On Art Criticism

Ann Hornaday nails it:

“The job of a critic isn’t to evaluate a movie on the basis of its imaginary audience, but to try to discern what kind of story filmmakers are trying to tell, ascertaining whether they succeeded and judge whether the enterprise has merit — in terms of ambition, originality, aesthetic sophistication, technical achievement, implicit values and intellectual depth.”

That’s probably the best summary I’ve ever seen of what good art criticism is.

About all I’d want to add (and I’ve probably talked about this elsewhere) is that a critic’s job isn’t to evaluate the art they wish the artist had made, or the art they imagine they might have made themselves if they were in the artist’s shoes.  Hornaday’s quote implies this (“…try to discern what kind of story filmmakers are trying to tell…”).

Good criticism starts from a place of humility, or listening, or even submission.

I can quickly decide, in most cases, if a work is to my taste or not.  I’m much slower to decide if something has artistic merit.  Plenty of works are full of merit but not to my taste (and experiencing these can be valuable to me, if I prepare for them), and I enjoy plenty of others that play to my taste but aren’t loaded with aesthetic value.  These often serve as much or more as entertainment, distraction, or in other functions for me than as capital-A Art.  We all do this, and it’s fine.

(Sidebar; WaPo style guide doesn’t include the Oxford comma?!??  Bummer!)

The world would benefit from more criticism like Hornaday’s.


I’m recording h&s vocals this weekend, and had the thought that tracking vocal takes is a lot like what I imagine running a luge track would be like.

Hear me out.

  • Each song/track is different
  • As you take repeated runs at a song/track, you learn its straights and curves, and can start to anticipate things and fine-tune your performance
  • Your voice/luge is a powerful instrument…
  • … and one you must respect at all times.  One wrong move, and you’ve wrecked
  • The harder you push, the more the preceding point is true.  Flying around corners might get you a personal best, or you might end up in the trees

I’ve done a song every day for the past three, and should be able to do keep pace over the next three as well.  That would leave just one for next week or weekend.

Scott will be back in late July to finish backing vox, and that will almost wrap tracking.  We’ll probably get together later in the summer/fall for some percussion stuff and other extras.

I can feel being ready to be done tracking coming on.  Recording vocals for a song is a two-hour episode of intense focus, with a voice that’s mostly-but-not-entirely cooperative and no guarantee that I’ll love the results.  Psyching myself up to go there, and then to edit the thing, doesn’t come for nothing.

All Of A Sudden

I’m four songs deep into h&s vocals.

The rig may not look very inspiring, but it’s comfortable and sounds good.  EV RE320 and CAD M39; I set up the M39 on a lark to see what the omni pattern sounded like on my voice, and ended up really liking it.  I had planned on buying a Little Blondie to pair with the RE320 – that’s what we’re using for Mars Lights, and it sounds great – but I think it’s more the omni pattern, and less the Blondie specifically, that I think works with my voice.

(Here’s a great article on mic polar patterns I just ran across: https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/using-microphone-polar-patterns-effectively)

Lyrics for only two more songs are ready to go, so it may be slower going after this as I need to finish writing.  Scott’s school year is over but he’s been in Orlando with kids on a band/choir trip; once he’s back and has a few rounds of golf under his belt, we’ll figure out when and where we’ll track his backing vocals and any other of his instrumental bits.

My Craziest Metal Record

Death’s “Human” – https://open.spotify.com/album/6AvvqTkgRqq3L4bD9qYfjD

Cory asked me to send him the most extreme metal album I liked, knowing that the toughest thing he’s into is Mastodon.  This is what I came up with.

It took a long time because as I listened I realized that almost everything I like, relative to what he likes, pushes one musical element to the edge but lets other things be a little more conventional. For example, Sleep has clean vocals, but the riffs are slower and more repetitive than anything Cory’s probably listened to. Skeletonwitch has harsh vocals but the riffs are accessible, like Iron Maiden on speed. Condor is blackened and evil, but are kind of a basement punk band at heart, and it shows, and they know it.

Death stands apart. Human is a classic in the sub-sub-genre of technical death metal, two sub-genres I normally have little to do with. Death metal is fast, abrasive/harsh, evil, and often lower-fidelity; tech is like it sounds, using weird scales that can almost sound like 12-tone music (no tonic note), fast changes, and very precise playing. Tech is the intersection of metal people and math/music theory people’s interests.

But there is something about this record that bangs for me, something about the band’s ‘voice’ that works and is relate-able and awesome. I only checked it out because it was on some top metal albums list I’ve since lost track of, and for whatever reason, I hung with it. It’s not catchy, the vocals are pretty harsh, the riffs and underlying rhythms change completely every twenty seconds, it’s not even really heavy (though it’s aggressive in a different way), and it’s mostly nothing that I like about metal, but I keep listening to it.


Spiritualized: Pure (Unbroken) Phase (Mr. Furious edit)

Long-time readers may recall my opinion of song fade-outs (quite negative). Spiritualized’s 1992 album Pure Phase is good, maybe even great, but it has a ton of fade-outs.

I had some fun playing with them to see if I could make the record flow more smoothly to my ears. If you want to check out the results, here’s Pure (Unbroken) Phase (Mr. Furious edit): https://we.tl/yxepnXUh5d

The link expires in 7 days.

This project will not mean much to you if you don’t know Pure Phase pretty well (though you may enjoy the music!). Most of the changes are subtle cross-fades between songs and moving the points at which one track breaks into the next. “These Blues” got the only significant edit, and if you listen close there’s a tiny Easter egg in Feel Like Goin’ Home.

h&s Guitars & Bass Are Done

My brain can finally breathe, after a four-month push to track bass for the h&s record.  Most of that time was spent developing the Wheeler Leveling Amplifier pedal (pictured below) after my initial pedal setup proved unsatisfactory.  Actual recording has happened in the past three or four weeks.Now I intend to do miscellaneous, mostly non-musical stuff for a couple/few weeks before setting up mics for vocals.

The record sounds really cool.  After a couple years of talk, prep work, and drum/sax tracking, the guitars and bass put down over the past six months have transitioned it from a place of hopes and plans into something concrete.  While we have a ways to go, now you can tell pretty much what it’s going to sound like, and that’s exciting.

I’m confident we’ll be sharing and celebrating it next summer.

In Which Cory Asks For A Mingus Rec

And here’s what I wrote, lightly edited.  Forgive me if my reference points are sophomoric.

Here’s a good intro (tracks 1-6; this looks like some special edition thing with bonus tracks): https://open.spotify.com/album/7EOQggjtK8JCqeRz9IG33e

“Moanin’ ” is a classic jam.

Mingus was a bassist, and what I love about him is he combined boppy proggy Coltrane-type stuff in his horn lines, Ellington-style compositional ambition, and yet stayed rooted in blues and gospel and doing substances and ripping the hell out of some tunes. He’s so strong in both the head and the heart. I can think to Mingus, or just enjoy the wailing.

Mingus and Erroll Garner are my jazz favs. Erroll is brilliant, but mostly gives me the feeling of Nat King Cole singing carols while being appropriate year-round and absent any religious/nostalgic/whatever baggage. He just captures the feeling. I could have a whiskey, listen to Erroll, and get misty about how time is passing and the past is irrecoverable and I’d try to be Buddhist and accept impermanence but he’d be reminding me about love lost and simultaneously reminding me that this moment is ok and it’s good to be listening right now.

https://open.spotify.com/album/0EnTJ3I9hXDkNdIdm0TRce You are in for a treat

<3 -h

With luck, the next post will be after I finish h&s bass.

Here’s Where Cory’s Head Is

Cory wrote this to me, and suggested it would be OK if I posted it here. It’s eminently worth mentioning that since receiving the below, he also said he’s been listening to a bunch of Monk, which I endorse.

I will try to turn him on to Mingus, I promise.

For me, 2017 was the year of jazz. I’m embracing my participation in this near-universal cliché. The jazz phase is inevitable for so many of us, like the Led Zeppelin phase, or the trying-real-hard-to-care-about-Leonard-Cohen phase. I knew almost nothing about jazz before I dove in, which has made it even more pronounced. I’m glad I waited until 35 to do all this, because if I’d have done it in my 20s, I’d have been insufferable. No one wants to hear anyone else talk about jazz. I know that from being on the other end of the conversation many times.

So far, my favorite record is “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis. It’s the kind of record where, when you hear it for the first time, you feel like you’re the only person to know it. It feels like a secret. It’s moody, it’s dark, it’s heartbreaking. Of course, everyone’s already in the loop except me. Howie’s got a cat named after him. But I’d rather be a little late to the party than sleep through the whole thing, I guess, especially when there are trumpets!

Favorite group/artist: David Brubeck Quartet. They do everything that I really love about jazz. It’s mostly beautiful, often jarring, atmospheric, and experimental without being up inside their own butts. If I’m feeling sentimental, Vince Guaraldi Trio is also great. It’s amazing to me that his music was used for children’s programming (“Peanuts”), even though it’s clearly made specifically for heroin addicts to have something to listen to.

– Cory