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Class of 2012: A Look Back

Last year, I was privileged enough to start something that turned into a great feature here on Faronheit. That was the “Class of 2012“, in which I chose 10 artists whose profiles I expected to rise significantly that particular year. After unleashing those names in January, I spent the year following their progress to see if they made good on that initial promise.

Some of the artists, like Grimes, Frank Ocean and Purity Ring, turned out to be inspired choices. Grimes was the #1 most blogged about artist of 2012. Frank Ocean released a record that revitalized R&B and got him applause that led to earning the top spot on many a year-end “best of” list, plus a nomination for the Album of the Year Grammy. Purity Ring just plain made a great album called Shrines that got them the same sort of praise, though maybe on a slightly smaller scale. So those were the main success stories from that last class.

Others didn’t work out so well. Kreayshawn was a “controversial” choice, a girl with a couple decent hip hop singles to her name, but who many felt was annoying and attempting to destroy the very fabric of popular music today. She promised her album would “put the haters in their place,” but sadly it only gave them more fuel to throw on the fire. She’ll undoubtedly keep trying, but will anyone bother to listen? Then you had a band like Blonds, an indie pop duo out of Florida. Their debut album The Bad Ones came out last summer, and while it often sounded like a mixture of bands like Tennis and Cults, the hooks just weren’t quite there and neither were the reviews. It wasn’t a poor effort by any means, it may just have struck at the wrong time – when a bunch of similar-sounding bands had already taken over an already crowded field.

And now a few words on Lana Del Rey. Arguably speaking, she’s a success. Her record may have been so-so outside of a few strong singles, but where she failed musically she struck gold as a figurehead. She barely even toured in 2012, yet continued to gain popularity thanks to a bunch of modeling work and commercial appearances for high end merchandise. You could say that music was just a springboard for her towards something much larger. As she moves in a new direction, can acting be far behind? We’ll see what happens in 2013. In regards to someone like Nicolas Jaar, he spent most of 2012 waking up to the idea that his album Space is Only Noise continued to be discovered and gain new fans almost every day. I expected him to rush and release something new to capitalize on his slow burn rise in popularity, but he instead chose to make some more subtle movements. Okay, so maybe releasing a compilation of largely unreleased music via a cube called The Prism isn’t entirely subtle. But he did that, compiled a BBC Essential Mix featuring some of his favorite artists, remixed a Cat Power track, and unleashed a new single called “The Ego” late in the year. He also toured quite a bit, and I saw him perform twice, which he was great both times. Maybe we’ll have something new from him in 2013?

Speaking of that, a few of my Class of 2012 still haven’t peaked quite yet. Their debut full lengths were due in 2012, but ultimately got pushed back to 2013. In other words, this year is going to be a big year for all of them, though arguably last year was too. Charli XCX put out a couple singles, an EP and a mixtape in preparation for her debut, and continues to gain new fans through touring as well. A$AP Rocky‘s record LongLiveA$AP got delayed and will finally be out this month, but he toured quite a bit in 2012 with the A$AP Mob, and unleashed a couple singles and videos. Oh man, remember that music video he did with Lana Del Rey for her song “National Anthem”? He played JFK, which was really quite out of left field. Finally, there’s Azealia Banks. Her 2012 was pretty huge, with her 1991 EP and Fantasea mixtape both coming out to a fair amount of praise. Both didn’t quite meet the expectations of her earliest singles, but the hope is that her debut full length Broke With Expensive Taste will rise to the occasion when it comes out in February. Meanwhile she’s attracting enough attention in the last couple weeks thanks to a fresh feud with Angel Haze that seems almost purposely created to promote one another. Whatever it takes to keep your name in the headlines, I guess. So long as the music is good, I don’t care how you promote it.

So let’s tie these artists up in a neat little bow and file them away for another day. Most assuredly they’ll all continue working in 2013, some with greater success than others. I’m proud of each and every one of the Class of 2012, even the ones that didn’t do so well. I plan to continue to follow all of them for the foreseeable future, but probably won’t actively report on any of it unless it feels absolutely necessary. Instead, I’ve got to shift my focus to the new year, and a brand new class. There are 10 new artists I’ll be following for all of 2013, and I’m super excited to reveal them to you later this week!

Lollapalooza 2012: Final Thoughts

This was Lollapalooza’s eighth year in Chicago, and in turn my eighth year in a row attending it. I’ve seen it transform from a tiny little four stage festival on one half of Grant Park to a monstrous behemoth of a fest complete with eight stages and multiple blocks of park space. I’ve stood through oppressive heat, severe thunderstorms, a lack of water and restrooms, gate crashers, mud pits, clinically insane crowds/bands, and those tiny little rocks that always seem to get into your shoes. This year introduced a new slice of fun: the total festival evacuation. And here I thought I’d seen everything. In spite of all those things, I’ve managed to have a whole lot of fun and get inspired by music all over again. It’s become a very well run festival, which I suppose is thanks in no small part to a generous volunteer staff and the huge revenues they make from it every year. Are there things that could still be improved? Sure, but it’s more minor stuff that likely isn’t a pressing concern for anyone. I’ll outline some of that, along with the best and worst music of the weekend right now in my Lollapalooza 2012 Winners and Losers.

Lollapalooza 2012: Saturday Recap

Day 2 of Lollapalooza 2012 was a short one. That is to say, a few hours were cut out due to inclement weather. By “inclement” I mean severe storms the likes of which Chicago hasn’t seen in a little while. They evacuated Grant Park for the first time in Lollapalooza history, undoubtedly scared at the prospect of a potential stage collapse that might kill some people. So from about 3-6 PM no bands performed and while some were rescheduled, others were cancelled entirely. One of the bands I was most looking forward to, Chairlift, was unable to perform as a result. But I did get to catch a few bands on Saturday, mostly after the storm. Here’s a quick summary of what I saw, which I will expand upon at a later date.

The only band I saw before the evacuation, and they were the perfect start to my day. Their upbeat energy was contagious, and the crowd was totally into it. They stuck with the great stuff on their debut album In Light, and made it even more exciting and catchy than ever. GIVERS are definitely going places.

After the evacuation and rain delay and the release of a revised schedule, I was with some people that desperately wanted to see FUN. I went along for that ride, even as two of my favorites The Tallest Man on Earth and tUnE-yArDs were also playing at the same time. One thing I learned is that people love FUN. They love FUN. in the same way people love Neon Trees and the like. I am not a fan, but stood there trying to understand the appeal. What I took away from their set was that they’re high energy and really appreciate their fans. They’re also a little better than what their hit single might suggest. So there’s that.

The Weeknd
After a food and restroom break that took far longer than anticipated, I stumbled through the mud to see half of The Weeknd’s set. Turns out Abel Tesfaye (the man behind the project) is a pretty strong live performer. As a full band, they haven’t put on too many live performances, but you wouldn’t know that from watching them. Tesfaye’s vocals are the heart of it, and while he’s not quite Frank Ocean, he’s of comparable quality, which is meant as a compliment.

Bloc Party
The last time I saw Bloc Party was the last time they played Lollapalooza a few years ago. I wasn’t too impressed then, and apparently neither was frontman Kele Okereke. He said that he didn’t enjoy his last Lolla experience, but was having a much better time this time. It sure sounded like it too, as their set was better and more memorable than before. They kept the tempos strong and the hits coming. The couple new songs they played felt a little shaky, but maybe that’s how they all start before you’ve heard them a hundred times.

Red Hot Chili Peppers
What can I say about this performance. I’ve seen RHCP a couple times now, and they tend to be okay live. The live versions of their songs often have a little extra kick to them thanks to a funky bass solo from Flea or extended outros and such. Flea remains the band’s stronghold and focal point, the only real treasure now that John Frusciante is not with them anymore. Anthony Kiedis does all sorts of posturing on stage, but the real tragedy was that he seemed to forget a few lyrics. It made things interesting, to be sure. That, and the off-key renditions of RHCP hits done by every single person standing around me made for a pretty shrug-worthy performance.

Frank Ocean
Due to the modified rain delay schedule I didn’t see, I had no idea when Frank Ocean was performing. Somewhere around 10 PM I wandered over to his stage, and he’d been on for at least a 20 minutes or so. Because I also had an aftershow to go to and sets were pushing well past the curfew time, I couldn’t stay and watch the rest of Ocean’s set. I caught 3 songs, and they were all spectacular. His album Channel Orange is one of 2012’s best, and as a live performer he makes every single kind word said about it justified. The man is now a bonified superstar in both the studio and on stage. It was probably the most impressive thing I saw all day, even if it was only 15 minutes worth.

Lollapalooza 2012: Preview Guide

Hey friends! I’m happy to present you with Faronheit’s Guide to Lollapalooza 2012. Whether you’re headed to the festival this year or would just like to learn a little more about the artists performing on this year’s lineup, hopefully this guide will point you in the direction of the acts you won’t want to miss. Before we get started, I should go over a few details to help you interpret this properly. The purpose of this guide is not to analyze every act on the lineup and weigh who you should go see at what particular time. Simply put, I picked 10 acts from each day, irregardless of what time they are playing, and attempted to explain why they’re worth seeing. It’s a very good lineup this year, so choosing only 10 from individual days was tough, but I like to think this is distilled down to help you have the best possible Lollapalooza experience. I should note that some of the small side stages and Perry’s go largely ignored in this guide, because I think if you want to know where to go for dance parties or American Idol runner-ups, you can find them yourselves. Speaking of finding things, make sure you look at the festival map before going to Grant Park, if you’ve never been before. Knowing where the stages are located and that it’s a 15 minute walk from one side of the park to the other is very, very important. In the guide below, I’ve indicated when and where the acts I’m recommending are performing, and they’re ordered by time slot to help plan out your day. Additionally, if you’d like to hear music from the artists I’ve mentioned below, along with a bunch of other acts, there are links to individual day Spotify playlists for your enjoyment. I’ve structured those playlists thematically rather than by time slot to provide you with the best possible listening experience. All that said, I hope you’re ready to have a lot of fun this weekend. Drink plenty of water, dip yourself in sunscreen, and try to rest whenever possible. Those are my tips for surviving the weekend. Without further ado, click past the jump to view my Guide to Lollapalooza 2012!

Snapshot Review: Purity Ring – Shrines [4AD]

According to the dictionary, a purity ring is a “type of promise ring that pledges abstinence.” In more plainspoken terms, by wearing a purity ring you promise to not have sex until you get married. As many who wear purity rings will claim, the wait is worth it. How fitting then for a band calling themselves Purity Ring to make us wait a long time before releasing their first full length album. First appearing in early 2011, they began releasing single after single, like a trail of breadcrumbs to keep us interested and engaged. It helped that they were really good songs, too. Describing their sound can be a little difficult, but it’s fair to say they’re like a more pop-driven version of The Knife or Crystal Castles, pairing skittering hip hop-esque electronic beats with often masked female vocals. The duo of Corin Roddick and Megan James are responsible for the project. Roddick handles the instrumental side, and James does vocals and lyrics. Their first single “Ungirthed” did just about everything right, fusing together little electro plinks with surges of bass, and James’ vocals playfully floating above it all. It was fun and surprisingly addictive, which was a trend that continued with additional singles like “Belispeak” and “Fineshrine.” A grand total of five out of eleven songs off their new album Shrines were released leading up to it, and there wasn’t a weak track among them. Now with the whole thing available for your consumption, the great news is that their previous success wasn’t a fluke. Even the non-singles carry hints of being potential future singles, and this record is so jam packed with them it can be a challenge to pick out the highlights. On any given day you might fall in love with “Crawlersout,” only to have “Lofticries” dig its claws into you the next time around. That’s a good sort of problem to have, though for fans that have been keeping up with the band since 2011, some of those earliest tracks will always be considered noteworthy moments. Newcomers to the Purity Ring bandwagon may initially find inspiration in certain songs, though the entire record might start sounding like an amorphous blob after awhile. Such a reaction is completely natural given that the template tools used to make this album don’t really change from track to track. Even the lyrics are thematically similar, filled with vibrant body imagery. “Sea water is flowing from the middle of my thighs,” James sings at the start of “Crawlersout.” The very next song is “Fineshrine,” where she encourages somebody to “cut open my sternum and poke my little ribs around you.” From the ringing ears and clicking teeth of “Ungirthed” to the sweating lips and starving hips of “Saltkin,” and even to the album cover featuring disembodied hands and lungs, Purity Ring are very easy to figure out, even if their distinct sound and lyrics can be challenging. It’s the angle they approach each melody and hook that makes the difference, rewarding close listening. If Shrines has a failure, it comes via the mid-album oddity of “Grandloves.” Isaac Emmanuel of Young Magic shares vocal duties with James in what feels like an ill-advised duet where he tries on his best computer-glitchy Beck impersonation. The song’s not bad by any means, but really more pedestrian and uninspired than everything that surrounds it. Otherwise it’s a very impressive debut from a band that continues to change and evolve with time. It might take them a few years to finally generate a follow-up LP, but if history is any indication, we’ll be hearing a new song or two or five before then. If it’s anywhere near as good as what we’ve been given on Shrines, it truly will have been worth the wait.

Buy Shrines from Amazon

Listen to me talk about Shrines on a podcast.

Album Review: Frank Ocean – Channel Orange [Def Jam]

Frank Ocean’s sexuality shouldn’t matter. Why his revelation that he’s bisexual has made so many waves (pun intended) is because people working in the hip hop and R&B genres are often considered intolerant of anyone who’s not 100% straight. There’s a fair amount of anti-gay rhetoric and hurtful slang used in tracks without even blinking an eye or somebody speaking out against it, and so for Ocean to come out in that sort of environment takes an incredible amount of courage. He’s weathered the storm quite well so far, though the realities of his situation might be a bit different than what we’re seeing through the eyes of the media. Now let’s just hope he doesn’t get stereotyped because of it, or made an unofficial spokesperson for all things bisexual or homosexual in the music community. The ultimate hope is that if you make great art that people will see past any labels and appreciate it solely for what it is. The great news for Ocean is that his newest album Channel Orange does exactly that, transcending topical, musical and many other boundaries to help make it one of the most fascinating and exciting full lengths of 2012 so far.

Whether you’ve been paying close attention to the R&B and urban styles of music the last few years or not, chances are you’ve become aware that the increased popularity of AutoTune has been both a help and a hindrance to music in general. At its best, AutoTune is another creative tool that can be used to take vocals or accent tracks in ways many never thought possible until now. At its worst, it’s an annoyance, detracts from the humanity in a song, and allows singers to cheat by taking their vocals to places they couldn’t otherwise go on their own. Ocean doesn’t use AutoTune on Channel Orange, nor is it apparent that he needs to. His vocals are smooth as silk, and his range is far more vast than you might expect. Listening to opening track “Thinkin Bout You,” Ocean holds a pretty even keel together until the chorus hits. Reacting to being wounded by a love interest, he flips into a soaring falsetto that makes for an impressive emotional outpouring of his pain. Sad though it may be, it’s also one of several very catchy songs on this record.

The lightly bouncing and effortless “Sweet Life” celebrates the excess associated with being rich, ultimately settling on the very addictive creed of, “Why see the world/when you’ve got the beach?” But that sort of reaction isn’t meant to be taken at face value, instead it’s more about the search for meaning beyond what money and the song’s title describe. Similarly, “Super Rich Kids” uses a plodding piano chord that sounds like it was ripped from Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” to both mock a life of massive weath and relate to the consistently greedy emptiness it causes. “A million one, a million two/a hundred more will never do,” he sings like a man trapped in a prison of money from which there is no escape. As a 24-year-old still in the earliest stages of his career, Ocean isn’t nearly at the point yet where he could be considered a financial heavyweight. These songs aren’t so much personal stories or feelings he’s describing, but rather character morality tales that are always human and surprisingly relatable. “Crack Rock” turns a drug addict into somebody we can sympathize with, while “Lost” is about the personal relationship between a drug dealer and a drug mule, how they may love each other but can’t stop using one another either. Love and religion intertwine on “Monks,” where the passion a crowd has for a musician parallels that of a deity, the Dalai Lama and Buddhism being the example used. Thematically similar but all the more devastating is “Bad Religion,” where he likens unrequited love to a cult because of its exclusivity, obsession and inability to give anything back to you. The line in the chorus, “I can never make him love me,” is thought by many to be related to the letter he wrote about his attraction to a man that didn’t feel the same way. Whether or not that’s actually the case, the frustration and sadness in his voice is very, very affecting.

Lyrical content and stories aside, Channel Orange also has plenty to offer in terms of composition. This is not your standard R&B slow jam style record. Ocean is offering up so much more than contemporary leaders of the genre like R. Kelly and Usher are trying these days. The risks he’s taking have more in common with Kanye West’s last album, the near perfect My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, than almost anything else around. If that record set a new bar for hip hop, Ocean’s seeks to set a new bar for R&B. He’s taking many of the greats such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Prince, and applying some of their best qualities in mind to tracks that are extremely modern in body. The organ and spoken word opening of “Bad Religion” is eerily reminiscent of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” but moves in a polar opposite direction with the entrance of mournful piano chords and dramatic orchestration. Southern style rhythm guitar and church organ blend quite effortlessly with drum machine beats on closing track “Forrest Gump,” and together they give the song a tenderness that betrays a line like, “I wanna see your pom-poms from the stands.” If you really want to understand what this record is all about and see how Ocean has turned R&B on its head, look no further than “Pyramids.” The sprawling, nearly 10 minute track moves from ambient electronica to dancefloor synth-pop to a soulful slow jam to a psychedelic guitar solo without ever sounding out of place or clumsy. Altogether it’s unlike anything else in music today, and it’s that much more brilliant because of it.

If Channel Orange has one problem, it’s sticking with the time honored tradition of adding interludes between a few songs to expand its overall length and track listing. Some of them, like “Fertilizer” and “White,” serve more like brief sketches of songs and glimpses of potential wasted. The bookend tracks titled “Start” and “End” feel even more pointless, the former using the sound of a Playstation powering on while the latter has the sound of somebody getting out of their car and walking into their house. Only “Not Just Money,” featuring a woman talking about how there’s more to life than dollars and cents as she struggles to feed her family, actually feels appropriately used. It’s sandwiched in between “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids,” emphasizing the moral lessons they’re looking to teach. Outside of those shrug-worthy and mostly pointless moments, everything else about this album is ironclad and near perfect. While it lacks the same theatricality and reinvention, Channel Orange can be favorably compared to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust record. Following on the heels of his controversial 1972 interview in which he confessed to being gay (which later turned out to be…not so much), Bowie was on the verge of calling it quits. Coupled with the legendary Ziggy Stardust however, Bowie’s profile rose significantly and he became the powerful force in music that many look up to today. Ocean is only getting his career started, but with the revelations about his sexuality and the excellence of this new album, you can almost see the same sort of career trajectory emerging. Time will tell for sure if that holds true, but for the moment this looks like the true birth of the next music superstar.

Frank Ocean – Pyramids
Frank Ocean – Sweet Life

Buy Channel Orange from Amazon

Pitchfork Music Festival 2012: Photos

Okay, friends. Here’s a selection of photos that I took all this weekend at the Pitchfork Music Festival. In this set I’ve included one photo from each artist, edited down from over 400 photos total. If you’d like to see the complete set of edited photos (4-5 photos from each artist), please visit our Facebook page for all that. Their uploader is easier to use and the pictures look nice in that context. I’ve also given my final thoughts about this year’s fest, in case you missed it. Read 100% of my Pitchfork Music Festival coverage via this link. I think that about wraps things up. Starting tomorrow we return to our regularly scheduled programming of album reviews and mp3s. Until then, click past the jump to glance at some photos from the festival.

Pitchfork Music Festival 2012: Final Thoughts

Before I start posting the many, many photos I took this past weekend at the Pitchfork Music Festival, I want to take a moment to reflect with some words detailing the best and worst things that happened over the three days. If you haven’t read my detailed day-by-day recaps of the music I saw, here are links to Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The Best

There are many great things about the Pitchfork Music Festival, and those things expand even beyond the music being performed there. It’s held in Union Park every year, which might not be the absolute safest neighborhood in the city, but the space is ideal for its size and the parking is pretty ample if you need to drive. They spent the first couple years of the festival perfecting some of the issues that plagued it early on, such as the stages not being loud enough and a lack of restrooms. Vendors, sponsors and other features have come and gone too, but the last three or so years have seen a serious consistency develop with the festival and the atmosphere as well that works extraordinarily well given its size. Organizers have also done well with ticket prices, ensuring it’s still one of the most affordable festivals in the world to attend. They didn’t even raise ticket prices this year. Where they did falter a bit though in 2012 was with the lineup. I’m not trying to suggest that this year’s batch of artists was bad, just not quite as strong as years past. They can’t all be winners, and this year will probably go down as one of the more muted affairs. Overall ticket sales were a little weaker than normal, as Friday was a couple thousand tickets short of selling out, though Saturday sold out and Sunday came very, very close to doing the same. If you looked at my daily recaps and compare them with the schedule, you’ll notice that I did a lot of skipping around from stage to stage, not often taking in full sets. My issues either involved a restlessness out of sheer boredom with who I was watching at the moment, or a panic because there were too many good artists performing at the same time. A great example would be on Saturday, when I really wanted to see Sleigh Bells, Chromatics and Hot Chip. They were ploaying at 6:15, 7:00 (listed start time delayed due to soundcheck issues), and 7:25, respectively. I ran between stages and caught as many songs as possible from each. On the opposite end of the spectrum, on Sunday I wasn’t particularly excited about seeing Kendrick Lamar, Chavez and Oneohtrix Point Never, yet I went to two out of the three just to see if they’d surprise me somehow (they didn’t). While we’re on the topic though, let me give credit where credit is due and hand out some praise for the artists that did inspire me over the weekend.

When I saw A$AP Rocky back at SXSW in March, he and his A$AP Mob showed up an hour late for their set time. When they did finally arrive, the place went nuts, though I was only able to see part of the set because I had to be at another show. This past Friday, not only was he on time, but I was significantly impressed with how he and his crew handled every aspect of their show. They got the crowd fired up, ran through all the hits and more, broke up a fight in the crowd, stage dived and performed in the rain like it wasn’t even an inconvenience. In other words, they did everything a great live performers are supposed to do. When he finally hits the big time, and buzz is saying he will, hopefully he doesn’t change a thing about his live show. It was really enjoyable. Japandroids are arguably one of the best rock bands performing today, and they write and record their songs specifically to get the most out of their shows. They are like a two man tornado trying their hardest to lay waste to everything and everyone in their path. The best part is they succeed with flying colors. Brian King isn’t afraid to bang his head or move around the stage should the mood strike him, as it does often. David Prowse hammers the drums with such violent urgency he probably breaks sticks more than other drummers. He actually broke his kickpedal early on in their Pitchfork set as a testament to that.

I think my overall favorite moment of the entire festival came when I first arrived on Saturday. Cloud Nothings were playing, and a few songs into their set it began to drizzle. That drizzle slowly developed into a full-on downpour – one of the heaviest of the weekend. It was right around then that they launched into their nine minute opus “Wasted Days” from their latest album Attack on Memory. With the crowd getting soaked to the bone but not moving to seek shelter, the band played to the storm like they were looking to pick a fight. This went on for several minutes, during which it was quite likely the band members were risking their lives being out there. Eventually the rain won though, shorting out the main set of speakers and leaving only the on stage monitors active. They kept going even if only the people closest to the stage could hear them. When they finally finished, they threw down their guitars and left the stage. Watching it all happen sent an excited shiver down my spine. If only every artist was so dedicated to their art and putting on a great show. The main goal of Nicolas Jaar was probably to put on a great show too, which is why he took an extra 20 minutes for his soundcheck. I stood there during that time, panicked because I was only going to be able to see 30 minutes of his set and the longer he took the less time I had to see him. When he finally did start playing, it was nothing short of excellent and transcendent. At least that’s what I took from the 10 minutes I was able to stay. I wish I could have stuck around longer and seen the whole thing, but Wild Flag beckoned me across the park. I had almost the exact same problem for Chromatics, who were also delayed by Jaar and whose four songs I was able to hear were even better than their recorded versions, which I already love. I hope to see both artists again soon, should they come through Chicago.

Sunday presented a similar great artist vs. great artist predicament, and the best part is, both of them knew it. John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees asked how many people in the crowd were planning to see Ty Segall’s set, who was starting 30 minutes later. Some cheers went up in the crowd, but Dwyer then explained that he and the rest of the band really wanted to see Segall too, and as soon as they finished their set, they were planning to run over there to catch him. A short time later, they dedicated a song to Segall. Having never seen Thee Oh Sees before and only going by their recorded output, I probably should have guessed how their live show would go. Everybody in the band bounced and moved around to the songs, and Dwyer kept alternating between spitting and sticking out his tongue in between some intense guitar riffs. I’ve become a much bigger fan of the band now that I’ve seen their live show, and that’s sort of why bands do play live. A short bit later Ty Segall would rock harder and faster than any other band on Sunday. Not only was the fuzz and reverb completely in check, but Segall’s scream is just about perfect – loud, piercing and not too throaty. About halfway through his set he asked the crowd to shout out, “Dwyer!” as sort of a kind message to the Thee Oh Sees frontman. A short time later, the band covered AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” which was straightlaced but gloriously appropriate. If only all of Sunday were so exciting. And finally, I’d be wrong to not include AraabMuzik as one of the festival’s best sets. I’m not a fan of DJs or producers performing live, mostly because I think sitting behind a laptop or turntable your entire set isn’t exciting to watch. It’s a big reason why the Daft Punks and Deadmau5s of the world have intense light shows to distract you. AraabMuzik had none of that in his late afternoon set, but surprisingly enough just watching him put music together was exciting. His weapon of choice was an MPC drum sampler, and his hands moved across that thing so fast they were often a blur. But even if you weren’t watching what was happening, simply listening was intense too. I’m not the biggest fan of the dubstep genre of EDM, but I consider AraabMuzik to be one of the only performers to have won me over in that respect.

The Worst

This section should be a lot shorter than the above one, if only because so much went right at the festival this year. All the staff and volunteers were professional and did their jobs well. I got a bunch of free stuff simply by wandering the grounds at the right time, and elements like the Flatstock poster section, the CHIRP Record Fair and the Book Fort were fun things to do if you felt like the music wasn’t very good. Speaking of which, there were many artists over the weekend that gave very good performances but didn’t quite make my highlight reel. Some unfortunately did make my lowlight reel though, and I’ll talk about that in a minute. The worst thing to happen over the three days was the weather. Mid-July is typically not the time for rain, and the last few years at Pitchfork it has either not rained at all or sprinkled for under an hour. So when severe storms came rolling through on Friday afternoon, the hope was they’d be light and brief. The forecast said there was about a 20% chance of an isolated thunderstorm, but apparently they meant 100%. The rain was not light, and if you want to call a few 20-30 minute sessions “brief,” then so be it. Sets were affected, times were shuffled, and people exposed themselves to potential pneumonia after standing in the rain without an umbrella or poncho. The Saturday rain was just as bad, though happily the skies cleared around mid-afternoon and stayed that way through the end of the festival. The grounds of Union Park were a bit muddy from the rain as well, and I saw more than a few people covered in the stuff, most likely on purpose. But the swampy areas in some of the fields made it difficult to navigate, though thankfully crowds would surround them so you knew where they were and where not to step. Crews did do some nice work cleaning up as best they could, as quick dry, wood chips and platforms were thrown down to either dry up or cover up soggy sections. And you know what? The rain was nobody’s fault but nature’s. It’s a blameless crime with many victims, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Musically speaking, I’m going to try not to pick on too many artists that didn’t do so well in their sets. Atlas Sound is so good on record, and his last two albums have represented huge jumps in songwriting and melody development abilities. The first “mistake” was booking Bradford Cox solo at an outdoor festival. Atlas Sound is best experienced in a small, dark theater on a stage. Outside and in the sunlight just don’t quite work for his version of sleepy psychedelia. Cox is a nice guy with good intentions, but even he looked a little bored with what he was playing (or not playing, in the case of a few formless compositions). I tried to stick around for as much of his set as I could, but after 15 minutes just couldn’t take any more. Ironically, that pushed me into going to see Liturgy, a band I’ve only heard a few times and only on record. Their version of heavy metal resonated with me far less than I hoped it would. They were excruciatingly loud, which I’m okay with, but for the 10 minutes I stuck around watching them I couldn’t make out anything beyond ear-piercing screams. I know they have lyrics because I’ve heard them before, but I sure wasn’t hearing them during the performance. That’s okay though, I’m still pleased I went and watched for the time I did. You’ll never truly know how much you don’t like something until you try it. On Sunday there’s only one band in my rifle’s eyesight: Iceage. I feel horrible for promoting them in my preview coverage and saying it was going to be a “wild time.” The only thing wild about their set was when they blew out an amp. Even that probably connects back to having their gear stolen just a couple days prior. They probably borrowed the amp that broke. But yeah, listening to their album of speedy punk rock songs, and seeing footage of live shows where they crowd surf and somebody “accidentally” gets hit in a mosh pit makes me wonder if it was all just propaganda to generate some hype for the band. They absolutely looked like they didn’t want to be there, and their overly lackluster performance pretty much confirmed it. Rarely has a band disappointed me so much or sounded so unlike their records.

In Conclusion

So there you have it, my final thoughts on this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. In a short bit I’ll be posting a selection of the photos I took over the weekend for you to browse through. The best place to see everything though is through the site’s Facebook page, where I’ll have 100% of the pictures available. If you’d like to read all the pieces I wrote as part of Pitchfork Music Festival week last week, all of them will come up if you follow this link. I hope you enjoyed reading and seeing things about the festival this year, and if it were up to me we’d do it all again next year. We’ll have to play a little wait-and-see on that one though. In the meantime, thanks for bearing with me, and we will return to our regularly scheduled music programming in the next day or two.

Pitchfork Music Festival 2012: Saturday Recap

Boy, I am bushed. Two days of music, rain and sun can wear a person out. To think there’s still one more to go. It’s going to be an interesting Sunday, that’s for sure. But let’s talk about Saturday for now. The only day to sell out at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, it was also the day to boast the best lineup. I did my best to see as much as possible, which sometimes meant dropping in and out of sets when I did and didn’t want to. Let me sum the whole day up for you, artist by artist and timeslot by timeslot, as we did on Friday.

My day started with Cloud Nothings, whose name turned out to be ironic because while they were playing was when the dark clouds rolled in. After getting through some of their best moments on their great album Attack on Memory, it started to pour. As the heavy rain began to soak everything and everyone, the band launched into their 9-minute instrumental “Wasted Days.” The guitars chugged and the drums beat with furious hellfire, and the crowd mostly stayed in place and loved every single second of it. You could say the rain built in intensity along with the song. As they neared the finish line, the rain blew out the main set of speakers, and so only the on-stage monitors were left working. The band kept playing, and though you could barely hear it on the outskirts of the stage, their endurance was nothing short of impressive. It’s quite possible they risked their lives by continuing to play in such a downpour, and their reward was a die-hard enthusiastic response from the crowd. They weren’t able to finish their set, but when they threw their guitars down after their lengthy opus, they seemed resilient and grateful to the crowd for sticking around. It was absolutely worth every second, and made for one of the most memorable moments of the festival so far.

Starting immediately after Cloud Nothings’ aborted set, Atlas Sound saw the crowd was there early and just took the extra time. The rain had pretty much stopped the moment Cloud Nothings left their stage, so Bradford Cox played to a soggy park. He stuck to the back half of the stage, as the front half was quite wet, and brought nothing with him except for a guitar, a harmonica, and a pedal that cued various sounds. His set was remarkably formless, and appearing in whiteface and a small tan hat, he seemed ready to channel Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, his improvisational style and reworked melodies were rendered ineffective on a festival crowd. Having just come from a thrilling Cloud Nothings set, I was bored out of my skull for the first 10 minutes. Then I left, only to return after stopping to see Liturgy and feeling like my ears were being punished. From what I understand, Liturgy was having some sound issues early on. What I heard was one loud electric guitar, another louder electric guitar, machine gun drums and vocals that were more animal grunts than words. Having heard Liturgy’s records, I”m surprised at how their live show sounds not a whole lot like them. Returning to see the end of Atlas Sound’s set, he fared a little better than the first half, but all I really wanted was for Cults to start next.

Did I mention it started raining again when I went over to see Liturgy? Well, it did, and the rain kept up even as Cults prepared to take the stage. By the time they did though, the skies opened up and the sun started shining. The crowd let out a huge cheer when that happened. Seconds later, they cheered again as Cults started performing. Their bright indie pop was pretty much perfect for the weather conditions at hand, and based on the huge crowd that was watching them, everyone else seemed to feel that way too. They powered through their self-titled debut album, and mixed it up a little with a new song or two. It was an overly pleasant experience, memorable because of how it worked out, but there wasn’t anything extraordinary about it. I even popped over to see Youth Lagoon for a few minutes, more to take some photos than enjoy his set. Trevor Powers is a nice guy and he made a great record last year, but it’s not always the most engaging thing to watch live. He was actually better and more energetic than the last time I saw him, but he still couldn’t quite match what was happening over at Cults.

Things really clicked into high gear with Flying Lotus. So many DJs and producers spend their live sets sitting behind a table, twisting knobs and pushing buttons. I heard Clams Casino was like that on Friday and it was a little boring to watch. At least Flying Lotus was dancing, smiling and pushing buttons with exaggerated motions. That he was mixing and remixing popular hip hop was a bonus too, thrown in amongst his original material. The crowd was totally into it, and even moreso when tracks from Watch the Throne and the Beastie Boys came up. A rapper friend of his came out and added some vocals to some tracks and also functioned as a proverbial hype man, and the whole thing went off pretty splendidly. It became the most fun set of the day at that point, though we were only about halfway done.

Shortly before Flying Lotus wrapped up, I left to see some of Nicolas Jaar out of a devotion to my Class of 2012 artists. Upon arriving at the Blue stage, he hadn’t started despite it being 15 minutes past his printed set time. Apparently after Youth Lagoon ended on time, Jaar spent an exorbitantly long amount of time soundchecking. He finally started about 20-25 minutes late, which would throw off that stage for the rest of the day. Still, for the 15 or so minutes I watched his set, it was really, really good. So good, it pained me to leave for Wild Flag’s set. Jaar and his two man crew of a saxophone and guitar player were working on a formless composition that evolved over time, but had all these interesting nooks and crannies to keep you engaged. I wouldn’t exactly say it was perfect for a festival (the last time I saw him was in a church, which was perfect), but it was still remarkably effective.

Wild Flag is simply too good of a band to miss. Their talents are immense, and Carrie Brownstein is one of my all-time favorite guitar players. Come to think of it, Janet Weiss is one of my all-time favorite drummers too. Mary Timony is just fine, and Rebecca Cole is sort of Wild Flag’s secret weapon. She plays multiple instruments and adds little flavors to songs you might not notice initially but catch the closer attention you pay to her. One of my favorite moments in Wild Flag’s set was their cover of Television’s “See No Evil,” one of the more underrated rock songs of all time. They also played some new tracks that sounded great, not to mention my personal favorite off their self-titled debut, the nine minute “Racehorse.” I’m still upset that Sleater-Kinney is on “indefinite hiatus,” but Wild Flag as their close cousin works well in the meantime.

While the crowd was large for Wild Flag, it became astronomically huge for Sleigh Bells. After playing the small stage at Pitchfork two years ago and being paired up against the headliner that night, Sleigh Bells returned, bigger and more badass than ever before. They’ve got an extra guitarist to make their songs even louder, and a wall of amps to help accomodate for that. Alexis Krauss is a great and engaging frontwoman, running around the stage, throwing her fist into the air, screaming, and diving into the crowd. They loved every single second of the set, by the way. Jumping from “Demons” to “Crown on the Ground” to “COmeback Kid” to “Infinity Guitars,” there was no shortage of head banging hits, even as a song like “Rill Rill” provided some nice buffer from those moments. Sleigh Bells may have stolen the title of “Biggest Crowd Pleaser” from Flying Lotus earlier in the day.

With the Blue stage now delayed, I waited a bit before making my way to see some Chromatics. Their album Kill for Love is one of my favorites of 2012, and I was itching to see how well it translated live. Due to their own sound problems, Chromatics were about 25 minutes late to Nicolas Jaar’s 20, so in other words the delays were growing larger. Like Jaar though, when they got started, their set was golden. I was only able to catch part of their set, but the renditions of “These Streets Will Never Look the Same,” “Kill for Love” and “Lady” were all as good or better than their recorded versions. Word on the street is they also played their cover of Kate Bush’s classic “Running Up That Hill,” which I’m very sad to have missed. Hot Chip beckoned me away. I’m definitely going to have to see Chromatics the next time they’re in Chicago.

As for Hot Chip, their set went about as expected. The crowd was huge, they played all their dance hits, and everyone danced along to them. To say that it was fun would be an understatement. I even saw some senior citizens in their 60’s dancing like and keeping up with 25 year olds. Having seen Hot Chip live about 4 times now, I actually think this time was my personal favorite. I think they had just the right balance of songs to keep the energy super high and give the crowd exactly what they wanted. The sun was starting to set, the temperature went down by a few degrees, and everyone was in just the right mood, as they were with Cut Copy around the same time last year. The overall response might not have been explosive, but maybe that’s because people were too busy with their hands in the air.

Like Friday night, I chose to spend the headlining sets divided between the Green and Blue stages. Starting with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, spending time with Grimes, then returning to Godspeed before the end of the night. I got to see the first half hour of Godspeed because Grimes’ start time was delayed thanks to Nicolas Jaar and Chromatics earlier in the day. I expected many of their soundscapes to be quieter than they actually were, as I estimated many in the crowd wouldn’t understand what the band was trying to accomplish and would start talking out of sheer boredom. The good news is that the speakers were turned way up, so even the more minor moments were amplified to where you might have trouble hearing the person next to you. All the better, because Godspeed excels when you allow yourself to get lost in the music. They had a projector going behind them, providing visuals to go with the songs, and in combination it was both a beautiful and ugly experience. They were building to something when I left to go see Grimes, and when I returned for the final 20 minutes they were raging with an intensity I’ve grown to love out of their music. It was supremely impressive, but also just a little depressing to see the lack of a crowd watching them. Many people headed for the exits after Hot Chip, while plenty of others headed for Grimes.

But speaking of Grimes, Claire Boucher seems to be well on her way towards becoming a legitimate pop star. The Blue stage was more packed than I think I’ve ever seen it, and so many were there to keep the dance party going after Hot Chip. Boucher naturally obliged, running through some of the bigger moments on her latest album Visions, including “Genesis,” “Oblivion” and “Be A Body.” I’ve seen her perform twice already this year, and the first time I thought she was perfect, while the second she couldn’t have been worse. That second time wasn’t really her fault though, as she didn’t really get a soundcheck and was very, very sick. She was in good health at Pitchfork though, and has actually only gotten better at making her show run smoothly. She’s started to excel at looping her vocals and other bits, she dances a lot more, and has actual dancers to accompany her as well. If she’s gotten so much better in the four months since I last saw her, I wonder how well she’ll be doing in another year. I’m excited to find out.

Pitchfork Music Festival 2012: Friday Recap

When the Pitchfork Music Festival falls on a Friday the 13th, strange things are bound to happen. It was little surprise then that they did. The first and foremost issue to come up was the weather. The forecast said sunny and 90 degrees with a 20% chance of scattered thunderstorms. Shortly before the gates were set to open for the day, that 20% became 100%. A raging severe thunderstorm cell rode through Union Park, complete with a great lightning show and heavy downpour. It was already past 3pm when things calmed back down, and the gates weren’t even open yet due to the weather. Once they finally did get things cleaned up and ready, set times wound up delayed by 15-30 minutes for a bit (or permanently at the small Blue stage). Of course it only took a couple more hours before another storm cell rolled through, right around when A$AP Rocky and Tim Hecker were performing on separate stages. No lightning or thunder this time (there was plenty of that happening on and off the stage at A$AP Rocky), just steady rain that went on for what seemed like hours but was more like 40 minutes. To top it all off, my phone stopped working right around when that second storm hit, and so when people texted, called or Tweeted at me, I had no idea. It became a huge mess. Still, I lived to tell the tale of Friday the 13th at the Pitchfork Music Festival. Let me relate back to you what I saw today, music-wise. I took a bunch of photos too, but for the sake of time and editing I’m going to wait until the end of the weekend to publish those.

When the gates finally opened a little late, Lower Dens took the stage about as quickly as they could. They wasted no time crafting a brooding and dark atmosphere in Union Park, all of which was aided by the dark clouds overhead. Sonically, it presented a nightmare scenario, in the best sort of way. Visually, it was a bit boring. Jana Hunter and the rest of the band pretty much stood in the same spots all show, not moving much or even addressing the crowd. When Hunter did say something, it wasn’t exactly prolific or all that related to the crowd or location. “There are like, 50 porta potties over there. Did you know that? It’s a lot,” was just one of her between-song “gems.” Nice as it was to see Lower Dens perform, they don’t seem to take that word’s meaning at face value. At least the weather helped. Imagine what it’d feel like if they’d played those songs with the sun beating down on them at a fierce 95 degrees.

Because the Blue stage was under a delay because of the weather, I spent some time at the Green stage watching The Olivia Tremor Control. The Elephant 6 collective had eight people on stage, and looked like they’d just stepped out of an early ’90s time machine. That is to say they haven’t lost a beat from their heyday, even if they look a bit older. As they ran through some of their classics, sometimes smiles would erupt on their faces or they’d jump up and down to try and throw just a little more energy into a song. Their lighthearted melodies kept hopes alive for a great day at the festival too, which is more than can be said about Lower Dens. Part of me hoped that friend and former band member Jeff Mangum might make one of his trademark appearances, but I also knew that he’d probably be playing his own Neutral Milk Hotel set if that were the case. Alas, it was not to be. Still, it was nice to see OTC still doing what they do best, even if their time was slightly impacted by rain.

In the middle of The Olivia Tremor Control’s set, I decided to pop over to the Blue stage for a few minutes to see how Chicagoan Willis Earl Beal was doing. It was almost like walking into a completely different world. The OTC had 8 people on stage, Beal was by himself. They played instruments, and Beal sang along to some reel-to-reel tapes. They featured goofy and fun energy while Beal moaned of heartbreak and pain like a man that’s experienced both in large quantities. Beal created his own dramatic world inside his head, and was acting out plot points on that stage. It was harrowing and intense stuff, with wry bits of humor mixed in. He genuinely seems like a good guy, and with any luck this is only the start of success for him.

A$AP Rocky never seems to go anywhere alone. He’s got a whole crew called the A$AP Mob to support anything he says or does. When I saw A$AP Rocky perform at SXSW this past March, he was over 45 minutes late to his set, and the Mob did their best to cover for him the entire time, mostly by whipping the crowd into a frenzy. That’s essentially what hype crews are supposed to do anyways. For their Pitchfork set, the Mob performed two songs featuring individual members before Rocky emerged on stage. By that point, the rain had started and people were looking to get crazy. So too was Rocky and his Mob. There were stage dives and crowd surfing and chants (oh my, the chants!). Those guys had the crowd eating out of the palms of their hands, and it was used to good effect too. Between asking people to throw weed onto the stage and breaking up a violent altercation, it was a good day for A$AP Rocky. It was a good set too – one of the better ones I’ve seen in recent memory.

With the heavy rains during A$AP Rocky, I sought shelter under some trees near the front gates of the festival where I could still keep an eye on the stage. That didn’t stop me from spotting about a half dozen teens jumping over the fence and off porta potties to get in for free. Security was often swift in catching them, however a couple went undetected. These sort of things happen at every major music festival. I thought it was much less of a problem at Pitchfork, but after 6 people did it in 30 minutes, maybe that’s not the case.

Japandroids were up next on my schedule, and I was still buzzed from having seen them perform a few songs the day before at the intimate Lincoln Hall for an NPR taping. The songs Japandroids make seem built for stadiums, or at least outdoor music festivals, so I was ecstatic to see if it’d translate well. The answer wound up being both yes and no. To hear a song like “The House That Heaven Built” performed live is to watch a crowd get whipped into a frenzy that’s worthy of a stage jump or some crowd surfing in celebration. Brian King and David Prowse appear to be working so hard on stage to make every single moment count, like they want every single show of theirs to be their best yet. The desire to consistently top yourself is admirable, but I was left scratching my head at how the crowd was responding to the band. There was a somewhat large section of people front and center for that set, and they fist pumped and shouted along with every word, like a good Japandroids fan might do. Everyone else, or about 3/4ths of the crowd, simply stood there, expressionless. A truly great show affects everyone and converts the unconvertable. You’re in the presence of something so energized, exciting and fun you can’t help but throw your fist into the air too. Whose fault was it that didn’t happen? I’m not about to point fingers.

Dirty Projectors are a very good and very impressive band. Their intricacies in putting songs together sound intense on record, but imagine how they slam everything together live. There are so many harmonies to perfect and errant instruments to tweak it can be a lot of work. Frontman Dave Longstreth takes a lot of the credit for the overall sound of the band, and he did his best to make that vision a reality in the most entertaining way possible. The trio of female vocalists that includes Amber Coffman, Haley Dekle and Olga Bell were almost locked into their positions as they needed to be near a microphone most of the time. When he wasn’t playing guitar, Longstreth wandered around the stage and made attempts to engage the crowd. It wasn’t a whole lot to work with from a crowd perspective, but it sounded really great.

They key decision on which headliner to see was made with the ultimate realization that a smart music fan could see both acts with minimal interference. Purity Ring’s set was running a little late because that’s how the Blue stage was all day with the rain delay. So you could watch 20 minutes of Feist, go see a set by a band whose debut album isn’t out yet (so there’s not much material to play), and then return for another 30 minutes of Feist. Guess what? That’s exactly what I did.

The last time I saw Purity Ring, it was in a church at SXSW, and they politely requested that every single light in the place be turned off. Darkness is essential to their performance, because there’s a really cool visual element to it beyond the actual music. So unlike most of the bands that had their feet glued to the floor during their set next to a plain backdrop, Purity Ring kept you engaged with blinking lights. Many of the percussion elements were activated when Corin Tucker struck a multicolored lightbulb, and the stage setup also included some hanging beehive-like lamps that glowed and pulsated with the beats. Singer Megan James pranced around the stage and played with a construction light, and sometimes she’d strike a bass drum with a mallet. Yes, it’d light up too whenever she did that. Impressive as it was visually, sonically it left a little to be desired. The hits like “Belispeak” and “Lofticries” were met with enthusiastic responses from the crowd, but on the whole it felt like there wasn’t quite enough audible variation outside of the singles to institute a dance party or a greater response than simply, “Look at the pretty lights!”

Watching Feist‘s set felt a lot like watching a VH1 Storytellers episode. She had on her nice white dress and told some nice stories about her music, and she played with her band, backup singers and all. The songs were pleasant to hear, and she featured a lot from her Metals album because it’s her latest (and also her weakest). Maybe it was the rain earlier, or the inclination by many that Feist isn’t among indie rock’s top women anymore, but the crowd watching her set was shockingly thin. After hanging in the back for a bit, I wanted to see how close I could get to the front before the crowd got too thick. I didn’t make it all the way there, but I came pretty close. Having said all that, it might appear that I’m anti-Feist. That’s absolutely not true. I think her first two albums are great, and hearing “I Feel It All” complete with a rip-roaring guitar solo from Feist made my night. I didn’t know she had that in her, and it makes me want to hear her try more of that on future records. She also didn’t play her biggest hit, “1,2,3,4,” which while I’m sure left some disappointed, actually made me admire her more. Now if she would have played “Mushaboom,” I probably would have loved her forever. Maybe next time. For now though, her Friday night closing set had a very natural and relaxed feel to it. With some of the turbulence that happened earlier in the day that was weather-related and other-related, that sort of vibe was needed.

Pitchfork Music Festival 2012: Day 2 Preview

How are you getting to this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival? There’s a whole world of options out there for you to explore beyond simply driving yourself. Take a train, bus, bike or even walk if you’re close enough. Union Park is easily accessible via whatever form of transportation you choose. If you bike there, make sure to lock it up inside the Chicago Reader Bike Village, or risk returning to a stolen or unrideable bike. The neighborhood around the park isn’t super dangerous, but it’s not the safest in the city either. If you absolutely feel like driving is your only way to get there, maybe try and carpool with people that live near you. Amovens Ridesharing is a viable option too if you don’t mind traveling with a stranger or two. I’m not saying you have to take these options, I just wanted to make sure you were aware of them as a way to reduce your carbon footprint. Doing that, along with dropping any aluminum and plastic you see into the designated recycle bins placed throughout the park can really help make the festival green. That little environmental piece out of the way, let’s talk about what’s going to be happening in Union Park on Saturday. Like yesterday, I’ve broken down the bands performing hour-by-hour and designated my own suggestions with the double star(**). It’s a great day with some tough choices, so make sure you see what you can when you can! For music selections not only from artists playing Saturday, but the entire weekend, be sure to look through this post or stream things via this Spotify playlist.

**The Atlas Moth (Blue Stage, 1:00)
The Psychic Paramount (Green Stage, 1:00)
Saturday at Pitchfork Music Festival starts out HEAVY. By heavy, I mean LOUD. The Atlas Moth is a Chicago band that makes what’s consistently and accurately described as “doom metal.” Put a different way, it’s the soundtrack to your nightmares. Now just because nightmares have a negative reputation doesn’t mean The Atlas Moth should. These guys are more than just a metal band, because they do an excellent job trying to incorporate other elements from genres such as blues and psychedelia into their sound. You may want to bang your head and get inside of a mosh pit for their show, but if you can pay close attention to what’s happening on stage while you’re doing that, you’ll notice a band with a great ability to turn their guitars into an effective weapon. Similar things could be said about The Psychic Paramount, an instrumental trio out of New York. The sort of music they make is best described as experimental, but they certainly don’t know much about the word “silence.” There’s a ferocity to their songs that’s exciting and engaging, and even in the absence of lyrics there’s a sort of post-rock transcendence that shines through and can grab hold of your emotions. Their latest effort II is a very widescreen affair best experienced in an arena…or maybe even a music festival? The choice is tough between these two loud bands, but ultimately I think The Atlas Moth will put on the crazier show, giving your Saturday the wild start it deserves.

**Cloud Nothings (Red Stage, 1:45)
Lotus Plaza (Blue Stage, 1:55)
Choosing between Cloud Nothings and Lotus Plaza is the first of a few real challenges that Saturday presents in scheduling. Cloud Nothings are fresh off their critically acclaimed new album Attack on Memory, which is filled to the brim with fun, catchy and energetic punk tunes. Frontman Dylan Baldi may not seem like the type of guy who will tear his throat to shreds for a song, but he does it both on record and when performing with the utmost conviction. It’s definitely a site to behold, and also worth watching if you want to stay amped for the rest of the day. Lotus Plaza is the side project band of Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt, and they carefully balance the genres of psychedelia, shoegaze and dream pop to the point where all of those descriptors fail to fully capture what the band actually sounds like. That’s a good problem to have, and one of the reasons why their latest album Spooky Action at a Distance earned quite a bit of praise from critics and fans alike. Listening to them perform such well-structured and breezy tracks might actually make it that much more enjoyable to be hanging out in the shade near the Blue stage. Still, I can’t help but think that since it’s not supposed to be blisteringly hot on Saturday, fun in the sun is where it’s going to be at. Keep some Atlas Moth energy going and jump around for Cloud Nothings.

**Atlas Sound (Green Stage, 2:30)
Liturgy (Blue Stage, 2:50)
It’s almost a sure thing that the Lotus Plaza and Atlas Sound sets will overlap. For those that don’t know, the irony is that both Lockett Pundt (Lotus Plaza) and Bradford Cox (Atlas Sound) are bandmates in Deerhunter. So it’ll kind of be battle of the side/solo projects. Atlas Sound made headlines last year for the drifting and beautiful record Parallax. Atlas Sound made headlines THIS year for agreeing to a fan request and performing “My Sharona”…for an hour. It was shocking, weird and kind of cool. Let’s hope he doesn’t repeat that though for his Pitchfork set, otherwise we’d miss such gems as the poppy “Mona Lisa” and the guitar rock of “My Angel is Broken.” Like The Atlas Moth earlier in the day, Liturgy is poised to deliver their own set of earth-scorching metal, though like most bands performing at the festival, that’s only part of their story. See, Liturgy is an anti-metal metal band. Translation: they make metal music, but everything about them suggests the opposite. They wear t-shirts and jeans instead of black leather get-ups and face paint. They sing about exploring religion instead of worshipping Satan. It still has all the heavy guitars and menace, just in a cleaner package. Liturgy may be outsiders to the metal community, but indie kids have a soft spot for them. So which of these two options is the better choice? Personal taste factors into it a little, but in terms of the overall quality of the music, I vote for Atlas Sound, even if his set might lack the energy and intensity Liturgy’s will definitely have.

**Cults (Red Stage, 3:20)
Youth Lagoon (Blue Stage, 3:45)
Cults are a fun band. They do indie pop right, and perhaps the best single of 2011 (or 2010 if you count the 7″ version) was their song “Go Outside.” It sparkled in all the right ways. Their self-titled debut album kept that train rolling and introduced new gems like the racing “Abducted” and the bouncy “Never Heal Myself.” They’ve been on tour for what seems like forever in support of that record, so it stands to argue that they’ve come up with a few new songs along the way. Perhaps they’ll introduce a few of them during their mid-afternoon set. Youth Lagoon also has a highly loved debut album that came out last year called The Year of Hibernation. Trevor Powers is the man behind the name, and he made a record of bedroom pop in his actual bedroom. There’s a hushed intimacy to his songs that evokes the mental image of sunlight streaming through the slats of some window blinds. Glorious and soaring as many of his songs may be, their subdued vibe might not fit well with the outdoor festival crowd. Still, playing on the Blue stage with some tree canopies can make for a nice break. I saw both Cults and Youth Lagoon perform in the same 24 hour period earlier this year, and while neither show was perfect, Cults were just a little bit better, which is why they earn my recommendation here.

Flying Lotus (Green Stage, 4:15)
**Nicolas Jaar (Blue Stage, 4:45)
If you really love experimental electronica, this point in your Saturday is going to be a tough one. Flying Lotus, also known as Steven Ellison, probably considers himself more of a producer than an actual musician. He takes sounds from various different music genres including jazz, hip hop and IDM, and swirls them all together to create something wholly unique and engaging. Sometimes that means songs are bouncy and upbeat and endlessly danceable, but other times a tangent will take over and you’ll be entranced by some slow motion saxophone or other disparate elements. By contrast, Nicolas Jaar plays sets that are a little more freeform. While he does have albums and mixtapes, which are collages of sounds and styles (very similar to Flying Lotus), he refuses to stick to a script. Depending on where and when he’s performing, he will customize that set with very little officially mapped out. He played a set in a church at SXSW this year and it was dark, respectful and introspective, with only brief flashes of danceable beats. In the space of an outdoor afternoon festival, he’s likely to go lighter, breezier and poppier. You still might not be able to dance to it, but there’s something exciting about the unpredictability of it all and the hope he might just stumble onto something truly transcendent.

**Wild Flag (Red Stage, 5:15)
Schoolboy Q (Blue Stage, 5:45)
Not many people, especially musicians, like to throw around the word “supergroup.” Yet when your band is formed out of members from other important bands, it becomes like the Avengers or Justice League, because with their powers combined shall come something greater than they can do on their own. With members Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, Rebecca Cole of The Minders and Mary Timony of…Mary Timony, Wild Flag was born to rock. And they do, all over their self-titled debut album. Their songs are vigorous and punk-strewn, and it’s even more impressive to watch them perform. Sleater-Kinney obsessives may be just a little disappointed, as the wail of Corin Tucker is missed, but everything else about this band is spot-on and really what rock and roll should be. On the opposite end of the park and sonic spectrum, Schoolboy Q brings his dark tales of hip hop to a late afternoon set. The cover for his album Habits & Contradictions features a masked person licking his very serious face. It brings up the idea of having a “dark passenger” on your shoulder, tempting you and telling you what to do. Schoolboy Q is definitely in his own world, and in that sense it’s always exciting to hear what he’ll do or come up with next. Make your decision about which of these acts to see based on your own tastes.

**Sleigh Bells (Green Stage, 6:15)
**Chromatics (Blue Stage, 6:45)
The last time Sleigh Bells performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival, it was 2010 and they were up against Pavement’s headlining set and their first Chicago show in over a decade. In other words, it was tough to actively make the choice to see them. They were riding a huge wave of buzz too, thanks in no small part to their smashing debut Treats. The duo of Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss bring high octane energy to their shows, as he plays heavy riffs backed with electro beats and she bounces and sings along in her schoolgirl-like voice. That combination of hardcore and sugary sweet elements was bound to fizzle out sometime, but they proved resilient on their sophomore album Reign of Terror earlier this year by going deeper and more refined. The hype may have died down a bit, but Sleigh Bells’ live show is more engaging and dynamic than ever. And hey, they’re not playing against Pavement this time. They are playing against Chromatics though, an electro-pop group built by dynamo producer Johnny Jewel. Here’s an act that has the sort of buzz Sleigh Bells did 2 years ago. That’s mostly bolstered by the long-awaited release of their 90-minute opus known as Kill for Love earlier this year. It’s a glorious patchwork of dark alley instrumental electronica and synth-pop of the highest and catchiest order. While they lack the fire of Sleigh Bells, Chromatics make up for it with intensity. I’m calling this 6pm face-off a toss-up, and thanks to their sets starting 30 minutes apart from one another, you can see most of both. I recommend that you do.

**Hot Chip (Red Stage, 7:25)
Danny Brown (Blue Stage, 7:40)
On Sunday of last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, dance band Cut Copy had the privilege of performing right before that night’s headliners TV on the Radio. With the sun starting to set and the crowd surprisingly riled up (maybe they were all at just the right level of drunk), Union Park became a massive dance party. Right around the same time but on Saturday instead, Hot Chip will take the stage. I expect an almost identical result. While the band’s previous album One Life Stand was a bit mellower and more serious than anything they’d done previously, Hot Chip’s latest record In Our Heads feels like a course correction with more mature songs you can dance to. Bring your green hat and we’ll get the party started. Danny Brown, meanwhile, is like many of the hip hop acts on this year’s lineup: operating on his own plane of existence. His screechy and weird vocals are unlike anything else in hip hop, to the point where many people turn his tracks off without giving him half a chance. They’re missing out though, because Brown’s words tend to tell of his own hardships in life (of which there are MANY), while also peppering in plenty of humor. Not many rappers are able to pull off that delicate balance, but Brown does it while wearing skinny jeans and a haircut best described as “distinctive.” He’s not exactly for me, which is why I’m handing this match-up to Hot Chip.

**Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Green Stage, 8:30)
**Grimes (Blue Stage, 8:40)
When you think about some of the polar opposite acts playing against one another in the same time slot, there’s probably none that sticks out more than Godspeed You! Black Emperor vs. Grimes. Here’s how it breaks down. Godspeed makes post-rock. It’s less the Sigur Ros or Explosions in the Sky sort of post-rock and more the art movie soundtrack sort of post-rock. Single tracks can go on for 20 or 30 minutes and roll over you like waves of emotion as violins mourn one minute and guitars rage the next. They project films onto a screen during their performances, functioning as visual aids to help pull you further into their progressive and oft-heartbreaking melodies. If people can actually shut up and pay attention to the music, GY!BE’s performance could be the weekend’s most revelatory and powerful set. The problem is you’re outside in the grass with your friends, one of whom is likely to say they’re “bored” before starting up a conversation. If it doesn’t happen to you it’ll happen to somebody near you, and the meaning of it all will likely be ruined. So maybe you take note and go see Grimes’ set, Her latest album Visions is futuristic pop of the highest order. Her entire goal when performing live is to get you to dance. She’ll be dancing while twisting knobs, playing keyboards and building vocal loops, and if she can do 5 things at once, you can do that one thing with her. The two times I’ve seen Grimes perform this year contained some of the best and worst moments I’ve ever seen at a live show. One of those times she was really sick though, so hopefully her health will be fine on Saturday night and things will proceed brilliantly. Coming off the dance party high Hot Chip will likely provide, Grimes will be the exceptional cap to what could be a very fun Saturday.


Pitchfork Music Festival 2012: Day 1 Preview

Okay, so you’re headed to Union Park this weekend for the Pitchfork Music Festival, but are either confused or conflicted about who or what to see during your time there. Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us, even those that are familiar with 95% of the artists performing. Don’t fear, however. I’m here to help. Starting today and wrapping up on Thursday, we’ll take a day-by-day look at the “essesntial acts to see” at this year’s Pitchfork Fest. If you’re looking for some additional music education on these artists, make sure you have a look at this post, in which you can download or stream a song from every single artist on the lineup. Take a taste, and if you like what you hear, you can invest in a full album or maybe just go see that particular artist perform at the festival. That said, let’s get started with a look at your best bets for Friday. My personal picks are affixed with stars (**).

Outer Minds (Blue Stage, 3:20)
**Lower Dens (Red Stage, 3:30)
This year’s Pitchfork Music Festival starts off local. Chicago’s own Outer Minds have the designation of playing the first set of the weekend, and if you’re fortunate enough to get there early, there’s plenty to love about these guys. Their core sound is garage rock, but thanks to some fun harmonies and a few blistering guitar passages you could say there’s a psychedelic influence in there too. The band’s self-titled debut album came out in March, and you can stream or buy it digitally here. If their live show is anything like their record, it should be a really fun and energetic time. Facing off against Outer Minds will be Lower Dens, the Baltimore soft pop band whose latest record Nootropics is one of 2012’s finest offerings so far. Excellent as these songs may be, and as engaging of a frontwoman as Jana Hunter is, Lower Dens might best be described as “sleepy.” In other words, with the summer afternoon sun beating down on your face, it could be tough to enjoy the band’s darker yet slowly gorgeous melodies. You might be best off with the cutting energy of Outer Minds to start things right, however I’m giving the official recommendation to Lower Dens based solely on the strength of their material.

Willis Earl Beal (Blue Stage, 4:15)
**The Olivia Tremor Control (Green Stage, 4:35)
Willis Earl Beal’s debut album Acousmatic Sorcery is a thing of raw beauty. Another artist with strong ties to Chicago, his life story is as fascinating as his music. He’s been homeless, joined the Army, left CD-Rs of his music in random places, busked on the street, auditioned for The X Factor and posted flyers with his phone number on them encouraging people to call and he’d play a song for them. What do all these things say about the man? Well, in his 27 years you’d say he’s LIVED. The pain and hardship comes through in his powerful singing voice, which goes from a whisper to a gruff howl with very little effort. His set should be one of the most fascinating of the entire festival, and any fan of the blues and soul music should make an appointment to see it. On the other side of the park will be Olivia Tremor Control, and fans of the Elephant 6 collective of the ’90s will have plenty to get excited about. The band released two effortlessly catchy and classic indie pop records in the form of 1996’s Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle and 1999’s Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One before breaking up. Their much heralded reunion in 2009 hasn’t resulted in a lot of large scale touring, so when they do play shows some excitement comes along with it. Also it’s not impossible to think that former band member and close friend Jeff Mangum might drop in for a song or two, simply because he can.

Tim Hecker (Blue Stage, 5:15)
**A$AP Rocky (Red Stage, 5:30)
The five o’clock hour on Friday brings together an interesting paradox of talent. Tim Hecker is a great Canadian producer and electronica composer whose last couple records have been deep and gorgeous soundscapes worthy of the critical acclaim they’ve received. You could also describe them as very serious and often intense examinations of the way technology and digital elements have overtaken traditional and organic instrumentation. What this really amounts to is that if you’re hoping to get some shade by the smaller Blue stage and just sort of relax for a bit on a blanket, listening to Tim Hecker will provide you with a cool breeze, even if nature doesn’t hand you one. As for A$AP Rocky, his star has been on the rise all year long. Fresh off the his LiveLoveA$AP mixtape, he and the A$AP Mob have courted controversy and violence in a way not all that dissimilar from the way Odd Future was doing last year. Of course Rocky has a reportedly three million dollar record deal, which also puts the stakes pretty high for his official debut album LongLiveA$AP when it comes out in September. Expect to hear him perform a bunch of that new stuff while the A$AP Mob riles up the crowd in between tracks. It could be a total disaster ending in some crowd insanity, or it could just be a whole lot of fun to watch. Either way, the guy might be the next Jay-Z or Kanye West, so best to see him now before the rest of the world sinks their teeth into him.

**Japandroids (Blue Stage, 6:15)
Big K.R.I.T. (Green Stage, 6:25)
Have you heard Celebration Rock yet? It is a triumph of an album for Japandroids, and one of 2012’s best rock records. If you like your guitars loud, your drums pounding, and anthems you can shout along with, Japandroids are not only the best thing happening in this time slot, but perhaps for all of Friday. Expect plenty of fists in the air, mosh pits and crowd surfing too. This is a high energy, high octane show, and these sorts of bands don’t come around as often anymore. Not only that, but Brian King and David Prowse are serious about their craft and play as if their lives depended on it. Celebrate life, celebrate rock and try not to get hurt while doing so. It’s quite likely that Big K.R.I.T. will bring a lot of energy and celebration to his set too, though his version of hip hop is a bit more conscientious and introspective than many others. Don’t worry though, that makes him one of the more unique voices in the genre these days, and his talent has been very apparent over his last couple records and mixtapes, most notably Return of 4Eva. You’re not going to get the style and flash of an A$AP Rocky, but he mines the nostalgia of the mid-’90s era of rap when the genre was so much more than that. If the idea sounds appealing to you, his set might have that same effect.

Clams Casino (Blue Stage, 7:15)
**Dirty Projectors (Red Stage, 7:20)
Clams Casino is the second instrumental act performing on Friday. Unlike Tim Hecker though, Clams Casino has made a name for himself by rather brilliantly producing a bunch of hip hop. Everyone from Soulja Boy to Lil B to A$AP Rocky (of course) have used his beats and instrumentals as backing for their own rhymes. Instead of letting those compositions sit behind vocals, Clams Casino has released a pair of free mixtapes and an EP containing pieces he’s worked on for others or just himself, all of it sans vocals (but not necessarily vocal samples). These things stand up so well on their own, he can play live shows with them and get people moving and/or shouting along if they happen to know some of the hip hop tracks the beats originally appeared on. Count on his set to be a good, danceable time. Then there’s Dirty Projectors, a band that has scooped up quite a bit of critical acclaim these last few years for their wildly inventive songs. My thoughts on the band’s latest opus Swing Lo Magellan can be found here, but in a nutshell it’s their most accessible and effortlessly enjoyable record to date. If you’ve heard Dirty Projectors before and didn’t like it, their live show surely won’t do anything to change your mind. What it will showcase are the impressive talents of Amber Coffman, Haley Dekle and Olga Bell, whose vocal ping-ponging must be seen to be believed. Frontman Dave Longstreth is the mastermind behind it all, and though he’s not the warmest or most personable guy in the world, he lets the music speak for him. You should be paying close attention.

**Purity Ring (Blue Stage, 8:20)
Feist (Green Stage, 8:20)
Purity Ring don’t have an album out yet. Their debut, Shrines, is set for release at the end of this month. In the meantime, there have been a few singles that have caught the ears of many a tastemaker. What makes this duo so unique is their ability to turn hip hop and electronica elements into compelling pop music. They actually like to describe it as “future pop,” and given the glitchy samples and fun other little tweaks they throw in against Megan James’ smooth vocals, that’s not far from the truth. Perhaps the main reason why they’re “headlining” the small Blue stage on Friday night has less to do with popularity (as that’s still steadily building) and more to do with how their live show is structured. At 8:20pm there will still be a bit of sunlight left, but Purity Ring prefer to perform in total darkness. Their stage setup includes multi-colored lightbulbs that pulsate and pound with the beats. So not only do the songs draw you in and stick with you, but you’ll likely remember the visual elements as well for quite some time. As for Feist, well, she’s simply a delight. Her records Let It Die and The Reminder were strong representations of female singer-songwriter pop. People fell in love with her thanks to cute songs like “Mushaboom” and “1,2,3,4”. Goofy choreographed music videos and a few acting appearances on comedy shows have only made her that much more endearing, which is why it was such a disappointment when her new album Metals didn’t fully follow in those footsteps. No worries though, because her headlining set at this year’s festival has every indication of being highly enjoyable and entertaining. She may even bring a few people from the crowd up on stage to spice things up a bit. She’s great like that. If you watch her set, there’s a high likelihood you’ll end the night smiling, and there’s nothing wrong with that.


SXSW 2012: Final Thoughts + Photos

Four days, 32 artists, and one physically/mentally tired guy. That about sums up my SXSW 2012 experience. While I was stumbling around Austin in a haze the last hour of the last day, my first trip to SXSW was a wonderful experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. After hearing so many great things about the city and the conference/festival, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer and simply had to go just once, just to see what it was like. The end result was largely what I expected it to be, but with a few surprises thrown in as well. My hope here is to chronicle the things I think worked about SXSW, and a few that didn’t. Also, if you click past the jump, you can see all the photos I took while in Austin. If you’d like to read about individual performances that I saw last week, have a look at the following daily reports:


The Good
Perhaps the thing that makes SXSW truly great is the sheer size of it all. There are literally thousands of bands performing over a handful of days, almost all of them within the span of about 2 square miles. Getting around from show to show isn’t bad, whether you’re on foot or feel the need to take a pedicab. Of course 6th Street can get a little packed during peak hours and create some slow downs, but it’s never anything too unmanageable, even if you need to get somewhere fast. The wide array of shows and showcases happening at any given time can also create a bit of a headache, as it’s not exactly easy to pick and choose if there are 6 artists you want to see all performing at once. Learning the city and the locations of all the venues both legitimate and illegitimate goes a long way towards helping you make such tough choices based purely on conveniece and distance from where you’re currently at. Do you go see Cloud Nothings playing down the block, or do you walk 6 blocks to see Grimes? As I see it, the decision is pretty much already made for you.

Yet there are also a few SXSW music moments that you can’t always plan for, simply because they weren’t planned. There weren’t many “secret” shows this year so much as there were secret guests like Kanye West jumping on stage at the 2 Chainz show or Eminem showing up to support 50 Cent or Bruce Springsteen bringing out everyone from Jimmy Cliff to members of Arcade Fire to Tom Morello and Alejandro Escovedo. Those extra thrills only make the experience more special. Also a major contributor: the people. Austin is already something of a cultural melting pot, but with music fans and artists coming into town from all over the world, the diversity factor multiplies by about 10. But here’s the thing aboug most music fans: they’re good, friendly people. You could strike up a great conversation with the person standing next to you in line and not blink an eye. Everybody was there because they love music, and the easiest conversation starter was always finding out who they’re most excited to see while in town. The only time I ever saw anybody get angry was when a couple of people cut in line trying to get into a show. The reaction was less anger and more, “That wasn’t cool, guys.” If we as a society behaved more like everyone in Austin at SXSW did, the world would be a more peaceful place. Unless of course you’re at an A$AP Rocky show and somebody’s throwing full beer cans at the stage. That near-riot situation was a showcase of the worst side of humanity.

But outside of good music, good people and good weather, good food is another thing Austin is known for. There were food trucks and street vendors on most corners, each specializing in a different type of cuisine. You could get breakfast tacos at one place, and some Korean version of spaghetti at another. There was plenty of BBQ to be found too. If you’re a fan of slow-roasted meats that are tender and delicious, you didn’t have to walk more than a block in downtown Austin to find some. For the cheapskates, there were also a bunch of showcases giving away free food. It’s worth noting that like grocery store samples, the “food” they give you for free is often small and may not be of the highest quality. It also gets snatched up almost immediately for those reasons as well. You’re costing yourself a potentially great meal if you’re not paying for it.

The Bad
For all the great things that happen in Austin during SXSW, it’s not a perfect situation by any means. First and foremost among the issues is overcrowding. Things may get cramped when you’re walking down the street, but that’s nothing compared to what’s happening inside many of the venues. Jam packed to the gills, trying to get anywhere close to the action was tough, let alone trying to make your way back to the exit. When things did get that bad, the waiting games began. Lines built up outside venues that were a city block or more long, everyone beholden to the “one in, one out” policy. Pitchfork’s evening showcase at Central Presbyterian Church was the height of madness, and I stood in line for 3 hours, missing Fiona Apple, just to get into the 500 capacity venue. Was it worth it? Eh, kinda. Every performance I saw there was a revelation, which is more than I can say about the other venues in town. I’m not entirely sure how all these sound engineers stay employed given how many times I saw an artist ask for a levels adjustment or something broke. I know these artists don’t get a soundcheck during SXSW and they want to put on the best show possible, but constantly stopping or even aborting some songs right in the middle because of a small issue takes away whatever mojo that might have developed in the meantime. The worst night of all was at Clive Bar, where Tycho played without any sub-bass, New Build’s monitors weren’t functioning properly, and Grimes was forced to start her set even after everything wasn’t tested to see if it was working properly (it wasn’t).

Sound issues are just one half of the paradoxes that SXSW presents. The other is overextension. While SXSW can be a great thing for artists (performing in front of music industry bigwigs brings all sorts of exposure along with it), agreeing to play 3 shows a day for 4 days in a row can put you near death’s door. Touring is tough enough when you’ve got one show every night for 3 weeks straight, but SXSW is a marathon compared to that long distance run. Artists function on little to no sleep and can easily blow out their voices from singing too much. On Thursday night I saw Grimes play a perfect show at Central Presbyterian Church. 24 hours later, she had performed at least twice more before arriving at Clive Bar with a voice that was barely there. She fought against it as hard as she could, and eventually had to call it quits in a set that was also plagued with sound problems. It was a valiant effort, but likely left most of the crowd disappointed. Then again, everyone was so kind, understanding and enthusiastic, it probably didn’t matter as much as I thought it did.

Finally, I want to mention the hierarchy that is SXSW. Your amount of access is almost entirely based upon your status within the music industry. If you’re not part of the industry and are simply looking to see some free music, there’s lots to choose from if you don’t mind a bunch of bands you’ve never heard of. If there was a line anywhere, it was almost guaranteed the general public would not be allowed in, as those with badges or wristbands automatically had first dibs. Among the badges and wristbands, only the badges were given priority access into any venue. Every badge would be allowed in before any wristbands would, no matter when they showed up. Of course if I had a badge I probably wouldn’t be complaining about it, it’s just that there were so many of them. There must have been at least a dozen shows I tried to get into but was denied because the room was already filled with badges. Granted, badges cost around $900 and you should be getting something for that money, but it would be more fair if they offerend some balance like for every 100 badges let in, 10 wristbands also get in. Alas, wristband holders got the shorter end of the stick, while the general public was more shafted than anything.

To Conclude
SXSW is something that every obsessive music fan should attend at least once in their lives. It can be a genuine blast if you let it, and only gets better the more access you have. Not but a few years ago, the several day conference/festival served as a proving and development ground for new music talent. Today, that’s not really the case anymore. You may discover your new favorite band while wandering around Austin, but for the most part our discoveries are contained to the hype cycle on the good ‘ol Internet. Then again, were it not for SXSW I never would have stumbled into the band Tearist and one of the most batshit crazy/weird live shows I’ve ever seen. I’m still not sure whether it was supremely stupid or incredibly clever, but if you like incomprehensible psych-pop and somebody showing an iron beam who’s boss with a lead pipe, Tearist could be for you. Outside of the occasional exposure to an artist you didn’t intend to see, you’re quite in control of your own destiny. Unless you’re the adventuresome type willing to walk into a venue without knowing or caring who’s performing, most identify and target acts based on personal tastes or recommendations of others. With so many choices, you can use the time to check a few acts off your personal bucket list. That’s what I did, and though I didn’t get to see every artist I wanted to, I feel like what I did see was extremely worthwhile anyways, with the aforementioned issues or not. I hope I get to go again, be it next year or in 10 years. And if you didn’t go, I hope you take the opportunity to get to Austin soon. It’s a great American city, and the Live Music Capital of the World for a reason.

Click past the jump for photos of many of the bands I saw at this year’s SXSW, in alphabetical order:

SXSW 2012: Saturday

St. Patrick’s Day and SXSW collided this year, and the result was mayhem. People everywhere, and if they weren’t looking to see a band they were looking for a drink. In some cases it was both. There was plenty of fun to be had, but you had to keep a close eye on drunken revelers at shows – they were liable to do anything. I’m not going to get into it, except to say I barely avoided getting vomited on. But Saturday also meant the final day of SXSW Music, and the offerings were actually a little more meager than in days previous. Still, there was plenty to do and see if you were motivated enough, so here’s my recap of the fourth and final day of my SXSW adventure.

After 3 days of standing on my feet and walking everywhere, my body was ready to quit on me last night. I took that into account and slept later than usual to try and bring my energy back up for one more day of live music on the streets of Austin. It was mid-afternoon by the time I ventured out of my hotel room, and I headed straight for the outskirts and the Mess With Texas party. There were a few artists performing there I’d been wanting to see but hadn’t got around to. The first of them was 2:54, a British band made up of two sisters that have an affinity for shoegaze and 90s rock. They’re probably best experienced in total darkness, but there was still something gothic about their outdoor tent performance. They didn’t play for very long, but were remarkably good anyways. 2:54’s EP Scarlet is out now, and is deserving of your attention if you haven’t heard it yet.

Tanlines followed 2:54, though they were playing the big indoor stage instead of the small outside tent one. Despite not having released any albums yet (their debut Mixed Emotions comes out Tuesday), Tanlines earned the spot of pre-headliner. They’ve put out a few singles and a pair of EPs, not to mention a bunch of remixes, so based on all that and some good ‘ol hype, the band is doing pretty well. Their set went pretty well too, flush with mostly new material that got the crowd dancing. The set also proved the band has moved beyond simple, straight dance music and into something more complex and interesting. The duo are still a little awkward when it comes to stage banter, as percussionist Jesse Cohen’s go-to line was always “We’re Tanlines.” Seriously, he said it after almost every song. Maybe he thought we’d forgotten, or maybe he just wanted to make sure fans that were waiting on A$AP Rocky were fully aware of who they were and what kind of music they were making.

Speaking of A$AP Rocky, I was mainly at Mess With Texas to see him. As he’s another member of my Class of 2012, I was pretty much obligated to check up and find out what his live show is like. Well, first of all, he showed up an hour late. That wasn’t very cool. But when he did finally make it, along with his crew the A$AP Mob, he put on a show worth waiting an hour to see. The crowd was riled up and ready to go, and he gave them exactly what they wanted – cuts off his mixtape LIVELOVEA$AP. They sang/rapped along, hands in the air with the sort of enthusiasm reserved for huge hip hop stars like Jay-Z and Kanye West. “I don’t give a fuck what y’all do here; moshing, crowd surfing, throwing shit, or even fucking each other – just so long as you have a good time,” Rocky told the crowd. So cartons of water were being thrown around like crazy, smoke filled the air, and the A$AP Mob dove off the stage and into the crowd more than once. Rocky also told the crowd that he tried to come to SXSW last year to perform, but couldn’t afford the plane ticket. Clearly his situation has changed, what with a reported $3 million record deal. If you think he’s big now, just wait 6 months.

I wandered over to the polar opposite side of town and ACL: Live at the Moody with a small bit of extra time on my hands before Sleigh Bells were set to perform their only SXSW show. They were supposed to have another act on the bill to open for them, however it seems that slot was never filled. That meant my early arrival was more or less a waste of time. I stood inside the theater for an extra hour just waiting and anticipating. I’ve only seen Sleigh Bells in an outdoor festival setting, so when they took the stage with an intense light show, it was quite a different experience. Of course they started with “True Shred Guitar”, as the track was built almost solely for the purpose of opening a show. From there they bounced freely between their debut album Treats and their new one Reign of Terror. Obviously the older material got the better response, but I also think a couple of the newer songs just generally wouldn’t do well live. Actually, it’s just the slower ballads like “End of the Line” that kind of takes the show down a notch. You do need a breather now and then though. Of the new songs, “Demons” was by far the most potent, proving its status as the best thing on Reign of Terror. All the while Alexis Krauss danced around the stage, sometimes approached the barricade, and even crowd surfed once during “Rill Rill”. Derek Miller and the other guitarist are the spark in that live show, and Krauss is the flame. What an explosively good set.

Upon leaving that show, I came to the realization that one of my other Class of 2012 artists was getting ready to perform a few blocks away: Kreayshawn. So to Austin Music Hall it was, only to find out they were way behind on their showcase bill. It was a party being put on by celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, and as he said himself, sound issues forced them to delay some of the performances. So in order to get to Kreayshawn I had to sit through sets from Ed Sheeran, Cher Lloyd, and Dragonette. I’m not really going to comment on any of those sets, except to say all 3 are interesting and dynamic artists at different points of success right now. None of their music hits my sweet spot, but they’re all talented in their own ways. Due to the packed bill and delays, artists were being held to 20 minute sets. Kreayshawn’s was about that long, and she had time to do 4 of her tracks. The requisite “Bumpin Bumpin” and “Gucci Gucci” both made an appearance, and she also did a couple new ones as well. The first was about sniffing glue, which afterwards she told the crowd she doesn’t condone drug use. The second was about “the most important meal of the day” aka breakfast. It included the lyrical gem, “Grapes, what’s up? Breakfast!” And she’s supposed to be a rising voice in hip hop? Even I’m starting to doubt my decision to place her among my Class of 2012. Still, I will not pass official judgment until her debut album is out later this year.

If Kreayshawn’s set had happened on time, I would have been able to go see !!! perform. Alas, I missed their set, though I walked past their stage and heard a little of it on my way to try and see Givers for my last set of the night. Turns out a lot of other people wanted to see Givers too, and I wound up shut out there as well due to capacity. With that, I made the executive call to go and see a band I’ve seen a couple times before back in Chicago because that’s where they’re from too. That band was JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound. They’ve been playing shows all over Austin this past week, 11 in total, and I wanted to see how they were faring after such a grueling schedule. Not only did they survive, they still sounded great too and with energy to spare. They’re probably more tired than I am, and I’m about ready to collapse. It felt fitting to end with a band from back home, as that’s where I’ll be headed soon anyways. Near the end of their set, the guys did a funked up cover of Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, and the whole experience just felt like it came full circle. I’ve loved my time in Austin so much these last few days, the complete exhaustion aside, but I’m even more excited to go back to Chicago. SXSW has been so much fun, I may just try to do it again next year.

SXSW 2012: Friday

Friday was an interesting day for me at SXSW. I saw some good performances, some mediocre ones, a truly devastating one, and a legendary one. I also got denied admittance to a couple of important shows, including The Shins and Jack White. But let’s not dwell on those things I missed out on, and talk about the ones I actually saw. Once again, as a reminder, I’ll have photo sets of most of what I’m writing about next week, when I get home and can get the pictures off my camera.

My first live show of the day was a little later than Thursday, in part because there wasn’t much I wanted to see early in the afternoon. Also I had trouble making a decision. I chose to explore Austin a little more, and venture out to one of the more “off the grid” venues, away from the hustle and bustle that is 6th Street. There was a house party going on for the Comedy Central show Workaholics that I considered attending for a brief period, but there was a huge line to get in. Just down the block was Clive Bar, and they had a pretty decent afternoon showcase going on. I arrived there moments before Class Actress took the stage. Honestly, seeing Elizabeth Harper perform has been on my musical bucket list for awhile now, and I always seem to have something big happening the days she’s playing shows in Chicago. Now in Austin, this was my chance. Her set was surprisingly short, perhaps in part due to a late start after some sound issues, and she mostly stuck to material off her latest album Rapprocher. She was warm, funny, engaging and all-around a delight. I don’t think enough people realize what a talent she really is, and hopefully some important heads were turned watching her during SXSW. I was also quite fascinated by her choice of outfit for the 80 degree and sunny day – a loose-fitting, over the shoulder sweater, a sport coat, a pair of gold necklaces, and high heels. She truly does put the “class” in Class Actress.

Next on the bill were Friends, a band from Bushwick, NY that has been making serious waves in the last year. In addition to some healthy blog buzz, Friends caught the attention of Sir Elton John a few months back, and they attended his holiday party. Really it’s still the tip of the iceberg, as they don’t even have a debut full length out yet. Before the end of the year they will though. In the meantime, they’re going out on tour with Neon Indian and doing other fun stuff like SXSW performances. Friends make a very percussion-heavy tropical pop, if you want to call it that. They’ve been compared to Lykke Li and that’s only one facet of their multi-layered sound. Their set at Clive Bar was one to behold though, and I’m glad I stuck around for it. While the rest of the band pretty much plays it straight and light, singer Samantha Urbani is the live wire keeping the crowd in a fit of wild bliss. She jumps around, makes faces, and directly interacts with audience members in the middle of songs. During the song “Friend Crush”, she hopped off the stage and began hugging and touching the faces of people in the crowd. When the band launched into their cover of the Ghost Town DJs classic “My Boo”, she pulled a few audience members up to dance. It made for a fun little party in the late afternoon. I’d like to think the members of Friends became my friend after a set like that. You’d be wise to see them yourself, before they get huge.

Once Friends had finished, I was all set to skip over to see Fanfarlo, but on the way I stumbled onto a show I wasn’t aware existed until that very moment. Vivian Girls were playing a set in a parking lot. There were no listings for any Vivian Girls shows, only Katy Goodman’s La Sera solo project and drummer Fiona Campbell’s other band Coasting. But that’s one of the great things about SXSW: sometimes a last minute surprise show happens, and kudos to you if you can discover it. I only got to see them play a few songs, but any songs from Vivian Girls are kind of a treat. I don’t expect them to be around forever, given the strong side project work they’re all up to, but just having them around and playing a show together is all anyone can ask for. Here’s the thing though: they’re a very good, but not quite great live band. Their music translates exceptionally well from the record to the stage, but they don’t do a whole lot while they’re up there. In some ways it’s like they’re on autopilot. Those songs are such a delight too, which gives them more live show slack. So to sum up, it was nice seeing Vivian Girls live for the first time, even if it was a shortened set in a parking lot.

By the time I’d caught up with Fanfarlo, they were about halfway through their set. Playing at the same time as a surprise Vivian Girls show will do that to one’s arrival time. I was pleased to see a moderately large crowd watching them in a shaded courtyard. They stuck with mostly material off their new record Rooms Filled With Light as expected, though they ended with the classic “Harold T. Wilkins” that the crowd was quite pleased with. Also pleasing were a pair of strong saxophone solos courtesy of singer Simon Balthazar. Yet the band’s performance was a lot like Vivian Girls’ in that they didn’t so much breathe new life into decent material but instead performed it almost verbatim with the record. Once you see so many live shows, playing it straight simply doesn’t cut it anymore. In other words, Fanfarlo was good but a touch short of great.

After getting stuck in long lines for The Shins and the Third Man showcase only to not get in, I ventured back to Clive Bar for an evening showcase that was well up my alley. Tycho was first on the bill, but from the start there were problems. Apparently the speakers weren’t working, or at least not properly. A 30 minute delay later, and the 3-piece just decided to start even though there wouldn’t be any bass pumping through the speakers. The crowd was told to imagine there was some phat bass to the songs played and that hopefully they’d fix the problem during the set. Of course then other sound issues began to appear, like monitor trouble and the like, so it became a game of small adjustments throughout the set. Still, Tycho was good enough to impress me and make me wonder why I don’t listen to/own more of his music. Gonna have to get on that one. Sprawling instrumental electro post-rock that’s as gorgeous as it is fun.

MNDR was next on the bill, and unlike when I tried to see her Wednesday night, she actually showed up this time. Actually, after a brief Twitter exchange with her, she showed up on Wednesday night when I was there, but was bumped off the bill as they were running late. So consider that a correction. Anyways, she wasn’t bumped this time, and her show was fascinating to say the least. Yet again they were having sound issues, which would become a recurring theme throughout the night. For those that don’t know, MNDR makes pop music, but in a little more independent fashion than most other music stars these days. I had always assumed there were producers and writing teams responsible for her music, as is the case with your pop stars of today. But no, it’s only MNDR (Amanda Warner), completely producing, writing and singing these songs herself. That’s a very DIY attitude and I admire it significantly. That said, I’m not the biggest fan of her music. She’s lovely and hilarious, but her songs failed to get me going. She’s got a new record coming out this summer, so I wish her the best of luck with that.

Next up was New Build, a band from the UK that has ties to Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem. Ironic then that New Build sounds just like what would happen if you took those two bands and combined them. They’re a whole lot of fun, and have 3 percussionists, among other things. There were sound issues galore during their set, including a defective monitor, but the band did their best to make it through their set with minimal disruption. They only got to play a handful of songs, but the ones they did were great and got the crowd seriously moving. Their debut album Yesterday Was Lived and Lost is out now and worth checking out if you like a good organic dance sound. I predict much bigger things for them in the coming years.

SXSW can be hard on the artists sometimes, especially if they’re booked for multiple shows multiple days in a row. Such is the case with Grimes, who has been working harder than anyone the last few days. She’s also in the middle of her first really big tour, which naturally is putting her resolve to the test. All that came to a head Friday night with her Clive Bar set. The sound issues that hurt the bands before her continued, not aided whatsoever by the MC between sets, coming out to “introduce” Grimes but not being aware she hadn’t even soundchecked yet. Claire Boucher just kind of stood there with a puzzled look on her face wondering when she was going to test some microphone levels and such. The crowd was itching to hear her start, and kept yelling for her to forget the soundcheck and just go, but every performer wants to get those sorts of things right to ensure a quality show. Once things were finally in a satisfactory state, Boucher introduced herself and mentioned she had a sore throat from not sleeping, so her high notes might sound shitty. Ah, the perils of too many performances. Things started off okay, but quickly descended into a hell of more sound problems and a vocal blowout. Certain equipment stopped working, the speakers went out, and she was visibly clawing at her throat like it was on fire. Truly everything that could have gone wrong during that set, did go wrong. Yet she pressed onward as best she could, and the crowd was very forgiving. She got through “Oblivion” well enough, and a light bit of dancing while also multitasking between keyboards and her effects table made it all the more charming. It may have been the worst Grimes performance to date, but none of it was really her fault. The whole thing was a sharp contrast with the night before at Central Presbyterian Church, where I walked away in awe of what she’d accomplished. This time I just felt sorry for her. I’ve got a great feeling she’ll bounce back though, better than ever.

Headlining the night was YACHT, who I was excited to see because I’d never seen them before. I’ve admired their last couple albums but wouldn’t say I was in love with them, and was intrigued to hear how the colorful characters of Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans would bring the songs to life. Turns out, a YACHT show is one of the biggest and best parties you can ever go to. Both Bechtolt and Evans are super entertaining people that dance around and interact with crowds and get everyone riled up in the best sort of way. When they too were plagued with a little bit of sound problems, they either ignored them or took Q&A with the crowd while they waited for the issues to be sorted out. Their songs, while ordinarily very beat-heavy and fun, only got heavier and more fun when performed live. Both Bechtolt and Evans came into the dance pit fun zone near the front of the stage at one point or another, and Evans even got in some serious crowd surfing. She also climbed up on speakers and threw microphone stands. It was by far the most entertaining show I’ve seen so far at SXSW and I could not recommend it more highly. That turned into the party of all parties, and a crowd that came to dance but was often left disappointed due to sound issues, finally got their chance to let all inhibitions go. My feet are in terrible, terrible shape from standing all day the last couple days, but even I couldn’t help busting a move or two. When a band pushes you beyond the limits even you thought you’d go, there’s something special there. How are YACHT not huge right now?

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