Ingratitude: a key critical quality I’d not much previously thought about, until I got the new CD by Toronto’s Pope Factory through the post. Standing dressing-gowned and bleary-eyed in the hallway of my parents’ house, slimly ominous promo package in hand, the self-inflicted responsibilities of the rock critic weigh heavy on my surly soul. Here we have a nice person called Kim who has personally e-mailed me to ask if I would review said CD and has now paid good money to send “Tom Ewing, Freaky Trigger” this object, gratis. It was at the e-mail stage that my pretensions to rock’n’roll snottiness fell away and I became Hugh Grant, pop critic, all fringe-tossing burbling self-effacement. Why, um, uh, yes, of course, I’d love to review your CD, I mean, are you sure it’s the kind of thing….?

There is after all every chance this new CD by P.F. will turn out to be generically quirksome or blustery alternastodge by people who’ve spent so long up on stage payin’ their doos live that any notions of critical distance or ability to judge their own work have long since vanished out the Transit Van window. In which case I will be duty bound to traduce Kim’s faith in me and my humble site by trashing it in favour of Billie. And yet this prospect fills me with unease and guilt.

(Sidenote: My reluctance to displease Kim is only partly caused by natural Hughness and partly by my inner chauvinist re-imagining this person as a bubbly, yet kinda alternative, PR girl who, like, really believes in this check-shirted atrocity. My pathetic desire to be liked by this vision was dampened by the sudden remembrance that one of the hairier members of Soundgarden was also called Kim, ditto a karate expert at school reputedly able to break an iron bar with his forearm.)

This is not what I fondly imagined getting free CDs would be like, this mixture of worry, faint irritation, and puppydog desire not to offend. I would bet any money that Proper Rock Critics like Dave Marsh have never felt it. I also doubt that the people who fill their fanzines with teeming hundreds of three-liners about Stinkpony or Dumpster or The Warbs get this curmudgeonly or nervois. Mind you they have an advantage, in that they seem to like every last drizzly thing put in front of them and so micro-labels know they’re a ‘safe bet’ and everybody ends up happy.

I’m incredibly suspicious of zines, e- or otherwise, that review mad amounts of things, because it’s transparently obvious that they can’t listen to many of them more than once. (This would, though, explain why to a man their writers like nasty dystopically distorted drum’n’bass like 2nd Gen or Panacea, bad music designed to make its listener feel simultaneously cyborgian and modish and urban and squalid and deep, and also to be listened to precisely once ever.) I’m really just (slightly) envious of ‘zine editors’ firebrand belief in the power of Independent Music to change lives, culture, the world, and indeed their belief that so much of it is actually any cop. I’m also jealous of the way ‘zine editors always seem to live lives of passionate committment, spending long hours in scandalously cheap pubs with attractive yet sensitive members of the opposite sex talking intensely about Polak and the Gentle Waves.

I find myself wondering if Kim has actually read any of Freaky Trigger and witnessed my cosy dilettantish tastes before sending me the radical alternative represented by Pope Factory? Maybe she has and wants to shake me out of my ironized complacency? Maybe – shudder – she has, and knows that Pope Factory will fit right in with my middlebrow, decaffeinated pop outlook? Or maybe she hasn’t bothered to at all.

At the same time I do feel an out-of-proportion honour at being sent the thing in the first place (especially as it comes with a kewl window sticker!), despite grouchness viz. its presumed quality. I tell, separately, Isabel and Al and my mother that “Hey! I’ve been sent a free CD in the post!” All save my mother answer “Who by?” and I say “Pope Factory” and they say “Oh.”. My mother says “Are you sure it’s free?”

In a curious way, too, getting a promo CD in the post makes me feel like I’ve ‘arrived’ as a rock critic, because I’ll be writing about a band no-one else has heard of, and which to the best of my knowledge you can’t even buy (a train of thought which leads inexorably to making bands up completely, a practise more common than you probably think). But this, too, leads to critical dilemmas. Do I give it a fawning review in the hope that somehow this will help the band become ubiquitously huge and inflate the value (current: £0.10 if I know my Record & Tape Exchange) of my rare promo? Do I give it a strong review casually mentioning the names of several less obscure yet similar bands who Pope Factory are, naturally, much better than and who would be nothing if only the blind sheep who like them would think for themselves, i.e. just like me, for once?

The sad truth is that I only get motivated to roast something if I can envisage the £13.99 it’s cost me sitting mournfully in a Tower Records till: the second I start getting this stuff for free I have the horrible sensation of being thoroughly compromised. Probably the best thing to be said for amateur critics is that as actual paying customers they have something at stake in the music, even if it is just money. You could argue that even pro critics get their time wasted by bad music, but unless you’re terminally ill or a head of state, your time is likely to be 90% wasted anyway, so The Bluetones might as well be playing while it is. The downside of amateurism is that people who pay money for music spend a long time desperately trying to convince themselves that it’s good, so amateur rock criticism tends to gush (I actually spend the majority of my listening time trying to find fault in the CDs I buy, which probably explains why my end-of-year lists tend to run out of steam around No.15 and get all carpy thereafter).

The other downside of amateurism is that it means an inevitably narrowed perspective, unless you’re filthy rich. Compiling the (hem hem) long-awaited Top 100 Singles Of The 90s, I’m saddened by how many of them are having to stand in for entire subgenres of music I would probably love but just couldn’t afford to like to much. Whereas the pro critic, drowning in recorded sound, finds this much less of a problem. Is that a reason to believe paid pop critics over the likes of me? Possibly, if you believe that the point of the critic is to act as a guide through the vast slagheaps of accumulated pop, pointing out the few recoverables. But do you? It’s the question at the heart of Freaky Trigger: what is a pop critic for, exactly? And I’d be very interested in any of your replies.