David Wilson’s Parting Shot

I’ve just found out that David B. Wilson has a blog. This is the David B. Wilson of Wilson & Alroy’s Record Reviews site, a megalithic compilation of over five thousand reviews, an internet institution of vintage standing, and an early and influential buyer’s guide for me when I discovered it as a student, thirteen years ago.

Reviews on the original WARR site stand out for their brevity and precision. Stubborn and opinionated as they are, David Wilson and John Alroy nevertheless habitually remain concise, sticking to rating records on their merits and demerits – as they see them – without ever being self-referential or soul-baring.

Keeping a review to under two hundred words in plain English isn’t easy, as I’ve come to belatedly appreciate. It isn’t a sign of laziness (it’s far easier to ramble on unchecked); rather, it’s both prescient (when everybody’s competing for your attention, the first one to get to the point wins – a fact which would come to be of crucial importance once the internet truly took off), and a product of skill, clarity of thought, and self-discipline.

On his blog, David Wilson grants himself a little more room, and the results are revealing. In a way, the blog contains, without explicitly meaning to, the many peripheral insights that come with decades of writing about music, which cannot be aired within the constraints of a site like WARR. That alone makes it worth reading, but one post in particular makes my day each time I see it.

It’s called Wilson & Alroy’s Forbidden Words 2011, though I suspect it’s just Wilson doing the talking for the both of them, as John Alroy doesn’t seem to write very much any more. It draws from an experiment in building a word cloud out of WARR, to show up the most commonly used words; to quote, “It’s no surprise to see words like “record,” “album,” “tunes,” “track” and “guitar” on a record review site, but I do see some words that I’m clearly overusing. So here come the Forbidden Words, which I pledge not to use in any reviews in the coming year.

Now, this is more important than it seems, because it proves something I’ve long suspected, that, for Wilson and Alroy, writing reviews has always been an act of craftsmanship unto itself, as distinct from just expressing an opinion.

You need to care about yourself as a writer first and foremost to want to take a scalpel to your reviews that way.

In an internet flooded with babble from amateurs and part-time enthusiasts posing as journalists – with the scrambled, ill-thought-out, and poorly edited writing that is the inevitable outcome – Wilson’s little experiment stands out for its old-world dedication to quality and method. It is exactly these things which make people go back to WARR over and over again, while other reviewers complain that nobody ever listens to them.

I wish more people would learn.

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9 thoughts on “David Wilson’s Parting Shot

  1. All good reviewers have their own house rules.

    Reviewing is a genre of writing. Martin Amis’ work proves that the review can be as memorable as the work itself.

  2. sorry can’t take them srsly. porcupine tree’s (!) fear of a blaNk planet 4 stars and wowee zowee 3 and a half? two police records (TWO!) on their 80s best and zero Clash records? No thanks. I’ll stick to Christgau/Paul Williams/Tosches/Bangs/Marcus.

  3. Dear Wilson & Alroy,

    From now on, please only like the same records Sapera does, or they won’t take you srsly.

    I say this for your own good.

    Best,
    thesupermoop

    There, sorted!

  4. Well…that’s true I guess? What you said is entirely true. Why the snark? Their taste is kind of lame. And in any case it’s too rockist. Can’t palate.

  5. To be honest, because the “rockism” debate is wearying. It’s not unlike the “disco sucks” movement, or the endless punk versus prog (or the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones, or whatever) arguments that have been done to death, but people won’t tire of nevertheless. I love the Clash, and I love the Police. Where does that put me? I’m not interested in being part of a camp, that’s stifling and narrow, and music doesn’t live in boxes like that, even if people will persist trying to make it.

    But, more importantly, I think, because I don’t read reviewers to read about records I like. I read them if they write well, and don’t read them if they don’t.

    Lester Bangs wrote a touching and deeply personal piece on Astral Weeks, an album I can’t stand, but it’s lovely to read it anyway. Greil Marcus carries on about the mystery and the darkness of America, a country I neither know nor can particularly relate to. So what? He’s a good writer, and ultimately that’s why you read people, because they write well. Mark Prindle hates the Velvet Underground, and I can’t imagine how anyone could. And so on, and so on.

    I suppose the point is, I’m pretty used to the idea that people have tastes I can’t fathom, and I’ve given up trying. I can hardly expect everyone to share my own personal take on the rock ‘n’ roll back story, the fact of it is, Gloria Gaynor was bigger for a lot of people than the Sex Pistols, and I can live with that. I like reading about music though, and people who can write clearly and eloquently about it.

    The WARR guys are pretty into a lot of stuff I don’t get, but they do a good job of explaining why, and they do it in a way that doesn’t exhaust you. That’s why I dig them.

    Sorry for the snarkiness, it’s a bit of a kneejerk reaction; I’m happy to go on about this forever, actually. Thanks for writing in.

  6. Haha, no problems. I’m glad you engaged with the content and not the tone of my comment 🙂

    although, to be honest i don’t blame you given the cretins who frequently write in, I would always be on edge myself. You have my sympathies.

    true, the rockism thing is very wearying. but the main reason I couldn’t tolerate their canon right off the bat, was they said the posies were their favorite 90s band. the posies, to me, are extreme MOR hacks. I mean he doesn’t rate husker du or the replacements at all, but he reviews Shadows Fall and Avenged Sevenfold fairly favorably? 80s-90s fuzzy power pop is probably my favorite era/genre of all time and I know a little something about this music, so their amateurish insight-less take on it was really grating. This for example:

    “In a bizarre twist of fate, Auer and Stringfellow have backed Alex Chilton – the grandfather of power-pop – in recent incarnations of Chilton’s band Big Star, with Stringfellow switching to bass and Auer playing lead guitar in live shows during 1993, 1994, 1996, 1999, and 2000; they appear on the live Big Star record Missouri University. Another weird connection – Brian Young also belongs to the mid-60s pop-rock retro jokers Fountains of Wayne (a vastly inferior act, but that goes for pretty much everyone now making rock records).”

    It’s not a twist of fate at all, and it’s hardly bizarre. Many, many 90s power poppers either backed, or supported Alex Chilton’s solo act or the so called Big Star reunions, Teenage Fanclub being the most well known of them – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0yDvmx5WP0

    The Posies were actively fans of Big Star. They probably lobbied or were asked by Alex Chilton to be his backing band. Hardly a twist of fate! That’s like saying it was a twist of fate that Neil Young would ask Pearl Jam to form Mirror Ball in the 90s. It’s a poor choice of words and a poor reading of 90s history. That suggests a sort of general dimness, and I wouldn’t trust their opinions farther than I can throw them.

    (also, Fountains of Wayne are not a fucking “vastly inferior” band. Have you heard their cover of Britney Spears? – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fyjK1gGhJw)

    I couldn’t figure out why you cared about them, because you seem to be against the rock/metal hegemony, which these guys seem to tacitly advocate. And I more or less agree with the other things you said. I don’t particularly care for Astral Weeks, but the Lester Bangs piece made me seek it out as well. It was indeed a lovely bit of writing (Bangs, I mean, not Morrison).

  7. Ach, I can’t stand “classic rock” types. You mentioned Someplace Else: that lot breed in there, it’s like a museum of horrors for me! But a lot of the more “punk” types I know tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater too, whenever there’s one of those howling debates about why the Dead Kennedys are clearly “better” than Procol Harum, or whatever.

    You’re right, though, WARR do lose the plot with the 90s; they’re at their best with the 60s and the early 70s – that’s a very specific time-frame, and I think it (sadly) goes to show that you can’t have your finger on the pulse forever.

    And I can imagine it grates when someone ignorantly carries on about something you know and you feel for; I’d fucking lose it if someone came mouthing off about XTC or the Elvis Costello or whatever.

    Worse, their credibility takes a beating. It’s a shame really. They’re better than that with the things they do understand. They’re a bit of a relic for me. I followed them when I was diving around in the sixties, and had worked them out well enough to correct for their biases. They do know what they’re talking about there.

    I didn’t know Teenage Fanclub supported Alex Chilton, but, in hindsight, it’s really obvious they would. What do you make of the Big Star third album (in all its many incarnations)? Also, Chris Bell’s record, the one with I am a Cosmos on it?

    Incidentally, have you read Mark Prindle? You might like his site. Many a coffee have I spilt on the keyboard thanks to him.

  8. Yeah I just checked his website. He seems to have a better sense of the 90s and I am definitely more comfortable with his style since he likes the right 80s hardcore (nig-heist), the right noise (polvo), the right pigfuck (cows), he’s alright. He’s funny too, he clearly hated Automatic for the People but gave it an 8 nevertheless. He also called Gina Arnold a hoodoo rat which is hilarious.

    I love Sister Lovers (that’s definitely the one I have), Femme Fatale finally got recorded the way it was meant to be. Not a big fan of Nazi Nico’s “what a klaun” version. Chris Bell rules, he was a 27 clubber too. Get Away is fantastic. The drums are excellent on it. 🙂

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