In their review of Shearwater’s Rook, the good kids over at Pitchforkmedia assert that Shearwater “give ‘pretty indie’ a good name,” which really made me think:
Just what the fuck is “pretty indie” anyway?
Is it Sufjan Stevens? Is it Iron & Wine? Is it Bonnie “Prince” Billy? Of the three, I like BPB the best, Iron & Wine the next best and I really tried to like Sufjan Stevens but I couldn’t tolerate the pretension. So you wrote 23 “songs” about some state, more than half of which are fluttery instrumental pablum. Big fucking deal.
So what so-called “indie” bands/artists do I, an admitted curmudgeon and lover of ugly, obnoxious music (remember, I idolize Tom Waits and think that My Morning Jacket’s “Highly Suspicious” is a pretty dope song) consider pretty? I think The Flaming Lips make pretty music. Ditto the afore-mentioned Mr. Billy (Bonnie to his friends), M. Ward, Band of Horses, and bands that can be arbitrarily tossed in with that bunch. What I’m trying to say is, by my standards (and if you’re dabbling in the subjective art of music -ahem- criticism, you are by definition using your own subjective standards for… well, everything), “pretty indie” never had a bad name. In fact, it’s pretty pop music that has a worse image to me – think Coldplay here.
The myriad positive reviews for Shearwater’s Rook led me to the album with an open and even excited mind. Jonathan Meiburg is, apparently, a member of Okkervil River when he’s not getting his Shearwater on and while I don’t automatically worship side projects (see Golden Smog for examples of why not), if you come from an awesome band, I often find it rewarding to hear what else you can do (see Loose Fur for examples of why).
Rook has been rightly praised for not sounding just like an Okkervil River album . What it does sound like is the bastard baby of Roger Whitaker and Morrissey, conceived at a fucking Renaissance Fair. I can picture Meiburg lilting in and out of that falsetto of his dressed in a crimson cape, pocket full of twenty-sided dice and with a real bitchin’ broadsword collection at home. The guy’s voice is nice enough (I’ve certainly heard few voices like it) but it’s often used to melodramatic effect on Rook and it’s not helped by instrumentation that is, at best, abundant (there are a million instruments on this fucking thing, all make a few hums and tinkles here and there) but resoundingly uncompelling. I can tell that Shearwater can play well together as a band but what they can’t do as a band is make me give a shit about how well they can play – these songs are boring, the titles (like “Leviathan Bound,” “I Was A Cloud,” and “The Hunter’s Star”) are unforgivably pretentious and some, like “South Col” are not even songs – “South Col” is nearly two minutes of weird feedback over soft chords in the background. Just before the song mercifully ends, a flute (I think) squeaks up. Now if you want that to be an intro to a song, cut it down to 30 goddamn seconds and use it to kick into something interesting. Instead, “South Col” is followed by the positively Tori Amos-eque “Snow Leopard.” If you think that’s a compliment, you clearly do not know Bollocks!
Pitchfork loves people who can compose and arrange the living fuck out of something – they literally come down their own throats whenever Sufjan Stevens does anything – and there’s no denying that this album is well-composed. Thought went into these notes, these melodies, all this heap of absolutely narcotic music. I’m not surprised Pitchfork loved it but if you want a great composer and a loving spoonful of indie cred, go pick up Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which features none other than Tom Motherfucking Waits. Let that shit wash over you and see if you can go back to feeling the fucking Illinois(e).
My vitriol notwithstanding, Shearwater has not made a horrible album. They have made a pretentious and boring album and that, honestly, works for some people – there are people who would suck off a goat to touch the hem of Morrissey’s garments and I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why (best part of The Smiths = Johnny Marr; best thing about Johnny Marr = he’s currently in Modest Mouse) and I’ve already beat the dead horse about how Pitchfork goes to the Church of Sufjan. One could counter-argue that Rook is lovely and, gosh Matt, what’s wrong with loveliness? I would answer that this is my blog, not yours, and that nothing’s wrong with loveliness but I don’t care how lovely something is if it’s fuck-boring. Listening to Shearwater is like overdosing on opium and Nyquil while the animatronic prairie dogs from the new Indiana Jones movie jerk you off and cherubs pound your skull to mush with goose-down filled pillows. There’s plenty of exciting pretty music (listen to Neko Case’sFox Confessor Brings the Flood, an album which proves that you can be forgiven pretentious titles if your music is uncommonly excellent) which only serves to bolster my argument that there’s no reason to make boring pretty music.