In case you missed all of the action out at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, I’ve certainly written plenty about it, but haven’t SHOWN you what it all looked like. Well, this and the next couple of photo posts should change all of that. Join me past the jump for a bunch of photos that I took on Day 1. In this set, you’ll find photos of Bjork, Joanna Newsom, Wire, Woods, Angel Olsen, Mac DeMarco and Mikal Cronin.
I’m pleased to be wrapping up this week-long adventure into coverage of the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival with a quick look back at the weekend that was. Having attended the festival for the last few years, you really get used to how things are run and where you need to go for everything from water to food to restrooms. So as you return in a sense it’s like coming home, and that’s comforting. I never once felt out of my element or like I had no idea what I was doing over the three days. Of course I didn’t quite see everything I wanted to see and hear everything I wanted to hear thanks to traffic delays and one too many hits of the snooze button, but what I missed was miniscule compared to what I saw. Hopefully you’ve read all about those adventures in my daily recaps (Friday, Saturday, Sunday). That should give you a pretty good idea of the best and worst of the music side of things this year. But just for fun, I put together a little list of superlatives, helping to highlight some of my favorite and least favorite musical treats from the weekend. Check that out:
Most surprising set: Killer Mike
Most disappointing set: Yo La Tengo
Set that best lived Up to the hype: Savages
Band that sounded better live than on record: Parquet Courts
Most openly fun set: Solange
Most likely controlled the weather during their set: Bjork
Set that proved punk rock is alive and well: Metz
Veteran act that still has “it”: Wire
Veteran act that has lost “it”: The Breeders
Band whose set would have been far more popular in a different decade: Chairlift
Band that felt so right in the middle of a sunny afternoon: Phosphorescent
Quietest set (artist + crowd): Joanna Newsom
Funniest set: Mac DeMarco
Most gratuitous use of the word “SWAG”: Lil B
Flashiest performance with the least amount of genuine substance: M.I.A.
Most pathetic attempt to attract attention: Foxygen
Outside of those superlatives, I want to talk for a brief minute about how things went overall. Since we’re on the topic of music, let me say a few words about this year’s lineup. To me, it felt just a little bit weaker than in the last few years, though all of the headliners were certainly nothing to sneeze at. Perhaps that’s where most of the budget went this year. I suspect it was telling that unlike the last couple years, the festival wasn’t a total sell out this year. Sunday was sold out, most likely due to obsessive R. Kelly fans who camped out at the Green stage for much of the day just waiting for him. But Friday and Saturday didn’t sell out, as far as I’m aware. I did keep hearing that there were a “very limited number” of tickets left for Friday, so maybe that eventually sold out too. When I look at it, I like most of the artists on the lineup for this year, but I’m not overly passionate about a lot of them. It made for another fine festival overall and I’m glad I saw what I did, but for whatever reason it sometimes felt like something was missing. Not a whole lot of artists really jumped out and grabbed me by the ears, so maybe that’s what it was. If I were put in charge of naming one act each day that was my favorite, the list would be the following: Friday – Bjork, Saturday – Savages, Sunday – Killer Mike. Of all the days, I’d classify Friday as my least favorite, primarily because many of the artists that performed that day were either relatively bland (Woods, Mikal Cronin) or didn’t quite feel like they belonged at an outdoor festival (Angel Olsen, Joanna Newsom). Perhaps I should have made it to Union Park in time for Trash Talk, I heard their set was crazy.
Music aside, let me comment on the amenities this year. Considering the capacity of Union Park every year, festival organizers have gotten everything at just about the right levels to make things comfortable. The restrooms are plentiful and you’ll never wait too long for one. The food booths offer a wide variety of cuisine for even the most sensitive of palates or dietary restrictions. I had some amazing tacos on Sunday. The return of Goose Island as the provider of alcoholic beverages was an inspired move. The availability of key beers like 312 and Green Line was nice, but even nicer was the special Goose Island booth that had a rotating cast of different beers from the brewer’s catalogue, not to mention two beers crafted exclusively for the festival. I tried both of the fest-exclusive beers, and they were delicious. The singular gripe I have, and it’s basically always been a problem, is with water fountains. Union Park has a distinct lack of water fountains, and therefore the few it does have resulted in long lines. There’s nothing that can really be done about that, but I’ve got to hand it to the volunteer crew at the festival for often walking around with cases of bottled water, handing them out to anybody that wanted one. A lot of people were likely spared a trip to the medical tent as a result of such gestures, though I did see at least a few people go down due to heat exhaustion and dehydration. On the whole, this year’s festival went rather swimmingly, where the sets all started on schedule and the lines were never astronomically or annoyingly huge. It’s a sharp reminder that no matter what the lineup might be, this is one of the best-run music festivals in the country. As I stated in my earlier coverage, Pitchfork Music Festival weekend is my favorite weekend every single year I attend. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true again by the time we reach the end of 2013.
Most things about Day 1 at the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival could be considered challenging. Or, perhaps described a little differently, most things except the performances. The main factor on Friday was the weather. A glance at the temperature would tell you the heat index was in the upper 90s, and therefore it bordered on oppressive. Then again, it’s nothing particularly new for this festival or mid-July in Chicago. Still, the volunteer staff could be credited as doing a fair to good job of distributing bottled water to the sweaty masses, even walking around with cases of it through the crowd during sets. Yet if you went to one of Union Park’s few water fountains, the lines were long. The same could be said for all the beverage tents. Everyone was in need of some fluids. And while outside of the heat it was a nice and sunny day, it became less so when severe storms rolled in during the evening hours and effectively shut down Bjork’s set 30 minutes early. It hadn’t rained a drop when organizers pulled the plug on the evening, but there was a pretty great lightning show that could hypothetically have put people in danger. The actual rain, as it was reported to me, started about 30-45 minutes after the park was cleared. Hopefully it won’t be a soggy mess for the rest of the weekend. Beyond weather and lines though, let’s talk about the music itself. Here’s a recap of the artists I saw:
You’ve got to admire Bjork’s courage. She is consistently looking for new ways to innovate and challenge her fans, the same of which can’t be said about almost anybody else. Perhaps the closest and most recent example of forward-thinking technology mixed with music was when Damon Albarn composed an entire Gorillaz album, “The Fall”, on an iPad. Not much has been done since then, either due to lack of ambition or in more likely cases, lack of money by which to apply and use these new technologies. Music may be on an ever-increasing path towards digital distribution methods, but taking it beyond that realm is scary, unexplored territory for most. Bjork wallows in the scary and unexplored though. That not only goes for her eccentric outfit choices, but everything in and around her music too. Back in 2008 and essentially just before the start of the “3D craze”, Bjork released a 3D music video for her track “Wanderlust” off her last record “Volta”. That was highly interesting in itself. Now in 2011, she’s once again trying something innovative. You can get her new record “Biophilia” through traditional means such as CD, vinyl and mp3, but if you’re more adventurous you can pick up an iPad application that features interactive digital elements for each individual track. If you’re wealthy, there was also a super-fancy “Ultimate Art Edition” of the record that you could have ordered (it’s no longer available for sale) that featured an lacquered and silkscreened oak box filled with 2 discs of music, a 48-page cloth-covered book with thread-sewn pages, and 10 chrome-plated tuning forks that are each adjusted to the tone of a track off the album. That bad boy would have run you $800 if you so desired to spend it, and it was yet another way to explore the unique world that Bjork has created around herself.
For all the intricate and forward-thinking ways you can engage with “Biophilia”, it’s all no good if the music is crap. With so much energy being put into developing iPad apps or special colored tuning forks, have the songs lost their top priority in this arrangement? Or as a counterpoint, does the creation of an entire universe around a record deepen and enhance what’s already there? Admirable as her past efforts have been, Bjork hasn’t had an especially great record since “Vespertine” ten years ago, and there’s a certain sense that while the way she distributes her music is ever-changing, the songs themselves aren’t. The titles themselves tell you a lot of what you need to know, most of them single-word environmental elements such as “Moon” or “Thunderbolt” or “Virus”. Yes, the lyrics keep that same thread going, casting broad strokes to match the broad concepts. “To risk all/is the end all/and the beginning all,” she sings on opening track “Moon”. What exactly it means is for you to figure out. She makes more sense on “Cosmonogy”, telling the many different stories about how the universe came into existence, from the Big Bang to God emerging from a black egg. At least she uses some of the Earth and space motifs as metaphors for more relatable things such as life and love and intimacy. Destructive as “Virus” may be, it’s ultimately a love song seeking connection. “Like a virus needs a body/As soft tissue feeds on blood/Someday I’ll find you/The urge is here”, she sings amid the music box melody. The hope is simply to avoid becoming completely devoured as she “feed(s) inside you”. Meanwhile “Mutual Core” takes the movement of tectonic plates, those that are responsible for the global shifting of countries as well as disasters such as earthquakes and volcano eruptions, and tries to push two people into an emotional Pangaea. We can shift our own plates around to try and clear a space to our hearts to link up with another, but we all have personal volcanoes that erupt from time to time, and those can do serious damage to two bodies linked by one core. Not everything on “Biophilia” is blatant symbolism for something else, but the tracks that do push that angle tend to be better off than the ones that don’t.
Lyrics aside, the backing instrumentals on “Biophilia” have their own issues as well. There’s plenty of engaging moments, such as the super repetitive and naturally addictive single “Crystalline”, which starts off delicately enough with some innocent chimes but eventually descends into a heavy drum’n’bass rhythm in the final minute that’s simply killer. The mellotron on “Mutual Core” keeps the track firmly grounded, until the volcano eruptions occur, at which point the pace and tension builds as some gritty electro beats explode outwards and upwards before it all settles down once again. Twists and turns like that help to make the song one of the finest moments on the record. And though it fails to push into another gear, the customized gravity harps that populate “Moon” create the right atmosphere even as the lyrics are something of a failure. After a remarkably interesting start to the record however, there’s a certain stagnation that begins to permeate most everything from “Dark Matter” onwards. There’s organ and strings and a number of electronic beats that show up on “Hollow”, but the whole time it just drifts along completely formless and seemingly unaware of where its headed or when it might stop. A number of things were thrown at a wall in the hopes something would stick, but ultimately nothing did. For tracks like “Sacrifice” and “Thunderbolt”, it feels like a basic melody was created and then held for most of the duration, leaving Bjork’s vocals to do any sort of heavy lifting. She’s more than capable of hitting whatever notes she likes with those incredible vocal chords, but there are moments where it feels like she’s trying too hard to make a song more engaging by showing off that range. The more organic she can make it feel, the better.
If you’re paying attention to Bjork only for her music, “Biophilia” is yet another in her string of releases these last several years that doesn’t quite deliver on the excitement of her earlier records. Technology junkies willing to fork over the $10 for an album’s worth of iPad apps may enjoy this record quite a bit more thanks to the interactive element, because playing around with lightning bolts and colorful balls carries a certain degree of satisfaction along with it too. The whole thing is very well put together and is visually gorgeous as well, akin to many of Bjork’s music videos. Keeping the songs and the apps together places limits on the ease of which you can hear the music, which we may need to remind ourselves comes first and foremost. Actually she may also need to remind herself that the music comes first and foremost. Yet it remains a challenge to separate Bjork the person, all of her visually striking costumes and futuristic ways of applying her music to new formats, from the songs she creates. If she were to strip away all the dazzling bits from her persona and were to simply release a record like any other artist, might that be the spark she requires to get her songwriting and composing mojo back? There’s only one way to find out, and unfortunately there’s no app that can do it for her.