Pitchfork turns 15: Here are a few baby pictures
First off, a hearty and serious congratulations to everyone's favorite viper pit of indie rock snark/adulation, Pitchfork, which begins a long and deserved retrospective on the occasion of its 15th birthday. For any independent Web publication -- let alone a music review site set amid the intertwined economic death spiral of the music industry, journalism and criticism -- to last 15 years is a laudable feat. And it's managed to pivot from that into a major curator of video content and international music festivals while maintaining a critical imprimatur that can change a band's life overnight.
But, in the spirit of a good birthday ribbing for our competition, Pop & Hiss dug around the shoe boxes in the back of the site's closet and came back with a few review equivalents of baby pictures from Pitchfork's awkward years. God knows all writers have a few bricks in their portfolios, so take these as milestones for how far the site has come in its writing, judgment and awareness of its power.
Much of Pitchfork's early reputation came from the pen of the now-departed writer Brent DiCrescenzo, whose windy, blood-spattered meta-reviews barely addressed the music they ostensibly discussed, yet sometimes perfectly detonated a record in a way that a straight pan never could. Behold here a 1,700-word review of Tool's 2001 album "Lateralus" composed largely of a list of drummer Danny Carey's equipment.
And here is the flip side of DiCrescenzo's hatchet jobs, a perfect-score rave review of Radiohead's "Kid A" that comes off like a drunken best man's wedding toast extolling how hot the bride is. Some choice cuts:
"I stared entranced, soaking in Radiohead's new material, chiseling each sound into the best functioning parts of my brain which would be the only sound system for the material for months."
"The trained critical part of me marked the similarity to Coltrane's "Ole." The human part of me wept in awe."
"The primal, brooding guitar attack of "Optimistic" stomps like mating Tyrannosaurs."
"The experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax."
Here is a review of the British electronica duo's 2005 album as a one-act play starring two college students named Achilles and Tortoise that's supposed to be a riff on cognitive scientist guru Douglas Hofstadter but makes exactly as much sense as this concept sounds like it might.
This review by Chris Dahlen was perhaps the first documented moment of Pitchfork essentially ending an artist's career with a review. Morrison's old band, the funk-punks the Dismemberment Plan, released two albums that remain among the site's most beloved. So maybe Morrison's low-key, goofball solo record didn't pass muster, but "one of the most colossal train wrecks in indie rock history?"
Morrison later gave his side in a Washington Post interview: "Literally, the view changed overnight... I could tell people were trying to figure out if they were supposed to be there or not [at his solo show]. It was pretty severe, how the mood changed."
Morrison bounced back, to a certain extent. After a brief retirement from music -- and a job for the Washington Post company as a web programmer -- he reunited the Plan this year for some (much better-received) shows.
One of Pitchfork's more unsavory tendencies is to, in lieu of a review, run a sarcastic picture or video implying that the album in question is so abysmal, it doesn't even deserve critical consideration. With Black Kids' debut full length, it came as a mock-apology for ever supporting the band in the first place; with the much-loathed Jet, Pitchfork tilled new ground in the site's capacity for revulsion. Did the records deserve severe whackings? Perhaps. Did they deserve at least a little more seriousness and effort in panning them than this? Absolutely.
As the site gained influence, it also gained critics for its tangled prose style and for valuing its own critical take more than the contents of a record. Critic Rob Harvilla called the site's work "a dense, hugely overwritten, utterly incomprehensible brick of critical fruitcake." But Pitchfork were good sports when comedian David Cross double-meta-judo-attacked them with a withering and absurdist series of reviews of their own reviews.
For a while there, it seemed that one of Pitchfork's favorite sports was to rag on L.A. bands for reasons that have little to do with the music. Silversun Pickups, Cold War Kids and others have known the regionalist pinch. They've remedied this of late with raves for Health, No Age, Flying Lotus and others, but this take on the Airborne Toxic Event's debut singularly encapsulated its loathing for the City of Angels. Among the bullets fired: a barely disguised rage at an L.A. act that references indie lynch pins like the Smiths while having the nerve to be commercially successful; a weird assertion that Guitar Center defines L.A. rock culture, and a need to take down an entire city's worth of cultural stereotypes when they should be reviewing an album. It's all there, and from local writer Ian Cohen, no less. The band responded on its website (and yielded a round table from a few other Times writers) in the wake of it.
So, there you have it, folks, a little friendly roasting of the Pitchfork family upon its 15th birthday, just like the Rat Pack used to do to each other in Vegas. Pop & Hiss raises its bejeweled highball glass to Pitchfork and would like to bow out with one final wish: Happy birthday to one of our favorite daily reads, and here's to another 15 years of roasting and toasting. Now go celebrate in a Chicago dive bar, you tough-hearted curs!
-- August Brown