Thursday, July 19, 2012

My Life as an Amazon Editorial Reviewer

I’ve had on the brain lately because of a story I’m working on, and it's been making me flash back more than a decade to my connections with the mega e-retailer.  For a time, around 1998-99, I was one of Amazon’s “Editorial Reviewers.” To this day, if you cruise Amazon looking for an older compact disc title, you may come across my byline. I'm the guy hovering above the customer reviews  who kind of starts off the discussion on the relative merits of the item on sale.

I'd like to say that I got the gig because I'm conversant with different types of music from many time periods --  a writer also able to condense a lot of information into a short space -- but it was actually because my VCU Commonwealth Times/ThroTTle/Virginian Pilot compadre Rickey Wright was music editor at Amazon at the time. He and I seemed to take turns logrolling for each other throughout the years. Rickey passed away in 2009 and I miss him dearly.  He was certainly good to me on this deal. What music nut is going to pass up an assignment like this?

[I should stop here and say: Support your local music retailer! Just do it. While I appreciate Amazon's past patronage, one should always try and buy local first. OK, editorial's over...]
This was also a period when (probably due to Rickey, who loved interview profiles) Amazon actually paid writers to contribute feature articles on certain bands and musicians. I remember I wrote features on the Mekons, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a piece on Seattle hip-hop and a couple of others but I can’t find existing links to those, or even to some of the reviews I wrote. 

"Editorial reviews" are still published by Amazon but the newer ones I've seen are unsigned and often read like press release excerpts. So apparently I was part of an experiment that failed at Jeff Bezo’s internet empire.  

But many of my reviews do live on:     
George Clinton's post-bicentennial message to those in the "chocolate cities" was that America could be theirs, too, without any loss of their own black, regional identities. One Nation Under a Groove remains Funkadelic's most provocative release, as well as one of the funkiest long-players released in the disco era. The band vamps on a world where people of different color play each other's songs ("Who Says a Funk Band Can't Play Rock?!"), lose their inhibitions (the classic title track), and bond together with the glue of shared secrets (the wonderful "Groovallegiance"). Standout: the slow-grooved "Into You," in which a lover vows to stay true or a patriot pledges devotion to a new flag--take your pick. You might think that a complex and moving ode to commitment is out of place on an album with such political overtones, but it's not. It's really the quiet-storm centerpiece. --Don Harrison

This compilation from one of the most influential bands in rock history is, like Neil Young's Decade, one of those rare summation packages that stands on its own in the discography. Released at a time in the early '70s when the Kinks, led by songwriter/vocalist Ray Davies and his guitarist brother Dave, were attempting to reestablish themselves in America after being banned for years, The Kink Kronikles still makes a strong case for the band's high place in the Rock Hierarchy. Assembled by longtime Kronicler John Mendelssohn, this isn't exactly a hits package, although you'll find mid-period staples like "Lola"; it's a shoulda-been-hits package. With essential B-sides ("Big Black Smoke"--the best in a long line of portraits of a tired Britain), album tracks (lots from Arthur, the band's cult 1969 rock opera), and ageless singles ("Dead End Street," "Waterloo Sunset"), this makes for an unusually dense and highly concentrated set of period must-owns. --Don Harrison
This is the Cure album to start with. Robert Smith and company's best and most coherent statement, The Head on the Door is a successful, if schizophrenic, synthesis of the best of '80s rock, boasting danceable Eurobeat anthems ("In Between Days"), world-music-flavored exotica ("Kyoto Song," the Latin-tinged "The Blood"), and more sullen statements of post-modern angst from the band that gave you such downer epics as Faith and PornographyMore than any other Cure album, Head rewards those who don't subscribe to the darker side of the group's ethos. The use of Spanish guitar and other colorful arrangement touches help to create a rich dynamic. The softer, more introspective cuts (like the claustrophobic "Close to Me," Smith's confessional classic) are also far more effective for them. --Don Harrison
Rank 'em how you like, Rubber Soul is an undeniable pivot point in the Fab Four's varied discography no matter where, or how, you first heard it. The album was softened up in its original 12-song American edition to jibe with the Dylan/Byrds folk-rock sound, as well as squeeze money from the Parlophone catalog. The 14-song U.K. edition--the version now available on compact disc--is a different, more dynamic, and ultimately more accomplished achievement. So many classics: "Drive My Car" and "Nowhere Man" (both omitted from the U.S. edition) merge the early combustible Beatifics to a burgeoning studio consciousness; "The Word" can be read as a pre-psych warning shot; the sitar-laden "Norwegian Wood" and the evocative "Girl" (the latter written on the last night of the sessions) stand as signposts in John Lennon's oeuvre. George finally emerges too, with the McGuinn-ish "If I Needed Someone." --Don Harrison
It may have been a crass marketing assemblage of this U.K. group's successes up until their second-chance 1972 hit, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," but this also contains some of the greatest pop songs to be found under one chronologically fudged roof. Singer Allan Clarke was one of the most versatile vocalists of the British Invasion, able to pull off cute pop vignettes ("Bus Stop"), whoop it up like the original rockabilly ("Long Cool Woman"), lament majestically ("King Midas in Reverse"), and add distinctive blues colorings to the band's R&B covers ("Just One Look"). All in all, the Hollies were pretty good album artists, but Greatest Hits is what you really need. Clarke's boyhood chum Graham Nash adds faultless harmonies, guitarist Tony Hicks contributes sparkling fills, and the unheralded Bobby Elliott is on the skins. Pure pop manna, bad sequencing be damned. --Don Harrison
He wasn't Little Stevie, the 16-year-old phenom who set mid- '60s London blazing with his Ray Charles-like vocals, anymore. He was a half-forgotten ex-member of some of rock's most progressive (Traffic) and vilified (Blind Faith) bands, and he was considering leaving show business while recording this--his second album--alone and without a backup band. Arc of a Diver reflects a resigned-to-fate mood. It boasts a synth-heavy, dub-like ambience, with dirge-y tracks like "Spanish Dancer" and the wistful single "While You See a Chance" all but zoning out of your speakers. The fates were kind, though. Recording the single, Winwood inadvertently erased the drum intro. This spacey alteration, together with his catchiest tune since "Paper Sun," catapulted the song onto the charts. In a few years he would be among the top-selling vocalists in the world. His mood was lighter. He could afford to hire engineers that didn't make mistakes. --Don Harrison

And more: James Brown’s Star Time, Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson, Billy Joel’s The Stranger, Marshall Crenshaw, The Jackson 5’s Greatest Hits, Something Else by the Kinks, Paul McCartney’s All The Best, The Mekons’ Me, the Long Ryders’ Native Sons  

No comments:

Post a Comment