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Lollapalooza 2013: Sunday Recap


At some point, not in this post, I’m going to complain about how worn out and tired I was heading into Sunday at Lollapalooza. Again, I want to emphasize that now is neither the time nor place to comment on such things, because the main focus is on a summary of the things I saw on the final day of the three day festival. I prefer to use the term “lazy Sunday” to describe how I approached things, though the amount of walking and standing I did probably qualifies as the opposite of that. But compared to previous days, my main goal was to finish out the weekend in a very relaxed atmosphere without pushing myself too hard. For the most part you could call that mission a success. Here’s a Sunday recap for you:

Since Angel Haze is a member of my Class of 2013, I really, really wanted to see her perform at Lolla. Unfortunately, I made one fatal mistake: I chose to take a 15-minute cat nap before heading out the door. That 15 minutes turns into 30, and suddenly you find yourself racing to Grant Park in the hopes of catching the last few songs of a set, only to hit some heavy traffic on Lake Shore Drive. So ultimately, no Angel Haze was in my future and I arrived at the exact time her set was ending. My other realistic choices were to see the second half of sets from Alex Clare or Lianne La Havas, neither of which sounded attractive to me. So I wandered the grounds instead, taking in some of the “sights” and grabbing a pizza along with a t-shirt before dropping by the Petrillo stage for some Baroness. That was the official start to my musical day, and they were a great kick in the teeth for those of us that needed it. They had the energy of a great metal band, complete with plenty of guitar posturing and long-haired head banging. Part of what makes Baroness such a strong live band though isn’t their energy, but the music itself, which strives to transcend easily definable genres. It leads to some cool psychedelic and punk rock ethos that blend perfectly with the much heavier guitar work. They may have lost a couple members following their tragic bus crash last fall, but they’ve fully recovered and are as impressive as ever.

Have you ever seen Tegan and Sara perform live before? It’s been about seven or so years since I last caught their live show. For the record, there’s nothing wrong with it that forced me to stay away, but I saw them play a couple of small club dates back in the So Jealous era and then follow those up with a Lollapalooza set in which Sara wound up with heat stroke which caused them to abort after the first 30 minutes. Personally I think their sharp uptick in popularity combined with performing at increasingly larger venues turned me off a bit, as did their 2009 album Sainthood. But I also think that Tegan and Sara have been avoiding Lollapalooza since 2005, and I was eager to see what would happen when they returned to the festival for the first time in eight years. I also wonder how many people in the crowd saw that 2005 shortened set. Given the demographics of the festival these days, I’m betting very few people besides myself and Tegan and Sara were there. Still, in true sisterly fashion, Tegan couldn’t help bring that incident up multiple times during their set, checking in on Sara to see how she was surviving the balmy 78 degree weather. Last time the heat index was 100+ degrees. Both of them did just fine, and they triumphed with a full set that was 50% devoted to cuts from their new album Heartthrob. It all sounded rather great, and that’s sort of been the Tegan and Sara modus operandi for over a decade now. They have a lot of fun on stage, trade off witty banter and goofy insults at one another, and hit all their notes right on target. Not much more you could ask for, and why would you want to?

The appeal of alt-J is something I’ve not fully grasped yet. Their debut album An Awesome Wave is a pretty strong cocktail of the many different popular styles of indie rock from recent years, and while there are plenty of highlights (“Breezeblocks,” “Fitzpleasure,” “Something Good”), beyond those carefully spaced hits are sonically interesting but largely quiet moments. Therefore if you think that’s going to translate well to a festival stage, you’re sorely mistaken. The massive sized crowd was moderately well-behaved for much of the set, waiting patiently for the hits they recognized, then promptly singing and/or dancing along with them before another lull arrived. While I didn’t hear anyone expressing outright disappointment with the band’s performance, the turnover was high, with a mini exodus happening each time the band finished one of their hits. So what was alt-J’s biggest failure, their relative inexperience with trying to engage a festival crowd, or the mere fact that their material doesn’t lend itself to that type of situation? I’d argue a little from column A and a little from column B. As time and new material emerge, I feel like things will get better. From what I saw at Lollapalooza though, they’re a band in the spotlight who aren’t quite ready for it just yet.

While I wasn’t able to catch all of their set, part of me felt inclined to watch at least a little bit of Grizzly Bear. I haven’t seen them perform live since their latest album Shields came out last year, and the thought was it’d be nice to hear a couple songs from that album to see how well they translate on stage. In short, like pretty much everything else from the band’s catalogue, it sounds pretty great. Of course Grizzly Bear aren’t the most lively bunch when performing, and on an early Sunday evening with the sun beginning to set, their golden melodies felt almost just right even as it could well have lulled the crowd to sleep. I was invested enough after a handful of songs to want to stick around for more, but another band was calling my name on the other side of the park.

If you read my review of Vampire Weekend‘s new album Modern Vampires of the City, then you know it’s one of if not THE finest albums of 2013 so far. It was on that reasoning I felt the need to make sure I was there for at least a majority of the band’s Lollapalooza set. The crowd was one of the biggest all weekend, and for good reason given their consistent increase in popularity over the last few years. As one might expect, there was quite a bit of material crammed into the 1 hour and 15 minutes they were allotted, though the slight surprise was how evenly distributed things were across the band’s three albums. Of the 18 songs played, the band did six from each record, except for Contra which only got five. The extra outlier was the b-side “Boston (Ladies of Cambridge)”, which has been around since before VW’s debut album when they sent out a CD-R to a bunch of music writers in the hopes of earning some attention. Overall the set was a whole lot of fun, and the crowd really liked it too. I’m just glad I got to hear “Hannah Hunt” performed live as I began to venture back to the other side of Grant Park in search of the perfect way to end my weekend.

As I wandered over to find a decent viewing spot for The Cure‘s festival-closing set, I overheard Beach House beaming out a perfect rendition of their song “Myth” to end their set. When I saw the band perform at a different festival last year, they almost put me to sleep, and I anticipate something similar would have happened had a stuck around for their full set. Beach House is a great band, but the best way to experience their live show is in a seated theater, not outside at a music festival. Which does bring me to The Cure, and how they practically excel in a setting such as this. Lollapalooza is their only show in the continental U.S. this year, as part of their “Great Circle” world tour, and naturally they aimed to please. All of their essential hits were played, from “Love Song” to “Friday I’m in Love” and “Pictures of You,” plus a handful of deep cuts to satisfy their more intense fans. Of course most were there to hear their biggest songs, which is why the crowd went nuts for anything easily recognizable but largely stopped paying close attention when “Trust” and “Want” and “The Hungry Ghost” showed up. You could claim Disintegration dominated because six out of the total 26 songs were from that record, but Wish got quite a bit of love too while the rest of the set was scattered across the band’s vast catalogue of time and space. I realized while watching their set that it’s been nearly 10 years since I last saw The Cure perform, and don’t really remember much about the last time except that I was a little disappointed Robert Smith was still doing the bird’s nest hair and white makeup style two decades later. These days I’m older, wiser and presumably more accepting of such eccentricities. But getting back to the Lollapalooza performance, I walked away quite satisfied, but felt like the pacing was off by just a litte bit. There were some big hits in the first 45 minutes of the set, but those second 45 minutes were thorny and somewhat difficult to enjoy. The 30 or so minutes of encore time was just one big hit after another, and I think if all those songs were spread out a bit more it would have kept not only myself, but the overall crowd more interested too. A small part of me was also hoping to hear a new song or two, as it’s been five years since the band’s last album of original material. Alas, it was not to be, though maybe that was for the better considering their track record the last 12-13 years. The Cure touring around just playing crowd favorites seems like the smartest move they could make, so long as there’s still a demand for it. If the crowd at Lollapalooza was any indication, that demand won’t be waning any time soon.

EP Review: Minor Characters – Heal Me, Healing Times [Self-Released]



Let’s start with an introduction. If you’re not relatively familiar with Chicago’s local music scene, the band Minor Characters may not have ever registered on your radar. Their ultimate plan is world domination, but as with any band or person that ever had the drive to pick up and play an instrument, we’ve all got to start somewhere. In the case of Minor Characters, they first got together at the end of 2010 and have been working hard to pay their dues ever since. They play as many live shows as possible, and through that avenue have built up something of a cult following in Chicago’s local scene. That hard work has paid off in other ways too, which is probably why they recently placed third in The Deli Magazine’s poll of Chicago Emerging Artists for 2012. But the reach of Minor Characters does extend beyond the city of Chicago, as they’ve done a fair amount of touring out of town and will be making their way to SXSW in March to hopefully introduce themselves to crowds eager to hear what they’ve got to offer. Of course everyone is also welcome to discover them via their self-titled EP that was released in late 2011. Five tracks isn’t exactly the largest or best catalogue, but really those songs served as a great foundation upon which to build from. As the old saying goes, better quality than quantity. So that was a great start for the band, but they’re just getting warmed up. Their second EP Heal Me, Healing Times looks to expand upon what they’ve already done and showcase the great strides they’ve made in the last year or so.

It’s always interesting to see how bands describe themselves in press materials. Minor Characters say that they are influenced by 60’s folk, The Beatles and Radiohead. If you’re a music fanatic, that’s sort of like the holy trio of influences, and most artists would kill just to be mentioned in the same breath. But here’s the thing: just because you’re inspired by another band or genre doesn’t mean you have to conform to or sound like it. Sometimes it’s just nice to have that knowledge base going in, because if a band says they’re inspired by Nickelback and Creed, that might raise a red flag before you hear a single note. When it comes to Minor Characters, perhaps it’s best to say that they’re a mobius strip of different sounds that come together to form something that feels entirely familiar yet unique at the same time. For example, their guitars on a track like “Sun Trials” feel tuned to the frequency of Grizzly Bear, but the melody itself doesn’t quite have the same multi-instrumental layers or stark stoicism to make a true match. That’s not a bad thing, as the chorus soars and aches with emotion and the band makes some smart, creative choices when it comes to overall structure and lyrics. If you listen closely in the final minute of the song, a high-pitched, static drone slides into the background that nearly recalls the deflated ending of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” but in a much more subtle fashion. There’s also a few carefully picked notes in the verses of “Aurora Borealis” that bear an eerie resemblance to Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” though maybe that’s more the result of transference after reading the band’s bio. The opening title track can leave the taste of Real Estate in your mouth thanks to its lazy summer day start before getting a strong tempo infusion and becoming a rather addictive indie pop song. Between that and the heartbreaking piano ballad “Expatriates” that closes out the short set, the band’s diverse array of talents are well displayed here.

Enjoyable and compelling as the Heal Me, Healing Times EP might be, there are a couple of small issues with it that need addressing. First and foremost is the length. You get four songs and a total run time of around 17 minutes, which really passes by in a flash. You’re left wanting more, and while that’s always a good thing, it’s also frustrating because it seems like this band is ready to take the plunge and go for the full LP. There are likely reasons why they’re holding off on it, perhaps for financial reasons or to serve as a stopgap as they consider signing to a label. But beyond the EP’s brevity, there are moments on it that feel just a little restrained or held back from something greater. Right now Minor Characters are striking a precious balance between a very normalized, pop-driven world and off-the-charts experimentation. The songs are clean cut and catchy enough to satisfy large audiences, but the rather literary and expository lyrics paired with a few strange effects add just enough dissonance to give you a glimpse into a different dimension. Somewhere down the line, be it months or a year or two from now, they’re probably going to have to fully commit to which direction they want to take. One path brings mainstream success and money but little critical acclaim, while the other path is the more challenging but brings gravitas and integrity to their music. If they’re lucky and can do it right, maybe they can have both. Either way, they’re a band with a wealth of talent worthy of much bigger and better things than where they’re currently at. The Heal Me, Healing Times EP is proof of that, building upon their earlier material and setting them apart from the hundreds of other Chicago bands trying to reach that next great peak. To put it another way, Minor Characters are finally ready to step out of the background and into the spotlight.

Stream the entire Heal Me, Healing Times EP

You can buy the Heal Me, Healing Times EP from Bandcamp or iTunes starting on 2/25/13, or get a copy from them at one of their shows.

Snapshot Review: Grizzly Bear – Shields [Warp]



Sonically speaking, Grizzly Bear shouldn’t be the sort of band described as “difficult.” Close listens to their early work like 2006’s Yellow House prove they have a knack for writing slower but very complex and beautiful melodies replete with vocal harmonies. It’s not nearly post-rock, as there is far too much verse-chorus-verse structure contained within the songs and not nearly enough explosive crescendos and waves of sound. A better comparison would be to call them a less poppy version of that other animal band Fleet Foxes, because while their songs more often than not lack dynamic hooks, they make up for it in pure pastoral folk atmosphere. Of course there are moments on 2009’s Veckatimest such as “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait for the Others” that felt like they should have been massive hits but failed to fully connect for one reason or another. On their new album Shields, Grizzly Bear seem to have fallen off the map once again, pushing aside the small gains they made in the mainstream music world in favor of staying true to themselves and the purest of songcraft. They still sound rather effectively like themselves, as in you’re not going to mistake them for another band, but the ease and charm by which they worked their magic last time has been scaled back in favor of a much more cerebral and measured approach. The melodies reach a new level of complexity and detail, positively oozing with glorious ambience and texture. Opening track “Sleeping Ute” bounces, weaves and rolls like waves on a choppy but positively electric sea as the band stuffs a truckload of sounds into it. You absolutely need to devote time and effort to allow yourself to be absorbed in the world this record inhabits, and such precise attention winds up well rewarded with each successive listen. Much like Beach House’s latest album Bloom, this is a record less concerned with breaking new ground and more insistent on condensing the band’s strengths into something more potent and captivating than they’ve ever done before. The person who excels at this the most on this particular record is Daniel Rossen. He’s never quite been the shining star of Grizzly Bear (that honor goes to Ed Droste), and occasionally he’ll have a clunky song (see “Dory” on Veckatimest) or a quieter one (see “Deep Blue Sea” on Yellow House) amidst a gem like “While You Wait for the Others.” In the time since the band’s last record, he’s kept busy by recording and releasing a solo EP, which didn’t venture very far from anything he’d done previously. It made him a better songwriter and composer though, as his tracks “Speak in Rounds” and “A Simple Answer” are two of the album’s best moments. Of course there are quite a few of those when your record functions as a proverbial highlight reel of original music. Droste’s times to shine happen on the single “Yet Again” along with “Gun Shy” towards the end of the record. Of course it is those final two tracks “Half Gate” and “Sun in Your Eyes” that truly raise the bar for Grizzly Bear and any band that sounds like them. They swell with the sort of brightness and beauty you expect them to explode at any moment out of sheer intensity. So much of Shields is a dark and lonely journey punctuated by remarkable arrangements, but the last 12 or so minutes break free from that depression and that feeling is simply euphoric. Just when you think there’s no way Grizzly Bear can top themselves, here’s a record that proves they can. May there be many more as fundamentally challenging as this one in their future.

Buy Shields from Amazon

EP Review: Daniel Rossen – Silent Hour/Golden Mile [Warp]



Daniel Rossen is best known for his exceptional work in Grizzly Bear and less known for his side project Department of Eagles. The man is in many ways a wellspring of creativity and gorgeous melodies, boosted all the more by his unique guitar playing. You don’t even need to hear his voice to know he’s had a hand in a song. He’s also exceptional when it comes to arranging songs – breathing plenty of life into a track without overstuffing or cluttering it up. The last couple years Rossen has been working hard and touring with Grizzly Bear in support of their 2009 album Veckatimest. That record brought a somewhat unexpected dose of legitimate popularity to the rather subtle indie band, and all those guys did a great job handling the additional responsibilities that came along with an increased profile. Last year Rossen wrote a bunch of songs to prepare for the next Grizzly Bear LP, but a handful of them didn’t quite fit for one reason or another. It was mostly an issue of collaboration, in that he’d done about 90% of the work on these songs and felt like a more evenly balanced approach would benefit the band as a whole. Instead of ditching the tracks entirely or saving them for a rainy day re-working, Rossen chose to throw some polish on them and push them out into the world on his own. The Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP is the result, and it highlights exactly what makes the man an asset to whatever project he’s working on at the time.

Like The Beatles, Grizzly Bear is made up of four distinct personalities, and their working in tandem with one another creates beautiful records with intense vocal harmonies. It makes plenty of sense then that Rossen’s solo EP sounds an awful lot like something Grizzly Bear would put out, mixed with a touch of his other, similarly styled band Department of Eagles. Every song except for “Saint Nothing” features a lush acoustic guitar base, often supplemented with a smart variety of other instruments from electric and pedal steel guitar to piano, bass drum and even a string section. In its full glory you get the impression it’d make for the perfect soundtrack to time spent alone reflecting on the immense power of nature.

From start to finish, the EP plays like the storyline of a man retreating to the woods in search of serenity and meaning in his life. Opening track “Up On High” makes the lyrical observation of, “In this big empty room/finally feel free.” Though it’s not explicitly stated, that “big empty room” could very well be a forest devoid of people. “Silent Song” continues that trend with mentions of hills and fields and digging. Rossen’s lyrics aren’t exactly what you’d call poetry, but everything else about the songs is so impressive it’s tough to pass too much judgment on the guy for a few clunky or bland lines. When all else fails, you can look to the immense spectacle that is “Return to Form” for guidance. What starts as a babbling brook of acoustic guitar work builds to an orchestral crescendo complete with some electric guitar riffs stolen almost directly from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Ok, consider it more of an homage than anything else.

By the time “Golden Mile” turns up after the meditative piano dirge of “Saint Nothing”, the mood has become sprightly and upbeat. “There is bliss in this mess/there is madness all around,” Rossen sings, and you can almost hear a wink and a smile tacked onto it. Our world-weary main character has returned from his retreat into nature having learned a valuable lesson; when life becomes a burden and your emotional reservoir fills with despair, take a few moments for yourself and appreciate the little things. That same lesson can be applied to the Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP itself. At 5 tracks and 23 minutes, this is a small, elegant delight to enjoy when you need a few moments of peace. It’s also a nice stopgap for those unable to wait for this fall’s new Grizzly Bear album. Daniel Rossen may just be one leg of the Grizzly Bear table, but this EP goes a long way towards proving that should he truly want to, he can stand on his own.

Daniel Rossen – Silent Song

Buy Silent Hour/Golden Mile from Amazon

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