As kids, a great deal of our play was given over to recreating and imitating the things we loved, whether it be TV shows, movies, videogames, or books. I fondly remember constantly having the debate between 'little Turtles' or 'big Turtles' with playmates; that is to say, would a friend and I play with our action figures of the Ninja Turtles, or would we pretend we were them?? It grew to the point where, when a bit older, we would use such exciting new technology such as tape cassette recorders and video cameras to recreate talk radio and game shows, respectively, both with primitive props, sound effects, and costumes. Eventually, the human mind desires to create things of its own. We learn how to play instruments by playing the songs of others, but if you stick with it long enough, you want to write songs of your own. Personally, I've spent a lot of time reading and imitating the writing style of others in order to figure out what works, but also to help influence and shape my own style.
There is something genuinely sacred and fulfilling about the creative act and it's something that I think most people take for granted and don't realize they're doing. As adults we often parrot lines and skits from TV shows and movies we love in order to elicit the laughs of those in on the joke, and as a way to connect with people we don't know very well but who also love similar things. This, obviously, mirrors what we did as children. But the older you get, the most amusing things to you are those that you and your circle of friends and family come up with. I'm sure you can think of a few hilarious moments or running jokes you and your friends/coworkers have that wouldn't make sense to outsiders; even if you took the requisite 10 minutes to set up why the joke is funny, in the telling it becomes neutered and lame.
At the same time, it's increasingly hard to be original anymore. I'm talking specifically in the field of the arts. I routinely get the feeling that everything has been done before--every book has been written, every kind of music has been made, every possible permutation of a story or joke has been told, every art movement and counter art movement has run its course. Originally comes at a premium for me, such that it's always a temptation for me to overvalue things that don't look/sound/read/play like anything I've experienced before. However, the critical faculties eventually kick in and I begin to ask myself whether something is both original and good. There is a huge distinction between "original" and "original but also good" that critics and fans must constantly keep in mind. On the other hand, this obsession with originality plagues my mind when I'm writing, to the point where I sometimes scrap things because, even though they're good by my estimation, they read/feel too closely to the style or thought process of other writers.
I've always gravitated towards art that creates a distinctive, unique world. Even if it borrows elements of other things, the result is something that feels wholly original. I completely realize the flaws in something like, say, the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, but I absolutely love it for the odd world it establishes. I think this is precisely why people like 'cult' movies, TV shows, videogames, and so on, because they like to feel as if they're part of some other reality outside our own that most people aren't aware of. Kind of like a larger form of an inside joke, if you think about it. This is why I loved The Adventures of Pete & Pete as a kid: the city it was set in, along with its characters, gave me a glimpse into a world that was more surreal, interesting, and sensible than our own. When I meet people who also loved the show, it's as if we suddenly have a set of inside jokes and references to share.
To tie all this together: the best art, in my opinion, is that which feels like the work of a small group of people--the inside jokes and references they have--which somehow translates to a wider audience because of the world it creates. Kevin Smith always seems baffled by the popularity of his Jay and Silent Bob characters, but the way they walk the border between the 'mundane' and the 'supernatural' is what makes them seem so real and lasting. They sometimes end up doing extraordinary things, but they're part of a world (the Askewniverse) that has a definite mythos and concrete set of rules. The same goes for bands that sound completely original, who seem to come out of nowhere and shock crusty critics like me who spend most of their thinking time at their menial jobs trying to come up with reference points for whatever band they're going to have to write a review of. Whether you love or hate Deerhoof, The Fiery Furnaces, The Silver Apples, Beat Happening, Frog Eyes, etc. you can't deny the originality of their sound. Certainly they have some influences and antecedents you could point to, but they don't really sound like them. It's more "we were influenced by..." than "we imitate...", if you follow my meaning. I love those bands because they create their own little niche world you can inhabit as a fan. They may not seem to create a world as richly and easily as books, TV shows, movies, or videogames can, but keep in mind that you've got more than just their music to work with. You've got their album covers and liner notes, their websites, their live shows, and their interviews to work with, too. Listening to, say, the Pixies or Talk Talk for the first time, it's as if you're being let into a new club that's always existed and now you get to play catch up. Moreover, other bands may be influenced by them, but if they stick too closely to the sound they sound like a cover band playing original material in between said covers. This is why Nirvana were so awesome, because Kurt Cobain admittedly took a lot from listening to the Pixies, but listening to them back-to-back, there's something new and original in Nirvana's sound.
You may remember that in 1998 a remake of Psycho was released to theaters and promptly dropped out of sight. What you probably don't remember is that it was a shot-for-shot attempt by Gus Van Sant to remake the original by following Alfred Hitchcock as perfectly as possible. Even though critics tried to see it his way, as an experiment in remaking films, everyone--even Van Sant himself--has agreed that a shot-by-shot remake of a film is pointless. You can't totally copy a film anyway, and even if you could, what would it accomplish?? As much as most remakes end up being crap, it's always best to change something from the original because otherwise it's a waste of time and money on everyone's part.
With all of this in mind, I present to you Rook by Shearwater and Stars and Garters by Muy Cansado. Enjoyable albums, yes, but they sound so close to their influences--the aforementioned Talk Talk and Pixies, respectively--that it bothers me. Rook is, according to Metacritic, one of the best rated albums of the year, so I've given a lot of thought to this whole 'originality'/'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' issue. What's ultimately troubling about both of these albums is that they aren't very original yet I like them. Mostly I think it's just because both the Pixies and Talk Talk are defunct, and you can only listen to their albums so many times before you want something like it, but different and new. So, do you, as a critic, curve your score of these albums because you know they're borderline ripping off other bands, bands you enjoy?? I mean, it would be one thing if they were ripping off cancerous bands like Creed and Limp Bizkit, but critical darlings such as the Pixies and Talk Talk?? No fair. The case against Muy Cansado is more damning, I will say, because, not only do they sound like the Pixies, they also stole many other things from them, like being from Boston, having a girl bassist who sings one song, having a song or two in Spanish, and having album pacing that recalls Doolittle. I mean, the first song, 'Telemundo', might as well be 'Debaser', while the second song might as well be 'Tame', only with less screaming and tamer (har har) guitars.
People like to pretend that art should be judged on its own terms, but nothing exists in a vacuum. This is where the role of critics come in, whether it be the professional old hands or snotty upstarts like yours truly. Our job is to expose ourselves to a chosen art form, to swim across its breadth and dive into its depths, and to use this knowledge to sift the gold out of the river of releases like old timey gold prospectors. A job that is half consumer guide and half high falutin' think pieces (like this one, I suppose).
Judged on their own merits, Stars and Garters and Rook are good albums. But judged in reality, where I know of other, better, more original bands, they aren't good albums. They can't be, because they try to insinuate themselves into the world and mythos of others, and this always rings as false. We knew as kids that we weren't really the Ninja Turtles. We had fun with it, had fun playing in the world they resided in, but we never tried to convert that play into a career. I'm not implying that Shearwater and Muy Cansado are making money off the work of others--because that's what cover bands do, in all honesty--but I wish people who know better would make clear to the public when bands are imitating versus when they've just been influenced. Because in the arts, influence is the true sincerest form of flattery.