Okay, friends. Here’s a selection of photos that I took all this weekend at the Pitchfork Music Festival. In this set I’ve included one photo from each artist, edited down from over 400 photos total. If you’d like to see the complete set of edited photos (4-5 photos from each artist), please visit our Facebook page for all that. Their uploader is easier to use and the pictures look nice in that context. I’ve also given my final thoughts about this year’s fest, in case you missed it. Read 100% of my Pitchfork Music Festival coverage via this link. I think that about wraps things up. Starting tomorrow we return to our regularly scheduled programming of album reviews and mp3s. Until then, click past the jump to glance at some photos from the festival.
Tag: pitchfork music festival 2012
Before I start posting the many, many photos I took this past weekend at the Pitchfork Music Festival, I want to take a moment to reflect with some words detailing the best and worst things that happened over the three days. If you haven’t read my detailed day-by-day recaps of the music I saw, here are links to Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
There are many great things about the Pitchfork Music Festival, and those things expand even beyond the music being performed there. It’s held in Union Park every year, which might not be the absolute safest neighborhood in the city, but the space is ideal for its size and the parking is pretty ample if you need to drive. They spent the first couple years of the festival perfecting some of the issues that plagued it early on, such as the stages not being loud enough and a lack of restrooms. Vendors, sponsors and other features have come and gone too, but the last three or so years have seen a serious consistency develop with the festival and the atmosphere as well that works extraordinarily well given its size. Organizers have also done well with ticket prices, ensuring it’s still one of the most affordable festivals in the world to attend. They didn’t even raise ticket prices this year. Where they did falter a bit though in 2012 was with the lineup. I’m not trying to suggest that this year’s batch of artists was bad, just not quite as strong as years past. They can’t all be winners, and this year will probably go down as one of the more muted affairs. Overall ticket sales were a little weaker than normal, as Friday was a couple thousand tickets short of selling out, though Saturday sold out and Sunday came very, very close to doing the same. If you looked at my daily recaps and compare them with the schedule, you’ll notice that I did a lot of skipping around from stage to stage, not often taking in full sets. My issues either involved a restlessness out of sheer boredom with who I was watching at the moment, or a panic because there were too many good artists performing at the same time. A great example would be on Saturday, when I really wanted to see Sleigh Bells, Chromatics and Hot Chip. They were ploaying at 6:15, 7:00 (listed start time delayed due to soundcheck issues), and 7:25, respectively. I ran between stages and caught as many songs as possible from each. On the opposite end of the spectrum, on Sunday I wasn’t particularly excited about seeing Kendrick Lamar, Chavez and Oneohtrix Point Never, yet I went to two out of the three just to see if they’d surprise me somehow (they didn’t). While we’re on the topic though, let me give credit where credit is due and hand out some praise for the artists that did inspire me over the weekend.
When I saw A$AP Rocky back at SXSW in March, he and his A$AP Mob showed up an hour late for their set time. When they did finally arrive, the place went nuts, though I was only able to see part of the set because I had to be at another show. This past Friday, not only was he on time, but I was significantly impressed with how he and his crew handled every aspect of their show. They got the crowd fired up, ran through all the hits and more, broke up a fight in the crowd, stage dived and performed in the rain like it wasn’t even an inconvenience. In other words, they did everything a great live performers are supposed to do. When he finally hits the big time, and buzz is saying he will, hopefully he doesn’t change a thing about his live show. It was really enjoyable. Japandroids are arguably one of the best rock bands performing today, and they write and record their songs specifically to get the most out of their shows. They are like a two man tornado trying their hardest to lay waste to everything and everyone in their path. The best part is they succeed with flying colors. Brian King isn’t afraid to bang his head or move around the stage should the mood strike him, as it does often. David Prowse hammers the drums with such violent urgency he probably breaks sticks more than other drummers. He actually broke his kickpedal early on in their Pitchfork set as a testament to that.
I think my overall favorite moment of the entire festival came when I first arrived on Saturday. Cloud Nothings were playing, and a few songs into their set it began to drizzle. That drizzle slowly developed into a full-on downpour – one of the heaviest of the weekend. It was right around then that they launched into their nine minute opus “Wasted Days” from their latest album Attack on Memory. With the crowd getting soaked to the bone but not moving to seek shelter, the band played to the storm like they were looking to pick a fight. This went on for several minutes, during which it was quite likely the band members were risking their lives being out there. Eventually the rain won though, shorting out the main set of speakers and leaving only the on stage monitors active. They kept going even if only the people closest to the stage could hear them. When they finally finished, they threw down their guitars and left the stage. Watching it all happen sent an excited shiver down my spine. If only every artist was so dedicated to their art and putting on a great show. The main goal of Nicolas Jaar was probably to put on a great show too, which is why he took an extra 20 minutes for his soundcheck. I stood there during that time, panicked because I was only going to be able to see 30 minutes of his set and the longer he took the less time I had to see him. When he finally did start playing, it was nothing short of excellent and transcendent. At least that’s what I took from the 10 minutes I was able to stay. I wish I could have stuck around longer and seen the whole thing, but Wild Flag beckoned me across the park. I had almost the exact same problem for Chromatics, who were also delayed by Jaar and whose four songs I was able to hear were even better than their recorded versions, which I already love. I hope to see both artists again soon, should they come through Chicago.
Sunday presented a similar great artist vs. great artist predicament, and the best part is, both of them knew it. John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees asked how many people in the crowd were planning to see Ty Segall’s set, who was starting 30 minutes later. Some cheers went up in the crowd, but Dwyer then explained that he and the rest of the band really wanted to see Segall too, and as soon as they finished their set, they were planning to run over there to catch him. A short time later, they dedicated a song to Segall. Having never seen Thee Oh Sees before and only going by their recorded output, I probably should have guessed how their live show would go. Everybody in the band bounced and moved around to the songs, and Dwyer kept alternating between spitting and sticking out his tongue in between some intense guitar riffs. I’ve become a much bigger fan of the band now that I’ve seen their live show, and that’s sort of why bands do play live. A short bit later Ty Segall would rock harder and faster than any other band on Sunday. Not only was the fuzz and reverb completely in check, but Segall’s scream is just about perfect – loud, piercing and not too throaty. About halfway through his set he asked the crowd to shout out, “Dwyer!” as sort of a kind message to the Thee Oh Sees frontman. A short time later, the band covered AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” which was straightlaced but gloriously appropriate. If only all of Sunday were so exciting. And finally, I’d be wrong to not include AraabMuzik as one of the festival’s best sets. I’m not a fan of DJs or producers performing live, mostly because I think sitting behind a laptop or turntable your entire set isn’t exciting to watch. It’s a big reason why the Daft Punks and Deadmau5s of the world have intense light shows to distract you. AraabMuzik had none of that in his late afternoon set, but surprisingly enough just watching him put music together was exciting. His weapon of choice was an MPC drum sampler, and his hands moved across that thing so fast they were often a blur. But even if you weren’t watching what was happening, simply listening was intense too. I’m not the biggest fan of the dubstep genre of EDM, but I consider AraabMuzik to be one of the only performers to have won me over in that respect.
This section should be a lot shorter than the above one, if only because so much went right at the festival this year. All the staff and volunteers were professional and did their jobs well. I got a bunch of free stuff simply by wandering the grounds at the right time, and elements like the Flatstock poster section, the CHIRP Record Fair and the Book Fort were fun things to do if you felt like the music wasn’t very good. Speaking of which, there were many artists over the weekend that gave very good performances but didn’t quite make my highlight reel. Some unfortunately did make my lowlight reel though, and I’ll talk about that in a minute. The worst thing to happen over the three days was the weather. Mid-July is typically not the time for rain, and the last few years at Pitchfork it has either not rained at all or sprinkled for under an hour. So when severe storms came rolling through on Friday afternoon, the hope was they’d be light and brief. The forecast said there was about a 20% chance of an isolated thunderstorm, but apparently they meant 100%. The rain was not light, and if you want to call a few 20-30 minute sessions “brief,” then so be it. Sets were affected, times were shuffled, and people exposed themselves to potential pneumonia after standing in the rain without an umbrella or poncho. The Saturday rain was just as bad, though happily the skies cleared around mid-afternoon and stayed that way through the end of the festival. The grounds of Union Park were a bit muddy from the rain as well, and I saw more than a few people covered in the stuff, most likely on purpose. But the swampy areas in some of the fields made it difficult to navigate, though thankfully crowds would surround them so you knew where they were and where not to step. Crews did do some nice work cleaning up as best they could, as quick dry, wood chips and platforms were thrown down to either dry up or cover up soggy sections. And you know what? The rain was nobody’s fault but nature’s. It’s a blameless crime with many victims, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Musically speaking, I’m going to try not to pick on too many artists that didn’t do so well in their sets. Atlas Sound is so good on record, and his last two albums have represented huge jumps in songwriting and melody development abilities. The first “mistake” was booking Bradford Cox solo at an outdoor festival. Atlas Sound is best experienced in a small, dark theater on a stage. Outside and in the sunlight just don’t quite work for his version of sleepy psychedelia. Cox is a nice guy with good intentions, but even he looked a little bored with what he was playing (or not playing, in the case of a few formless compositions). I tried to stick around for as much of his set as I could, but after 15 minutes just couldn’t take any more. Ironically, that pushed me into going to see Liturgy, a band I’ve only heard a few times and only on record. Their version of heavy metal resonated with me far less than I hoped it would. They were excruciatingly loud, which I’m okay with, but for the 10 minutes I stuck around watching them I couldn’t make out anything beyond ear-piercing screams. I know they have lyrics because I’ve heard them before, but I sure wasn’t hearing them during the performance. That’s okay though, I’m still pleased I went and watched for the time I did. You’ll never truly know how much you don’t like something until you try it. On Sunday there’s only one band in my rifle’s eyesight: Iceage. I feel horrible for promoting them in my preview coverage and saying it was going to be a “wild time.” The only thing wild about their set was when they blew out an amp. Even that probably connects back to having their gear stolen just a couple days prior. They probably borrowed the amp that broke. But yeah, listening to their album of speedy punk rock songs, and seeing footage of live shows where they crowd surf and somebody “accidentally” gets hit in a mosh pit makes me wonder if it was all just propaganda to generate some hype for the band. They absolutely looked like they didn’t want to be there, and their overly lackluster performance pretty much confirmed it. Rarely has a band disappointed me so much or sounded so unlike their records.
So there you have it, my final thoughts on this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. In a short bit I’ll be posting a selection of the photos I took over the weekend for you to browse through. The best place to see everything though is through the site’s Facebook page, where I’ll have 100% of the pictures available. If you’d like to read all the pieces I wrote as part of Pitchfork Music Festival week last week, all of them will come up if you follow this link. I hope you enjoyed reading and seeing things about the festival this year, and if it were up to me we’d do it all again next year. We’ll have to play a little wait-and-see on that one though. In the meantime, thanks for bearing with me, and we will return to our regularly scheduled music programming in the next day or two.
Well my friends, we made it. Let’s put the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival in the books, because it’s finished. It was a wild and crazy weekend, one that you can read about in depth via the daily recaps I’ve been posting. This is the third installment of such recaps, and essentially the final one. Tomorrow I’ll be posting a final wrap-up of the entire weekend, along with photos from the many, many sets I bore witness to, but in the meantime we have Day #3, aka Sunday, to discuss. Let’s dig in.
Unlike the last two days, there was no threat of rain or storms when I arrived in Union Park on Sunday. Nope, just nothing but sunshine and a few white clouds. My day started with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, who seemed more than willing to take the low 90 degree temperatures and sun as a sign they should get as bouncy and funky as possible. Their performance was actually a welcome distratction from the heat, as they ran through their debut album and a couple new songs with lighthearted joy and effortless three-part harmonies. Overall I consider their set to be well balanced and nice, even if there wasn’t a whole lot memorable about it.
For a minute right before they started their set, I was hoping that Iceage would be the best show to come out of Sunday at Pitchfork. The band is known for their explosive performances in which much moshing and injury tend to occur. To make matters worse, Iceage suffered a setback just a couple days earlier when all of their gear was stolen out in the Wicker Park neighborhood. Whether it was because of that unpleasant experience or the heat or a combination of things, the band’s set was anything but cool. They play super fast and super energized punk rock, but none of that was on display in Union Park. They looked like they absolutely did not want to be there. Two songs in, one of their amps blew out, and they spent a few minutes trying to replace it. Instead of trying to entertain the crowd or even apologizing, they simply sat there patiently waiting while somebody scrambled for a new amp. Things really weren’t any better once the performance started again, as they thew out very standard and relaxed versions of the songs on their debut album New Brigade. They were even less entertaining than your average punk band, which is saying a lot. Talk about a let down. I just want to know what happened to this band.
You know who put on the show I expected Iceage to put on? Thee Oh Sees did. I had heard good things about their performances, but didn’t anticipate it’d turn out even better than expected. Each band member has their own distinct personality on stage, and it’s fun to watch them all do their own separate things yet come together to make such sprawling and fun garage rock. As the proverbial frontman of the group, John Dwyer kept tearing off into these inventive guitar solos while also head banging, frequently spitting, and sticking his tongue out like Michael Jordan. Come to think of it, some of the great moments during Thee Oh Sees’ set were rock and roll MVP-worthy, so maybe such a comparison isn’t too far off base.
A day before the Pitchfork Music Festival started, I saw Ty Segall play a shortened performance at the 500-capacity Lincoln Hall. It was so loud that my ears were ringing for the rest of the day. It was a good, punishing sort of loud though, and it made me anticipate his festival set that much more. What he delivered was the same, only longer and on a much larger scale. Before his band’s set though, the always controversial Rockin’ Rian Murphy came out to introduce him, earning both cheers and jeers from the crowd, some of whom probably remembered his infamous introduction of Pavement at the festival 2 years prior. He was much more brief and a little less controversial this time around, but that sort of humor is exactly what Segall was hoping for when asking Murphy to do the introduction. As for the set itself, it was again punishingly loud, but has such a manic pop energy you almost can’t help but be sucked in by it. There’s a certain surf rock element mixed in amongst the garagey, fuzz-laden reverb that makes it perfect for summer, too. Somehow a cover of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Dome Dirt Cheap” found its way into the set list too, and it fit right in. Later on he’d do some crowd surfing, simply because he’d earned it. Kudos to Segall and the band for having an absolute blast on stage while blowing out everyone’s eardrums.
If you’ve heard The Men‘s new album Open Your Heart, you know it has a fairly wide set of sonic influences it draws from. They’re not afraid to do heavy garage-psych rock or ’90s style alternative rock one minute, then be hammering on blues riffs or exploring some alt-country the next. In other words, The Men are a band of many hats, and they wear most all of them well. Watching them perform live, you get more of a sense as to how that works out, with individual members taking turns singing lead vocals on songs. The whole thing is a very technically impressive show, and they’ve got just the right mix of energy to keep a crowd entertained. What I failed to see was the crowd giving the same love back to them. There were cheers and applause, but no energetic jumping, hands in the air or exuberant “woos” that you might expect for such a solid set. Maybe the heat was getting to more than just the bands.
After a couple hours of energizing and fun rock music, Real Estate came out to calm everybody down for a bit. Their music is the perfect soundtrack for a day at the beach, and a 90 degree, mud-caked Union Park was about as close as you could get for their set. Actually, the hard-crusted softball diamonds might have been even better. The last time I saw Real Estate at the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival, I was in the middle of a hot and sweaty crowd bored out of my skull. I had high hopes that this time would be better, as their latest album Days is particularly excellent. Even as they didn’t do much beyond stand there and play their instruments, I felt like just listening to their performance while spread out on some grassy area in the shade was enough to make it enjoyable. Turns out I was right, and it was a delight. Only one guy had a better idea, I think. When I was taking photos of the band, I saw a guy underneath the stage, sitting in a hammock drinking cold water and eating pizza. His idea was just a little better than mine.
I wish I could say something exciting about Kendrick Lamar. I really do. At this point in the day I was meeting up with some friends over where he was performing, and part of me was intrigued to see how he’d stack up against an A$AP Rocky or Danny Brown from previous days. After a DJ played popular hip hop songs for the first 15 minutes of his set, Lamar finally came out, no hype man or huge crew with him. I respected that, and I respected the few songs I heard him perform. Part of me wishes I would have picked another location to stand, as the sun was hitting the stage at such an angle I couldn’t see anything happening, but just the audio was good enough. What really disappoints me is that Lady Gaga apparently showed up and watched his set from a backstage area and I didn’t know about it until hours later. It’s always fun to spot a hugely famous person at a music festival, even if that hugely famous person is Lady Gaga.
After feeling only okay about Kendrick Lamar’s set, I felt like Chavez might return some heavier rock music to my day. I’m always interested in seeing how well a reunited band functions on stage, and whether their performances improve with time. Others were not as interested, I think. For being on the large Red stage, the crowd for Chavez was surprisingly small. Those watching weren’t so much engaged with the music, and the band was met with polite applause rather than overt enthusiasm. Thinking about it, I wonder how many in that crowd or at the festival on a whole know who Chavez are given their meager two album and one EP output from the mid-90s. In spite of the somewhat tepid and minimal crowd, Chavez seemed dedicated to putting on an excellent set. They recreated the songs from their records with ease, even if their performance was anything but. Guitars got heavy and muscular competing with one another for space, and Matt Sweeney’s vocals held just the right amount of tension to create a foreboding and dark atmosphere. On a hot and sunny day, that’s a pretty monumental task to accomplish.
The word part about AraabMuzik‘s live performance is that there’s nothing and everything to look at. On the one hand, the guy is by himself on stage, armed with a laptop and an MPC drum machine. He would not move from that spot for the entire set. Rather, he wouldn’t move his FEET from that spot. His hands, however, did all the work. If you need a lesson in AraabMuzik, simply watch this video and you’ll understand everything. You couldn’t see that well simply staring at the stage, but for this one watching the big screen video monitor was supremely advantageous so you could best see the technical and physical prowess it takes to make such dynamic dance music. Sure, it’s DJ and dubstep essentially, but it’s so fun and impressive I wish I could watch him all day long. And yes, the crowd was absolutely into it as Union Park erupted into a massive dance party. Chicago rappers Chief Keef and King Louie came out and added some live vocals into the mix near the end, and as much as I like those guys, I think the set was just a bit better before they showed up. Still, it made for one of the most impressive sets not just from Sunday, but the entire festival.
Beach House is pretty much the polar opposite of AraabMuzik, yet at Pitchfork Music Festival they performed back-to-back. I wonder how many fans there are of both artists. Given that Beach House’s new album Bloom is one of 2012’s finest, I was excited to hear some of that material performed live. The band was pretty varied in their set list though, pulling a lot from their back catalogue and most notably their previous album Teen Dream. Not that anybody minded, of course. There were sing-alongs, and the crowd was huge and enthusiastic in spite of the drifting and relatively quiet material. With the sun setting, shade was covering almost all of the area around the Red stage where the band was, and the weather cooled down a bit too, so conditions were just right to fully enjoy all they had to offer. Beautiful and soaring as the material is, and Beach House performed it perfectly, they’re not the most exciting band to watch live. Victoria Legrand never moved from her keyboard, and Alex Scally sat on a stool most of the time, only getting up on occasion and wandering a few steps. I suppose it was an appropriate on stage demeanor for the manner of music they were making.
It’s been four years since Vampire Weekend played at Pitchfork Music Festival, a fact which they reminded everyone of during their Sunday night headlining set. Back then, they were just a hotly buzzed about band with a brand new debut album, and performed an afternoon set. They like performing at night, singer Ezra Koenig said, because the weather is cooler and they can get a little looser. They were very loose and very fun this time around, and the massive crowd was there pretty much for that explicit reason. I saw a lot of dancing happening at sets this weekend, but right in the middle of Vampire Weekend’s set I looked around the park from a pretty far distance away from the stage and noticed that almost everybody was dancing at least a little bit. They breezed through songs big and small, everything from “Holiday” to “Oxford Comma” to “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance” and “I Think UR A Contra,” while also slipping in one new song without really saying a word about it. Overall it was a pleasant and delightful way to end the festival, and I think that just about everyone left with a smile on their face. Chalk up another win for this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival.
Boy, I am bushed. Two days of music, rain and sun can wear a person out. To think there’s still one more to go. It’s going to be an interesting Sunday, that’s for sure. But let’s talk about Saturday for now. The only day to sell out at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, it was also the day to boast the best lineup. I did my best to see as much as possible, which sometimes meant dropping in and out of sets when I did and didn’t want to. Let me sum the whole day up for you, artist by artist and timeslot by timeslot, as we did on Friday.
My day started with Cloud Nothings, whose name turned out to be ironic because while they were playing was when the dark clouds rolled in. After getting through some of their best moments on their great album Attack on Memory, it started to pour. As the heavy rain began to soak everything and everyone, the band launched into their 9-minute instrumental “Wasted Days.” The guitars chugged and the drums beat with furious hellfire, and the crowd mostly stayed in place and loved every single second of it. You could say the rain built in intensity along with the song. As they neared the finish line, the rain blew out the main set of speakers, and so only the on-stage monitors were left working. The band kept playing, and though you could barely hear it on the outskirts of the stage, their endurance was nothing short of impressive. It’s quite possible they risked their lives by continuing to play in such a downpour, and their reward was a die-hard enthusiastic response from the crowd. They weren’t able to finish their set, but when they threw their guitars down after their lengthy opus, they seemed resilient and grateful to the crowd for sticking around. It was absolutely worth every second, and made for one of the most memorable moments of the festival so far.
Starting immediately after Cloud Nothings’ aborted set, Atlas Sound saw the crowd was there early and just took the extra time. The rain had pretty much stopped the moment Cloud Nothings left their stage, so Bradford Cox played to a soggy park. He stuck to the back half of the stage, as the front half was quite wet, and brought nothing with him except for a guitar, a harmonica, and a pedal that cued various sounds. His set was remarkably formless, and appearing in whiteface and a small tan hat, he seemed ready to channel Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, his improvisational style and reworked melodies were rendered ineffective on a festival crowd. Having just come from a thrilling Cloud Nothings set, I was bored out of my skull for the first 10 minutes. Then I left, only to return after stopping to see Liturgy and feeling like my ears were being punished. From what I understand, Liturgy was having some sound issues early on. What I heard was one loud electric guitar, another louder electric guitar, machine gun drums and vocals that were more animal grunts than words. Having heard Liturgy’s records, I”m surprised at how their live show sounds not a whole lot like them. Returning to see the end of Atlas Sound’s set, he fared a little better than the first half, but all I really wanted was for Cults to start next.
Did I mention it started raining again when I went over to see Liturgy? Well, it did, and the rain kept up even as Cults prepared to take the stage. By the time they did though, the skies opened up and the sun started shining. The crowd let out a huge cheer when that happened. Seconds later, they cheered again as Cults started performing. Their bright indie pop was pretty much perfect for the weather conditions at hand, and based on the huge crowd that was watching them, everyone else seemed to feel that way too. They powered through their self-titled debut album, and mixed it up a little with a new song or two. It was an overly pleasant experience, memorable because of how it worked out, but there wasn’t anything extraordinary about it. I even popped over to see Youth Lagoon for a few minutes, more to take some photos than enjoy his set. Trevor Powers is a nice guy and he made a great record last year, but it’s not always the most engaging thing to watch live. He was actually better and more energetic than the last time I saw him, but he still couldn’t quite match what was happening over at Cults.
Things really clicked into high gear with Flying Lotus. So many DJs and producers spend their live sets sitting behind a table, twisting knobs and pushing buttons. I heard Clams Casino was like that on Friday and it was a little boring to watch. At least Flying Lotus was dancing, smiling and pushing buttons with exaggerated motions. That he was mixing and remixing popular hip hop was a bonus too, thrown in amongst his original material. The crowd was totally into it, and even moreso when tracks from Watch the Throne and the Beastie Boys came up. A rapper friend of his came out and added some vocals to some tracks and also functioned as a proverbial hype man, and the whole thing went off pretty splendidly. It became the most fun set of the day at that point, though we were only about halfway done.
Shortly before Flying Lotus wrapped up, I left to see some of Nicolas Jaar out of a devotion to my Class of 2012 artists. Upon arriving at the Blue stage, he hadn’t started despite it being 15 minutes past his printed set time. Apparently after Youth Lagoon ended on time, Jaar spent an exorbitantly long amount of time soundchecking. He finally started about 20-25 minutes late, which would throw off that stage for the rest of the day. Still, for the 15 or so minutes I watched his set, it was really, really good. So good, it pained me to leave for Wild Flag’s set. Jaar and his two man crew of a saxophone and guitar player were working on a formless composition that evolved over time, but had all these interesting nooks and crannies to keep you engaged. I wouldn’t exactly say it was perfect for a festival (the last time I saw him was in a church, which was perfect), but it was still remarkably effective.
Wild Flag is simply too good of a band to miss. Their talents are immense, and Carrie Brownstein is one of my all-time favorite guitar players. Come to think of it, Janet Weiss is one of my all-time favorite drummers too. Mary Timony is just fine, and Rebecca Cole is sort of Wild Flag’s secret weapon. She plays multiple instruments and adds little flavors to songs you might not notice initially but catch the closer attention you pay to her. One of my favorite moments in Wild Flag’s set was their cover of Television’s “See No Evil,” one of the more underrated rock songs of all time. They also played some new tracks that sounded great, not to mention my personal favorite off their self-titled debut, the nine minute “Racehorse.” I’m still upset that Sleater-Kinney is on “indefinite hiatus,” but Wild Flag as their close cousin works well in the meantime.
While the crowd was large for Wild Flag, it became astronomically huge for Sleigh Bells. After playing the small stage at Pitchfork two years ago and being paired up against the headliner that night, Sleigh Bells returned, bigger and more badass than ever before. They’ve got an extra guitarist to make their songs even louder, and a wall of amps to help accomodate for that. Alexis Krauss is a great and engaging frontwoman, running around the stage, throwing her fist into the air, screaming, and diving into the crowd. They loved every single second of the set, by the way. Jumping from “Demons” to “Crown on the Ground” to “COmeback Kid” to “Infinity Guitars,” there was no shortage of head banging hits, even as a song like “Rill Rill” provided some nice buffer from those moments. Sleigh Bells may have stolen the title of “Biggest Crowd Pleaser” from Flying Lotus earlier in the day.
With the Blue stage now delayed, I waited a bit before making my way to see some Chromatics. Their album Kill for Love is one of my favorites of 2012, and I was itching to see how well it translated live. Due to their own sound problems, Chromatics were about 25 minutes late to Nicolas Jaar’s 20, so in other words the delays were growing larger. Like Jaar though, when they got started, their set was golden. I was only able to catch part of their set, but the renditions of “These Streets Will Never Look the Same,” “Kill for Love” and “Lady” were all as good or better than their recorded versions. Word on the street is they also played their cover of Kate Bush’s classic “Running Up That Hill,” which I’m very sad to have missed. Hot Chip beckoned me away. I’m definitely going to have to see Chromatics the next time they’re in Chicago.
As for Hot Chip, their set went about as expected. The crowd was huge, they played all their dance hits, and everyone danced along to them. To say that it was fun would be an understatement. I even saw some senior citizens in their 60’s dancing like and keeping up with 25 year olds. Having seen Hot Chip live about 4 times now, I actually think this time was my personal favorite. I think they had just the right balance of songs to keep the energy super high and give the crowd exactly what they wanted. The sun was starting to set, the temperature went down by a few degrees, and everyone was in just the right mood, as they were with Cut Copy around the same time last year. The overall response might not have been explosive, but maybe that’s because people were too busy with their hands in the air.
Like Friday night, I chose to spend the headlining sets divided between the Green and Blue stages. Starting with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, spending time with Grimes, then returning to Godspeed before the end of the night. I got to see the first half hour of Godspeed because Grimes’ start time was delayed thanks to Nicolas Jaar and Chromatics earlier in the day. I expected many of their soundscapes to be quieter than they actually were, as I estimated many in the crowd wouldn’t understand what the band was trying to accomplish and would start talking out of sheer boredom. The good news is that the speakers were turned way up, so even the more minor moments were amplified to where you might have trouble hearing the person next to you. All the better, because Godspeed excels when you allow yourself to get lost in the music. They had a projector going behind them, providing visuals to go with the songs, and in combination it was both a beautiful and ugly experience. They were building to something when I left to go see Grimes, and when I returned for the final 20 minutes they were raging with an intensity I’ve grown to love out of their music. It was supremely impressive, but also just a little depressing to see the lack of a crowd watching them. Many people headed for the exits after Hot Chip, while plenty of others headed for Grimes.
But speaking of Grimes, Claire Boucher seems to be well on her way towards becoming a legitimate pop star. The Blue stage was more packed than I think I’ve ever seen it, and so many were there to keep the dance party going after Hot Chip. Boucher naturally obliged, running through some of the bigger moments on her latest album Visions, including “Genesis,” “Oblivion” and “Be A Body.” I’ve seen her perform twice already this year, and the first time I thought she was perfect, while the second she couldn’t have been worse. That second time wasn’t really her fault though, as she didn’t really get a soundcheck and was very, very sick. She was in good health at Pitchfork though, and has actually only gotten better at making her show run smoothly. She’s started to excel at looping her vocals and other bits, she dances a lot more, and has actual dancers to accompany her as well. If she’s gotten so much better in the four months since I last saw her, I wonder how well she’ll be doing in another year. I’m excited to find out.
When the Pitchfork Music Festival falls on a Friday the 13th, strange things are bound to happen. It was little surprise then that they did. The first and foremost issue to come up was the weather. The forecast said sunny and 90 degrees with a 20% chance of scattered thunderstorms. Shortly before the gates were set to open for the day, that 20% became 100%. A raging severe thunderstorm cell rode through Union Park, complete with a great lightning show and heavy downpour. It was already past 3pm when things calmed back down, and the gates weren’t even open yet due to the weather. Once they finally did get things cleaned up and ready, set times wound up delayed by 15-30 minutes for a bit (or permanently at the small Blue stage). Of course it only took a couple more hours before another storm cell rolled through, right around when A$AP Rocky and Tim Hecker were performing on separate stages. No lightning or thunder this time (there was plenty of that happening on and off the stage at A$AP Rocky), just steady rain that went on for what seemed like hours but was more like 40 minutes. To top it all off, my phone stopped working right around when that second storm hit, and so when people texted, called or Tweeted at me, I had no idea. It became a huge mess. Still, I lived to tell the tale of Friday the 13th at the Pitchfork Music Festival. Let me relate back to you what I saw today, music-wise. I took a bunch of photos too, but for the sake of time and editing I’m going to wait until the end of the weekend to publish those.
When the gates finally opened a little late, Lower Dens took the stage about as quickly as they could. They wasted no time crafting a brooding and dark atmosphere in Union Park, all of which was aided by the dark clouds overhead. Sonically, it presented a nightmare scenario, in the best sort of way. Visually, it was a bit boring. Jana Hunter and the rest of the band pretty much stood in the same spots all show, not moving much or even addressing the crowd. When Hunter did say something, it wasn’t exactly prolific or all that related to the crowd or location. “There are like, 50 porta potties over there. Did you know that? It’s a lot,” was just one of her between-song “gems.” Nice as it was to see Lower Dens perform, they don’t seem to take that word’s meaning at face value. At least the weather helped. Imagine what it’d feel like if they’d played those songs with the sun beating down on them at a fierce 95 degrees.
Because the Blue stage was under a delay because of the weather, I spent some time at the Green stage watching The Olivia Tremor Control. The Elephant 6 collective had eight people on stage, and looked like they’d just stepped out of an early ’90s time machine. That is to say they haven’t lost a beat from their heyday, even if they look a bit older. As they ran through some of their classics, sometimes smiles would erupt on their faces or they’d jump up and down to try and throw just a little more energy into a song. Their lighthearted melodies kept hopes alive for a great day at the festival too, which is more than can be said about Lower Dens. Part of me hoped that friend and former band member Jeff Mangum might make one of his trademark appearances, but I also knew that he’d probably be playing his own Neutral Milk Hotel set if that were the case. Alas, it was not to be. Still, it was nice to see OTC still doing what they do best, even if their time was slightly impacted by rain.
In the middle of The Olivia Tremor Control’s set, I decided to pop over to the Blue stage for a few minutes to see how Chicagoan Willis Earl Beal was doing. It was almost like walking into a completely different world. The OTC had 8 people on stage, Beal was by himself. They played instruments, and Beal sang along to some reel-to-reel tapes. They featured goofy and fun energy while Beal moaned of heartbreak and pain like a man that’s experienced both in large quantities. Beal created his own dramatic world inside his head, and was acting out plot points on that stage. It was harrowing and intense stuff, with wry bits of humor mixed in. He genuinely seems like a good guy, and with any luck this is only the start of success for him.
A$AP Rocky never seems to go anywhere alone. He’s got a whole crew called the A$AP Mob to support anything he says or does. When I saw A$AP Rocky perform at SXSW this past March, he was over 45 minutes late to his set, and the Mob did their best to cover for him the entire time, mostly by whipping the crowd into a frenzy. That’s essentially what hype crews are supposed to do anyways. For their Pitchfork set, the Mob performed two songs featuring individual members before Rocky emerged on stage. By that point, the rain had started and people were looking to get crazy. So too was Rocky and his Mob. There were stage dives and crowd surfing and chants (oh my, the chants!). Those guys had the crowd eating out of the palms of their hands, and it was used to good effect too. Between asking people to throw weed onto the stage and breaking up a violent altercation, it was a good day for A$AP Rocky. It was a good set too – one of the better ones I’ve seen in recent memory.
With the heavy rains during A$AP Rocky, I sought shelter under some trees near the front gates of the festival where I could still keep an eye on the stage. That didn’t stop me from spotting about a half dozen teens jumping over the fence and off porta potties to get in for free. Security was often swift in catching them, however a couple went undetected. These sort of things happen at every major music festival. I thought it was much less of a problem at Pitchfork, but after 6 people did it in 30 minutes, maybe that’s not the case.
Japandroids were up next on my schedule, and I was still buzzed from having seen them perform a few songs the day before at the intimate Lincoln Hall for an NPR taping. The songs Japandroids make seem built for stadiums, or at least outdoor music festivals, so I was ecstatic to see if it’d translate well. The answer wound up being both yes and no. To hear a song like “The House That Heaven Built” performed live is to watch a crowd get whipped into a frenzy that’s worthy of a stage jump or some crowd surfing in celebration. Brian King and David Prowse appear to be working so hard on stage to make every single moment count, like they want every single show of theirs to be their best yet. The desire to consistently top yourself is admirable, but I was left scratching my head at how the crowd was responding to the band. There was a somewhat large section of people front and center for that set, and they fist pumped and shouted along with every word, like a good Japandroids fan might do. Everyone else, or about 3/4ths of the crowd, simply stood there, expressionless. A truly great show affects everyone and converts the unconvertable. You’re in the presence of something so energized, exciting and fun you can’t help but throw your fist into the air too. Whose fault was it that didn’t happen? I’m not about to point fingers.
Dirty Projectors are a very good and very impressive band. Their intricacies in putting songs together sound intense on record, but imagine how they slam everything together live. There are so many harmonies to perfect and errant instruments to tweak it can be a lot of work. Frontman Dave Longstreth takes a lot of the credit for the overall sound of the band, and he did his best to make that vision a reality in the most entertaining way possible. The trio of female vocalists that includes Amber Coffman, Haley Dekle and Olga Bell were almost locked into their positions as they needed to be near a microphone most of the time. When he wasn’t playing guitar, Longstreth wandered around the stage and made attempts to engage the crowd. It wasn’t a whole lot to work with from a crowd perspective, but it sounded really great.
They key decision on which headliner to see was made with the ultimate realization that a smart music fan could see both acts with minimal interference. Purity Ring’s set was running a little late because that’s how the Blue stage was all day with the rain delay. So you could watch 20 minutes of Feist, go see a set by a band whose debut album isn’t out yet (so there’s not much material to play), and then return for another 30 minutes of Feist. Guess what? That’s exactly what I did.
The last time I saw Purity Ring, it was in a church at SXSW, and they politely requested that every single light in the place be turned off. Darkness is essential to their performance, because there’s a really cool visual element to it beyond the actual music. So unlike most of the bands that had their feet glued to the floor during their set next to a plain backdrop, Purity Ring kept you engaged with blinking lights. Many of the percussion elements were activated when Corin Tucker struck a multicolored lightbulb, and the stage setup also included some hanging beehive-like lamps that glowed and pulsated with the beats. Singer Megan James pranced around the stage and played with a construction light, and sometimes she’d strike a bass drum with a mallet. Yes, it’d light up too whenever she did that. Impressive as it was visually, sonically it left a little to be desired. The hits like “Belispeak” and “Lofticries” were met with enthusiastic responses from the crowd, but on the whole it felt like there wasn’t quite enough audible variation outside of the singles to institute a dance party or a greater response than simply, “Look at the pretty lights!”
Watching Feist‘s set felt a lot like watching a VH1 Storytellers episode. She had on her nice white dress and told some nice stories about her music, and she played with her band, backup singers and all. The songs were pleasant to hear, and she featured a lot from her Metals album because it’s her latest (and also her weakest). Maybe it was the rain earlier, or the inclination by many that Feist isn’t among indie rock’s top women anymore, but the crowd watching her set was shockingly thin. After hanging in the back for a bit, I wanted to see how close I could get to the front before the crowd got too thick. I didn’t make it all the way there, but I came pretty close. Having said all that, it might appear that I’m anti-Feist. That’s absolutely not true. I think her first two albums are great, and hearing “I Feel It All” complete with a rip-roaring guitar solo from Feist made my night. I didn’t know she had that in her, and it makes me want to hear her try more of that on future records. She also didn’t play her biggest hit, “1,2,3,4,” which while I’m sure left some disappointed, actually made me admire her more. Now if she would have played “Mushaboom,” I probably would have loved her forever. Maybe next time. For now though, her Friday night closing set had a very natural and relaxed feel to it. With some of the turbulence that happened earlier in the day that was weather-related and other-related, that sort of vibe was needed.
As Pitchfork Music Festival weekend is nearly upon us, you may be wondering: What’s the weather going to be like? My response to that is: Let me tell you! At the moment, Friday will be sunny and 90 degrees for a high. Saturday will be 85 degrees with a 40% chance of scattered thunderstorms. Statistically speaking there’s a 60% chance we WON’T have thunderstorms then. Finally, on Sunday it’s set to be 88 degrees and sunny. Pitchfork Music Fest weekends have been much, much worse in the past. Still, with all that sun and with pretty hot temperatures at hand, there are two essentials you’ll need all weekend: water and sunscreen. Stay hydrated and avoid sunburn. Those are the keys to a successful weekend not just at Pitchfork, but everywhere. Cue the shooting star and “The More You Know” graphic. Okay, so the last couple days I’ve run previews for Day One and Day Two of the festival, along with a collection of songs from every artist performing and a carefully curated Spotify playlist. In other words, things are going along just swimmingly here during Pitchfork Music Festival Week. Today the preview coverage concludes with a look at the artists performing on Day 3, which is Sunday. Will it be great? Of course it will, and I’ll explain why in the paragraphs below. As usual, my personal picks for each day are highlighted with stars (**). As a manner of housekeeping, I’d also like to mention at this time that Pitchfork Music Festival coverage will continue all weekend long and through Monday, where I’ll bring you plenty of day-by-day recaps and share plenty of photos taken of the many bands performing. Keep an eye on my Twitter account as well for more up-to-the-minute updates during the fest. Thanks, and I hope you’re looking forward to this weekend as much as I am!
**A Lull (Blue Stage, 1:00)
Dirty Beaches (Green Stage, 1:00)
For the third day in a row, a local Chicago band is performing an opening set at the festival. That’s one of the nice things about the Pitchfork Music Fest is that they do try and give some love to the local music scene every year. A Lull is one of the more interesting bands you’ll find in Chicago these days, crafting tightly wound and endlessly fun but off-kilter psych-pop. They use a lot of tribal rhythms and harmonies amidst their drifting guitars and synths, and they do sound a bit like Animal Collective. That’s intended to be a compliment, by the way. As a contrast, Dirty Beaches doesn’t call Chicago home, but then again he’d be hard pressed to call any place home. Alex Zhang Hungtai is the man behind Dirty Beaches, and while he has associations with Taiwan and Canada, he’s spent most of his life drifting from country to country and never staying too long. That informs his music in a lot of ways, a lo-fi pastiche of ’50s doo-wop and rockabilly mixed with garage rock surges and arrangements that are forceful, minimal and threatening. His debut album Badlands is quite good, as is his live show reputation. Choosing between these two acts is tougher than you’d think, but I have to vote for A Lull out of local devotion, and because I find their sound a little more interesting and energetic than Dirty Beaches.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Red Stage, 1:45)
**Milk Music (Blue Stage, 1:55)
Sunday afternoon really becomes a battle of the lo-fi bands, and it all starts with Unknown Mortal Orchestra vs. Milk Music. While both bands have a home recorded and somewhat degraded quality to their music, the songs they create are certainly distinctive. They’re also a bit old school and camera shy. Nobody even knew who or what Unknown Mortal Orchestra was at first, because all that existed was a Bandcamp page with a couple songs on it. We’ve learned only a little more about them since then, but that doesn’t seem to matter too much, so long as the music is good. Their self-titled album came out last year to much critical acclaim, and songs like “Ffunny Ffriends” and “How Can You Luv Me?” are bouncy earworms that are fun and quirky. Expect their live show to be described in a similar way. Milk Music have virtually no presence on the Internet. Their website lists only tour dates and ways to buy their music (they only have one EP out). They didn’t have a Facebook page until recently, and have admitted that technology isn’t really their thing. Their music suggests the same. The Washington quartet takes the ’80s DIY hardcore rock scene as inspiration for their music. They’ve drawn comparisons to Dinosaur, Meat Puppets and Husker Du, and all feel warranted. Their set will likely be a head-banging and energetic good time. The smart and safe call would be to go with Unknown Mortal Orchestra here, however sometimes you need to go stupid and unsafe for the sake of a good time. I think Milk Music will be best at providing that.
**Iceage (Green Stage, 2:30)
**Thee Oh Sees (Blue Stage, 2:50)
With these two bands, you can’t go wrong. Either one you choose, you’re guaranteed to have an out-of-control and wild experience. The real question will be: Can they get the crowd on board with their antics? For Iceage, it’d be surprising if their set lasted more than 20 minutes. Their 25-minute debut album New Brigade came out last year with high praise and people calling it a welcome revival of the punk genre. Still in their teens and early 20s, they’ve got plenty of energy to spare, and their live shows have become notorious for moshing and body surfing by band members. Photos of fans walking away bloody, but with smiles on their faces should tell you all you need to know. Thee Oh Sees have less of a punk edge to their sound, but they’ve got more than enough energy and back catalogue to keep things exciting. They’re best described as a psych-pop band, and their swirling melodies will likely blast out your eardrums if you’re close enough to the stage. They run around like chickens with their heads chopped off, and scream song titles before launching into them. If you can’t handle that heat, then stay out of the kitchen. If you’re afraid for your ears or your physical health, maybe this point in the afternoon is a good time to take a break and explore some the non-music options the festival has to offer. For the rest of us, you can probably catch all of Iceage then 90% of Thee Oh Sees if you move quickly. I’d recommend trying both.
**Ty Segall (Red Stage, 3:20)
The Men (Blue Stage, 3:45)
The lo-fi noise rock love fest officially wraps up in the 3pm hour on Sunday with Ty Segall and The Men. Ty Segall is quickly turning into the new Robert Pollard, cranking out multiple albums over the course of a single year. Segall will release 3 full lengths in 2012, but his latest with his band is called Slaughterhouse. It is a wild, fuzz-laden and ear-destroying ride through a house of horrors with Segall as your carnival barker guide. It’s the sort of madness that brings back memories of the earliest records released by The Stooges, but with less emphasis on establishing a groove and more on peeling back pop hooks. In a live setting, Segall and the band are punishingly loud. If you’re close enough to a speaker, your ears could be ringing for days. Knowing you’ve been thoroughly rocked though, it won’t matter nearly as much. The Men are a loud rock band, but in a more reasonable ’90s indie rock sort of way. Their latest album Open Your Heart has gotten great reviews and drawn comparisons to both Foo Fighters and MC5. You can actually hear bits of both in their sound. Mostly though, The Men are a fun band that makes energetic and often loud rock songs, with a few instrumentals and softer bits in between. In other words, they’re a little more balanced out and nuanced than what you’ll get from the hyper-punk of Ty Segall. Both sets will be good, but I think Segall’s will both kick ass and take names.
Real Estate (Green Stage, 4:15)
**Kendrick Lamar (Blue Stage, 4:45)
If insane sets from Iceage, Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall and The Men totally zapped you of your life force on a Sunday afternoon, there’s nothing better than finding a shady spot in the park and listening to some Real Estate. After two critically acclaimed full lengths and an EP, the band has established themselves as the perfect soundtrack band for a relaxing day at the beach. A shady grass oasis in Union Park runs relatively close to that setting, so try it out and see if it works. The last time Real Estate played the Pitchfork Music Festival, I liked their on stage vibe, but it was sleepy and not at all beneficial to the large crowd standing in the hot sun. Expect more of the same this year, so be smart and find a place for the drifting guitars to wash over your relaxed body. Kendrick Lamar earns my recommendation for this time slot not just because Real Estate’s set will be slow and drifting, but also because he’s a genuinely talented and formidable presence in hip hop. His 2011 album Section.80 was heralded by some as the “rebirth of West Coast rap,” and it came complete with some sort of secret connection to Dr. Dre. Whatever he’s up to and whoever he knows, Lamar holds his own by taking on introspective topics in his tracks and geeking out to things besides money and women. He’s absolutely an exciting new figure in hip hop, and with any luck he’ll be very popular very soon. Seeing him on the small Blue stage should be a treat.
**Chavez (Red Stage, 5:15)
Oneohtrix Point Never (Blue Stage, 5:45)
One of the things the talent bookers at Pitchfork Music Festival like to do is place a great reunited or “classic” indie band on the lineup. Typically, that band will play their set in the 5pm hour on Sunday. Superchunk did it last year. Actually, that doesn’t extend beyond last year, so I guess it can’t be called “typical.” I guess it was a poor train of thought. But for the second year in a row, a legendary indie band plays late Sunday afternoon. That honor goes to Chavez, and I guess a three year career with two great full lengths constitutes “legendary.” Gosh, I’m bad at this. But Chavez’s sound, in case you’re not familiar, is heavy on the guitar attacks, falling somewhere between post-punk and prog-metal. Comparisons to Guided By Voices and Shellac are pretty accurate, and via their very sporadic live shows since reuniting in 2006 have been pretty damn exciting. By comparison, Oneohtrix Point Never features zero guitars and his songs often glide along softly. Oneohtrix Point Never is the name under which Daniel Lopatin (of ’80s pop revivalists Ford & Lopatin) records solo. He takes in and repurposes old vocal recordings with fresh melodies and backing beats to accompany them. It makes for a fascinating listen, and earns its comparisons to things done by The Books. I’m not sure what he’ll do at Pitchfork, but if its anything like his albums there will be a creative ambience to it. It’s not so much dance music, but its beauty might just be the thing you need on a late Sunday afternoon.
**AraabMuzik (Green Stage, 6:15)
King Krule (Blue Stage, 6:45)
Similar to Clams Casino, AraabMuzik is another hip hop producer stepping out into the spotlight to showcase the many beats he’s created. So place another check mark in your instrumental electronica artist category. And while he has worked with A$AP Rocky and Cam’ron, many of the compositions that appeared on Electronic Dream weren’t exactly club bangers nor could you imagine somebody rapping over them. They were just a little too subdued and weird to make them seem mainstream, and that was actually a huge part of the charm. One of the most fascinating things about AraabMuzik is how he approaches his live performances, moving past simply pushing buttons and actually creating some beats and percussion work on stage. Very few electronica artists can operate with that sort of intensity and physical presence, and it’ll be something to behold at Union Park. For those wanting to hear a band play guitars, your option on the other side of the park is King Krule. Londoner Archy Marshall operates under the King Krule name, and to look at him you’d think the 18-year-old was actually even younger, what with his small frame and baby face. Yet listening to his deep crooner voice you’re almost instantly reminded of Leonard Cohen or Billy Bragg. Marshall also has a very distinctive sound, one which often merges jazz, rockabilly, electronica and hip hop. If you think that’s a weird description, try listening to some. It’s interesting stuff. Maybe not as interesting as what AraabMuzik is doing, but still interesting.
**Beach House (Red Stage, 7:25)
The Field (Blue Stage, 7:40)
Sunday will mark the third time Beach House have performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival, after sets in 2007 and 2010. It’s fascinating to think about how far they’ve come since then. both on their records and in their live performances. The early material was so soft, wispy and minimal, yet beautiful in the sort of way an antique gets when the light hits it just right. Nobody thought the duo would be able to top their last album Teen Dream from 2010, which wound up close to or at the top of many critics’ year-end lists. Shockingly, Bloom does reach a new peak for the band, giving their melodies more of a pulse and soaring skywards in ways that can actually connect with the larger and larger crowds they’ve been performing in front of. They may not be the most engaging live band, but they’ll make the most of their early evening time slot. The sun will be at just the right place in the sky to give everything that nostalgic glow present within the music. Axel Willner is otherwise known as The Field, and what he brings to the festival at such a late hour is some rather engaging experimental techno. He loves looping beats and other elements, going so far as to call his last record Looping State of Mind, and then throws actual instruments on top of them to give it more of a band feel. Being able to incorporate punk or shoegaze into an electronica track takes serious talent, which The Field has. You might not be able to dance to a lot of it, but it’s compelling, often beautiful stuff that in some ways is more effective on a crowd than Beach House’s calmer pastiche. This matchup is a tough call, but I think Beach House has the edge only because their material is slightly stronger.
**Vampire Weekend (Green Stage, 8:30)
As is custom on Sunday nights, the headlining act performs unopposed. Purity Ring plays against Feist on Friday night and Grimes plays against Godspeed You! Black Emperor on Saturday, but nobody plays against Vampire Weekend on Sunday. Of all the acts all weekend long, they’re probably the most popular anyways. I’m glad to see that Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig gave up a lucrative career in hip hop to start a band with his Ivy League friends that liberally draws on the Afropop stylings of Paul Simon. I hope that doesn’t come off as at all mean or menacing. Really I’m just joking around a little because there’s not a whole lot to say. Go see Vampire Weekend. Have lots of fun. Sing along to the songs you know. Get excited that they’ll probably play a few new ones too. It’ll be a nice and comfortable end to a nice and comfortable weekend. I’m happy to say that I’ll see you all on the other side.
How are you getting to this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival? There’s a whole world of options out there for you to explore beyond simply driving yourself. Take a train, bus, bike or even walk if you’re close enough. Union Park is easily accessible via whatever form of transportation you choose. If you bike there, make sure to lock it up inside the Chicago Reader Bike Village, or risk returning to a stolen or unrideable bike. The neighborhood around the park isn’t super dangerous, but it’s not the safest in the city either. If you absolutely feel like driving is your only way to get there, maybe try and carpool with people that live near you. Amovens Ridesharing is a viable option too if you don’t mind traveling with a stranger or two. I’m not saying you have to take these options, I just wanted to make sure you were aware of them as a way to reduce your carbon footprint. Doing that, along with dropping any aluminum and plastic you see into the designated recycle bins placed throughout the park can really help make the festival green. That little environmental piece out of the way, let’s talk about what’s going to be happening in Union Park on Saturday. Like yesterday, I’ve broken down the bands performing hour-by-hour and designated my own suggestions with the double star(**). It’s a great day with some tough choices, so make sure you see what you can when you can! For music selections not only from artists playing Saturday, but the entire weekend, be sure to look through this post or stream things via this Spotify playlist.
**The Atlas Moth (Blue Stage, 1:00)
The Psychic Paramount (Green Stage, 1:00)
Saturday at Pitchfork Music Festival starts out HEAVY. By heavy, I mean LOUD. The Atlas Moth is a Chicago band that makes what’s consistently and accurately described as “doom metal.” Put a different way, it’s the soundtrack to your nightmares. Now just because nightmares have a negative reputation doesn’t mean The Atlas Moth should. These guys are more than just a metal band, because they do an excellent job trying to incorporate other elements from genres such as blues and psychedelia into their sound. You may want to bang your head and get inside of a mosh pit for their show, but if you can pay close attention to what’s happening on stage while you’re doing that, you’ll notice a band with a great ability to turn their guitars into an effective weapon. Similar things could be said about The Psychic Paramount, an instrumental trio out of New York. The sort of music they make is best described as experimental, but they certainly don’t know much about the word “silence.” There’s a ferocity to their songs that’s exciting and engaging, and even in the absence of lyrics there’s a sort of post-rock transcendence that shines through and can grab hold of your emotions. Their latest effort II is a very widescreen affair best experienced in an arena…or maybe even a music festival? The choice is tough between these two loud bands, but ultimately I think The Atlas Moth will put on the crazier show, giving your Saturday the wild start it deserves.
**Cloud Nothings (Red Stage, 1:45)
Lotus Plaza (Blue Stage, 1:55)
Choosing between Cloud Nothings and Lotus Plaza is the first of a few real challenges that Saturday presents in scheduling. Cloud Nothings are fresh off their critically acclaimed new album Attack on Memory, which is filled to the brim with fun, catchy and energetic punk tunes. Frontman Dylan Baldi may not seem like the type of guy who will tear his throat to shreds for a song, but he does it both on record and when performing with the utmost conviction. It’s definitely a site to behold, and also worth watching if you want to stay amped for the rest of the day. Lotus Plaza is the side project band of Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt, and they carefully balance the genres of psychedelia, shoegaze and dream pop to the point where all of those descriptors fail to fully capture what the band actually sounds like. That’s a good problem to have, and one of the reasons why their latest album Spooky Action at a Distance earned quite a bit of praise from critics and fans alike. Listening to them perform such well-structured and breezy tracks might actually make it that much more enjoyable to be hanging out in the shade near the Blue stage. Still, I can’t help but think that since it’s not supposed to be blisteringly hot on Saturday, fun in the sun is where it’s going to be at. Keep some Atlas Moth energy going and jump around for Cloud Nothings.
**Atlas Sound (Green Stage, 2:30)
Liturgy (Blue Stage, 2:50)
It’s almost a sure thing that the Lotus Plaza and Atlas Sound sets will overlap. For those that don’t know, the irony is that both Lockett Pundt (Lotus Plaza) and Bradford Cox (Atlas Sound) are bandmates in Deerhunter. So it’ll kind of be battle of the side/solo projects. Atlas Sound made headlines last year for the drifting and beautiful record Parallax. Atlas Sound made headlines THIS year for agreeing to a fan request and performing “My Sharona”…for an hour. It was shocking, weird and kind of cool. Let’s hope he doesn’t repeat that though for his Pitchfork set, otherwise we’d miss such gems as the poppy “Mona Lisa” and the guitar rock of “My Angel is Broken.” Like The Atlas Moth earlier in the day, Liturgy is poised to deliver their own set of earth-scorching metal, though like most bands performing at the festival, that’s only part of their story. See, Liturgy is an anti-metal metal band. Translation: they make metal music, but everything about them suggests the opposite. They wear t-shirts and jeans instead of black leather get-ups and face paint. They sing about exploring religion instead of worshipping Satan. It still has all the heavy guitars and menace, just in a cleaner package. Liturgy may be outsiders to the metal community, but indie kids have a soft spot for them. So which of these two options is the better choice? Personal taste factors into it a little, but in terms of the overall quality of the music, I vote for Atlas Sound, even if his set might lack the energy and intensity Liturgy’s will definitely have.
**Cults (Red Stage, 3:20)
Youth Lagoon (Blue Stage, 3:45)
Cults are a fun band. They do indie pop right, and perhaps the best single of 2011 (or 2010 if you count the 7″ version) was their song “Go Outside.” It sparkled in all the right ways. Their self-titled debut album kept that train rolling and introduced new gems like the racing “Abducted” and the bouncy “Never Heal Myself.” They’ve been on tour for what seems like forever in support of that record, so it stands to argue that they’ve come up with a few new songs along the way. Perhaps they’ll introduce a few of them during their mid-afternoon set. Youth Lagoon also has a highly loved debut album that came out last year called The Year of Hibernation. Trevor Powers is the man behind the name, and he made a record of bedroom pop in his actual bedroom. There’s a hushed intimacy to his songs that evokes the mental image of sunlight streaming through the slats of some window blinds. Glorious and soaring as many of his songs may be, their subdued vibe might not fit well with the outdoor festival crowd. Still, playing on the Blue stage with some tree canopies can make for a nice break. I saw both Cults and Youth Lagoon perform in the same 24 hour period earlier this year, and while neither show was perfect, Cults were just a little bit better, which is why they earn my recommendation here.
Flying Lotus (Green Stage, 4:15)
**Nicolas Jaar (Blue Stage, 4:45)
If you really love experimental electronica, this point in your Saturday is going to be a tough one. Flying Lotus, also known as Steven Ellison, probably considers himself more of a producer than an actual musician. He takes sounds from various different music genres including jazz, hip hop and IDM, and swirls them all together to create something wholly unique and engaging. Sometimes that means songs are bouncy and upbeat and endlessly danceable, but other times a tangent will take over and you’ll be entranced by some slow motion saxophone or other disparate elements. By contrast, Nicolas Jaar plays sets that are a little more freeform. While he does have albums and mixtapes, which are collages of sounds and styles (very similar to Flying Lotus), he refuses to stick to a script. Depending on where and when he’s performing, he will customize that set with very little officially mapped out. He played a set in a church at SXSW this year and it was dark, respectful and introspective, with only brief flashes of danceable beats. In the space of an outdoor afternoon festival, he’s likely to go lighter, breezier and poppier. You still might not be able to dance to it, but there’s something exciting about the unpredictability of it all and the hope he might just stumble onto something truly transcendent.
**Wild Flag (Red Stage, 5:15)
Schoolboy Q (Blue Stage, 5:45)
Not many people, especially musicians, like to throw around the word “supergroup.” Yet when your band is formed out of members from other important bands, it becomes like the Avengers or Justice League, because with their powers combined shall come something greater than they can do on their own. With members Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, Rebecca Cole of The Minders and Mary Timony of…Mary Timony, Wild Flag was born to rock. And they do, all over their self-titled debut album. Their songs are vigorous and punk-strewn, and it’s even more impressive to watch them perform. Sleater-Kinney obsessives may be just a little disappointed, as the wail of Corin Tucker is missed, but everything else about this band is spot-on and really what rock and roll should be. On the opposite end of the park and sonic spectrum, Schoolboy Q brings his dark tales of hip hop to a late afternoon set. The cover for his album Habits & Contradictions features a masked person licking his very serious face. It brings up the idea of having a “dark passenger” on your shoulder, tempting you and telling you what to do. Schoolboy Q is definitely in his own world, and in that sense it’s always exciting to hear what he’ll do or come up with next. Make your decision about which of these acts to see based on your own tastes.
**Sleigh Bells (Green Stage, 6:15)
**Chromatics (Blue Stage, 6:45)
The last time Sleigh Bells performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival, it was 2010 and they were up against Pavement’s headlining set and their first Chicago show in over a decade. In other words, it was tough to actively make the choice to see them. They were riding a huge wave of buzz too, thanks in no small part to their smashing debut Treats. The duo of Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss bring high octane energy to their shows, as he plays heavy riffs backed with electro beats and she bounces and sings along in her schoolgirl-like voice. That combination of hardcore and sugary sweet elements was bound to fizzle out sometime, but they proved resilient on their sophomore album Reign of Terror earlier this year by going deeper and more refined. The hype may have died down a bit, but Sleigh Bells’ live show is more engaging and dynamic than ever. And hey, they’re not playing against Pavement this time. They are playing against Chromatics though, an electro-pop group built by dynamo producer Johnny Jewel. Here’s an act that has the sort of buzz Sleigh Bells did 2 years ago. That’s mostly bolstered by the long-awaited release of their 90-minute opus known as Kill for Love earlier this year. It’s a glorious patchwork of dark alley instrumental electronica and synth-pop of the highest and catchiest order. While they lack the fire of Sleigh Bells, Chromatics make up for it with intensity. I’m calling this 6pm face-off a toss-up, and thanks to their sets starting 30 minutes apart from one another, you can see most of both. I recommend that you do.
**Hot Chip (Red Stage, 7:25)
Danny Brown (Blue Stage, 7:40)
On Sunday of last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, dance band Cut Copy had the privilege of performing right before that night’s headliners TV on the Radio. With the sun starting to set and the crowd surprisingly riled up (maybe they were all at just the right level of drunk), Union Park became a massive dance party. Right around the same time but on Saturday instead, Hot Chip will take the stage. I expect an almost identical result. While the band’s previous album One Life Stand was a bit mellower and more serious than anything they’d done previously, Hot Chip’s latest record In Our Heads feels like a course correction with more mature songs you can dance to. Bring your green hat and we’ll get the party started. Danny Brown, meanwhile, is like many of the hip hop acts on this year’s lineup: operating on his own plane of existence. His screechy and weird vocals are unlike anything else in hip hop, to the point where many people turn his tracks off without giving him half a chance. They’re missing out though, because Brown’s words tend to tell of his own hardships in life (of which there are MANY), while also peppering in plenty of humor. Not many rappers are able to pull off that delicate balance, but Brown does it while wearing skinny jeans and a haircut best described as “distinctive.” He’s not exactly for me, which is why I’m handing this match-up to Hot Chip.
**Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Green Stage, 8:30)
**Grimes (Blue Stage, 8:40)
When you think about some of the polar opposite acts playing against one another in the same time slot, there’s probably none that sticks out more than Godspeed You! Black Emperor vs. Grimes. Here’s how it breaks down. Godspeed makes post-rock. It’s less the Sigur Ros or Explosions in the Sky sort of post-rock and more the art movie soundtrack sort of post-rock. Single tracks can go on for 20 or 30 minutes and roll over you like waves of emotion as violins mourn one minute and guitars rage the next. They project films onto a screen during their performances, functioning as visual aids to help pull you further into their progressive and oft-heartbreaking melodies. If people can actually shut up and pay attention to the music, GY!BE’s performance could be the weekend’s most revelatory and powerful set. The problem is you’re outside in the grass with your friends, one of whom is likely to say they’re “bored” before starting up a conversation. If it doesn’t happen to you it’ll happen to somebody near you, and the meaning of it all will likely be ruined. So maybe you take note and go see Grimes’ set, Her latest album Visions is futuristic pop of the highest order. Her entire goal when performing live is to get you to dance. She’ll be dancing while twisting knobs, playing keyboards and building vocal loops, and if she can do 5 things at once, you can do that one thing with her. The two times I’ve seen Grimes perform this year contained some of the best and worst moments I’ve ever seen at a live show. One of those times she was really sick though, so hopefully her health will be fine on Saturday night and things will proceed brilliantly. Coming off the dance party high Hot Chip will likely provide, Grimes will be the exceptional cap to what could be a very fun Saturday.
TOMORROW: PITCHFORK MUSIC FESTIVAL 2012 COVERAGE CONTINUES WITH A DAY 3 PREVIEW!
Okay, so you’re headed to Union Park this weekend for the Pitchfork Music Festival, but are either confused or conflicted about who or what to see during your time there. Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us, even those that are familiar with 95% of the artists performing. Don’t fear, however. I’m here to help. Starting today and wrapping up on Thursday, we’ll take a day-by-day look at the “essesntial acts to see” at this year’s Pitchfork Fest. If you’re looking for some additional music education on these artists, make sure you have a look at this post, in which you can download or stream a song from every single artist on the lineup. Take a taste, and if you like what you hear, you can invest in a full album or maybe just go see that particular artist perform at the festival. That said, let’s get started with a look at your best bets for Friday. My personal picks are affixed with stars (**).
Outer Minds (Blue Stage, 3:20)
**Lower Dens (Red Stage, 3:30)
This year’s Pitchfork Music Festival starts off local. Chicago’s own Outer Minds have the designation of playing the first set of the weekend, and if you’re fortunate enough to get there early, there’s plenty to love about these guys. Their core sound is garage rock, but thanks to some fun harmonies and a few blistering guitar passages you could say there’s a psychedelic influence in there too. The band’s self-titled debut album came out in March, and you can stream or buy it digitally here. If their live show is anything like their record, it should be a really fun and energetic time. Facing off against Outer Minds will be Lower Dens, the Baltimore soft pop band whose latest record Nootropics is one of 2012’s finest offerings so far. Excellent as these songs may be, and as engaging of a frontwoman as Jana Hunter is, Lower Dens might best be described as “sleepy.” In other words, with the summer afternoon sun beating down on your face, it could be tough to enjoy the band’s darker yet slowly gorgeous melodies. You might be best off with the cutting energy of Outer Minds to start things right, however I’m giving the official recommendation to Lower Dens based solely on the strength of their material.
Willis Earl Beal (Blue Stage, 4:15)
**The Olivia Tremor Control (Green Stage, 4:35)
Willis Earl Beal’s debut album Acousmatic Sorcery is a thing of raw beauty. Another artist with strong ties to Chicago, his life story is as fascinating as his music. He’s been homeless, joined the Army, left CD-Rs of his music in random places, busked on the street, auditioned for The X Factor and posted flyers with his phone number on them encouraging people to call and he’d play a song for them. What do all these things say about the man? Well, in his 27 years you’d say he’s LIVED. The pain and hardship comes through in his powerful singing voice, which goes from a whisper to a gruff howl with very little effort. His set should be one of the most fascinating of the entire festival, and any fan of the blues and soul music should make an appointment to see it. On the other side of the park will be Olivia Tremor Control, and fans of the Elephant 6 collective of the ’90s will have plenty to get excited about. The band released two effortlessly catchy and classic indie pop records in the form of 1996’s Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle and 1999’s Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One before breaking up. Their much heralded reunion in 2009 hasn’t resulted in a lot of large scale touring, so when they do play shows some excitement comes along with it. Also it’s not impossible to think that former band member and close friend Jeff Mangum might drop in for a song or two, simply because he can.
Tim Hecker (Blue Stage, 5:15)
**A$AP Rocky (Red Stage, 5:30)
The five o’clock hour on Friday brings together an interesting paradox of talent. Tim Hecker is a great Canadian producer and electronica composer whose last couple records have been deep and gorgeous soundscapes worthy of the critical acclaim they’ve received. You could also describe them as very serious and often intense examinations of the way technology and digital elements have overtaken traditional and organic instrumentation. What this really amounts to is that if you’re hoping to get some shade by the smaller Blue stage and just sort of relax for a bit on a blanket, listening to Tim Hecker will provide you with a cool breeze, even if nature doesn’t hand you one. As for A$AP Rocky, his star has been on the rise all year long. Fresh off the his LiveLoveA$AP mixtape, he and the A$AP Mob have courted controversy and violence in a way not all that dissimilar from the way Odd Future was doing last year. Of course Rocky has a reportedly three million dollar record deal, which also puts the stakes pretty high for his official debut album LongLiveA$AP when it comes out in September. Expect to hear him perform a bunch of that new stuff while the A$AP Mob riles up the crowd in between tracks. It could be a total disaster ending in some crowd insanity, or it could just be a whole lot of fun to watch. Either way, the guy might be the next Jay-Z or Kanye West, so best to see him now before the rest of the world sinks their teeth into him.
**Japandroids (Blue Stage, 6:15)
Big K.R.I.T. (Green Stage, 6:25)
Have you heard Celebration Rock yet? It is a triumph of an album for Japandroids, and one of 2012’s best rock records. If you like your guitars loud, your drums pounding, and anthems you can shout along with, Japandroids are not only the best thing happening in this time slot, but perhaps for all of Friday. Expect plenty of fists in the air, mosh pits and crowd surfing too. This is a high energy, high octane show, and these sorts of bands don’t come around as often anymore. Not only that, but Brian King and David Prowse are serious about their craft and play as if their lives depended on it. Celebrate life, celebrate rock and try not to get hurt while doing so. It’s quite likely that Big K.R.I.T. will bring a lot of energy and celebration to his set too, though his version of hip hop is a bit more conscientious and introspective than many others. Don’t worry though, that makes him one of the more unique voices in the genre these days, and his talent has been very apparent over his last couple records and mixtapes, most notably Return of 4Eva. You’re not going to get the style and flash of an A$AP Rocky, but he mines the nostalgia of the mid-’90s era of rap when the genre was so much more than that. If the idea sounds appealing to you, his set might have that same effect.
Clams Casino (Blue Stage, 7:15)
**Dirty Projectors (Red Stage, 7:20)
Clams Casino is the second instrumental act performing on Friday. Unlike Tim Hecker though, Clams Casino has made a name for himself by rather brilliantly producing a bunch of hip hop. Everyone from Soulja Boy to Lil B to A$AP Rocky (of course) have used his beats and instrumentals as backing for their own rhymes. Instead of letting those compositions sit behind vocals, Clams Casino has released a pair of free mixtapes and an EP containing pieces he’s worked on for others or just himself, all of it sans vocals (but not necessarily vocal samples). These things stand up so well on their own, he can play live shows with them and get people moving and/or shouting along if they happen to know some of the hip hop tracks the beats originally appeared on. Count on his set to be a good, danceable time. Then there’s Dirty Projectors, a band that has scooped up quite a bit of critical acclaim these last few years for their wildly inventive songs. My thoughts on the band’s latest opus Swing Lo Magellan can be found here, but in a nutshell it’s their most accessible and effortlessly enjoyable record to date. If you’ve heard Dirty Projectors before and didn’t like it, their live show surely won’t do anything to change your mind. What it will showcase are the impressive talents of Amber Coffman, Haley Dekle and Olga Bell, whose vocal ping-ponging must be seen to be believed. Frontman Dave Longstreth is the mastermind behind it all, and though he’s not the warmest or most personable guy in the world, he lets the music speak for him. You should be paying close attention.
**Purity Ring (Blue Stage, 8:20)
Feist (Green Stage, 8:20)
Purity Ring don’t have an album out yet. Their debut, Shrines, is set for release at the end of this month. In the meantime, there have been a few singles that have caught the ears of many a tastemaker. What makes this duo so unique is their ability to turn hip hop and electronica elements into compelling pop music. They actually like to describe it as “future pop,” and given the glitchy samples and fun other little tweaks they throw in against Megan James’ smooth vocals, that’s not far from the truth. Perhaps the main reason why they’re “headlining” the small Blue stage on Friday night has less to do with popularity (as that’s still steadily building) and more to do with how their live show is structured. At 8:20pm there will still be a bit of sunlight left, but Purity Ring prefer to perform in total darkness. Their stage setup includes multi-colored lightbulbs that pulsate and pound with the beats. So not only do the songs draw you in and stick with you, but you’ll likely remember the visual elements as well for quite some time. As for Feist, well, she’s simply a delight. Her records Let It Die and The Reminder were strong representations of female singer-songwriter pop. People fell in love with her thanks to cute songs like “Mushaboom” and “1,2,3,4”. Goofy choreographed music videos and a few acting appearances on comedy shows have only made her that much more endearing, which is why it was such a disappointment when her new album Metals didn’t fully follow in those footsteps. No worries though, because her headlining set at this year’s festival has every indication of being highly enjoyable and entertaining. She may even bring a few people from the crowd up on stage to spice things up a bit. She’s great like that. If you watch her set, there’s a high likelihood you’ll end the night smiling, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
TOMORROW: PITCHFORK MUSIC FESTIVAL 2012 COVERAGE CONTINUES WITH A DAY 2 PREVIEW!
Welcome to the start of Pitchfork Music Festival Week here at Faronheit! Starting today and going all the way through next Monday, I’ll be bringing you each and every play-by-play concerning the festival. That includes previewing the artists playing, commenting on how sets go during the fest, and a full post-mortem that includes plenty of photos. So I invite you to take this journey with me whether you’re going or not, primarily because it’s going to be a lot of fun and there’s so much great music involved. Want proof? This introductory post features music from every single artist performing this upcoming weekend. Most have mp3s for you to download, but some artists have Soundcloud streams only, because they prefer it that way. If you don’t want to download all of the songs below and like your taste testing via streaming, I’ve also assembled a Spotify playlist in which you can stream a track from (almost) every artist performing, AND it’s all carefully arranged in an order that is designed to create the most satisfying listening experience possible. Check that out if you’re so inclined. For everyone else though, feel free to take the songs posted below for a test drive to see what strikes your fancy. You might just discover your new favorite band even if you won’t be in Union Park this weekend!
One of the most fascinating things about Dirty Projectors is how they continually evolve with each new record. It’s been almost 10 years since the band released The Glad Fact, which at the time really wasn’t much more than frontman Dave Longstreth and Yume Bitsu’s Adam Forkner playing oddball songs people had trouble describing. Things got even more fun in 2005 with The Getty Address, a concept “opera” that was about the destruction of the environment, 16th century explorer Hernan Cortes, and featured a main character named Don Henley. There was dense orchestration mixed with some more modern R&B beats that certainly gave it a unique feel and sound. When people started to earnestly pay attention to this eccentric and sometimes brilliant band was in 2007 with the release of Rise Above. The record was an attempt by Longstreth to re-interpret the classic Black Flag album Damaged track-by-track, in spite of not having listened to it in over 15 years. His focus also shifted away from epic, orchestral arrangements and more towards dense polyrhythms and visceral vocal harmonies. Band membership was somewhat streamlined too, and after working with a wide variety of people including members of Vampire Weekend, Dirty Projectors became a more comfortable five piece with people Longstreth actually seemed to care about. The real challenge was getting people to care too. Such wild musical ambitions often made for difficult results, and the critical love the band received didn’t exactly earn them a huge increase in fans. They are the sort of band best described as “not for everybody.” On their last album Bitte Orca however, they went a long way to help rectify that stigma by moving in a more accessible art-pop direction. Key elements such as West African-inspired guitar lines and offbeat percussion remained, but never had the band produced something that was so light, airy and altogether fun to listen to. After years of wandering through a desert of his own wildly strange vision, Longstreth had finally found the balance needed to take the band to the next level of success.
That was three years ago, and since then restlessness has once again gotten the better of Dirty Projectors. Never content to do the same thing twice, or even keep the same lineup for too long, there have been a few changes made in preparation for the release of the band’s new album Swing Lo Magellan. Keyboardist and singer Angel Deradoorian has taken a hiatus to focus on other projects, and drummer Brian McOmber left the band, with Mike Johnson taking his place. A close listen to the new single “Gun Has No Trigger” also yields some clues as to what’s in store on the new record. The arrangement is best described as minimal, with an unwavering beat and light flourishes of bass guitar being the only instruments used beyond Longstreth’s lead vocal and the harmonies of Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. The poppy, R&B-like flavor of “Stillness Is the Move” off Bitte Orca is nowhere to be found. In fact, not one song on Swing Lo Magellan even comes close to that level of funky, resonating catchiness. That’s not the point though, because this is a fresh batch of songs written with different intentions in mind. Whereas the last album was very self-conscious by carefully reappropriating certain sounds in creative ways, Longstreth has called the new material deeper and more personal, but also more playful with an emphasis on writing great individual songs rather than leaning on an overarching theme. Instead of retreating from the more pop sensible and accessible song structures, the band drives even further towards them. The way they do it varies from song to song, as do the styles somewhat, but when you’re anchored by distinctive guitar playing along with equally distinctive percussion and vocal styles, those constants do great work keeping everything pretty uniform even when they’re anything but.
Swing Lo Magellan begins with Longstreth clearing his throat. It turns out to be the first of many raw “sounds of the studio” that appear on the album. “Unto Caesar” contains the most obvious use of the technique, with Coffman and Dekle asking, “When should we bust in the harmonies?” right in the middle of a verse, and later commenting on the lyrics with, “Uhh, that doesn’t make any sense, what you just said.” Such off the cuff moments actually lend the record quite a bit of levity and sharply reduce the impression that Longstreth is a bit anal retentive when it comes to song arrangement. Is almost everything else pieced together in an almost ironclad fashion? For the most part, but that’s another point Longstreth is trying to make: music should inspire you and relate to you rather than simply existing in a vacuum of your own complacency. Songs like “Offspring Are Blank,” “About to Die,” “Just from Chevron” and “Impregnable Question” tackle the big topics of birth, death, environmental disaster and love, because if you write about trivial things you’ll get trivial responses to your music. The whole thing is very nicely summed up at the end of the record with “Irresponsible Tune,” where Longstreth adopts a ’50s style croon and a lone acoustic guitar to make his case. “Without songs we’re lost/and life is pointless, harsh and long,” he espouses with the same sort of tender conviction that’s so effective across the rest of the album. Even if he sang it as though he didn’t believe it, that doesn’t make the words themselves any less correct.
What makes Swing Lo Magellan such a compelling listen is that you’re never able to put it into a box or describe it to someone easily. If you’ve heard a Dirty Projectors record before then you’ve probably got a reasonable grasp on what they sound like, even if words fail you. Opening track “Offspring Are Blank,” for example, is extremely organic in its initial approach, the melody created via humming voices and the rhythms sustained by handclaps. Three kids on a school playground can recreate it, no instruments needed. Until the chorus, that is, when the sky cracks open and the electric guitars and drums come to life next to Longstreth’s soaring vocal. The dynamic shift from quiet to loud and back again calls attention to the verse-chorus-verse nature of the song while also sucking you in with a dynamite hook. On a different side of the spectrum, “Just From Chevron” has no chorus or hook, and plays out as a story where Coffman and Dekle narrate the beginning and end while Longstreth belts out a meaty lead role through the middle portion. It’s a unique way to put together a song, but the lyrics about a dying oil employee’s final words are what sell and justify its existence. If you’ve ever wanted to hear Dirty Projectors get a little psychedelic, “Maybe That Was It” is a guitar-heavy dirge that’s one of the most normal things the band has ever done. There’s nothing inherently weird about it outside of some light effects applied to Longstreth’s vocals, yet such a straightforward approach almost leaves the song sounding like the odd man out. When you’ve got a record full of handclaps, alien-like harmonies and various electronic bric-a-brac, avoiding such things can give you the impression there’s something wrong.
Similar things could be said about the title track. Longstreth’s relaxed vocal is paired with a lightly strummed acoustic guitar and a very standard, unflinching snare rhythm. As he waxes poetic over those 2.5 minutes of folk, there’s something almost Dylanesque about it. That brings up a great point: Dave Longstreth and Bob Dylan have quite a lot in common. Both are very odd and mysterious creatures, about whom we know everything and nothing at the same time. The attitudes and opinions we’re supposed to glean from the songs themselves are nearly useless, because either the lyrics are too strange to make any sense out of, or the times we do understand will be contradicted in the next song or record. Interviews are awkward, and often classified as train wrecks. Yet in description, people tend to use the words “ahead of his time.” At the end of it all, the one thing we can remain sure of is that be it Longstreth with Dirty Projectors or Dylan and his band, we will always keep expecting the unexpected. It may not always work out or be the easiest to digest, but at least they’re still trying to reach that next level of greatness. That’s more than can be said about a vast majority of artists making music today.