A writer responds to criticism

Hi folks. I logged in to consider writing a blog post today, maybe something about Bowie, who died yesterday, Jan 10, 2016. And I found this unpublished post that I guess I wrote in December, 2014. I remember wanting to write something like this, but not actually doing it. I think when I wrote it I decided it would be crazy to publish, but reading it now it seems mostly harmless - though I can't imagine anyone have a burning urge to read it. In the interest of totality, I publish it now - it's about the solo album I released in September 2014 - Peaks Island Ferry. [p.s. the special surprise I mention doesn't materialize, but it is actually the next blog entry (below this one)]

[The following written on December 6, 2014)

Greetings - been a while since I've populated this space with content. In the intervening time, my opera has had its concert premiere, and I've released an album, Peaks Island Ferry, and that is the subject of the current post. As an unsigned, independant recording artist, without a significant track record even of live performance, it is a pretty tough thing to put a recording of original songs into the world. Though I have been a songwriter my whole life - long before I ever considered myself a "composer" - and though by rights I probably SHOULD have recorded my first album many moons hence, for one reason or another I only felt the significant urge now. After the premiere of my opera, I devoted my full "summer off" (we academics get summers "off," with the expectation that we will produce creative or scholarly work during that time..."publish or perish," as they say) to recording and mixing this album of songs I had written over the course of the last four years.

As it was a very personal document, I decided from the outset that I would need for the most part to be the only person in studio, and that I would play all the instruments. Through the years I have gained sufficient chops on all of the major rock instruments to hold my own if the compositions are my own and tailored to my specific strengths and weaknesses. Some of the drum tracks had been recorded the previous summer, when I had drums and a recording rig set up in the barn of my previous residence, but otherwise it was a ground up affair. I worked long hours, hard hours, both recording and also learning the songs on each instrument. I recorded at my school, the University of Southern Maine, where I have been developing a digital recording studio for several years. This was my chance to put the equipment (and my know how with it) to the test. It was a labor of love but also insanity, as for the full duration I didn't know whether all this effort would even count as "scholarship" for my job, and certainly no one had commissioned this work, and no one was lined up at Bullmoose waiting for it. It was destined to be just another drop in the ever overfull bucket of independent music recordings. A bucket filled with sound and fury, but mostly signifying nothing. 

Anyway, I got the thing finished and was very pleased with it. I felt certain it would at least make a splash on the local scene, and I think it's a solid piece of work. I thought the fact that I had had a widely publicized operatic premiere in Portland earlier in the same year might buy me some interest in this project, at least to the extent that it would be reviewed in all the local publications and maybe generate some buzz. Happily, I did get a handful of reviews, and I did manage to sit for a few weeks on the local best selling CD charts. (I received about $140 from sales in the local record store, another $100 or so via Bandcamp, another $40 or $50 from live sales. Maybe I made back about $300 of the $1200 I had spent for final mixing, mastering, and pressing - and keep in mind I hired no sessison musicians and engineered most of the recording myself). 

Though the reviewers all had kind things to say about the album, I emerged from the process feeling somewhat disappointed, as though no one had engaged the album as I hoped they would, at least not fully. At least not fully. I did get some useful criticism, some of it generous, along with some criticism that I thought was misguided and off the mark, and it's always struck me that it would be nice for an artist to have an opportunity to respond to such criticism. And hey, I have a blog, so I'll do it. And no one will read it, but it will part of the public record and that's good enough for me. 

Without further ado, here's all the press I got, with my responses, and then a special bonus at the end. 

First, a preview from the Portland Phoenix

USM resident composer Dan Sonenberg has been busy this summer, following up his epic, baseball-themed opera with a full-length solo record, Peaks Island Ferry, which hists Bull Moose today. It's kind of like David Bowie doing Frank Zappa songs, with some of the intricacy you'd expect from a classical composer, and plenty of drama, but also a directness and silliness that might surprise you.   - Sam Pfeifle

This was a generous preview from Sam P, the most important reviewer of Portland record releases, in the Phoenix's Fall Preview. Sam has generally been generous with me, and gave my band Lovers of Fiction's EP a near-rave when it was released last year. In published reviews I have often been linked to Zappa, and I am not fully sure why. Maybe because he was also a composer of both concert and rock works? He is not a signficant influence and I don't really hear him in my music. Bowie, on the other hand, is at the center of my musicality. I don't know where the silliness is - and I was really hoping that Sam would follow this blurb up with one of his full-length weekly reviews in the Phoenix, but it was not to be. That was no small disappointment to me, but I can't say I was thoroughly ignored. 

After this came a full length live blogging of a first listen by old friend Mike K. He published his responses, song by song, one comment at a time to Facebook, and then linked (at my request) to the whole thing on his blog. Mike's review was part affectionate critique from a friend and part public criticism - he revealed more knowledge in it of my life's work than any other reviewer, but also was giving his responses to a first listen on the fly. After one listen he thought the best path was to condence the thing by chopping off several of the first songs and the last, Resolution Time, to make an unassailably strong EP. Along the way he offers many accurate assessments about the influences (of course he had an unfair advantage) in play, and his review is well worth a read even if I don't quote it at length here. 

The first published full length review came from Chris Busby in the Bollard

Dan Sonenberg occupies a unique position in the local music scene, straddling the spheres of classical and popular music. His opera about Negro League baseball great Josh Gibson, The Summer King, premiered earlier this year at Merrill Auditorium. Last year, his rock band, Lovers of Fiction, released an excellent, albeit short (three-song) EP, titled The Bear. There’s a Lovers of Fiction full-length in the works, but in the interim we have a solo album from the pop side of Sonenberg’s brain.

Peaks Island Ferry is a concept album about an all-too-familiar phenomenon: the bitter break-up. Musically, Peaks is a treat. It opens with “Turn Me Over,” a Lennon-esque power ballad refined by some lovely operatic flourishes. John’s an explicit reference point in the next track, “Yoko Song,” the most “rock” number on an album where acoustic guitar and piano predominate. (With the exception of strings on one track, Sonenberg plays all the instruments, and does do deftly.)

There are shades of John’s drinking buddy, Harry Nilsson, elsewhere on Peaks, especially “Everybody’s Going to Sleep” and “Happy Birthday.” Sonenberg doesn’t have Nilsson’s vocal range (what mortal does?), but that doesn’t stop him from attempting to hit the high notes, and when his voice cracks from the effort it only echoes what the lyrics are telling us: we’re listening to a broken man. “Happy birthday to the woman I’ve wronged / I’ve made such a mess of it all,” Sonenberg croons on the latter. “Brokenhearted pretty much all the time / And feeling suburban / These bottles of bourbon don’t lie.”

Peaks includes an alternate version of “Everyone at Target Drives a Honda,” a punchy rocker from The Bear, here stripped down to piano and voice and simply titled “Target.” It’s still the best evocation I’ve heard of that tortuous experience one has when your ex- still lives in town and you go about your days half-hoping, half-dreading your next encounter.

Sonenberg lays it on a bit thick at the album’s end. The title track neatly sums up the story and provides a sense of resigned acceptance, making the next and final song, “Resolution Time,” superfluous, if not downright indulgent, with its corny “Auld Lang Syne” quotes. A lot of listeners will find the whole album too melodramatic, but it depends which end of the ferry ride you’re on. If you’re stranded on your own emotional island with the cold season blowing in, Peaks may very well be exactly what you need.   -Chris Busby

This is clearly a well written and intelligent review. He gets my influences right, makes a smart choice about what lyric to quote, and says some very kind things about some of the songs. I never heard the first track as Lennonesque but was thrilled to hear him make the connection. After Chris B's total rave of the Lovers of Fiction EP, I was really hoping he would hear this solo effort as more of a cohesive whole and, you know...a masterpiece. That he didn't is not only fair, but what makes a horserace. If you read Mike K's review too, you'll see that Chris B was not alone in questioning the wisdom of including Resolution Time. And in truth, it is the oldest song on the album and stems practically from another era (it was written to celebrate New Years 2007). Still, though, I stand by my choice of that song to close the album, as I feel it puts an ironic punctuation mark on all that has come before. More on this below - but ultimately I think this was a fair write up. 

After a few weeks of my eagerly checking the Portland Pheonix before giving up on them every writing a review came this from Emily Burnham in the Bangor Daily News

Dan Sonenberg references Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman in his influences, and boy, is that true — “Peaks Island Ferry” is full of piano-driven, classic songwriting, sung from the woozy, jaded perspective of a guy who’s been through some stuff. With the exception of one track on the album, Sonenberg plays everything, from drums and backing vocals to the crisp guitar lines on “Yoko Song.” Sonenberg, who also plays in the indie rock band Lovers of Fiction, recorded many of the songs on this album while living on Peaks Island in Casco Bay, and that Maine imagery is prevalent through many of these songs, like the melancholy “Bar Harbor” or the title track. You get the sense that Sonenberg is reflecting on a number of major changes in life — a failed relationship, perhaps, and he wears his heart on his sleeve because of it. He certainly has a way with melodies, in the same way Billy Joel might if he came of age in the 1990s. The album’s strongest points are when Sonenberg indulges in his inner bombastic 70s troubadour, like the Bowie-esque breakdown in “Resolution Time” or the tortured torch song “Target.” It’s a refreshing departure from the norm, in terms of Maine bands. - Emily Burnham

How can I complain about this? Can't. I like that she looked up what I said my influences were and then confirmed it, love that she referenced the instrumentation, and acknowledged the overall theme of the album. I don't know exactly what Billy Joel coming of age in the 90s means, but I'm down with that - I have respect for Billy Joel even though he has become tragically unhip of late. 

About a week later came this pair of reviews in Dispatch magazine - I'll post the photos since these are unlinkable. 

In some ways this is the review I was most waiting for. Kyle Gervais was the one reviewer to outright diss Lovers of Fiction's EP last year. About that disk he wrote: "The Bear is difficult to listen to but because you can hear the potential in moments that you can't help but be impressed by on a record that just, as a whole, doesn't work." And - and this is relevant - "...the lyrics are just silly, or trying to be funny as evidenced by "Everyone at Target Drives a Honda." Yes, it makes me smirk, but does it make me want to listen to the song after the minor novelty has worn off?" - That song is actually reconceived as a slow piano torch song on my solo album, entitled simply "Target," and the newer recording, truth be told, was conceived in direct response to this review. Because I was shocked that anyone could listen to that whole song and hear at as anything other than a song about obsession and desperation, smirky novelty title notwithstanding. Kyle G. obviously finds all my stuff a difficult listen, but I am very happy with his review here. The first sentence is of course a joy - and I'm really glad someone somewhere commented on the guitar sounds, on which I worked very hard. Also - his point about not delivering on the energy promised in the first track actually rang true for me - that was a learning moment, though I still haven't fully processed what to do with the info. "Debatable left turns" is potentially a strange turn of phrase, but I imagine it refers to my penchant for occasional odd harmonic progressions, and as such, I'll take it. Overally? Kyle G and I are friends again (in reality we've never met). 

Sam Ueda is a new reviewer at Dispatch, and places Kyle Gervais's annagram Amanda Gervasi, who was very kind to The Bear. I like this review too - took a little bit for me to own and appreciate "Dad Rock" but let's be real, I am on the cover with my son and making a record that bleeds 1970s. I think every word of this review is fair and accurate - except maybe "smarmy" for the guitar solos - really? To my listening the only song where the vox are mixed a bit too loud is "Yoko Song," and I'd love to hear more specifics about that, but look at the word count these poor guys have to work within. Thanks Dispatch - much obliged!

The most mixed/mediocre review I recevied for Peaks Island Ferry came from a music reviewing blog called The Equal Ground. I submitted the album to them for consideration, and they responded with good news - they liked it and wanted to review it. The way it works is no one they approve gets a bad review, but they range in rating from 3 to 5 out of 5. Also, if you want anything more than just a mention in their "weekly roundup," you need to pay a fee - from $25 to $40. I know the notion horrifies a lot of people, and several advised me not to pay. But the truth is, as a dilletente in the rock business with absolutely no name recognition outside of my home town of Portland and no plans to tour any time soon, I really could use a rave review on an indie music website, and I hadn't heard back from any of the free ones to which I submitted. I paid the mininum and was told then next day that my review would run on December 4. That was more than a month away at the time. I woke up on the 4th eager to see what the news the nation at large would receive about my opus, and sadly, it was pretty bleak. I was given a 3.5 out of 5, among the lowest ratings they give, and the following review: 

Dan Sonenberg is no newcomer to music. He is a composer of the opera “The Summer King,” is the front man and principal songwriter for the band Lovers of Fiction and is also a professor of composition and music theory at the University of Southern Maine. Sonenberg released his own solo album entitled Peaks Island Ferry. He wears his influences on his sleeves and the most obvious are Billy Joel, David Bowie and Elton John. 

Sonenberg’s biggest strength is songwriting. Whether it’s a sparse piano song or a layered pop song it is well written. In fact Sonenberg has a number of other strengths, which include his technical and creative ability, an ear for aesthetics and versatility. One area that I thought needed some tweaking was his vocals. Sonenberg is a decent vocalist but he often exaggerates nuances within his natural voice from song to song and sometimes line for line which seems a bit self indulgent. Sometimes he sounds like Elton John, sometimes like an alternative version of Bowie and sorta like someone delivering lines in a play. The other slight issue is his delivery on certain words. He sometimes misses the mark. For example on “Everybody's Going to Sleep” he sings the line “ We’ll greet with a song and a smile” and when comes to the word “smile” it is not exactly flattering.

The good news is that other than these vocal discrepancies the album as a whole is quite enjoyable. Some songs are better than others so let’s dig into the details.

The album starts off with “Turn Me Over,” which is basically split down the middle between Elton John and David Bowie. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable song even though I was hoping for some elements that didn’t feel so derived from his influences. “Every Message is Erased” is a good song all around. It has a “Piano Man” essence to it but is also one of the most inspired vocal performances.

Another highlight is the sparse “Target,” which contains frivolous lyrics that are some of his best amongst the album. To Sonenberg’s credit his vocal delivery works here and despite the rather silly lyrics created an engaging dichotomy. As the album progresses there are a number of highlights, which include “Happy Birthday” and closer “Resolution Time.”

Sonenberg delivers some quality material on Peaks Island Ferry. It doesn't all work but it is pretty easy to look past. The next time you are at a piano bar without a piano man just pop this in. 

 Overall it's not a terrible review, but there are aspects of it that really rankle me, and I'm glad to have this space in which to vent! First of all, no one has ever listed Elton John among my influences, and I am decidedly not a fan. Oh he's all right, but almost nothing Elton has done has really moved me, and I have spent no serious amount of time learning his tricks and emulating them. I DID grow up in a househould with Billy Joel playing all the time, however, and with a piano-centric rock album I understand the urge to compare to Billy, though Randy Newman is so obviously more of an appropriate grab. 

The problem with this review is often its syntax - oftentimes I'm scratching my head trying to figure out what exactly the reviewer is saying. I have read the following over and over and can't quite figure it out: 

Sonenberg is a decent vocalist but he often exaggerates nuances within his natural voice from song to song and sometimes line for line which seems a bit self indulgent.

What does it mean to exaggerate nuances within one's natural voice? Line for line, even? I want to absorb this as a potentially reasonable critique of my singing, but I am not fully sure I know how to. I don't think I'm the greatest singer - and certainly my abilities have faded since my singer-songwriter heyday in my early twenties. But this just feels like a messy, aimless criticism. He specifically criticizes the way I sing "smile" on Everybody's Going to Sleep, and fair enough - it's a middle aged guy with a challenged falsetto. It was hard to record that, and I thought I did okay, and that if anything the slight scratchiness presented world weariness rather a non-flattering tone. Oh well. 

A critique of "Turn Me Over" as derrivative surprises me, though actually I do feel like Mikey K in his blog entry said it was nothing new. To me there are some striking aspects of originality in that song, including the step down a half step from the intro's A major to the verse's Bb, and the circularity of construction with an ever expanding chorus. Also, the vocal lines acrobatics - clearly a tough match for my vocal abilities (and now that I think of it, maaaybe something Elton would do well). But okay, it's "enjoyable," so there's that. 

"Target" has "frivolous lyrics that are some of the best on the album." This is probably the price I pay for choosing as my catch phrase "everyone at Target drives a Honda." It's a sad song about an obsessed person - if you're gonna make blanket statements (self-contradictory ones, no less) why not quote a line?

Ultimately the line that best sums up what this review can do for me is: "It doesn't all work but it is pretty easy to look past." I imagine the writer means the flaws are easy to look past, but in the context of their website, the whole album will be quicky forgotten, buried in their archives. Well and good. It's the weakest review, but also the most poorly written, and I'll have to satisfy myself that it takes quality to suss out quality. Right?