This is what we like to see.

from Monday, June1st of the year2009.

See, now I’m happy. I posted yesterday about this review of the Grizzly Bear show, and now there is an interesting and (for now) civil discussion going on in the comments section. This is what the internet is for. Let me break down the essential arguments. First, I called attention to my dislike for the words “precious” & “twee” in reviews because I find them problematic, non-specific, and coded. I asked what the opposite of precious is “” my argument being that adjectives that are descriptive and dismissive are wasted space in reviews. A reader offered “sloppy” as the opposite of precious, which I must confess I hadn’t thought of. A friend emailed me and staged it in terms of food, which is interesting:

bagel
Precious? “Everyþing Bagel” from WD-50

2306088949_39df359f9d
Sloppy? Not Precious?

What makes all of this super interesting for me is that all of this is talking about Grizzly Bear. If you set up a sliding scale from Precious to Sloppy, where would you put any of the following:

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Grizzly Bear, Dory

versus something like this:

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Boulez, Messageesquisse, final section

or like:

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Paul Simon The Cool, Cool River

Are you gwine give Paul Simon a hard time for the precision of this song? The presence of Possibly Ethnic Instruments? The lopey time signature that changes in the choruses?

or better yet:

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Steve Reich The Cave, Genesis XXI

I feel like the scale breaks down. Precision and meticulousness just mean different things to all y’all indie rock people. Let me go out briefly on a limb. One of the most exciting things about the universe of indie rock or art rock or whatever the fuck you want to call it is the ability of the artist to represent, through recordings and live shows, an internal artistic universe. This is the difficulty composers always have: to represent the so-called life of the mind in small units of time. If you get commissioned for a five minute piece of music, you need to make it be, in addition to a successful five minute piece of music, an appealing glimpse into your musical/mental/erotic universe:

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John Adams Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Larger works need to be larger glimpses: not just a peek through a window but a proper walk around the garden, with drinks:

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Wagner Siegfried Dritter Aufzug: Vorspiel

CocoRosie are the best at this. You put on one of they jams and within seconds you realize that you are getting a really specific peek into a really specific place. If you’re into it, there are other buildings on the property:

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CocoRosie K-hole
(is there a better lyric than “Mexican Poný / Fucked up Shoes”?)

So the point is: meticulousness & precision are the way to get this stuff across. And in the scale of things, Grizzly Bear is really not doing anything more than paying attention to each sound and each gesture “” and, I will add, just in my personal experience of dealing with them, not in a way that I would even begin to call overly-meticulous or precious, it was actually kind of a free-for-all with a larger shape governing smaller decisions. All of this is a very, very long way to just interrogate that sentence in the Times one more time:

But wow, these songs are precious, and they occasionally came spangled with extras that made them even more so.

Are they really? Are they so precious that they require a wow? Ùˆ! I bristle because I have been involved in some very meticulous music-making in my life, and this was one of the least. The application of that word just resonates in the same space in my head when President Bush said, “I don’t care what somebody on some college campus says.” Words like that ““ especially in reviews ““ are training people to mistrust mindfulness and thoughtfulness, and it freaks me out a little bit to see a band I like so much get chided with a code-word for not having written meat & potatoes rock & roll.

That said, let me close out with two unprecious classix:

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Classic the First

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Philip Glass Floe from Glassworks Live at Sadler’s Wells

30 Comments

  • Yup–it was clearly someone wishing they were a straight up rock band and being annoyed that they weren’t, then faulting them for rehearsing and sounding tight. So stupid really…

  • are you suggesting that a string quartet playing JOURNEY is “unprecious” to a degree that makes it “durable”?

  • What a goooooood entry! Or entree. Yeah, a fatuous review that doesn’t do justice to what’s being reviewed, or that seems willfully smug, or that stubbornly refuses to come to terms with what the music is about…..I can understand why it got your dander up. Perfect on the use of “wow!”
    And what a sweet (no code word) way to amplify and illustrate, literally, what the musical corrolaries are to the linguistic howlers of Ratliff’s prose.
    And I love the ‘peek into the soul’ metaphor, especially using Wagner to illustrate “a proper walk around the garden, with drinks” The last two words as afterthought perfectly undercutting the serious, sloppy tweeness of the imagery. Like Woody Allen’s: “Why does man kill? He kills for food. Although sometimes there must be a beverage as well.”

  • “Precious” and “twee” are perfectly good words. The first one means “affectedly concerned with elegant or refined behavior.” The fact that a critic finds something affected in its refinement means that it doesn’t feel authentic to him/her. The judgment is entirely subjective, and as with almost all of what passes for criticism in this age of reviewers, it says more about the critic than the work at hand. “Twee” comes from the way a small child would say the word “Sweet.” It means sentimental. A whole bunch of people are going to find Grizzly Bear sentimental and affected; the music exists on a plane they don’t enjoy. Take away their ability to call it “precious” and “twee” and they’re still going to dislike it. Whatever words they come up with are still going to represent value judgments based on feelings and not ideas. “I laughed, I cried, I yawned.” Fuck ’em.

  • “Precious” and “twee” are perfectly good words. The first one means “affectedly concerned with elegant or refined behavior.” The fact that a critic finds something affected in its refinement means that it doesn’t feel authentic to him/her. The judgment is entirely subjective, and as with almost all of what passes for criticism in this age of reviewers, it says more about the critic than the work at hand. “Twee” comes from the way a small child would say the word “Sweet.” It means sentimental. A whole bunch of people are going to find Grizzly Bear sentimental and affected; the music exists on a plane they don’t enjoy. Take away their ability to call it “precious” and “twee” and they’re still going to dislike it. Whatever words they come up with are still going to represent value judgments based on feelings and not ideas. “I laughed, I cried, I yawned.” Fuck ’em.

  • “Fuck ‘em.”

    Hoo-kay. I don’t have anything against Grizzly Bear personally but I don’t enjoy their music. That said, I sort of agree with Craig in that explaining why I don’t enjoy GB would end up sounding more like a value judgment than anything else. And in fact, that’s why I don’t enjoy most “music criticism.” The writers also tend to be ignorant about music – they can’t read music, they don’t understand technique, they’ve never been onstage to perform, etc.

    But is it okay with you all if some of us older farts don’t get off on GB or the latest round of “indie” rock bands here in NYC? If the music isn’t speaking to me, but it’s speaking to a lot of other people…that’s really okay 🙂 In fact, that’s kind of the way the world works.

    I would say be careful you don’t become as mean as these supposedly “mean” music critics. I’ve received some truly weird reviews of my work in the press. It’s comes with the territory. Although it can be painful – sometimes more so if a friend of yours is the brunt of such “criticism.”

  • june is busting out all over….

  • I agree that precious & twee are just another way of saying affected. Their antonym, in this kind of use, would be something like genuine, unpretentious, or substantial.\n\nI think the real issue here, though, is taking a review too seriously. I can’t remember the last time a review swayed my opinion of an artist or a work of art; they’re only occasionally helpful for providing context or showtimes.

  • re: Craig
    I think the problem that I had with the particular review, stemming perhaps from the word choice, was that it felt more like a record review (perhaps of all of GB’s, but especially their latest) rather than a concert review. It’s like he didn’t like their music and used the concert to confirm that, and then to use overly florid language (see: Satie for similarities to the “frozen rhythm” business) elaborating on it.

    So: should a reviewer of concerts go to music he doesn’t like? What if he doesn’t know that beforehand? I don’t know, but I do love Grizzly Bear. And Nico Muhly.

  • I never understood when the Brits who invaded Gróðurhús would use “twee” but they used it a lot to describe music. craig, I didn’t know twee’s from a child’s pronunciation of “sweet.” Is that true?

    I think the world needs more reviewers, equally loud and opinionated, so as no one of them will hold the authority of The Review.

  • Who sent you that food analogy? I want his name.

    Cuz, it’s spot on!! 🙂

  • Why no performer credit for “Classic the first”? Who is it?

  • Ohoho…”music moves; it can’t do anything else.”
    …Uh, what?

  • Isn’t it Nadia et al. from Tanglewood a couple years back? Nadia as in nadiasirota.com. Who has a new album! That you should buy! 🙂

  • What a delightful ending to a fascinating post! When the unprecious Classic the First began to play, I was immediately reminded of one happy moment from my turbulent adolescence in Miami. I would like to purchase this version. Would you please tell me who is performing?

  • AlligatorATTACK
    June 2nd, 2009 at 10:49 am

    That recording of Floe is definitely in the wrong key! It almost sounds lethargic because of it, but it could just be the performance.

  • One problem with words like pretentious and precious is that I think people use them to try and objectively dismiss or invalidate something they just don’t like. It’s posing a subjective opinion as a categorical truth.

  • I don’t know, Nico. That leg looks pretty damn precious to me.
    I guess I’m using that in a more Gollum connotation…

    Also, I enjoy your ability to effectively juxtapose Wagner and CocoRosie. It gives me warm fuzzies.

    As to this sliding scale of precious sloppy… I’m not sure I subscribe to it. I think words like those are a bit too loaded, and almost thought-terminating, and altogether ineffective. So to set them as opposites of each other would just be false semantics. Take the denotation of precious, for example, just something near and dear to you. Your sloppy, adolescent, dirt-in-the-knees romance could be absolutely precious to you, as easily as a china doll in a glass case can be precious to anyone else.

    God, I hate analysis. All it does is open up a can of worms.

  • Nico, one of the hardest elements to crack about criticism is the point of it in the first place. John Cage’s opinion was to react “actively” rather than passively (that is to say, in the same mode as that which you are reacting to, i.e. making music as a critical reaction to other music vs. writing a scathing review). What I appreciate about your reaction is that you critique language with an analysis of language, and then react musically in regards to the criticism of music. Not quite the length to which Cage might have gone, but still, a great middle ground.

    Also, caught an earful of a piece from Speaks Volumes, I think it was Pillaging Music (?), on that BMW commercial in movie theaters. Good on ya.

  • AndrewPeteSimon
    June 4th, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    You sir, are precious.

  • Could I propose “utilitarian” as an opposite of precious? It seems less pejorative than many of the others that have been suggested, allowing for an oppositional structure that allows that while both the absurd bagel and the massive steak have their pleasures, neither make, you know, absolutely perfect uses of their ingredients. “Colloquial” might also work.

  • Hi Nico,

    I came across your site through Expression of Joy project. I noticed that you used the Arabic character Ùˆ in this post. Do you speak Arabic? I’m always happy to hear of people who have picked it up. How did you learn it?

    God the Internet is so strange.

    Regarding this post: thank you. I don’t know many people willing to put up so many examples in the course of discussion, and I find your examples well organized. I don’t have time to read much else on your site tonight, but I’ll bookmark and return. Sorry that this post didn’t do much more than celebrate unexpected Arabic references.

    إلى اللقاء،
    يعقوب بوتييت\ Jacob P.

  • As a freelance writer who has churned out my fair share of reviews, I feel comfortable saying that the review in question is a bad review and the author should feel bad for writing it. It’s just like all those film reviews in the Voice that go on for like seven introductory paragraphs about some obscure filmmaking process before even mentioning the new release in question — the author has some Important(TM) perspective to share, and the review is just a handy soapbox to stand on. Whenever you wind up feeling like you know far more about the reviewer than you do about his or her assigned subject, you can basically dismiss most of what they said.

    Editors are as much to blame for this as the writers, if not more. I’ve had editors go back into articles I’ve written and add words and thoughts that I’d never normally use, resulting in some truly awful misquotes and gross over-simplifications that I wish I could withdraw my name from.

    I’ve really enjoyed the back and forth here about the words “precious” and “twee”. Regardless of how precise or imprecise they may be, they’re now just buzzwords and shouldn’t be used in any serious review without elaborate justification. The irony of this reviewer using the word “precious” to describe Grizzly Bear’s music is too delicious, considering his use of phrases like “rhythm is a frozen concern.”

    I’m intrigued by your ability to offer a thoughtful critique on this whole matter instead of a defensive rebuttal, Nico.

  • I am in love with that Reich. IN. LOVE.

  • Wow. I haven’t listened to The Cave since high school. Butterflies all over again. We spent a week or so listening to this and Satyagraha. Fabulous.

    btw, thanks for the intro to CocoRosie. I’m checking out their 1st album.

    Wish GB was coming to New Orleans!
    -J

  • You remind me of Syd Barrett. Please don’t
    go insane.

  • Please let me interview you for my blog! We can do it via email, just a few questions.

    –Jordan

  • i noticed you in the crowd saturday night (@gb) and have to say the shirt you wore is one of the best things i’ve ever seen. that is all, aside from thank you for all of your work.

  • Nico, Love the music references…but you got one wrong.

    The Boulez you posted is totally the second movement, not the last…very understandable mistake.

    😀

  • From the Pandora.com description of Belle & Sebastian… some interesting points in terms of the definition of precious… just couldn’t resist commenting

    A band that takes its name from a French children’s television series about a boy and his dog would almost have to be precious, and to be certain, Belle & Sebastian are precious. But precious can be a damning word, and Belle & Sebastian don’t have the negative qualities that the word connotes — they are private but not insular, pretty but not wimpy; they make gorgeous, delicate melodies sound full-bodied.