When Critics Won't Let Bands Escape Their Past

In our latest IM-conversation-as-blog-post, Freedom and I go a little "inside baseball" and talk about whether reviewers should compare a band's new album to that band's best work or if that's just living in the past, man.

Malitz: So after I more or less panned the new Oasis album in Tuesday's paper, Kyle "Leafblower" Gustafson gave me one of these: "For once I wish I could read an oasis review without comparing their current record with their first two. Sigh." Is he right?
du Lac: Won't happen -- and shouldn't. Unless, of course, they release one or two truly notable albums that measure up to "Definitely Maybe" and "Morning Glory." But they haven't.

Malitz: My feeling is that if it wasn't for those first two albums we wouldn't be reviewing this new one in the first place, so you have to hold them to that standard, especially since they haven't really moved away from that sound.
du Lac: Exactly. And again, until they reach those heights again and/or do something completely radical that no longer makes you think about those albums, the comparisons aren't going away.

Malitz: Well, sounds like we've pretty much decided Kyle is wrong. That was easy! But to your last point, it's why you won't see "Sister" or "Daydream Nation" referenced too often in new Sonic Youth reviews.
du Lac: For certain artists, you just don't need to go there. What's the point in referencing "Highway 61" in a Dylan album review circa 2008, unless there's a clear link?


Malitz: Right. I suppose that bands that come out of the get especially strong are sort of at a disadvantage here, but that's just the nature of the beat. If the Strokes ever release another album, do you think people won't mention "Is This It?" Of course they will. That's why we care about the Strokes. Or at least once did. (I still do. A little.) There's also the case of something like the recent Metallica album where a band is making a concerted effort to sound like those albums people actually liked. In those cases, it would be especially wrong to not mention/compare to those early albums.
du Lac: Exactly. If Stevie Wonder ever recorded an album that brought him back to his early/mid-'70s sound, you'd have to reference the epochal albums he recorded during that period.

Malitz: So is there anything Oasis can do to make it so "Definitely Maybe" and "Morning Glory" aren't referenced when they release their next album?
du Lac: Yeah, sure. Do something great - though even then, they can't escape it, since the reviews will say something like: "'Album X' is the band's best since 'Morning Glory.'" But it's a better comp than the ones they're getting now. You know: "They've been wasting our time since 'Morning Glory.'"

Malitz: Yup. I'm sure M. Night Shymalan feels the same way.
du Lac: This, by the way, is your best IM exchange since the Super Bowl halftime show.

Malitz: Now I'm reminded of that Hitsville post about how every R.E.M. album was "their best since..."
du Lac: Yeah, Bill Wyman did some great work on putting that post together. Clearly, R.E.M just keeps getting better and better. Never had a down period!

Malitz: Maybe the real answer is to just stop reviewing albums by washed-up bands like Oasis? Oh, I keed, I keed.

By David Malitz |  October 9, 2008; 9:01 AM ET Debates , Rules
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One example of a band (well okay, one guy technically) that most elegantly shifted from their past is of Montreal. At this point I don't think any review refrences their old stuff except in passing. And both phases have merit.

I just don't want to see the Gallegher brothers dress like Kevin Barnes.

Posted by: MN | October 9, 2008 10:37 AM

I risked injury by telling Leafblower I pretty much forgot all about Oasis for the 10 years after Morning Glory, until it was time to give Dig Out Your Soul a spin. I liked it a little better than Malitz did, but I'm going to leave it there. Except to say that I'm listening to the upcoming Travis album now, and it sounds almost exactly like the just-released Oasis album.

Wyman's post is brilliant. I had an idea to do something like that when the Rolling Stones' Bridges to Babylon was released in 1997 and was widely declared to be at least their third consecutive Best Album Since Some Girls! And I would have written it, too, if only -- er, if only blogs had existed back then, I guess.

At least it clarified one thing: 1978's Some Girls is the most recent Stones album that anybody really needs to own.

You could use this same formula to identify the last essential album from Oasis, R.E.M., or almost any other band, I suspect.

Posted by: Chris Klimek | October 9, 2008 1:04 PM

I just feel like there are quite a few angles you could take when discussing the new Oasis record (such as the production - this is easily the best produced Oasis record ever - which, in fairness, Malitz and I did discuss but was not included here) instead of just saying "Not as good as their first two." It's not doing the reader any good when you take that tack. There's little reason to read an entire review of the album when it says "Not as good as Definitely Maybe" right off the bat.

Oasis will never reach those heights again, and there is nothing wrong with that. Their first two records kick-started an entire cultural movement (which is still going today judging by all the brit-influenced dance nights out there), propped up the British music industry, got countless other bands signed to record deals (good or bad) and paved the way for the concerts at Knebworth that 1 in 20 people in Britain attended.

Wow, their new record 12 years on isn't as good as that? Shocker. [/rant]

Posted by: leafblower | October 9, 2008 2:05 PM

Oh, washed up Britpop bands have a special place in my heart. I think it's fair game to compare the new album to Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory because Oasis's sound has not changed much at all in the past 10 years. I mean, when you listen to an Oasis album, you pretty much know what they're aiming for (hint hint: it rhymes with Meatlesesque rock numbers), and the question is if it delivers. The first two did, so you almost have to use them as a reference point.

Here you've hit upon a crucial difference between Oasis and Blur (yes I am aware it's not 1994 anymore so I shouldn't care about this, thanks). Modern Life is Rubbish doesn't sound like the self-titled doesn't sound like Think Tank. Arguably Parklife was the high point, but I think they escaped that trap by not releasing album after album that tried to sound like Parklife.

So I think it's not just that the first two albums were such a high watermark. I think it's also that they've stayed the course in the years following, so they're almost inviting the comparison.

Posted by: shf | October 9, 2008 2:28 PM

Hanging a review on the notion that an album is a band's best produced is like running a review under the name of the producer. I think most people read reviews to learn about the band and the songs they may or may not be singing along to at a concert, not the producer. I would further argue that if the album is deemed well produced then the album itself should be good; you can't call an album a success if the songs are crap but the producer had the good sense to throw in some handclaps and harmonies,a mellotron on a bridge, etc.

On another note, no one should dress like Kevin Barnes, including Kevin Barnes. Cyndia Lauper did it to death 26 years ago.

Posted by: Jet Age Eric | October 9, 2008 5:15 PM

Ah now Blur has entered the discussion. I think the Great Escape may be their worst album simply because after Parklife it was just another Britpop album. Thank God for the self-titled album (even if Song 2 does grate at this point).

Also to do the ol' Blur (well Damon Albarn) v. Oasis comparison - Let's look back at the last decade. Both Gorillaz albums sold huge. The Good/Bad/Queen album was underrated and will still sound great in 20 years, the Mali Music album is pretty enjoyable, and he made a quasi-Chinese-quasi-Opera. And Oasis is still working on their Beatles tribute act.

It's amazing that Oasis still gets ink by saying "All the new bands suck". You'd think NME would catch on by this point.

Posted by: MN | October 10, 2008 2:30 PM

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