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Tim Chipping

Ranting & Reeling

Tim Chipping’s monthly column

I once argued that it might become possible to state scientifically whether a piece of music is good or bad. I’m sure I believed it at the time (scrumpy will do that to a person) but it was nonsense. And yet stating whether music is good or bad is what I’ve been doing professionally for the last fifteen years. It’s almost as if I’ve wasted my time.

I don’t write album reviews much any more. Since most music is but a sneak preview/exclusive stream/illegal leak away, I figure no-one needs me to tell them if they’ll like it or not. And while that’s largely a democratic development it means most reviews have become little more than quote generators for adverts and press releases; that’s how low the art has sunk. Music criticism is in the gutter looking up at the five stars it gives everything for fear of losing favour.

When I wrote regularly for a mainstream music publication I was given the debut CD by a band called Razorlight to review. I was told that if I didn’t like it I’d have to relinquish the job to someone who did, as the group’s record label was taking out a full page ad in the mag. Had I not been bound by commercial interests I’d have described it as a laughably self-conscious pose of a record, yelped through the adenoids of an educationally privileged buffoon. History would’ve proven me right.

Could anyone still employed (or not) in reviewing music on the folk and roots scene risk such a diatribe now? [In fRoots, yes… Ed.] Might they dare award something two out of five? Would anyone tell it how it is if “how it is” is slapdash, sonically grating and disharmonious? I ask because I’ve heard an album this month that’s all those things yet not a single review has said so. They’ve all been either uncritically generous or padded with platitudes.

Perhaps I’m alone in apologising to my own ears after hearing said release. After all, what we require from music is as individual as a snowman’s fingerprint. But it’s also possible that no one took the record’s failings to task because we all know each other, we all (mostly) like each other and we all want to be able to enter the next gathering of the folk clans without catching the scornful eye of someone whose art we publicly chucked in the bin. And since I’ve not told you which album I was describing, I’m as guilty. Better to be an ambiguous coward than an honest pariah.

Some years back, Adrian McNally of The Unthanks sounded off to me about this very dilemma. He asserted that the good reviews they garnered were devalued when everything in the folk press received similar praise. When it was my turn to critique The Unthanks’ next offering I purposefully singled out a song I felt wasn’t to the same standard as the rest of the recording. He’s not mentioned it since but is it a coincidence I’ve never received a Christmas card?

Not that I’m shifting the blame, but if artists adhered to the adage ‘never read your reviews’ then their sensibilities would be spared. We could write what we wanted; publish and be damned. But then they’d never know if their music was good or bad.

Tim Chipping


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