It has taken me some time to work my way around to reviewing the June/July issue of Paste that I grabbed a few weeks back. Mostly I've had difficulty digesting the mag's assessment of Elvis Costello as the eighth greatest living songwriter.

Eighth? Behind Brian Wilson, last seen wandering around the "Hollywood" sign in a muumuu and slippers? This is sacrilege. I acknowledge the unvarnished majesty of radio ditties like "I Get Around" and have read many, many times that "Pet Sounds" is a lush, glorious slice of California blah blah blah. But one guy remains as creatively vital now as he was at the start of his career in 1976; the other just got around to finishing a record he started in 1966. Can we take it easy on the lifetime-achievement awards? Please?

(To answer your question: Yes, of course I'd prefer writing about music to writing about magazines. Hiring? I need comprehensive dental and a generous short-pants allowance.)

Anyway, if the June/July Paste provoked one-seventeenth the reaction in most readers that it did in me, the mag's editors clearly did their job. The "100 Best Living Songwriters" compilation, the issue's centerpiece, does everything a super-listy cover feature should. It presents compelling arguments for each of its inclusions, a glut of lyric excerpts, a few sober nods to songwriters no longer with us (Jeff Buckley et al) and top-tens from tastemakers/music dorks like Cameron Crowe.

The list's supporting stories are slightly more hit-and-miss. The features on XTC's Andy Partridge and producer/songwriter/Elvis Costello's bestest buddy T Bone Burnett offer fresh insight into underrated performers, but the Dylan-music-as-a-soundtrack-to-some-dude's-life memoir rambles. Nonetheless, you can't argue with the overall comprehensiveness. If you take your tunes seriously or if you just need some fresh fodder for debate with your pals, leave Paste on your coffee table and let the sparring begin.

(Patty Griffin over Ray Davies? No Freedy Johnston? Shame on you.)

I'm not as sold on the rest of the issue. On its cover, Paste touts its search for "signs of life in music, film & culture." To mangle a lyric by Jim Steinman (happily left off the list), one out of three ain't bad. Paste's coverage of film and culture, while notable for its passion and occasional intellect, isn't in the same ballpark as its music content; I'd estimate the music/film/culture ratio at something like 70/20/10. Either go full-throttle with the film and culture, or ditch it altogether. An ostensibly high-thinkin' title like Paste shouldn't waste its time, or ours, flagging the release dates of "Click" and "Nacho Libre."

While travel columnist Hollis Gillespie adds welcome bite (her recounting of a trip to "fall-of-the-wall"-era Berlin begins, "It's generally not my policy to piss off drunk people--especially foreign-speaking drunk people surrounded by broken bottles and stolen bikes"), other featured writers in the June/July issue fall into the stodgy-old-person-yearning-for-the-good-ol'-days trap. The front-of-book "Scrapbook" features a whine-tastic essay on the use of music for commercial purposes; the exegesis on roller derby contains the same babble about "china-doll gladiators" that you've read 4,200 times before.

Then there's the "Before the Music Dies" feature, which lost me with its subhead ("Idealistic filmmakers take the mainstream-pop assembly line to task"). A suggestion: if you don't like Jessica Simpson's contributions to the cultural canon, simply ignore them. I'm sure she won't take it personally.

I'm similarly split on Paste's music, book and DVD reviews. On one hand, the level of thought that goes into them trumps anything you'll see in, say, Rolling Stone. On the other, the reviewers seem to have left their critical faculties at the door: of the 60-odd CDs evaluated in the June/July issue, around six are assigned fewer than three stars and none are treated to the type of rhetorical thrashing that Lester Bangs used to mete out with happy regularity (R.I.P, Creem). It's a tough world out there, kids. Things occasionally suck. Acknowledging this, in music reviews as in pre-trial motions, can be quite liberating.

Paste does more things right than it does wrong, and presents its content quite stylishly (though the dimly lit, detail-free photos of the Raconteurs hunched over their guitars might as well be some random kids in a suburban garage). But until the mag either bolsters or entirely eliminates its film and cultural coverage, it won't escape multi-genre purgatory. It's a case of what top-living-songwriter appointee Robby Z. might call "mixed-up confusion."

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