On Critical Judgments and the Band Responsible for "Heart Factory"

Since The Dissolve is discussing how critical views can change over time, I will expand on a related thought I expressed on twitter recently:

"Thesis: articles explaining why the new album by [hipster band] is good are the new explaining why the new Rolling Stones/U2 album is good."

Rolling Stone, rather famously, will give 4-5 stars to any album by either of those or any associated entity, which is why Mick Jagger's solo albums always end up with 4.5 stars. It's an abdication of judgment in the face of an unenviable situation for a reviewer. U2 and/or the Rolling Stones are good writers and good musicians, which means the majority of any album of new music either writes will be good; were they anonymous bands one might even be able to judge them as respectable. Each has hit some of the greatest highs of music, however, and so the question presented by a new album is now "is it good?" but "does it match up with Sticky Fingers/Achtung Baby?" The new albums never do, because how could they? Thus is born the face-saving compromise for all involved.

As 90s nostalgia has ramped up, and culturally significant but underappreciated bands have decided to go in for some easy money by releasing new material, there's been a tendency to give them a similar pass: if it's not their best work, but it's fine, who's to begrudge them for enjoying newfound popularity and commercial viability? It's entirely possible that all of these bands save the Pixies, the Stooges, and Guided By Voices (who were loose cannons at the best of times) made good albums, but it seems as likely that people were not prepared to hear--or admit--a harsher truth. And hey, I'll rep for "Thief in the Night" and "How Can I Stop?" as excellent Rolling Stones songs (which I think they are, and not just within the context of later-period Stones), so I'm aware of the manner in which we all become compromised.

Sleater-Kinney has a new album out, its first in about ten years, and people are falling all over themselves to praise it very much in the manner of a new Rolling Stones album. Feature articles talk about the band's relevance, which is almost always a discussion of its relevance in the riot grrrl scene in the mid-late 90s. The "best album since x" distinction is broken out, often with the same self-aware ironic dimension in which "their best album since Achtung Baby" is deployed. Reviews will quite strenuously note how much the band sounds like how it used to.

Having listened to the album myself, I would put it in the same "good but not that good" camp as The Woods.* It's not a classic Sleater-Kinney album, nor is it even the classic rock revivalism of The Woods. It does, however, sound very much like an album made by the people who were responsible for the Corin Tucker Band and Wild Flag, i.e. a bunch of perfectly good albums whose preferred musical textures were borrowed from classic rock and 80s power pop. In the end, a lot of the rough elements that made the band sound like themselves are not there, and there's an abundance of metaphor-songs, never the band's strongest suit.

(Here's how I know not to take these reviews too seriously: none of them mention the absence of the defining element of the 'classic' Sleater-Kinney sound, already becoming absent on The Woods: guitars in counterpoint. Most of the older material works--creates the tension it does--because neither the melody nor the rhythm is dependent on one guitar part, but passes it between the two. An ingenious solution to not having a bass player--as was the prominence of baritone guitar--but requiring considerably more time to develop.)

One can compare this reaction to that greeting the new Belle and Sebastian and Decemberists albums, which is decidedly mixed. I like Belle and Sebastian and have never cared much for the Decemberists, but I find these reviews to be more plausible because it seems likely that in a four- or five-year hiatus between albums, a band's sound will have changed, and not all of these changes will necessarily be good. I always find "this thing you're predisposed to like is as good as you hoped it would be!" to be the emptiest of critical stances, conflating "better than you might have expected" with "excellent," and retroactively causing me to revisit the things that came before.** If this is excellent, and of a piece with the rest of their work, then perhaps I mistakenly understood its merits, a train of thought that rarely redounds to the benefit of the thing being considered.

*Important footnote: I have been listening to S-K since 1996, when I included Call the Doctor as 'album of the year' in my junior high newspaper. Your attempts to hipster-than-thou me will fail.

**There's also the weird effect this has on a band's catalogue: previous albums tend to be viewed as 'of a piece,' which they very rarely are, and to simultaneously raise or lower the critical profile of albums as the narrative requires. The Hot Rock, All Hands on the Bad One, One Beat, and The Woods were divisive when they were released. It's possible that critics focused too much on individual flaws rendered less important in the context of a body of work, but it also seems just possible that taking the body of work as a whole reduces the need to think about its individual elements, much in the way that streaming an entire season of a tv show reduces critical attention to smaller but meaningful flaws in each individual element. Confession time: I find there to be no S-K albums that are listenable front-to-back: each of them has at least one wildly misconceived song ("Heart Factory" is the best example). They're still a great band, and their highs are very high, but they're not perfect. The last thing the indie world needs is to require the unquestioning loyalty of Phish fans.

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