The Ear of the Beholder

Sometimes I really think that reviewers have too much power. I am still scratching my head over the Weekend Australian’s review (13/05/06) of the new Fiery Furnaces album. The reviewer, Elisabeth Knowles, deemed the record to be so poor as to rate no stars at all. No stars! Isn’t that the kind of rating you might reserve for a compilation of Duran Duran b-sides, the A-ha tribute album, or Ozzy Osborne’s covers collection? The worst you can say about the Fiery Furnaces is that they are pretentious. But to say that the album has no value at all is a substantial claim.

Personally, I find ‘Bitter Tea’ more accessible than either of their last two efforts ‘Blueberry Boat’ or ‘Rehearsing My Choir’. In fact, if you can get past the inexplicable mood changes, unnecessarily complicated arrangements and backwards vocals, the album contains some fabulous pop moments.

Reviewers elsewhere have also found plenty of worth in ‘Bitter Tea’. Uncut magazine’s four-star review sums the album up as ‘clever-clever, emotional-emotional avant-pop’, while Mojo gives the record three-stars and describes it as containing ‘soft-psych gems’ and ‘a lovelorn mini-suite of baroque synth-pop’.

So what are we to conclude? Am I, and many of the world’s music reviewers, suffering from some sort of mass delusion, or is Elisabeth Knowles the only person on the planet with properly functioning ears. The sad truth of the matter is that many potential listeners will be turned off by Ms Knowles review and miss hearing something unique, stimulating and, yes, I admit, challenging.

Quite often, of course, the opposite occurs. How often have you read a rave review, gone out and bought the record, only to discover that the album far from the classic described? Only a few weeks ago, in (once again) the Weekend Australian, Iain Shedden gave the new Vines album a rare five-star review. I was, quite rightly, suspicious of such a build up and thought I’d wait until I’d read a little more feedback before buying the album. Subsequent reviews described ‘Vision Valley’ as ‘mediocre’, ‘predictable’ and ‘mundane’. Not usually qualities attributed to a five-star album.

Perhaps we should be ignoring the opinions of so-called ‘experts’? After all, what qualifications does one need to review music? Or is it just a matter of being a little more discerning when reading reviews? A matter of reviewing the reviewers? What exactly should we be expecting from these people?

I would expect a serious reviewer to be familiar with the artist’s music, as well as the genre in which the artist works. I would expect the reviewer to approach the work in question with an open mind, and at least attempt to understand what the artist is trying to achieve. I would expect the reviewer to identify both the good points and the bad, and to be able to justify a particularly bad review (or good, for that matter) with well considered arguments.

I might be taking this all a little too seriously, but a review that offers anything less really shouldn’t be in print. Elisabeth Knowles doesn’t attempt to understand or analyse ‘Bitter Tea’. She doesn’t attempt to identify anything positive about the project. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she hadn’t even listened to it all the way through, such is the dismissive nature of her review.

She might have given her friends a chuckle by trashing the Fiery Furnaces, but a ‘no stars’ review of their new lp in the country’s national newspaper is impossible to justify, and probably irresponsible.

I’ll still give her one out of five stars for the effort.


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