Join me after the jump for a collection of photos that I took on Day 2 (Saturday) of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Photos are arranged by set time. They are also available in higher resolution on Facebook. Check out my full recap of the day, as well as all the rest of the coverage, by going here.
What’s a summer music festival in Chicago without a little rain? Or a lot of rain? This year marked the first time in its 10 year history that Pitchfork was forced to evacuate the grounds due to severe weather. A similar incident happened at Lollapalooza a couple years back. Unlike that event however, organizers waited until seemingly the last minute before pulling the plug. That’s not intended to say that they did anything wrong, but rather tried as hard as they could to keep things going until they simply couldn’t anymore due to safety concerns. They made the announcement to please exit the park, and then less than two minutes later a massive, bone-soaking rain poured down complete with a lightning show for the ages. People gasped at the sky lit up while also running with panic due to the extremely intense downpour. Of course minutes after evacuating the rain stopped and about 30 minutes later Union Park reopened and the day continued. The grounds were a bit muddy in spots for the rest of the day, as one might expect, but overall the schedule wasn’t disrupted much and the situation was handled with relative professionalism. But what about the music? Read on past the jump, and I’ll share those details with you, dear reader!
Saturday was the first day of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival to sell out. When you take a close look at the daily lineups, it makes perfect sense as to why. While the entire thing is pretty stacked, Saturday in particular looks extra heavy on quality. This is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, you get to see all this great music in one day, meaning if you don’t have a ticket for the entire weekend it seems like the best deal for your time and money. On the other hand, you can’t see everything, leading to a nasty pile-up of conflicts that can be problematic. If you’re concerned about that, and you should be, allow me to offer some help and guidance to make the most of your Saturday at Pitchfork. Join me after the jump for the hour-by-hour breakdown of who’s playing when, complete with recommendations on what you can’t/shouldn’t miss.
If you missed my previous Pitchfork Music Festival 2015 posts, go here to hear/see/download songs from every artist on this year’s lineup. If you’ll be at Union Park on Friday, you may want to look over my preview guide for that day by going here.
Oh thank goodness Sleater-Kinney are back. It’s been 10 years since they chose to take an “indefinite hiatus,” and a whole lot of wild things have happened in that time frame. To quickly sum up, Corin Tucker started a family, then released two lovely yet quiet records fronting the Corin Tucker Band. Carrie Brownstein became something of a celebrity, grabbing attention for her acting chops in small films and TV shows, most notably Portlandia. She returned to music briefly in 2011 with a new band Wild Flag, which also included S-K drummer Janet Weiss. One album and one tour later, Wild Flag called it quits. Lastly, for her part Weiss has kept very busy playing in a variety of bands, most notably a stint with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus as one of the Jicks. The reasons behind Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 break-up included Tucker’s decision to focus on raising a family and Brownstein’s serious health issues due to constant touring/recording, all of which seemed to imply a reunion would be unlikely. Yet maybe the time off was enough for the trio to recharge their batteries and begin to miss what they had together. After 10 years on and 10 years off, let’s hope that this new album No Cities to Love also marks the beginning of a new era for the band.
The primary concern with Sleater-Kinney, as with any band that reunites after a significant period away, is whether or not the new music will live up to the old catalog. 2005’s The Woods ultimately reflected a band going out at the top of their game, with everything prior building to that momentous record. A decade later, it’s very comforting to know that they haven’t forgotten how to write a song, nor have they mellowed with age. In some respects it’s like they never left, which is just about all you could ever ask for from Sleater-Kinney. Even John Goodmanson, who produced every one of the band’s previous records except for two, returns to the fold. Yet there are a few notable changes on No Cities to Love that are less apparent on the surface but become more obvious the closer you look. Brownstein has said in interviews that the trio began recording sessions for the album in 2012 with the intention of finding a new approach to the band, and by many measures that appears to be the case. They’ve never sounded cleaner or more focused. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, the 10 tracks fly by without stopping for breath or even a ballad. The acidic and highly aggressive grit of their last couple records has been replaced with something a bit more accessible and mature, even though it’s by no means quieter or less vicious. Tucker’s vocals still show more power and range than most, Brownstein’s guitar solos remain vibrant and complex, while Weiss’s intricate rhythms keep everything held together quite nicely.
Perhaps the best way to get a sense of Sleater-Kinney’s more mature headspace across No Cities to Love is to take a microscope to their lyrics. These are some of the most personal songs the band has ever written, and that’s clear right from opener “Price Tag”. Acknowledging her status as a mother with a family, Tucker has harsh words about the recent economic recession and the challenges of trying to make a decent living wage when a lot of larger corporations are out to exploit their workers. Abuse of power is one of the primary themes of the record, and the biting “Fangless” along with the charging “No Anthems” address the issue in smart yet explicit ways. It’s also great to hear the trio sing about inter-band workings as well as their decade-long absence across multiple songs. The bouncy and fun “A New Wave” is about making your own path and not allowing the “venomous and thrilling” voices to change or shape you. They’ve got each other’s backs and will continue to do their own thing even if it drives them into obscurity.
Speaking of obscurity, the two main songs that deal with their hiatus show up right at the end of the album. Of the pair, “Hey Darling” is the most confessional, serving as a bit of a letter to fans. It also happens to be the one song on the record that sounds most like classic Sleater-Kinney. “Explanations are thin, but I feel it’s time/ You want to know where I’ve been for such a long time,” Tucker sings in the very first verse. What follows from there goes into how fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and sometimes even playing music for a room full of people can leave you feeling lonely. There’s not much subtext to be interpreted, except the idea that band life can become a bit of a drag if that’s all you do for a decade and sometimes you just need a break. “Fade” really plays that through to its fullest and most realized conclusion. “Oh what a price that we paid / My dearest nightmare, my conscience, the end,” wails Tucker over Brownstein’s heavy 70’s-style guitar riffs. There are dimming spotlights, a loss of a sense of self, and the question of whether or not the torture was ultimately worth it. The mere existence of No Cities to Love implies that the answer is yes. Considering how it all went down the first ten years, it’s probably best to assume things will be handled very differently from here on out. Who knows how long it might last, but as Tucker herself puts it, “If we are truly dancing our swan song, darling/ Shake it like never before.”
More times than not, when an artist or band uses the phrase “indefinite hiatus”, it’s a police way of saying that they’re breaking up. Sometimes it really is just a temporary break from making music with the same people, as bands like Broken Social Scene and TV on the Radio have proven more recently. Whether they just want a couple years to decompress or pursue solo/side projects away from the main band, a hiatus is a way to explore those options. For Sleater-Kinney, their indefinite hiatus certainly seemed like it would be brief. Corin Tucker wanted to take some time and really focus on being a new mother, while Carrie Brownstein took to blogging for NPR and doing occasional comedy sketches with her friend and SNL player Fred Armisen. Janet Weiss, not content to sit around on the sidelines, joined up with Stephen Malkmus as part of the Jicks in a move that seemed almost like an afterthought. To put it more bluntly, none of the S-K trio were doing anything they couldn’t give up at a moment’s notice to bring the band back together. In the last year or so though, there’s been something of a sea change. Brownstein got more heavily into acting, both starring in a movie with The Shins/Broken Bells’ James Mercer and taking her team-up with Armisen to a new level via the IFC series “Portlandia”. Meanwhile Tucker apparently spent just enough time raising a family that the music itch struck her again, so instead of going for the reunion, she formed The Corin TUcker Band and crafted a record of alt-country songs. It’s certainly a long way from the brash and fiery punk rock that Sleater-Kinney brought to the table. And with Stephen Malkmus getting Pavement back together for a year of touring and shows, Weiss was seemingly in the wind for that period of time. Well, that small gap quickly vanished when about a year ago Brownstein took to her “Monitor Mix” NPR blog to announce the existence of Wild Flag, a new band with a lineup that included Weiss on drums, along with The Minders’ Rebecca Cole on keyboards and Helium’s Mary Timony on guitar/vocals. It’s now been a year since their formation, and having played a number of shows in that time, the band is now celebrating the release of their self-titled debut album.
It’s easy to pick apart Wild Flag based upon the sum of its parts. That’s really the case with any band that might otherwise be considered a supergroup. Part of you wants to question if this new band lives up to the legacy of the talent behind it. What’s fascinating about Wild Flag is that their debut record appears to be most concerned with the legacy that other groups have left behind. So many bands new and old continue to prime the pump by exploiting a previously established sound from a previous decade by trying to put a fresh spin on it. The Killers had 80s synth pop when they first arrived and created a new wave of new wavers. Bands like Japandroids and Yuck are some of the more forceful acts to bring back some serious 90s nostalgia in the last couple years. Innovative and forward-thinking groups are quickly vanishing as nostalgia grabs hold and comes in waves. Are there any original ideas left out there? That’s a question for another day, because Wild Flag is the antithesis of that. Unlike so many of these bands that make music or become popular simply because a certain type of music is the current flavor of the month, Wild Flag plays it smarter on their debut, something you’d hope would be the case given that all the members are music veterans. Sure, you can hear flashes of that in-your-face punk rock that Sleater-Kinney was best known for on a track like “Boom”, which in this particular case also comes infused with a healthy dose of keyboard. You can almost hear Brownstein sneering behind the microphone at times, which certainly invigorates a couple tracks, particularly the crunchy and intense “Racehorse”. What’s missing as a counterpoint to that is the presence of a wailing, overly dramatic Corin Tucker belting something out to the rafters. Mary Timony’s approach is far more relaxed classic rock than it is punk rock, and it’s what really pushes some genre shifts on the record. With Brownstein and Timony essentially switching off lead vocal duties from track to track, pinning Wild Flag in a particular corner becomes nearly impossible. The energetic and fun post-punk of opening track “Romance” gets quickly tempered by the much more relaxed 60s girl group stylings of Timony’s “Something Came Over Me” before Brownstein exits out the other end with the hard-hitting punk of “Boom”. Technically it’s a miscalculation to disrupt the pace of the record so early on like that, but all three tracks are solid in their own right so that makes it easier to take.
Timony pushes a psychedelic angle into “Glass Tambourine” while also simultaneously channeling a bit of The Breeders vocally, and it winds up being her best contribution on the record. Any time Wild Flag takes some extra time to extend a track beyond 4 minutes it turns into a rewarding experiment in which fascinating musical avenues are explored and all the players prove their worth instrumentally. Janet Weiss in particular stands out with her intense drumming skills, but then again rare is the occasion when Weiss’ talent doesn’t shine as bright or brighter than her peers. She remains one of the best percussion weapons making music today. Of course Rebecca Cole is no slouch either, even if her contributions via keyboard and backing vocals are likely to be the ones that attract the least amount of attention. She’s essential to the Cars-esque new wave vibe of “Endless Talk” and provides a sharp anchor to Timony’s eccentricities on “Electric Band”. If you want to hear the band operating at full power, in which the foursome work best as a cohesive unit but are each given an individual chance to shine, you can’t miss with “Racehorse”. It uses every second of 6.5+ minutes to exploit pure guitar shredding, keyboard jamming, drum fills that overflow, and a vocal performance so visceral that impressive only begins to describe it. For those fleeting moments, you forget entirely the names and the history of the people within this band and just surrender to raw talent. In an ideal world, Wild Flag would give you that same feeling on every song.
The best thing about both Wild Flag the band and “Wild Flag” the album is how purely emotional everything is. The goal is ultimately lack of control – the ability to simply let yourself loose and have some fun. Here is a band that thrives on impulse rather than careful plotting, allowing the wind to dictate the sonic direction they’ll head next with little care if it’s prudent to do so. There’s nothing on the album that’s outright bad, but there are a couple small moments that seem just a touch out of place compared to everything else. Those are the times when the band doesn’t fully gel, primarily derived from trying to bring the two distinct sensibilities of Brownstein and Timony into one singular vision. Assuming this is more than just a one-off effort, those sorts of issues should resolve themselves the more time they spend together as a band. So long as they don’t lose that fresh sense of excitement and wonder, Wild Flag could easily become the sort of band that makes you forget about where they came from and instead hope they continue to show progress and brilliance for years to come.
Let’s break down the basics before we begin. There was Sleater-Kinney, a three-piece punk rock girl group made up of Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss. They released a bunch of great albums, fiery and brash each one, but chose to take an “indefinite hiatus” in 2006. Going their separate ways, drummer Janet Weiss kept working hard, making albums with Quasi and Stephen Malkmus (with The Jicks). Guitarist and sometimes singer Carrie Brownstein expanded into other artful projects, blogging for NPR and doing a bit of acting work both as one half of the comedy duo ThunderAnt (with SNL’s Fred Armisen) and even starring in an upcoming indie film with The Shins’ James Mercer. All of this happened before we’d heard a word from Tucker, who had practically dropped off the face of the Earth. No worries though, she’s been working hard at that thing many of us have known as family. She’s got a couple kids and a husband and sometimes you just need to take a step back from the fame to spend time with those most important to you. The good news for fans of Corin Tucker is that she’s been working on some songs during her free time and was able to eventually piece together a small band to help her play them for a record titled “1,000 Years”. And just to keep everything completely up to date, Weiss and Brownstein have just recently announced they’ll be in a new band with Mary Timony that’s being called Wild Flag. Expect material and touring from them in 2011.
There’s this wail that Corin Tucker did on every Sleater-Kinney album that was often so intense you could stop the rest of the music and your attention would still be completely drawn to it. That’s one of the main things that set Sleater-Kinney apart from so many other punk bands as well as other girl bands. Combine that with some seriously hardcore guitar work by Carrie Brownstein and it’s little wonder why that band reached indie stardom. For those of you (like me) that have missed Tucker’s classic yell, there’s bad news afoot on “1,000 Years”. It’s a relatively quiet, introspective singer-songwriter sort of record. So much of it keeps a cool head about it that tends to bring to mind someone like Neko Case or PJ Harvey. Of course Neko Case and PJ Harvey have written some incredible solo albums, and they’re proof positive that just because your voice can reach the rafters doesn’t mean it needs to be used that way every time. Tucker’s relative calm through much of the album means there’s more time to focus on atmosphere and lyrical content, and there’s plenty of both to go around.
The first two tracks on “1,000 Years” understandably feel front-loaded to ease you into the record without taking many chances. It’s still a long way from the heavier punk that Sleater-Kinney so easily released into the world, but there’s some electric guitar that’s not half bad in these mid-tempo melodies. The song “Half A World Away” is about missing somebody you love, and Tucker’s vocals sound like she’s genuinely upset in a surprisingly emotional moment. A small bit of experimentation emerges on “Handed Love”, which starts out as a really sparse, bland and ineffective ballad with little to nothing going for it. There’s no easy verse-chorus-verse to guide you around, and just as it becomes a chore to sit through, it bursts open at the seams into a cathartic release that somehow feels worth it. The spitfire side of Tucker really starts to emerge on “Doubt”, and there are slices of her tour-de-force yelp, but the mediocre electric guitar work holds the song back from being something exceptional. Meanwhile the balladry of “Dragon” just does most everything wrong, thanks in large part to a string section that is probably one of the most ineffective and pathetic string sections you’ll ever hear. The song stands out as exceptionally poor as it’s sandwiched beween two harder rock numbers that do so much more with so much less. Near the end of the album, a couple of the songs almost start to blend into one another. “Thrift Store Coats” has some nice piano at the beginning, but the electric guitars eventually take over and ruin the mood. Thankfully that piano is given its full due on the closing track “Miles Away”, and it works quite well to become one of the album’s biggest highlights.
When she’s not driving forwards at full volume, Corin Tucker proves she’s still a very capable and strong vocalist. The passion she injects into her singing stands largely apart from everything else that’s going on throughout “1,000 Years”. There’s a number of pretty good songs on the record, but nothing quite so gripping that it’s essential listening. Arguably, the greatest problems here result from the “Band” part of The Corin Tucker Band. Whoever these people are playing on this album with her, they’re talented enough to play in a band, just a pretty crappy one that doesn’t make waves beyond a local music scene. They should be called a backing bland rather than a backing band. Perhaps, one might argue, they’re just following orders and are ensuring to give Tucker the spotlight she so richly deserves. Whatever the reasons might be, a few of the songs on “1,000 Years” had the potential to be mindblowing but just never made it that far. Or perhaps the issue isn’t so much who’s there as it is who’s not. With Carrie Brownstein digging in deep on her guitar and Janet Weiss slamming the drums like there’s no tomorrow, combined with Tucker’s vocals, Sleater-Kinney was a trinity of amazing musicians. We can’t even judge how Brownstein would do solo because she has yet to release any post-S-K music (at the moment). Weiss’s utility player role will serve her well in any band she joins, as we’ve already seen. The Wild Flag album’s going to be a small test, but that in itself is a supergroup so great things are expected from them anyways. Corin Tucker is effectively going it alone with some faceless musicians helping her out. Expectations were high anyways, and so “1,000 Years” feels like a mild disappointment. Nobody’s going to fault her for trying though, and if she keeps making music under the Corin Tucker Band name it could very well get a whole lot better. Time will tell. In the meantime, let’s keep our fingers crossed for that Sleater-Kinney reunion.