Let’s Play “Smash or Trash,” Part One

One of the exercises in which I regularly engage is a little thing I like to call “Smash or Trash.” The name is stolen from a segment the radio deejays on Atlanta’s 96 Rock (WKLS-FM) used to do back in the late 70s and early 80s (I’m sure other stations did it as well). The idea is simple: listen to a bit of a new album, decide if it goes in the “good” or “bad” pile, and move onto the next.

As a music reviewer, I get loads of CDs. Yes, compact discs: I’m old-school enough that my interest in reviewing music based on MP3 files is quite limited, though on occasion I do just that (one’s coming up soon, as it happens). But I get so many of the things – on request, semi-solicited, unsolicited – that it’s simply not practical to give all of them a review.

My general policy – for many years now – has been not to review music by artists whom my readers are unlikely to know unless I can recommend it. In other words, if you’ve never heard of an artist and his/her new album doesn’t impress me, you won’t hear about it from me. Fledgling recording artists need all the help they can get, and it benefits no one for me to knock ’em down. With respect to reviews, I see my role as a kind of consumer guide. I read a Facebook comment recently that asserted that good reviews never sold an album. I firmly disagree.

But the process of giving album a listen remains. So whenever the pile of new CDs gets unwieldy, I set aside a bit of time – less than those artists might hope, but more than some of the music deserves – and play Smash or Trash. I start at the beginning of the first track, and sometimes a quick listen to part of that is enough for me to say, “Yeah, this interests me.” In that case, I click forward to subsequent tracks to ascertain that what resonated in the opening track wasn’t an anomaly. If it’s all good, that CD goes in the yes/review-later pile. And I’ll eventually give it a full listen.

Other times, I get a sense right away that a given album isn’t my thing at all. In those cases – generally fifteen seconds in is plenty of time – I again skip ahead to make sure my initial impression isn’t off base. If I’m right, then that one goes in the no-thanks pile.

At this moment – I’m doing this little exercise and writing about it in real-time – I have two dozen discs. So here we go! The names are being withheld to protect the unassuming, if not innocent.

  1. Okay, right off the bat, the cover art on this one is trying unsubtly to reference a classic album of many years ago. The music’s nice enough, and extremely well done for what it is. I know people who’d enjoy this. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people. And anything that reminds me of The Eagles isn’t likely to get reviewed. Pass.
  2. Hey, this one really rocks! Fun stuff, combining a punk attitude with early rock’n’roll vibe. The act isn’t well-known at all, and let’s just say that I’ve already given them more coverage than some other bands I like. So I reluctantly pass on this one. But I’d recommend it if I did review it.
  3. Ugh. More tepid, bar-band blues. There’s a sterile production aesthetic on far too many modern blues albums, one that suggests a high quality recording made on location at your local Holiday Inn. This is an exemplar of that approach. Pass.
  4. This artist is pretty obscure, and I’ve covered a previous release, albeit in a perfunctory manner. This is good stuff, though with some classic pop arrangement and songwriting motifs. This one goes in the “yes” pile. I’ll probably do a hundred-worder on this disc. The first one so far; one out of four…that’s par for the course.
  5. Looking at the artwork I’m wondering if this is going to be some atmospheric European rock. In goes the CD. The instrumentation is very interesting, and I really like the spaghetti western vibe. But the vocals are a real turnoff, and that’s a deal breaker for me. A quick look at the liner notes confirms my initial suspicion. A shame; this one has a lot to recommend it, but I can’t get past the vocals. Pass.
  6. Google tells me that there are more than 1.2 million words in the English language. So when several of your song titles are the same as other well-known songs, we’re off to a bad start. And when the music’s pedestrian – reminding me of a less-inspired Three Dog Night; a lot like ’em, as it happens – then I say: pass.
  7. I get why a label might put together an anthology of a little-known (the press kit author would prefer the label “under-appreciated”) act. A little too much acoustic guitar and MOR flourishes for my taste; here I’m reminded of Tumblewood Connection-era Elton John, which isn’t bad. But this doesn’t excite me enough. Pass.
  8. I recognize some of the names on this disc’s credits. Based on that, the music isn’t at all what I’d have expected. Dreamy, understated stuff. But it’s really, really good in an Emitt Rhodes kind of way. This goes in the enthusiastic “yes” pile, for a full review.
  9. More blues. The guitar playing’s impressive, but the backing is by-the-numbers stuff. Better than the majority of stuff I hear in this genre. There’s a jump blues flavor to some of the tunes that I find quite appealing. Others are more in a southern soul vein, or a smoky, late-night style. This is pretty good, so I’ll earmark it for one of my short reviews.
  10. Okayyy…a double album by a truly obscure artist, one with decidedly limited appeal (if an interesting history). The bottom line here is that I don’t think my readers would be all that interested in this one. So while I might regret it – that does happen – I’m going to pass.
  11. This one came in a package along with a CD (by another artist) that I had requested. Smart move on the publicist’s part, that. Nice arrangements, and the music’s difficult to describe as fitting into a single genre. That’s often a good sign. This one gets a yes.
  12. The sleeve sports some clever song titles. But there’s such a thing as being too eclectic. I can’t tell if these guys want to be Cracker, Violent Femmes, Brian Eno, or Jonathan Richman. The lo-fi production aesthetic –the drums sound like cardboard boxes – fails to impress. Okay but not for me. Pass.

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