When you’re at the top, you become the target. Because, as the New York Yankees, Microsoft or Republicans will tell you, success breeds contempt. Well, so does ineptitude, but that’s a separate issue. Or is it?
Currently, the king of the music rag hill is online monolith Pitchfork Media. Once almost exclusively the domain of snooty record-store clerks, the website has exploded in popularity in recent years.
These days even — gasp! — marginally hip music fans turn to Pitchfork for the latest reviews and news concerning their favorite bands, or to discover some hot up-and-comer to add to their iPods. Even more than Rolling Stone or Spin — aka your dad’s music mags — Pitchfork is the source du jour for discerning rock fans, indie and otherwise. And frankly, with good reason.
It’s easy, and occasionally even justified, to sneer at Pitchfork. Perhaps it’s because when they first emerged as a viable resource, they sneered back. And that’s what we loved about them: music reviews equally heavy on insight and bite. Hell, we even coined a term for when they really laid into a band: “Pitchforked.” And though folks like me — i.e., equally snarky music critics — are quick to take aim, Pitchfork is still as comprehensive a music news resource as you’ll find.
But, to borrow a line from Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. Sadly, as Pitchfork’s influence has grown, its quality has noticeably declined, particularly with regard to criticism. Sure, the snark is still there. But that seems to be all there is. The balance — always precarious to begin with — has shifted, to the point that one almost wonders if the site’s critical component has become a parody of itself.
On February 18, veteran Pitchfork writer Adam Moerder reviewed the long-awaited (at least for Burlington-area folks) “reissue” of Death’s ...For the Whole World to See. Moerder scored the record a 7.1 out of 10, basically a “C.” Not bad. But not great, either. As a point of reference, Scarlett Johansson’s most recent affront to musical taste, her Tom Waits tribute Anywhere I Lay My Head, netted a 5.5, a mere 1.6 points lower.
It is perhaps understandable that Moerder wouldn’t greet the record with the same awestruck praise as would those more intimately familiar with Death’s story — and by extension, that of Vermont’s Rough Francis, both the literal and musical progeny of that earlier band. But scorecard quibbles aside, he labors under an unfortunate misconception that no doubt colors his appreciation, or lack thereof, for the album. Namely, it isn’t a reissue.
On the surface, that might seem little more than a semantic debate. But to call ...For the Whole World to See a reissue implies that this music had been widely available previously. It hadn’t. Though singles had been pressed to vinyl in very limited editions in 1974 — and then promptly disappeared — the release on Chicago’s Drag City Records marks the first time these seven songs have been heard together as originally intended. The music found within represents a legitimate missing link in the evolution of punk rock. And it’s that point that Pitchfork misses entirely.
Moerder writes that Death “comes off as extremely likeable, despite gleefully ripping off all of the obvious influences.” A backhanded compliment if ever there was one. The problem, of course, is that Death largely predates, or were at least contemporaries of, those influences. Moerder’s words are the sort of thing one might write when reviewing a Detroit punk band from 2009, not 1974.
We can argue about the merits of Death’s music itself. Personally, this critic thinks it’s remarkable, regardless of when it was created — though it’s fair to charge that I might have some sentimental hometown bias on this one. On the other hand, Moerder states that the record “holds up well” alongside Blue Oyster Cult. Huh? Are you saying Death needs more cowbell?
At the beginning of his parting-shot paragraph, the Pitchfork crit writes, “the album falls short of diamond-in-the-rough-caliber discovery.” Perhaps that depends on which rough you’re looking in. Because to truly appreciate the importance of Death’s ...For the Whole World to See, one needs to understand the context in which the music was made. It’s a shame Pitchfork obviously doesn’t.