Friday, July 3, 2009

Wilco (The Rant About The Village Voice Review)

I enjoy reading criticism. When an author, a musician, or a letter to the editor writer lashes out at a critic, I tend to side with the critic. Not this time. The Village Voice has just published a review of the new Wilco album (which, I should say up front, I haven't heard yet) by Mike Powell that has stirred up all sorts of negative feelings in me. I'm not sure if I've fully grasped what it is that bothers me so much about this review, but I've got some ideas.

Wilco doesn't live up to Powell's idea of what rock'n'roll should be - they're too tasteful, they lack edge. His real problem, though, seems to be with the hype machine that's elevated Wilco, unjustly in his opinion, to the status of Major American Band. OK, fair enough, but it's not as if Wilco has ever declared an ambition, Stones- or U2-style, to be the "World's Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band".

The strange thing is that the parts of the review dealing with the new album are not all that negative. There's a strange passive-aggressive quality to the whole thing. When Powell throws some mild compliments the band's way, it rings false after the nasty and callous references to Tweedy's prescription drug problem and the recent death of former Wilco member Jay Bennett. I guess when it comes down to it, my problem is with the tone of the piece. The nastiness just seems way out of proportion to the aesthetic crimes Wilco is accused of.

Well, you might say, if he provoked that strong of a reaction, then Powell must be doing his job as a critic. At least it wasn't boring, right? Well, several Oscar Wilde aphorisms to the contrary, there are worse things than being boring (Powell's major problem with Wilco). The picture of Mike Powell that this piece paints is that of the worst stereotype of a critic - bitter, unpleasant, in love with the sound of his own critical voice, the kind of person Neil Young had in mind in "Ambulance Blues" when he sang "all you critics sit alone".

Maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe the use of "Midwesterner" as some kind of slur has got my back up. Read the piece and see what you think.


I just read the comments section below the online version of the review (I initially read it in print). Powell attempts to come to his own defense, stressing that it was supposed to be a positive review and that he really likes and recommends the album. He also makes this statement: "Wilco's general lukewarm-ness is what makes them really, really unique". OK. I guess now I just think that this is a weird, muddled, and ultimately unsuccessful piece of music writing.

I've been reading Stanley Crouch's most recent collection of criticism, and in it he says that "illumination is the true art of criticism". Crouch can be as confrontational and personal in his attacks as any living critic, but he knows what his point of view is about a subject and forcefully defends it with deep knowledge and formidable prose. Even if you think he's totally off base or out of line, you usually end up learning something about some aspect of the subject being discussed.

In his Wilco piece, Powell paints himself into a corner - his half-hearted attempts to peddle blandness as some kind of admirable virtue are D.O.A. after all the gleeful zingers he gets off at the band's (and especially Tweedy's) expense. Powell takes a couple steps toward staking out an intriguing position, but doesn't come close to adequately defending it or even convincing the reader that he's serious. There's no illumination to be found here.

Bonus Links

Powell's former blog at Stylus Magazine (not updated since '07). Maybe he has a current one, but I couldn't find it.

Another, harsher and more entertaining take on Powell's review.


Unknown said...

Business Idea: an entire website devoted to reviewing reviews of music, movies, etc.

Steve said...

I like it. Or how about a restaurant review site that only reviews the menus (font, layout, paper quality) and never talks about the actual food?

Adam F Kritzer said...

I wrote a defense of Wilco for the blog CultureCatch. Check out "The Meaning of Wilco" at

Leave comments and perhaps create a dialogue.