Jesse Jarnow

a brief dip into meta-criticism

“Seahorse” – Devendra Banhart (download)

Reviewing is a guessing game, no matter how informed one is: a guess about what the contents will do with time. Will the melodies lodge and reemerge later as lyric fragments? Will the textures — of the music, of the medium — bond with the changes in the season and permanently lash to an ultimately arbitrary time and place? Listening is ephemeral, of course, but what’s really there? Is there something there? What’s left when the newness of context falls away? In that sense, it’s terribly unfair to review an album after even after a few months of listening.

To use an indie-safe example: when I wrote about the Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow upon its release, I listened a bunch, took it for absolutely decent standard-grade rawk, tucked it away, and forgot about it. That is, until months later, when I heard it played under the din of bar chatter between bands at Webster Hall, at which point I realized I knew nearly every melodic turn. Go figure. Once I got past the relative blandness of the more guitar pop, it was mondo groovy.

I reviewed two albums today by two other indieish standard bearers: Devendra Banhart and Iron and Wine. One grabbed me. The other didn’t. One seemed like a real step forward for an artist I didn’t quite get previously. The other seemed like a goofy step straight into the middle of the road for a musician I’d grokked instantly on his previous discs. Is that how they’re going to hold up, though? I really don’t know, but one can look for familiar signs: a certain way the guitars are recorded, a certain vagueness in the lyrics that suggests their abstraction will be useful, a preponderance of a certain mood. That’s all they are, really: guesses about how people might want to spend their time in the future.

I sometimes think about Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape artist who designed Central Park, who intended for his work come into full bloom only with a century of time. Not that most musicians are as good or functional or meaningful at their work as Olmsted was with his, or that their work will make any sense whatsoever a century from now, but — by their very nature of captured time reproduced — albums are somehow like that. All they’ve got is the promise of future meaning.

1 Comment

  1. Dan says: - reply

    OMG! I am doing my daily tour (9/26) of the Hype and I downloaded a live version of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, and then I clicked on your mp3 of Seahorse, and damn if that Take Five groove doesn’t kick in at the 2 minute mark!