In the 90s the marketing department of internet service provider America Online had the bright idea of offering potential customers 28 days of service for free, knowing that providing they were able to log in and pick up their email most people wouldn’t want the hassle of switching to someone else, sticking with the service out of sheer inertia. Unfortunately AOL required its customers to have custom software on their machines in order to connect, and rather than wait for people to get wind of the offer and come to them, they chose instead to press vast quantities of floppy discs and mail them out to every address in the land, whether they owned a computer or not. Soon the AOL install disc became so ubiquitous that, for all the company’s problems, it was for doubling the size of the world’s landfills with useless floppies (and latterly CD-ROMS) that they attracted the most derision.
It’s probably far from the worst act of environmental irresponsibility committed by marketing knobs, but it was so visible since so many people found disc after worthless disc shoved through their letterboxes. There is a point to this geeky little tale, and it’s that the record industry is, to this day, similarly wasteful when it comes to mailing out promotional records for review, and although their address books contain only the names of those individuals who may be able to provide them with some publicity, be that a full-page review in the NME or a couple of lines on a blog somewhere, they put out far more than the odd floppy disc. Those of us who write about music, and especially those who do so for free, do so because we love it, and of course we aren’t going to complain about free records. But for every promo that becomes a well-played fixture of your record collection, there are at least a dozen that end up destined for the charity shop, or, worse, the bin.
The switch to MP3 downloads of review material seems like an obvious one. Unless the record comes in some unusual packaging and the whole object merits consideration, why not just provide the content that’s up for review? But the record industry has been historically skittish about downloads, fearing large-scale piracy of albums before their actual release date, so kudos is due to Fat Cat records for having the nerve to start providing promos in downloadable form, beginning with this, the debut EP from one Tom Brosseau. One can even stream each track first to get a sense of whether it’s appropriate for review before wasting bandwidth on a full download. How nice.
It’s funny, then, that the move to a new form of distribution should be launched with an album of such resolutely traditional music. Tom Brosseau’s influences are very much worn on his sleeve on this five-song EP. Opener “George Washington” in particular is a fairly lacklustre attempt to “do” Bob Dylan, and it’s telling that the nasal drawl he adopts on this track is absent for the rest of the EP, replaced by a far gentler, and less grating, vocal style. So too is the folk-rock instrumentation, most of the record adopting a simple acoustic-guitar-and-voice format before going entirely a capella right at the end.
The impression here is of a songwriter steeped in the American folk tradition. Which is, of course, all fine and well. I’m not anti-folk music. Some of my best friends own banjos for god’s sake, and play them without irony. But the problem with tradition is that it often goes hand-in-hand with a creativity-stifling dogma. Brosseau clearly has the ability to be a charmingly poetic songwriter. Track two on this EP, “Empty Houses”, in particular demonstrates the strength of his abilities in that department. But the talent that is in evidence here should be finding a unique voice for itself, and there is disappointingly little evidence from this EP that it is doing so. Listening to it is a pleasant, but ultimately unsatisfying experience, scattered as it is with hints that Brosseau is capable of much more.
Perhaps music reviewers should adopt a new ratings system based on what becomes of the review copy of the record after the piece as been written. If this was on CD, it would probably would not be immediately sent to Oxfam, but would be filed away and unlikely to be brought out again unless asked to review a second outing by the same artist. As it stands it’s not yet getting deleted from my iTunes library. In the event of a cull brought about by limited disc-space it may be in some danger, but it could yet be saved by the presence of a satisfying follow-up record that does its creator justice.