Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Contenders Series #18: Freelance Whales - "Location"

Chuck Klosterman was on the Bill Simmons podcast recently, and, as he often does, he said something that I considered very smart and self-aware.  I can't remember what subject he was discussing, but he described a situation where he had an interesting thought.  At first, he considered it new and profound, but, on further reflection ... he realized that it was probably a very commonplace thought, and that he was just late coming around to a way of thinking that most people already embraced.

That's a confusing synopsis of a concept that Klosterman probably summarized more clearly, but I hope it makes sense as we get deeper into this.  I bring it up because I just recently had a similar revelation about the nature of argument.  It was a new thought to me, but now I'm pretty sure most of you already understand it.

I always thought that two sides of an argument directly opposed each other.  Now ... I don't think that's necessarily true.

Take, for example, a sports argument.  I argue that Team A is better, you argue that Team B is better.  My argument consists of the simple proposition that, if these teams were to play a game, Team A would win.  You argue the opposite.  There is no third possibility.  It's true that the argument may never be settled.  The teams may never actually play each other.  In fact, we could be arguing the merits of teams from different eras, and it could be literally impossible for them to play each other.  Still, we are both arguing from the position of some kind of absolute, higher truth ... that if we could bend space and time, account for every variable, and perfectly level the playing field ... my team would win.  That's how I thought arguments worked.

On the other hand, think about the recent health care reform debate.  Now, I will admit that I don't really know much about the details of this issue.  I'm not claiming to be an expert.  I'm not really even claiming to have a viewpoint.  I'm just saying that the debate, at its most basic level, breaks down to "Health Care Reform is Good" versus "Health Care Reform is Bad."  The media caricatures of those arguments seem to pit

"Barack Obama is a fascist, socialist, power-mad dictator who wants to expand government to the point where it controls every aspect of the lives of its citizens, he wants to raise taxes to pay for bureaucratic waste, and he wants to kill your grandparents"


"Republican congressmen are bitter, spiteful, out-of-touch, rich old white men whose only goal is to stop progress at every turn, who will sacrifice the health of their constituencies if it means a chance to embarrass Obama, and whose only real goal is to keep profiting from shady backroom deals they made with insurance companies"

Now, those statements are argumentative.  Absolutely.  They are contentious and emotionally charged, and they seem like two sides of an argument.  But ... those two statements don't really oppose each other.  Not directly, anyway.  One does not necessitate the other.  It is not an A or B choice.  It is entirely possible that both statements could be true, or (and this is much more likely) both statements could be false.  It is an either/or choice, to some extent, but it also encompasses "both" and "neither."

And I now realize that almost all arguments are like that.  Did you guys already know this?

Anyway, it sounds smart of me to try making this point in the context of a national political debate.  I actually had this realization reading Pitchfork reviews.

Here's the thing:  I enjoy this Freelance Whales album, Weathervanes.  I do.  Not "album of the year" material, but I've listened to it quite a few times, and I will probably listen to it quite a few more.  I think it's good.  Pitchfork, on the other hand, gave it a 4.2.  Not a good review.  So I went into the review expecting to disagree with almost all of it.

And I didn't.  Not at all.

The negativity of the review seems to boil down to three main themes:

(1)  Freelance Whales' pre-release hype has been far too cutsey for its own good
(2)  The band kinda sounds like Death Cab for Cutie/Ben Gibbard at a time when a lot of other bands (some of whom are terrible) also sound like Death Cab for Cutie/Ben Gibbard, and this is kind of an easy-way-out sound which will all but guarantee at least modest levels of sales and critical praise
(3) The song "Hannah" is terrible.

What can I say?  That's all true.  Theme (1) I can just chalk up to some overzealous marketing focus group ("They used to be street performers?  They incorporate a watering can into their percussion section?  That's ADORABLE!!!").  Probably not the band's fault.  (2) is true, but I don't really expect innovation from every band I listen to, and I'm usually willing to forgive all but the most blatant rip-offs as long as a derivative act has some good tunes.  (3) is ... well, (3) is absolutely true.  True and then some.  I'll defer to Pitchfork's Ian Cohen here for the good snark:
The cloying overload starts with "Hannah", wherein frontman Judah Dadone empties a vault of Manic Pixie Dream Girl clich├ęs-- martinis, balconies, chance encounters on spiral stairs. He also unveils an early contender for the most eye-gouging lyrical run of 2010: "Every now and again she offers me a lemon Now & Later/ Please don't play the matchmaker/ Please don't be a player hater/ If you dig her recent work/ You should go congratulate her."
Wow those are some terrible lyrics.  No question about that.  I would suggest that "ear-gouging" would have been a more apt term, but other than that, I agree totally.  Rolling Stone made almost exactly the same point, and I think this critical consensus has made its way back to the band.  Ilana and I saw Freelance Whales at Bottom of the Hill last week, and the singer just kinda trailed off on all of those lines, though his enunciation wasn't an issue anywhere else in the set.  He knows he made a mistake.  Let's allow him to move on with his life.

So that's a bad song.  Fine.  But the review doesn't say one word about my favorite song, "Location," a warm, inviting update on Paul Simon's "Only Living Boy in New York."  It doesn't mention any of my top four, in fact (both "Generator ^ First Floor" and "Generator ^ Second Floor" are excellent songs, and the fragile, Sufjan Stevens-influenced "The Great Estates" is a nice acoustic album-closer).

Cohen's summary dismissal of this album as "not very fascinating at all" is meant to end the argument, but I don't really think it does.  In an earlier post, I called this album "the indie rock Rosetta Stone" and listed the influences I heard:  Death Cab, Sufjan, Paul Simon, Stars, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Electric President, just for starters.  That being said, I wouldn't claim that the album really elaborated on any of those influences.  So no, I don't think this album is "fascinating" either.  But I do like it.

So Cohen wrote a negative review, and I wrote a positive review.  But I wouldn't really say we're arguing.  At least, I'm not disagreeing with him.  That strikes me as kind of weird.

Download:  Freelance Whales - Location

Official Site
Hype Machine
Pre-Order Weathervanes

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