All posts tagged porcupine-tree

  • Anwyn Crawford discusses live music review techniques

    Owing to both arrogance and pride, it took me a while to realise that as a music critic, constructive criticism from your peers should be welcomed.  I get it now, which is why I was thrilled to receive an email from Anwyn Crawford in response to my Porcupine Tree review earlier in the week.

    “I have some thoughts on your recently linked-to live review,” she wrote, “if you’ll permit me to share them with you.”

    Of course.

    Anwyn is an Australian music critic based in Brooklyn. Her words have appeared in The AgeLoopsThe WireMess+Noise and Cyclic Defrost; contributions to the latter two are under the pen name Emmy Hennings. You should read her Overland opinion piece on Nick Cave, entitled ‘The Monarch Of Middlebrow‘.

    Anwyn doesn’t consider herself as a freelance writer, because in her own words, “I probably only publish about three articles a year”. That said: she knows her shit. I’m holding her advice on par with what Andrew Ramadge told me last year.

    The topic of discussion – my Porcupine Tree review for The Vine – can be found here. You should read it before reading the below, which is an unedited copy of what was sent to me.

    First up, it’s far too long. Unless you’re going to be deliberately discursive, or be pursuing a particular thesis about a cultural event that is significant to a lot of people, for instance Marcus’s review of The Tote’s last evening, then less than half that length is ample. Believe me, readers don’t want or need that much information in a live review format. I’m not saying this because I think it should be a “dumbed down” format or that readers aren’t capable of digesting something more complicated – they are – but it’s important to respect the expectations of the form that you’re working in, whatever that might be, which means that if you break the expectations for a particularly compelling reason, then the results will be more fruitful. Part of the skill of a live review, I think, is try and relay, in a reasonably short numbers of sentences, your experience of the performance to a readership. This means trying to pick representative moments of the performance – or occasionally unrepresentative moments, if these seem to get closer to the truth of the event. A song-by-song catalogue has little narrative interest for a reader.

    Secondly, and this is my big beef with so much music writing – PUT YOURSELF IN IT. I know that the first rule of essay writing that we’re all taught at school is never to use the first person pronoun. It’s time to put that rule aside. Reviewing is an inherently subjective act. It’s your opinion, and your experience – own it. This doesn’t mean describe what you had for dinner and how your feet were sore and “Oh, I missed the opening band” (classic street press gaffe), it means: don’t let your writing be bloodless. A reader wants to know why the performance might have mattered (or not mattered) and the only way they’re going to be able to get a handle on that is if you tell them why it mattered to you. It will also, almost inevitably, make your sentences shorter and more energetic, because you can can avoid clunky constructions like “One expects” and its many bet-hedging variants. “I think” “I was ecstatic” “My brain was melting” “This has stayed with me for days” – don’t be afraid to say I.

    Thirdly, avoid Latinate constructions and “pretentious diction”. I’m with George Orwell on this one. Translate them back into plain English. “Resultantly” = “As a result”. It doesn’t sound more sophisticated when you write “Resultantly”, it just confuses the meaning. Same goes for words like “emotive” (emotional) “reciprocate” (respond) “regale” (you need “shout” or something similar there, because “regale nonsense” as a clause makes no grammatical sense without a subject who is being regaled). Take a sentence like: “It’s a fittingly exhilarating close to an achingly beautiful song, into which the singer interjects a heartily-applauded full band introduction.” It took me about three runs to actually figure out what that meant. “It’s an exhilarating close to a beautiful song, and when singer XY pauses to introduce the band, he gets hearty applause”, is much clearer.

    And lastly, also related to Orwell’s timeless advice, avoid cliches and ready-made phrases. Chords nearly always “flourish”. A band is too often on a “jaunt” when the writer doesn’t want to use the word “tour”. There are millions of basslines that “pulse” and countless pianos that sound “plaintive”. Find a more interesting and a more accurate word, if you can, but bear in the mind the above: don’t let it become pretentious. Verbs are your friend, adjectives are often not.

    Just the kind of kick-up-arse I needed. Thanks, Anwyn. Pay attention to her blog.

  • The Vine live review: Porcupine Tree @ The Tivoli, February 2010

    Here’s my first review for The Vine, a Fairfax Media-owned youth culture site. It’s of British progressive rock band Porcupine Tree [pictured right] playing The Tivoli on February 5, 2010. You can read it here.

    British progressive rock band Porcupine TreeI want to discuss this review from a writing perspective. Some background is required.

    If you’ve followed my writing over the years, you might have noticed that this review is a return to the long-form, descriptive style that I became known for when writing for

    To illustrate: compare my Bloc Party @ Riverstage, November 2008 review for FL to this Robert Forster @ QLD Art Gallery, September 2009 review for Mess+Noise.

    With the former, I fell into a style that prized observing facts over engaging with the subject matter on an emotional level. To me, the Forster review reads like it’s written from a calm place more conducive to expressing one’s feelings, than simply listing songs played and key musical moments.

    To illustrate, it’s less this:

    It seems that foul weather has sidestepped Brisbane’s sore and sorry suburbs this weekend: clear skies greet Bloc Party’s arrival onstage, and an overwhelming sense of unity sweeps across the capacity crowd. […] Following the guitar freak-out during Positive Tension’s bridge (“so fucking useless!”), Okereke’s closing words tease the crowd: “play it cool”. The searing guitar tone of that track and Helicopter number among the likes of Franz Ferdinand’s Take Me Out as the most memorable rock sounds to emerge from the United Kingdom this decade. (Bloc Party @ Riverstage, November 2008)

    Than this:

    For seven songs, Robert Forster is alone, armed only with six-string, voice, wit and stare. […] There’s no hint of melancholy in Forster’s delivery, nor sense of mourning among the crowd; [songwriting partner Grant McLennan’s death] happened three years ago, after all. I feel obscene for writing these words, like I’m prodding at Forster’s bruised heart for mentioning McLennan in this context. But more than the half-dozen times I’ve seen the man perform in the last few years, this stage configuration highlights the emotional distance between us and he. (Robert Forster @ QLD Art Gallery, September 2009)

    I mentioned earlier that I ‘fell into’ the descriptive style when writing for FasterLouder and street press because it’s the norm. It’s easy. It’s what the majority of street press writers do, and when I stepped into music writing, I paid a lot of attention to my peers within the local community. (I still do read street press, but now I find it most useful when viewed as a resource that highlights what not to do as a music writer.) [Clarification: I’m referring specifically to street press live reviews in this instance.]

    I feel that this style of writing is problematic purely because it is so safe. You can’t be wrong when you’re just listing songs played and key musical moments. I’m not saying that anyone can do that. More accurately, anyone familiar enough with a band and able to write coherently can do that.

    And if you can do that, if you want to call yourself a music writer or a music journalist – I alternate the two terms loosely, which may be problematic in itself – then that’s fine. You can get your name crossed off the list at the door and watch the band and write down the setlist in your notepad (or crib it from online forums) and write your little description and send it to your editor (who won’t fuck with your copy because it’s so inoffensive and beige) and get published and show your friends and perpetuate the delusion that you’re a worthwhile music writer just because you get published.

    If you’re reading this and getting pissed off, hey – I’ve been there. I was that person for nearly two years until I took this role seriously. (You can read more about that here – but I warn you, it’s reasonably incoherent.) Between July 2007 and May 2009, music ‘journalism’, to me, was putting my hand up to review shows that, 90% of the time, I knew I’d like. I’d show up with a friend and get my free tickets and have some drinks and maybe take some notes and if it was a weekend show, I’d write it up late on Sunday night to meet the Monday morning deadline. (I now write most reviews immediately afterwards.)

    If you view it in terms of free entertainment, as I did, there’s no problem. You might even embrace your mediocrity as a writer because hey, it’s a hobby, right? You can impress your friends by getting your named crossed off the guestlist. Seeing bands for free and getting paid (miserably) for it – the dream, right? High fives!

    After nearly two years, though, I could embrace my mediocrity no longer. You realise that publicists are quoting your published praise not because it’s good writing, but because your praise is so unashamedly hyperbolic that of course it’ll appear on the press release. Because at the time, as a ‘music writer’, I wasn’t sufficiently self-aware to realise that I was being so fucking immature.

    This is not to say that a good writer can’t praise a band. I still nominate to review shows by bands whose music I’m familiar with, and usually fond of. I’m not sure how to define it, but I think that an important self-realisation has to take place before a music writer can put aside the urge to praise and describe, and instead rely on gut instincts and feelings to shape their work. Still the best advice I’ve received is from Andrew Ramadge, who I think of whenever I write about music. The most important question I have to answer: what does it feel like?

    Returning to the Porcupine Tree review. It took me three or four hours to write, which is far longer than I’ve spent on any live review for Mess+Noise. In a way it feels like I’ve regressed, purely because of its length and my tendency to rely upon description instead of feel. As I’ve made clear, description without emotional engagement is for losers. There was some exposition about the potential hypocrisy of an internet-successful band disallowing the use of recording equipment, but as my first review for The Vine, I don’t feel that it’s particularly strong, or representative of my evolution as a writer.

    Why did I submit it if I wasn’t 100% happy with the outcome? I believe it’s because I was thrown by the show, and didn’t know how to write it any other way. I hadn’t seen a serious rock ‘production’ like that in some time, and while I was clearly impressed by the scope of their performance, I perhaps allowed myself to take the easy way out. I allowed my standards as a writer to drop, and I think it shows.

    Maybe I’m being over-cautious. Maybe I spent too long absorbed in a piece of writing that I can no longer tell whether it’s good or bad. (That happens sometimes.) What do you think? If you’ve read this far, I’d love your critical appraisal of my review, whether you’re familiar with Porcupine Tree or not.