To Win or To Lose?

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Musically, the Pine Hill Haints are a mishmash of stuff that should be pretty complimentary – bluegrass, folk, country, all filtered through a brevity-is-the-soul-of-wit kinda ethos that Pitchfork attributes to punk (because short songs are pretty much all punk was about, right? Right?) And, as the music goes on the Haints’ second album, To Win or To Lose, the myriad styles aren’t really the problem.

So why don’t I give a shit about this record?

To be nice first (after all, if you can’t say anything nice, start a blog), there are some good songs on this album. “Bordello Blackwidow” is a calypso-infused toe-tapper, and I think I could take about an EP’s worth of stuff like that from a band like this. But To Win or To Lose is sixteen tracks long (not all of them feel as short as Pitchfork would have you believe) and after a while, the genre exercises start to wear thin. Really thin. I mean, the Pine Hill Haints are certainly better at these genres than Elvis Costello was on his last effort, but if you wanna play the genre-blending game, I’ll take Gogol Bordello and the Clash (or even Strummer’s stuff with the Mescaleros) over the Pine Hill Haints any day.

“Bordello Blackwidow” (even the name makes me wanna listen to Gogol Bordello) is followed by a flop, “Scar,” which feels like a cross between hillbilly stomp and frat-kid reggae. So, I guess if that’s the kinda music you like, you’re gonna love To Win or To Lose and hate me for not liking it. But I’m writing this and you’re not. The Pine Hill Haints (I’m still trying to be nice here) are good at creating a laid back, front porch vibe, but it’s not enough to get me through the album. They’re better in spirit than they are in music, and, just like “potential”, you don’t really wanna make listening choices based on liking the “spirit” of a band. At least I don’t. I like the cut of Bad Brains’ jib (sailing reference in honor of Ted Kennedy, may he rest in peace. And before people start hatin’, look up the man’s legislative record – I raise my glass to him on the Americans with Disabilities Act alone), but I’m not gonna listen to one of their albums (it’s a wonky example, I know; I mean, hardcore isn’t really about putting a disc on in your room and listening to it – it’s about going out to shows and getting into some ultra-violence).

Well, we made it to the mean part of the review a little faster than I thought we would. But, since we’re here, I think I should point out that, in the time it’s taken me to say every nice thing I could think of about To Win or To Lose, I’ve thought of another band that did a similar style of music to the Haints but did it much much better. I’m thinking, of course, of Uncle Tupelo, who blended country, folk, and a bit of punk/rock into a fistful of seriously awesome albums (“Nothing,” off of their second album, Still Feel Gone, is one of the best songs ever) back in the 1990s.

To be clear, I’m not accusing the Haints of genre dilettantism (a charge one could arguably level at Mr. Costello, at least sometimes. Can you say My Flame Burns Blue?) or saying they lack whatever credibility a group of dudes from Alabama needs in order to play this kind of music, I’m just saying… what am I saying? Put it this way: it strikes me that more than a few critics got really excited by this album and thought it was this mind-blowing, really out there, unique musical experience and I. Just. Don’t. Get it. I started out not disliking this album because I didn’t care enough to dislike this album. But the more I think about it, the more I do kinda dislike this album, precisely because, for all its stylistic dexterity, it completely fails to engage me as a listener. My subjective experience of To Win or To Lose amounts to me checking the clock to see how much time I’ve spent listening to the fucking thing. And, in music, if you’re boring, you’re bad. I’ve never met anyone who says, “You know what I could go for right now? Some really boring music. I mean, a real sonic snoozefest.”

Clearly, To Win or To Lose is not going to bore everybody. Kenny G doesn’t bore everybody either, but I won’t be caught dead listening to that shit. And perhaps what galls me the most is that I sincerely believe that the Pine Hill Haints are capable of making not-boring music. It’s a similar problem to the one I had with the Wye Oak album; there are good ingredients in the album but they’re somehow being half-baked into a boring bullshit casserole instead of being carefully measured, balanced, and crafted into a lovely souffle of sonic delights. What’s going wrong? Glad you asked; I think its that the Haints don’t have, for the most part, the lyrical facility to match their obvious musical talents. While To Win or To Lose has been praised for containing “character sketch” type songs, I find the characters to be pretty non-distinct and so similar from song to song that it adds to the feeling that I somehow stuck just one song on repeat for an hour. As with Wye Oak, I think the Haints are a band that could win me back if they can narrow their focus (or at least focus on not sucking or being boring) enough, but To Win or To Lose is, in my book, mostly to lose.

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