Friday, July 27, 2007

overdue Pitchfork report

Welcome to the 3rd Annual International Hipster Symposium of 2007, aka Pitchfork Music Festival. In a landscape with too many great, ATM-draining festivals, Pitchfork stands out by being fleeter and cheaper than the rest. The magic, expedient touch is booking a bunch of cool, hipster-approved bands that aren't overly famous yet yet. At least that's the hope - who knows how many of these bands will actually hit the big-time - but for indie scene obsessives, Pitchfork has a staggering number of satisfying appearances, absent almost any of the bands that would count as marquee names (and be attendently pricier to book) at bigger, more expensive festivals.

To be brief, Chicago (I've been here once before, for all of 2 hours - long story, but I did go to Millennium Park at least) is very cool indeed - half Austin-ish sprawl of residential areas and hipster eateries, half overblown metropolis with decent (if, to the novice visitor, extremely confusing) public transportation. Arriving off the Ashland-Green line to Union Park Friday night, however, is not very cool. You can see the venue straight from the platform, as promised, but these stations are obviously unable to streamline the passage of hipsters en masse.

Friday, 7:45 P.M. - Will call's a breeze, which is a good thing - one person away from getting my tickets (a very annoying person, I might add, who's hitting on the girl who's having trouble finding his tickets; "Maybe I'll see you inside," he says, like he has the slightest chance), the opening strains of GZA's Liquid Swords are clearly audible. Unsurprisingly, the beat and vocals are muddy and echo-y this far away, but promisingly loud and far-reaching. Once inside, me and the girlfriend briefly break up - she to get beer, I to gawk - but soon re-unite. GZA's on obvious if understandable auto-pilot, nailing every word of his 12-year old album. Problem: nearly half of that album is guest appearances, and, as he announces, "I'm missing a Wu-Tang show in Amsterdam for this," so no group chemistry. Solution: an efficient DJ who brings up every beat and guest vocal as needed. It's impressive that the fidelity is this good - but it's also kind of boring and pointless, and the GZA himself seems to perform with cool hauteur, not sweating one beat in his oversized white T. We sit on the grass and drink beer. The crowd's a predictable riot - middle-aged men with Naked Raygun and Shudder to Think t-shirts flaunting their Class of '92 college cred, pretty young hipsters of both genders, and the inevitable local frat boys for whom music fest = beer and chicks. Not that they're entirely wrong.

8:55 P.M. - With 5 minutes to go before Sonic Youth are scheduled to do all of Daydream Nation, things seem headed to an on-time set start. They've done the drum kit, so now lights are flashing onstage at random in preparation. The most annoying posse is directly to our right, their ringleader wearing a Ghostbusters ringer-T and talking loudly at everyone. Right on the dot, a middle-aged man comes out to, presumably, hype up a crowd that's more than ready to cheer on even the most oblique cue. This is good: Sonic Youth fans tend to be, as far as I can tell, people who generally like melodic pop but inexplicably enjoy SY's semi-accessible noise freak-outs and dissonant hooks without listening to any of their avant-garde predecessors or contemporaries. I've listened to Daydream Nation five or so times now, and I'm still not entirely sure many of these things are technically songs. There are riffs aplenty, and it's the work of a band at the top of its interplay, filling up every rhythmic and harmonic crevice. I'm just not sure that "Total Trash" is a song in the same way that, say, "Teen Age Riot" obviously is. Translation: I don't entirely love the album (although "Teen Age Riot," "Kissability," and "Trilogy: A) The Wonder" are obviously gold), and I feel kind of guilty about that.

The hypeman (later revealed, with a little Google-searching, to be the co-owner of a Chicago club) is an embarrassing joke - like having your mom type "LOL" or a teacher drop references to 2Pac in an attempt to relate. He's sad to watch in the way that people who want to ply on communal knowledge to build a bond - when you've obviously got nothing in common - are. "It's a middle-aged riot," he yells; "we're a nation of dreamers." This kind of talk is kind of creepy, making you feel like you've joined a cult and have some kind of inside knowledge. He will be relentlessly derided by the crowd the rest of the weekend.

There's the band and the opening notes - but where the fuck is the sound? After a few moments, heading from the gauzy strains to first rock-out, it becomes obvious that a volume boost is not on the way; it's supposed to sound like this. "Turn it up! Turn it up!" becomes the chant led by the Ghostbusters man, and I join in - this is pathetic, the quietest show with amps I've ever seen. I can kind of see why - probably noise ordinances, and the fact that there's a house literally right behind the house and across the street probably doesn't help - but it's also kind of lame. Finally, Ghostbusters leads one of those rude pushes to the front generally frowned upon, and I follow without a sense of shame.

The performance itself is a mixed bag; it sounds better live, obviously, and I notice that a lot of these songs basically lumber from one pounding, primitive riff to another (in a way, SY aren't a lot unlike the '70s rock dinosaurs they supposedly supplanted, trying to win you over by sheer heaviness and volume). They're songs after all, I suppose, or maybe just seem like it in this context. "This is the home stretch," announces Thurston before the trilogy, and suddenly it's over. With that out of the way, they return with much more energy. "Back to the 21st century," he snidely remarks, and the band seems genuinely enthused about playing tracks from Rather Ripped (a record I still haven't listened to), as Kim Gordon rocks unsteadily on her heels. The Daydream Nation performance seemed almost like classical music, with the band diligently hitting every complicated note, reveling in their interplay; this encore actually feels like an outdoor show.

Saturday, 2 P.M. - You can hear Califone's trumpets reverberating across the field as Voxtrot lackadaisically stroll through their sound-check. The Austin sensations seem unfazed to be touring with an album generally conceded to be a disappointing way to capitalize on their EPs. Maybe they just really don't know that people don't like it (although I hear this isn't the case, and Ramesh blames blog culture); whatever the reason is, they're troopers in the mid-day sun. Some of their new songs - so unmemorable in recorded form I don't even know their names - sound much improved live, or at least more direct. They don't play "Rise Up In The Dirt" - not just their best song, but the best song of 2006 as far as I'm concerned - but they do give us some of the good old jams ("Your Biggest Fan," "Soft And Warm," and "The Start Of Something" as a closer - prefaced with the wry disclaimer "This song has more words than any of our other songs, which is saying a lot for us"), although - curiously - not the two best songs from their new record, "Firecracker" and "Blood Red Blood." A couple of other things - these songs are fucking hard, and the band could stand to practice the time-changes a little more, because sometimes they lose momentum from one section to another, the tempo slowing down while trying to negotiate a changing time-signature. Also, sound board people? Turn that other guitarist (dunno your name dude, sorry) way up. He's the one actually playing the riffs, so it would be nice to hear him.

3:10 P.M. - I'm not sure why you would see Beach House live - I guess I'm trying because I've heard their record and liked it, but have never listened to Grizzly Bear across the way. Anyway, it's a bad idea - Beach House sound, I shit you not, exactly the same live, which I guess is what happens when your key components are drum machines, hushed vocals, & slide guitar - how hard could it be to replicate the tone, right? (Also, I known I say this about everything, but I swear some of these chord changes - esp. on "Childhood" - are way close to Koyaanisqatsi.) They're not bad, but you're certainly not gonna push your way through a crowd for this.

Meanwhile, astounding noises are coming from the Grizzly Bear stage - they first announced themselves with bass notes so loud I thought the mothership from Close Encounters had landed - and finally it's unavoidable - we have to see this. What they are are fairly astonishing - flawless 3-part vocal harmonies, guys switching off on lead vocals, a drummer who occasionally just plays bass; general musical showmanship that makes what are actually kind of sedate songs perfect to wow a crowd (or at least me) with. I need to listen to these guys stat.

4:10 P.M. - This is the surprise gem of the festival. Over at the "Balance Stage" (i.e., the one crammed between merchandise tents and the park fence - not enough space for hardly any people, and once again a crippling lack of volume unless you're within 20 feet), there is an unsmiling man in a yellow shirt. He has two equally undistinguished cohorts, and their equipment is kind of inscrutable. He leans forward into the mic and begins whispering "Fujiya...Miyagi" over and over again.

This is awesome. I've vaguely heard of Fujiya & Miyagi - a bunch of contradictory reviews have suggested Krautrock and Stereolab as reference points, both of which alienate me, so I haven't checked them out - but what they are are extremely quiet, chilled out sort-of electronica, variously recalling Gary Numan and Talking Heads' more expansive moments (think the closing moments of "Stay Hungry," when the expansive synths bloom over a steady drum-beat).

The music is only half the show. In person, F&M are completely hilarious, in large part because the man in the yellow shirt - a stoic stage presence who barely acknowledges the audience - spends much of his time making goofy sounds with his mouth - cars racing, a "sucking punch" sound to accentuate the lyrics on this topic, and all sorts of general radio sound effects bullshit. It's invigorating to watch a guy be this weird in public, but they had me from the opening whisper chant, which I find myself repeating sporadically for the rest of the weekend.

6:20 P.M. - I don't really care for the cheerfully hardcore idiots in Mastodon - rampaging, kill-them-all metal has never really been my thing - but I do appreciate that they're pretty much annoying the shit out of everyone who doesn't like them, blasting across the park with no competition. "They're just noise and feedback," complain the sorority bubbleheads behind me in the latrine line. "There are, like, no good bands left today." Fuck you lady; leave after Iron & Wine, why don't you?

7:00 P.M. - I've never been to a rap show (unless you count Michael Franti & Spearhead those many years ago at Austin City Limits) - in part because I've heard they suck, in part because they're damn expensive. But Clipse is the best show I've seen in ages, let alone at this festival. A while back, when enthusiastically recommending their 2006 album Hell Hath No Fury (eventually my #3 favorite record of last year, as far as these record-nerd list things go), I foolishly suggested that they seemed to be kidding; such technical proficiency (and their nasal voices) seemed to suggest that they were honing their craft on whatever was popular without really caring. I've read some interviews with them since then, and I take it all back: crack dealership goes back two generations in the family, and they allegedly spend the years between albums going back to selling crack to pay the bills. These are terrible, scary people who just happen to be brilliant.

Pusha-T emerges in the standard oversized white T-shirt with dreadlocks; Malice is the shaven-headed one. They have a DJ who doesn't do much other than serve up the beats and annoyingly punctuate the end of every song with a gunshot song. But Clipse are awesome: yelling out every line whether solo or in unison, backing each other up on the ends of lines, acting out damn every word with facial expressions. They're completely engaged, and they have the crowd on their side. There's a semi-problematic aspect here: it's been all downhill commercially since their 2002 hit "Grindin'," and right now I suspect that (outside of Virginia), their biggest fans are the skinny, white, fashionably-bespectacled Pitchfork crowd. If this bothers them, it doesn't show: the DJ doesn't play censored versions of the songs, but sort of subtly muffles "nigga" every time it comes up on a chorus that people are singing along with. Clipse aren't exactly selling blackness to an audience that - like previous generations of lily-white suburban teens loving N.W.A., the whole concept of which got sent up most excellently in Dynamite Hack's "Boyz N The Hood" cover - fetishizes something supposedly dangerous, primal and raw. The primary reason we're all here (hopefully) is that they're superb, very proficient rappers; we're not talking enjoyable idiots like Young Jeezy or Three 6 Mafia. If at times Clipse seem to be playing up their roles as aggressive, undeniably semi-menacing hoods, in the context of mainstream rap's constant threat-mongering they're hardly unique or particularly violent. That violence stands out at this largely sedate festival, but it also makes for the most energetic set of the day.

8:30 P.M. - The Balance Stage is fucked. I kind of suspect the reason Girl Talk was put on this stage was to encourage the spillover to go see Yoko Ono. Not happening; we can only get close enough to sort of see a demented jack-o-lantern decorating the top of the stage, and can't hear shit. We leave, stopping to hear the end of Cat Power's set. "She's like Dylan with tits," a friend texts me. Yes.

Sunday, 1:00 P.M. - Deerhunter are late setting up. "They're having breakfast with Mastodon," suggest the pot-smokers behind us, which strikes me as the festival's best quip so far. (Later, my girlfriend will note - after learning that Menomena's first album is an anagram - that she would love to play Scrabble with them. Put those two events together and it sounds like a perfect day to me.) The hypeman is back; he embarassed himself at Voxtrot with the yell "Are there mothers here? Sisters? Daughters? Wives?" The "yeah"s were half-hearted at best, and now he announces the performers as "Deerhoof," a pronouncement that will be shouted back at him every time he takes the stage for the rest of the day. (Addendum: apparently terrifying lead singer Bradford Cox asked him to do this, but it certainly added to the general ill-will.) I don't really care that much about Deerhunter either way, although certainly their ambient, loop-y skronk improves in person - it's the loudest set I've heard the whole fest. Cox is pretty much the whole show though - look at those photos on the link above. When he stood holding the mic in his mouth with his head down and his arms raised in a V, that may have been the creepiest, most memorable image of the festival.

2:00 p.m. - As rumored, Menomena have trouble setting up their equipment, though it's pretty astonishing that they can make all this noise with just three people. (Across the field, we can hear The Ponys as Menomena struggle to prep; good god they suck. 3 chords, a female who bobs up and down for 30 minutes straight, all-bullshit rock 'n roll. Get the fuck out of the garage guys.) Of all the bands here (with the arguable exception of Grizzly Bear) they're the ones with the most obviously manifested talent - they can all sing in flawless a capella three-part harmony, the two non-drummers are multi-instrumentalists and manage to pull together the complicated songs without relying on backing tracks - the sax solos are intact! - and the drummer is the festival's best, hitting every complicated fill beat with monstrous volume and precision (he's like one of those '70s studio drummers they kept around when you needed someone to drive the whole song). "Muscle'n Flo" is still bumpin', but "Rotten Hell" is the real stand-out - they know that sheer goodwill is easy to generate when you drop out all the instruments from a quiet song, do the 3-part a capella thing, then zoom back in to a huge chorus. Even with all this talent and great material, the set's no more than solid: it's more like a gigantic stunt to see how they'll do it than a polished show. Give them time.

3:00 p.m. - One of the few bands to start right on time, Junior Boys have something Menomena don't: showmanship. It's actually been a surprisingly good festival for performances that don't just have musical talent but charisma as well: Voxtrot was kind of lazy, mostly relying upon their cute lead singer to bounce around (he waved his hands in the air a lot), and Menomena stalled too much between songs to be anything but solid. But Clipse (more than anyone here), Grizzly Bear, Fujiya & Miyagi, and Deerhunter have all offered spectacles of some kind. Only Junior Boys, however, seem truly professional and arena-ready - which makes sense, because they would've been wildly popular in the '80s. A lot of the music has to be generated from samples, for obvious reasons, but it's surprising how much they can do onstage - the bassist has the funky one-two walk of an '80s superstar, and the drummer is an asshole of the best kind, wearing crisp business attire and sporting an aggressive shaved head. Phil Collins couldn't do better. On record, they're gorgeously mopey, hide-in-bed kind of music; live, they actually sound...kind of sexy.

5:00 p.m. - It's been dead time to drink beer, but please note that somewhere across the park, Jamie Lidell is prancing around in a headdress he apparently bought at George Clinton's garage sale. WTF.

6:00 p.m. - It must be really, really nice to be Stephen Malkmus. If Pixies and Pavement were the twin faces of the late '80s/early '90s new face of indie rock - down with '80s college rock and jangle, up with the clear, relatively pristine melodies! - I think it's clear which has aged better - and this has nothing to do with their equally formidable influence and discographies (although I do prefer Pavemen)t. On the one hand, we have the perpetually enigmatic group which fell apart without undue acrimony and the ever-appealing frontman who, to this day, looks younger than you do. On the other hand, we have the group which was perpetually underappreciated until it was infamously disbanded by a fax note, and whose frontman proceeded to grow fat and decidedly unsvelte (I saw Frank Black do an in-store a few years ago, and his appearance literally made a small child cry). Black's been restlessly re-inventing himself in perpetuum because he needs to - Stephen Malkmus hangs back and wears pink polo shirts and plays in a jam band whenever he damn well feels like it. But crucially, Malkkmus is "clever" in a way that's obvious without being immediate: it takes a while to get his sense of humor, but once you do, suddenly everything he says sounds like a joke. "Oops," he says, and the crowd roars with laughter. The set's fine - I'm kind of incapable of telling the difference between his old and new material when it's all guitar and vocals - and everyone goes nuts when drummer Bob Nastanovich from Pavement shows up for a shambolic, quasi-reunion rendition of two cuts from Slanted And Enchanted, which is admittedly pretty fucking awesome. (Snarky side note: if Pavement was all about upending conventional expectations and being charmingly self-deprecating, Malkmus may be deliberately fucking with crowd expectations. It was well known and widely expected that bassist Mark Ibold was with Sonic Youth, and, if anyone was expected to join Malkmus on-stage, it would be him, since he was already there. Instead, Malkmus threw the curveball, and then didn't add Ibold; a threesome on-stage might have ignited a riot.) Come for the music, stay for the frequent and inexplicable Lou Reed references, hero-worship and nostalgia.

7:00 p.m. - Of Montreal is a fine band that I've only recently come around on, having suffered previously from one of my recurring delusions that every song sounds the same. It doesn't, at least not on their new record, a fine, spazzy melange of overproduced (in a good way) hooks. And I'm curious: how does one play such a clearly studio-bound record live? The answer, apparently, is to steal a page from the Flaming Lips: crank up the backing tracks and make with the costumes. We get tired of the gimmickry after 20 minutes, which may have been a mistake: the guy in the black-suit dancing as Kevin Barnes' evil id wasn't doing much for me, but all I hear the rest of the night are vague, tantalizing snippets of conversation that seem to suggest a combination of an awesome orgy and cooking show: "My favorite part was the apple sauce." Huh?

8:00 p.m. - The Field sounds exactly the same live. What's the fucking point.

9:10 p.m. - Klaxons are 40 minutes late with their set-up, enough time for the pure-at-heart to run over to De La Soul like good music historians. Klaxons don't really belong here; they're like the shallow guilty pleasure Planet Terror to the festival's Death Proof. It's visceral, retrograde pleasures vs. music that's largely not mosh-friendly - and certainly not cool enough to proudly fly its Britpop derivation. And yeah, I enjoyed it, even though Klaxons run the same live-set bullshit as every British band ever - pretending to be drunker than they are, giving out sarcastic shout-outs, sweating profusely to show how hard they're working (which, undeniably, they are). In fact, I was with them almost to the end; certainly live the whole dance-rock thing makes more sense, with the Klaxons being simultaneously conventionally melodic and song-oriented while providing rump-shaking action. The crowd made good with plenty of moshing and crowd-surfing. But then, at the very end, they smashed an amp, and I got fed up. What's the budget like for these tours? "Alright boys, tonight you can smash a tom and a guitar, but leave the amp alone, we can't afford another one til tomorrow. Now go out there and show 'em uncalculated rock, dammit!"

But yeah, not a bad way to end the fest. Do it with volume next year, OK guys?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

mid-year catch-up: Rufus Wainwright, Prodigy, The White Stripes, Sally Shapiro

Rufus Wainwright, Release The Stars - Some artists layer guitars. Rufus Wainwright layers trumpets, and that confuses people. "Too baroque," scream all the negative reviews, "the arrangements smother the songs." Thank god for my mom then - a classical music professor without even the slightest bit of sympathy for contemporary pop music. I ran the opening tracks of this album past her, and she was unimpressed. "Very conservative," she frowned. So yes, all you carping and caviling types: these aren't Broadway show tunes (thank god) or hookless wonders. These are pop songs, and fairly glorious ones at that, with the least touch of modesty removed: Wainwright is way beyond the point of inserting a quiet, piano-and-voice ballad like "In A Graveyard." An album like Poses appears modest in retrospect. While that's still his masterpiece (the back-to-back combo of "Poses" and "Shadows" is pretty unbeatable), Release The Stars easily trumps the Want duo, which suffered respectively from some plainly shitty tracks and the goofiest damn closer on the otherwise superb Want Two. Release The Stars is consistently excellent in its songwriting and arrangements (and Wainwright proves to be a terrific self-producer), and doing those Judy Garland shows seems to have re-instilled some welcome grit and aggression unseen since "California" aspired to be a single. Particularly weird case in point: "Between My Legs." Wainwright's said that hearing Franz Ferdinand on the radio made him want to start a song in chaos and then bring into his own kind of order. The premise is dubious (if Rufus thinks this is disorder, god help him when he hears Sonic Youth), but the execution is genius: from clunky, shuffling full-band assault to ecstatic chorus, swooning brass nicking the only memorable riff from "Phantom Of The Opera," and what sounds like Gollum dramatically reading out Rufus's lyrics. It's not his strongest album - while never a shitty lyricist, a lot of what's here are placeholder words rather than the strong storytelling he's capable of - but I'll venture that it's his second best. The unconverted need not apply, obviously.

Prodigy, Return Of The Mac - Only recently got into Mobb Deep (The Infamous is a stone-cold classic), but of late G-Unit has destroyed all their inventiveness, turning them from strong storytellers with pungent details into rote threat-mongers. The same applies here, but the producer makes all the difference: DJ Alchemist is kind of a genius, and while this is an album good for about all of 3 listens, those are 3 very entertaining spins. Prodigy mumbles, sounds vaguely 50-ish, and offers to kill you on the slightest provocation, but Alchemist recontextualizes this, offering up not lazy synths and drum machines but lush '70s samples. The idea of blaxploitation-ish rap is nothing new, of course, but on the two best tracks - "Mac 10 Handle" and "Take It To The Top" - it comes to vigorous new life. The former is Prodigy's strongest lyrical performance; he sits in his room, staring at candles, scheming on niggas, and watching Hard Boiled, which seems to be a good night for him. "Take It To The Top" is the strongest track - at first it seems like sliding bass notes, whistles and bongos are all that's gonna happen, but 40 seconds in, stabbing strings and flutes comes in to accentuate every line. It's a well-considered blend of the interplay between flow and production, even if Prodigy has nothing to say ("God bless you and all of your friends/cuz I'm on some bullshit and I'm ready to flip"). Rest is fun, but those are the two tracks I keep coming back to.

The White Stripes, Icky Thump - Of course this is a heartening return to form; it would be nice to pretend that Get Behind Me, Satan being "adventurous" was fun for anyone but Jack White, but most of those songs were a drag. The first four tracks here are as strong as any White Stripes first half; the bizarro freak-out of "Icky Thump" is initially confounding, but with repeated listens the wanky guitar solos and twisty time-changes make sense. White sounds as pissed off as he's ever been - which is a good thing, make no mistake - and then he settles into "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)," one of their most conventional and satisfying stompers, up there with "You're Pretty Good Looking (for A Girl)" and other, non-parenthetical songs. "300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues" has White indeed pouring his little heart out (no traditional blues chords though, just mellow strumming), and "Conquest" is a pleasingly bizarre mariachi track. There's some missteps along the way - two bagpipe tracks back to back, egad - but Icky Thump is pretty damn satisfying, even if the middle third occasionally turns into sludge.

Sally Shapiro, Disco Romance - I'm not sure why I don't care much for this; it's basically a wintry, unadventurous Saint Etienne. All I got is that Shapiro's voice is kind of unremarkable, and the arrangements more mood music than stick-in-your-head hooky. I have a feeling there's lots of CDs floating around like this, and I'm not sure why I should care about this one in particular.

The Shins, Wincing The Night Away
The Broken West, I Can't Go On, I'll Go On
Fountains Of Wayne, Traffic And Weather
v/a, Do You Trust Your Friends?
Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
Twilight Sad, Fourteen Autumns And Fifteen Winters
Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Kanye West, Can't Tell Me Nothing: The Official Mixtape
The Apples In Stereo, New Magnetic Wonder
Bishop Allen, The Broken String
Elliott Smith, New Moon
T.I. T.I. Vs. T.I.P.
Ola Podrida, Ola Podrida
Wilco, Sky Blue Sky