Constructive Criticism? Let Me Riff About Deerhunter For A Bit

Lately I’ve spent a lot of time questioning my musical taste on a lot of different levels. But the experience of forcing myself to listen to records I don’t like, more than once, has me thinking about criticism. Our Internet friend Paul told me after my slay of Born To Run last night that, “a reviewer let’s you know if something is worth it or not, but a critic helps you appreciate why or not somethings is worth it.” So now I’m thinking about reviews and critics.

There’s this terrific Steve Almond book called “Rock And Roll Will Save Your Soul: A Book By And For The Fanatics Among Us.” He talks about how most music critics aren’t exactly established musicians. Some of us at one point played an instrument (I played clarinet for eight years, sang for eight years, played guitar and piano for four, I can read music and understand theory…oh, high school) but never really excelled at it. (For me, I never wanted to practice.) I’ve admitted in the past, and will continue to admit, that I can’t play music anymore. I haven’t in a long time, so there is a part of me that feels like I cannot judge any of this because I’ve never taken my band on tour and I don’t really know what it takes. My college degree is in audio engineering, so I know what it takes to actually make a record, but I always hated that work. (Hence all the radio.) And honestly, it’s not rocket science. There’s no brilliant explanation as to why there are so many bands. Anyone can do it.

Right now, I am reading “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand. Every once and a while I get my pen out to underline an idea she explains through the different characters. The most recent is, “it’s the critic’s job to interpret the artist…even to the artist himself.” (Which, in the end, is a nice coincidence to my current personal exploration.) I don’t know what curbed me to start reading this 700 page giant, it just popped into my head one day. (I highly recommend it to anyone going through a transition. Or anyone willing to question their meaning of life. Wow, I can’t believe I just said that.)

ALL of this being said, I’ve been sitting and listening to some records lately.

But before I get to the others, let’s talk about Deerhunter. I have publicly displayed my annoyance for Cox and the band. And right now I’m listening to Monomania for the third (maybe fourth) time. I’ll give it up to “Leather Jacket II” but its’ lead in to “The Missing” has me baffled. And before we go any further, here is a complete list of all the press all over the place for Cox and Deerhunter.  CMJ has a nice review of this record, as does The Fork, who gave it a Best New Music headline (meanwhile The So So Glos review was overshadowed by Monomania.) The Village Voice just did an interview with Cox which, after the great Eric Sundermann broke the fourth wall nicely, I couldn’t get through it.  Stereogum’s Michael Nelson says of Cox, “Between Cox’s superhuman prolificacy and his penchant for ramblingtrollish melodrama…” And it seems like even though everyone is praising Monomainia, everyone is calling Cox some sort of  pretentious weirdo. Rolling Stone calls the Deerhunter catalog ‘beautiful’ and Cox ‘obsessive’ and ‘manic’. Everyone is spending more time talking about how fucking weird Bradford Cox is, instead of breaking down the music. And when they do talk about the music, everyone uses the same words: sludgy, lo-fi, fuzz rock, blurry, etc, etc.

Cox’s mystique doesn’t even have me interested anymore. He’s questioning the definition of the word “punk” – which seems to be totally un-definable anymore. (New York Magazine seems to be doing a nice job of that lately.) [Cox described his punk ideal as being “provocative without being political.” Punk without the politics? The easy way out?] It sounds and looks like Cox is messing with all of us just to mess with us. Which is punk. But without a message or a definable message, what’s the point? Dan Jackson at CMJ calls him, “one of indie rock’s only totally singular frontmen left standing.” And Cox admits to The Fork that, “I’d rather be Tiny Tim singing ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ on national TV than just another indie rocker going through the motions of trying to look really detached.”

Wait, is he contradicting himself?

Deerhunter certainly has a feel to it. You can recognize Deerhunter songs without the blink of an eye. Even when I heard his other project from his solo work as Atlas Sound, Parallax, it sounded like Deerhunter rip offs. I don’t remember even getting into it, thinking, ‘I could be listening to Halcyon Digest instead.’

“Back To The Middle” on Monomania sounds like a catchy guitar song. But that’s all it is: catchy. “Pensacola” doesn’t impress me much. The weirdness on the title track is trying to do something, but I’m not sure what. And I’m not sure why everyone and their mother is comparing this record to The Black Lips – who do a better job at being a garage fuzz band who don’t give a fuck. The Black Lips don’t try to smooth over gender lines, they’re not here to annoy us, they’re just here making the music they want to make. Is Bradford Cox trying too hard? Is he trying at all? I honestly can’t tell what he wants us to think anymore. Even though I clearly don’t like his music, I’ve read every review of Monomania that I can find. [And it is funny to see The Fork call him “Bigmouth.” Nice one.] I really am giving this a chance.

But where am I heading with all of this? Addressing the idea of criticism by constantly questioning the art I’m supposed to be discussing? Does it read like I’m on the fence about this record? Every time I listen to it, I’m just like, “Yeah. Sure. This is the Deerhunter record. What’s next?” Nothing on it surprises me. Nothing intrigues me and nothing makes me want to listen to it over and over again. But I can’t help but notice everyone else calling it a masterpiece. Why am I the only stand alone voice? [Editor’s note: Steven Hyden over at Grantland seems to be unsure of Monomania and Cox, he says that “acting like a pretentious, go-for-broke weirdo now qualifies as news in indie-rock circles.” Which he later tweet-explained that he’s sad that weirdos have disappeared from indie. Which I don’t think I can agree with, see: Mac Demarco and/or Ty Segall. ]

I just skipped over the title track, where it drones and noise-rocks all over us with a repetitive ‘Mono-mono-mania’. Which makes me think about my distaste for noise-rock – the Sonic Youths, the My Bloody Valentines, the Interpols – so does that disqualify me for wanting or needing to critique Deerhunter? Because I know I don’t like this genre? Or am I allowed to go in knowing this, maybe already knowing the outcome?

If it is indeed the critics job to interpret the artist to his face, then I guess I’m doing my job. So why do I need to be questioning any of it? Do I find value in this record? No. But will other people? They already have. What value, I’m unsure. I have no reason to recommend this record to anyone and I cannot tell you why it’s great. Why people would sit and listen to this is beyond me.  Yet my, ‘I’ll try anything once’ outlook on listening to records seems to be putting me in a new place. And as the internet shows, I seem to be the only one who doesn’t fall flat on their face when hearing Monomania. [Hell, The Fork compares this record to R.E.M. for chrissake. Is it just convenient since they’re both from Athens? Or both whiny white dudes? Who cares.]

As a reviewer, this record is not worth it. There are a million other things you should be listening to, like Milk Music’s Cruise Your Illusion.  Or The So So Glos or WAMPIRE. Or The Orwells. For god’s sake put down Monomania and listen to Remember When. Now, I can only hope that all of this explains why Monomania isn’t worth it. But then again, it’s only 43:21 long, so just go decide for yourself. Monomania is out now on 4AD.