Thursday, June 25, 2009

Reviewing Pitchfork: So Many Dynamos "The Loud Wars"

What am I reading? In this new series, I'll be analyzing music reviews from the highly influential website Pitchfork. The majority of Pitchfork reviews are at times slightly esoteric and ridiculous, but they're unfortunately taken as gospel by some due to Pitchfork's stature in the online music news realm, sometimes even elevating the profile of mediocre acts and lowering the profile of other bands that deserve exposure.

So what? The music review is a fickle thing. Often influential, reviews are written by a particular person with particular preferences during a particular moment while they are in a particular mood. Being in a good mood or being into a certain genre of music while writing a review may lead to a reviewer giving an album a higher rating than it deserves, or vice versa. The problem is that in this day and age, when many people tend judge albums by the numerical ratings reviewers give them, music reviews have a bit too much influence and can often be misleading.


Let's start with Pitchfork's recent review of The Loud Wars by So Many Dynamos. Reviewer Paul Thompson, on his way to awarding the album a mediocre rating of 5.5, makes two points that really stick out.

1) Regarding the similarities of the album to music of the late 90s D.C. scene, Thompson writes: "So, yeah, if you'd walked into Melody Records circa summer 1999 and heard The Loud Wars, you wouldn't have batted an eye. And that's just it; The Loud Wars is formula, and it's not even really the Dynamos' formula to use, so when the songs fall a bit flat, it's hard to know whom to point the finger at."

"It's not even really the Dynamos' formula to use"? Whose formula is it, then? Has the late 90s D.C. sound been copywrited by the bands that were part of it? And since when is taking influence from other bands a crime? One can imply from the review that Paul Thompson used to have an affinity for bands like Q and Not U and The Dismemberment Plan, so he should be able to tell the difference between those two bands' breakthrough efforts and The Loud Wars; while they share some musical similarities, sonically they are of a different age.

Perhaps this is just Thompson's version of tough love. Earlier this year, Pitchfork writer Ian Cohen reviewed The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's s/t debut (an album by another band that at times wears its influences on its sleeve) and said, "The Pains of Being Pure at Heart simply made a slyly confident debut that mixes sparkling melodies with an undercurrent of sad bastard mopery, and you're just being a dick if you think the past has some kind of patent on that. That's just the way good pop music works." One would also assume that the past has no patent on mixing angular guitar work with a breakneck rhythm section, either.

2) Continuing, Thompson says about the album: "The Loud Wars runs on amicably enough...and you'd be hard up to finger a bad tune here, but it's all about the same: the same reference points, the same too-busy-by-half arrangements, the same emphasis on proficiency over depth, the same defensively bummed out lyrics, the same slightly sour melodies, the same sense that you're dancing through some kind of dread that's hard to place a finger on."

If it's hard to actually identify a bad track on the album, why the 5.5? Because it's "all about the same"? Okay, let's look at that for a second. "The same reference points"? If other bands can use "the same reference points" and not be penalized for it (again, see The Pains of Being Pure at Heart), then why can't So Many Dynamos? "Proficiency over depth"? A glance through The Loud Wars' CD booklet reveals the large amount of thought the band put into the album, especially musically (for example, some of the melodies in the album are melodies from older So Many Dynamos songs played backwards). "Too busy"? Songs like "Friendarmy" and "The Formula" have some rather spacious bridges and "New Bones" slowly builds for over four minutes before getting busy. "Defensively bummed out lyrics"? While some of the album's lyrics may fit this description, it's not true in all cases (for example, "Artifacts of Sound" features discussion of the current state of music without any self-deprecation attached). Thompson just seems too willing to dismiss this album as a "throwback" despite his admission that none of the songs are bad.

In sum, Thompson should not have penalized So Many Dynamos so much for taking cues from their musical influences. Admitting that it's hard to pick out a bad song on the album should make it clear to the reader that the album is, at the least, a solid, consistent effort from a band that happens to take some influence from music of the past. Really, the 5.5 rating seems to stem mainly from Thompson being "over" this late 90s D.C. scene that The Loud Wars reminds him of, and little else.


Gareth said...

Well said. Word up.

Karen said...

This review sounds like a personal opinion/bash session filled with random quotes that make no sense in reference to this album. I had to read 3 paragraphs into the review before it even began to discuss the Loud Wars CD. If you're going to critique, make it worthwhile rather than a collection of prose leftover from other reviews.

Tim Sounds Like Swim said...

Thanks Gareth.

Karen, I see what you mean. I thought I was being pretty reasonable at first but after reading your comment I realized that the review was somewhat one-sided. I still think my points are justified, but just to be more professional I took the liberty of editing some parts out and separating the intro from the actual review. I'm glad you called me out on this.

Drew said...

personally, i am a fan of pitchfork

Tim Sounds Like Swim said...

I actually do check Pitchfork on a regular basis. I'm a fan of their news coverage and interviews and like to read their reviews. Some of the reviews just strike me as odd sometimes, like this one, hence me writing about it.

stlwazzy said...

I was referring to the original review from Pitchfork when I made those statements. At least you actually LISTENED to the Loud Wars cd- I question whether Mr. Thompson listened to it fully.

George said...

Haha, Tim... this is really awesome. You're great at what you do.

Emelie said...

Glad to see such a response. Keep up the great work Tim!