Thursday, July 19, 2012

Flushing the pipes: Channel Orange and the art of speed-reviewing

Here, via Time Out New York, is my review of Frank Ocean's Channel Orange.

This version of the piece, the same one that appears in the current print issue of TONY, is actually my second stab at an assessment of Channel Orange, and the one I'm much happier with. At the end of the review linked above, you'll find a link to the first review I published, which went live the day of the album's surprise-attack midnight release.

The short answer to "Why are there two?" is that soon after I published the first one online, I realized that it had been a rush job. I spent more time with the album over the next couple days, and it steadily grew on me. I realized I could still complete a new version of the piece in time for our print deadline, and thanks to my patient and understanding editor, Steve Smith, take 2 is the one that ended up running.

This sequence of events sounds pretty straightforward, but the fact is that it kind of drove me insane last week. (My wife could certainly describe this state of mind in greater detail.) My initial response to the record—the follow-up, I should add, to my favorite album of 2011—was mixed, and as the rave reviews started rolling in, I started to second guess myself, not because I felt like my take needed to mirror everyone else's, but because I realized that I simply hadn't spent sufficient time with the record.

During my career, I've had to write surprisingly few rush reviews. Typically if I'm reviewing a record, I have the music weeks or months in advance. With the Ocean, though, that wasn't an option. I heard it for the first time when everyone else did, last Tuesday morning. As soon as the reviews started going live—i.e., pretty much immediately—I felt compelled to jump into the fray. I was talking about the album with some friends and fellow music writers over e-mail, but that didn't suffice; I felt, for no reason other that that journalists in the internet age tend to feel that they're late on a story (even something as in-the-grand-scheme-of-things trivial as a review of a newly released work of art) mere hours after the window on said story has opened, that I needed to publish immediately.

The problem with that urgency is an obvious one: First impressions are iffy. (I should state another obvious point here, i.e., that there's no such thing as a "correct" record review, only one where the writer has had sufficient time and space to get familiar with the album in question and work out their formal impression of it—the argument they want to make.) This is a constant pitfall of deadline-oriented writing-about-music (or writing-about-art, period) and this particular instance certainly wasn't the first time I'd published a review and second-guessed it. What was special in this case, was the intensity of my bummed-out-ness re: that second-guessing: not exactly the feeling that I had let the artist down (because, let's be serious, my Channel Orange review was one of approximately a zillion that have been published; in the end, what I said matters to relatively few people aside from myself), but the feeling that I hadn't given myself the time and space I needed to simply do a good job on the piece, to come up with something I could stand by and be happy with going forward. The latter criteria, incidentally, do apply to the second version of the review, the more positive one you'll find at the link above.

Along with the aforementioned bummed-out-ness came a painfully complete understanding of why I felt that way, and what I needed to do in the future to avoid feeling that way again. Film reviewers may very well have to settle for one pass through the movie in question, simply because of the logistical impracticality/impossibility of watching the entire thing again in time for their deadline. But music reviewers tend to have the luxury of at least a couple spins, and here's the reason why we ought to take full advantage of that luxury (or at the very least, why I plan to in the future): When you're hearing a record for the first time, especially a record that you've looked forward to, by an artist you already know you care about, you're not really hearing the record. You're hearing some kind of composite sonic image: the record you hoped you'd hear, overlaid on the actual thing. In many cases, and I think in the case of my Channel Orange experience, your expectations are so extensive and so powerful that they simply drown out the sounds that come out of the speakers. Listen a few more times, and you can begin to edge that essentially meaningless set of expectations out of the picture; you can, in other words, hear the record on its own terms rather than on yours. Now again, I'm not saying that at that point, whatever you write is somehow "correct." What I'm saying is that at least you're engaging with the given record in a fair way; you're giving it ample chance to reveal itself.

Record reviewing is no exact science. There may, in fact, be few more inexact sciences. But as I said above, it really comes down to the writer's own feelings. If others get something out of the piece, that's all the better, but as a writer, you simply want to be able to stand by what you wrote, to feel afterward that it accurately expresses, in an objective way, how you feel, what you'd meant to say. As any writer could tell you, sometimes that isn't the case, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes you finish a draft of a piece and it appalls you. If you're on deadline, you might hand it in anyway, because you have no choice, but you don't feel a sense of proud ownership. And that sense of proud ownership is all I mean to ponder here, i.e., how best to end up feeling that way. In the super-specific case of a record review, I think it's important to take one's time, or to take as much time as one has, because you're more likely to end up proud of what you've written, or at the very least to feel comfortable standing by it. Now, of course, there are plenty of records that have taken me far more than a few spins to warm up to—several years' worth of spins, in some cases—but I'm speaking here about a deadline-oriented situation. What you want to do in these cases is make sure you've flushed the pipes—that is to say, eroded as much of your essentially irrelevant and potentially insidious expectations as possible—before you drink the water. That's when you're doing your job, i.e., writing about the thing in front of you, rather than the version of the thing you've been carrying around in your mind. I was fortunate enough to get a second crack at Channel Orange; I hope that next time, I'll have the good sense to wait before taking my initial swing.

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