During the first decade of the 2000s, this website was a minor, unremarkable part of the “web reviewing community”, where people reviewed albums as a hobby. Here I revisit another of my favourite sites.
Steve Knowlton is a witty writer, who’s far more informed about the mechanics of band interplay and song construction than the average pop pundit. I didn’t necessarily go to his site for music recommendations – as he spells out on his site’s front page, and faithfully follows throughout his reviews, his preference is for professionally played, written, and recorded music, which immediately rules out The Velvet Underground.
As a knowledgeable musician, Knowlton could write insights like:
[John Bonham] certainly didn’t invent his trademark style (best characterized as pushing the kick drum a little early and laying off the snare until a hair late, it creates a lot of sonic “space” in the beat which makes it feel heavier than the standard “four-on-the-floor” beat. Bonham hardly created it, though – I can trace it as far back as Hal Blaine’s work with Phil Spector’s acts, and I’m not much of a rock historian.
Bonham’s real breakthrough was the application of this beat to heavy music. Most previous loud acts had drummers who tried to be as busy and crazy as the lead guitarists, with predictably unfocused results. The Led Zeppelin sound, though, has a super-steady bottom that makes the riffs stand out even more; it’s the blueprint for all heavy music to this day.
And there are times when our hero really shines. A few cuts have really cool, interesting drum fills that are practically hooks themselves (“Achilles Last Stand”, “Rock and Roll”). And somehow on Presence, an album where the rest of the band kind of checked out creatively, he’s all over the place with polyrhythmic funky lines that are still very heavy (“Candy Store Rock”, “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”). He also handles odd meters with aplomb (when the Beastie Boys sampled “The Ocean” they probably created the only rap song ever written in 15/8 time.)
His real advantage over other drummers, though, was that he was excellently recorded. I don’t know just what Jimmy Page did in the studio, but everything on Led Zeppelin’s records sounds fantastic. The drums have a huge presence, the bass is full and smooth, and oh, those guitar tones!
But I did share his enthusiasm for The Band, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and 1970s and 1980s Bruce Springsteen. I also enjoyed his idiosyncratic rating scale, out of 10, where he uses all the numbers from 0 to 9 equally, and refuses to give anything 10. “Ten is a perfect record. Because records are made by human beings, there are no tens (unless someone comes up with a recording of the seraphim singing ’round the Throne of Heaven.)”
Steve only wrote for a few years, and his site has been inactive since 2005, but it has a number of witty reviews to peruse. Here are some of my favourite Steve Knowlton quotes – I don’t always agree, but he’s always entertaining:
On Britney Spears – Oops… I Did It Again!
Well, now, this is an attractive package. The front cover has a shot of Britney clinging to a bead curtain, in a scene reminiscent of your favorite bordello. She’s wearing hip-huggers that show off her waist (about the size of your average ten-year-old child’s) and a quasi-halter top about one size too small, so you really get a nice idea of the shape of her bosom. The look on her face is odd — I think she’s attempting to give us the “come hither” look, but it’s actually looks like she’s taken too many antihistamines.
Inside there’s a nice photo of Britney leaning backward off a couch. The important thing is that you get to see her cleavage, but you might also note her fashionably tousled hair. Definitely enough to keep a lonesome teenage boy occupied for a little while.
There’s a round piece of plastic in the middle, too, but it doesn’t have any pictures, so I threw it out.
His review of Guns ‘n’ Roses Use Your Illusion I and II.
”Karl” and I met a few days after he had broken up with his girlfriend, “Liza.” My brother introduced us. I was leery at first. I had heard Liza was pregnant with Karl’s child, but he told me it was over between them. I guess Karl said all the right things because we immediately hooked up and our relationship got serious fast.
A week later, Liza called Karl to “discuss the baby.” At that point, Karl and I were living together. He went to see her and didn’t return until morning. Liza called me in the middle of the night, announced that she and Karl were back together, and told me that I had to move out. Since there wasn’t time to find a new apartment, I moved into the guest room.
Surprisingly, we have all been getting along really well, but there is something that I haven’t told them – I am also pregnant with Karl’s child.
I really don’t know what to do . Karl has two kids on the way and they are less than a month apart. Please help. —A Hopeless Pregnant Woman
You may be worried whether your child will get enough attention from his father, who will certainly be stretched thin coping with two children raised by different mothers. But take heart from the example of Mike Clink. Mike is a widely respected producer of hard rock records, and his work on Guns n’ Roses first album, Appetite for Destruction is considered a hallmark of mainstream metal production. But there he was working with a collection of two-guitar riff rockers: once you master the formula, it’s smooth sailing.
Clink was faced with a much bigger challenge for the group’s second album: they wanted to record every damn song they ever wrote, from epic piano ballads to banjo-driven funk pieces to acoustic barbershop harmonies to creaky shuffles. There’s even one or two songs that sound like their first record. And practically everyone in the band wanted to sing!
Clink, being a man of patience and resourcefulness, found a way to achieve a uniform sound. First he fired the original, interesting drummer and replaced him with a guy who plays the same no matter what the song. Second, he used generous amounts of digital reverb on all the instruments to give them that pleasant early-90’s sheen. All told, it worked marvelously. While the songs themselves are a mixed bag, it sounds just fine.
So don’t worry, Hopeless. If Mike Clink can make a record out of these songs, Karl will do just fine with his kids. Mazel tov!
On “Grave Digger” by Dave Matthews
Hey, Dave, you know when you’re listening to other music, and there are little parts of the song that make you sing along? They’re called hooks. Put some in your music.
Want more Steve and Abe and Dennis, presented in basic, turn of the century, HTML glory? Want to read about The Beatles albums, reviewed by Ringo’s drumming, or about Paul McCartney’s Ego? Read more at http://www.angelfire.com/mi4/steveandabe/