By Scott Nygaard
Music journalists spend their days wrestling with the problem of describing music in words. As editors, we are privy to the valiant attempts of publicists trying to describe the acts they represent and make them stand out from the tens of thousands of new recordings released each year. Many go for what you might call the stew approach to describing music: gathering a bunch of familiar references and throwing them together in one big pot. Here’s one example that caught my eye (the names have been changed to protect the innocent): “If Rodney Crowell had a head-on collision with Foster and Lloyd, and Steve Earle was driving the ambulance that picked up the aftermath, and he ran headlong into a van carrying a real country version of the Eagles, well, it would be a big mess, but you’d start to get the idea of the Hickabilly Brothers.”
Another approach begins with an incoherent, over-the-top rave and ends with a last-minute attack of sobriety. “You could say that Losing Sleep’s sonic universe is a solipsistic world that exists on its own terms, a cacophony of overlapping harmonics and dense shards of electric guitar that provide a counterpoint to tales of innocence corrupted, love lost, and the past mourned. But that might be a little extreme.”
One of my favorites is the decidedly English style in which a fairly straightforward description gets tweaked at the end: “The Sweetbreads offered energy, taste, enthusiasm, likable stage personalities, a decent degree of technique, and a genuine love of music of whatever cultural persuasion that came up and biffed them on the nose.”
Of course, musicians themselves must often wrestle with attempts to classify their mongrel forms of music. This explains the band that said, “We call our music hard-and-happy chick music.”
Anything with a vaguely new-age or spiritual bent can easily fall prey to inanities: “‘What does a tree feel like growing up?’ With that question, Ambient Floss describes the inspiration behind their newest release, Cosmic Tree.” And some publicity bios get a tad pretentious in their references: “The four members of Scorched Earth represent the four elements of the zodiac: earth, air, fire, and water. The dates of their birth add up numerologically to the number seven, the spiritual number of god and the godhead, which they do not represent.”
Sometimes a writer can exhibit a manic-depressive character that is truly worrisome. I’m pretty sure these two descriptions came from the same publicist: “The Godlike are all that you desire to be: young, good-looking, and inhumanly talented. The Godlike are oozing with a genuine and unbridled enthusiasm that is guaranteed to infect even the hippest of scenesters with a bad case of the foot-stompin’, booty-bustin’ fever.” Definitely on an upswing. But watch out for the fall. “Matthew Argyle is the singer-songwriter-guitarist in Down. He’s been in a previous band you haven’t heard of, and now he’s in another one. The band recorded this album in Seattle (for no particular reason) and coproduced it with Tommy Tonedef. He’s worked with some bands you have heard of.” Maybe it’s time to go home for the day.