Pitchfork and the Death of Telling It Like It Is…

Online indieculture mecca Pitchfork has decidedly expanded its focuses past mere music news and reviews, but with so much of it built around viewpoints of a jaded generation, is this turn really a good thing?

Like so many of the “hip” interweb-idlers of my *ahem* digital generation, Pitchfork (or Pitchfork Media for all you “cool dads [or moms]” present at its mid-2k heyday) has been my go-to site for all things cool this side of an Altamont-sponsored LA showplace since I was a 16 year old wannabe undergrounder. The reasons for my continued loyalty lie in their musical tastes: the glorification of the late 80’s noise rock scene, a soft-spot for D.I.Y punk, and general openness for anything willing to take sonic risks for an evolution in sound and style. For the past two or three years, however, it seems like Pitchfork’s original aims at serving niche audiences have shifted irritatingly toward (dare I even say it… I can practically hear the backlash) trend-setting.

Somewhere between 2009 and 2010, the site started focusing less on music and more on specified scenes, particularly those with mass appeal. One of the main draws, for me at least, had always been Pitchfork’s expansive tastes and relative blindness to music I heard blaring from the ear-buds of my popped-collar, polo-and-Timberland-clad New England high school peers. And yet, almost out of nowhere, Lil Wayne was earning high marks for “well-placed” nasally cackles and an affinity for copious amounts of dank. Vampire Weekend, as contrived a concept band as there’s ever effing been (worshiping Wes Anderson shouldn’t constitute inconceivable amounts of creativity), had the site gushing more ham than a Gap ad running between TRL segments on MTV. By the time Kanye earned his 10.0, I’d come to the overdue conclusion that Pitchfork had decided that the underground was not enough: the idea of the “niche” was slowly evaporating, and soon everything was encompassed by the mere labels of “cool” versus “rated under 6.0”.

Knowing the pop-hungry world (or at least those with their parents money ready to spend on American Apparel) was eating from its digital palm, the staff at Pitchfork set its sights increasingly less on music analyzation and more on scene-making and culture-defining. Pretty soon, everything earning marks higher than 7.0’s were regulated to all of about four places (NY, Chicago, LA, and France) and P4k hardly bothered with anyone who hadn’t made it onto Levi’s “Fader Fort” yet… for all intents and purposes, the site chiseled an “In Memorium” on the underground’s tombstone and became a TMZ for anyone with an avante-garde hairdo and a preoccupation with bleepy-bloops. It was only a matter of time before music as a whole took a backseat to an ever expanding number of “Features” and articles aimed at intellectualizing the growing cult of faux-Brooklyners lined up for the proverbial Cool-Aid (ironic pun intended, geniuses…).

So BLEEPING cool (Neon Indian and the advent of “chillwave”)

I guess I’ve failed to appreciate these brazen attempts at cultural analysis, if that’s what you can even call them. Reading through the “Kill Screen” (Pitchfork’s unwarranted exploration into the cultural connotations the video-gaming movement) is literally akin to having physics professors write about film-making: what results is completely affect-diluted bullsh*t aimed at breaking down meanings where, quite honestly, there’s NOTHING to break-down to begin with. Let’s take, for example, a review (if you can even call it that) of LA Noire they did a couple months back: where Kirk Hamilton could have focused (noticed my suggestive use of bold there, if you can) on the advantages of semi-linear storytelling as opposed to recent trends against narrative driven gameplay, he chose to dedicate his article to his in-game abandonment of the narrative all together. Considering that LA Noire is a game based entirely on contextual interactions within the confines of the storyline (as the player is literally unable to engage in the game-world in meaningful ways outside of mission-based objectives), his seven-paragraph description of literally running around the digital LA city-scape aimlessly seemed as pointless as his critiques of the constraints the game put upon him to begin with. Instead of summing up his frustrations with the game for refusing to offer him all the facets of real-life freedoms concisely, he chose to meanderingly critique artful direction and a dedication to storytelling simply because it failed to grace him with the option to play pool with the main character’s deadbeat cousin.

Story apparently isn’t equitable to free-roaming rampages with a Russian immigrant…

Pitchfork’s further “analytical” explorations into online sensationalism with its “Resonant Frequency”-series strikes me as blatantly hypocritical. In its most recent piece, “Taking Pictures of Taking Pictures“, the segment eludes to trends of pop-culture recycling on the internet leading to the creation of buzz-tastic acts like (one of my personal favs) Dirty Beaches and (*shudder*) Lara- I mean, Lana “Angelina Jolie-Wannabe” Del Rey. As writer Mark Richardson points fingers at the Tumblr-ization of popular culture as a regurgitation of faux-art forms (ala “the scene that celebrates itself”), he fails to note that Pitchfork itself has become a textbook example of such unabashed trend-setting. In case he forgot, the only reason why 12 year old Tumblr-addicts post the song “Video Games” on their “blogs” is because Pitchfork posted it on their “Best New Tracks” months ago. If everything works in cycles, isn’t Pitchfork just as guilty of pop-art vomming than these alt-tweens are? As far as I can tell, pop-culture in general seems to operate along the lines of constant recycling anyways: so if “cultural evolution” is a loop, call me crazy but I consider myself an entirely new species.

Rest in Peace, my peers.

Records You May Have Missed (2k11 Edition)

Let’s be honest: 2011’s been a snooze-tastic year for recorded music.

Sure we’ve seen the resurgence of glorified house music in the guise of purple-plaided, skullet-rocking “Dubstep-ers” like Skrillex or the human Christmas Tree (aka DeadMau5), but it’s far from a good thing. Yes, there has been an overwhelming onslaught of post-The xx darkwavers like Twin Sister and Warpaint treading the ever-thinning waters of the popularized indie rock shoreline, but it feels like it’s made exclusively as backdrop music for an Urban Outfitters. Bon Iver is up for a Grammy (for “New Artist” nonetheless…) for what proved to be a horribly exhausted followup to his fantastic debut. Girls’ lackluster Father, Son, Holy Ghost is a critics’ darling for all the wrong reasons, sacrificing distinctive personality for throwback cliche. Talentless hip-pop, post-Gaga “shock-magnets” like Nicki Minaj are making the top 100 track list on Bitchfork. Hell, Atlas Sound put out the repetitive and sonically uninteresting Parallax, and even Panda Bear dropped the ball with Tomboy. If anything, it seems the rise of the Hipster Runoff-coined “lamestream” is upon us in full force.

Indeed, even the some of the truly great albums of the year seemed a little on the low-key side. Perpetually chilled rockers like Real Estate managed to break popular ground, while soulful producers like James Blake made music fittingly played only when the lights are off. As traditionally raucous artists like Ty Segall toned it down a notch for their new releases, it became apparent that 2011 was a year of music on quaaludes, eschewing exciting forays into energetic experimentation for stripped-down songwriting.

That said, the year hasn’t been entirely without its fair-share of hidden gems. In an effort to give some of this year’s better albums some much needed visibility, here’s a list of five deserving pieces that may have missed your gaze (in very arbitrary order):

1. Dirty Beaches – Badlands

Pretty much the closest thing you’ll get to a David Lynch film on an auditory medium (the fore-mentioned filmmaker’s own musical attempts earlier this year included). Practically oozing with atmosphere and sonic density, the one-man act Dirty Beaches calls to mind stark, menacing landscapes with a minimalist approach to sampling. He uses haphazard guitar techniques rougher than most would be willing or able to pull off… and he does it with style to spare. Not to mention, it’s named after one of my favorite movies (nice going man!).

2. John Maus – We Must Become Pitiless Censors of Ourselves

Unabashedly brazen in his use of synthesized composition, performance energy, reverb, and chest pounding bravado, the ever (disarmingly) intellectual John Maus came out with a criminally overlooked love-letter to the 1980’s earlier this year. Ominous, sprawling, and often beautiful, the album caters to those with an appreciation for pop at its purest while offering a unique, eclectic sound that is unadulterated by the conventions found in most other records of a similar vein. Including tracks with names like “Cop Killer”, the album’s title alone carries stunningly ironic connotations when weighed next to the pop-friendly tunes Maus produces. One of the few truly chill (and chilling) albums of the year.

  • Download/Listen: “Believer” – John Maus

3. Mikal Cronin – Mikal Cronin

Scene contemporary and occasional collaborator with the aforementioned garage-rock stalwart Ty Segall, California rocker Mikal Cronin’s debut LP harks to familiar vibes while offering a refreshing surprise punch of pop genius that recalls everything from Beach Boys-era Brian Wilson to the harder-edges of the Beatles’ catalog. At a brisk 34 minutes, the album is over a bit quickly, but highlights Cronin’s strengths in effective songwriting: every song packs its own distinctive wallop without sacrificing a sense of pace or personality. A fantastic first taste of what is sure to be a recognizable face in the future.

4. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Lenses Alien

Following up an impressive debut LP is never an easy task and yet this talented young indie rock outfit manged not only to evade the sophomore slump, but completely out-maneuver some of the more meandering pratfalls of their previous record as well. Where 2009’s Why There Are Mountains occasionally overindulged in its own sonic wanderings, Lenses Alien plays like a deftly constructed progressive-rock opus minus the cheese. Each song stands on its own as a fantastic composition and is awash in a multitude layers unheard since Billy Corgan had ginger hair. One of the best indie rock records I’ve heard in a long time, it’s a shame it went as unnoticed as it did.

5. Craig Wedren – Wand

After spending the majority of the 2k’s composing for film and TV, oft overlooked indie-rock deity Craig Wedren returns to songwriting styling that made him one of the most respected figures in the industry. Just as charismatic, obscure, and yet approachable as he was with Shudder to Think in the 90’s, Wedren made an LP that plays exactly as it should: with virile, unhindered energy completely at home in cleanly produced, flattering sound. The angular compositions seem to point to Wedren’s glory days while embellishing in Bowie-esque glam brought on by his time spent rubbing-shoulders with Hollywood’s indie appreciators (“slappin da’ bass”-extraordinaire Paul Rudd included). One of the best surprises of 2011.