As it is Pitchfork Music Festival Week here at Faronheit, I’ll be spending the next couple days writing up a preview guide that will hopefully help you out when making difficult choices in terms of what artists to see, what food to eat, and other various festival-related fodder. Today I’ll be tackling a preview of the music on Day 1 (Friday). You have the mp3s I posted yesterday, but in case you don’t want to go through the trouble of downloading to learn more about these artists, I’ve written up some profiles on each one of them for your reading pleasure. Friday is somewhat unique in that the Balance Stage isn’t really in use, though this year you will have the opportunity to see some comedians do stand-up over there should you not like what’s happening at the two main stages. But when talking about music only, there is never a time on Friday in which two artists will be performing at the same time. In other words, you will have no choice about what to see, but if you don’t like the music, both the comedy choices or simply just exploring the festival grounds are your only other options aside from leaving early. As there are no tough choices to make, what’s below is a simple detailing of what to expect musically from each artist. It should be an interesting first day of the festival, to say the least.
FRIDAY MUSIC GUIDE (Gates open at 3PM):
Sharon Van Etten [3:30pm, Aluminum Stage]
For a Friday afternoon, with temperatures currently forecast to be in the upper 80s, you may want to ease your way into this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Look no further than Sharon Van Etten, a lovely singer-songwriter who makes quietly beautiful folk music. Her voice is beautiful and combined with her extraordinary talents on a surprisingly large number of instruments, there’s magic in the way she crafts a song. She’s not overly showy with all she can do, but rather deliberately uses minmalist arragements to keep the focus on her lyrics and the emotion contained within them. This isn’t exactly the music you want to be standing against a barricade in the hot sun for, but given that the crowds should still be light when Sharon takes the stage, throwing down a blanket in the open field and having a seat is almost ideal.
The Tallest Man on Earth [4:00pm, Connector Stage]
The way I look at it, The Tallest Man on Earth is the new Bob Dylan. The man otherwise known as Kristian Matsson hails from Sweden, but his sound is American as apple pie. His nasal, well-worn voice is compelling at most turns, and there’s a certain power he wields with the sparse arrangements of his songs. Most of the time they simply consist of a lone acoustic guitar or piano. Yet despite this, many of the songs on his latest album “The Wild Hunt” are exciting and energized, brimming with life rather than sulking in the pain of someone like Elliott Smith. It’s these qualities that will give him an edge performing live at Pitchfork this year. For a set that has the potential to be too quiet or boring for an outdoor setting on a Friday afternoon, Matsson will hopefully rise above that fray and deliver something both powerful and fun.
El-P [4:35pm, Aluminum Stage]
Not enough people have heard about El-P (or at least given him half a chance), and that’s a shame. The guy has been quietly reinventing hip hop for close to 20 years now. Company Flow was his first hip hop group at age 17, and their first single “Juvenile Techniques” attracted all sorts of label attention. After taking their sweet time and settling for the most favorable contract they could find, Company Flow put out two albums and an EP before they parted ways with their label and El-P decided to start his own label known as Definitive Jux. Def Jux is regarded as a brilliant indie hip hop label thanks largely to strong releases by up-and-coming rappers Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox, among others. After Company Flow broke up in 2001, El-P started to make solo albums. They’ve all been very well received, thanks to his smart production and crafty lyrics. Unfortunately due to the economics of record labels these days, El-P was forced to shut down the production side of Def Jux recently. He says he wants to focus more on his music anyways. Reports say he’s been working on a new album since last fall, so look for him to premiere some new material at Pitchfork this year. It should also be a pretty entertaining and energetic set, and if you like hip hop, you don’t get a whole lot better than El-P these days.
Liars [5:30pm, Connector Stage]
To put it as simply and as plainly as possible, Liars are weird. But as it so happens, weird is also pretty brilliant in this case. These guys are doing things that a lot of other bands wouldn’t dare to, and it turns some people off because their music can come off as harsh and grating. On their album “Drum’s Not Dead”, they experimented with percussion to the point where the other instruments in each song became practically unnecessary. Sometimes Liars will work an overly spaced out and sparse arrangement for two minutes and then slap you in the face by suddenly blowing everything apart with electric guitars turned up to 11. And despite these oddities, part of the fun in listening to this band is calmly waiting to find out what they’re going to do next. They’ve never released two albums that sound similar to one another, yet they maintain a distinctive sound. Liars’ latest album “Sisterworld” is just another notch in their remarkably strong catalogue, pushing and pulling between extremes of quiet and loud but typically not in between the two. What their Pitchfork performance will be like is relatively up in the air too, because in a dark club environment they can effectively work the mood and atmosphere to their sonic advantage. On a sunny late afternoon in the middle of a park it doesn’t work as well. Also, will we see louder, more energized side of the band, or will they work a slow and steady build? Energy would certainly benefit them the most for the setting, but it’s doubtful that Liars give a fuck where they are or what sort of crowd they’re performing in front of. More than any other band on Friday, Liars should have both the most captivating and off-putting set. Watch it if you dare, or just go over to the comedy stage and see Hannibal Buress (5:45).
Robyn [6:25pm, Aluminum Stage]
Robyn is known around most of the world as a pop star. Her songs are played like crazy in clubs around Europe and Asia, and her native country of Sweden has showered her wtih awards. She’s played a number of dates opening for Madonna in Europe and is touring the U.S. opening for Kelis for the next couple months. The reason why an artist like Robyn would be playing Pitchfork has mostly to do with her indie status in America. Her songs “Show Me Love” and “Do You Know (What It Takes)” were chart-topping hits in the U.S., but that was back in 1997 before she had to take some time off due to extreme exhaustion. Subsequently, a couple of her albums didn’t get U.S. distribution while in the meantime the pop music scene changed in America. After breaking with her record label in 2004, Robyn started her own label, Konichiwa Records, where she released her self-titled album in 2005 to massive critical acclaim. It would take 3 years and the signing of a distribution deal with Cherrytree Records to get that album released in the U.S., where reportedly songs like “Cobrastyle” and “With Every Heartbeat” were “huge” club and dance radio hits (not listening to dance radio or going to clubs often, I wouldn’t officially know). Still, I’ve yet to hear Robyn mentioned outside of indie circles here in America, and given the enthusiasm for both her self-titled album and her brand new one “Body Talk, Pt. 1” by so many critics and fans in the know, her presence at the Pitchfork Music Festival makes sense. Don’t expect a crazy performance a la Lady Gaga or even Britney Spears, because Robyn is less about showmanship and more about song quality. She doesn’t lip sync nor does she have a choreographed dance troupe or costume changes. She’s true class, and if you like a good pop song, Robyn’s set should be a whole lot of fun. Your other option is to go see “Daily Show” correspondent Wyatt Cenac do his standup at the comedy stage (6:30).
Broken Social Scene [7:20pm, Connector Stage]
The challenging thing about Broken Social Scene is that you’re never entirely sure what band is going to show up each night. That’s less of a question mark than it was in the past, when people like Leslie Feist and Emily Haines were “officially” part of the band. Now Feist has a lucrative solo career, Emily Haines is completely on board with Metric, and Amy Millan has her band Stars and a solo thing going as well. Basically the women of Broken Social Scene, at least the era of the band that brought us the legendary “You Forgot It In People” and their self-titled 2006 album, is over. After taking a hiatus and releasing a pair of “Broken Social Scene Presents…” albums the last couple years, the announcement was made that Broken Social Scene would return in full with a new album and a revamped lineup. That included new token female member Lisa Lobsinger, who is taking the place of all the missing ladies. The good news is that the new album “Forgiveness Rock Record” pretty much lives up to the strong track record Broken Social Scene have going for themselves, and even when they’re down a handful of people, the band is still immensely great live. Their stadium-sized songs will be perfect for the Union Park setting, though without every band member past and present it’s unlikely they’ll be able to top their jaw-dropping, heart-stopping performance at Lollapalooza 2006. That remains one of my favorite live sets of all time, made all the more special because there were literally 20 people on stage at once all contributing to an experience that was both electric and cathartic beyond belief. Nobody wanted that set to end, and it’d be nice if many of the hipsters would put their uncaring attitudes to the side for 45 minutes and just let loose with the unbridled enthusiasm this band so richly deserves for their performances. If that’s not your sort of thing, trek to the comedy stage for Michael Showalter (7:15) and Eugene Mirman (8:00) for two sets of standup sure to have you laughing up a storm.
Modest Mouse [8:30pm, Aluminum Stage]
There’s surprisingly little to say here in regards to Modest Mouse. Surely you’ve heard of them, they’re now internationally successful thanks to songs like “Float On” and “Dashboard”. Headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival on Friday night is probably going to be something a bit different for them compared to their last couple years of playing huge venues with younger kids wanting to hear songs from their newest albums. One gets the feeling that there’s going to be a slightly different vibe when the band plays Pitchfork, and I hope the band realizes that going into their set. If they play to their stronger, earlier material around “The Moon and Antarctica” era, the level of crowd satisfaction will be higher, and hopefully the band is more willing to break that stuff out given they’re likely tired of playing the same old hits these past few years. Of course who really knows what will happen – Isaac Brock is a crafty guy who likes to subvert expectations, and given some of the things he’s done on stage in the last couple years, including cutting himself, some might argue he’s got a screw or two loose. Whatever state of mind he’s in, provided that Modest Mouse does a halfway decent job of playing a mixture of old and new stuff, everybody should have a reasonably good time. We no longer have the spectacle of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr to tear it up on stage, but he was just a minor element of a band that’s internationally respected for so many more right reasons than wrong ones.