Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

The Sort of Writing I'd Like To Write

Doug Wolk's review of the new Young Marble Giants reissue went up on Pitchfork today. I already knew I'd need to hunt the record down. The previous reissue has been on my I'll-buy-it-when-I-see-it-at-the-record store list -- I almost never buy things online, for complicated reasons -- for years. But now that I have Wolk's words in my head, I may have to break with precedent and go shopping at Insound.

One of the things that annoys me about much Pitchfork-style writing is the way it draws attention to itself at the expense of the music. I love a good turn of phrase, mind you. And the witty are preferable to the witless. It's just that I don't need to be constantly reminded that the reviewer commands more depth of field than the reader or, for that matter, the artist being reviewed. What sets Wolk's prose apart are his devotion to presenting the music he's reviewing in the best possible light and the fact, itself a distillate of that devotion, that he doesn't need to build himself up at the music's expense:
In a year when everyone was trying to make a big noise-- but isn't that every year?-- YMG switched tactics, forcing their audience to lean in to hear them. It's not simply that they were quiet, although substituting a drum machine that sounded like it had a thick quilt on top of it for a human drummer was a radical move at the time. They weren't even all that quiet-- they were just in love with negative space, and their lyrics were so much about things unsaid that the space was formally appropriate. Stuart Moxham flicks at his guitar like a card-sharp snapping out an ace, amplifying the impact of his pick on the strings as much as the notes themselves; his brother Philip Moxham bangs at his bass, then lets the sound decay. Alison Statton's not an affectless singer, exactly, but her chief weapon is understatement. She knows how angry Stuart's songs are, and just barely hints at that fury, in a voice that suggests someone finding the courage to say something she's needed to say for a while and has only one chance to get right.

What's sort of shocking about their sole album, actually, is how full of rage it is, and how many ways the band manages to translate that rage into something that's not the way the rock idiom usually expresses it. Colossal Youth ticks like a not-yet-exploded bomb. In theory, "Include Me Out" is a mighty garage-rocker, something the Stones or Count Five could've played with a sneer and a great big beat; the Giants strip it of virtually all its audible violence, reducing its rhythm to a muffled thump. "Credit in the Straight World" is a vicious little song about the relationship between subculture and mass culture, and it's all tension, no release, with a riff that keeps landing a half-step above where it should resolve. (The caterwauling Hole cover of it, from Live Through This, demonstrates that you could fill in all the space in Stuart Moxham's songs and still have something impressive.)
Wolk certainly doesn't hide his chops in the back of the refrigerator. He uses metaphors -- "not-yet-exploded bomb" -- when they compress the work of straight description into half the word count. And he references musical history -- from the Count Five to Hole -- where appropriate. The difference, I think, is that he never loses sight of the way that adjective risks turning into the noun "appropriation." The glory his words generate is angled to illuminate the artist he's writing about. If that light ends up returning to bathe him in a soft, steady glow, it's a reward he deserves all the more for not seeking it out.
Tags: music, writing

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