instrumental music confuses most rock critics. without some dude crooning about this or that, they simply don't know where to start. this reveals a number of important shortcomings, primarily the fact that "music critics" can't really find shit to say about music.
let me be clear. rock critics seldom devote their efforts to analyzing lyrics; they simply take their cues from the most obvious lyrical moments, and they use those cues as the foundation of their evaluations.
for example, look at the way people talked about bob dylan's newest record "modern times". go ahead, search out some reviews. try to find one that doesn't quote the line "some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains." now, this is merely the most obvious line on an album overflowing with ramblings from arguably the best lyricist recorded music has ever seen. but most critics depicted his mood only as "grumpy" or some such adjective. they got away with this because they referred all of their thoughts to a single line in the first song (of course) that stood out to them merely because of the presence of the word "slut".
that lazy slut bob dylan's been on about
returning to my original point, when words aren't present, these critics have no idea what to latch on to. there is nothing present to cue them, nothing obvious to direct their criticism. they must actually listen to the music and then talk about it (mirabile dictu!). this is not their area of expertise.
all of this is brought about by pitchfork's latest review of ahleuchatistas' new record "even in the midst...". for those who don't know, ahleuchatistas is a group that uses a punk aesthetic to express jazz harmonies and other post-serialist dissonance. they are often called "mathy" because a lot of the time they don't write in 4/4. "even in the midst..." is their fourth record, the previous three being superb and urgent efforts to part from rock's overbearingly dull monotony. they seem more interested in composing music than composing their identity, which i find refreshing.
so what does joe tangari have to say? "ummmm..." here's a few samples from this directionless, careless review: the first track "opens with a series of splintered phrases that sound about like a bird's nest looks. then it trips some sort of wire and all three members lock into a breakneck martial/martian rhythm." take a moment to digest that. what does a bird's nest look like, and how would you imagine that sounds? soak in the abysmal metaphor that is "trips some sort of wire". [SOME SORT!] is "martian rhythm" critic-speak for 5/4? what the hell is he talking about?
but that was just praise. there are, of course, some the negatives. "in a couple of places, when the band seems to want a challenge, the music becomes somewhat overcomplicated and it becomes easy to loose the thread." response #1: "easy to loose the thread" for whom? response #2: "somewhat overcomplicated" -- the words of a man just dying to pop his grizzly bear CD in again and just relax. response #3: sometimes a band wants a challenge, but occasionally, a band assumes that it's audience might want one as well.
moving right along, "there's also something of a familiarity factor creeping in, given that their approach has remained fundamentally the same since day one." at last, here it is. carefully composed instrumental music all sounds the same to critics, because they are either too incapable or too impatient to analyze the differences between compositions. these people are bored by complexity, while blues progressions in 4/4 continue to enthrall them.
rock critics are students of convention. they study it carefully, and wonder at the possibilities that convention continues to offer (e.g. spoon, arcade fire). the idea of creating new conventions doesn't excite them; they prefer rotating forms of referential creativity (lcd soundsystem, devendra banhart, black kids).
above all, they prefer words, because words make music easier to understand. words are easier to write about than music. you wouldn't find yourself describing a lyrical phrase as "martial/martian"; you don't need to stretch that far. but bands that don't sing, even a band as aggressively brilliant as ahleuchatistas, will end up saddled with "a familiarity factor". this is because every time you review them, you have to actually DESCRIBE music, analyze it without the overt presence of a human ego to direct you. without familiar emotional signposts, it won't be long before you end up describing sound by connecting it to the look of a bird's nest.
instrumental music has very little commercial appeal. people like to sing along. they like to hear their musicians use the words "baby" and "oh" and "yeah". but critics are billed as experts -- an elite group who can see beyond commercial taste and come face to face with the artistic content within in an album. but feed them music without words, and soon enough, they'll be longing for "baby" and "oh" and "yeah" just like the hoi polloi.