Sunday, August 31, 2008

The White Noise Ensemble

Longevity of distinctive sound produces a curious dichotomy in critical opinion. For a darling band, album one is just the start of it, album two separates the real deal from the other sophomores, and albums three through infinity just add to the legend. But it's albums three through infinity where it becomes mirky and contradictory: depending on the ears, it's either progress or stagnation. How exactly does that divide work?

At the root of this is the coverage of two new albums, "Worried Well" by 31 Knots and "You & Me" by The Walkmen. First, the part I'm on board with; nearly everything I've read agrees that these albums, numbers seven and four for each respective band, firmly fit into a signature sound. As Slant Magazine says, this tautological statement remains intact. Readily recognizable and easily fitting into the discography. That's not to say surprises and/or growth can't exist (the worms find the top of the can), but it's safe to say that you get about what you came for.

Now the perplexing; why are the Walkmen getting heaps of love and 31 Knots some serious second-guessing? First listen for both, I was pleased. More specifically, I thought the Walkmen album did the same thing it had done for the previous four albums (which I count as good), and 31 Knots continued to blow my mind. I mean, that band's been golden since the first release. So I wasn't that surprised to see Walkmen praise, but the assault that came at "Worried Well" from more than just a few prominent sources was definitely cause for consternation.

A look back at previous releases and their reception is necessary, and I think I'm starting to get it, as unpopular as it sounds. It's not necessarily each individual release's quality, but the ebb and flow of popular opinion to the general straight line that a consistent band draws through history. There's bumps, sure, and I'd never try to deny that some songs and albums are inevitably better in a distinguished discography, but generally speaking, the Walkmen and 31 Knots have been as strong a unit now as they ever were. So why does "You & Me" get the almost universal green light, while "A Hundred Miles Off" somehow smacks of staleness? With 31 Knots, the randomness and maybe general ignorance is even more pronounced; "Worried Well" gets trashed for overproduction, but the gap between 51-40 or Fight! releases and Polyvinyl releases for the band is all but ignored. Sequencing across albums provides a continuity of idea and sound that shows a sharing of strength and weakness, in different proportions for sure, but nonetheless there.

What I think it all comes down to is that no one wants to say "more of the same, and that's great." There's no such thing as even keel. The boat rocks, and it either crests the wave or it turtles. The onward march of progress demands quantifiable differences. But when no one's certain as to what those gains or losses are, it becomes arbitrary as to the value assigned. It's one confusing divide in the critical voice, and maybe just another reason why the only subjectivity that matters is your own.


mht said...

i couldn't agree more.

Padge said...

Artistic progression is a convenient illusion for critics, and an inconvenient travesty for artists.

And if you have to read to find it then it certainly isn't there.