I put “More Sweet Soul” on, like, ten mixtapes
I feel like a dick for saying this, but it’s true: Pretty Girls Make Graves is finally breaking up, and that’s a good thing. Seeing as how Sonic Youth continues to exist and make great music and everything, I probably shouldn’t be calling a band that formed six years ago a relic from another time, but that’s what Pretty Girls Make Graves is. They’re also one of those weird bands whose music suffers as its recording budgets increase and its its members become more assured in their songwriting and their playing. I loved Pretty Girls Make Graves once upon a time, but I loved them at a time when they built their music around a furious uncertainty, a sense that they had no idea what they were doing even though they loved doing it. Their absurdly great debut album, 2002’s Good Health, is almost certainly the only PGMG album I’ll ever love, and I loved it in part because its wound-up tangle of joy and terror came with all its threads still exposed and its surfaces still rough. They made a couple more albums, and they signed with a bigger label and wrote slightly softer, more mature songs because that’s what bands do when they get older and bigger. But when your band’s greatest asset is its confused energy, getting older and bigger is the worst thing that could happen to you. PGMG never started to suck or anything, but their decline was inevitable, and I’m almost relieved to learn that their next tour is going to be their last.
PGMG released Good Health in April 2002, the same month I graduated college. That first year out of college is crazy weird and chaotic; I went from college student to loser living in his parents’ basement to warehouse worker to furniture salesman to office assistant in maybe three months. PGMG’s Andrea Zollo sounded like she was shouting to be heard while a hurricane raged all around her, like she was desperately scrabbling for stability while winds whipped her in every direction. There was a sense of sad, frantic longing in the band, but Zollo also sounded like she enjoyed all the chaos around her despite herself, like she loved the exhilaration of seeing everything around her torn out and spun around even though she knew she could be slammed into the ground and killed at any second. The band played jittery, decentered post-hardcore, never quite locking into an actual groove but happy to tear the landscape to shreds looking for one. A couple of years before I started working at the Voice, I took a day off my furniture-store job and jumped on a Chinatown bus from Baltimore to New York, leaving in the morning and getting back late at night, so I could go to the second of the Voice’s annual Siren festivals, and that was the first time I saw PGMG. They played at maybe one in the afternoon, but they held their own against Sleater-Kinney and the Liars and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Zollo’s screeches and pleas echoed off the asphalt and the shitty rides, opening up and swelling out until they started to sound something like anthems.
Sometimes an album comes along at the exact moment you need it, and that’s what happened with me and Good Health. So maybe I’m way off when I say that PGMG never quite fulfilled the promise of that first album, that they probably never could. The New Romance, the band’s second album, came out only a year after their first, and by then I had a girlfriend and a stable job and a decent apartment. The urgency and joy and bruised ugliness of the band’s music was all still there, but they also tried to expand their sense of space and melody, and so their frustrated fury came through a layer or two of remove and lost some of its power in the process. After that album, the band took a couple of years off so its members could focus on bullshit side-projects like A Gun Called Tension and Dutch Dub. I went to see PGMG when they got back together in 2005, and I was cautiously optimistic, but the band was clumsy and tentative. They’d lost one member and gained another, and I wrote that maybe they were just getting used to each other again, that they’d hopefully be back to their bruising, wrenching form in no time. But when Elan Vital came out in 2006, it just fed The New Romance‘s layers of remove through another couple of layers of remove. I didn’t listen to it more than a couple of times, and I never felt compelled to find out whether or not their live show had gelled again.
A couple of other things happened between 2002 and 2006: indie-rock finally finished divorcing itself completely from hardcore, and emo became absorbed in its own MySpace echo. In 2002, jagged post-hardcore was actually popular, and lots of people were predicting that At the Drive-In would change the world. But indie-rock has since morphed almost completely into chirpy comfort-food. That stuff has its charm, but it’s been years since I’ve heard an indie-rock album that reflected anything like the extremes of ecstasy and fear tangled together throughout Good Health. If PGMG was trying to adjust to the changing climate with The New Romance and Elan Vital, nobody could blame them, but they were fighting a losing battle. Pitchfork is reporting that the band is breaking up because Nick Dewitt, their drummer, decided to leave and the rest of the band can’t see itself continuing on without him. I might not know too much about internal band dynamics, but any band that really wanted to continue on could probably do so without its original drummer. Maybe these guys were just waiting for an excuse. Maybe it was just time.
Voice review: Todd Kristel on Pretty Girls Make Graves’ Good Health