Critical Backlash: Deerhunter – Not a Great Band!

Photo by David Greenwald

I’m well aware of the irony of giving more press to a band I’m about to call overhyped. I don’t even want to go into the debacle of Deerhunter lead singer Bradford Cox’s infantile e-mail dust-up with blogger/journalist Jeff Weiss (a beef they’ve since squashed), or the fact that one of the band’s guitarists just left because he said (in not so many words) he was sick of Pitchfork writing about them. I read that on Pitchfork, by the way.

Instead, because Deerhunter is ostensibly a band, I want to talk about the music. Marc Hogan is one of my favorite Pitchfork writers, but while we both love indie-pop, we’re often on different wavelengths about it and plenty of other stuff: I’m From Barcelona, for instance, who rubbed me (and Cokemachineglow’s Clayton Purdom) totally the wrong way. Deerhunter doesn’t play indie-pop. They don’t play much of anything, really. Even Hogan admits that the first half of Cryptograms is full of indecipherable songs (recorded, he notes with a hint of apology, months before the “more accessible” second half). I just don’t see a point to tracks like “Crytograms” and “Lake Somerset,” on which Cox’s voice slips in and out like a ghost and the band painstakingly avoids a chorus. There are some dynamics, sure, and the band nails its moody, industrial sound, but too many of the songs settle into a groove for a couple minutes, get a little louder, and call it a day. It’s like getting half a handjob. And honestly, do you really want a handjob? [Continue reading…]

Even when you can understand the lyrics, there’s nothing new or particularly fresh about the songs’ neo-’80s syncopation or guitar swirlings, and that’s fine. I even like the surreal fuzz of Cox’s vocals on “Octet,” the closest the band comes to making an artistic statement. Unfortunately, scrambling your lead singer like a pay-to-play porno channel and dumping him over a vintage arrangement doesn’t automatically make for a masterpiece. Crytograms is not a bad album, but for the most part the band is either stuck doing these toothless Internal Wranger-era Clinic knock-offs or making even more aimless ambient tracks. “White Ink” could’ve been called “White Noise” and nobody would’ve noticed; it’s full of hypnotically strummed (read: they keep playing the same thing) guitars echoing into a pedal-driven abyss that artists like Eluvium and Fennesz have explored with direction and purpose. In comparison, Deerhunter is the guy on the freeway an hour past his exit who refuses to ask directions. Or get a functioning vocal mic.

I’m usually not a conspiracy theorist about Pitchfork. It would be pretty easy to take them to task over the journalistic legitimacy of throwing a music festival wherein bands they give good reviews to then do them a big fat favor, or as someone mentioned on the board, that they can all of a sudden afford to send writers off to expensive foreign musical festivals, but I’m just a dude who wants to read about bands so I don’t worry about these kinds of things. Still, I can’t understand how they felt compelled to write about this band an average of more than once a week for eight months, as I Rock Cleveland pointed out. Once a week. I don’t even write about Ryan Adams or Elliott Smith that much, and this is my blog!

What gets forgetten about Pitchfork in the post-Arcade Fire era is that their critical curation of the late ’90s and early ’00s is still spot-on. Who else was writing about the Dismemberment Plan back with Emergency & I dropped? (Aside: I’m convinced the recent Hipinion backlash toward the Plan has more to do with that infamous 0.0 than anyone’s willing to admit.) But the staff taste has gotten weird in the last few years, allowing a group like the Knife to take the no. 1 spot on their year-end list while Art Brut – who I love, but c’mon, they made a novelty album – landed in one of their top fives. Taste is subjective, of course, but there’s been definitely been a shift in the last few years, whether you like it or not. Me? I don’t. Not when it means Deerhunter gets two Best New Music reviews and enough press coverage to kill an ox, while a band like, say, Film School is doing similar things but with actual songwriting and has been written about once all year. Even though they have a stellar new album due in a couple weeks! With a promo track that’s ripe for Forkcasting! And they’re on Beggars Banquet so there’s no way the P4k editors are somehow unaware of this record!

In sum: The new Film School record is great. Can we talk about that now?

Film School – “Lectric”: mp3


Critical Backlash is a column where I complain about things. Click below for more.