How Many Spins Must A Man Walk Down
I am curious about the process of reviewing albums. Practically every magazine and website has an album-review section; some magazine covers proudly claim 100 reviews or more. If someone tells me that the new Arcade Fire album is a spiritual journey of hope and redemption, does that mean that they lived with the album for a few weeks listening to it and absorbing it without distraction, or did they spin it two or three times at their desk while answering the phone and doing paperwork? I have read reviews that seem like superficial assessments based as much on the band's image and what was written in the press kit as the music contained therein. I have read reviews written by people who seem to actually love (not like) music, and seemed to fully grasp the disc whether their opinion is positive or negative. My question is: How many times does an album get listened to before someone reviews it?
We ran this one by our music writers en masse, since we figured the answers would vary. Here's what they had to say:
Chicago city editor Kyle Ryan:
The answer, Mike, is like so many other things: It depends, especially when it comes to how much you like something. For instance, when I wrote the review of Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, I lost track of how many times I had listened to it. We scored a copy pretty early, so I'd guess it was a couple dozen times by the time I sat down to review it. That album required special attention, too, because it was so dense. Other times, you may listen to something four or five times and "get it" (like the new Emily Haines EP I just reviewed). I'd say on average, though, I listen to them at least half a dozen times, both while I'm doing other stuff, and with the expensive headphones on.
New York city editor Andy Battaglia:
The easy answer is, it depends: Some albums arrive months in advance of their release date, while others show up a day before—if before at all. It isn't uncommon for writers with early deadlines to have to review an album from a listening session under close guard in a record label's conference room, though that doesn't affect us much here at a weekly. (If you ever want to stare deep down into the pit of your soul and wonder what it is that you're doing in life, just imagine sitting alone in the Jive Records' conference room listening to N'Sync's "Pop" before it came out, good album though Celebrity may be.)
As a rule, though, I don't have any sort of regular routine. Living in New York, I try to walk around with an album on in my headphones as much as I can, since it's simply what I do otherwise. But there's no equation to crunch or secret to withhold. It's just a matter of playing as much as possible under the circumstances, and trying to be both a critic and a journalist about the experience.
Denver city editor Jason Heller:
I listen to most CDs I review—just as you guessed, Mike—around three or so times while sitting at my desk. But there's a method to my mundanity. While listening, I'll review press materials and surf the Internet looking for other reviews and recent interviews with the band. It seems you might have an issue with reviews that reference such sources, but any good review touches on the way an album was created and the people who made it—not just the reviewer's personal reaction to it. I try like hell to keep a sane balance between the two. After all, it's just as annoying to read a review that's nothing but solipsistic blather as it is to read a review that's nothing but facts, figures, and meta-critical context.
As for fully grasping an album—that's as subjective as the actual opinion one has of it. Who's to say that one person truly understands a piece of art and another doesn't? Can even the creator say for sure? The bottom line is, no record review should be taken as anything more than one jerk's opinion. Unless reviewers live in the heads of an album's creators, they're just making reasoned assumptions like anyone else. The rest is sheer taste. My own tastes have changed so much over the years, I look at a review I write as a mere snapshot of how I feel about an album, since that feeling will likely evolve or flip-flop altogether in time. Viewed that way, my opinion of an album after three spins is no more or less valid—at least in my mind—than my opinion of it after a thousand spins.
A.V. Club head writer Nathan Rabin:
As a hip-hop writer, I'm at a distinct disadvantage, as many of the major releases aren't sent out to critics early, if at all. This holds true even for critics' darlings like Talib Kweli, Common, and Kanye West. Rap labels are understandably more worried about widespread bootlegging than catering to critics, especially since a lot of big rap albums are relatively critic-proof. I don't think a positive or negative review from Nathan Rabin is going to make a big impact on, say, T.I.'s first-week sales. Ideally, I like to be able to really live with a record for a nice chunk of time, to listen to it over and over and drink in what it's trying to do. Unfortunately, I often have to review an album a day or so after I pick it up, so I always try to listen to it at least twice before writing a review. It's less than ideal, but then, I've learned to live with the idiosyncrasies and imperfections of the rap world.
Local content editor Josh Modell:
The best answer to this is probably, "the more time, the better." I don't like to review a record without marinating in it for at least a week or two, which probably means 10 to 12 solid listens. You don't want to over-listen to something, but many, many great records reveal themselves slowly. That's why I'm still defending Bloc Party's latest, which I feel was unfairly dismissed by critics and fans who didn't give it a chance. I found it not-at-all engaging at first, but grew to absolutely love it.
The List Of What I'm Sick Of Is So Long
Do the reviewers at The A.V. Club ever fatigue of having to consume so much media content? Do you get a chance to digest a particularly good or difficult piece of work before moving on to the next thing? Do you ever take a week off from music, books, films, Internet videos, etc.?
Tasha Robinson responds:
Oh, Dan. You realize, of course, that you're just setting us up for a huge backlash of righteously disgusted people whose jobs are actually frustrating: "Oh, poor babies, they have to read books and listen to music and see movies all day, their lives are so hard." So to put this in context: Sure, we intermittently get tired of what we do. Who doesn't ever get tired of their jobs? Many of The A.V. Club's core staffers have been doing this more or less full-time for 10 to 15 years, and occasionally, the pace is wearying, especially during peak times where we're trying to get through two dozen high-profile simultaneously released films the week before Christmas, or, say, read a 752-page book in a day so we can blog about it before it gets too dated.
That said, as Steve Zahn recently pointed out in his Random Roles interview with us, "You know, being a coal miner is tough too." We have terrific jobs, we're all doing what we really wanted to do with our lives, and there's really not much to complain about.
Speaking strictly for myself, Dan, what mostly makes me tired is those terrible streaks when it feels like all the media I'm consuming is bad. I think this is why older film critics so often get irascible and obsessed with novelty: After the sixth awful romantic comedy or torture-porn film or brain-dead slapstick buddy film in a row, they just want something new and different, be it Taiwanese master-shot cinema or the radical timeline alterations of something like Primer or Memento. Anything to get away from a same-old same-old rut.
With that in mind, when things get bad, I can usually clear my palate just by going off and watching or reading something that I haven't been assigned, and that isn't intended as ancillary material for any particular review. As a critic, I'm perpetually trying to catch up both on current releases and on the classics, and. It only really takes one Once to take the bad taste of The Salon out of my mouth.
With that in mind, no, I never take a week off of everything. I take books and movies on vacation, I go home to a pile of stuff I want to read or watch after hours, I have movie-watching parties on the weekends in my home, and I read on the train. I love books and film, and there's never enough time to experience as much of both as I'd like. So even when I feel a little beaten-down by the flood of material out there, I just keep bailing. I imagine if I ever reached a point where I just couldn't take another book or movie, I'd probably quit and go work in a factory or something.
Or as our Twin Cities editor Christopher Bahn put it when I brought this question up with the rest of the staff, "All I can say is, after I get done with a long work-week of listening to music, watching movies, and reading books, I relax by listening to music, watching movies, and reading books."
As to whether there's time to really digest the good stuff, I'd look to the Q&A above, which suggests that some folks are savoring an album a dozen times before writing about it. No, there generally isn't time to spend a week quietly pondering a given film before reviewing it. But there's generally time to go back and re-experience the good stuff, preferably with friends, and some time to chew the experience over socially afterward.
I'm interested in hearing a writer from The A.V. Club talk about why they have no coverage of live theatre. I would guess it's because they think that theatre is at worst dead or at best irrelevant—more irrelevant to our lives than video games.
I think (and, should you publish this, I imagine this is the paragraph you edit out) that theatre, when it's done well, has an immediacy and relevancy that makes it surpass all other art forms. I also think that 98 percent of the time it's awful. (Not an exaggeration.)
We absolutely do not have a "theater is irrelevant" editorial policy, JBH. The lack of extensive theater coverage is entirely a practical concern. The problem is that theater is time-and-region-specific. The Onion is currently published in 10 cities; every single one of those cities will have The Transformers playing in it at some point, and every single one of those cities has stores where you can buy the books and albums and video games and DVDs we're covering. (Even if they didn't, for some reason, you could still acquire those things online.) So when we review these things, we can run the reviews in all of our print editions, and online, and be relatively sure that they'll be relevant to all our American readers, at least. There's an economy of scale operating there that lets us keep our staff small and spread out over many cities.
Those reviews will also stay relevant for years to come in the archives, since the films we're reviewing today will mostly be out on DVD eventually, and most of the books and albums will remain continuously available—through the secondary market, if nothing else.
A stage play, on the other hand, is by nature ephemeral; once a given production folds, it ceases to exist, so reviews have no staying power, and they wouldn't mean much long-term. And the plays you're seeing in your city aren't the same plays other people are seeing in theirs; even when a huge show like Wicked is touring while also playing simultaneously in New York and Chicago, it's being put on by different crews and different sets of performers, and a review of one show can't necessarily stand in for a review of the other. So each city would need its own complete set of reviews, which couldn't be used anywhere else, and could only be used for a limited time.
Then add in the fact that we'd need an extensive staff in each city to handle coverage. On average, each city has a single editor managing local coverage; even if they saw a play every night (which would be impossible anyway, given how many shows only go up on the weekends), they wouldn't even make a dent in the larger cities' theater scenes. It'd be like just having one film reviewer for the whole paper, instead of the five we currently have covering the cinema beat.
So we look for other ways to cover theater—listings, features, and the like. But at the moment, we just don't have the manpower to tackle theater reviews with anything remotely like the exhaustive attention we try to devote to other fields. That doesn't mean we don't respect theater as an art form, or the people working in the field. It just means we know our limits. Or at least our limits as of this moment.
Looking So Long At These Pictures Of You
Would you guys ever consider posting photos of yourselves on the A.V. Club features? I always enjoy reading Crosstalk, Inventory, Ask The A.V. Club, CTOTD, etc., and I always enjoy the feeling of trying to get to know the subtle differences in the tastes among the writers. But I think the experience would be enhanced somewhat if I could see what people like Scott, Noel, Amelie, Nathan, and Tasha actually look like. Is this too superficial of me?
I don't mean for interviews or reviews, necessarily—those are more about the artists or works you are reviewing—but for the features that are basically about you guys and your own personal tastes (I'm thinking of Crosstalk in particular), I wouldn't mind having a little visual idea of whose opinion I'm reading, and it would frankly help me keep track of the discussion. Heck, even a banner on the home page with a photo gallery would help. What do you think? Would The A.V. Club spring for some résumé shots?
We've certainly considered adding pictures of ourselves to the site, John. We periodically reconsider it and joke about it whenever we're accused yet again of just being a bunch of hipsters. None of us particularly have the stereotypical hipster look, and we're curious what people would make of what we actually look like. That said, we're not a bunch of airbrushed magazine models, either, and we don't particularly feel the need to give all the cheap-shot artists out there more material to work with. All too often, people on message boards that do support user pictures wind up engaging more with the images of their fellow commenters than with the contents of their comments. We'd generally prefer people addressed our opinions rather than our hairstyles or clothing choices. That's not to say we'll never add pictures of ourselves to the site, but for the moment, it isn't really a consideration.
STUMPED NO MORE!
And because some of you just aren't happy if you have to go a week without obscure identifications… Last week, we presented readers with another batch of questions we couldn't answer. Here's what you came up with:
Jamie was looking for a music video from the '90s featuring two women racing through a city after a man. "At the end of the music video, the singer finds the man, and the blonde woman walks off into the sunset pushing a baby carriage. The hook of the song kind of sounded like the first seconds of the Star Wars theme if it were played on a street organ." Consensus said this was White Town's hit song "Your Woman," from the 1997 album Women In Technology. And the video, which includes every element Jamie mentioned, confirms it:
Mike Sacks was looking for a film where a queen asks one of her soldiers to volunteer to commit suicide: "One steps forwards and climbs onto a large slide with razors attached to it. He then slides down and dies. Vaguely remember it being a movie from the '50s or '60s in Technicolor." Of all the questions we've ever gotten that asked "Did I just dream this?", this question most sounds like something out of a random childhood nightmare rather than a film. But several people confirmed that this happened in 1964's The Long Ships.
A description of the scene from the comment-board, from user "The Coelacanth": "Richard Widmark's Viking explorers were captured by Sidney Poitier's African Moors. To demonstrate the loyalty and fidelity of his men, Sidney has his queen pick out one of his soldiers at random who will voluntarily throw himself on the giant razor blade, just as a demonstration. Then the Vikings are scheduled to be sliced in half next, but of course they fight their way out. Actually quite a rousing movie, 1964, good fight scenes at the end involving a giant bell and a cliff. Check it out again."
A picture of the razor-slide (known as "The Mare Of Steel") and a more detailed description of the scene can be found at net-monster.
Simon wanted to read one of his childhood favorites to his kids, so he wanted help finding a book about some children "who were made to travel through a fantasy land to earn some sort of redemption. In addition, they each had to carry something like a small haystack on their backs, with the haystack actually gripping onto them with small, claw-like hands." A few people positively identified this as Enid Blyton's The Land Of Far Beyond, a retelling of John Bunyan's allegory The Pilgrim's Progress. An email from a reader named Sam points to the book's Wikipedia page for a minimal plot summary and a character list, and he adds this warning: "The chapter titles had an annoying habit of giving away the plot before it happened. So if you do read it to your kids, don't tell them the title of the chapters, it'll ruin it."
Finally, Doug Nelson was looking for a faintly remembered color movie from the early '60s: "I can only remember a few individual shots. There's an artist killed with his palette knife, and a murder trial. The plot I think depends on whether his death was suicide. And toward the end there's a scene where a woman slashes at a framed painting on a wall, but we see it from behind the painting so as she continues slashing we see more and more of her." We had two suggestions on this one—François Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black and the Lord Peter Wimsey TV adaptation Five Red Herrings—but while both feature murdered artists, we haven't been able to find any strong evidence for either.
Commentator Marc, on The Bride Wore Black: "I don't remember the film that clearly, and what I do recall doesn't completely jibe with the details Doug provides. But I know one of the men Moreau kills is an artist. I also remember he has a painting that looks like Moreau, and she may destroy the painting to eliminate any evidence linking her to the crime. Furthermore, the film's style is a slavish imitation of Hitchcock, and the trick shot from behind the canvas sounds just like the kind of thing Hitchcock/Truffaut would have done. Finally, the woman is caught and tried for murder. I don't think the trial figures very prominently in the film, though, as it is mostly a series of cat-and-mouse setpieces. Anyway, a viewing of the movie would clear all this up."
Alternately, Doug, you could watch the trailer and see if it jogs any memories. And if not, it's possible that everybody's just going to remain stumped on this one.
Next week: An obscure Bugs Bunny reference, people who read soap-opera comics, and a bunch more obscure lost video games. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.