ead Letter Office is a column of letters written by Todd Hutlock to a friend named Jimmy, who may or may not exist. The column details real-life experiences regarding work, life, and how Hutlock's obsession with music runs them both.
Hey pal, how’s everything? I need a little help with a problem I’ve recently run into that manages to juxtapose my professional and personal life in a really annoying and confusing way. Maybe you can give me a little bit of a different perspective.
How do I objectively review a record by someone I know?
I have been wrestling with this in my head for a while now, and in the process, I’ve realized that I’ve actually been dealing with it for a lot longer than I thought, and I’ve yet to come up with a solution that works for me. Help!
This latest bout was set off a few months back when I got in touch with my old pal Alice of Alice Texas fame. She had recently put out a new CD and I saw it in a store somewhere and dropped her an email as we had lost touch for a while when I changed jobs. She soon sent me a copy and almost without thinking I offered to review it for Stylus. I should qualify all of this by saying that I first met Alice while working at A.P. We featured her in our “100 Artists to Watch” issue and I contacted her at home to get some info for the blurb (as well as to get some pictures from her to run with it). We ended up striking up a conversation, and we even met for a drink (or seven) when I was last in New York. I’d like to think that we are friends at this point, as I certainly think of her that way.
Anyway, I played the album and I totally loved it, I really did, and not just because I think Alice is so great either (and I do, by the way). I thought it showed some remarkable growth over the previous album, the production sounded fabulous, her voice was great throughout and the songwriting had gotten really sharp. I really really liked this record, and had it arrived in my mailbox from anyone else, I would have had no trouble at all giving it a stellar review and telling all my friends how great it was.
But then, the problems started creeping in.
I sat down and started to write the review and no matter how hard I tired, I just couldn’t get it to sound right. I kept thinking to myself, “God, this sounds stupid—Alice is going to think I’m a moron for saying that,” or, “Man, if I criticize that song, Alice is totally going to be pissed.” Then, it got worse: “Do I just like this because I like Alice, or is it really as good as I think it is?” “What can I say about this that isn’t going to sound like I’m just trying to prop up a friend of mine?” I just couldn’t do it. I had managed to think myself right out of my objectivity.
In the process of trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with me, I tried to go back and listen to albums by other people I know and think of what I might write about them—sort of give them a mental review. I thought of Tortoise and my recent blurb for Stylus Top 101-200 thing, and how I didn’t have much trouble writing that. But then I decided that John McEntire and I are more friendly acquaintances than actual friends at this point. I haven’t spoken to him in at least two years, and even back when we used to see each other all the time, it was more of a working relationship than anything else. So that was no help. Phil Manley from Trans Am fits basically the same bill, though I knew him better than I ever knew John (of course, I like John’s records better, too). Josh Ritter? Well, I always thought he sucked and was never particularly friendly to him anyway. Matt Wad and the kids from the French Kicks? Alex Minoff and the rest of Golden? Fuck, what about Blectum From Blechdom? Let’s not even go there, okay?
The whole thing just frustrated me, basically. I felt like because music is so much a part of me and the person I am, I had to write about and respond to it on some personal level. The problem occurs when there is some other “personal” thing going on with the music. I can hardly separate the two. It’s all one thing to me, and I have just as hard a time objectively listening to a great tune by someone I hate and admitting that I like it as I do listening to an awful tune by someone I like and trying to convince myself that I love it. Aaaargh!
So, the end result of all of this is that Alice likely will never get her review—hell, she’ll probably have a new record done before I could finish the thing anyway—and now I feel like I’m incapable of keeping my personal feelings out of my work. But then again, I have a feeling I wasn’t doing a very good job of that anyway.
Oh yeah—go buy Alice’s record, will ya? At least I can try to get her a sales spike out of all of this!
Your man in the Midwest,