Oh, three-and-a-half star review, how you’ve been done wrong. By trotting you out whenever the editors didn’t want to offend, Rolling Stone ruined you for everyone. Now, whenever anyone sees 3 1/2 stars, 7/10 or 6.5 – 7.4 out of 10.0, people simply assume a publication too tied to profit to take a stand.
What readers may not realize, however, is that it’s hard, really fucking hard to write to 3 1/2 stars. For a real 3 1/2 star review, not the manufactured by an editor kind, means the piece of art in question, whether it’s a book, movie, or an album, neither inspired the reviewer to words of magnificence or fits of rudeness. One can start with the usual introductory puff, like the band’s hometown and any recent lineup changes, where the album fits within a larger career and what the band’s peers are up to, and then…and then…and then comes the hard part: Finding something remotely interesting to say
Most of I Rock Cleveland’s 7 out of 10 reviews, this website’s equivalent of the 3 and a half star, never make it to the internet. There’s a few pages of notes that never mean much and web pages stuck in draft. And, most times I’m content to let them go unpublished. Lately, however, it seems every record I buy is a 7 — They get played a few times, they generate a few thoughts, and I’m on to the next one.
Sure, other people have found plenty to like this month. Pop fans seem to enjoy the slickness of CVRCHES, Haim and Sleigh Bells. Fans of experimental electronic music have the new ones by Tim Hecker, Onehotrix Point Never, and Darkside. For rockers like me, it’s all been a whole lotta meh, as the say on the internet when they don’t want to type 3 1/2 stars.
There was a time when True Widow ruled: Lead track, “Creeper,” lives up to its name. This is the sound of impending doom — the zombie apocalypse approaching, a hurricane off the shores of Lake Erie, and socialized medicine and Sharia Law taking over the United States all rolled into one. Strong drum beats, a low slung bass, and vocals murmured in monotone. Any minute this thing is going to blow up and take your stereo with it.
Then came the 3 1/2 star moment: There is no release to the tension built by True Widow. The entire album is impending doom. One track, or even one moment during one track, of True Widow breaking free from their doom pop formula would have gone a long way to making Cicumambulation a truly memorable album.
Persona Non Grata
There was a time when Cosmonauts ruled: Cosmonauts recently visited Cleveland during the Burger Records Caravan tour and their take on Spaceman 3’s drugged-up, slow-motion psychedelic rock was largely spot on.
Then came the 3 1/2 star moment: All they have is imitation, including the late ’80s baggy appearance and the appetite for drugs. Band members had trouble balancing themselves on stage (And no, the stage wasn’t moving) and the record, while a technical success, shows little in the way of personality. This imitation comes too close to plagiarism for comfort.
There was a time when Pelican ruled: Have you heard “Immutable Dusk?” This is why Pelican enjoy cult-like status from both metal fans and post-rock fans.
Their music is technical, but not in a prog rock or math rock way. There is nothing gratuitous in these seven minutes. Every shift in tempo and every shift in volume serves a purpose. And unlike other post rock bands, Pelican eschew the obvious crescendo. There is a build and there is a pay off, but not the one you’re ears have been trained to expect. Pelican prefer grind to glory.
Then came then 3 1/2 star moment: I confused Side C with Side A because I was sure I heard that guitar riff before on this very record. I stopped the turntable and, yep, it was indeed Side C.
Nobody Realizes This Is Nowhere
There was a time when Terry Malts ruled: “Human Race,” reminded me why I fell HARD for Terry Malts’ debut record. Musically, they never stray far from the Ramones meet The Jesus and Mary Chain formula for buzzsaw pop which has served them so well. And, lyrically, I can identify with the sentiment of wanting to remove oneself from the banalities of the 21st Century. Terry Malts is a band of my own heart.
Then Came the 3 1/2 Star Moment: I realized the hooks were sharper, and the lines more clever on their debut. Take a song like, “Not a Christian,” from the band’s first record, Killing Time. As an alternative to aggressive atheism, it makes non-belief sounds like a blast. If I had an atheist church, this would be my exit song every Sunday. Or, consider, “I’m Neurotic.” The opening lines are simple, yet open to interpretation. When Phil Benson sings “I’m neurotic/That’s what she says/I won’t let it go to my head/Maybe she’s right,” he’s either proud of his bonkers brain or shares his girlfriend’s concern over his bonkers brain. It could go either way. On Nobody Realizes This Is Nowhere, Benson just sounds bored.
Ooey Gooey Chewy Ka-Blooey
In the Red
There was a time when the Dirtbombs ruled: On this, their often threatened Bubblegum Pop album, one could still hear the heart of The Dirtbombs in the double drum kit and gritty guitar rumble, on tracks like, “Crazy For You.”
Then came the 3 1/2 star moment: They lost the plot on the B-Side. Was there ever a plot to the B-side. Are we doing Bubblegum pop, Pet Sounds, or Magical Mystery Tour? It’s hard to tell and harder to listen to as the band struggles through the long, drawn out closing suite of “Sunshine Girl,” “No More Rainy Days/Sun Sound Interlude,” and “We Come in the Sunshine.”
Every Day I Get Closer to the Light From Which I Came
There was a time when Jesu ruled: Justin K Broadrick is a heavy music pioneer, both in Godflesh and Jesu. And when he’s focused, as he is on opening track, “Homesick,” Broadrick earns every sentence of praise sent his way. This track is both heavy and heartfelt, crushing and caring. Heavy metal drone pop has no right to be all of these things at once. Hell, heavy metal drone pop has no right to exist, period.
Then came the 3 1/2 star moment: I began considering the resale value of Jesu albums. They do hold up pretty well, and first editions, especially on colored vinyl, tend to show a modest return on investment.
There was a time when Barn Owl ruled: The drones on V were made for the fall months, a time when the temperature cools and body movements begin to slow down. If humans hibernated, then songs like “The Long Shadow,” with its patient progressions and whispers sent through dark, impenetrable forests, would be the sound of being whisked off to a months-long slumber.
Then came the 3 1/2 star moment: After owning the album for a few weeks, I still haven’t reached the end. It’s like Lunesta pressed on two sides of vinyl.