Isn’t Howe Gelb Cool Enough For You?
I have been immersing myself in the deep mind-melt that is the new Giant Sand album, which is actually the first Giant Giant Sand album. Front-man Howe Gelb changed the name of the band to reflect the new additions and subsequent fuller sound. The album is called Tucson. While falling into this album, I noticed that there wasn’t a whole lot of fanfare surrounding it. I heard about it while I was on the road over the past few months, and I can’t really see how an album that is this good could be missed by so many, including myself.
While passing through Tucson, we stayed with long time friends Jimi and Tracy (Shedd) Tritten. While there, Jimi mentioned a compilation released on his label, Fort Lowell, that had an exclusive Giant Sand song on it. He said it in such a way that it seemed like I should know who Giant Sand is. I am not sure weather I admitted it to them or not, but I hadn’t heard of them. Later in the tour, we played with Wintersleep, and while talking to the guys in the band, yet again, Giant Sand came up. At this point, I started making mental notes that I needed to check this band out when I get home.
I got home, and I forgot about it until I was talking with another friend who brought them up. At this point, I had heard about this band from three different respected sources. While I was on the phone with her, I searched for songs to check out in order to decide if it was worth buying the album or not. I think it took one song, and I threw down the money for the full album. I am not going to tell you that Gelb is blazing any new trails or that this sound is fresh, but I will say I have rarely, very rarely, heard an artist master their sound so… well… masterfully. It is somewhere in the realm of Nick Cave at his solemnest or Black Heart Procession with more twang. I am not exactly sure how to classify it, but all you need to know is that it will be very difficult for anything to beat this out for album of the year for me.
All of this praise aside, the reason I decided to write this article was that as I was debating with someone about the relevance of Pitchfork in music today. When I was looking for reviews of Tucson, I noticed that (of course) it was nowhere to be seen on Pitchfork. How can this be? Isn’t the almighty Pitchfork supposed to be the harbinger of new music? How could they have over looked this? By being so “relevant” have they now become the MTV of the next generation and gone so far into top 40 land that they are no longer paying attention to the little guy now? Isn’t that what they were founded on? These are the questions I started asking myself.
To be honest, I stopped paying attention to Pitchfork reviews a long time ago. Today, I use it as a source for new releases. I will say that they have gotten better about the content of their write-ups, since I stopped reading them. They aren’t quite as snarky as they used to be, and the reviews have started focusing more on the release instead of the writer, which is a step in the right direction. But, how can they ignore this release? I am not talking about a band no one has ever heard of (though I hadn’t heard of them yet). Gelb’s career has spanned 30 years. He has been reviewed by Pitchfork before and favorably at that. Are they so quick to jump on all of these bands that seem to only have a 1-album or maybe 2-album career? Are these bands full of wealthy and snotty kids who pay a PR company to get on the website? Are these PR companies then greasing the wheels of Pitchfork in order to get their artists reviewed?
I have a friend, Max Wood, who paid a shitload of money to have ads on Pitchfork back in 2005. While those ads were up, they gave his project, Applied Communications, a favorable review. When he stopped paying for ads, they then had him on their worst of 2005 list, where they kinda admit to only reviewing his album because of the ad revenue. We all (Max included) got a good chuckle out of this, but it shows how they work. And, that was back before they became the powerhouse they are today.
Then there’s this, a terrible review from Paste for the album Tucson with a nice retort from Gelb in the comments section. Beyond the influence that Pitchfork has on the music industry directly, it has also influenced the way people write reviews. Ten years ago, the Paste review of Tucson would never have been published. It is the style that pitchfork is known for. And, although they may have changed in the last year or two because of all the flack they have gotten, they will forever be known for that kind of review: the uninformed and vapid review that is more about the reviewer than the piece of work being reviewed. You can tell that if the reviewer did indeed listen to the entire album, which I don’t think she did, that it was only once and maybe as background for something else she was doing.
I am not a great writer; I am also not a great reviewer of albums. I know this, and writing about the subject is not an issue of jealousy, though it may seem to be. I don’t think I could ever write for Paste or Pitchfork. I am not trying to write for them. I write my articles riddled with grammatical errors, and I play in bands. Some articles are ok. Some are passable. And, some are just terrible. Maybe this is one of the later. Some bands I have played in have been great. Some were not so much. And, some were lead by an egotistical and narcissistic asshole with a napoleon complex (nope, not bitter). The point is that I know my place, and I know about music. I would hope that any person writing about other people’s hard work would also know their place. They should take into account that some albums take more than one casual listen to really understand. Most of my favorite albums didn’t strike me on the first listen. Most albums that did strike me on the first listen ended up boring me later. A good music writer would know this well. The would also know that this is someone’s career you are fucking with. Even if you don’t personally like the album, you have to have some goddamned respect.
I have a friend who started and ran a very influential label for many, many years. I will not say his name and won’t say the label, because I haven’t gotten his permission to do so. But, I will say in the early to mid 2000s releases on his label were getting pounded by pitchfork. The bands that would get signed to major’s would start getting good reviews immediately after leaving his label. It was weird. No matter how good the album was it would get killed over and over again by the same reviewer. Many years later, the owner of this label was playing a show with one of his bands when someone came up to him and starting talking to him about how great the show was, how great it was to meet him, and all that. Then out of nowhere, the guy said that he owed my friend an apology because he had trashed everything on his label for years while writing for Pitchfork because of some personal vendetta that stemmed back from when he was 16 years old. It floored me. I was enraged by the fact that pitchfork would place people’s careers in the hands of a 16 year old with a grudge. It’s just irresponsible.
So here we are today. We escaped from the daunting canopy of MTV only to run for cover under another top-40 band churner with a nicer smile, or so it seems. In a time when it is “easier” to get your music out to the public, it is starting to look like money decides which band is going to be the best band in the world for one album and for maybe two or three months. Then, it’s on to the next one. Is this a better model? I feel like it isn’t. Band’s careers used to span a decade or more. They now seem to have a shelf life of maybe a few months, or a year if they are lucky. I feel like Pitchfork is a big reason for this, but maybe they are just feeding into the mentality of the typical music consumer today. It seems like they opt for a band that won’t last as long because they think that music with a 30 year back story, like Giant Sand just isn’t cool enough for them. Is this the trend in music? Will this continue on to the point that bands will only be cool for a week or two in the future? I really hope it’s just Pitchfork, or just that I am bitter and out of touch.