Monday, January 12, 2009

Travis Morrison (Or Why Pitchfork Is The Most Petty Music Site On The Planet)

Of everyone on this blog who bitches about Pitchfork, I probably do it the most. Whether its their tendency to heap musical praise on acts with almost no musical chops but plenty of hipster style (Fuck Buttons), the nonstop bones they throw to third-generation Brian Wilson imitators (Animal Collective/Panda Bear) or puerile desire for attention (making the fucking Knife their #1 album of 2006), I basically can't stand them.

And yet I keep reading to stay abreast of the indie kids' conversations, and because they provide a lot of news. But for actual music criticism, give me the A.V. Club any day.

All this is a long way of saying that they've completely shafted Travis Morrison since he left the Dismemberment Plan and had some bizarro blog war with Pitchfork several years ago. Now Travis Morrison isn't the easiest guy to like. I once went to a Plan concert with a high school friend (Jody, I think some of you know him), and he literally walked out of the concert early because he was offended by Travis's arrogant vibe on stage. (Personally, I wasn't getting that at all, but the point is that some people do.)

Furthermore, the guy's first solo album, Travistan, is merely okay. It has the awful running series of songs called "Get Me Off of This Coin" interspersed throughout the album, and they drag down the legit tracks that are the actual meat and potatoes of the thing. But the album still has some bright spots and is a pleasant listen, if a letdown from Dismemberment Plan's brilliant final record, Change.

Pitchfork, however, famously gave it a 0.0. They wanted to prove that they could sink the guy's career to settle a petty feud, and they more or less did.

Now only about a month ago, I finally got Travis's follow-up from 2007, which is called All Y'all. (The reason I waited so long was based more on money and disappointment w/ Travistan. It was not based on the 0.0 score from Pitchfork.) Well cut to the chase, this album is fantastic. It's catchy, fun, funky, danceable even. The lyrics are back to the level they were on Change. He's totally revitalized.

Here two tracks from it. First is the song Ryan Schreiber should be singing to Travis: "I'm Not Supposed to Like You (But I Do)"

And then a song with an almost identical title, but totally different sounding: "I Do"

Those songs are awesome right? Well guess what the record gets from Pitchfork? A 4.5.

Now there are two issues here. First of all, the reviewer criticizes Morrison for basically trying too many things and getting too funky. This, to me, re-enforces my belief that Pitchfork really values band image and archetypes far more than actual musicality. Secondly, the review does not get petty and personal, like the 0.0 review did, and it even expresses solidarity w/ Morrison going forward. So why, then, a 4.5? My theory is that while the reviewer wrote one thing, Ryan Schreiber and the editorial staff insisted on a ridiculously low numerical score on principle.

So even though I'm admittedly bringing up an 18 month-old review, it's that kind of shit that will render Pitchfork completely worthless in my mind.


Quinapalus said...

I guess I can't necessarily speak to this particular band/songwriter, but as I'm sure you know I've had similar issues with Pitchfork in the past. During the phase of a couple of years in which they were so eager to prove how "daringly lowbrow" (as I believe one of you guys put it recently) they were in regards to hip hop, it was like some sort of editorial policy that any hip hop record without extensive celebration of selling drugs, murder, and/or pimping seemingly couldn't get taken seriously. The exception during that time was Kanye West, who was too big of a cultural force to ignore.

Eric said...

The thing about Pitchfork is that guns don't kill people, people kill people. That is, if everyone didn't take the site so seriously and accept its word as gospel (thereby giving them the power to completely make or break a band), then there would be nothing to complain about. They'd be just another voice in a sea of music-related voices on the internet. But for some reason, people do give them this enormous power-- when a record comes out, the big question is what will pitchfork give it?

Conversely, they become like gun manufacturers, marketing assault rifles to families, knowing that they're dangerous. (I'm stretching the metaphor too much now). Because, they KNOW they have this power, but they wield it capriciously, making and breaking bands on a whim. (Black Kids are the most striking example of this-- it was especially egregious because they offered no explanation for their turnaround about Black Kids, save a photo of two pugs). So for that, they actually really are kind of reprehensible.

texplush said...

i wouldn't be surprised if Pitchfork was much, much less calculating then you assume.
I think they just hire jackass writers (and some good ones, too, as their ever-increasing writer overlap with the AV Club shows) who are more interested in being seen as talented themselves than in doing what I think music criticism is supposed to do - help me figure out whether I would like the music in question, and/or opening my mind to new sounds.
My guess is that most editorial control at Pitchfork centers on the latter function, which they are actually quite good at.
I certainly don't think that Schreiber is decreeing war with travis or ryan adams or dictating which bands get shitty reviews. That shit is probably the function of their idiot writers trying to get attention for themselves. Pitchfork lets it fly because its how they get their best press. Hell, even AV Club is moving in that direction (check out their recent Mates of State review). Intense negativity is just the way internet journalism has figured out to maximize their hits and therefore ad revenue. With print journalism collapsing and even sites like the New York Times desperately trying to monetize their website, I think it's a pretty big accomplishment that Pitchfork actually employs the amount of writers that they do.
Don't forget also that part of the reason they're a tastemaker is because they have broken a bunch of worthy bands, for every Black Kids fiasco.
And just to make sure that I piss drischord off completely, I'll go ahead and say that those two Travis Morrison tracks in no way touch anything on Change.

Eric said...

A couple quick responses to Tex-- I think you're mostly right. I doubt the 4.5 was dictated from on high but there is clearly some editorial discretion in giving something a 0.0 (incidentally, part of what turned large segments of the indie community against Travis was his initial vocal support for the Iraq War), or in letting them run a photo of pugs in place of a review of a band that they were very publicly associated with hyping.

Also, I think the accomplishment of employing so many writers is somewhat diminished by (what I've heard) are extremely low wages that they pay their writers.

But I think overall, Tex probably has it right in terms of the real motivation which is for writers to get hits and attention. Also, I don't really read that many pitchfork reviews (unless it's a band I know or am actively curious about) but it seems like the writing is a lot less delightfully self indulgent than it was during the halcyon days of this Jason Josephes review of Soft Bulletin, which takes a full ten paragraphs before he stops talking about himself and even mentions the album he's reviewing!

Or Brent DiCrescenzo's review of (to come full circle) The Dismemberment Plan's Emergency & I (which by the way, is a far superior album to Change) that uses an elaborate analogy to a children's book:

They also (much to the chagrin if he had been paying attention) named the album the best album of the NINETIES (let alone 1999) before it had been released. Unfortunately that list is almost impossible to find because they later released a revamped best albums of the 90s list that didn't even contain D-Plan albums. Go figure.

dr. kittybrains said...

This might be their best/worst review ever:

drischord said...

Now that is a good review. Mostly because it's Jet.

Best Travis Morrison releases (Get ready to be offended):

1. Change
2. All Y'All
3. Emergency & I
4. The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified

Rest can be discarded, except for "Soon To Be Ex-Quaker," the "single" of sorts from "!" I'm pretty sure it was never played heard outside of DC. (Possibly not even outside of Quaker schools in DC. But I'm intimately familiar with those.)

drischord said...

Also, Tex, I'd say that Pitchfork actually savesmoney by employing so many writers, because they undoubtedly pay them by the article, rather than have them on staff, which would entail paying insurance, vacation time, etc.

As someone who makes his beer money as a freelance internet writer, I'm sympathetic to those part-timers. (Until I read their uninformed reviews, that is. Then I wonder why they're getting paid at all.)