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Music Criticism

Dipset’s Return and the Tyranny of Promise

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

This past Friday the Diplomats, a group of Harlem-from rappers who had their heyday in the mid-00s before submitting to a kind of quiet entropy, announced their plans for a reunion concert. Cam’Ron, Jim Jones, Juelz Santana, and Freekey-Zekey appeared together on Hot 97′s Angie Martinez Show, and explained their return with classic Dipset tautologic. “Just for you to see us here together, obviously it was nothing that we couldn’t all put to the side and get over, cause if not, we wouldn’t be here today,” Juelz said. Money, they insist, is not the reason they’re back. Cam and Jones’ “Toast,” which disses Kanye West over his own “Runaway” beat, got its fair share of radio play this past weekend; I may or may not have just watched the “We Fly High” video on Youtube. The concert happens November 26, the day after Thanksgiving. Will you be there?

I moved to New York in 2004, right around when Cam’Ron’s Purple Haze came out. You either thought this album was a joke or a game-changer, and for better or worse, my first friends in the city were people who thought the latter. An entire social life was built out of visiting downtown “mix huts,” collecting Diplomat mixtapes like they were Pokemon, hoping for a new Cam couplet as you fought your way through eighty minutes of poorly mixed audio, radio interview snippets, and the hack emcees Cam kept in the wings: J.R. Writer, Hell Rell, Juelz Santana, Max B, 40 Cal, Un Kasa, et al. (Patience like this reached its zenith as we all sat through the “movie” Killa Season in its entirety.)

There was something fun — that’s really it, just fun — about rooting for the little guys. We charted the progress of J.R. Writer, found that one good Hell Rell song. 40 Cal got his due. I was editing the tracks section of Pitchfork.com, a music recommendation Web site, and this was where we shared our findings in meticulously unkempt, highly allusive, usually bad prose. Over time I admit my ears became attuned to the quality of “promise” more than they should have — not listening to the song itself but dreaming of the new, improved next song the rapper would put together afterward.

Not that I am apologizing for my clique, or for *my* clique, for our enthusiasm. We covered a lot of different kinds of music in the section; I know we missed a lot too. People — listeners, musicians, critics — complained about the crack-rap myopia. But it was what it was. Since then Pitchfork Tracks has transformed into Forkcast, though instead of mostly bad young mixtape rappers, the section celebrates limp lo-fi rock and a mostly bad young synthesizer music known as chillwave. Altered Zones, Pitchfork’s new sister site, is a playground for exactly the kind of “fun” in listening to eager musicians slowly figure out what they’re about. The writing, if we’re being generous, is a performance of the sound. Five years ago, under similar fire, I’m sure I used that same exact sentence as my defense. Fun stuff but not for everybody.

We hear a lot about listeners wanting new blood, young blood, etc., but I suspect (and just know in certain cases) that new musicians have started to play into that idea too: putting half-baked, half-finished tracks into inboxes, trying out every which fictitious sounding micro-genre, hoping something falls “in the zone,” so to speak.

All’s to say, I wonder what hand I had in Dipset’s first death. Surely not much of one, but overexposure was part of the problem, “crown their cradle” as a Spin editor once put it, right into my review of the Arctic Monkeys’ debut. Maybe if he had more time to themselves, away from the microscope, Hell Rell could have delivered on the promise of “Hell Is Home (Rukmix).” In retrospect, probably not, but I do think our ridiculously high expectations for Dipset — and subsequent impatience with Dipset for not meeting those expectations in a timely manner — had something to do with something. J.R. Writer was a tough sell for anyone whose mouth wasn’t already up to the Dipset fire hydrant.

But this isn’t about “my hand in Dipset’s death,” or even really “Dipset’s death,” so much as it is about whether delight in “watching young musicians figure out what they’re about” has eroded rock critics’ ability to assess the overall goodness of new music qua music. Riff City favorite Wavves are a solid recent example: an act celebrated mostly for being slightly less shitty than when they first started.

We hear a lot about listeners wanting new blood, young blood, etc., but I suspect (and just know in certain cases) that new musicians have started to play into that idea too: putting half-baked, half-finished tracks into inboxes, trying out every which fictitious sounding micro-genre, hoping something falls “in the zone,” so to speak. If it works, they get some time to figure out what they’re actually doing, a sense of critical investment (“Seaashellzz’s new track makes good on the promise of…”), at the very least an opening slot at Death By Audio. They make music the internet critics recommend, precisely because it’s the kind of music the internet critics recommend. And you were angry at us for what again?

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Lost in The Suburbs: How We Failed Arcade Fire

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

I don’t read much rock criticism except the stuff my friends write, but for whatever reason I was curious to see reviews of The Suburbs, the new album by Montreal indie rock band Arcade Fire. If I’m being upfront, this album impresses the hell out of me. I wanted to see what paid professionals thought of the album’s bigger curve balls: the extra ninth beat in the verses of “Modern Man”; the Suicide-like moves on post-punk number “Month Of May,” complete with tape delay and Vega yelp and disoriented drum sounds; in general, how Win Butler has become a better vocalist with every album, less reliant on the affected vibrato of Funeral, less ‘on’ the mic too. The album is full of specific decisions, off-kilter reference points, subtle gestures in the production, all in service of one question: How can I, the musician, make this melody sound familiar but surprising? What do I need to scoff up a bit to make this thing work?

From one paid professional, I learned about The Suburbs’ “impressively fervent majesty.” Another paid professional wrote: “In their dictionary, ‘suburbs’ is nowhere near ‘subtlety’.” A paid professional at a music recommendation website got a few toes wet, reporting that in “We Come To Wait,” “staccato, minor-key piano chords evoke anxiety.” What I learned from the reviews, which were mostly very positive, was that The Suburbs recalls songs by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young — probably the similarities in subject matter and Butler’s voice and the acoustic guitar strumming. The album is 16 songs long with an hour runtime, which of course means it is ambitious. The band must be attempting to make a grand statement about suburb life; yet somehow this is also “their most straightforward work to date.”

More than liking this album — and I’m not saying they don’t derive actual physical pleasure from listening — the paid professionals seem to like what the album signifies. The themes and reference points and present-day contexts have lined up like planets in a solar system. The reviews wrote themselves.

From paid professional rock critics, we are getting some vague apprehension of an album’s place in a genre and its most superficial sounds-like similarities.

There are a few people not digging Arcade Fire, this album, whatever, as much as I or others do. Rob Harvilla at the Voice wishes the band was funnier, which is one way to say he thinks Butler is a corny dude. (I think the chorus of “Rococo” is sardonic and hilarious, on the right side of “humor in music,” but whatever.) On the flip is Bob Christgau, who likes The Suburbs fine but misses when Butler was more urgent and explicit about his politics, when we knew who the they were. Either way. There are situations when lyrics are deal-breakers. Even in the most rah-rah reviews of The Suburbs, critics were more than happy to hang dry Butler’s words, as if negativity and specificity in this regard gave weight to their otherwise nebulous praise.

Which is the issue here: The most prominent paid professionals will not give me reasons why they like these songs as compositions, productions, performances — anything other than as signifiers of various contexts that sit well with them. No explanation of mechanics, how the songs surprise in new ways, but delight in the old ones. Maybe that makes me the last boy scout — wanting to talk about these things, to geek out about the different kinds of knots the band had to tie, so to speak. Songs like the Hold Steady’s, where lyrics are heavier in the balance, seem to get these people more quickly out of their tents. Maybe good lyrics are easier to dance about.

Do I want record reviews to read like the Tape-Op messageboards? Not exactly, but here’s where we stand if professional writings about one of the year’s best pop albums indicate anything: Rock criticism as ‘criticism of music’ remains a non-fiction fan-fiction enterprise. It is a flaccid, indecisive farce — neither informed nor informative nor entertaining — when the only thing it can say about the song “Deep Blue” is that it “doesn’t develop its Kasparov vs. IBM metaphor into more than an afterthought.” No mention anywhere of the genius move it was to nick the intro of Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” for a song about technological alienation, a song that never makes its way to the beach.

Call it the Context of All Context: From paid professional rock critics, we are getting some vague apprehension of an album’s place in a genre and its most superficial sounds-like similarities. If we’re lucky, we are treated to some new-crit flight of fancy in which the critic shows how the album resonates in the larger world and vice versa, or probably something about gender issues. Or maybe, if we’re really lucky, the critic completely and deliberately misunderstands an artist’s intent in such a way that it doesn’t so much explicate the music as it does give us new context altogether. A stunt review — an acknowledgment of rock criticism’s failure as music criticism — at least has the decency to entertain, though good luck finding someone to pay you for one of those. Cue staccato minor-key chords.

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