Monday, February 08, 2010

Pitchfork: Judgement Day

Generally, I don't read reviews prior to listening to music.  And if I do, I tend to skim.  I've had bad experiences of letting the reviewer's opinion shape my own, rather than complement it.  I remember reading a blurb about Bob Mould's 1996 self-titled release, which complained to no end about the use of a drum machine on the album.  To this day, I can't get past the drums when I listen to it.  Lesson learned.

One exception for me over the years has been Pitchfork.  They introduced me to Les Savy Fav, The Go! Team, Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, Jay Reatard (RIP), British Sea Power, Enon, Iron and Wine, The Fall, and countless others.  They've steered me right with their reviews, and gave me a lot of great music which has made my collection that much better.  Amongst other review sites, their historical place (well, internet historical place, at least) has been the home to the best music you've never heard of.  Their ear has always been on the ground.

Are there haters out there?  Sure.  You can find them out there (and no, I'm not doing your research for you), and they love to jump all over Pitchfork.  Not me.  The proof has always been in the pudding, and a Pitchfork 8.0 rating or better has generally resulted in a 60-75% success rate in my keeping the album, year after year.

However, I've had a bad, bad run with Pitchfork over the last two to three years; the metric is now more of a 10-20% rate, which is quite alarming.  In fact, I've had to revise my own formula:  now I won't touch an album unless it's rated 9.0 or better. 

So at this point, I need to decide whether this has been a lull, a trend, or if Pitchfork and I no longer see eye to eye in terms of what is good to great music.  Here are the albums I listened to, and their respective Pitchfork ratings:
  1. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009): 9.6
  2. Deerhoof - Friend Opportunity (2007): 8.9
  3. Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Continued (2008): 9.2
  4. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca (2009): 9.2
  5. Girls - Album (2009): 9.1
  6. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest (2009): 9.0
  7. Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair (2008): 9.1
  8. Max Tundra - Mastered by Guy at the Exchange (2002): 9.3
  9. M83 - Saturdays = Youth (2008): 8.5
  10. No Age - Nouns (2008): 9.2
  11. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (2009): 8.4
  12. TV on the Radio - Dear Science (2008): 9.2
Out of these twelve albums, I expect the following breakdown:
  • 3-4 Car CD Changer albums
  • 5-6 Portable CD case albums
  • 2 CD Rack albums
  • 1 Sell-back 1 /Pile of death
In other words, nine out of twelve above average; two that are not necessarily my speed but so good I need to keep them; and one that just misses the mark entirely.  I'm being kind here; really, all nine 9.0's should be at least above average, and three 8.0's should be average or above average.

To be fair, I included 3 "best new music" albums I have reviewed here previously (Grizzly Bear, TV on the Radio, and M83), and probably would have bought regardless of review; the rest were acquired strictly on Pitchfork's review.

The results?  Here's how they broke down:

Car CD Changer 
Projected: 3-4
Actual: 2 
  1. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009): 9.6 
  2. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (2009): 8.4
- Not a good start -- only two CD's makes it here, oddly the best and worst-rated of the bunch.  Animal Collective is borderline CD Rack/Portable, but gets the nod to this level because its so well produced; ultimately it lacks some soul to be rated higher.  I hear a little Howard Jones and The Beach Boys here, oddly -- and it's a little boring at times, but not terribly so.  For The Pains, the updated shoegazer vibe here is great.

Portable CD Case  
Projected: 5-6
Actual:  4

  1. Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Continued (2008): 9.2
  2. Girls - Album (2009): 9.1
  3. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest (2009): 9.0
  4. M83 - Saturdays = Youth (2008): 8.5
- Strike two.  Not only are we still running behind, but M83 and Grizzly Bear were already known to me.  Deerhunter is quite good, although Microcastle is the strong swimmer of the double album.  The Girls album grew on me, despite the odd vocals (see the trend continue below); here they work. 

CD Rack  
Projected: 2
  1. TV on the Radio - Dear Science (2008): 9.2
-  TV on the Radio was also part of my previous experience.  So of the seven albums I liked enough to keep, I would have bought three anyways.  We all see where this is going.

Sell-back Pile 1/Pile of Death

Projected: 0-1
Actual: 5
  1. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca (2009): 9.2
  2. Deerhoof - Friend Opportunity (2007): 8.9
  3. Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair (2008): 9.1
  4. Max Tundra - Mastered by Guy at the Exchange (2002): 9.3
  5. No Age - Nouns (2008): 9.2 
- What is it with these odd vocals?  To put it kindly, all of these groups have very, er, "non-traditional rock voices."  (Not so kindly:  stop singing.)  And every damn vocalist sounds exactly the same!  All weird falsetto male voices.  Dirty Projectors is a perfect example: one of those "really trying to be quirky" bands that were failed by their ambition -- if you can buy the vocals, you might love these guys.  I didn't.  Meanwhile Hercules and Love Affair wishes for the return of disco in a way that I really don't.  No Age does try hard to rock it out, but I don't believe they understand how to.  Max Tundra was so terrible one of my CD players refused to even read it.  I think I'd rather gouge my eyes out that listen to Deerhoof's broken English warblings ever again.

Conclusions:  I would have accepted nine above average and two average albums;  I ended up with six and one respectively.  Five albums that don't make the cut is not acceptable.  So their rate of success here is 63% - that's an F where I went to school.  It's even worse if you look at just the 9+ albums -- it's only 5 out of 9!  Dismal.

My final verdict is that I cannot trust these guys any more.  Sure, there are some gems here, but I'll need more than just their word to go get an album these days.  It was fun while it lasted.

- Snilch