One of the points of the Portland Point is to give a little kick in the buttocks of those responsible for giving our local musicians a kick in the buttocks. The primary outlet for music reviews in this town is our fault-laden rag The Portland Phoenix. Though there are others, notably the Bollard, which give the most candid (and therefore accurate) reviews we’ve seen in this Port City town.
The Local Music page always has four sections: album reviews, Music Seen, Sibilance, and of course the Bull Moose top 10.
The albums are all reviewed by Sam Pfeifle, and no matter how much you like his writing or don’t, it’s never a good idea for there to be just one staff reviewer. It’d be like having one branch of government. One mail man for the whole city. One coffee shop in the center of the Old Port. One bordering state. So without delving into the reviews themselves, we’re off to a bad start. We didn’t vote for Sam’s opinion (regardless of what it is) to be the one guiding voice. But that’s the management of the Phoenix’s perogative. So now let’s dig. The biggest problem with Mr. Pfeifle’s reviews is there’s too much back story before you get to the actual album, and too much technical talk about mixes and effects, not enough about the music itself, like, is the music GOOD?? Look at this week’s Spark the Rescue review. We start to hear about the album in Paragraph #6. The first 5 discuss StR’s past, and even the fact that 9 of the 12 songs on the disc aren’t even new. You can tell Sam is involved in Portland’s behind-the-scenes (he is Secretary of the Portland Music Foundation), because before we even hear about the music we hear about the businessy back end of the band, the stuff we the listener don’t want to know about, like the “cultivation of fans.” Fans probably don’t like to be considered just a number to be prodded into the sty. When do we get to read about the disc? Ok, in Para6 we get some album creds (featuring Jon Wyman, who else?), some name dropping of who these guys have worked with in the past, oh there it is: “giant sound.” Tucked neatly into the bottom left-hand corner of the page. We get the bulk of the actual review in the two paragraphs that start with “If anything,…” But Sam fails to delve into the feel, the mood, the backing emotions perhaps. He gives a very general description of overall feel (“chock full of tunes about love”) and then delves into what we think is the most boring tool of reviewing: then the guitars come in, then the vocals, then there’s like lots of voices together, oh i can hear a keyboard! He’s just describing the song like a sportscaster. It’s too technical, mentioning “Auto-Tune” which we’d guess the bulk of StR’s fans – or Phoenix readers – may not even understand. With all the references to “If you’ve grown up with the band” or “For those of you who’ve heard the first version” or “blast from the past,” we’re left wondering if the album, and its review, are meant to be for the general public, or just friends and family of those who grew up in Portland.
Then we have Music Seen (the pun is obvious but perfectly and appropriately so). Hey, at least the Phoenix gives voice to an array of writers. But more often than not, these articles feel like we’re witnessing the writer’s chance to brag about having seen some show, or knowing some band personally. Usually the reviews start with lots of “I” statements, ex: “I went to the show expecting…” or “When I heard so and so was…”. In the issue at hand, Chad Chamberlain breaks from the norm and actually paints a fairly vivid picture of what Seymour sounded and looked like. Then shatters the dream by focusing on his own personal view for the 2nd paragraph. Are reviews not supposed to be unbiased, we ask rhetorically? If Chad had indeed listened to that song on MySpace 10 times (and how is that part of describing the Seymour show?), how can he be expected to give us, the non-attendee, a fair and balanced opinion? Obviously he’s a fan. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s misleading in the form of a review. It’d be almost as bad as writing a review of your own band, which anyone would agree would be lacking the requisite detachment. Chad ends the Seymour review with an awkward, rambling, cliche (“bittersweet wintertime solace”??) Are we in high school creative writing class? Please let that question remain rhetorical, we don’t want to know the answer.
In years of reading the Phoenix, we still can’t figure out what the point of the Sibilance section is. It’s always a smattering of name dropping the same names that are always in that section in a transparent attempt to aggrandize said people. That’s okay, no beef on that, it just screams: “hey!!! we live in a tiny town!!! don’t forget it!”
The Top 10 Local CDs is always fun, see if any new names are there and count the number of appearances by Dead Season and Bob Marley. Mostly around the holidays, Marley has about half of them. This week it’s a refreshing potpourri of a whole 8 distinct acts in the top 10. Think about that for a second.