Saturday, November 04, 2006

Xgau disses Greil Marcus with 128 bars

Are they drinking pounders?

Just when you thought a band couldn’t possible eclipse the royal ball-washing that was the critical reception to TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain, there came a bunch of dudes from Minneapolis who like beer, AC/DC, and apparently make music as good as Bob Dylan. Yes, folks, The Hold Steady, already big with critics [1] because their music seems to be about words and America rather than notes and outerspace, recently dropped their third album, Boys and Girls in America, and as a result, the Times gave them a exciting interactive feature: a map of the US, dotted with free (!) snippets (better than nothing) of Hold Steady songs about the corresponding place on the map. The profile that spawned said cool interactive feature was written by inveterate anti-rockist Kelefa Sanneh and was considered to be so good that it costs $4.95 to read online (on TimesSelect, which has a orange icon that tells you it’s special).

Luckily, I know people who know people who hacked into LexisNexis, so I got that shit sans ads about “Classic Paul Krugman” columns (that guy does have a solid mustache, though). Anyway, Sanneh loves The Hold Steady, probably because they aren’t from New York (even though they live in Brooklyn now), really skinny, in their mid-twenties, clad in patent-leather white belts, recycling angular post-punk chugging art rock, and featuring gypsy instrumentation, nautical narratives or singers who sound constipated and really sad. This is true for other critics too. The Hold Steady are a refreshing respite from bands whose music and lyrics are just trying so hard either to be important art like Sonic Youth, or to seem like they really aren’t trying, like Pavement.

The Hold Steady are “compiling a guide to the country's wasted wayward youth” Sanneh writes. So in turn, Sanneh compiled a guide to the Hold Steady’s “states of America,” which runs though all the places Finn writes about, such as Minneaolis, MN, Modesto, CA, and Hostile, MA, which doesn’t exist. I suppose the way Finn writes specifically, rather than metaphorically or allegorically, about all the places where kids get drunk, listen to punk rock and kiss each other, is grounding and unpretentious; instead of telling us, for instance, that he’s an “American aquarium drinker” (come on, that would be gross). Sanneh’s article is a bit bizarre, as he doesn’t explicitly evaluate the Hold Steady’s music, let alone call them the best band in the world; although he is basically implying as much by writing a 2000-word profile about them in the Times. I mean, Frank Rich only gets like 1000, and he writes about how art can change the world, or something.

The internet loves the Hold Steady too. Pitchforkmedia.com, the taste-making website that has convinced all the aspiring hipsters in the world that indie rock and coke rap are the only really cool musics, gave it up to Finn and his merry men by slapping a 9.4 on Boys and Girls in America. Like a rogue gymnastics judge, ‘Fork may have irresponsibly commended a stunted, prepubescent Chinese girl. Or sold a shitload of Hold Steady albums to kids wearing Chuck Taylors that were made 39 years after the great salesman/basketball player died [2]. Pitchfork is a site that made its name with overblown, name-dropping, pedantic 1000 word reviews that come conveniently labeled with visible ratings. So if a band gets a 9.3, that means that 93% of their album is NOT derived from Pere Ubu or 93% or their choruses will make semi-attractive girls take off their clothes. More than anything, though, Pitchfork is a buyers guide, or downloaders guide, or shoplifters guide [3] for indie kids. As much as mp3 blogs generate conspiratorial instahype, it takes a good rating from Pitchfork to get your indie album cyberjumpin off the cybershelves of iTunes. In the case of the Hold Steady, the indie kids coppin Boys and Girls aren’t gonna find ominous melodies that sound like they were recorded in caves, or accordions, or “literate lyrics”—the stuff they have been taught is music that will make the girl with bangs like you. They’re gonna find Thin Lizzy and a guy mumbling about something.

So enter Chris Ott, former Pitchfork writer, to diagnose the critical success of The Hold Steady in one installment in a series for the Village Voice called “Blogwash: Deciphering Internet Praise” [4] Ott is positioning himself as a Dale Peck of music criticism, pulling hatchet jobs on heavily lauded bands of late: “the death-dirge apocalypso fusion of Bowie/Byrne protégés TV on the Radio and the Arcade Fire, and the ill- defined nihilism of Deerhoof.” [5]. Or more precisely, it is the critical hordes responsible for the consensus that deserve the blade. For Ott, recent pop music criticism is an “anxious universe of early adoption” which has “celebrated the dourest, most difficult or deranged music [it] can find.” Calling TVOTR and The Arcade Fire the most difficult and deranged music around is certainly a strange position. Both bands write structured songs, use simple rock progressions, sing in a language that is not made up, don’t wear assless pants, etc. I would agree that the dressing is conceptual and pretentious, and in both cases impedes what is basically some kind of relatively exciting rock music. But difficult and deranged these two bands aren’t. Deerhoof is the farthest of the Ott’s triumvirate away from typical rock song structures, and their singer is a little Japanese woman, but its not like they’re playing Ascension-era Coltrane or writing rap songs about Centaurs. Ott makes another inexplicable claim when he writes that all three of said bands “descended” from Pere Ubu (who I’ve already referenced here once so Ott knows I’m down). It would be one thing to say that all three bands were influenced by Pere Ubu, or that Pere Ubu was such a revolutionary post-punk band that almost all of the bands still playing off-kilter smart punk rock are cribbing them, or at least paying homage (although you could site another more successful post-punk band from Ohio as having the same influence). It’s another thing to say that Pere Ubu is the one and only father of all three bands. Ott puts a quarter in his ass with that one.

In the Hold Steady piece, Ott hangs out with the band and shows them the Pitchfork review, which they laugh at. The review compares the band to Pulp, which Ott says is ridiculous because Jarvis Cocker is skinny and does a lot of coke, whereas Finn is fat and drinks beer. Ott also talks to the band about critics’ insistence on comparing Boys and Girls to Springsteen. “Because there’s piano?” the guitarist asks before he says that he’s more likely pay royalties to Jimmy Page. Personally I think he should pay the guy who invented music. Naturally, though, Finn is most indebted to Paul Westerberg. Hailing from the same Midwestern coldplace as the Replacements, The Hold Steady aspire to play the kind of everypunk beer music Westerberg and co. did so thrillingly.

The problem with this comparison though, is that Westerberg was a great songwriter, and one of the best rock singers of all time. Finn on the other hand, is not a singer at all. It’s not that he “has a bad voice,” like Dylan or “has no range” like Strummer or that “he doesn’t bother to sing in tune” like Malkmus. All three of those guys are tremendous singers because they end up conquering and using to their advantage what at first seems to be limitation. As Dave Berman, a great singer who can’t sing, says, “all my favorite singers couldn’t sing;” indeed, besides Paul McCartney, who is probably Kaiser Soze, and Jeff Buckley, who should’ve taken drunken swimming lessens, the history of rock is all frontmen who can’t really sing. The best of them find such a commanding way to try that they fool us into thinking they’re actually musically accomplished in a technical way.

Finn is more aptly compared the incorrigible post-punk bleaters Mark E. Smith and John Lydon (formerly Rotton), both of whom have little interest in or capacity for making sounds with their voices that have much to do with what the people playing instruments behind them are doing. For the fan-critics, Finn’s mumbling is a virtue, because it puts his lyrics upfront, even if they’re unintelligible. His nuanced yet commonplace tales of kids getting messed up are supposed to tell us something “specifically universal” or “universally specific” about America. Or something like that. But, come on, its not like he’s Ice Cube! Some of his lines would have even Papoose on his heals, and some of the stories are worthy of Kerouac’s methed-up, pit-stained beat scroll [6]—all are very difficult to hear.

I should say that Finn does try to sing more on Boys and Girls, and when he parleys with the guitars, the songs take off: “Chips Ahoy!” and “Massive Nights”. The melodies come out and bring the lyrics with them, not vice versa. I never heard the words on the first two Hold Steady albums, because, save the “Hoodrat Friend” song, Finn and the guitars were in different places entirely. They couldv’t slapped some Tupac verse on there and the effect wouldn’t have been much different. The pianos and keyboards, played by a guy named Franz Nicolay who has a Poirot mustache, help reconcile Finn and the power chords/four on the floor AC/DC rock. About half the record is very good in this way. As far as the other half goes, the songs don’t make you want to bust out 140 pound dumbbell sets with each arm, so you don’t end up caring about what Finn is blathering about.

Ott seems to like the album more than me, but this might be because he got to hang out with the band. He’s more concerned with the blogwash, though, which he thinks might be “more damaging than any dances or dates Finn was coldly ejected from.” According to Ott, “boundless praise” has dug a “dank hole” [7] for the Hold Steady to climb out of. I’m not sure what he means by this. Is this metaphorical moist cavern making Finn sad because he won’t have the thrill of eating mustard for lunch, or is it that critics, even though they like him and his band, don’t really understand them.

Call me crazy, but if you’re in a band, and some modicum of people buy your records, rather than say, throw a handful of thimbles at you when you play, aren’t you one of the luckiest people above the poverty line? Aren’t you supposed to be happy people are letting you play guitars and yell into microphones for a living? I hope Finn and co. aren’t in the frame of mind Ott implies, because that would make them raging fuckbaskets. Bands have only one responsibility, and that’s to be a band and make records. Any band that lets themselves be killed by critics is not worthy of their own hair.

More likely, what’s going on here is that Ott wants to play a game of critical one-upsmanship, which has nothing to do with music, or anything besides criticism. He implies that the Hold Steady are in on his game, but I have a feeling they’re not looking checking the equine orthodontia like he implies. Ott drinks beers with the Hold Steady and they totally know what he means and they laughed with him about the Pitchfork guy, so they’re bros. But The Hold Steady do stuff that people can get drunk to. Ott writes words.

Ultimately, all this hubbub about the Hold Steady is about delivering indie-rock from its own annoying rubric. It still loves itself and insists that indie-rock isn’t really a genre, thus unwittingly perpetuating itself. But for writers, indie-rock has been decidedly uncool for about 10 years, when Pavement broke up and Sonic Youth bought a minivan. Yet since the post-2000 renaissance of cool indie-rock brought about by well dressed New York bands who knew exactly who to bite and how, indie-rock became an annoying pop-cultural [8] infrastructure. And the critical opinion about faux-critics, which moves infinitely faster than the culture which aligns the faux-critics, is instantly allergic to consensuses that come about when an cultural infrastructure like indie-rock’s solidifies. So critics like Ott and Sanneh, who position themselves outside of the indie consensus, have been floundering to find an antidote to the problem. They’ve been grasping all over the extrarock horizon, from MIA to the Clipse to Tom Ze and fucking Cam’ron of all people, to gain respite from Conor Oberst, Sufjan Stevens, and other little indie guys who are very annoying. But the problem is that most pop music critics are rock fans who want a fucking rock band to rock out to that also unwittingly making the greatest art ever. (Basically, this non-existant band is Radiohead if they were an unassuming American band that didn’t have anxieties about technological progress.) They are dying for a rock band to somehow reinvent a genre that’s been unreinventable since 1978. Not just a reason to throw modestly priced beer at people, but a reason to throw expensive beer at people and then send a time-capsule into outer space because aliens need to feel this science.


Notes:


[1] Which every critic makes sure he or she mentions, to make sure that he or she is not coming across like “hey I’ve got the scoop on this band”; rather, he or she is letting the reader know that he or she is outside any buzz machine and even though he or she is writing a “review” or a “profile,” he or she wants to comment on the perceived critical acclaim as much as the band or record in question. This way, he or she is above the pedestrian “review” or “profile” form, and on his or her way to becoming the next Hunter S. Thompson. What if the grammatical construction “he or she” was changed to “pat”? Would anyone be opposed to that?

[2] Chuck Taylor died in 1969 of a heart attack, but, according to Wikipedia, not before he making excellent use of the Converse Corporation’s expense account while on the road hocking shoes. I can’t tell you how glad that some Wikipedia scholar made sure to research Chuck Taylor’s spending habits. I mean, I’m about to eat a sandwich.

[3] “Yo, I totally just jacked Destroyer’s Rubies.” “Why?...Because I only have enough bones for Hell Hath No Fury and I wanna make sure the counter girl knows I’m hard and I like wordplay.” “It got pushed back again? Well fuck, Pitchfork reviewed it, I read the review this morning, they said there was a lot of wordplay!” “Pitchfork only reviewed it because a guerrilla/pirate label released it in Djbouti? Oh well shit can I mail order the import?” “What?...There are no planes in Djbouti? Well how’d ‘fork get it?” “It was smuggled in by the guy in the Decemberists who stowed away on a Morrocan merchant clipper?” “Fuck maybe I’ll just pay for this then.” “Wait what did the Decemberists get…an 8.4?” “Nah its gotta be above 9.0 for me to utilize my bones and cop it when it drops.” “Fuck it, I’m buyin Futurefuck/Assclown, girls love that guy and when I buy it, the counter girl, I think her name’s “Summer” or “Autumn,” mos def one of the seasons, I forget which one—anyway, she’s gonna respect me so much for admitting I like JT that she’s gonna ask me if I wanna share a California roll later!”

[4] “Blogwash” is a good blog pun, although “blogorhea” is still my favorite. But man, besides puns, there is so much blogslang (not in the lexical archives of urbandicionary.com) its all so hard to keep track of. Even “blog” is slang for “weblog” which is short for “world wide web log.” I love the luddites who use the term “weblog,” but not as much as I love people who say “the web” instead of “the internet.” Anyway, here’s an entry at urbandicitonary that is by far the best thing I’ve seen on that site. I mean, this was clearly written by a genius:

blogosphereatronisaurausrex

a blogosphereatronisaurausr ex is the latest hot shit, its whats so much cooler then top 8 on myspace. its when you paste a picture of aunt jemima maple syrup on your page, with a picture of your number one friend on the bottle instead of aunt jemima. yeah its pretty awesome

insert picture of a bottle of syrup with your best friends picture on it, and not aunt jemimas, unless aunt jemimas your best friend in which case i love you.
" my friend lil suzy took me off her top 8 an replaced me with some girl named muffinhips, but its ok, cause iam on here blogosphereatronisaurausr ex so i knw iam still her #1 boo. "

tags: batcave blog pogs ice skateing latin porn
by Jeph` roseville Aug 29, 2006


I like that whoever wrote it (not me by the way) made sure to put the appropriate tags on there.

[5] Now even though I’m not as up on my death-dirge apocalypso as I used to be, I would agree that critics [insert fellatio reference] TVOTR and the Arcade Fire like their [insert male genitalia (plural) reference] are made of [insert something that is sweet yet savory, like grilled shrimp]. TVOTR’s latest, mentioned at the head (NPI), is the most egregious example of plainly inaccurate critical consensus since Late Registration, which is for everyone to poop on all the time (besides "Diamonds are Forever"). The Arcade Fire played one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, so I have more love for them, even if everyone does too and their record has the old “doesn’t capture the live show” thing going on. Ott is way off the mark with Deerhoof, however. Not only is the ‘Hoof the unimpeachable kind of shit, they’re too off-kilter and they have a singer who sounds too much like a Pokemon to get the same kind of mainstream critical attention as TVOTR and the Arcade Fire.

[6] Another thing reviewers of Boys and Girls in America make sure you know is that the title is from On the Road, which Finn invokes in the first lyric: “there are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right. / Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.” If I interviewed Finn, I would ask him if his wife engineered a clothesline rotisserie of T-shirts like ‘Ouac’s did as he hammered furiously at the scroll that would make him the voice of people who hated culture and were mad, mad, and delirious to write parodies of him as soon as his style became stale.

[7] Why is this metaphorical hole “dank”? Music critics should not be allowed to use adjectives anymore.

[8] The Indie-rock/hipster culture must be thought of as a decidedly Pop-cultural phenomenon. Whereas OG, actual independent rock (ie The Minutemen, Pavement, SY, Mission of Burma) actually stood against pop culture, the new alliance of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the internet (Pitchfork and the blogosphere) with artistically ambitious rock music has created a startlingly homogenous culture that anyone in the world can not only instantly access but also opt into wholehog without any connection to a social or musical movement against some conception of the mainstream or pop sensibility. So although indie-rock is identified with literature, critics, and art, it is in effect no different from any other permutation of pop cultural music, such as hip-hop, emo or TRL pop.

8 comments:

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Anonymous said...

This is a sad set of replies to a pretty good post, so I'll sum up the courage to post a reply just so you could have an on-topic comment.

You fail to make a distinction between Pavement et al and the pop culture phenom called indie music. I was right there with you until you threw those names out there, at which point I said: hey, hey, don't leave it, because those bands get/got drooling coverage from places like Pitchfork as well. Surely the difference should amount to more than record sales and bookings on The Tonight Show (which I believe SY did have).

Of course, I'm speaking as someone who likes both TVOTR and the annoying Sufjan Stevens (though not anyone else you mentioned), so feel free to ignore this post, which you probably will because it's written five months after you wrote it.