How to Write a Record Review

It all starts with the listening, of course, ideally multiple times, ideally multiple ways: passively (play the record while you make fudge, grout the tub or knit a sweater for your cat) and actively (sit and really listen to the record, distracted only by occasional glances at its liner notes or maybe the artist’s website, so you know what the singer’s saying, and who’s playing what where). You hear different things when you listen different ways.

Once you’ve digested the disc in this way, but before you set pen to paper, it’s time for analysis — both internal and comparative. Internal analysis has three elements. You can label them past, present and future. Or you can label them objective, subjective and speculative. The past/objective analysis puts the disc in context, factually explaining from whence the artist came and how the record to be reviewed fits in terms of the artist’s known history and existing body of work (if there is one). The present/subjective analysis is your very own spin on what the artist has accomplished with the disc in question. This is the heart of the review — and don’t let people tell you that subjectivity is a bad thing here, since at the core, a record review is a subjective assessment of how you feel about the work. The future/speculative analysis provides your take on where the artist might go next, or how music in general may change as a result of the artists’ success or failure.

Comparative analysis is designed to give the artist’s work context and meaning in terms of other artists or sounds with which your readers might be familiar. You can compare your artist to other artists, so listeners who are unfamiliar with the disc you are reviewing can get a sense of whether they might be interested in it or not. Or you can compare your artist’s music and lyrics to those of other poets or songwriters, or even to non-musical sounds, movements or emotions. It’s helpful to not be needlessly obscure here, particularly if the record you are reviewing may be well of the beaten popular path itself.

Once you’ve listened and re-listened and organized your analyses, it’s time to write. Note well that music criticism is one of the most cliché-heavy genres of journalism, and do your best to steer clear of stock buzzwords and catch phrases. Create your own imagery whenever possible, rather than relying on imagery you might have read in other reviews. If you’ve read something once in a record review, it’s probably been used a thousand times before you encountered it.

It’s better for guitars to sound like a rain of metal locusts or for drums to sound like a muffler dragging beneath a tank than it is for them to them “jangle” or “thunder,” for instance. Avoid intellectual sounding, but typically meaningless, manufactured words involving the prefixes “retro-,” “proto-,” “neo-,” “aggro-,” “post-” and “trans-.” Likewise the suffix “-esque.” Steer clear, too, of “seminal” and “erstwhile.” Use “eponymous” at your own peril.

After you’ve written, it’s not a bad idea to tweak and tighten: music listeners and readers are notoriously short-attention-span types, and they’re not likely to read deeply into a long review unless they’re already deeply interested in the record you’re reviewing, in which case you’re just preaching to the choir.

When you’ve got your review as lean and elegant as its going to get, then it’s time to publish, since a review is nothing more than a diary entry if no one else reads it. Of course, you may not have a print outlet, but that shouldn’t stop you from sharing your views with others. So put your reviews on your blog. Or on somebody else’s blog. Or e-mail them to your friends. Or bundle a bunch of them together (or with reviews by your friends), go to Kinko’s and make your own ‘zine. Or send them out to media outlets in the hopes that they might actually get some traditional print exposure.

However your do it, it’s important to get your thoughts and words about music out into the public domain if you’re serious about wanting to review records on an ongoing basis. Before you know it, people will begin to incorporate your thoughts when making their own decisions on musical acquisitions and investigations, and at that point, you’ll be well on your way to being able to market yourself as an expert critic of music.

Happy listening . . . and analyzing, writing and publishing!

Rulebound Rebellion: An Ethnography of American Hardcore Music

The Penn Anthropology Department defines ethnography as: “(1) the fundamental research method of cultural anthropology, and (2) the written text produced to report ethnographic research results.” Penn’s site further notes that: “Ethnography as method seeks to answer central anthropological questions concerning the ways of life of living human beings. Ethnographic questions generally concern the link between culture and behavior and/or how cultural processes develop over time. The data base for ethnographies is usually extensive description of the details of social life or cultural phenomena in a small number of cases. In order to answer their research questions and gather research material, ethnographers (sometimes called fieldworkers) often live among the people they are studying, or at least spend a considerable amount of time with them. While there, ethnographers engage in ‘participant observation,’ which means that they participate as much as possible in local daily life (everything from important ceremonies and rituals to ordinary things like meal preparation and consumption) while also carefully observing everything they can about it.”

As part of my graduate work, I once had to produce an ethnographic report of a culture of my chossing, after completing extensive field research within it. I chose to study American Hardcore Music, around which I’ve spent far more time than I should probably admit since its earliest, formative days in Washington, DC, nearly three decades ago. I conducted interviews, went to a bunch of shows, dug up years worth of old reviews, interviews and notes, and parsed it all using the ethnographer’s tools to find the common threads between and meanings of the rituals that hardcore culture embraces. I was pleased with the end result, as I ended up with a very different understanding of the culture than I had assumed would be the case when I started the analysis. Click the link below for an introduction into this most fascinating of American subcultures, as a standalone PDF document . . .