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Listmas 2014: The Top 50 Albums of the Year [#40-31]


Okay, we’ve made it to Day 2 of this countdown. In case you missed the first set of 10 albums, aka #50-41, you can click here to bring yourself up to speed. The collection of records you’ll find below has a little something for everybody, I’d say. Well okay, maybe not EVERYBODY. But there’s some great synth pop, some punk rock, some electronica, some hip hop, and a little bit of experimental whatnot in there for good measure. If there’s a theme to be pulled from this portion of the countdown, it’s that change is inevitable, and can often turn out for the best. Anyways, let’s just get right into it. Here’s the Top 50 Albums of 2014: #40-31!

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Pitchfork Music Festival 2011: Day 3 Recap

It seems we have come to the end of the road for this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. It was a supremely fun 3 days filled with dozens of interesting artists that ranged from incredible to incredibly disappointing. My overall ruminations on the weekend will be handled in a different post. In the meantime I want to continue in the same tradition of the last two days, in which I keep up with the day-by-day recaps. Here’s what I bore witness to on Sunday (Day 3):

The goal was to make it to Union Park by 1:45pm to see Yuck‘s set. That was at the latest. I got stuck writing my recap of Saturday night on Sunday morning, so that caused a bit of a delay. Then traffic on the highways continued to pile additional delays on top of that. I was a mere couple blocks away from the festival and the time read 1:40pm. A band I thought may have been The Fresh & Onlys was playing off in the distance. Turns out Yuck started their set just a tiny bit earlier than scheduled. So I missed about a song. They put on a very good and energetic set, or at least crafted accurate representations of studio tracks. Smiling isn’t exactly Yuck’s thing, but they also appeared to be having a good time despite the blistering heat. The crowd pretty much did the same.

Seeing Kurt Vile & the Violators was by no means my genuine intention. It was more a matter of convenience and the safety of knowing that How to Dress Well was likely not doing so…well on the smaller Blue stage. Really it turned into a way to pass the time while waiting on Twin Sister about 20 minutes later. Quieter acoustic folk music hasn’t done so well this weekend, particularly with the sun feverishly beating down on everyone, which is why I felt like Vile was going to nosedive. To my pleasant surprise, he did not nosedive, but rather pretty much the exact opposite. Whether it was the fans blowing his amazing mane of hair around or just a very well put together backing band, there was energy and plenty of other compelling reasons to watch that set. Even a slower, more difficult song like “On Tour” was smartly played with the larger crowd in mind. I was so entranced, I forgot about Twin Sister and finally jogged my memory about it 10 minutes into their set.

In terms of Twin Sister, it was at that point, around 90 minutes into my day, that I felt like the heat was just starting to get to me. Loading up on water and shade became essential, and Twin Sister on the Blue stage was a good location to do both. I found a spot in the back corner of that area and downed a couple bottles of water with friends while trying to cool off. Twin Sister absolutely helped with that, providing a fun and energetic set of songs that made you want to get up and keep going with your day. Calling their set prolific or revolutionary is definitely too excessive, but remarkably pleasant bordering on excellent might be how I best describe it. Part of me wishes I was motivated enough to get up off the ground and actually watch what was happening on stage, but there was a certain sense of contentment just turning off that mode for a small period of time.

The set clearly most people wanted to see on Sunday was Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All aka OFWGKTA. Women’s rights groups and anti-abuse organizations were up in arms about the hip hop collective’s booking, and were threatening to do an all-out protest of it as a result. The festival organizers instead cut a deal with them, providing them with their own tent to raise awareness. They also were handing out plenty of paper fans that mentioned domestic violence and provided contact information for those in need of help. This was all to provide counter-programming to the inane ramblings of OFWGKTA, given that so many of their tracks appear to advocate rape and abuse and other unseemly things. Just prior to their set, the Odd Future boys went out to the abuse awareness tent and brought the women there cupcakes. This was all in an effort to show there were “no hard feelings”. Then they did their thing, often complete with catchy choruses that included lyrics like “smack that bitch” and “suck my dick”. The crowd appeared to be eating it up, throwing hands (or middle fingers) in the air as instructed, while the boys on stage took turns interacting with the crowd/crowd surfing. One of the more amusing things about their set was how they’d finish a horribly abusive or angry song against women, and would follow it up by telling everyone to go by and visit with the women’s advocacy group. “We hope they’re listening to our set right now,” one of them said seconds before launching into an extremely vulgar track about rape. In other words, the whole thing was counter-intuitive and just a bit confusing. But it was still fun, and those guys are talented even if they’re not the cleanest or friendliest hip hop group around. Mostly I’m just glad there wasn’t a riot.

After getting about 45 minutes into Odd Future’s set, I thought I’d go for a change of pace and see how Shabazz Palaces were doing. It was definitely a quieter vibe on that side of the park, and the lighter crowd made it nicer as well. They had some sound issues that delayed their start time, but once things got going it was definitely strong hip hop that was very much the anti-OFWGKTA. More minimalistic and subdued in nature, the duo made the most of what they had brought with them, including a number of live instruments (as opposed to the DJ sample-fest that was Odd Future). There was something about that set that had all the class and dignity you could ever want. The 20 or so minutes I heard were a good palate cleanser before I allowed my curiosity to pull me in the direction of another stage.

That other stage was the Green stage, where Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti were playing. The past show reviews I’ve read from people who’ve seen Ariel Pink before appeared to describe him as moderately pensive, often with an attitude that suggested he’d much rather be someplace else doing something else. That was NOT the Ariel Pink we met at the Pitchfork Music Festival. This version was completely nuts. Like, serious screw loose in the head sort of nuts. Depending on how that dynamic works on stage, it can lead to rousing success or total meltdown. It actually turned out to be a mixture of both. The great parts came in the early going, with Pink singing/manipulating his vocals through a headset connected to a small soundboard. The headset was needed because of all the jumping around, head banging, and wacky gestures he tended to make. The guy had more energy than he knew what to do with, and channeled as much of it as he could into his performance. The crowd ate it up. But as time went on, he kept leaving the band and retreating back stage for one reason or another, always to re-emerge and crank out another song. Yet simultaneously you could watch his mood go from crazy happy to crazy pissed, and it eventually erupted into a meltdown that had him walking off the stage for good, once again leaving the rest of the band there to politely end the set about 20 minutes early. Sound issues were to blame, apparently, as Ariel was reportedly not happy with what was going on with his vocals. For the 40 or so minutes that the set lasted, almost all of it was of an exceptionally high quality, vocal problems be damned.

Compare Ariel Pink to Baths, the 1 man DJ band. The words “DJ band” are probably used incorrectly here, but Will Wiesenfield uses a laptop and a sampler on stage. No actual instruments there, but he does do a fair amount of singing via the tracks he composes. That was one of those legitimately fun dance sets where despite the temperatures you can just let your hair down and have a blast. What makes Baths so engaging outside of the music is how Wiesenfield runs his show. He legitimately seems excited about playing these songs, and rather than just carefully mix together that might appear to be a lot more beat than melody, he dances, head bangs (sorta), makes wild flailing motions with his arms, sticks his tongue out Michael Jordan style, and overall turns boring and normal on its head. It was a lot more entertaining than I thought it would be.

Then there’s Superchunk. Here’s a veteran band that’s been around for ages, but there have been significant breaks due to a number of different factors. Somehow though, Mac McCaughan and the rest of the band don’t seem to have aged much. I think I spotted a grey hair or two, but otherwise they’re still on the right side of youth. They played like it too, seamlessly blending a lot of their classic catalogue with a bunch of material off their latest record “Majesty Shredding”. The crowd totally ate it up, and there was much singing and jumping around. Superchunk has always been one of those bands that delivers each and every show they play, and this one was no different. They put themselves out there and got enduring love and respect in return, as they should.

Deerhunter is an interesting sort of fish. The sun was beginning to set when Bradford Cox, Lockett Pundt and Co. took the stage, and immediately something felt a little weird. That is to say, the guys in the band appeared to be a little stand-offish and difficult. It didn’t help that the first thing they did was dive into a huge squall of white noise. They looked like they were sweltering in the still overly hot temperatures, but the great news is that once they’d finally gotten some legs underneath them, they were solid as ever. Deerhunter hit all the hallmarks they’re pretty much required to at this point in their careers, making an epic spectacle out of “Nothing Ever Happened” or settling into the grooves of a “Revival”. And hey, they even threw in a little bit of amusing banter to continue to charm us. For a band that, in my opinion, got off to a rocky start, they really kicked into high gear and things turned out as good, if not better than hoped.

My most anticipated set of Sunday was Cut Copy, and that’s almost entirely because of how much I love their music yet have never seen them perform it live. Apparently a lot of people were also looking forward to Cut Copy, as it wound up being one of the most heavily attended non-headliner sets I saw all weekend. They had an interesting lighting set up behind them which is likely more effective in a pitch black venue but worked well enough as the sun was beginning to drift below the horizon, casting a large shade over much of the park. With the cooler temperatures too, things became ideal for a dance party. A dance party is exactly what Cut Copy gave us, cranking out one hot cut after another. Leading early on with “Where I’m Going”, the highlights were spread smartly across the duration of the set. There was a point about halfway through the set in which they “announced” that the show was over and that they were saying goodnight, something that would have been a lot more effective had they legitimately left the stage instead of immediately confessing it was a joke. But from “Hearts on Fire” to “Lights and Music” through “Need You Now” and “Take Me Over”, there wasn’t a single key moment they missed, and I had a blast. It was a cathartic release, a celebration of everything the festival had been and done up until that point, and a very nice warm-up for TV on the Radio.

Let’s do a brief recap of the headliners at this year’s festival. Animal Collective on Friday night was good, if not great, but their extremely experimental psychedelic bent makes them a bit difficult to truly get into and enjoy (from a very mainstream perspective). Fleet Foxes are far more pleasant and easy to love, but they’re also much quieter and still new enough to where they might not yet be ready to headline a festival. But when you talk about TV on the Radio, that is a band with enough time in existence and an impeccable/energetic/appealing catalogue of music. In other words, they’re the real deal. They also wound up being the purveyors of the best headlining set of the festival. Naturally, there was a bit of an emphasis on their newer material, so “Nine Types of Light” got a fair amount of play across their 75 minute set, but there was plenty of time for highlights galore. Starting with “Dear Science”‘s opening energy burst “Halfway Home”, things jumped off right from the start. There was the 1-2 punch of “Young Liars” moving into “Staring at the Sun” that was simply excellent if you love the band’s older stuff. The way that songs like “Will Do” and “Caffeinated Consciousness” fit in amongst “Wolf Like Me” and “A Method” was pretty seamless too. The one song I personally missed hearing was “Golden Age”, but I’d like to think in place of that they chose to cover Fugazi’s “Waiting Room”. When they hit the first notes of the song, I thought it would just be a tease before launching into something else. They were not kidding around, and it turned out to be a remarkably great cover. I love that song, and while it may not have the same ferocity from which Fugazi would have performed it, the sheer force and technical accuracy was all it needed and was given. That provided the perfect cap on a weekend-long journey that was more fun than I’ve had in quite awhile. Thanks, TV on the Radio.

This wraps up my day-by-day recap of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival. My coverage is not yet complete though. I’ve got several hundred photos to weed through and edit for your consumption, along with a look back at the full weekend that was, complete with a bunch of “superlatives” directed at many bands that I bore witness to. So keep your eyes peeled, I’m hoping to have everything taken care of within the next day or two.

Album Review: Shabazz Palaces – Black Up [Sub Pop]


One close examination of the Sub Pop Records roster shows that they are by no means known for hip hop. Probably the closest they’ve ever come to hip hop are via a few songs from Flight of the Conchords. In case you’re not fully comprehending it, that last sentence was a joke. Kind of. It makes their signing of Shabazz Palaces just a little bit perplexing, like buying a canary when you’ve already got a house full of cats. But diversity, like an old wooden ship, is what any good record label aspires to. Shabazz Palaces might have been more at home on something like Anti, but Sub Pop’s stellar reputation seems to indicate that this particular project is something special. Their debut album “Black Up” definitely places them in unique company, a wholly uncommercial effort that plays minimal arrangements for all they’re worth. That they’re signed to an indie label makes sense too. Things appear to work out for all parties involved, because odd though it may be, this different approach to hip hop stands out and helps to give creedence to a type of music that has tended to border on stale in recent years.

That’s not to say “Black Up” is the be-all, end-all of modern day hip hop records. Kanye West can turn in a record judged by some to be absolutely perfect, even if it plays to common conventions while also pushing stadium-sized grandstanding. Shabazz Palaces don’t 100% knock it out of the park on their first try, but they’re trending in the right direction. It may or may not take some serious digging to find out that this project is the creation of Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, former member of the equally inventive hip hop collective Digable Planets. He’s trying really hard to keep his identity a secret, with his name not mentioned in any promotional materials, along zero photos to go along with it. So how was the veil eventually lifted? A distinctive voice is a distinctive voice, and Butler has got one. His perspective, too, is all his own, naturally avoiding cliches such as women, money and guns. Even race primarily takes a back seat to topics like defining your own identity and then living it. Pure, unfiltered honesty combined with a sheer lack of pretension or attempts to shock (looking at you Tyler, the Creator). Piecing together exactly what the themes of the album or even certain songs are all about can be a challenge, and that’s because most everything requires close scrutiny along with some deeper philosophical thoughts to best understand. When he repeats the phrase “Who/do you think/you are?” towards the end of “An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum”, it’s not done in a menacing fashion but rather a pondering one.

One of the more fascinating elements on “Black Up” is the pure beat construction on each individual track. It’s easy to throw rhymes over whatever is going on, but many of the melodies could very well work in other capacities with other musicians. A number of these tracks could register as part of the chillwave or glo-fi movement, and that’s just one aspect of many this music pulls from. Soul, R&B, jazz, electronica and even a little gospel are all represented in one form or another, and this blurring of genre tropes is a big part of what makes this record such a strong listen. You may not have much in the way of hooks to grab onto, but the direction each song goes in is never predictable or plain. Curveballs are thrown at multiple junctures, to the point where something like “Free Press and Curl” sounds completely different at the end compared to where it began. Sometimes you get a female voice courtesy of THEESatisfaction stepping in to soar just a bit in between the rhymes. A few tracks lack much in the way of rhyming anyways, because it’s all about creative wordplay and not writing something simply to fill an open-ended void. This is less hip hop and more a collection of tone poems with some well-placed beats. It is the work of a highly experienced, wise artist that has learned plenty about life, love and art, now looking to release something that’s “next level”. Butler tries to avoid being associated with Shabazz Palaces not because he’s ashamed of the project or likes the idea of turning this into a guessing game, but rather because he wants these tracks and this record to be the only focus. It needn’t matter who is behind it, so long as you absorb something from it. That’s not to say everything makes sense, or there are truly lessons to be learned. The meaning and purpose is not for you or me to decide. How “Black Up” functions in your life is almost entirely based upon your own individual experiences and preferences, and that’s what every great record has the ability to do. Your sole responsibility is to let it into your ears. It will do the rest.

Shabazz Palaces – An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum
Shabazz Palaces – Swerve…The Reeping of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)

Buy “Black Up” from Amazon

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