Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cardinology: In Which My Grading Philosophy Enters the Room

Note: so this is a post that I put up several days ago and it was summarily swept off this here blog which you can read about below. As I note, I am not re-posting because I think this is such a great post, but rather because it was something I put an effort into and I think this album is worth discussing (which is the reason for the post in the first place). So here we have it again without the music files.


I am not a music critic. In fact, one might suggest that I am a bit too positively uncritical. Fair enough, but this leaves me in a bit of a pickle when I want to write about music that I find interesting, perhaps worth a listen, but not amazing. I want to be positive, but, at the same time, I want to provide some sense of my ambivalence or even dislikes--all of which makes me think back on grading college papers in my previous life as a faculty member.

See, writing comments on a student paper and giving a grade are two very different activities. Comments (hopefully) are formative and encouraging; whereas grades are summative and judgmental (I know it isn't that clean all you teachers out there). I will never forget how hard it was to give my first grades on a round of papers--I was so unsure about them. I knew what I wanted to say to each student regarding their paper, but judging them in that finalistic way (particularly when so many seemed like grades I wouldn't want to receive) was much harder. But ultimately, the grade became helpful.

It helped to know that the students were going (as I would have) straight to the grade and then (if they didn't agree) to the comments for justification (and if they did) for more pleasantries about how fine they were as writers. And so my comments were often oriented that way. Hey, wondering why you got a B? Here you go. But ultimately, I always tended to try to shape the comments as positive as possible.

Why oh why am I subjecting you to this recounting of my grading philosophy?! Well, here is the thing, I have been thinking that there might be some advantage to quantifying my reactions to music here in the TR with some sort of grade or score so you, dear reader, would know that while I liked two different albums, I liked one much more than another. And the new album from Ryan Adams and the Cardinals makes me think that this is definitely a good idea. Why?

Well, you see there has been so much hype and talk about Cardinology and then it was released and so many folks were disappointed (including our favorite Ryan Adams scholars) which resulted in others getting all defensive, so it seemed that it might be helpful to be as clear as possible when weighing in here.

And this (to take another digression) is why I really do love the Metacritic which aggregates and "quantifies" reviews on a standard scale (oh, the false security of numbers). The results for Cardinology thus far are a solid B- (80/100)--oops, a C+ (78/100) as there are new reviews in. It works (in this case) to eliminate overly cranky Pitchfork reviews and overly fawning Entertainment Weekly reviews and gives you a decent mean and median of the reviews that I generally find pretty accurate (including this album although I am going to come out slightly higher with my grade).

Are you still with me? Thanks (we will actually start talking about the album now).

So, if I were to grade the new effort, I am pretty sure I would come down somewhere around a low B--perhaps an 83 just to let Ryan know he just barely scrambled into the B (not B-) tier--I am sure he will care. So why a B?

First, I agree with many of the critiques that this album is not on par with other efforts from Adams and in particular you miss the country influence a bit on this album. Second, there is a bit too much middle-tempo music and lastly and most importantly the lyrics are lacking, even sophomoric at times. That said, I also don’t think this is just a "C" (average) album either. Here is the deal.

My first listen to this album confirmed every disappointment that has been written about Cardinology, but I listened more and then I found myself choosing to listen again and again. Hop in the car with a host of discs to choose from--in it goes. Riding the Metro or sitting in the airport, what's on the iPod, Cardinology. And what I have decided is that, well, I really like it as an album.

I like the transitions--one song ends and the next begins and you feel like one song follows another quite naturally. I admit that by the time we are near the end I am longing for the earlier part of the album, but that is a minor criticism. I like the trying on of the different musical influences going on here--whether it is the R&B feel of "Fix It" or the gospel sound of "Let Us Down Easy." I even dig the somewhat silly lyrics and early Tom Petty rockin' sound of "Magic" which I would listen to just to hear Ryan's spittin P's and B's.

There is simply no argument about the musicianship here--even those who are disappointed with the album appreciate the musical performance of the Cardinals, the singing of Adams and the production of the album. And despite the less-than-perfect lyrics, often the well-produced mix of lyrics and music overcome that fault.

And lastly, I think I am into this album because at this point in my life I appreciate the "maturing" narrative and the fact that Adams is trying to deal with managing change and growing up. I find myself patient with the effort and the subject and am willing to see the value in what is being dealt with here. I feel tremendous calm and hope in listening to the final track "Stop" as Ryan clearly articulates recovery efforts (not to mention I love how that tune transitions back to the opening "Born Into A Light" for those listening on CD with repeat on).

So objectively, I am going to stick with the low B grade, but I also have to say that it is a B effort I have enjoyed while recognizing its place in the overall Adams' catalog. I still encourage folks to take a listen and see what you think as I am not convinced this album should be kicked to the curb just because it isn't the best thing that Ryan and the Cards have produced. As UNCUT puts it so well in its review:

Ultimately, “Cardinology” serves as another minor indictment of Adams’ famously lackadaisical internal editor. Nevertheless, it is still, almost infuriatingly, a stretch better than most people at their best. And, it being a Ryan Adams album, its misfires and drop-shorts matter less than they otherwise might. He clearly can’t help himself. There’ll be another one along presently.

Hard to decide what to put forward for samples given that I would like to share the first several tracks to give those who haven't heard the album a sense of the track progression, but here are three that I think represent the album pretty well.

Check out the official Cardinology site, where you can jump to their MySpace page to hear tunes and also buy the album.

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