Alt-J_-_An_Awesome_Wave

Courtesy of Infectious Records

May 9, 2016

GUEST ROOM | From the Eagles to Alt-J: Learning to Love that Sunny, Summery MOR

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Once again it’s the month of May, and the weather is (sort of) starting to seem serious about getting warm. For me, as for most Cornell students, this indicates a number of exciting things. Slope Day is imminent, and summer is in under a month. In between them, innumerable hours will be spent in the library. There will be sleepless nights and possibly tears. There will be times when our drive to work is challenged by a beautiful morning, or the warm breeze of an early summer’s afternoon, reminding us that for all of our goal-orientedness there is a far greater joy in simply being. Hopefully though, we’ll get everything done, and all will be rewarding.

For me the warm weather also indicates that I’ll again be listening to Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave. Every spring, this 2012 pop album invites me back into its wash of exuberant sounds and cryptic lyricism, and into a sort of fantasy world. A fantasy world in which all of my existential quandaries really could be resolved with a tab of LSD, and where sex could be just an extension of this lysergic inner-peace ( “in your snatch fits pleasure,” sings frontman Joe Newman, “broom-shaped pleasure”). An Awesome Wave is a guilty pleasure, and a distinctly summery one.

As indie bands go, Alt-J are notably uncool. This is owed largely to two punishing reviews given by Pitchfork Media to both An Awesome Wave, and its follow up This is All Yours. Writing about the former, reviewer Laura Snapes dismissed the band’s sound as “knotty” and “incongruous” concluding that Alt-J’s main claim for innovation on the album “is that there’s a lot going on.” It’s hard not to suspect, though, that some of Pitchfork’s ire toward Alt-J stems from a certain incident in which they were declared “the new Radiohead.” This incident, mentioned in the first sentence of both reviews, and continually referenced throughout each, seems to constitute the only context in which Pitchfork is willing to view the band. Evidently the publications regards the notion that Alt-J fits into the same innovative groove as Radiohead, their favorite band of all time, as near-blasphemy. In the An Awesome Wave review Snapes concludes that the Radiohead comparison, as well as Alt-J’s winning of the esteemed Mercury Prize, “ultimately says more about lowered standards.” In terms of the musical tradition into which Alt-J actually fit, Snapes had other ideas, writing: “strip all extraneous sparkle and amplification away, and the songs are exposed for the draining, elongated MOR tunes they really are.”

“MOR,” an acronym standing for “middle of the road,” corresponds not to a single genre, but a commercial radio format encompassing several, including easy listening, smooth jazz and soft rock. The modern usage of the label is almost exclusively pejorative, carrying with it the implication that whatever it tags is edgeless and commercial. The assumption is that MOR music is fundamentally vapid and not to be appreciated as art as much as muzak. Thus, for a band like Alt-J which aims to be original, to have been called “MOR” in an influential review must have been pretty damning.

Undoubtedly there are many critics who would disagree with Snapes’ assessment of the band as MOR — discounting the Pitchfork review, An Awesome Wave was fairly well received. Even as a fan of Alt-J, however, I think Snapes hit on a quality of An Awesome Wave that is at the core of my appreciation for the album: the fact that I like it partially because it is so cheesy, and in general, more for its vibes than its substance. An Awesome Wave captures a certain milieu I associate with summer and the early 2010’s. The album is a lighthearted pleasure, and indeed, about as far away as it could possibly be from Radiohead.

I took it as revelatory when I realized that the same part of me that keeps going back to Alt-J is the part of me that, over the past few months, has come to love an older band traditionally outright rejected by alternative music scenes: The Eagles. If Alt-J’s cardinal sin was being called “the next Radiohead,” then the Eagles’ cardinal sin was being famously denounced by Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, protagonist and namesake of the Coen Brothers 1997 cult classic, The Big Lebowski. Who could forget the taxi scene, where The Dude supposedly gets to the heart of the matter, imploring the driver to turn the radio dial away from “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” explaining to him bluntly: “Man, come on I had a rough night, and I hate the fucking Eagles, man.”

The occasional defense of the Eagles which can be found amidst three decades of detractions tend to focus on the fact that, at the end of the day, they undeniably wrote tight, melodious pop songs. I would agree with this assessment, but it is far less relevant to me than the simple fact that the Eagle’s so well captured a certain sunny, L.A. aesthetic. Like Alt-J, The Eagle’s music describes an idyllic world and a mellow ideal: a picture which seems as stupid as it is inviting.

Speaking on the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast in 2014, acclaimed indie artist Kurt Vile reflected on the inspiration he draws from soft-rockers Randy Newman and Bob Seeger: “…some people just like the critically acclaimed records … and then once somebody gets a little bit cheesy they just can’t deal with it but, like, there’s so much great stuff in there if you just open your mind and just embrace the whole thing. You might at first not like part of it and you’re like ‘this is pretty bad,’ but then you discover this song that’s amazing and then after a while you just embrace the cheesy parts too and it’s like a euphoric feeling.” My sentiments about Alt-J and the Eagles is quite similar. I take the euphoric feeling he talks about to be the sense that reclaiming a dismissed band is a creative act in itself: the feeling that you yourself are finding something in the music that has been forgotten, or perhaps which was never found in the first place. For every one Radiohead, there will be hundreds of Alt-J’s, but listening openly to both may be part of consuming a healthy, well-balanced musical diet.

Matt Pegan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mpegan@cornellsun.com. 

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