I'm calling a sort of truce. I just read a story on Stereogum discussing how the Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca may very well be the best album of 2009. This comes after a JANUARY 2009 opinion that Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion is the best album of 2009. My problem with these statements is not just the ridiculous levels of hype (please see this article for where I stand on blog hype).
I recently posted a link on my Facebook page to Mark Prindle's Record Reviews, specifically his "Micro-Reviews of Hip Bands That The Kids Dig" page. My friend found herself rather irritated at what she perceived as his "indie hating". She and I have a history of me teasing her for "indie favortism", and she calling me out as a biased punk rock nut. Writer Mark Prindle has an affinity for punk as well, although his site covers everything from metal to hip-hop, and his fondness of bands like Polvo, Superchunk, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, etc., is well-documented. He's on Pavement's DVD for crying out loud! I found her position to be a bit defensive, as Prindle states at the head of the page that these are silly, first-impression reviews of bands by a writer known for a less-than-completely-serious style. Examples:
A Place To Bury Strangers - Fans of Bauhaus and Joy Division crank up the reverb and churn out the gothy post-punk. Pointless and idea-free.
Bon Iver - Acoustic strum with ambient wind tones and falsetto vocals. Without the falsetto, it'd just be boring; with the falsetto, it's unlistenable.
Fiery Furnaces - A brother and sister creating artsy (and shitty) indie rock from keyboards, guitars, drums, samples, special effects and haughty unlikeable female vocals. Even when the brother happens upon an intriguing musical loop or orchestral arrangement, the songs are no fun because the sister sounds like a schoolteacher or Patti Smith or some crap.
Joanna Newsom - A harp-playin' pianist woman with a ludicrously childlike voice. Might appeal to "Juno" fans. Sounds like a mixture of vomit and shit to me.
Jens Lekman - Swedish indie singer-songwriter keeps it sissyish and light, like the worst the 1970's had to offer. His music features sampled horns, accordions, strings, pianos, Caribbean percussion and all kinds of other terrible things. I was going to compare him to David Byrne's fruity late-period stuff and Jonathan Richman's post-Modern Lovers crap, but then I checked Wikipedia and discovered that he is already compared to both of those artists. So instead I'll just compare him to a pile of dog shit.
Now, please don't accuse me of baiting, as I know the latter three are bands that she likes. The first one is a band I like, which I added to be fair. Also in the interest of fairness, I just picked what I found to be some of the meaner, funnier ones, which happen to coincide with the sphere of bands that my friend enjoys. More power to her. I love debating music with her, and while our tastes often converge, they just as often differ. We spent many hours working at a record store together, even involving customers in our epic debates. She's wonderful and I respect her taste, so hopefully she reads this. Because then she can explain something to me.
I understand the appeal of bands like Fiery Furnaces and Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective. I make no critique of people for liking those bands strictly on their merits. However, I don't exactly understand what those merits are, apparently.
What makes an album like Merriweather Post Pavilion a 12-month early contender for album of the year? As I recall, that discussion began in 2008. It's adequate music played in a way that is not traditional but not entirely innovative that from a purely objective standpoint hangs together as an album well. How does that make this any different than, say, the latest offering by James Taylor? I understand that it's a different kind of music, but those criteria match, right? What is that magical ingredient that makes The Dirty Projectors special? I'm not damning them, and this isn't an indictment of "indie music" (whatever that term may mean by this point). I know music, I understand music, and I've been neck-deep in "non-mainstream" music for well over a decade. However, I do not understand what makes these hyped albums so special. Is there anything?
Now, I'm not stating that I don't feel that these albums are capable of praise. Sure. Especially if they encompass certain signifiers of the genre that make one pre-disposed to enjoy a certain genre. I, for one, hear a wash of heavily effected guitars and indistinct vocals and I say "That is like shoegazer music. I like shoegazer music, therefore I like this." While I could see a historical progression from bands such as Pavement (to many people, one of the very definitions of "early indie rock" in the "genre" sense of the name, which is another complaint for another time), it seems as though the parts of those bands that are appealing were removed, and what's left was used as the foundation for the next generation.
Now, I'm not a stupid man. I understand that what I just said was tantamount to waving a red flag for my detractors - by referring to what I find "appealing" is a apparently subjective moment in what purports to be an objective examination. What I'm referring to as "appealing" are the elements (all that I can think of) that are widely cited as elements that made those bands "important" and worthy of continued examination. Again, using Pavement as an example, what has generally been referred to as the elements that made them an important band were their use of noise within both traditional ("Summer Babe", "Cut Your Hair") and non-traditional song structure, their use of lo-fi recording techniques, and the atmosphere of "slack" (a terrible term) many attribute to a loose sense of collective rhythm and vocal technique. In critical shorthand, they were catchy, noisy, lo-fi and sloppy. But ultimately, they had songs. I own every Guided By Voices album, a good bakers dozen of the more important EPs, about 12 Bob Pollard solo albums, and even some Tobin Sprout albums, which, to some, makes me qualified to say that in my opinion, the reason that Bee Thousand was a breakthrough record and Same Place The Fly Got Smashed was not production (which was the same), but the songs. If Bee Thousand didn't have any hooks, nobody would have bought it other than the 30 people buying GBV albums up to that point. And when I listen to bands like The Dirty Projectors and their ilk, I hear "indie rock signifiers" without songs to back them up. It's the sound and the fury, signifying nothing.
Now, I'm not immune from this. I like a lot of rote garage bands, I like a lot of really awful punk bands that have nothing going for them but speed and whine. Power pop is arguably the least innovative form of rock music. My taste in dub reggae is, by definition of the form, is to find as many reworkings of the same rhythm track as possible. But rarely do I hear somebody say "Oh, you just don't GET it," about Jon Spencer or The Exploding Hearts. These forms (in many respects)are visceral, if it doesn't catch you, it doesn't catch you. And that's fine. But indie rock seems to propagate a "nerd revenge" attitude; "if you don't like it, you don't get it, so stay out." I spent 10 years in "indie rock". I cut my teeth in bands that adored Superchunk, saw Fugazi on my 19th birthday, worked at a CD manufacturing company that was owned and shared office space with three sucessful indie labels, and have worked at two indie-oriented record stores for a combined total of four years. But things in contemporary indie rock have evolved so far into "symbology + image" (in a rock history sense) that I often find myself wondering if there's any of the original spark left.
So yeah, what I'm saying is that things aren't as good as they were in my day. I'm getting old.
[And in the interest of full disclosure, while I have written a song called "Jens Lekman (Is Trying To Ruin My Life)", I do enjoy a fair number of his songs, if only because I had to listen to them at two different jobs for about 3 years. At least they're SONGS.]
Special Thanks to Mark Prindle for letting me reprint some of his comments here.