Commitment to Sound

I like music criticism about a fifth as much as I like music, which is still a lot. I love reading about albums, I love misguided and wrongheaded music lists because I have fun disagreeing with people probably more than I do having my opinions validated by folks in high places. My friend Tucker Johnson's running Rolling Stone's astonishingly stupid 500 best albums list right now and I like reading his take as much because I disagree with the list as I do because I want to hear him eviscerate/agree with their choices. And to be frank the list is a joke; there are more best ofs than proper albums and no distinction between live and studio and probably one black artist for every ten whites (to say nothing of the dearth of music from the continents of Africa, Asia and South America). It shows no creativity and an embarrassing lack of periphery from a bunch of people who claim to be the authority on rock and roll. Though, in their defense I know their MO and still repeatedly go looking for things they publish knowing they'll make me furious. They're euro/ameri-centric and pretty patriarchal as well, so expecting that they'd place The Scientists or Sister Carol or Mulatu Astatke in the same esteem as Eric Fucking Clapton isn't worth the effort. You have to get a grip on the style of the source before you can take issue with their bias. There's just going to be no real music reporting from Rolling Stone - their focus is on .08% of the music put out today.
One of my favourite sources for music criticism (in fact it's become nearly exclusive) is The A.V. Club. I figured I already got all my film reviews there (I do enjoy the frankness of Dave White at movies.com as well) I might as well see how their attitude toward music gels with mine. I've figured out that what they applaud more than a catchy song is commitment to a style or aesthetic. Just as head film writer Scott Tobias applauds ideological or stylistic decisions more than he does technical acumen, discerning direction or great acting, their music critics like it when someone picks a mode and sticks it out to the bitter end. This is sometimes a good thing as you know who's made a solid 'album' in the old fashioned sense like The Yardbirds or Miles Davis or even The Cure, a record that sounds like itself all the way through, the production doesn't change, it doesn't sound like a collection of songs by the same person given individual treatment to bring out the best in each song. They like it when someone sits down and makes a record in the same space that doesn't change rapidly from end to end. Know that and how your own tastes match up, and you and The A.V. Club can get along nicely. Case in point, my new favourite record Badlands by Dirty Beaches. A record that has the fuzzy expansiveness of early Suicide and the claustrophobic production of Sparklehorse, Badlands starts out awesome and stays that way, rarely straying from its chosen course. In defense of The A.V. Club's grade A review, the production and the attitude of its cooler-than-cool author make sure that the quality doesn't dip. I agree entirely with the review. It's a great album, but I could also see someone digging in and being weirded out based on the review and its high marks. They expect readers to be willing to sympathize with their appreciation of aural commitment, which I can sympathize with, as I myself have expected more from albums given the same grade based on their creators sticking with a chosen idiom. For instance Lisbon by The Walkmen wasn't quite the masterpiece they touted it as, but its sound is solid throughout. Love Remains by How To Dress Well is impressively produced and spooky to boot, but really isn't the sort of thing I want to listen to twice. Similarly the dour-to-boring High Violet by The National was compared to the Arcade Fire but has nothing of their dynamism. But they are just as committed to boring me to tears as Arcade Fire are to rocking the paint off the walls. The A.V. Club aren't as willing to go to bat for something like 100 Lovers by Devotchka which admittedly doesn't have the brains of say, Dirty Projectors, but a few of the songs simply outshine the most committed deep cuts from the under-appreciated producers they champion. That we agreed about Badlands is probably to do with coincidence as anything else. What usually happens is I'll listen to the records that they've given A grades to and appreciate/respect the record and agree that they deserve praising. And then I promptly forget to ever listen to them again. Staying power is something the AV staffers and I strongly differ on. Oh and I should say now that differences of opinion notwithstanding they are amazing writers and I visit the site ten times a day and constantly inspire me and I'm hugely in your debt.

But the reason I love Badlands has more to do with its influences, Link Wray and Suicide. It's the things that Dirty Beaches are committed to rather than that its sole member Alex Zhang Hungtai is as infatuated with them that draws me to listen again and again. Sounding like Bloodshot Bill as imagined by David Lynch, the record is an enthralling if haunting listen, but unlike How To Dress Well, its progressions and Hungtai's cracked howl are enough to warrant repeat listens even if you aren't in the mood for a nightmare. To paraphrase Tobias' on films like Oldboy and Army of Darkness, it's cool and that's more important than having discernible lyrics or depth. I would also argue that the same is true of The Kills who've made a career on being the badasses in leather you desperately want to like you. Alison Mosshart's dropped a touch in my estimation from unknowable leather jacket-clad cypher to girl who maybe also likes being liked, as evidenced by her less-than-stellar collaboration with Jack White on The Dead Weather, a band that sounded like a high school Kills cover band trying out new material for the first time. Mosshart belongs in The Kills because Jamie Hince understands her strengths and builds her a stage better than White did over two hastily recorded Dead Weather albums. Mosshart sounded out of her depth in The Dead Weather because they weren't cool, they were trying to be cool. All they ever managed was a kind of ugliness that has its charms if you'd thought The White Stripes were too polished and pretty. Die-hards wanted White back in the Stripes, but that dream's been forever shattered. At least there's a new Kills album to fall back on.
I'm interested to see what The A.V. Club makes of their latest, Blood Pressures, when it's released on Tuesday. I predict that it won't get the A- of more committed aesthetes even though at the end of the year I doubt I'll have heard songs I like too much more than "Pots and Pans" or "Future Starts Slow" sure there are ups and downs, but I think that this record is more winning than even Badlands because it's human and because there are some songs that you can listen to any day of the week in any mood. Badlands is what it is, but it's only what it is. "Pots and Pans" is a song that is bigger than the album it closes, not unlike "Dancin' on our Graves" by Cave Singers, a song so good it shed its initial context (the credits of Cabin Fever 2) and is now one of my favourite songs. I applaud someone like Dirty Beaches and I love his album, but I think that imperfection has its charm. Humans make mistakes and I like it when one song can be the best thing about a record, rather than the whole thing being pretty even from start to finish. I like it when an album is good but gives me one or two songs I know I'll revisit years from now. Maybe it could have used a more uniform style or more commitment to any one of its stylistic devices, but I think it's pretty cool the way it is.

2 comments:

Lakyaan said...

Good article!! I am a music fans too!!

Scøut said...

Well thanks terribly!