more on Washington
I wrote a review of the new Washington album for The Vine. You can find it here.
I Believe You Liar
Australia. You worry me sometimes.
I’ve seen this album hailed as 2010’s saviour of pop. (This is what happens when you allow fucking radio presenters to moonlight as music critics, incidentally: the bottom line is “will it sound good on drive time?” Critical judgment is thrown to the wind because it has no place on the airwaves.) OK. First point. Pop is doing perfectly well by itself, thank you very much – ask Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Kelis, Katy Perry or the endless galaxy of moneyed, sexed-up stars. It’s desirable, pulsating, thriving… and often more musically adventurous than its dull stay-at-home brother, indie music. Second point: why do indie boys always equate pop music with bland?
Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve watched clips of Megan Washington – to all intents and purposes “Washington” herself – and she seems intriguing: lively, good-humoured, rocking the chic school librarian look, possessed of a fine if overly breathless voice, lyrics that doubtless tell of the trauma and enjoyment of growing up in Brisbane as a teen and of being in love and in lust with twenty-something irreverence. There’s an extraordinary performance on Spicks And Specks where she does the equivalent of singing the phone book, and reduces a fellow panellist to tears. And I like her choice of costumes when she does dress-up. But the saviour of pop…? Oh come on.
What Megan Washington is, far more obviously, is this year’s Katie Noonan, this year’s Sarah Blasko. This is music for the mainstream critics who love to harp on about musicianship and songwriting like either of these abilities matter in the production of pop music. Again, don’t get me wrong. I like all these artists, to greater or lesser degrees (Washington included): but the production on I Believe You Liar is aimed at alienating no one. It’s pure middle-of-the-road indie Shins territory. Megan plays piano. So the piano is brought to the fore. Megan writes slightly quirky lyrics. So the slightly quirky lyrics are brought to the fore. But behind them both is a filled-in, rounded-off production that serves to mask every last imperfection. (Surely part of Washington’s appeal?) It could be – and is – the background to a thousand other would-be chart singers.
Take ‘The Hardest Part’: jaunty, infectious beat and a rolling repetition between the piano and vocals. I bet it’s killer, live. The production (nods to the A&R man idea of what Elvis Costello sounds like, which doesn’t actually exist) absolutely kills it, digitalised and overblown to buggery. Take ‘I Believe You Liar’. Megan is aiming for Kate Bush or (shudder) Tori Amos territory but ends up sounding like Lily Allen acoustic – why are those strings there? WHY ARE THOSE STRINGS THERE? What do they add? Megan Washington has this slightly odd dynamic going on behind her public persona: awkward yet simultaneously confident, enthusiastic. Doesn’t she think this song strong enough to be heard without the ornamentation? It is. Again, I bet it’s great live.
Australia does worry me sometimes. I mean, everyone loves to think they’re mates with the stars and that if someone achieves success it’s all ‘good on ya mate for getting up there’. Why? Why is there such uniform acceptance of even the blandest of sounds? Sure, the strutting ‘1997’ wouldn’t sound out-of-place on Seventies AM radio. Is this really such a plus? Sure, ‘Cement’ has some cheeky lyrics (“You left your message on the cement”) and a fine hook. Sure, ‘Rich Kids’ is a nicely nasty putdown of Brisbane. But do the songs really have to be radio’d to fuck? I guess so. Without the production, Washington wouldn’t have received the radio play, and without the radio play Washington wouldn’t have received the adulation. It’s a vicious circle.
Nice album title, though.
There’s been commentary on this review in several places, notably on The Vine, Twitter and Mess And Noise. (Oddly, none of Facebook, usually so voluble in its support of my work: it couldn’t be because Washington originally hails from Brisbane and is thus considered ‘off limits’ to the folk here, could it?) Most of the commentary has been favourable: several folk agreeing with WinnieRay on The Vine when they write, “Love this review – everything i’d be too afraid to tell a fan of this girl… Its odd having someone marketed as ‘left of centre’ by making them as ‘close to the centre’ as possible.”
Even industry insider Clem Bastow, who’s been cynical of my approach to criticism before now, chipped in with the following: “I agree with absolutely everything here. There’s an insidious tendency in Australian criticism/radio to suggest certain artists – Blasko last year, Washington this year – are “reinventing” or “revolutionising” pop. No, they’re reheating radio-friendly adult-contemporary from the ’70s and ’80s. There’s nothing inventive nor revolutionary about this record, or Blasko’s, as pretty as they are.”
Some of Megan Washington’s defenders wrote back – including the editor of Mess And Noise, and her management (via email) – pointing out that I’d got hold of the wrong end of the stick, far as the production goes. The album was mixed in a shed in her parents’ garden by Megan and her drummer John Castle, it was sold to the label on that basis, and far from it being given a deliberate ‘sheen’ to make it more radio-friendly, this was the sound the band wanted. I am happy to print this correction. I still don’t like the production on I Believe You Liar – way, way too polite for me – but that’s fine. I accept that Washington didn’t have any hidden agenda behind it. Personal taste and everything.
Someone didn’t like the fact I had a go at “radio presenters moonlighting as music critics”, thinking that it was perhaps a personal jibe at one critic in particular. It wasn’t. I was just trying to point out that all critics are compromised by the situations they find ourselves in – e.g. if you live in Brisbane, you will not be able to slag anyone off who isn’t a close personal mate of a close personal mate: if you’re a radio DJ then it’s pretty damn unlikely you’re going to be writing anything that upsets your bosses or audience.
Some folk thought I had an agenda – to which I responded thus. “I’m a fucking music critic. Heaven forbid I should actually have some opinions about music.” Or, as one of my (English) friends on Facebook sarcastically put it, “You’re a music critic. Your job is to report objectively on each band you see or album you review: how many songs / members / who plays what / audience reaction / sales performance and whatever else appears in the press release.”
One critic thought that perhaps I shouldn’t be criticising Australian media (with the inference that, as a new citizen, that it’s ‘un-Australian’ of me to do so), that I should perhaps be focusing on criticising American or British media instead. To which I responded, “I’m an Australian citizen who lives in Australia, who’s writing about an Australian act for an Australian website, so I reference Australia. I’m not sure why this should seem so peculiar to you. Or perhaps you’re suggesting that every time I write about music, I should place it within the context of the entire world? Why stop at just the UK and America then? Or are they the only two countries that matter?” My critic wrote back stating that, “[The review] made specific reference to ‘Australian criticism/radio’ embracing bland music … Which is mostly true, but it’s not endemic to Australia. The vicious circle operates everywhere. It doesn’t need context, but everything outside of it does. It’s boring being told for the upteenth time that mediocrity prevails.”
To which I could only rejoinder, “… It’s lovely that you’re so enlightened but to judge from the feedback I’ve received for this review (here and elsewhere) it seems that others don’t appreciate the finer nuances of the way the Australian media – both mainstream and alternative – had a tendency to turn a blind eye to the mediocre.”
Finally, some folk thought that I should ditch my personal integrity and start liking Tori Amos or (shudder) The Shins.