Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do you think is the greatest band of all-time with a terrible/dumb name? And conversely, what is the worst band in history with an awesome name? — Matt from Adelaide, Australia
The Beatles is a dumb pun. Led Zeppelin is a dumb pun. The Sex Pistols is a gross pun. The Clash sounds like the first entry on a “generic punk band names” list. Every band name is dumb if you think about it long enough.
That said, the absolute worst band name/greatest music combination for me has to be Arctic Monkeys, a band I avoided for years specifically because I thought the name was so stupid. There’s no way a band called Arctic Monkeys is going to last past an album or two. It made me think of the ’90s alterna-dance band Space Monkeys, a group that nobody remembers except as a punchline about bad ’90s alternative bands. Unless you’re The Monkees, don’t ever name your band after a primate.
Honorable mention goes to Drive-By Truckers, one of the greatest southern-rock bands ever with a moniker that sounds like a Jeff Foxworthy joke. Even Patterson Hood has expressed regret about coming up with that name. “It’s like those hippies that name their kids Moonflower. Years later, you go, ‘Goddamn, I wish my parents hadn’t named me that,’” he told me in 2014.
As for a terrible band with a cool name… this one is actually harder to answer. Bands with terrible taste in music tend to also have terrible taste in band names: Five Finger Death Punch, Cobra Starship, Hinder, Imagine Dragons, 3OH!3, LMFAO, Puddle Of Mudd, and so on. Bad bands have unwittingly high ethics when it comes to truth in advertising.
But if I had to pick one, I guess I wish that 311 had been reserved for a trio of 11-year-olds who play hardcore.
Was wondering what album you consider the “sneaky best” bass album, (which I am sure you have considered before). I would have to say mine is Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights, but that might be too obvious. In that case I’m going to go with Good News People Who Like Bad News by Modest Mouse. — Mike from Boston
You know, I actually have not thought about this before. But I’m intrigued!
First, we should clarify what a “sneaky best” bass album is. Since I didn’t invent this concept, I’m going to have to speculate: What I think Mike is referring to is an album that has really cool bass parts that most people don’t readily associate with cool bass parts. So, we shouldn’t praise the mighty James Jamerson and the symphony of grooves he creates on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, or anything from Charles Mingus’ catalog, or really anything overtly funky or loaded with lots of obvious slap-bass sounds. We’re trying to avoid the obvious here. Instead, we lurk.
My immediate thought was Abbey Road, but I’m not sure how “sneaky” it is to suggest that Paul McCartney’s playing on “Something” and “Sun King” is great. So instead, I’m going to nominate Doolittle by Pixies, though again this one seems obvious, as Kim Deal’s deep, super simple grooves on songs like “Monkey Gone To Heaven” and “Wave Of Mutilation” helped to set the sonic template for so much rock music afterward.
I recently read an album review which mentioned that “the songwriting really stands out.” When critics refer to songwriting as a quality of music, what the hell is being referred to? Or maybe what isn’t it referring to? I suppose the sound of a voice, or aspects of a performance, or production choices would fit outside of that, but couldn’t about 90 percent of what’s being heard be tied to “songwriting”? Can a bad song have good songwriting? — Jeff from Milwaukee
One thing I’ve learned from talking with musicians is that songwriting might be a little overrated. When you listen to a record, a lot of what you’re responding to is how the song sounds, including the arrangement, the interplay of the musicians, how it was mixed, and so on. When critics talk about songwriting, they’re usually referring to lyrics, which can add significantly to a song when they’re good, though so many good songs have really bad lyrics.
Can a bad song have good songwriting? If it’s presented in a way that doesn’t sound good, sure! “The Sound Of Silence” is a classic Simon & Garfunkel hit, and an obvious example of “good songwriting.” But that doesn’t mean I want to hear Disturbed play it.
Something I’ve always wondered about the general critic life: How often do musicians reach out directly to the reviewer/site regarding the review? I would imagine there have been cases where a band getting roasted would take personal offense to a review. — Eric from Charlotte
Personally speaking, it hasn’t happened to me all that often. When I was in college, a local band that I had panned in the university paper called me at my dorm room and read me the riot act, which I probably deserved. Now, it’s more common for an artist to fire off a passive-aggressive tweet in your direction, though that hasn’t happened to me that much, either. As someone who has been reviewed recently myself, it really does no good to complain publicly about reviews, or privately to the reviewer. Even when you feel you’ve been wronged, it’s almost impossible to dispute a bad review without looking thin-skinned or petty.
A scenario that does happen fairly often is a publicist or manager will reach out to a publication and complain about negative coverage, and even threaten to restrict future access to the artist. Sometimes the artist’s people can even get a negative piece taken down, as was the case with Chance The Rapper, Kings Of Leon and others who used their leverage to manipulate coverage at MTV News. Of course, those behind-the-scenes machinations were eventually made public and it made the artists in question… look thin-skinned and petty.
As I started going to concerts as a teenager in the ’90s, the prevailing rule was “Don’t wear the T-shirt of the band you are going to see.” As I’ve grown older, this seems to not be the case anymore, as I’ve seen plenty of shirts of the band I’m seeing. What is your take on this? As a youngster, I understand the notion of trying to be cool by wearing another band’s shirt. At the same time, as I’ve grown older it makes total sense that if you are going to a Yankees game to wear Yankees gear and not the Marlins. Or am I just thinking way too much about this? — Mark from Lakewood, Ohio
If you came of age in the ’90s, you had the misfortune of being raised in maybe the most self-conscious time in human history. My god, did we overthink everything back then!
Nevertheless, I can’t wear a band shirt if I’m seeing that particular band. It’s just too ingrained as a rule in my mind. Just the thought of it makes me ill. Growing up with the stupid alt-rock politics of the ’90s has Clockwork Orange‘d me beyond all hope. If I attempted to see a band while wearing that band’s shirt, I would either set my shirt on fire as I was walking into the venue, or I would set the venue on fire and spare the shirt.
But if you aren’t wired that way, feel free to do this! It’s harmless! And rest assured that the people around you at the show are laughing with you, not at you.