Heard It Through the Grapevine

Notes toward new and better criticism and marketing of wine and song

"Music is the wine that fills the cup of silence." -- Robert Fripp

If that's true, then music criticism is the belch that follows a draught from the cup of loudness. At any rate, music and wine are as bound together as any two forms of art on earth. There's the whole wine, women and song thing, and then there's songs about the stuff, like "Red Red Wine," "Drinkin' Wine Spo-dee-o-dee" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine."

No two fields of human endeavor breed snobbery and elitism with such roachlike fecundity. While most fans of both simply drink or listen to the stuff, for perhaps one in five of us -- and by the very nature of his job, Racket is among that minority, at least where music is concerned -- that's simply not enough. We've got to pontificate.

Just as wine snobs mock those who don't know a Burgundy from a Bordeaux, we music critics must hold forth at length on why Creed isn't worthy to lick the spittle off Clem Snide's boots, even though Creed sells out arenas and you've never heard of Clem Snide. Just as wine snobs disdain those who toss a box of California plonk in their shopping cart at Fiesta and think nothing of it, we roll our eyes at all those people in line at the record store who have the gall to buy American Idol and Toby Keith CDs. We know what's best, dammit, for ourselves, and what's more, for you.

It's kind of silly really. It goes without saying that appreciations of both wine and music are highly subjective -- there's no absolute good or bad that can be proved scientifically in either case. It's hard to believe that some people consider John Tesh to be a better musician than John Coltrane, but there are probably hundreds of thousands of fans who think just that. As Cole Porter once said, "The potency of cheap wine and cheap music should never be underestimated."

Furthermore, describing what something tastes like or what something sounds like is almost impossible. In music, you could use technical music terms, but relatively few people -- including most critics -- know what things like tonics and augmented chords and arpeggios are. Or you could play the "sounds like this other band" game, but then you run two risks. One is that the band in question may not sound like the other one to anybody but you. (They may not even sound like the same band to you on a another day, or when you're in a better or worse mood, or on a different sound system.) The second -- a hallmark of many indie rock reviews -- is that you play a little game of hipster one-upmanship and intentionally compare them to bands that nobody but you has ever heard of.

Thus are born album reviews such as this: "Feral Imp sounds like what would happen if you locked People Running About in a garden shed with Helping Robo for Combat and told them to fight over the Autonomous Action Unit's stash of Special K. Their angular guitar dissonance shades a little toward Great Angus's jagged panache, though the deliberately cheesy use of horns on several tracks puts them squarely in the Royal Magical Library camp. But its on songs like 'Remove Brainwashing' and the Des Koala-like 'Continuous Destruction Punch' that they shine with an almost Big Bang Shot-esque intensity." (Don't bother looking those bands and songs up -- they're all really Yu-Gi-Oh cards. But I had you going for a second, didn't I?)

Wine critics are plagued by a similar affliction -- namely, describing wine as impossible combinations of obscure, if not downright bizarre, flavors. How different is something like the "review" above from a wine rating such as this made-up write-up? Jean-Claude Favre: 1997 Beaujolais-Villages: "Dark cinnamon tinges on a persimmon base dance over manganese ore and English cucumber floorboards. Florid with rhododendron, fervid with capsicum, this wild-eyed red has a passion that is almost Pentecostal in its devotion…"

It's all enough to make you wonder how many indie rock writers go on to become wine snobs in their dotage. At any rate, it's getting hard to find wine writing like that these days. A recent trip to Bookstop revealed just the opposite: The cover of every wine guide Racket picked up was blurbed with assurances that this particular one wasn't as snobby or elitist as all the others.

In recent years, there's been an attempt to standardize wine ratings on a 100-point scale. The accompanying, often pretentious text remains, but today it's usually coupled with a score, so you can tell if that guy waffling on about plum pie, under-ripe celery and lingonberries actually liked the stuff or not.

One wine guide -- X-Rated Wines -- has gone in another direction. Instead of describing wines as something like a trip to the Central Market produce department, the book attempts to entice a new generation of wine aficionados with pop culture references. Unfortunately, as with many music reviews, they read a lot better and might even make some sense -- if and only if you're lit up on three bong hits of Alaskan thunderfuck.

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