Rock Critic Laziness Dept.: We are officially over the tendency in record reviews to, instead of actually talking about music, explain what a song sounds like by likening it to another band’s sound. This citational reflex is de rigueur in the prison house of rock, where everything has a meaning only in relation to something already recorded. There’s an especially pernicious version of this floating around these days in which the reviewer says a song by some band sounds like it could have been a long-lost b-side by some other band. Every part of this shortcut writing is frustrating, moreso now that we’ve collected enough examples of it to clearly establish it as a trend.
The trope is often deployed to establish that the song in question is a sub-par addition to an artist’s catalog. In these cases, the band is compared to itself, as with a recent Frank Orange number:
“…offers little that we haven’t heard before. If anything, it sounds like a lost B-side from Channel Orange, lacking the cohesion and maturity of the…”
This is actually even lamer than when a band is being compared to another band, because it misunderstands that b-sides signify something special to people who buy singles, a quiet gem or alternate energy from a band, as opposed to a song that is just not good enough to make the album.
This next one compares the band to itself, this time favorably:
“…a power-pop tune that showcases Weezer at its best and sounds a tad like a Blue Album B-side.”
First off, can we all agree never ever to EVER please never use the word “tad” for any reason ever whatsoever? Okay, now that we’re all on the same page, can someone please tell me what this reviewer means by a Blue Album b-side? I would sort of understand it if he said it could have been on the power-pop album Blue Album, but he seems to have just overreached and thrown the trope at us for good measure. Does he mean it would’ve had to be a b, since there was no more room on Blue Album? If we go by strict syntactic logic, he is saying that Blue Album isn’t power-pop, but just its b-sides.
Here’s another one that does the same thing:
“Fans familiar with his early albums such as ‘Underdogs’ and ‘Beautiful Midnight’ could easily mistake “Hey Hell Heaven” as a lost b-side to those two albums.”
I’m including this to ask why the b-side has to be ‘lost’? ‘Lost’ seems to ramp up the fetishism for b-sides by merging it with crate digger fetishism. But neither of those should matter in this case since, again, the reviewer is probably meaning to say the song would not have been out of place on the albums themselves.
Here are two more, both about Noel Gallagher’s new solo album. Which by the way can it be arranged that we will never have to see either Gallagher’s face again? Didn’t the Declaration of Independence mean anything? Didn’t Blur mean anything?
“It would’ve made for a better-than-decent B-side back in the day – which, given his one-time mastery of that lost art, is high praise indeed.”
“Meanwhile, diehard Oasis fans may be most delighted with White Sunshine, which could almost pass as a long-lost B-side.”
The first of these, from NME, clearly “gets” what a b-side is supposed to do. The second, from SMH (Sydney Morning Herald), makes the significance of the b-side’s being lost even significant-er by saying it’s long-lost, like a cousin. I also don’t get why it could only “almost” pass? It really seems like some of these guys just cut and paste sentences from other places or something. Mekka no sense.
Now the roughest way this trope is occurring is when the theoretical b is from a classic band, thus conferring credibility on the new’un:
“…brings to mind early Southern-Gothic era REM and Anna Lee sound like it’s a lost B-side from The Band.”
But when the genius classic b-side is early Dave Matthews, what is being conferred, really?
“…complete with aggressive tom-tom work and ominous horns, feels like it could have been a “Before These Crowded Streets” B-Side, its…”
Ominous indeed. As you’ll have seen by now, the newbie is generally some generic schmuck who’s out of luck but still yearns to make a buck, which is why this BBC review is so weird: the newbie in this case is The Meters, who could easily fall on the other side of the equal sign for one of these. Here though, the reviewer actually has a coherent point (that the normally instrumental Meters became another thing when incorporating vocals), using relevant context (soul sides from another section of the spectrum):
“…which, with its sweet, soulful female backing vocals, sounds like some lost Atlantic B side from a decade earlier.”
A couple more bogarts. Parquet Courts:
“…robotic vocals and dissonant-yet-quirky riff in the verse of “I Was Just Here” could be a lost b-side from Q: Are We Not Men?”
“The sentimental juggernaut “Heft” – which, musically, sounds like a lost b-side to The Smashing Pumpkins’ album “Siamese…”
And several that inhabit a weird category-unto-itself. As Ed Jurken says, “Prince is absolutely the #1 example. The holy grail is a Prince review where it says, “it could be a Sign o’ the Times b-side.” This may have to do with Prince’s recognized infatuation with Brit Invasion-style b-sides, he’s like the standard-bearer for the form. Allmusic.com does it repeatedly in its Beck Midnight Vultures review. And then there are these, for Perry and Gaga respectively:
“(The less ludicrous female-sexuality symbolism of ‘Tsunami’ sounds like something Prince would’ve made Vanity cut as a B-side.)”
“…a tribute to Prince in lovesick midtempo mode – it could be a lost B-side from between between Around The World in a Day and Parade.”
And if Prince references represent a kind of paradigm, then must Michael Jackson references (since he and Prince existed in relation to each other) also exist in relation to Prince references?
“This track sounds like a long-lost B-side from Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’ album.”
Should b-side-esque reviews like this, for dvsn, be considered as orbiting the Perry and Gaga (qua Prince) b-side-esque reviews?
I’ll end with an imaginary b-side about a song on the solo album by the handsome long-haired drummer from Foo Fighters.
“Like the songs that Foo often cover live, it feels like a Queen B-side, but a bad one.”
Now, pay attention to a couple things here. Queen is framed throughout the review as the hard rock equivalent of Foo Fighters, which sets up this terrible record to be effectively KO’d by the b-side line at the end. Once more, the distinction between “kind of bad” Queen song and “Queen b-side” is blurry, and saying it’s “a bad one” doesn’t clear things it up, it actually makes the intent more confused. Finally, and I probably don’t need to alert anyone to this problem, but the writer is nicknaming the band Foo. Is that really how fans refer to them?
Thanks to Ed Jurken for the idea for this post.