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Friday, April 11, 2003
Mighty Big Words From a 9 to 5er Imagining Himself As a Noise Band Bohemian.
I think I'm going to stop writing to Pitchfork for a while, since they keep fucking me over, so instead I'll just post my responses here, where they can exist without snarky headlines--or at any rate, without snarky headlines that I don't make up myself.

Anyway, today's installment is a response to their regrettably typically Pitchforkian negative review of the new Yo La Tengo album. (A 6.0, for those of you keeping score.) An astute reader mail today makes some good points about the review (suggesting we think about "where their ever-more-apparent free-jazz affinities fit in" among other things), but I think there are many more salient points to be made about this particular hissy-fit.

Leading off with the unbearably indie-snob question, "Can there exist a fate worse than mediocrity for a band that's had a taste of greatness?" one can only respond that, well, sure there is--a band can try for greatness and fail, or find themselves unable to overcome their technical or personal limitations in the service of the song, or get the product of their labor shelved by a major label, or have their lead singer commit suicide, or come close to greatness only to fall short because of a bad drummer or singer or producer, or get screwed over in the mix or mastering, or, fuck it, have their tour bus go over a cliff. There are far worse things that can happen to a band than mediocrity since, among other things, mediocrity is only temporary, but it's indicative of the particular indie-rock school of groupthink that we think mediocrity is the worst thing ever, since, I guess, we're deeply distrustful of things too many people like, even if they like it because it's good, so when it goes bad we can say, "See? It was never that good in the first place!"

Sigh. OK, let's take a few paragraphs here.

Summer Sun is pleasant, if nothing else, but that's such a loaded word for an album that clearly aspires to (and ought to be) so much more than it accomplishes. At least if the album had been completely wretched, it could have been dismissed as an unwitting experiment or some such foolishness. But it ain't, and that's the shame of it all; Summer Sun consistently reaches a height of disposability so static and homogenous that it simply must be dispersed over an hour's worth of music.

Let's follow the logic: if an experimental indie band had made an experimental album, it would be an "unwitting experiment," rather than, say, more of the same. But if they make something that's a departure from their signature sound, it's...disposable? Because it's pretty? I'm not following here. (All this, and I'm not even mentioning the unquoted final sentence of the paragraph, which implies the death of a band from one album.)

It hurts to write that, but pipe the breezy, wistful blue skies of "Let's Be Still" through tinny elevator speakers, or the sound system of your local Wal-Mart, and it's nothing but indie-muzak. Call it a natural progression from And Then Nothing's moody, twilit explorations of texture and atmosphere, but progression or not, last year's instrumental The Sounds of the Sounds of Science had more creativity and dynamism in a single track than the entirety of Summer Sun, and that was a score to fucking nature documentaries-- never the most fertile ground for inspiration.

The tone of the last sentence reveals the author's mood here, one alluded to by the reader mail quoted above: the phrase "fucking nature documentaries" (insert stamping foot here) sounds more like...well, more like something you'd post to a blog than something you'd revise a few times and publish in a music publication. It does seem a lot like he hasn't listened to the album very much, but regardless, the comparison to Sounds is an echo of the far more fair-handed review in the Onion which posits Summer Sun as a kind of b-side to the creepy pessimism of the Nuclear War EP. It just seems very, very strange to say that YLT is dead because their last two albums sounded kinda the same when they've put out two other things in between that sound very, very different. As for the elevator music charge, I've heard some pretty fucking great songs coming from the celings of big-box stores. As someone who worked at a KFC for 2 years and got to listen to muzak for 8 hours a day, trust me, I'd love to hear Summer Sun coming out.

The band seems to like Summer Sun, and judging from the show I saw during the Hanukah run, they can still be really, really loud. That's good enough for me not to declare them dead. The reviewer says, "For a band that once thrived on its stunning eclecticism, as well as a masterful assimilation of moods and styles, to produce an album that's merely pretty is tragic," but I can think of a whole lot more tragic things, and depriving yourself of joy for aesthetic reasons is pretty high on the list.

Down with tragedy! Up with comedy! Down with pants!