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Lollapalooza 2014: Friday Recap

Considering the way things went, you could say that the first day of Lollapalooza 2014 was dominated by the ladies. On the whole, it was a lot of fun. The weather was pretty good, outside of the 30 or so minutes it rained, and the crowds weren’t even that thick until late in the day. Here’s a rundown of all the music that I saw on Friday:

Following a lengthy wait to get into Grant Park due to new stricter bag checking procedures, I made it through the gates in time to see most of Temples’ early afternoon set. The Australian psych-pop band’s debut album Sun Structures sounds like a slightly weaker, less convincing imitation of Tame Impala. They come across that way on stage too, playing their songs verbatim and without any exceptional charm or extra energy. That’s not to say their performance was bad, it was just a little lackluster when the crowd needed something better. I’m sure the people laying down on the grass nearby were probably enjoying it.

Wildewoman, the debut album from Lucius, has a handful of great and fun songs on it, which I was excited to hear during their set at Lollapalooza. Unfortunately the other half isn’t so great and you can’t get one without the other when you’ve got an hour-long time slot to fill. The two main vocalists in Lucius do their best to look and sing exactly the same as one another, and the three guys playing instruments do the same. Altogether they’re a well oiled machine able to crank out exact copies of their songs as they appear on record. But sometimes you want more than just a gimmick. Lucius showed flashes of spontaneity and experimentation during their set, particularly in the way they used percussion, but it didn’t do a whole lot to lift the level of presentation beyond mediocrity.

After a seeing a fair portion of Lucius’ set, I felt that walking the short distance to The Grove Stage to see how Courtney Barnett was doing would be in my best interest. Two days earlier, I saw Barnett deliver an incredible set to a sold out crowd at Schubas, and had high hopes she could keep that streak going. I was only able to see the final 20 minutes, but oh my what a final 20 minutes it was. Barnett plays her shows with a bass player and drummer, and while they’re both excellent she manages to outshine them thanks to a supremely relaxed vocal style not to mention what appears to be sloppy guitar playing. I say appears because its clear she very much does know what she’s doing and not a single note was off. It’s just her particular and unique style, which is clearly something other artists should pay attention to.

As Barnett was finishing up her set, it began to drizzle a little bit. That drizzle would turn into something heavier leading right into Warpaint‘s set. It’s almost like the band requested the change in weather since their music is built on the ideas of darkness and gorgeous atmospherics. They did what they could to use that to their advantage, crafting a slow burning and often beautiful show that sounded great. The interplay between band members is probably what struck me most, like each one had the ability to fill in any sonic gaps as needed. Sure, it may not have been the most high energy set of the day, but the rain and overcast skies for 25 minutes basically suggested that everyone take it easy anyways.

While the rain had stopped about an hour earlier, the skies were still pretty grey, which also helped out Interpol a bit. Not that they particularly needed that assistance. Over the course of a dozen songs, they proven to be as reliable and engaging as ever. Perhaps that had something to do with the set list, which pulled entirely from the Turn on the Bright Lights and Antics records (their two best) plus included two new songs. The band knows what their finest moments are, and did their best to give the fans those highlights. It was really nice, actually, and to hear the new songs fit in so well with the old ones gives great hope for the upcoming El Pintor album.

In my Lolla Preview Guide, I mentioned that the last time I saw CHVRCHES they were pretty good, but still needed to work on their stage presence to deliver something worthy of the larger crowds they were attracting. At Lolla on Friday, they pulled in one of the bigger crowds I encountered, and this time did an admirable job handling the responsibilities that go along with that. Singer Lauren Mayberry was charming in her stage banter, and passionate in her vocals. There was plenty of dancing and sing-alongs in the crowd, and even though it was sunny out, there was something pretty cool about their light show. Of course a cool light show doesn’t replace stage presence, and while that’s still technically a work in progress, they’re absolutely getting better at it.

Probably the biggest crowd I encountered over the entire day was for Lorde, and that was go be expected given the number of awards she’s earned and chart-topping hits she’s had in the last several months. The teen sensation is living up toe the hype surrounding her, and that includes a dynamic and energetic live show. Clips I saw from her shows just a few months ago looked a touch awkward, largely with strange movements and aesthetic choices, but thankfully all of that is gone. Perhaps it was a confidence thing, or somebody has given her coaching, but she took everything in stride, danced around, was humble with the crowd, and sounded absolutely great. It was pretty amazing to see, and made for one of Friday’s best sets.

After Lorde it was dinner time, so I grabbed some food and wandered over to The Grove Stage to see how The Kooks were doing. Turns out, quite well actually. They’ve now got a few records under their belts, and are true showmen in their sets. Basically, they’re all energy, moving and jumping around all over the stage and trying to encourage crowd participation. Even though I only saw a handful of songs and had a sandwich in my hand, it was clear that everyone was having a great time. The music can get a little bland from time to time, but so long as you focus on giving the crowd something they can dance or sing to, that’s all you really need to keep everyone satisfied.

The last time I saw Arctic Monkeys in 2011, they had vastly improved their live show and appeared to be flirting with the notion of headlining a U.S. festival like Lollapalooza. The crowd for their set then was absolutely massive, and on all counts the band delivered. Now that they’ve reached the mountaintop, how was the view? In short, not quite as great. First, the crowd numbers were down a bit, thanks in no small part to Eminem on the other side of the park. Secondly, their show has become extremely polished. For most artists, being polished live performers is a good thing. In Arctic Monkeys’ case, a little bit of sloppiness is almost required. Many of their songs have this grimy, down in the gutter type vibe, and to remove that element from your show takes something away. So yes, we got everything from “Brianstorm” to “Dancing Shoes” to “Crying Lightning” and “Do I Wanna Know?,” and for the most part it sounded great and came off as effortless and charming. This is clearly a band that has fully accepted their massive popularity, it would just be nice if they could find a little better way to stay true to their roots.

As much as I enjoyed Arctic Monkeys (don’t let my above reaction fool you), part of me also wanted to see how Phantogram was doing as the headliner on the nearby small Grove stage. I stopped over there for about 40 minutes (bookended by Arctic Monkeys), and wound up having a pretty great time. Phantogram’s new album Voices is a big step forward for them, and they’ve really become an act ready for the ensuing wave of popularity that comes along with it. Their crowd wasn’t gigantic, seeing as most were at one of the two main stage headliners, but the people who were there might best be described as passionate. There was so much dancing and jumping around it was equal parts impressive and fun. Sarah Barthel has really grown as a performer since the last time I saw the band, and she was all over the stage getting people riled up whenever she wasn’t stuck behind an instrument. The lighting and visuals were spectacular as well, and honestly the whole thing felt like what might happen if Sleigh Bells were a synth pop band. That’s meant as a compliment. So

So that about wraps up all of the music I saw on Friday of Lollapalooza 2014. We’ve got two more days to go, and I’m pretty excited to see how they’re going to go. I’ll have full recaps from Saturday and Sunday coming up soon, but in the meantime you can get (largely) real time updates and reactions from the festival grounds via Twitter.

Album Review: Arctic Monkeys – Suck It and See [Domino]

When Arctic Monkeys titled their third album “Humbug”, it was a telling sign. They had recorded the album with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme out at his Joshua Tree studio in the California desert, and appropriately it was a dark, often psychedelic sojourn that divided much of the band’s fan base. Whereas you had previous songs titled things like “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “Brianstorm”, a song created about a weird guy they met one night while on tour, the last record featured “Crying Lightning” and “Fire and the Thud”, both written with the same sense of sincerity that their titles suggest. The point is, after reaching success as fresh-faced teenagers, Arctic Monkeys had grown up and were politely requesting to be taken seriously. In addition to many fans being turned off by that record, reviews were not strong either, suggesting this change was for the worse. Nearly two years later, the guys seem to have heard and registered that disappointment, creating their fourth record and settling on the title of “Suck It and See”. The phrase has its share of speculated origins, but at its heart is a bit of a joke with sexual undertones. Between that and song titles like “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” and “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala”, it seems that Arctic Monkeys are back to their jovial, energetic selves that so many people fell in love with across their first two albums.

It’s fascinating that the first track from “Suck It and See” that Arctic Monkeys chose to release to the general public was “Brick By Brick”, a heavy-handed and psychedelic song fronted by drummer Matt Helders and very much in the spirit of the majority of “Humbug”. If the band was hoping to show some of the lessons they learned from that last album, “Brick By Brick” wasn’t the track to do that with. Taking that same sort of guitar crunch and applying it to some smartass lyrics helps quite a bit actually, as evidenced by “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair”. Whether frontman Alex Turner is looking to, “Go into business with a grizzly bear” or “find a well-known hard man/and start a fight”, it makes for an entertaining listen even if it’s not quite catchy enough to be considered a strong single. What’s even more fascinating is how both those tracks are very much unlike the rest of the album. The teaching moment emerges in the thought that perhaps the band isn’t entirely done with some of the sounds and themes of their last record, or at the very least wanted to provide a more varied range of sounds that better encompassed their musical careers thus far.

What actually makes “Suck It and See” a record with serious forward momentum for Arctic Monkeys is how they present most of the songs on it. They’ve taken the focus away from riffing and dark instrumental passages to go lighter and snarkier, though even Turner’s lyrics are pushed farther into the background in the hopes that melody might reign supreme. The mid-tempo opening track “She’s Thunderstorms” is a lovely predictor of what’s to come on the rest of the album, and it has Turner pulling out his best Morrissey impression because it feels warranted. The bass-heavy “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala” may have a rather bland (but easily memorable) chorus, but everything else about it is positively spectacular. The bounce and sheer confidence the band shows both lyrically and instrumentally makes it one of the album’s more standout moments. The heavier guitars and massive energy brought to “Library Pictures” is admirable, recalling some of the earliest Arctic Monkeys songs that got them so much attention upon first starting out. Unfortunately this song doesn’t quite have that same sort of impact, primarily because it lacks a strong enough hook to stick with you after it ends. The same could be said for a track like “Reckless Serenade”, but what it lacks in memorability it more than makes up for with rather brilliant lyrics. Couplets such as, “illuminations on a rainy day/when she walks her footsteps sing a reckless serenade” are what help to turn the tide on otherwise forgettable song. Even better is “Piledriver Waltz”, which holds the slow dance tempo its title suggests and espouses that, “if you’re going to try to walk on water, make sure you wear comfortable shoes”. If you’re looking for a true late album highlight though, the title track is the spot to go. There’s a casual loveliness to it, complete with a strong chorus and what might be the two most poetically classic lines on the entire record, “That’s not a skirt girl, that’s a sawn off shotgun/and i can only hope you’ve got it aimed at me”.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about “Suck It and See” is how Arctic Monkeys appear to have mellowed out just a bit. The lack of heavy guitars and intense energy has given way to a much more pop-driven atmosphere. As a result many of the songs on this album are easy to like, even if they aren’t packed to the gills with hooks at every turn. For sure this is a slow burn album, revealing more and more layers as you listen to it over and over again. In that sense you could also call it a deep album, something that’s typically a product of intellingent songwriting and composition, both of which this record has in spades. If Alex Turner sounds all too often like Morrissey, it’s not your imagination, nor is it if you think you hear a bit of Johnny Marr’s touches in guitarist Jamie Cook’s riffs. If The Smiths were to make a record in 2011, it might sound an awful lot like this, even if the lyrics would have gone in a completely different direction. But this attitude adjustment from Arctic Monkeys does less to bring back their old days as an energetic, youthful alt-rock band with a hunger for stardom a mile wide, and instead reflects more on a band that having tasted fame and fortune now seek mid-career respectability. Turner’s lyrics continue to be the sharpest thing about the band, and the challenges they now face are more structural ones than anything else. A couple tracks on the record either don’t fully fit in or just come off as bland and ineffective. These are the sorts of things that can happen when you avoid taking too many risks and just settle into complacency. Arctic Monkeys are still plenty young and clearly still have long careers ahead of them, so they can probably afford trying a few more dangerous sounds for their next few efforts. Let’s hope they take advantage of that while their iron is still hot.

Arctic Monkeys – Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair

Buy “Suck It and See” from Amazon

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