Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Arts | Media

October 7, 2008

Music Criticism and the Art of Band Name-Dropping

Could you even know what "the love child of Pavement and Neutral Milk Hotel" would sound like?

Adam Conner-Simons

Comparing new bands to old ones in indie-rock criticism is a convenient and common practice, but it can become a crutch, reinforcing the pretentious "holier than thou" music journalist stereotype and alienating readers. Few music publications have dealt with this quandary (besides fleeting blogposts), but it's an important one to deal with as online resources like Pitchfork and Gorilla vs Bear have grown in reputation and popularity. While the successes of such sites should certainly be viewed as progress, they have led to a proliferation of unoriginal name-dropping like never before.

Photo of The Strokes by Marcos Hermes
"You can say something sounds like the Strokes, because they haven't been on a mind-altering trip to India yet."—Filter editor-in-chief Pat McGuire

Photo of The Strokes by Marcos Hermes

This isn't to say that comparisons are completely worthless. "Sometimes a musical phrase really does conjure another song that you want people to know about," says Caryn Ganz, who serves as deputy editor of RollingStone.com. References can also serve as a model of linguistic efficiency, allowing writers to encapsulate the nuances and moods of an 80-minute album into a couple of paragraphs. "There's an almost haiku-like desire to cram as much information as possible into a small space," says Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis. "You can describe a sound by saying 'My Bloody Valentine,' and that's just three words." There's also the age-old complaint that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," which describes the inherent difficulty of translating the musical experience into words. "It can be hard to break down music that clinically," Pitchfork senior contributor Matt LeMay says. "You can try to describe it, but that's never a substitute for hearing it." Fair enough, but isn't that what writers set out to do when they entered the profession?

More important than dwelling on the frequency of name-dropping is establishing the appropriate context for the comparisons. Unimaginative references to such musically diverse groups as the Beatles, for instance, do very little to inform the reader because, as the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot puts it, "Ten people walking down the street will conjure up 10 different images of what the Beatles mean to them." (Which is not to mention that comparisons to such bands inevitably create lofty expectations that artists can't possibly live up to.) Bands with brief tenures lend themselves better to musical shorthand than more-prolific bands because there aren't as many divergent genre associations to sift through. "It's easier to pigeonhole a sound if the band has fewer albums," Filter editor-in-chief Pat McGuire says. "You can say something sounds like the Strokes, because they haven't been on a mind-altering trip to India yet."

Even with more easily categorizable groups, though, critics are disheartened to see a potentially productive practice become a back-patting form of us-versus-them obscurantism. "Some comparisons are used to kind of demonstrate the author's hipness," DeCurtis says. "Dropping a certain name shows that you are part of 'the club.' " Particularly rampant is the use of hybrid-comparisons more commonly relegated to press releases. "I have very little use for descriptions like 'Death Cab [for Cutie] meets the New Pornographers,'" LeMay adds. "You're kind of covering your own ass by not committing to any description of the record."

The consensus among critics isn't that comparisons should be avoided at all costs—how do you expect to describe the music of today without dipping into the past every now and then?—but that the issues of moderation and context should come into play more prominently. "My main issue is not name-dropping, but being very specific in terms of what you are citing," Kot says. "It's better for the reader if you can describe the music so that they can almost hear it for themselves."

So if you're an indie newbie wading through the latest batch of Pitchfork reviews, here's Gelf's guide to some of the most commonly name-dropped bands:

The Arcade Fire


Arcade Fire
Are you a rock band that flips the script by throwing in some strings every now and then? Before long critics will be christening you the next big thing in orchestral indie-pop, which undoubtedly leads to comparisons to this Canadian musical outfit. Some of the connections are understandable—fellow Montrealians Wolf Parade have toured with Win Butler and crew, while the latest album from British Sea Power was produced by ex-AF drummer Howard Bilerman. Meanwhile, other references conjure up more nebulous concepts of intensity and band spirit: Pitchfork's Marc Hogan compared the Black Kids' Wizard of Ahhhs EP from 2007 to Arcade Fire for what he simply describes as "communal urgency."

Joy Division


Joy Division
Lead singer Ian Curtis's suicide in 1980 elevated the group's promising beginnings—they had released one album before his death—to legendary status. And yet, according to Rollingstone.com's Caryn Ganz, it was not really until Interpol's 2002 debut Turn on the Bright Lights that the avalanche of Joy Division references were unleashed in reviews. Curiously, the group's exceedingly more prolific post-Curtis reconfiguration as New Order certainly achieved its own due recognition, but it never possessed the same mythical aura of its predecessor.

My Bloody Valentine


My Bloody Valentine
My Bloody Valentine has a remarkably minuscule catalog, with two albums to its name and none since the 1991 classic Loveless (though the band has apparently reunited for a follow-up). "Not a lot of people heard them," says the Washington Post's Josh du Lac, "but the people who did either started bands or started writing about music." The group's "layered white noise" and "heavily textured walls of sound" have been applied to a variety of other groups, but Filter's Pat McGuire calls the reference a cop-out. "It just means a band is loud and has lots of feedback," he says.

Neutral Milk Hotel


Neutral Milk Hotel
"Critics use bands like Neutral Milk Hotel so much that the references stop meaning anything," says freelance music writer (and Gelf contributor) Saul Austerlitz. "They provide a nice shorthand for meat-and-potatoes indie rock." Reviews of Beirut and the Decemberists alternately name-drop the group for its "psychedelic folk" and "chamber pop." To some extent, Neutral Milk Hotel suffers from similar comparisons as Arcade Fire, particularly with respect to employing brass instruments. (PopMatters' David Bernard admits in one review, "comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel are inevitable because acoustic guitars mix with horns in simple pop dynamics, but that comparison is too easy.")

Pavement


Pavement
Whether it's their "angular guitar work" or their "layered, dreamy, pristine pop," Pavement (and its critically acclaimed one-two punch of Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain) has been a popular point of reference for critics, particularly when describing a certain elusive indie-rock aesthetic. "To say something sounds like Pavement, you're more saying that it's reminiscent of their slacker ethos and lifestyle," says McGuire.

The Pixies


The Pixies
"I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies," Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain once said of a little song he wrote called "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The Boston-based Indie outfit made a lasting impression on many members of the early 90s alt-rock scene, including Cobain and Weezer's Rivers Cuomo. The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones tells Gelf the band's "loud-soft dynamics" are its most recognizable contribution to rock (though he would argue that Big Black was mining similar terrain years before). Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis attributes the Pixies' prevalence in criticism to the combination of their influence and obscurity: "They're smart, interesting, and kind of big—but not too big." Pitchfork writers name-drop them regularly, linking them to, among many others, Santogold, Tapes N' Tapes and the "guitar braggadocio" of Spoon.

Talking Heads


Talking Heads
SF Weekly's Garrett Kamps writes that "anyone who wants to knight a new band Artful and Cool reaches for the Talking Heads mantle." The latest band to be on the receiving end of the compliment is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, partly because of their vocals—"if a band has an abnormally voiced singer, you can bet a David Byrne reference will come up," the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot says—but also because of their love for "poppy-'80s hooks" and their "spiky, yet clean guitar rhythms."

The Velvet Underground


The Velvet Underground
"They never were a huge commercial force, but it seems like everybody who picked up their albums started a band," says du Lac of the Lou Reed-led 60s rock outfit. Velvet's loud, moody album The Velvet Underground & Nico was virtually ignored critically and commercially upon its 1967 release, but has since gained considerable acclaim, with Rolling Stone putting it at #13 for the best albums of all time. The constant comparisons frequently reflect the group's mood rather than tunes. "I don't think of a specific sound so much as an overall aesthetic of darkness and gloom," says Ganz. The most common beneficiary of the Velvet reference is Yo La Tengo, whose members were, for that very reason, chosen to portray the Velvet Underground in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol.

Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.







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Comments

- Arts
- posted on Oct 08, 08
Michael

Conner-Simons is the Elvis Costello of music criticism.

- Arts
- posted on Oct 09, 08
Mungo181

Washington Post's Josh du Lac on My Bloody Valentine: "Not a lot of people heard them, but the people who did either started bands or started writing about music."

du Lac on The Velvet Underground: "They never were a huge commercial force, but it seems like everybody who picked up their albums started a band."

C'mon. For reals? It's hard to believe that someone who spews this nonsensical apocrypha not once but TWICE in one conversation has a job in music criticism. Perhaps the writer shouldn't have used those quotes, and perhaps the editor should have taken them out.

- Arts
- posted on Oct 09, 08
Leah

I want to go back in time and make this article required reading for new DJs at my college radio station.

- Arts
- posted on Oct 09, 08
Nessa Nix

So nice to see someone else taking this topic on. I recently wrote a piece for a Portland, OR paper using a local band's press release (which was chock full of comparisons- none of which were accurate.)My column was viewed as extremely controversal and the band's only excuse was, "We didn't write the press release"...
WTF?? When I contacted them to try and understand why a total stranger would have written a professional looking press release for them- they suddenly backtracked- it was a friend of theirs who wrote it as a favor but they approved this as their press release. Just makes you shake your head. Ultimately what I object to is the self comparison (such as in a press release) to greats and legends...what kind of ego does that take?

- Arts
- posted on Oct 09, 08
lauren viera

Thank you for tackling this huge issue. Name-dropping is, most often, completely worthless when describing a band's sound. I plan to make this article required reading for my Reviewing the Arts class.

- Arts
- posted on Oct 09, 08
kmwilliams@tribune.com, erosenbaum@tribune.com, dgeorge@tribune.com, rrogers@tribune.com

I wish this were required reading for our freelancers. Nice tips from Greg, too.

- Arts
- posted on Oct 09, 08
kmwilliams@tribune.com, erosenbaum@tribune.com, dgeorge@tribune.com, rrobinson@tribune.com

I wish this were required reading for our freelancers. Nice tips from Greg, too.

- Arts
- posted on Oct 09, 08
John

You forgot SWANS, predecessors to everything from Nirvana to Bloody Panda...

- Arts
- posted on Oct 09, 08
Jam Science

Uh, people. It's music. Comparing one band to another is often a starting point to a deeper analysis. If the so-called name-dropping is faulty, that's on the reviewer. It doesn't make the technique wrong. Idiots.

- Arts
- posted on Oct 12, 08
lucy

Hey do your research please,'Isn't anything' wasn't M.B.V's first release. They have more than two records to their name. You could try a copy of Ecstacy and Wine. Mind you I wouldn't do your job for all the dancing around buildings I could summon the energy to perform. 'This Is Your Bloody Valentine' their first release a 'mini-album' whatever that means x The point is the music was released so it goes into their catalogue? Such an amazing band as they are deserves to get that right really. Thanks for the article x


- Arts
- posted on Oct 13, 08
Vin

Good stuff, but I gotta agree with Mungo's minor point regarding du Lac. I own, and enjoy, both "Velvet Underground & Nico" and "Loveless" and never had any particular desire to start a band, or even write about music. I'd guess it is a kind of minor, almost semantic, point, but that just seems a kind of lame way to say "their influence exceeded their popularity" (which could be said of many bands).

- Arts
- posted on Oct 14, 08
Adam

Jam Science - actually comparing one group to another group is an end point. Like calling someone a racist, when an iconic group comes up there is generally little discussion after that.

Part of the problem is that bands are an easy reference point whereas there is no vocabulary that is regularly used by no musician fans. When you hear a band, can you point to the production as something that is meaningful? How about whether the drummer is ahead of the beat, on the beat, or behind the beat?

Also, what a band sounds like and its influences are different and very important. As pointed out in the article, it is usual to say that a band is like Talking Heads, but what about saying that a band is a) influenced by Fela as Talking Heads clearly were or b) that a band is making sharp changes in their sounds as Talking Heads did.


Article by Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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