There’s an easy trap that many critics fall into when reviewing archival releases. It’s a fully understandable slip, but it has clearly spelled out the doom of many a review of music recorded in the ‘60s and ‘70s. When a critic looks at music from these decades through the harsh lens of the present day, the reader is done a great disservice since the review is stripped of the cultural context and situational aspects which are fully necessary in order to understand it. Just like you shouldn’t read On The Road and fret about the state of Kerouac’s 401K, you shouldn’t listen to Exile On Main St. and ponder if the gospel flourishes carry a touch of cultural appropriation.
Erin Osmon successfully avoids this common trap in her ace review of this new archival Neil Young album culled from his simply immortal Tonight’s the Night era. Right from the jump she paints a highly evocative portrait of the very vibey time and place through which these tracks were birthed, and she does this by placing the reader directly onto the hot Venice asphalt of the early ’70s, tossing a fringe jacket over their shoulders, and leading them by the hand through the super-heady scene:
“Walk the city blocks of Los Angeles and imagine its bohemian yesteryear, when strung-out sex parties and impromptu jamborees emanated from the storefronts and bungalows.”
If there’s been a better opening line to a review this year, then I haven’t come across it. Stripped of these surroundings, Young’s counterculture X Rays from the period in question, decadent and immortal bangers such as “Role Another Number (For the Road)” and “Albuquerque” are left naked and alone on today’s dark globe. As the author of a (very good) Jason Molina biography, Osmon is the perfect draftee to protect and preserve these precious artifacts from the ravages of the present day, and she made the deft critical choice to cloak them in the soft velvet crushed pants of their time.
Unless you happen to be reviewing the Grateful Dead, live albums are also notoriously tricky to take on from a critical angle. With a live document, the reviewer must spend much of their column space demonstrating to the reader why (or why not) this particular live set should be given a spin even though they most likely already own the studio albums many of the tracks appeared on. This can lead down two opposite but equally rocky roads for the review. In the first the reviewer will spend 500-800 words intricately detailing how a certain drum pattern is played harder on a particular track or how the use of an SG over a Stratocaster makes a well-known guitar solo soar to such greater heights than the one that rings out daily from Classic Rock FM. On the other road the critic will go a little too hard on the mythological reverence, losing sight of the music at hand while making blustery points that everyone knows already (“Zeppelin were GODS in the mid-’70s.”) or spinning off into Mojo-style platitudes (“No arena could contain the Who in their prime.”). Osmon expertly detours past these critical dead ends, getting right down to why this live document should be checked out even for those in a common-law relationship with Tonight’s The Night.
“In the studio, Tonight’s The Night was imposing and dark, it sliced through the speaker like a razor. Live, though, these songs from Young’s famous “Ditch Trilogy” become warmer, more vibrant and alive.”
As a long-time Ditch Trilogy devotee, this is the line that sold me and will most likely bring a steady stream of plaid and patched jeans out for record store day this year. Danny Whitten-era Neil delivered in an earthy, crowd-pleasing manner? Sign us all up, maaaan.
Yet another common critical pitfall comes with covering albums known for their dark subject matter or their chronicling of famously turbulent times. It’s a tricky task to delve into these aspects without getting too bogged down in the back story (like a certain Pitchfork review from a recent year which dedicated nine block paragraphs to a record’s soap opera back story before finally mentioning the music in the second-to-last sentence of the last paragraph) or heaping on the pathos a little too thick. As someone who has certainly delved very deeply into this back story in her research for her book, it seems that Osmon knows this all too well and she utilizes some deft critical footwork to avoid the missteps most likely encountered in her source material. Check out how Osmon puts the back story out there for those that don’t know it already in the final sentence of the second paragraph, cleverly weaving it in with details about the rehearsal sessions which brought about these songs:
“These hours in the studio also served as a musical wake for two friends who’d recently died, Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry.”
Then she wisely brings it all back home to the music with the next paragraph’s lead-in:
“Young and the Flyers spent the summer months of 1973 playing through their grief, forming the bones of what would become Young’S 1975 album Tonight’s The Night.”
These are the types of instinctive critical maneuvers that separate the paid professionals from the bloggers.
Another key selling point for live records is the quirky or commemorative detail, and Osmon sprinkles many of them throughout her review like gold dust. This was the night the infamous Sunset Strip rock joint first opened its doors! David Geffen was in the crowd! There’s some quirky Neil banter going on between tracks! Plus, extra points are awarded for the articulation of just how amazing it is that 1973 rock fans would go absolutely bonkers for songs they had never heard before. Osmon sadly points out that this would be “unfathomable in today’s firehose of festival reunions”, making readers long for simpler times when all that mattered was a warm night, a jug of cheap wine, and some sloppy rock n’ roll to dance to.
In conjuring this longing, Osmon portrays this album as so much more than just another vault-emptying classic rock reissue, elevating it past the ranks of historical document and into the rarefied strata of the lifestyle choice.