How Critics Keep Shortchanging D.C. Bands
As far as most indie-rock rock critics know, D.C. has two Ians, a Henry, a Travis, and some dude named H.R., and they all got discovered at the 9:30 Club or in the DMV—but how bands get noticed by tired folks waiting in line to get their drivers licenses renewed, well, who knows.
If you live here, you know most of that is dead wrong. D.C. may only export a handful of acts these days, but there's plenty of smart, forward-thinking stuff being made here. Of course it's not surprising that to the outside world, D.C. may as well be a soundproof apartment with a broken landline. But it's a shame that when taste-making publications do write about D.C. acts, they so often lean on those well-trod reference points and clichés, even when they have almost nothing to do with the subject. Writing about D.C. Band X? Better throw in a "MacKaye," "Morrison," and "9:30," just to cover your bases!
In a recent review of Deleted Scenes' new album Lithium Burn, Pitchfork critic Ian Cohen does just this. “Deleted Scenes have put out two solid, well-received records and hit a couple of benchmarks their fellow D.C. bands surely envy—their 2009 debut Birdseed Shirt was produced by J. Robbins and they toured with Dismemberment Plan,” he writes. At one point, he calls Lithium Burn a record that could “pass for a follow-up to Dismemberment Plan’s ruminative, then-swan song Change that would engender less ill will than last year's Uncanney Valley”—never mind that Deleted Scenes and the Dismemberment Plan have little musically or thematically in common, except perhaps an occasional taste for sonic doodads.
Cohen's not done, though. He compares the Deleted Scenes song “Tell Me a Secret” to D-Plan’s “Come Home,” since both have narrators who vent their emotional problems to their parents. The worst moment comes when Cohen struggles to describe the cacophonous single “Stutter,” suggesting it “sound[s] like the most grating D-Plan song on every one of their records being played at once.” At this point, the piece has officially moved from a review of the new Deleted Scenes album to an exercise in score-settling, a nit-picky monologue about a different band from the same city that Cohen obviously regards with disdain.
It may be fair to point out, as Cohen does, that Deleted Scenes exhibit "a lightly caffeinated rhythm section that acknowledges the shifty D.C. punk that came before it." What's not fair is to view Deleted Scenes only in the context of what near-sighted critics think D.C. rock music is, not the actual sound of the late-2000s D.C. scene Deleted Scenes came out of or—the horror!—the non-D.C. music that has just as much to do with their art. Though the band developed in the District, there really are no flashes of Ian, Ian, Travis, or H.R. to be found in its music. D.C. is a big city with a constantly evolving music scene, and irrelevant comparisons that shortchange new artists just make music journalists look lazy.