Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at email@example.com.
I’d love to get further thoughts on the Pinegrove line from the new 1975 single. It seems bizarre to me. Do you find it irresponsible for a giant band like The 1975 to throw a line like that into a song, especially an advance single that’s going to garner so much coverage? — Joe from Omaha
Earlier this week, The 1975 released “The Birthday Party,” the latest single from their upcoming, highly anticipated fourth album, Notes On A Conditional Form, out April 24. It is, like many 1975 songs, a snapshot from the lives of internet-damaged millennials straining to achieve transcendence in a world that’s devoid of meaning. (At least that’s what I’ve been told in countless thinkpieces written about the buzzy British band.) The song includes the following lyric: “They were gonna go to the Pinegrove show / They didn’t know about all the weird stuff / So they just left it.”
For those who don’t know: “All the weird stuff” presumably refers to the accusation of “sexual coercion” leveled against the frontman of Pinegrove, Evan Stephens Hall, in 2017. After a voluntary hiatus that lasted roughly one year, Pinegrove returned and has since put out two albums, including the recent Marigold, the band’s first on the trendy London-based indie label Rough Trade.
On my Twitter account, I took issue with this lyric and said, perhaps too bluntly, that the song “sucks.” I wasn’t only talking about the Pinegrove lyric, which I think is clunky and trite. (More on that in a moment.) I also think that, musically speaking, “The Birthday Party” is a pale imitation of the emo-leaning folk of Pinegrove’s own records, utterly weak and directionless.
Now, I’m not normally a 1975 hater. While I don’t think they’ve yet made a top-to-bottom great album, I do like a lot of their songs. At their best, they’re one of the great singles bands in contemporary indie rock. But since you brought up this particular lyric, let’s delve a little deeper into why it sucks. My main complaint is that “going there” in this instance — referring to a band caught up in a vague but still fraught #metoo scandal — has, to say the least, dubious value. I can’t tell what the band is driving at here. Is The 1975 criticizing Pinegrove by dragging their name into a high-profile single? Are they making a point about how the accusation damaged Pinegrove’s career, perhaps irrevocably, which could be construed as a defense of Pinegrove? Why, exactly, did they feel the need to weigh in here, especially when their “point” is so muddled and poorly articulated?
I obviously can’t read the mind of Matty Healy, the singer and lyricist for The 1975, but here’s how the reference to Pinegrove comes off to me — as a signal to a specific subset of the band’s audience that, yes, we are aware of the Pinegrove controversy, just like you are, which is, like, whoa, dude, totally crazy. Put another way: It’s a chance for The 1975 to fortify their image as a clever and “relevant” band that is clued into “the conversation.” It’s a branding move, more akin to personal identity curation than (exceedingly half-baked) commentary. And, in my view, that’s super lame, to use this to achieve that.
But is it “irresponsible”? I don’t think I’d go that far. Just because, again, it’s not clear what they’re actually saying here. Does being accused of sexual coercion qualify as “weird stuff”? I guess that is a way of describing it, though certainly not the best way. But there’s no stand being taken. It’s a “point and look at this” gesture, devoid of substance. A provocative reference to titillate music critics and social-media addicts, who will talk themselves into believing that this shallow hand-waving is somehow a profound statement about “the way we live now.” But, ultimately, live-tweeting a recent controversy in your mediocre pre-release single is about as nuanced and sophisticated as a Bowling For Soup song set in 2020.
What are some albums filled with great songs that are in the absolute worst order? I’m talking albums you return to constantly but never front-to-back due to lack of balance, awkward transitions or anything else. — Phil from Baltimore
When I read this question, I immediately thought of a recent project by music critic Keegan Bradford in which he re-ordered the classic 2004 debut album by The Killers, Hot Fuss. Now, like anybody who was in their mid-20s and frequenting bars in 2004, I have always loved Hot Fuss. But I also subscribe to the common complaint that the album is front-loaded, with the three most famous tracks — “Mr. Brightside,” “Somebody Told Me,” and “All These Things That I’ve Done” — all stacked on Side A. While I happen to enjoy the deep cuts on Side B, there’s no denying that Hot Fuss loses momentum once you whizz by all of those karaoke staples.
Thankfully, Bradford has rectified this issue with this Spotify playlist, in which the iconic jams and the deep cuts are more evenly distributed. On Side A, you still open with “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine,” but now instead of “Mr. Brightside” batting second you have “Somebody Told Me.” And then there’s a vibe-y run of deep cuts — “Change Your Mind,” “Believe Me Natalie,” and “On Top” — that culminates with the underrated “Andy, You’re A Star.” This flows nicely into Side B, which builds to the inevitable climax smartly placed in the penultimate spot, “Mr. Brightside,” and then gently eases into the album’s most ethereal number (retained as the closer from the original Hot Fuss), “Everything Will Be Alright.”
I loved Hot Fuss as it was, but I think Keegan actually managed to improve it. Now, let’s get him to rearrange The National’s Sleep Well Beast.
If you could replace one member of a band, past or present, with any other musician to immediately improve that band’s sound, who would it be? Example: I love Oasis, but I’ve always thought that the drumming on Oasis records is shoddy as best. I think adding a drummer like Jimmy Chamberlain would take Oasis’ sound to another level. — Julian for Alexandria, Virginia
In this column, I’ve already called out The 1975 for their terrible new single, and also suggested that The Killers didn’t properly sequence their greatest album. So, I’m feeling impulse to end on a kind note.
Therefore, I’m not going to mention any bands specifically. However, generally speaking, I would say that lately I’ve grown tired of the stereotypical “punk guy” voice that occurs in many bands that I otherwise like. I refer to singers whose voices are whiny, raspy, shout-y, gravelly, excessively boyish, and way, way off-key. I feel like I’ve been listening to the “punk guy” voice for most of my life, and I’m just sick of it. Especially when they are so many punk bands with excellent women who can actually sing, including Marisa Dabice of Mannequin Pussy, Frances Quinlan of Hop Along, and Eva Hendricks of Charly Bliss. Listening to those singers has all but eliminated my patience for the “punk guy” voices.
So, let’s just say that with every contemporary punk band that has a dude singer, I would replace him with a lady singer, which will improve that band 1,000 percent.