Hutch Harris was born in New York City, raised in Silicon Valley and has resided in Portland, Oregon for the past twenty years. Harris founded and was the lead singer/songwriter of the Thermals. He is currently working on his first solo LP. Follow Harris on Twitter here.
(Photo Credit: Westin Glass)
I know what it’s like to be a Pitchfork darling. I also know how it feels to be trashed by one of their writers. I’ve felt the beaming pride of being declared Best New Music (The Body, The Blood, The Machine, 2006) as well as the stinging shame of a 5.0 review (Desperate Ground, 2013).
The Thermals were on tour in 2006 when the review for The Body came out; honestly, it didn’t mean much to us at first. On that hot August morning in Arizona, we were just three still-struggling indie musicians in a Dodge van driving through the desert to a gig in Phoenix. This was before Twitter and iPhones, when we lived IRL more than we did online, especially on tour. We didn’t wake up with the internet the way we all do now, and only found out about the review through T9 texting with Sub Pop Records and a few of our in-the-know friends. To them, it was a big deal. Pitchfork was not yet the taste-making behemoth it would soon grow to be, but it was surely one of the most respected music blogs, and Best New Music definitely did mean something. Once we learned what it meant, we were as proud as we were grateful. Our sales and audiences doubled in the next few years, and it was hard not to think that Pitchfork’s blessing hadn’t been a big part of it.
Which is why it hurt so hard to get such a rough write-up almost ten years later. In 2013, Pitchfork was not just the most important music blog, their reviews were the only ones that mattered. I had firsthand proof of this when just about every interview I did in the wake of Pitchfork’s savage dressing down of Desperate Ground started with the same question: “How does it feel to get 5.0 from Pitchfork?”
Let me tell you: It feels fucking terrible. Of course, that’s not what I said back then as I did phoners for hours on end, glad the interviewers couldn’t see my red face and clenched fists. I claimed that it didn’t affect me, that I didn’t care. But I did. It had been three years since The Thermals had released a record, and we considered Desperate Ground to be our return to form—ten catchy, scratchy songs we thought were some of our best in years. We were ready for a triumphant comeback. What did we expect though, critically?
Well, what you expect and what you desire can be worlds apart, especially in the music business, an entire industry built upon delusions of grandeur. I should have expected a lukewarm response. But what did I desire? Best New Music, of course. Our post-TBTBTM reviews in Pitchfork had diminishing grades: Now We Can See (2009) received a modest 7.8, Personal Life (2010) a disappointing 6.7. Best New Music is a drug supplied by only one dealer, and I wanted to feel that high again more than anything. Being awarded Best New Music is like sipping a tumbler of hundred year-old scotch; getting a 5.0 is like licking cheap whiskey off a bathroom floor.
So lick that floor I did, and frankly I’m not sure I ever got the taste out of my mouth. But I did learn to manage my expectations—and to not read reviews—for a while anyway. The final Thermals LP, We Disappear, was released over two years ago, but I only read Pitchfork’s review of it (6.9, if you’re keeping score) two months ago. I found it intelligent and accurate, which is why we listen to Pitchfork’s writers. It’s why it feels so great when they lift us to the top of the mountain, and hurts so much when they throw us in the garbage.
Which brings us to Greta Van Fleet. Has there ever been a band as thoroughly torn apart by Pitchfork? (Well, yes: Jet. There may never be a worse—or better, depending on how you see it—record review than a gif of a monkey peeing in its own mouth.) Pitchfork’s assessment of Greta Van Fleet’s debut LP Anthem of the Peaceful Army is one of the harshest—and most amplified—in recent history. Pitchfork’s Jeremy Larson didn’t just hate the record, he reduced the entire band to “a costume” and “an algorithmic fever dream.” So deep does his hatred run for this band’s music that he unfavorably compares them to the Darkness, which reminds me of disillusioned Democrats disliking Trump so much that they pine for the days of George W. Bush. Larson’s contempt for GVF was shared and celebrated by many, providing a heaping spoonful of schadenfreude for an industry always hungry for something new to tear down—truly good news for people who love bad reviews.
Greta Van Fleet have already seen their fair share of bad press. A good deal of it accuses the band, ironically, of ripping off Led Zeppelin, who themselves were declared to be incredibly derivative when they released their first LP. In just about forty years, not a lot has changed in music journalism. In 2018, Greta Van Fleet are critically loathed for sounding like Led Zeppelin, just like in 1969 when Led Zeppelin was critically loathed for sounding like Led Zeppelin.
I’m not trying to critique Larson’s critique of Anthem of the Peaceful Army. Nor do I want to review the record myself. I will say I listened to it and I didn’t hate it. It did sound very much like Led Zeppelin, and that didn’t bother me. But the track that sticks with me the most was “Anthem,” an acoustic song that does not sound like Zeppelin at all, but really sounds like Supertramp’s “Give a Little Bit.” Now that bothered me. Because I wanted to rip that song off.
It didn’t really bother me, but it did actually made me feel some strange kinship with Greta Van Fleet. We have many of the same heroes, even if I don’t wear my hard rock influences as obviously on my sleeves as they do. It’s safe to say I wouldn’t wear anything the band wears, as I don’t really care for beads or purple velvet. But the Pitchfork review and the subsequent online negative piling-on Greta Van Fleet received definitely made me like them more than I would have otherwise. It made me at least give them a chance, which is more than I would give any record crowned Best New Music these days. I don’t care how many delay pedals you run an old Beach Boys record through, I’m not interested in hearing it.
A 1.6 review will probably have little effect on Greta Van Fleet’s career. They may ride high on an unending wave of nostalgia for twenty years, or they might crash and burn in the next six months. But it won’t be Pitchfork to blame if they do. For most of their career the critics hated Led Zeppelin, but music fans loved them. Eventually, the critics came around. One day they saw the light, but only after being convinced by the unrelenting adoration of Zeppelin from the people whose opinions truly matter. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. They loved Led Zeppelin.
To a majority of listeners, it doesn’t matter whether Anthem of a Peaceful Army is a young, excited band’s reverent homage to the halcyon days of rock and roll or a cynical attempt by a major label to manipulate streaming platforms and spin naiveté into gold. Music fans will decide what they like the way they always have; they will listen, and they will choose emotion over analysis. Those of us who choose analysis can continue our debates, but we should be careful to remember that Pitchfork and Greta Van Fleet have more in common than either camp might care to admit. Both exist and thrive only with the support of music fans, and it is music fans who will let them know when they have become irrelevant.
(Photo Credit: Left, Westin Glass; Right, Michael Lavine)