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Slick Dogs and Ponies
Jason Hill, frontman for the San Diego band Louis XIV, knows what it's like to be hated. On March 30, 2005, a none-too-complimentary review of his band's major-label debut appeared on Pitchfork. The album, The Best Little Secrets Are Kept, received a 1.2. A jocular, Strokes-ian take on the classic rock canon, Secrets hardly merited the thrashing. Not content to merely point out Secrets' shortcomings, the author of the review, Nick Sylvester, decided to ridicule the album's creator.
Set up as a mock interview of sorts, the review imagined Hill receiving a medical checkup from one "Doc Bolend." Presumably the character was intended to be a stand-in for Marc Bolan, the late T-Rex frontman from whom Sylvester accused Louis XIV of cribbing their musical motifs. Sylvester makes his musical objections clear throughout—namely that Hill & Co. are offensively unoriginal. An excerpt:
Bolend: "How do you find time to write songs for your rock band?
Hill: "Doc, you joker! All we gotta do is play shit people are familiar with—like classic rock shit that's, you know, better than everything that comes out today."
But Sylvester also lobbed a few insults that are hard to characterize as anything other than personal. In one imaginary quote, Hill says, "[The kids] get what they want—rock music that sounds like what they're told the best rock music is supposed to sound like, and I get what I want—pussy sex with sweet virgins right in their dickholes."
In other words, the review claimed, Hill not only makes uninspired music but does so intentionally to score with groupies. Sylvester concluded by having "Bolend" check for spinal curvature, only to discover that Hill has no spine at all.
Sylvester declined comment for this story, but his likely defense can be gleaned from his subsequent review of a Louis XIV live show in New York City, which ran in the Village Voice five months after the original Pitchfork review. In it, he denied attacking Hill personally: "I don't know Hill, don't profess to, and if he couldn't handle my roundabout way of saying I think his band is destroying rock music, whose fault is that?"
I suspect Sylvester, in his defense, would argue that the Hill-consulting Doc Bolend is the Hill that appears on The Best Little Secrets Are Kept, a fictitious character Hill willfully inhabits as he delivers his sexually charged couplets. Only one problem: Despite the glammy, regal attire and absurdly styled coiffure, Hill has never conceded that his creation is pure put-on.
In fact, Hill's reaction to the Pitchfork review—a belligerent email missive sent directly to Sylvester on the night the review ran (lovingly reprinted in the Voice live review)—suggests that he has a very real, personal stake in his art. "When you attack me personally you better be ready for me to put my fucking fist down your throat," he wrote.
If anything, the whole messy incident underscores the importance of respecting the art/artist divide. It's impossible to divine the motivations of the artist, and even if it were possible, it would be irrelevant—art doesn't require the aid of an interpreter. If Sylvester thought the album endorsed a sexist point of view, then he should have said so and left it at that. But after dragging the artist (real or imagined) into the fray, he should hardly have been surprised when Hill threatened to rearrange his teeth.
Hill has had some time to cool off over the past couple of years. These days he sounds more amused than peeved when discussing the review on the phone.
"I was actually more annoyed by the reaction to the review," he says. "Pitchfork had just come into its own as being something that people would go to every day, especially people in the music industry. Up until [the Pitchfork review], we had gotten great press. But once that review came out, I started seeing and hearing people agree with it. They were just basing their opinions on what [Pitchfork] thought."
That kind of groupthink inspired the dig on the title track of the band's forthcoming album, Slick Dogs and Ponies, due for release later this month: "They pay more attention to press than soul." Those looking for more vitriolic displays of indignation will be disappointed, but the music on Slick Dogs and Ponies helps Hill make his point well enough. Rather than seeking to convert the detractors, Hill has made an even more glam- and classic rock-indebted record. The likely future single "Air Traffic Control" is steeped in Ziggy-era Bowie-isms, and most of the other tracks are outfitted with grandiose string arrangements, a few courtesy of Beck's father, famed composer David Campbell. Like any good classic rock band, Louis XIV appear to be entering their shaggy, acid-rock phase, albeit two to three albums early. It's hardly surprising when Hill confesses that he is currently sporting a full beard.
With its heavily orchestrated song suites, Slick Dogs demonstrates that Louis XIV is more than capable of evolving from the near-pathological catchiness of Secrets. However, like its predecessor, Slick Dogs is also transparently enamored of its source material. As a result, it's not a record likely to win Hill many new supporters, but at this point, he seems okay with that. "This is rock 'n' roll," he says. "If I'm ruffling feathers, then I must be doing something right."
LOUIS XIV perform with EDITORS and HOT HOT HEAT on WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 30, at the FINE LINE MUSIC CAFE; 612.338.8100