Does local music criticism matter anymore?

I write music criticism with the hopeful assumption that it still matters. I want to believe a positive review can turn people on to a good album, thereby enriching their lives and giving the band or solo performer the attention they deserve, if not also the money they need to keep making great music.

By the same token, I hope negative reviews can steer people away from rote, mediocre albums, thereby saving them a few bucks and prodding musicians to write more interesting, original songs. What’s at stake is nothing short of the quality of Maine’s art and culture.

Recent press coverage of the new album by one of my favorite local bands, Metal Feathers, illustrates how difficult it is to keep this hope alive.

Metal Feathers is an indie-rock band in Portland that put out a really good album in 2008 (“Statistically Marred“) and an even better record in 2011 (“Contrast Eats the Slimey Green”), both of which you can hear online via their Bandcamp page. I was so excited and encouraged by their second album that I made Metal Feathers the subject of a cover story in The Bollard in April of that year.

The band knew it was onto something, too. “Contrast” was a step toward even greater rock glory. “I feel like we’re gaining momentum,” said Jay Lobley, the band’s notoriously self-effacing singer, guitarist and songwriter. “I think a lot could happen this year, hopefully.”

A lot did happen to the band, but it wasn’t what Lobley or anyone else wanted. Metal Feathers’ drummer was also Lobley’s wife. She’s not in the band anymore, and the bleak, angry, ugly album the three remaining members released last month, “Handful of Fog,” reflects the miserable circumstances that produced it.

As I note in the review that appears in this month’s issue of The Bollard, all the creative energy and fun have been drained from Metal Feathers’ music. Lobley sings like he’s being forced to do so against his will. The lyrics are exceedingly dark and often hard to discern in the noisy, lo-fi mix. About half of the 12 tracks manage to transcend the gloom by delivering a great riff or a catchy chorus, but the rest is a mess.

So I was profoundly discouraged to read the review of “Fog” in the Feb. 22 Portland Phoenix. Music and arts writer Nicholas Schroeder calls this Metal Feathers’ “best album.” He presents the drummer’s departure as if it were a creative decision the band made to improve its sound. The playing of the three remaining members is “tighter than ever,” we’re told, on this “excellent and fantastically deep” record. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Schroeder’s writing is atrocious, riddled with incomprehensible sentences, unsupported assertions and ridiculous comparisons. For example, the lethargic and lyrically impenetrable song “In the Moon and Still” is called “a dizzying, rapturous composition as affecting and yearningly psychedelic as anything … Dinosaur Jr. or My Bloody Valentine has ever done.” Fans of those bands who buy “Fog” on that basis would be justified in demanding Schroeder give them their money back.

Unfortunately, this baseless hyperbole is typical of the alt-weekly’s music coverage. It’s a critical framework in which bad music is good, mediocre music is good, and great music is merely good. The teens, college kids and hipsters the Phoenix strives to reach become jaded and apathetic about local music, which undermines the whole scene.

So-called “alternative” weeklies like the Phoenix gained traction in part because the mainstream press has been so tone deaf to popular music for so long. The Portland Press Herald’s coverage of “Fog” is a hilarious case in point.

News assistant Aimsel Ponti covered the release of “Fog” by emailing a set of softball questions to Derek Lobley, Jay’s brother and bandmate.

Q: “How do you, as a band, like to describe your sound?”

A: “We usually just tell people we play rock music.” (Gee, that’s insightful.)

Q: “Any recurring themes on the album?”

A: “No, not really.” (Other than loneliness, despair, rage…)

Q: “How has the band’s sound evolved over time?”

A: “We had to get rid of our keyboard player a year ago, so that helped us move away from the jazzy stuff he wanted to play.”

Derek Lobley was the keyboard player. Now he’s trying to learn how to play drums (see earlier comment re: “tighter than ever”). Ponti’s been punked and is as oblivious to the gag as most of her readers.

Perhaps the only thing more depressing than listening to “Handful of Fog” is reading about it.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.