And now, an album I actually like: I meant to post this little bit about Tennis’ new record, Ritual in Repeat, last week, but just didn’t get it to. I find this album immensely comforting; it’s so easy to love, so eager to please. This band has become so good at writing melodies that strike this bittersweet, autumnal tone; as I wrote in the review, the characters in these songs always sound like they’re yearning for something, mourning a subtle loss or thinking about a good time long since past or thinking about the peas trapped under the mattress of their lives. There’s a depth and a heart to this record I never dreamed could come from the band that wrote and released an album as flimsy as Cape Dory, and slowly following their growth over the last few years — coming to like them, and then to weirdly love them — has been very rewarding for me as a fan and a critic.
I tried to touch on a social thing I find interesting at the very end of the review, in a very quick way — in my original conception of this write-up, it was the tentpole around which the rest of the review evolved, but after talking it through with a colleague (thank you, Jeremy L.) I really minimized it in favour of other stuff. But I think there’s still a grain of truth in it, even if it wasn’t right for the Pitchfork review of this record, so here it is, plainly stated: I think Tennis’ falling out of critical fashion post-Cape Dory was accelerated by the fact that they became a sort of shorthand for the sort of tone-deaf “privilege pop” some people have accused Vampire Weekend of writing in the past, even if that descriptor didn’t totally make sense. They made themselves an easy target, of course: when your origin story is “we got married, sold all of our stuff, sailed a boat up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and wrote an album about it… and then did it again for our second record,” people are going to dismiss you as lame bougie dopes, especially in a critical era when the people writing about music are more attuned to a) just how banal that kind of thing can be, and b) the advantages you might have been afforded by your race and wealth. (To be clear: I think that increased attention to the social context surrounding new bands, and the writing about them, is 100% a good thing.)
The thing about Tennis is that while Cape Dory was a weak record regardless of the applicability of that descriptor, they’ve gotten so much better since then: their melodies are stronger, their production is more suited to their sound, their arrangements are more fleshed out, their lyrics are about something other than floating on hot stinky garbage water a few miles off Long Island. It’s stuck with them nonetheless. So my hope with this review was to convince a few of the people who still think of Tennis as the silly white couple on the boat that this band is really worth a little bit of their time, now more than ever, and I hope you’re convinced too.
This album is not very good! I worked hard to come at it with an open mind, and to evaluate it based on its musical merit alone — which is really difficult, of course, especially when you consider that Brown’s various legal issues tangibly affected this album’s release in the form of considerable delays, you can’t just dodge that — and tried to strike a balance between acknowledging his history and focusing on this piece of work. Even if you stripped away everything we know about Chris Brown as a popular figure, this just wouldn’t be a good record: it’s scattershot, it’s shallow, it’s lacking cohesion, and it’s not always compellingly sung. If Chris Brown makes a good record at some point in the future, I will give him credit for that; this is not that record.
(And of course, Team Breezy is predictably assaulting my mentions over this — which is fine, I would’ve been hurting over it a few years ago but I’m a crusty old vet at this point, relatively speaking. But it’s making me regret having a picture of Drake in sunglasses (matching a picture of me in sunglasses) as my Twitter header. What a perfect peg for accusations of bias! I should’ve changed it back to the wide shot of the 401 I used for years as part of the prep for this review.)
This review ran yesterday, but I was very busy with buying and playing my new PS4 last night, so I didn’t have a chance to write a little post here about it. As someone who grew up on their music, I was so excited to have a crack at reviewing Sloan for the site, though of course this album ended up being rather atypical in terms of concept and execution when you look at the rest of their discography. I think it’s probably hard for Americans to appreciate Sloan’s cultural prominence and lasting popularity up here in Canada — they are and always have been a niche concern to Americans, a cult favourite, kept like a secret and adored by nerds — but I made sure to note in the review that Sloan is one of our most beloved rock bands. They are popular: they’re always on rock radio, they soundtrack NHL team intros (which is a very big deal, you know) and populist barbecues and radio station events and every other type of large gathering you can imagine. They’re just part of our nation’s cultural fabric now, and every Canadian rock band with even a passing interest in melody or popularity that’s come up in the last 15 years has a little bit of Sloan in their DNA. The New Pornographers would not exist without Sloan; Alvvays and Mac DeMarco might not, either.
And they’re not coasting on that national goodwill, either: just a few years ago they released one of their finest albums ever (that’s The Double Cross, probably second only to One Chord to Another in the band’s discography) and are still experimenting with genre and form. I make the point in the review that Commonwealth is ultimately a noble but heartening failure, and I really do believe that; it’s not as good as many of their other records, but it’s so thrilling to watch the band trying new things.
Sloan played a free Canada Day show in the middle of downtown Kitchener this year, maybe a 15 minute bus ride from my apartment — it’s hard to give this an American equivalent, but it’s something like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band playing a free show in downtown Minneapolis or something — and it was one of the best concerts I can remember seeing. (I meant to write about it here, of course, but it escaped my brain the ways ideas tend to you when you’re busy.) It was an incredibly generous performance: it seemed like the band made an effort to engage every single person in the first three rows, whether by directing some banter at them or singing a lyric right at them or just pointing and grinning, they stormed through almost all of their hits, they swapped instruments with abandon and told jokes and generally seemed to enjoy each other’s company, which is really quite rare. They played “The Rest of My Life” and everybody screamed, “I know that I’ll be living it in Canada!” I ended up running into a coworker — my best work friend, in fact, and those of us who are well-acquainted with the drudgery of an office and the sparks of light provided by great office friendships understand the concept — and all we could talk about the next day what was a great time we had. I suppose this review was fueled by the great memories I have of that night, and of hearing songs like “If It Feels Good Do It” and “The Other Man” and “The Good in Everyone” and “Everything You’ve Done Wrong” & & & on the radio as a kid. I wanted to give the band the treatment they deserve.
I bought a new bookcase at the Walmart on the other side of town yesterday. I don’t have a car — or even a driver’s license, not since last November — and while the great majority of my day-to-day activity doesn’t require one, on occasion I find myself lending unearned nobility and heroism to routine actions in an attempt to justify their inconvenience. The fossil fuels I’m leaving intact, the bicep muscles I’m building, the sweat leaking from my brow as I haul unassembled hunks of crappy oak and little screws through a mile-long parking lot towards a humble bus stop bench, all given a little extra glory. The bookcase had two seats to itself when we rode home.
We got off the bus around the corner from my apartment, and I found myself struggling with my grip on the box. It slipped, and I stuck my right knee out to slow its fall; it slapped against me just above my kneecap, and fell onto the sidewalk. Justin was there quickly, tending to my blooming wound. An old man was riding down the sidewalk on a tiny bike with handlebar tassels, and he stopped as he rode near us. “I felt that from over there!”
"Yeah, it stings, but it’s no big deal. As long as the stuff inside is alright."
"Well, I hope she kisses it better!" And then he rode away.
It took us a second, but we looked at each other and started to laugh. We began to work backwards, trying to construct the scenario in which that remark could make any sense. Were we two friends doing some hapless lady pal a favour? Did he see Justin caring for me and drop a low-key pronoun-based insult? It didn’t come close to warranting that much thought, of course: it was just an unobservant old guy with a straight brain, making the kind of comment he’s made a thousand times before, pedalling away with a smile and an internal “heh heh heh.” We’re both lucky because we don’t really have to grapple with the realities of a straight world on a regular basis: we live together in a gay bubble, we’re out to all of our co-workers and friends and families, we’re rarely forced into interactions where our sexual orientation is an unknown quality or, even worse, a problem. This was one of those mostly innocuous moments — like friends talking about giving blood, like walking through a pack of bros on a Friday night, like seeing a Kickstarter for a kid who’s been thrown out by his bigoted parents float around Twitter — reminding me that much of the world still sees me, and people like me, as deviations from the accepted norm.
Do you eventually want to become a full time writer?
A complicated question, but I guess the answer is “no,” at least for now. My contract with the university is up in eight months, and if you offered me the choice of a similarly compensated/equally engaging position at the school or a full-time staff writing gig in Toronto or New York, I would take the former. I think about this every single day. There are a lot of variables. In a vacuum, writing is the thing I like to do most, and it’s probably where I have the greatest depth of skill. But doing it full-time with even a grain of stability would mean settling for less money, leaving my friends and family and loved ones, leaving the only country I’ve ever called home, and coming to terms with a considerable opportunity cost. I have this nightmare filed away in the back of my brain where I’ve leapt ten or twenty years into the future, and I’ve just been let go because almost every cent has been drained from the world of cultural criticism, and I’m 31 or 41 with no experience and no savings and no escape plan. It probably wouldn’t ever get that bad, but I can see 60% and 80% versions of that scenario playing out.
I look at my life now, and things are pretty great: I live in a gorgeous apartment with my boyfriend for relatively cheap, I have a good job that involves a lot of non-music writing while allowing me to develop my management skills, and I get to write for some of my favourite editors and publications in my spare time for beer and pizza money. I know I love writing about music as a hobby, but I have no way of knowing if I would still feel that way if I was stuck on the news grind or was made to churn out pieces about things I’m not totally invested in; I find the clique-y, insider-y social aspects of contemporary music writing suffocating and tiresome, and I only ever taste them on Twitter and Gchat. I’ve actually come to value the perspective I’ve gained from working in a different field and living somewhere other than New York, and I think it’s enriched my writing as I’ve gotten older and better. I add all of this together and it leads me to believe that pursuing a full-time career as a writer is not the best choice for me right now.
(Of course, this could all look silly in a year: my contract runs out, I can’t find another job here in Waterloo, one of my editors has a position free, and next thing you know I’m renting one of four bedrooms in Bushwick and liveblogging the Teen Choice Awards. But this is where I am right now.)
do you email musicians often to help answer questions for your articles? plan of action if they don't respond?
I don’t, I can only remember doing it once or twice. My thoughts on a record rarely hinge on the clarification of a lyric or the elucidation of some theme by the artist, and if I ever find myself at that sort of junction I usually opt for reshaping my thought or taking a different angle. I have go-to research strategies, of course — spend a lot of time with their discography, read a lot of interviews, read both dated and recent non-review writing and criticism — but directly questioning artists while writing something is not typically one of them.
Hmm, nothing really noteworthy, to be honest. I like a few of the records that fall under the “emo revival” umbrella, I suppose, particularly this year’s efforts from the Hotelier and Joyce Manor; they have an energy and passion that has helped them stand out at a point in my life where I’m finding it a lot easier to latch onto pop, R&B, and electronic music than rock music. But I think the best way I can use this space is to refer people to what Ian wrote about this particular batch of bands and records for the Pitch a few days ago, especially since he’s the critic who alerted many people to the existence and quality of these records in the first place. He dismantles the flawed concept of the “emo revival” with the same intensity and spirit that makes a song like "End of the Summer" worthwhile.
How long does it take you to write a typical review?
I think I answered something like this a few months ago, but my work habits might’ve changed, so I’ll just give it another go. I usually spread the composition of any piece, review or essay or whatever, out over two nights, or two distinct sessions. First, I pour out anything and everything I’d like to say about the topic into quick and dirty point form notes, without filtering or focusing on cohesion or structure. This usually takes no more than half an hour. When I come back a day (or a few hours) later, I write the piece in order from beginning to end, building from the notes I took before and editing and rearranging as I go along. The time required depends on my level of focus, interest in the topic, and the length of the piece, but I’d say it usually takes anywhere from one to three hours.
Sometimes I procrastinate and put myself in a bad spot, and I have to skip the notes phase and write the whole thing from scratch in one sitting. This doesn’t add much to the overall time required, but I’m usually less happy with the final product. To be honest, I feel like I’ve done 70% of the work by the time I sit down to spit up notes or actually write the piece. Once I get an assignment or land a pitch, I can’t stop thinking about the subject, and I do a lot of the planning internally: figuring out structure, memorizing little turns of phrase, refining ideas and thoughts, etc.
how does p4k work? like in the sense, of all the music that is reviewed on the website, is each and every contributor + staff well versed with the music, or are records distributed amongst writers? curious to know. thanks
Well, everyone who contributes to the site has their own little wheelhouse, and both the writers and the editorial team usually have a good feel for where everyone’s expertise lies. For example, I’m something like a centrist, and I’m mostly going to write about music near the twin poles of “rock” and “pop” with occasional forays into electronic music; I’m probably not going to write about rap for the site anytime soon, or really obscure ambient stuff, or metal, those just aren’t fields where I have enough knowledge, experience, or enthusiasm to do the music justice. There are areas where lots of writers have overlapping interests, of course, especially when it comes to popular or influential artists, but for the most part Pitchfork is much less a monolithic identity than a collection of distinct individual voices. I think that’s something many of the site’s critics conveniently forget when they’re ranting about a particular bit of coverage or an artist’s review history. I hope that answered at least part of your question!
what is the best part about being canadian besides being from the same country as drake
never being more than 500 m away from either a Tim Hortons or a Shoppers Drug Mart
also the metric system, it’s so easy
(Canadian engineers — and engineers from countries around the world, I’m sure — are trained to achieve fluency in both the metric system and American engineering units. It’s incorporated into all of our tests, we have a first year course that focuses almost entirely on unit conversion, etc. I didn’t appreciate the beauty and simplicity of the metric system until heat and mass transfer professors were writing all of their questions in terms of [BTU/(hr *ft^2*F)] and I had to bust out page-length line calculations just to start problems. Bless the metric system.)
And for those of you who were asking about my personal songs/albums ballots, you can find the top 20 of each here, along with little blurbs about two faves that didn’t make the big list (Chris Cohen’s Overgrown Path, Eleanor Friedberger’s “Roosevelt Island”) and a tiny thing about running to my favourite songs. That’s it, that’s all I’ve got. Thank you for reading.
I wrote another four blurbs for this list, which is chock full of incredible, passionate writing. I’m so proud to write alongside all of these people. Going to do a little director’s commentary the same way I did for my track blurbs, please indulge me (especially because as I’m writing them, I’m realizing these ones are a lot more indulgent).
Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan (#61): This album came out the summer I was living in Toronto and dating a lot, a summer that has really become almost mythical even though it was only two years ago because my life has changed drastically since then. I became something like a man in four months, commuting to a job I didn’t like every day and dancing on the weekends and trying to harden my heart a little and going on adventures when I could spare the time, and even when I couldn’t. Eating egg salad sandwiches hungover in the park on Sentinel while families played around me and I planned trips to the beach, riding the 192 Express to Downsview and taking it all the way downtown, smoking that Captain Black I mentioned a while back on the patio and coughing it back up for the next two days. What an incredible summer! I guess I was searching for a lot of things the same way Longstreth searches throughout this album, and that searching was reflected back onto me, and “Impregnable Question” made me think a lot about love at a time when I was trying so hard not to. Underrated, shockingly human, just as good as the more feted Bitte Orca.
Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream (#59): This one came out a few months later, and of course by that time everything had changed. I hear this album and I think back to one specific night: there was a power outage, and my roommates were out playing board games somewhere. My boyfriend, the one sleeping on the couch ten feet away the way he does on weeknights, had come over; we had only been together for a few weeks. I lit a lot of cheap candles and played this album through my iPad speakers and tried to make it seem like I knew what I was doing. I can still remember that sensuality, however forced, and the shitty candles beside my tiny futon — they should’ve lit the damn thing on fire — and how the music made it easier to feel out the fantasy.
Drake, Nothing Was the Same (#41): The night this album came out I hopped into a Gchat window with a bunch of other nerds and live-chatted through it after midnight, drinking beer when I had a lab in the morning and freaking out over every beat switch and hearing lines for the first time that would become omnipresent memes in a matter of days. It would dominate the last year of my undergrad, nights with the guys where we’d yell out all the lyrics and wander down to 7-11 for late snacks and fall asleep on each other’s floors and couches. Nothing was the same, and now nothing is. It’s only been a few months but everyone is gone. Get us together in a room, pay for the bus tickets and the plane tickets and whatever else you need, and put this on and watch the fireworks. Remember? How could I forget?
Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest (#3): I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that many of the things I value most today — the platforms I have for my writing, the friends I’ve made, the love I have in my life, the self-confidence, you name it — wouldn’t be present in the same form if I hadn’t spent a few months clinging to this album like a life raft, listening to it in my dark second floor bedroom every night as I fell asleep and in pretty much every waking hour too. It kept me afloat when I was at my loneliest and angriest and most depressed. I tried to pour all of that into this blurb, to shape it into a signal to other people who might happen upon our list when they could use a similar lift: this is the kind of album that can get you through. And in many ways it felt like everything I’ve ever written was building to this assignment: turning to Tumblr as an outlet for the feelings the album helped me grapple with, finding friends and readers, making contacts, graduating to real publications, building trust, covering the band in painstaking detail one week, sticking around when this list was in its infancy and being given the chance to do it justice. I tried to give it that gravity, the weight of a life it shaped, and if I came even a little close then I’m happy.
Will you be posting your full Best of the '10s So Far list once Pitchfork has finished running their communal one?
A few people asked this, and I’ve seen a few of my colleagues do it so the answer is yes. I’m going to put up my top 50 songs and top 50 albums here at the end of the week, I think, so stay tuned for that. I have no idea whether or not the site’s going to run smaller versions of those lists, but either way I’ll post expanded versions here.
I wrote four blurbs for this list. I worked really hard on them, and it was a total joy to read everyone else’s work on the list because they had clearly done the same. I’m sure the forthcoming album list will uphold the same high standard.
David wrote a neat little post earlier today where he talked about the inspiration and social context behind his contributed blurbs, and I’d like to do the same, so I’m going to go entry-by-entry and talk about what I was trying to do with mine, what inspired them, etc. Think of it as some bonus commentary.
Caribou, “Can’t Do Without You” (#93):
This one was mildly tricky, I really struggled with finding the right imagery for the way the song swells and moves forward. Snaith is obviously a very smart guy who has put a lot of thought into both his growth as an artist and the sound of his songs, and I wanted to do that intelligence justice. There’s a density to the slow-motion drop that cracks this song open that remains irresistible to me. It feels like you’re plunging towards the core, towards another world.
I saw a few people poking fun at the concept of canonizing a song that’s not even a month old, cut from an album that won’t be out for another two, and I totally get that — I’m sure #201 or something close has been around for longer, is more influential, etc. But I think this’ll be revealed as a worthy choice in time, and in a much shorter time than people think. Its balance, its tenderness — those qualities are built to last.
Japandroids, “Younger Us” (#92):
This was the hardest blurb to write. I drafted maybe five different versions of it one after the other, something I almost never do; I usually pump out drafts of blurbs and reviews top-to-bottom in one sitting, and will very rarely scrap something and start from scratch. I was just having a lot of trouble capturing the way this song makes me feel in a way that could fit within the confines of a short blurb and make sense to other people. This song came out when I was still living in residence, spending my first year with the guys I would be inseparable from for all five years of our undergrad. I had just gotten a fake ID and we spent a lot of time in the plaza bars next to campus: Molly Bloom’s, Kickoffs, Outer Mongolia at the Mongolian Grill. It felt like this song was made for us; we were the kinds of guys who would always get out of bed to go drink, who would always be together starting shit and hanging tough. And of course now it’s been four years, and we’re all finished and in different places and connected by Facebook chat and Greyhound buses and planes, and I find myself having that “I want younger us” moment a lot. I call it a love story because that’s exactly what it was, what it is.
A few of us hung out last Friday on a rooftop with a gorgeous view of the Toronto skyline and I could feeling it flowing through my veins again, that kinship, that feeling. That’s the stuff that makes this song work.
Ciara, “Body Party” (#39):
Felt some pressure here to put together a solid blurb because this song has been written about by a lot of people, and well, and I wanted to find a perspective that could hang with what’s come before. I was also treading carefully because I don’t want to overstep as a man writing about a woman’s expression of her sexuality, even as a man who’s not attracted to women at all — I wanted to be respectful, but not joyless or clinical. I think it managed to squeak there, and I like the kicker a lot, it ties a nice little bow on Ciara’s career and the sound of this song.
Writing about sex is hard because it means different things to different people, carries different memories, generates different emotions — and there’s still a part of many of us, even the most liberated, who get a little nervous when the subject comes up. I think the most important thing about this song is that it glows with a confidence that feels enabled by a sense of security. You can’t sound or move like this unless you feel safe with someone, and it must be really hard to embed that kind of safety in a song, but it’s pulled off here.
Disclosure, “Latch” (#25):
Everyone knows “Latch” at this point, it’s insane; I was at dinner with some work acquaintances and all I had to do was croak the vocal sample to get a coworker who “knows nothing about music” to cry out, “I know that one!” So I had two goals with this blurb: I wanted to chart the song’s slow ascent and web of influence, and I wanted to suss out some of the elements that make it click and stand a cut above the contemporaries and imitators. It’s funny, the Disclosure boys are in some ways minor rockists — they’ve given a lot of interviews about wanting to bring “songwriting” and “soul” to dance music, which, oh brother — and I didn’t want to glorify that kind of flawed perspective, but at the same time this is a song that succeeds in large part because of its immaculate craftsmanship, the structure and the weird rhythm and the way it snaps together like K’Nex. I’m sure someone with a more deft touch could’ve walked that tightrope a little more easily but I don’t think it was an embarrassment by any means.
And of course I’ve known and loved this song for a long time, like many other people have — I remember hearing it in the last weeks of 2012 and having it creep onto my list posted here, an early micro-ascent up a North American chart — so there was a lot of time and history in that blurb, too.
Have you been following the madness of the Post-NBA Finals? / How are your raptors looking for this upcoming season?
David asked me this two or three months ago and I just never got to it, totally awful of me, but I guess it’s not too late. The NBA is a year-round sport! This has been an insane summer. I followed the madness, and it has only continued since the immediate aftermath of the Finals, of course.
Focusing on the Raptors, I think they’re in a good place, though who the hell even knows what’s going to happen in the East this year — everything in Cleveland, the Bulls adding a resurgent Rose and Gasol and Mirotic, the Pacers going into a death spiral, LANCE on your beloved nü-Hornets, Miami taking another crack at it, the Nets starting to fall apart, etc. I do think there’s some value in continuity and keeping a young core that seems to really like each other together. Lowry is hopefully going to sustain his performance from last season, a year where he could’ve made an All-NBA if one or two things broke differently, DeRozan and Valanciunas and Ross are going to keep growing and improving (I think this World Cup training camp run is really going to help DeRozan), Amir and Double Pat are going to keep holding the middle and the wing down, Vasquez will be fine, everything’s trending positively in my eyes. Playoff seed is a total crapshoot, but I think they’ll finish in the top half of the conference again, below Cleveland and Chicago and roughly even with the Wizards. If we’re being totally honest, the Raptors are content looking competitive for the new few years until Durant — and, failing that, Wiggins — become available. And then who knows? They think they have a shot.
Of course, we already have the Brazilian Durant, so we’ll be fine either way. CABOCLOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!
Can’t say I really have one, I know he’s very important and influential and in the Pantheon of people who wrote about music, but he hasn’t influenced me at all and I can’t say his style is one I’ve ever sought to emulate. I think I have some friends, writers and non-writers, who really cared about and loved his work at one point in their lives, but that’s not me.
Non-musical: the way my running shoes sound when they slap the ground, my coffee maker sputtering and fizzing to a halt, my bike tires buzzing down asphalt when there aren’t any cars around and it’s early morning and I’m on my way to work
Musical, off the top of my head and fairly recent: the synths on “Inspector Norse” (a boring answer! but so good), “Can’t Do Without You” by Caribou blooming to life, Mariah saying, “I know you are, dahling!” at the end of “Supernatural”
I care about the non-musical sounds a lot more, I think.
how did you know to choose to study science rather than music?
I’m sure I’ve written about this before at length but it mostly sprung from pragmatism rather than passion — I had always been told that engineering was the sort of thing “smart people” did, I considered myself one such “smart person,” I got into the best engineering school in Canada, it felt like the path that made the most long-term sense and led to the most respect from my peers. I also had great high school chemistry and calculus teachers, and they made me enjoy the subjects in a way that quickly evaporated once I got to university.
It ended up not really mattering — I work in educational management now, it’s pretty far from the tar sands or the floor of a pharmaceutical facility, and freelancing is basically a steady part-time job — but hey, I’ve got the degree, it’s on my résumé and I don’t regret it one bit. It taught me a lot, even if it’s not what I want to do for the rest of my life.
Edit: And I guess it’s worth noting that studying music was never really on my radar — if I hadn’t entered engineering, I would’ve studied urban planning or straight-up journalism instead.
I spent a year or two of my teenhood listening to an exhaustive list of everything Chopin wrote, played by an all-star team of professional pianists, while playing SimCity 4 (the greatest video game ever made). I think this was probably inspired by the beloved, highly underrated Xbox 360/later PS3 RPG Eternal Sonata, which is set within a dream Chopin is having on his deathbed. It’s a lovely game, with a hokey but touching story and incredible art direction married to an active, constantly shifting combat system — definitely worth checking out if you have an old-generation console kicking around.
I’m also relatively well versed in the work of a few canon-level modern classical dudes like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but I recognize that’s totally novice stuff. It’s a genre I’d like to explore a little more — as I get older I find I’m becoming a little more comfortable with stuff that’s atonal, or devoid of melody, or really focused on space and pace — but it’s just a matter of finding the time. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I’m at the point now with freelancing where it’s rare to have a week where I’m not listening to something up for review or doing research for said review. Someday!
how often do you read criticism of other mediums? film or books or video games etc
I read non-music criticism on a daily basis, I’d say — certainly true for TV and movie criticism, less so for books and video games, though I do have my favourite sites and writers working in those fields. I read it for multiple reasons: I’m interested in those cultural mediums as a fan, of course, and I want to understand them better, but I also think I can better myself as a critic by reading the work of non-music writers and seeing how their strategies differ, how they approach the technical sides of their chosen mediums, etc. I’ve learned a lot and found plenty of inspiration in the work of people like Wesley Morris — not exactly a surprising pick, I suppose, he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner writing for one of the cultural Internet’s most visible and popular sites, but he’s just so graceful and brave and structurally sound. Every single sentence is like a poem in miniature. It’s a zone I would love to reach someday, even on occasion.
I also read a lot of sportswriting and sports journalism, I’ve been reading that even longer than I’ve been reading music criticism. I probably wouldn’t be writing now if it weren’t for the formative influence of my dad’s Sports Illustrated subscription, great writing sitting on end tables in the bathroom and drawers in the kitchen as far back as I can remember.
Does the author of a pitchfork review get to determine the score on his or her own or do multiple writers weigh in?
This is a popular question, I get this one every few months and I’m sure all the site’s other writers get it on occasion too. There isn’t a lot of mystery to the process, and I don’t think (I hope!) I’m not violating the site’s code (tell me if I am) by saying that the score is usually the product of discussion between the writer of the review and the editorial team.
If I’m being honest, I wish I could run my reviews without scores. I just view them as a necessary evil at this point, Pitchfork wouldn’t be what it is today without them and they’re fun to talk about but I spend maybe 1% of the total time spent working on any of my reviews thinking about the score. The words are way more important to me, and hopefully to some of our readers too.
So when are you going to write something longer about the new Beyonce? Because the people want to hear.
Edit: Haha, I wrote this whole thing and then I did a little search and rediscovered a very short thing I wrote about "Drunk in Love." But this is all I did, I think, and it’s almost nothing, so pretty much everything below still stands.
I’m going to be cleaning out my Tumblr inbox tonight, so if you’ve got a burning question on your mind, feel free to ask.
I have no idea when I got this one, I think it must have came in near the beginning of the year. Apologies for the interminable delay, anonymous asker! To date, I still don’t think I’ve really written anything about Beyoncé, not even a Tumblr post or something like that. I mentally shaped and tossed around a post about “No Angel” for a very long time, probably a few months, but never got around to typing it up and putting it out there.
It’s funny, I think in some ways the major difference between the way I wrote about 4 back in 2011 — frequently, and passionately, and with an incredible verve and excitement if not polish or objectivity — and the lack of writing I did about Beyoncé sheds some light on things I’ve learned as a writer and reader and as someone who’s trying to be a good, thoughtful person on the Internet. In the weeks and months after Beyoncé was released, a lot of women and people of colour were writing really powerful, personal stuff about the album — how Beyoncé’s grappling with power and body image and sexuality and feminism and class and race and social responsibility affected them as people who were grappling with those issues and qualities in their own lives every day, and what it meant to them to see Beyoncé hold the world in the palm of her hand, and how the songs captured aspects of their lives while being catchy as hell and musically compelling and often very funny, too. Reading those pieces, I often found myself thinking, “I don’t really have anything compelling to offer here,” or “I don’t know that my long description of the wet, sensual snap of this song is really necessary,” etc. And by the time the initial wave of attention had passed and I had lived with the album long enough to develop thoughts that might’ve been worthy of writing and posting, I had moved on to other things.
When 4 came out, I was still very new to writing and to online communities and to the social aspects of the discourse surrounding music criticism, and my critical perspective wasn’t as developed as it is now, and so I just geeked out over that album like a true fan. 4 covers a lot of the same issues and themes Beyoncé does, and I’m sure if it came out now I would’ve been just as quiet as I was this December and January, but I was in a totally different critical world then, or it felt like I was. And because of the timing of the album’s release and my own small ascent to a relative position of prominence in the world of music writing (and a One Week One Band installment I did a few months later), I became known as someone who really loved Beyoncé, and someone who was ready to write at her work at a moment’s notice. I guess I’m pretty much still that person, and I like Beyoncé a lot, but I’m just a little more aware of the world and sensitive to context now, and that changed things a bit.
Sorry, very long and meandering response there, in short: maybe someday, probably here, no promises though.
Coming next week: The best albums, tracks, and videos of 2010-2014
Pitchfork’s running lists covering the best albums, songs, and music videos of the half-decade all next week. I wrote a few blurbs for the albums and songs lists, and I’m really proud of them — I can’t wait to share them with all of you. I’m just so happy to have a hand in something like this, something that people will be reading for a long time, something that’s going to shape the taste of new and young music fans for decades to come. I’m also excited to read the work of my friends and colleagues, and to see how the final list shakes out. (I don’t have much of an idea how it looks right now.)
Keep an eye on the site next week, there’ll be lots of great stuff to read and rediscover.
I was really psyched to write about this new project from Dan Boeckner, of Wolf Parade and Divine Fits fame — I like those two bands a lot, and Wolf Parade in particular meant a lot to me when I was younger and just starting to explore the broader world of music. It was the mid-’00s, and I liked indie rock; Wolf Parade made sense to me, pushed my boundaries, felt substantive. I still feel very fondly about their run today. It’s nice to hear that Boeckner is continuing to push his own boundaries, with new bands and new moves. I’m going to keep an eye on him as long as he’s working.
Two reviews from last week that I forgot to mention here (until now):
I wrote about veteran producer Hanssen’s solid debut full-length, Seven Years Week, for Pitchfork. It’s a nice collection of playful, inquisitive, mostly ambient electronic music.
I wrote about Spoon’s excellent new album They Want My Soul for TIME’s print edition. You should be able to grab this review’s parent issue now if you’re in the U.S. — it might even be outdated — but I won’t have a copy until next Monday, I think. This is one of Earth’s greatest rock bands in top form.
I’m working on a bunch of stuff through this weekend, so this’ll remain a link dump zone until at least next week. After that, I’m hoping to get some stuff up; I have some ideas that have been rattling around for a few weeks now, and they need to be cleared off the shelves somehow. Thanks for reading, hope you’re enjoying whatever season you’re currently experiencing! (It’s summer here, and I’ll be sad to see it go.)
Decent record here, it’s heartening to see veterans playing around with new tones and ideas over a decade into their career. This is one where you can’t really get hung up on the score, I think — it’s just a really small piece of how I feel about the album, and it doesn’t really matter. If you want to sample it first, head for “Sisters” or “The Rains of May.”
The last few weeks have been pretty busy with “real” work, writing, and travel, so here are some quick and dirty links to reviews that have been published during that time:
I reviewed Slow Club’s excellent new album Complete Surrender for Pitchfork.
I reviewed Woman’s Hour’s promising debut Conversations for Pitchfork.
I reviewed Jenny Lewis’ strong return to the spotlight The Voyager for Myspace.
I also had a lovely time in Chicago for Pitchfork’s music festival. It was great to see plenty of friends who come up often (or did, once) in this dashboard or my Twitter feed. I love going to P4kfest because it’s the rare chance I have to put on my music critic drag; when I went back to work on Tuesday, all I could think about was the time I spent living my second life in a different country. I can’t wait to go back next year.
I hope you’re having a nice week, and thanks for reading.
Oh, also: I’ll be in Chicago next weekend for Pitchfork’s music festival. This is the third year in a row I’ve attended; I start looking forward to the next year’s edition about a day after the previous one finishes. It’s a great time for any attendee, well-run and still relatively small and packed with good music, but there’s an added “adult summer camp” layer for music writers: lots of people you know from the Internet show up, you run into people you might not see all year (or ever) otherwise, you can drink together and talk shop and shoot the shit and hang out with all of your favourite Twitter avatars and bylines. (I don’t know if the weekend has this feel for writers who work out of major media centres, i.e. New York. But I write in isolation, connect with peers and editors online, and work full-time in a non-writing field; P4kfest is the one weekend a year where I really get to dress up in my “legitimate music journalist” drag and play around, and I love it.) I’m especially excited for this year because a) I’m bringing a friend, for the first time ever, and b) this is my first visit to the U.S. since turning 21.
I know a few of you are attending for sure, but if you’re going to make it out next weekend and you’d like to meet up and chat for a few minutes and catch a few songs or something, feel free to put a message in my askbox and we’ll sort it out. Can’t wait!
I love this song and I jumped at the chance to write something a little longer than your average track blurb, both about its musical merit and how it marks another step towards a different echelon of pop stardom for Grande. I hope you like it too!
This album largely fails to deliver on the promise of “Chandelier,” which remains an excellent single but is rendered an outlier by its quality here. But hey, maybe you’ll like this record more than I did! (I hope you do.) Thanks for reading.
A complicated question, to be sure — hope you don’t mind if I turn it into a little meditation on process and personal growth before talking about actual people.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the kind of writer I want to be, and the answer I give myself has changed over time. When I first starting writing in earnest, I was really concerned with voice and style. I wanted to be distinct, to write with a certain panache and flair, to handle sentences in ways that would make people sigh behind their monitors and think, “Damn, I wish I had written that.” But as time has gone on and I’ve gotten more practice I’ve come to believe that I’m just not that kind of writer, and transforming into such a writer would take an amount of time and energy that I’m not in a position to expend, not with a full-time job and other commitments and a natural inclination towards a different style.
So now I focus on expressing my ideas with the most clarity and precision I can summon, and I try to do it with a kind of grace. I was thinking about this question and my response earlier tonight and I kept coming back to the word “gentle,” which can be a dangerous word for a critic: you need a bit of incisiveness, a willingness to cut and slash whether you’re editing or explaining why something rubs you the wrong way. But “gentle” works for me, I think, if you believe a well made bed or a nicely manicured park can be gentle. I try to come at each new topic with an open mind and a positive attitude, and I try to keep everything very clean, and I focus on ideas and structure instead of agonizing over the perfect word or the knock-out punchlines I don’t really have a talent for anyway. This is where I’ve settled right now. I don’t know, maybe people see my work in an entirely different light, and I’ve got myself all wrong; the way we see ourselves is inevitably warped. But I think I’ve got it pretty close.
I can start by mentioning a few writers who have influenced my conscious practice of this particular style. Some non-musical authors include Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami, and Michael Chabon when he tamps down his experimental streak and focuses on direct sections of prose. I’m currently reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies and that’s a good example too, it’s a book that explores the tangled and long history of cancer in a very clear and understandable fashion. As for music critics, I tend to think of them in two groups: writers who are a fair bit older than I am (like, at least a decade or so), and people who are closer to my age (or a little older) that came up around the same time, whether on Tumblr or somewhere else. Without getting into specifics — because I’m going to ask them to read this post via a bunch of networks, and I don’t want to make people feel bad about getting left off some off-the-cuff list of writers I like — I’ve derived the most influence from the writers who I think are doing the best kind of work I described above: not overly showy or reliant on voice or gimmickry, very precise, impeccably structured, leaning towards kindness, open to new sounds and perspectives. (And if you really want some names and links, send me an email.)
Just out of curiosity, how did you become a writer? Im interested in becoming a writer myself but I'm not sure how I should improve my writing.
I’ve written about this a few times before (and will include relevant links below) but for me, it was as simple as firing up a Tumblr and making connections with the writers I admired who were also active on the platform. They noticed my work and shared it with some of their colleagues, and the resulting attention was enough to help me build a small audience of peers and make a few connections. This was a little over three years ago, and it might be more difficult now — the dynamics of the music writing community on Tumblr have changed a little bit, and if you look around you’ll find plenty of good writing on that topic — but I think the same principles apply no matter the platform: practice your craft and make an effort to participate in what we casually term a “community of practice” in my “real” workplace, and good things will happen for you.
In the same vein, the best way to improve your writing is to practice, and to supplement that practice with active reading of the writers you admire and who have different experiences than your own. I think everyone from the greenest blogger to the most successful and respected critic in the country would tell you the same.
I wrote about joining the music writing “community” on Tumblr here, about a year and a half ago; I shared some thoughts about coming up as a writer, and the field in general, here, last summer. And I stand by pretty much everything I shared in those two posts, though of course I’d flesh them out with some new bits now. If I could only add one, it’d be something like this: work really hard at treading the line between seeming professional and sounding like a robot. Re: professionalism, it seems obvious, but you see it all the time: don’t get into mindless beefs with other writers, don’t shit talk publications you’ve worked with on Twitter, support your peers and people whose voices might not be as prominent as yours, be timely with your copy and invoices, etc. etc. The “seeming human” thing is harder, somehow, but there are so many little things that matter: don’t plug your pieces too many times (a fine line, to be sure), don’t engage with other writers just for connections or “networking” purposes, don’t hop on memes if you don’t actually get what they’re about, show some personality. You can just tell when someone in your feed is really, really sweating their self-promotion or their conversations with someone. You don’t want to be the person sweating.
And I know I’m saying all this like it’s super easy and intuitive, but of course it’s not! It’s really, really hard work, and I think people who are inclined towards writing might have an even harder time navigating the line than your average extrovert or social butterfly: many of us are interior, semi-awkward people. That inward focus and unflinching eye yields some of the best writing out there. I think I’m pretty good at maintaining the balance, but it’s something I think about all the time, both as a writer and in every other realm of my life. Like any other skill worth cultivating, it takes time and effort to make it work.
Anyway, thanks for giving me the opportunity to wax poetic — I’m always happy to talk process, I think it’s healthy to do it once in a while. I have another writing-related ask coming up tonight, so keep an eye out for that.
Decent guitar-pop record here, the guitars are what really stand out for me — Drew Citron, who wrote these songs, has a great ear for tone and texture that helps to make them pop even when the melodies aren’t particularly memorable or strong. If you’re a genre enthusiast, this album will probably work for you, but I can’t see it transcending those admittedly blurry lines. As always, thanks for reading.
I wrote two reviews for Pitchfork, covering Shamir’s debut EP Northtown (idiosyncratic, battered house) and Tomas Barfod’s new full-length Love Me(polite, rhythmically driven Danish synth-pop).
I also have a new piece in last Friday’s issue of TIME, on rising Brits Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith. You can read the first paragraph or so here, though the remainder is behind a paywall for subscribers — hope you’ll consider picking up the magazine and giving it a read! (I’ll have a copy sometime next week.)
I had my convocation this weekend, meaning I’m officially a Real Adult, or something like that. A picture of my diploma is below. It’s scary, trying to define yourself without being able to use the word “student”; it’s been a nice crutch for the last five years. There’s a solid Tumblr post in me somewhere about the way things have changed even in the six weeks between finishing exams and getting my degree, how a half-decade’s worth of maturation and slow growth just clicked into place. It feels like levelling up. But anyway! I somehow have a degree in chemical engineering and management science that I’ll almost surely never use in any traditional sense, and it feels great, and I can’t believe it’s over.
Sébastien Tellier’s latest is a musical reimagining of his childhood inspired by the sights of sounds of Brazil rather than the reality of his French home. Veteran French musicians Jean-Michel Jarre and Philippe Zdar of house duo Cassius contribute, along with celebrated Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai and Brazilian jazz drummer Robertinho Silva.
This is a very good album from a veteran pop polymath; I’d even call it a pleasant surprise. It’s not out internationally until the middle of July, but if you’re curious there are ways to hear it now. I had a lot of fun writing this review; Tellier is a compelling character. Thanks for reading.
I know what you’re thinking: “Seriously, another one? Don’t you have a full-time job? Why are you writing so much? Is your head coming apart at the seams?” To which I can only respond, yes! yes, I do! because I can’t say no! a little bit, yeah!
But anyway: I liked this album a lot, and I don’t usually write about country so it was fun and challenging to step outside of my comfort zone. The harmonies on this album can’t help but catch light. It sounds very rich, and very exact; I was saying to someone the other day that all of the arrangements are perfectly calibrated to complement the songs’ lyrical sentiments, or to summon very specific feelings, like woozily hanging out at a bonfire while stuck in romantic limbo. That’s the one conjured by my favourite song on this album, “Smokin’ and Drinkin’.” So if you’re interested in that sort of specificity, or if you appreciate a big, bright, classic voice, this album will make you happy.
I wrote a bunch for TIME’s half-year tracks list: Ariana Grande, Allie X, Future Islands, Chromeo, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Real Estate, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Todd Terje… they’re all in there. There are plenty of other great songs folded into the list, too, so check it out if you’re in the mood for a recap of 2014 thus far.
I think this might be the first review of this album out there — it’s one of the first, for sure. I worked hard to get it done last night after work. I think Sheeran is really interesting because of the way he combines and moves between genres in an effortless, seemingly natural way — that’s a comment that’s often made about artists like Grimes, or other more indie-leaning members of the “post-Internet” generation, but I think it can be applied equally to Sheeran. Anyway, this album, x, is worth checking out. “Thinking Out Loud” is one of my favourite songs of the year thus far. Thanks for reading.
The Swedish songbird and Norwegian duo pick back up where they left off for a five-song mini-album. Opinions may vary, but the project sure bangs.
For a project that’s largely just three friends spitballing, this is a total triumph: reasonably adventurous, occasionally sprawling, always catchy. Robyn remains a singularly intriguing vocalist: few people can navigate sterile, cool environments like she can. “Sayit,” one of my favourite songs this year, would fall apart without her. She’s the core, the beating heart and the calm taskmaster, the linchpin. Anyway, this is worth your time, glad I had the chance to write about it.
I bought new running shoes yesterday on a whim. Our new apartment is right across the street from a Running Room, and when I get off the bus after work I have to walk right past it on my way up King St. to Erb St., where I wait for the light to change. I was in there looking for a water bottle belt, but I saw the pair on sale and thought about my old pair sitting in my closet, battered black and yellow Nikes too skinny for my wide feet and marred by little rips in the black mesh that covers the top of the shoe. I asked to try them on, size 10 and electric blue, and five minutes later I was carrying them home in their red and white box, along with the belt I had came for in the first place.
The new shoes are made by New Balance, and they are mind-bogglingly light. They weigh just over six ounces a shoe, which makes them two or three ounces lighter than my old ones, and picking them up is an unsettling experience at first. Looking at them in my palm, I can’t shake the feeling that they should just be heavier, like some basic physical laws are being violated. For several years, the running shoe industry has been trending towards lighter and lighter shoe weights, a direct result of the minimal/barefoot running craze that, like most things, is equal parts valid and bullshit. While there’s no real benefit to running without shoes — in fact, it can cause serious long-term damage to your feet — runners at any level can potentially benefit, in terms of speed and efficiency, from wearing a lighter pair. This new pair is one of the lightest currently available.
To neutral observers, the furor over slicing mere ounces or milligrams from shoes that are being worn by humans weighing hundreds of pounds must seem ridiculous. There’s undoubtedly some robust explanation rooted in real, practical physics out there, but I’m writing this immediately after running with these new shoes for the first time, and all I can do in this moment to counter that obvious ridiculousness is explain the difference in feel and hope you trust me.
Think back to some instance where you’ve had to run quickly and without thinking. Your dog has gotten off its leash, and is tearing away down the street; a basketball has taken an unexpected bounce and is rolling towards a wooded creek (this was a common problem for me growing up, anyway); you’ve left your wallet in a cab and it’s accelerating, changing lanes, leaving your house. When we have to run like this, we never think about our feet. Our minds are consumed by the sheer urgency of the situation, and no part of our consciousness is lingering on the energy required to lift our feet off the ground, or the angle at which we’re striking the pavement. We’re totally focused on reaching our destination and achieving our objective.
I can’t speak for other people who run for sport, but I find it very difficult to achieve this mental state when I’m making a conscious decision to go out and run. I wrote a bit about performing in that state a few days ago as a means of writing about Todd Terje, but that’s a rare, fleeting period of peak performance. Most of the time I vacillate between thinking about technique and thinking about pain. With which part of my foot am I striking the ground? Am I turning my ankle enough? Is my back aching on the lower left side because I sat funny at work today? Would I have this acid gurgle in my throat if I drank more water? Should I be doing speedwork? Why is the “We Made It” beat so sharp in these headphones? Is this what it means to pass your physical peak? This will be so much worse in a decade.
All of this legwork to say that wearing these new shoes, it has never been easier to find and reside in that zone where I’m always chasing something, around the next corner or at the next light, and that’s the only thing I really have to think about. They slap the ground with a light thwock that reminds me of bedroom slippers. Picking my feet up off the ground feels simple and leisurely. My focus can shift from pain and technique to a sort of nothingness. (The pain will still come later, of course; my calves are going to feel like cinderblocks tomorrow.) I ran for an hour in moderate heat this afternoon and it kept spinning through my head that it shouldn’t be this easy.
I sometimes waste too much time agonizing over the big decisions: where to live, the work I do, the people I want to be around. That’s a function of my brain and the stage in life I’m passing through right now, I guess. It can be stressful, and it can lead to the disease of “what if?” For an hour or so, it was refreshing to revel in the impact of a mere two or three ounces.