Heard It Through the Grapevine

"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.

To wit: A California Pinot Noir is described as "Woody Allen listening to 'I Touch Myself' by the Divinyls -- vinyl, sweaty and lusty." (To Racket, that prospect just sounds icky, gross and disturbing.) A Chilean Sauvignon Blanc: "Pamela Anderson Lee at a Jimmy Buffet concert -- big melons and weed." (No, that would be an overpraised beauty reveling in songs that you never want to hear again.) An Italian Pinot Grigio: "Tori Amos in a love seat -- comfortable and floral." (Can't argue with the "floral," but that image is pretty much the opposite of comfortable.)

Another problem that bedevils critics of music and wine is the apples-oranges dilemma. Just as some wine critics secretly are dogmatic about the superiority of some vintages or grape varieties, almost every music critic believes some genre better than all the rest. How many music critics that hate emo write about it anyway, without disclosing that bias?

In a move that music writers would do well to emulate, wine critics are instructed to measure wines according to how well they fare within their group -- all Chardonnays versus the perfect, tropical fruit-flavored Chardonnay; all Pinot Noirs versus the ideal, black cherry-like Pinot Noir; all Merlots versus the flawless, balanced Merlot.

So maybe music critics could sit down and hammer out a list of albums to use as standard-bearers. Perhaps all albums from cerebral bands from the British Isles should be compared to The Joshua Tree, War or The Unforgettable Fire. (Well done, Coldplay.) Maybe all rowdy Texas country albums should be measured by how close they come to Jerry Jeff Walker's Viva Terlingua. All folky East Coast singer-songwriters should be measured by Sweet Baby James. All backpacker hip-hop could be measured by De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising. Pet Sounds is trickier -- it's the yardstick for both all neo-psychedelic, Elephant 6-style groups and all the depressive hipster songwriters. And so on and on.

You could even put the names of those albums -- in whatever combinations deemed fit -- on the covers of the CDs they inspired, because another aspect of the wine trade that the music industry could pick up is the labeling of wine bottles. Unlike CDs, which give you only the name of the album and band and a picture, and sometimes less than that, wine bottles offer a relative wealth of information, even though they're a little smaller than CD covers. In addition to the winery, you get the style of grape, the appellation (where exactly the grapes were grown), the vintage and a bunch of other stuff. Names like "Turning Leaf" and "Cold Duck" are optional.

Let's apply that to music. Specifically, the latest Bright Eyes CD, since the method works better on music from independent labels. Instead of having the CD label read Bright Eyes, Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, you could have something like this: "Saddle Creek 2002 Pet Sounds-Subterranean Bob Dylan. Appellation contrôlée de Omaha."

Or let's try the Strokes' debut, Is This It: "BMG 2001 Velvet Underground and Nico-Marquee Moon. Appellation contrôlée de Lower East Side de Manhattan."

Or how about 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin': "Shady-Aftermath 2003 Me Against the World. Appellation contrôlée Jamaica, Queens."

Even though they don't have the artists' names, don't they make as much sense? But then, if there were that much information on the front of the CDs, most people like me would be out of a job.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax