Conor: Ok, so here’s a question: we are a blog that features at least occasional album reviews—shouldn’t we have a ratings system? I know it’s wrong, but when I see that an album gets a 6.4/10 on Pitchfork, I can’t help but feel a little worse about that album. I’d like to wield that kind of power myself.
Kyle: I know what you mean, for I too am secretly a power hungry dictator at heart, yearning to dispense tokens of my favor with the haughty stinginess of a man who knows he’s in charge. Like the Roman Emperors holding the lives of gladiators in their petty tyrannical hands, I long to seal the fates of people whom I have never met by writing negative things about their art.
Will: You know what they say: if you can’t beat ‘em, call ‘em names.
Conor: So what do you guys think for a scale? We could follow in the footsteps of Robert Christgau and assign a cryptic symbol to each album that readers need to consult a glossary to understand. Something like this…
Kyle: Although I’m generally in favor of willful obscurantism (I did get a degree in philosophy after all), I think that we should start simple and get progressively more complicated. And what could be simpler than a Boolean rating system? We use two ratings: Listen and Don’t Listen.
Will: What about “This is an album” and “This is not an album”?
Kyle: That might be too Boolean.
Will: The only Boolean I need is the Safety Dance, and you’re no friends of mine.
Kyle: Conor, do you know what he’s talking about?
Conor: I can dance, Will. Oh!–I have an idea: you know how most scales start with two endpoints and work towards the middle (0–5 stars, two thumbs down/up, etc.)? What if we had a scale that started from the middle? We’d have two directions to work with instead of just one!
Kyle: I always was a fan of the “greater than” and “less than” signs…
Will: So this is like how people with IQs less than 100 are dumb, and those with higher than 100 are not dumb?
Kyle: If you’re a social Darwinist, then yes.
Will: Hey man, that theory is still around, isn’t it?
Conor: [desperately looking to change the subject] In fact, if we chose the most mediocre album ever, the perfect 5.0 out of 10, it would give us a standard to measure by. What do you think? You all up to the challenge?
Kyle: As long as I still get to knock strangers’ music, I’m good. It begins!
Conor: Ok, then. First up,
Strangers to Ourselves by Modest Mouse
Strangers to Ourselves came after an eight-year break for Modest Mouse. It’s one of those comeback albums that wasn’t a complete disappointment but didn’t live up to expectations either. On the one hand, “Lampshades on Fire,” “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box” and “Of Course We Know” are indisputably good songs. And with a few exceptions (I’m looking at you, “Pistol”) it’s hard to single out a song that doesn’t work on at least some level.
That minimum level of acceptability, unfortunately, is exactly where many of the songs stop. And on an album this diverse, hunting for the nugget of inspiration in each song can be quite exhausting. (Is it time for the atmospherically rich but otherwise tedious “Shit in Your Cut”? Or for the somewhat strained grandiosity of “Coyotes”? What about “Pups to Dust,” which tries to recreate the malaise of “Missed the Boat” and “Guilty Cocker Spaniels” but ultimately sounds too preachy?)
This all combines to produce something rare: a whole that is distinctly less than the sum of its diffuse parts.
Kyle: Talk about “modest” mouse.
Will: Hmm…it appears that this opinion is Pitchfork-approved. “Strangers to Ourselves: 6.4/10.”
Conor: What—no! I swear I didn’t choose this album just because Pitchfork didn’t like it.
Will: So the fact that you mentioned that exact rating earlier in this article is just a coincidence?
Conor: Hey, I’m not giving the album a 6.4/10. I’m giving it a 5.0/10. Because that’s what we agreed on. So I’m not just parroting Pitchfork. Got it?
Will: I can dance.
Kyle: Our next contender,
The entire Fountains of Wayne catalog
I know what you’re thinking: what kind of hipster asshole is too cool for Fountains of Wayne? What kind of meticulously groomed yet uncultured hack could take these masterful critics of suburbia and relegate them to mediocrity? Look guys, I like Fountains of Wayne, okay? But does anybody know the lyrics to any song other than “Stacy’s Mom”? No.
The band had its day in the sun, back when ruing the soul crushing monotony of suburbia was just another way to deal with your malaise, and before the financial crisis turned our ennui into full-blown anxiety. “Welcome Interstate Managers”? To the unemployment rolls, maybe. My kingdom for a “Bright Future in Sales”! Suburbia might have been Hell, but at least they had pensions there.
Conor: What, so yuppies don’t deserve to have music about them anymore? This is an act of class warfare!
Kyle: As an aspiring yuppie, I can only say that the pain of what might have been is too much.
Conor: Exactly! And that pain is what songs like “Mexican Wine” are all about.
Kyle: If I want aversion therapy, I’ll see a psychologist.
Will: Ok, how’s this for my album?
Broken Bells by Broken Bells
To the tune of Earl Sweatshirt’s “Chum”:
It’s probably been six years since Broken Bells dropped “Broken Bells”,
And I just used to say I hate it in dishonest jest
When honestly I miss James Mercer, like when I was 15
And every time “New Slang” came on I’d sing it and feel so serene.
Sixteen, I’m hollow, intolerant, skip singles
I storm that whole album, I’ll show you an indie duo;
Now I’m stuck, sad, turning on “Oh, Inverted World”
Wondering how Dangermouse + nerd rock sound so moderate.
Rolling Stone often was offering peace offerings
Think “hip-hop for turned-on shut-ins” from “pop-science geeks”
Searching for a big single, “The High Road” wasn’t that,
“October’s” piano is fine, the only hook in the batch.
Too geek for the cool kids, too cool for the geeks
From psychedelia to synthy Mercer falsetto tracks
It’s indecisive, it’s scatterbrained, and I’m frightened, it’s evident
I don’t know where he’s hiding all the good songs at.
This album is fine. Not too good, not too bad. It’s a sweet spot, perfect 5.0. An underwhelming collaboration that doesn’t move the needle in either direction.
Conor: Wow Kyle, I think Will has upstaged us.
I knew that he was up to something tough
(His silence on this album seemed no bluff),
And to upstage us may have been his game.
So on this poet’s charge I’ll pin his name:
Will may be master of rewritten rap,
But I write couplets like a smitten chap.
Will: I’d venture to say that couplets written by smitten chaps aren’t the highest form of verse.
Conor: I’m done.
And now readers, for lack of a better way to resolve the conflict, we shall ask YOU to vote for which of our albums is truly most mediocre. (There’s also a write-in option, but that’s kind of like voting for the Green Party candidate in a presidential election.) Whichever album wins will be used as the basis of The Walker-Fellin-Boogert Critical Renormalization Protocol, our official rating scale (at least for a couple of articles until we get tired of the gimmick)!