Thursday, March 26, 2009

Context matters…

PopMatters has a review up today of D. Rider’s Mother of Curses. It’s an extremely negative review, which is, I think, fine, not everyone’s going to like this sort of thing. However, it’s also written without any acknowledgement of what kind of context that Todd Rittman comes out of…as if you could apply the same standards to Mother of Curses as to, say, the latest Decemberists album or M. Ward.

Here’s the review.

But even without digging into the whole review, consider the teaser quote that is supposed to give some sense of the album, and help people decide whether or not to read the full review:
“Abstract, sloppy and practically tuneless musically, D. Rider tops off its debut album with grating monotone vocals. The end result is, not surprisingly, quite unappealing.”

First of all, D. Rider is a good deal more tune-oriented (though still not exactly Beatles-esque) than US Maple. It has much more readily understandable lyrics and even a hint of falsetto soul melodies than its predecessor band. But even setting that aside, there are certain traditions in music where abstraction, drone, and even monotone are important colors in the palette. Not every band has to be Vampire Weekend.

But my main problem with the review is that the writer seems to be entirely unaware of Rittman’s background. This is the first write-up I’ve seen that doesn’t even mention US Maple, generally considered one of the leading 1990s innovators in an abstract, challenging part of the post-rock movement. Here’s the AllMusic Guide on Talker, US Maple’s 1999 album produced by Michael Gira of Swans: “For all its surface chaos however, Talker's noise has an underlying space and structure that makes it as compelling as it is initially inaccessible; once caught in its sonic tar pits, it's fascinating to hear what else is stuck in there.”

Or here’s Scott McGaughey in (the really excellent) Perfect Sound Forever on US Maple:
“Al Johnson (vocals), Pat Samson (drums), Mark Shippy (high guitar) and Todd Rittmann (low guitar) work together to create a sound which only makes 'sense' after time. The guitars sputter unrelated phrases, the drums mimic an irregular heartbeat and the vocals zoom in and out like a cartoon spaceship. All of this could seem improvised or random, but it's not. U.S. Maple's music comes from careful deliberation and attention to detail. Johnson's unique vocals act as another instrument in the mix as they mingle with the guitars and drums. But rarely do the musicians meet up and lock into a steady groove. Those looking to tap their foot or pump their fists along with the music will quickly be lost.” Full text

US Maple was a serious band, an important part of a certain era of rock history, and you can’t just pretend like it never happened. Especially if you’re going to review D. Rider. Case in point, I went back and listened to Mother of Curses after reading this review, and found that, if you know US Maple, it’s really not that abrasive. It is bleak, claustrophobic, abstract, full of noise, devoid of verse/chorus structure, granted. But also quite powerful in the asymmetrical, convention-exploding tradition of no wave.

Here’s my review of the same record.

And the MySpace

Now granted, I came up through a music reviewing system that emphasized taking artists (and records) for what they were, appreciating how well (or badly) they achieved the goals they seemed to have set for themselves, measuring intensity and commitment rather than technical skill and, in general, not writing off entire genres because they weren’t my favorites. If I know that a band comes out of a tradition I’m not familiar with, if there are predecessor bands or obvious inspirations, I’ll spend a couple of days listening to that stuff. It’s not the same as being an expert, but it helps.

Context is important. If you don’t understand it, you’re not going to understand the record you have in your stereo. It seems to me that PopMatters missed the whole point of Mother of Curses, by insisting that all records have catchy, easily accessible choruses, smooth production and pretty voices. Not everything is pop, and things that aren’t pop shouldn’t be measured by pop standards.


Ian said...

I had no idea this was the guy from US Maple, but let's just put it this way: The blurb was so bad that this morning I didn't bother reading the review. I figured either the band did suck and I didn't need to hear about them, or something like this was going on.

jenniferpkelly said...

Well, I think you could say something like, "I never liked US Maple because of X and this is more of the same," or possibly, "This is not as good as US Maple because..." but to just complain about the guy being a not very accomplished singer or not having any catchy songs's just so offbase.