Monday, September 20, 2010

What Makes a Review Good or Bad? Let's See...

Specificity is crucial in terms of any criticism, for this is what makes a good review. Not only is it essential to communicate why something is good or bad, but also to provide substantial support for the analysis. With that said, this is why the Critic’s Choice in the music section of The New York Times is thorough while The Cold Cut (blog) is lacking. And this is far from surprising.

On September 19th, 2010, the Critic’s Choice featured Jon Pareles’ review of Santana’s album, Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time. What made this both successful and insightful are his frequent references to high profile musicians from several decades. Granted, he has the advantage of reviewing a cover album of popular songs between 1960 and 1990, however, it is possible to focus entirely on other categories of analysis with only brief mentions of these artists for entirely contextual purposes. These highly accessible references provide the reader with an established foundation while they navigate through the article. One gets an idea of what the album actually sounds like. Beyond this, Pareles doesn’t slack off in his analysis. There are frequent timberal and stylistic descriptions of both Santana’s signature guitar and his guest artist’s vocals, “George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ becomes a breathy ballad sung by India.Arie, with cello obbligatos from the overqualified Yo-Yo Ma.” Opinons of market value are also included: “These oldies tend to stay close to the original arrangements and vocal phrasing, perhaps hoping that familiarity can sneak them onto the radio.”

In contrast, The Cold Cut posted a review of Imogen Heap’s album “Ellipse” on July 16th, 2009. The author doesn’t even bother to provide readers with a last name, opting simply for “Will” as the entirety of his nom de plume. And this isn’t the worst of it. The post begins with a writer’s block disclaimer that shares an opinion that writer’s block is an equivalent to laziness before even acknowledging the impending review. This should have been a separate entry since it only serves to further diminish the author’s credibility. The review itself is rather short and assuming, focusing on an album that had yet to be released. Barely touching base on what makes Imogen Heap an immensely talented artist, “Will” attempts to boil down the essence of an album that he/she hasn’t even heard yet into a single paragraph, comparing the future single and opening track of “Ellipse” to “Hide and Seek”, another Imogen Heap single from 2005, “Remember ‘Hide & Seek’? Of course you do […]”

Reviewing the arts, or anything for that matter, is comparable to explaining what something looks or tastes or sounds like to someone who tragically lost the use of such sensations mid-life. Since the target audience consists of people who haven't experienced the subject of the review (yet, perhaps), the goal is to describe and discuss the album, book, film, or whatever it may be in a way that will make sense. Otherwise, what point is there in reading the review to begin with?

The New York Times: Critic's Choice - Santana Review by Jon Pareles
The Cold Cut - Imogen Heap Review

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