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All Y'All Haters

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Dusted's Charlie Wilmoth looks at Travis Morrison's post-Dismemberment Plan career, culminating with the release of his latest album, All Y'All.

All Y'All Haters

This article is actually something like a review of a review, which may not surprise you if you're familiar with the backstory behind Travis Morrison's solo career. Morrison fronted the D.C.-based art-pop quartet the Dismemberment Plan, which received a huge boost from the website Pitchfork when it named the Plan's Emergency & I its 1999 album of the year. After the Plan disbanded in 2003, Pitchfork proved that destroying Morrison was as easy as building him up, giving his solo debut Travistan a 0.0 rating out of 10.

If the idea of giving a weird little pop album a '0.0 out of 10' doesn't immediately seem ridiculous to you, think about it for a second - if Travistan gets a "0.0," then what should a neo-Nazi punk record get? And doesn't the idea of something rating a zero point zero suggest that it somehow has no value, or even that it doesn't exist?

In this case, maybe. After receiving the Pitchfork goose eggs, Morrison might as well have ceased to exist. Showing an appalling but unsurprising inability to think for themselves, many of Pitchfork's readers turned their backs on Morrison the instant the review was published. His concerts started getting canceled, crowds stopped turning out, and one store in Texas even initially refused to stock the album. Pitchfork's "0.0" did enormous damage to Morrison's musical career.

And for what? Viewed even in the kindest possible light, the "0.0" seems like a cheap stunt - great for Pitchfork (which thrives on controversy) and its more sycophantic readers, but bad for artists and music and for listeners who really care to understand those things.

The number of people who take Pitchfork's numeric ratings seriously is startling, since fixed ratings can't describe the way we actually experience music - we listen to a record, hear things in it that resonate with us and things that don't, and then maybe we go back to it years later and hear new things that resonate with us and new things that don't. Scores of any kind for music should pretty much be ignored, and this goes double for scores that proclaim a piece of art to be worthless, or nonexistent.

This should all be very obvious, but given the cult of Pitchfork, it needs to be said. People rarely actually read Pitchfork despite the presence of a handful of very good writers there; instead, Pitchfork is a coolness index, one that seems to possess the ability to shape 50,000 or so opinions, and thus to change the lives of folks like Morrison.

With that ability should come responsibility, but then again, if Pitchfork were more responsible, it wouldn't be so popular. Here I am seven paragraphs into a review and I haven't even talked about the music yet - I'm just giving another website free publicity by calling it out for doing something careless and mean. Many Pitchfork writers do have something legitimate to contribute to our understanding of what music does or should be, but the site's popularity is really fueled by the things that don't do that.

The funny thing about all the controversy is that, from his time fronting the Plan until today, many aspects of Morrison's music haven't really changed much. His lyrics continue to be outward-looking yet pained, and often goofily colloquial; his vocal lines continue to be tangled (jammed with words, exhortations and melismas); his music continues to be forward-looking and vaguely danceable, walking a thin line between hip and dorky. While I agree with some of Pitchfork's criticism of some of Travistan's sillier lyrics, Morrison has always written silly throwaway lyrics and stuck them in haphazardly, right next to all the good ones. And one doesn't need to listen long to Travistan to hear a lot of inspiration. Also, Pitchfork's criticism that Morrison fails to "provide closure on the books he opens" holds him to an unfairly high standard - how often are rock lyrics even expected to make sense, let alone to "provide closure"?

The Travistan review has little to say about the music, dismissing it as "undistinguished," but it's hard to understand how someone who found Emergency & I "brilliant" could fail to find worth in Travistan's "Born in '72," "The Word Cop," or "Change" - and, in fact, the reviewer notes that the last song's "rhythmic anxiety-attack, twisting hooks, and (of course) title cleanly evoke his previous work."

So why the 0.0? Answer: to draw attention to the writer, and to Pitchfork. Well, mission accomplished, dudes and dudettes, and don't let the consequences for Morrison's career worry you one bit!

Pitchfork seems to have some sort of rule that any opinion a reviewer might express about a record must proceed from any opinions any other Pitchfork reviewers may have already expressed about that record. Which pretty much means that, right from the start, their review of All Y'All had to proceed from the 0.0, and therefore was likely to be nonsense. Which it mostly is. If I had to grade the review on an asinine 0-to-10 scale, I'd give it, oh I don't know, a 3.6.

The main problem with the All Y'All review seems to stem from a mindset that afflicts Pitchfork generally - the idea that music should exist to please Pitchfork. Take this sentence, for example: "If we could listen to this record in a total vacuum, maybe we'd see All Y'all shows a lot of promising ideas with sometimes hoary execution, which is miles of improvement over the inadvisable Travistan."

I hate the word "inadvisable" in record reviews, almost as much as I hate the word "misstep." "Inadvisable" implies that Travistan would've been okay, if only Morrison had thought to call up some dude who works at Pitchfork and ask his advice first.

None of this is to say that reviews shouldn't be fiery and opinionated - most good criticism is - only that they should either attempt to evaluate the artist on his or her own terms, or try to grapple with those terms. The All Y'All review makes noises about doing the former, mentioning that two of Morrison's heroes, Prince and Neil Young, are each known for making albums that are tough on their fans.

But I'm not buying it, because the central criticism of the review is that Morrison should do something less complex. This, to me, is like saying James Brown's music would be better if it were less funky. Morrison has rarely, if ever, released songs that aren't complex - even the ones that feature simpler arrangements are busy with words, melodic contours, images, cultural references.

The All Y'All review also mentions Morrison's absence of "checks and balances" in his solo career. Checks and balances may be good for democracy, but are probably mostly bad for music generally, and certainly bad for Morrison in particular. He always does too much, and half the fun of listening to his music, including his music with the Plan, is watching him teeter on, and sometimes fall over, the edge of doing way too much. Pull him back from the precipice, and he's just a mildly hip coffeehouse songwriter, or a run-of-the-mill indie-rock frontman.

The main reason so many people identified with the Plan on such a personal level is that their obvious talents and apparent excesses combined in such an effortlessly human way. You might admire a brilliant, athletic, handsome and popular fellow student, but you might also remember him much more fondly if he also scratched his head too much, wore ill-fitting shirts, and always remembered to ask you how your cat was doing. The Plan was all the more memorable because of Morrison's wordiness, his jumbled cadences, his hip-hop buzzwords. In fact, he probably told his audiences more than they realized about who they were - cool, but the sort of cool kids who got picked on in high school; dorkily middle-class, but open-eyed enough to be down with the latest Ludacris single.

All Y'all is as wide-ranging of any of Morrison's projects, and that's something to be celebrated. The big stylistic difference is that there are so many percussion polyrhythms that some portions of the album almost sound Afro-Cuban. This feels like an extension of Morrison's pop-crazy aesthetic rather than a departure, but it's appropriate that, unlike Travistan, All Y'All is credited to a band rather than just to Morrison himself. All Y'All sometimes sounds like the product of jams that were molded into songs - the vocal line on one of the album's best tracks, "As We Proceed," is clearly secondary to the thundering bomba-like rhythms underneath. Some of the slashing guitars and stomping rhythms on the album contain evidence of Morrison's connections to D.C. punk and hardcore, but this isn't a guitar-heavy record - drums and percussion rule here.

Whereas Travistan felt like a bedroom project blown up into a studio record (relatively modest in ambition and, despite Pitchfork's claims about "providing closure," songwriterly and lyrically focused), All Y'All is nearly the opposite. The arrangements are complex and the songs dart in counterintuitive directions, but amid all the twists and turns, there are personal, modest moments.

Though many of Morrison's past songs (Travistan's "Word Cop," the Plan's "8 1/2 Minutes," and so on) have been about big political and cultural issues, what Morrison's really great at - and what he does on All Y'All - is describe what it feels to be a particular age. As many critics have pointed out, the Plan's Emergency & I was mostly about twentysomethings who move to cities, take soul-deadening jobs, and struggle to identify with each other.

All Y'All, meanwhile, deals with turning 30 or so and looking toward the future. In "You Make Me Feel Like a Freak," Morrison gets hit on in a bar, only he's wearing khakis and she's trying to get over a divorce; later in the song, he's playing cards with the residents of a nursing home. Elsewhere, he muses that he doesn't ”like to be lonely / Like a bulldog lost in a cornfield.”

This all sounds pretty sad, and it is, but you wouldn't know it from the music, which is jubilant and vital. It's not surprising that Morrison has mentioned on his website that he enjoyed a recent gig by Doseone's six-piece band Subtle. Doseone and Morrison both began their careers from within a particular musical style (hip hop in Doseone's case, on albums like Themselves' Them and Deep Puddle Dynamics' The Taste of Rain... Why Kneel, and D.C. post-hardcore in Morrison's case, on the Plan's !). Now Subtle and Morrison are both making music that's polystylistic, and shimmering and proggy. Like Subtle's recent For Hero: For Fool, All Y'All brings a whole hell of a lot to the table. To miss out on it just because some website told you to would be, well... inadvisable.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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