Why Cindy Lee's "Diamond Jubilee" Feels Like a 2010 Success Story

Why Cindy Lee's "Diamond Jubilee" Feels Like a 2010 Success Story
Image via Todd Dwyer/Flickr

An investigation of the year's most talked-about indie rock album, with assistance from veteran music critic Ian Cohen.

The album presents itself as a relic. It's not on streaming services, and to download it you have to go to an ancient-looking Geocities page. Its primary inspiration seems to be pre-1970s music refracted through the lo-fi sonics of pre-major-label indie rock. But despite its callbacks to decades long gone, Cindy Lee's Diamond Jubilee (and its subsequent success) feels most encased in the amber of the not-so-distant past: 2010-ish.

That's when the murky microgenre known as "hypnagogic pop" was flourishing online alongside chillwave, another genre built on the intentional misremembering of bygone sounds. In the rearview, that moment of the 2000s teetering into the '10s was also the last gasp for a certain kind of critic-driven overnight sensation, the end of an era when rave reviews immediately translated to sold-out shows.

The most devoted Cindy Lee fans will note that the solo project is anything but a green upstart. Patrick Flegel got their start in the short-lived but intensely-loved Calgary band Women, whose dark, brittle, weird indie rock only lasted for two albums released in 2008 and 2010, respectively. The band allegedly flamed out after an onstage fight, and guitarist Christopher Reimer died in 2012.

Women's other two members, drummer Michael Wallace and bassist Matthew Flegel (Patrick's brother) went on to form post-punk band Preoccupations (FKA Viet Cong), who are four albums deep into a fairly successful decade-plus career. Patrick began gestating Cindy Lee around the same time. Deerhunter took them on tour in 2018, and their 2020 album What's Tonight To Eternity got a Pitchfork review, but in all honesty you'd be forgiven if you hadn't heard of Cindy Lee until their second Pitchfork review.

Published a week ago today, Andy Cush's 9.1 rave boasts the highest numerical score that the site has handed out since Fiona Apple's pandemic-era galvanizer Fetch The Bolt Cutters. This had an immediate impact on ticket sales for Lee's ongoing tour, at least anecdotally.

via Twitter

That startling impact of a rave review is something we haven't seen in a long, long time. Others can joke about how the two-hour-long Diamond Jubilee is best experienced on two burnt CD-Rs, or wax poetic about how the album "subverts nearly every expectation of a modern album rollout," but to me, the most retro thing about the past few weeks' Cindy Lee phenomenon is how music writing is steering the conversation about a niche artist.

In a week where protests at Columbia University cast a pall over a Democratic National Convention set to be held in Chicago (1968, anyone?), reminders that history is cyclical feel especially trite. Does the out-of-nowhere critical success of Cindy Lee suggest a full-on rebirth of blog-era largess? Maybe just a return to the days where Red Bull subsidized underground music?

I first became addicted to reading online music criticism in my freshman year of college, which was—you guessed it—2009-2010. One of the writers handing out raves (and pans) for Pitchfork at the time was Ian Cohen, who has now amassed more reviews than anyone else in the site's history.

A few weeks ago, Cohen tweeted that Diamond Jubilee reminds him of what he and "fellow oldheads" used to call a "Schreiber 9.0" (named after Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber): "a niche album on which P4k ca. 2010 would drop an eye-popping rave before it slipped to like #19 in the year end." A week later, he was vindicated when the 9.1 review went up.

In order to give my thoughts on Diamond Jubilee's connections to Obama-era indie rock some perspective, I got Ian on the phone a few days before he attends a Cindy Lee concert in San Diego. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Inbox Infinity: In what ways does this feel like a 2008-to-2010 album to you?

Ian Cohen: The conversations happening around it like, 'Oh shit, the show sold out based on this review'—to me, that part of it signifies how this is the most like it was in the days of like, 2008, 2010, where you'd have this band that no one really heard of, or you know, people have heard of them, but [the review] just amplifies things in a way that's organic. It's not a total overnight sensation—Cindy Lee's been around for a minute, there's been a lot leading up to it. But there's a turbo-boost that I don't think we've seen in quite some time. 

The sound of it, what it draws upon—whether it's '60s pop, or girl group stuff, even the funk elements of it—brought me back me to a ton of bands that were popping up at that time. Obviously Women to begin with—their last album came out in 2010—but I'm thinking of Dirty Beaches, the first Unknown Mortal Orchestra record, Ariel Pink's Before Today, bands like Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls, and even Best Coast to a certain extent. They've got a lo-fi, gritty sound but it's still drawing on this tradition of '50s and '60s pop, this kind of Twin Peaks idea of playing with the memory of older forms of pop-rock music. 

It's indie pop, but not in the way of before, like Felt or Belle And Sebastian. This is a form of record collector music, where we take a discarded part of music history but we do it through four-track recording. So this music was popping up all over the place from 2009 to 2011, which was maybe the last couple years before there was a greater shift towards pop and synth-pop. I think 2011 was really the first year of the 2010s in that regard. It was the last time this stuff could take a central place in the critical discussion.

Is there a parallel between this shift in aesthetics and the timeline where bands stop getting that "turbo-boost" from album reviews? 

There's been a lot of conversation around the Cindy Lee album that's been, 'This is the way it should be,' which is funny because that's literally the last line of [Pitchfork's 9.0] Clap Your Hands Say Yeah review in 2005. But yeah, 'This is what music criticism should be for, which is to elevate relatively unknown bands and put the sort of enthusiasm behind them that you do with you know, boygenius or whoever.' There just isn't the infrastructure to pull that off anymore.

This album is a perfect storm of sentiments that have been welling up for quite some time about this lack of faith—not just in specific publications—but in music journalism as a whole. There's this sense of feeling super powerless in terms of doing anything that can turbo-charge or shift the narrative. There are two approaches: one is the more cynical assumption about what Pitchfork is gonna be in the GQ era, like, 'They're just gonna cover fashion, they're just gonna cover the biggest stuff.' Or there's my sentiment of, 'Well, if nothing matters, why don't we just do what the fuck we want?' It's the No Country For Old Men thing: "If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?" I think this represented an opportunity.

I think we see it more and more, where there's this stratification where everything is super pop, and publications are covering the most pop, or most click-y stuff, but it's balanced out on the other end with even more obscure things. I just think everything came together and this album brought a lot out of people. It's not just Pitchfork, it's Gorilla Vs. Bear, Aquarium Drunkard, Passion of the Weiss—all of those places really love this record, and all of those places have existed since 2005, or thereabouts. 

I know the shows are selling out, but they're smaller venues for the most part. Do you see the Diamond Jubilee acclaim translating into much real-world success, or are we overestimating its potential because we're in the echo chamber of music writers on Twitter?

It is an echo chamber, in a way. In San Diego, they sold out a 250-cap room. It was the same place I saw Kevin Devine, it's where Hotline TNT played a few weeks ago. But what else can explain it, really? Cindy Lee's been playing for a while and only recently have the shows sold out.

I hope I'm wrong, but my guess is that we've seen the peak of the Cindy Lee phenomenon. In Rolling Stone you might get a curious piece about it, and maybe Cindy Lee plays Pitchfork Festival next year. Part of what I was joking about with the "Schreiber 9.0" is that these are things that get a significant bump early on, but by the end of the year it levels out. You know, maybe it's #5 on most year-end lists. But that's fine! It's not to say that it wasn't deserved, it's just that that level of enthusiasm for such a niche thing feels very 2010, 2011.

There's now this pressure to not be wrong. In a weird way music writing feels more like draft prediction, where the main goal is to not pick a bust—there's an understandable desire to not be wrong. Most of the big pans people talk about, those feel super safe, like Ed Sheeran or Greta Van Fleet or whatever. But to go that hard over something that might not be that popular, or might not hold up, people feel a lot more conservative about that. 

I like this record, and after a week of listening to it, I was like, 'This'll probably get Best New Music on a lark, and that'll be it.'  It's two fuckin' hours long, and it's not a Swans record where it's cinematic, it's just like 30 songs. I don't think this is going to signify a trend, where Still House Plants [get the same treatment]. Maybe this is just one last hurrah, but we'll see. 

BOI (Best Of Inbox) #25

Agriculture - "In the House of Angel Flesh"

Location: L.A. // Genre: "ecstatic black metal" // RIYL: Deafheaven if George Clarke performed with an ear-to-ear smile instead of a scowl // From: "Living Is Easy," out 4/28

ATRÆ BILIS - "Inward To Abraxas"

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All Inbox Infinity picks are available in playlist form via Apple Music and Spotify.

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Jamie Larson