualified to express considered opinions about music. Indeed, a non-musician writer of real distinction such as Mulvey can avoid being enraptured with technical and theoretical concerns, and really grasp the cultural and emotional significance of music. It does require an open mind, however - and Mulvey undoubtedly has this , as the range of his posts, so far encompassing Rufus Wainwright, Sly and The Family Stone and post-rockers Battles, confortably demonstrates. There's sometimes a tendency in rock critics to eulogise primitive angst, or the rejection of virtuosity. Neither virtuosity nor untutored fury are virtues in themselves - it's much more a matter of how contrasting styles and techniques can be deployed to create an impact.
I try and keep an open mind about music too. A good friend once asked me, slightly incredulously, how a three minute pop song could possibly move me as much as a great symphony. Quite easily in fact, especially if it finds some universal truth with which I can identify. Whilst there's a lot about the techniques of composition that I don't quite understand yet, I can recognise that there are common elements between the best popular music and serious composition, and that's why I'm quite happy to go and see any form of music performed live, performance is often where the true magic really shows.
One forthcoming album that seems to show no respect for classification whatsover is David Torn's Prezens, forthcoming on ECM (thanks to DJ Martian for a heads-up on this one). You can hear a couple of tracks on MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/prezens
It seems as much inspired by metal and post-rock as by free improvisation, jazz-rock and electronica. This is clearly a challenging record that occupies its own unique space. I'm looking forward to hearing it in full, not least because it features world-class drummer Tom Rainey, and the outstanding Craig Taborn on keyboards (also a mainstay of Chris Potter's Underground).
I'm hoping that John might give us some thoughts on new albums from Bjork, Panda Bear, The F*cking Champs, etc...