On music critics, criticism and Merchandise

I had a dream the other day about music critics. They were small and rodent-like with padlocked ears.. as if they had stepped out of a Goya painting” – Stravinsky. The man knows. ‘Professional’ music critics are 98% thoroughbred chode. And yet, in an era of instantaneous connection we’re living through, in a young future society where the onus is placed on the ability to voice one’s (even when sorrowfully misinformed) opinion, well, like Igor says, they breed like rats.

I’m not talking about zine writers, writers of reviews for their blog, facebook wall, or anywhere else where stakes are low and opinion is a fun tussle, not the bread on the table, or even those whose diverting passions are built on a compulsion to tell the world that’s more of a delightful personality disorder, an earnest deaf drive to total sonic annilihation, a platform for the overlooked, who thus has far more in common with the common or garden ‘fanatic’ of yesteryear, you understand. No, I’ve in mind a critic, a wily, obsequious and slippery handed toad-beast, a he or she that puts his money where his word count is, and believes himself a citizen of every musical universe, master of the full gamut of known language that could used to describe it, to the degree that preexisting terms, or indeed the sacred shared language of the seekers-of-the-new-old-rare-cool , is deemed inadequate for the next big thing…either that or, more often than not, they have an eager dollar-eyed commissioning editor breathing down their sweaty neck, hoping to spot something, a kernel of a trend, just about anything that the publication can then legitimately (or otherwise) lay claim to having championed, helped nuture, or even by very act of reviewing, have somehow originated. ‘Invention’ ironically becoming everything, even in a world where musicians fight over fetid scraps of re-re-rehashed ideas….

Okay, and as I tie myself in unbecoming knots looking to justify this superfluous process-of-getting-to, let’s be clear that today I’m thinking about a term that’s been laughed out of town by many but persists, a term that seeks to supercede more obvious connotations that others might come to first, a term that precisely sums up the kind of inflated rhetoric and unnecessary trend-seeking far to prevalent in musical journalism. I am talking about hypnagogic pop. In the words of my non-fool suffering housemate Gav…*long pause and look of disgust* “….Come on man.” I, like, many, first encountered this term flicking through the subscriber copies of Wire magazine that previous tenants of our house, persons unknown, evidently forgot to cancel, so we kept receiving them. Wire is a curious beast, in that I enter into a reader/read relationship with it on the strange ground of assuming for a fact that there is no chance I have heard of or heard any of the artists and musicians reviewed, and 5% of those referenced, which can result in (if you don’t just put it in the recycling at this point) reading the criticism as some kind of almost impure literature. A good review cant just resort to ‘sounds like’ when you’re doing the equivaluent describing a particularly beautiful sunset to a blind person. Unselfconciously intellectual (you won’t find the kind of turgid ‘Yeah, this plain rocks’ record company pleasing, jewel CD quote fodder and all round platitudinal shit that rags like the NME churn out), I do enjoy reading The Wire magazine when it occasionally falls on our matt for these reasons, and I have learnt some new and exciting non guitar based music, but there are occasional spats of such ridiculously extrapolated analysis, particularly when it comes to punk rock, that I have to put it down and go and listen to some really, really dumb hardcore to compensate.

It could have been David Keenan, one of the Wire’s journalists, originated the term, or it could have been someone else. He describes it thus: ‘‘Hypnagogic pop is music that reaches beyond its performers’ abilities. It refashions 80s chart pop-rock into a hazy, psychedelic drone. It is listening to Beverly Hills Cop and hearing the music of the spheres. It is the sound that remains after the boys of summer have gone.

……Come on man. Listen to the music referred to by this term and hear the kind of post everything ennui filled tuney-glare of empty sound and… wonder who listens to this? The ethereal and the dreamlike seem to be the modes these bands are going for, but it seems very much a spiritual dead end. Of course theres a clumsy, fun art of making up ever more niche genres, but its also a little embarrassing and I definitely don’t want to see this game in the service of shifting units for the laebsl of megacorp shitsystem inc.

What worries me further is that a band I cannot stop listening to, who to me have nothing in common with the indistinct neutrality of overblown references found in so-called hypnagognic pop, have been described such in a few places I wish I’d never been to. That band is from Tampa, FL, and it is called MERCHANDISE. For the rest of this column, I will talk about their LP, one that I am certain you’ve already heard/cherished/discarded, but still I can’t quite yet. Strange songs in the dark. There are few more descriptive titles. It’s different to my usual audio territory and that might be why I rate it so highly.

On first listening, you could be forgiven for thinking that this group’s sonic aims equals every song you’ve ever heard played backwards and forwards at the same time. It has that that sort of totality, matched weirdly by a strong sense of accident in the presentation and unfolding/unravelling of what are, undeniably, some huge, huge tunes. Tasteful poppy croutons (minus the banal, this is not yr friends tweegaze band) bobbing in a thick, fermented stew, and lightly detuned like the sounds you catch yourself singing when engrossed in some other activity. Tangentially, the vocal remind me of Patrick Wolf, a UK mid-noughties multi instrumentalist and once glittery darling of a queer (both senses) brand of electrosynthy-neo-folk thing. Sounds gross, right? I fear his star may have faded (or indeed intensified) with age, as I read some thing about police being called to his posh flat in some bizarre drugs sex coup, anyway, but Merchandise’s vocalist has the same lush fey tones, like a luded-up Moz with his dick in his hand, still, mastery in every octave, all buried in indifferent, cosy, expansive fuzz. Fuzz with intent, not as a comfort blanket. Something’s happening. Half remembered, mumbled words, aimless, barely repeated vocal hooks floating over the scree, and they are kind of addictive. It’s the Best of New Order through a ham radio. It’s noisy, lurching and hugely listenable.

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