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The Wax Trax! Experience [House of Vans; Chicago; 4/13/19]

All of us have two families in our lives: the ones we’re born into, and the ones we choose. The strength of each is determined largely by upbringing and instinct, though coming from a loving household doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll always have loving friends, and vice versa. What we’re all ultimately looking for in others is a shared connection, be it through blood, interests, or experiences.

Music often functions as one of life’s great connectors, because it’s easy to bond over a song based on the feelings it evokes when listening to it. Technology has made it easier than ever to not only find and share new music, but interact and make new friends with people from around the globe who share your passion. That wasn’t possible thirty years ago, yet music fans still found one another thanks in large part to places like concert venues and record stores.

Pitchfork Music Festival 2011: Day 2 Recap

As the weekend wears onward, I only wind up more and more tired at the end of each respective day. In other words, if I was super tired when doing last night’s Day 1 recap, today is a whole other level of pain. Still, I shall push past the sleep demons to provide you with a play-by-play of all the action I absorbed on Day 2 of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival.

Normally I’m a full set kind of person, as I am also a full album kind of person. It’s the sort of feeling like once you start something you need to see it through to a full conclusion. Well today I went a little schizophrenic and watched a lot of half sets. Too many great bands to see and too little time will do that to you. But to start the day, I strolled in past the gates and caught Julianna Barwick in the earliest stages of her set. Yes, Chrissy Murderbot was across the park on the smaller stage, but you could hear his beats pumping all the way where Barwick was playing. Not her fault, though the fact that her songs aren’t the loudest, most upbeat things in the world didn’t help matters. I immediately started to sweat in the 80+ degree temperatures, and a few times during Barwick’s set I felt like the sun had purposely increased in intensity. But in spite of the sweltering heat and noise interruptions, Barwick put on a great set. It likely would have been much better off in a small, dark venue than at this festival, but such is life. The songs were absolutely gorgeous as she worked at looping her vocals over and over and over again until there were these haunting harmonies that just spoke to you.

Woods was next up on the list of bands to see, but I didn’t plan on sticking around for long. That was partly because word on the street was that they were very boring live, and also Sun Airway seemed like they could be good. The first thing I noticed about Woods was that prior to starting their set they spread incense everywhere on stage. Then one of the guys in the band used a pair of headphones as a microphone, with one earpiece on his mouth and the other wrapping around to the back of his neck. Keep in mind this was NOT the singer Jeremy Earl, but rather “tape effects technician” G. Lucas Crane. The best part is that in the title “tape effects” they mean cassette tapes. With all this going on, it’d seem maybe Woods wasn’t a boring band live after all. But once the novelty and strangeness wore off, everything else about the band seemed old hat. Five tracks into their set, I skipped out.

Sun Airway was a band I had high hopes for. They’ve only got one record out, but it’s a good one and there was something about it that felt like they were hungry to succeed on every possible level. Unfortunately, that did not turn out to be the case, as the first part of their set was beleaguered with bouts of normalcy. They were bringing a little more energy to the stage than their cross-park time slot rivals Woods were, but not a whole lot more. At least they seemed like they wanted to be there. Being such a young band, maybe a couple years’ worth of touring experience will help turn their somewhat pedestrian set into something that grabs your attention and refuses to let go.

One of the more amusing moments of the festival came when Cold Cave began their set and emerged on stage wearing thick black leather jackets, among other things. They must have been hotter than hell in those outfits, given the extreme temperatures outside at that hour. The interesting thing is, Cold Cave absolutely went all-out to put on a lively and entertaining show. The trio danced, shimmied, shook, and every other crazy move while their synth-pop melodies soared through the air as if they were so big no room could fully contain them. The bass shooting out of the speakers was nothing less than intense to the point where it put all of your internal organs on vibrate mode. It was heartening to see a band truly give 110%, in particular as a pseudo-response to the general malaise of the sets that came before it on Saturday.

Not willing to be outdone, the crowd was clearly primed for No Age. After a few minutes of technical issues, the mosh pit started almost immediately when they started to play. Things got super intense super fast, and security was just a tiny bit overwhelmed trying to keep it all contained. Water started to get passed around at a fast and furious rate, and people started to open the bottles and whip that water over the crowd to try and keep everything cool. Meanwhile, Randy Randall was and Dean Spunt were laying it all out there, giving back to the crowd what the crowd was giving it. After chatting with a security guard later in the day, he told me that while things got wild during that No Age set, injuries were minimal and everyone took care of one another. That is what this festival is all about, having a good time while showing some love for your neighbor. I left No Age’s set mid-way through to go see Wild Nothing, but came back before the end. Spunt had abandoned his drum set and was climbing the barricade in front of the stage. Best set of the day? Quite possibly.

In terms of going to see Wild Nothing, my hopes were not that high. Their album “Gemini” is great, and most assuredly it’d translate well to a live show, but after two bands in a row that were seriously kicking ass, I didn’t think they could muster up that same sort of energy. Turns out I was right, though Wild Nothing’s set was in no way poor in quality. Their vibe was just totally different, in a more laid back and relaxed sense. If you were hanging out in the shade over there with a light breeze blowing through, I’m sure it made for a nice time. Personally, I was still on an energy high and after a handful of songs had the strong urge to go back over to No Age, which I eventually did. Still, Wild Nothing, if the situation were different, I’d absolutely recommend their live show.

Then came Gang Gang Dance, a band that I like but am still struggling to fully comprehend. Much like Woods earlier in the day, GGD had a guy come out and spread incense all over the stage. Unlike Woods though, that guy was not a member of the band, outside of the fact that he stayed on stage the entire time, dancing around with a flag and more incense. If the band feels like they need a full time incense guy, well, then that’s their preference. When budget constraints hit you though, I’d think the incense guy is the first one to get fired. Anyways, outside of the crazy incense, the band put on a very interesting set. It was less energetic than I anticipated, but more technically sound. Lizzi Bougatsos played her frontwoman role to a T, and surrounded herself with percussion instruments of every sort. Whenever she wasn’t wailing into a microphone, which was often, she was banging on something or teasing some chimes. Percussion is an essential part of Gang Gang Dance’s live show, and I’m pretty sure every band member had drum sticks and was beating on something at one point or another. Not that I expected them to be bad, but I’d call the set surprisingly good. I was initially disappointed at what it appeared to be, and then once I had accepted what it was, learned to love it.

After really wanting to check out OFF! but finding myself unable to break away from Gang Gang Dance, I held up and just went straight to Destroyer. Dan Bejar has got plenty of albums to his name under that moniker, and most of them, while great, are not what’d best be described as “energetic”. I was expecting with the heat and late afternoon sun to just be bored out of my mind with his set. OFF! was likely giving a scathing, old school punk rock set, and here was Bejar and his band of saxophone and horn players ready to break out most of the soft rock stylings on his most recent effort “Kaputt”. Upon opening with the single “Chinatown” though, things seemed perfectly okay. There was something infinitely engaging about the performance, an almost indefinable quality to it that charmed in spite of its relatively subdued nature. Maybe it was the passion with which the band played. Maybe it was Bejar’s odd performance style of wandering and singing with his eyes closed. Whatever it was, there was magic involved. It only would have been better had I found a shady spot to sit down and just listen.

As it stood though, I was overly excited to check out The Radio Dept., so yet again I abandoned another artist mid-set. Having never seen The Radio Dept. live before but desperately wanting to, this was my big chance and I was not prepared to waste it. Imagine my shock then at finding out the trio was not very good live. Maybe it was the outdoor festival setting, or maybe they’re just plain inexperienced (prior to the last year or so, they had barely played any shows despite releasing 3 full lengths). The way I saw it was that their set lacked the showbiz word known only as pizzazz. It’s the indefinable quality that makes somebody engaging. Those three guys looked awkward on stage, like putting the spotlight on the shyest guys in a room. The keyboards didn’t bounce with any sort of vigor, the guitars lacked ferocity. The song “Keen On Boys”, perhaps my favorite Radio Dept. song ever, limped along, lacking any real muscle. The volume sounded like it was turned down to its lowest level too, and I almost wanted to stand at the back of the stage area to see if I could still hear the band. All this translates to The Radio Dept. sucking. My most anticipated set of the day, and it turned out to be one of the worst of the entire weekend thus far. Too bad, because I still really like the band. Maybe next time in a small, dark club it’ll be much better.

The Dismemberment Plan was next up, and having seen them already once earlier this year, I was intrigued to see what they’d do in front of a festival crowd. Turns out they’re just as, if not more exciting than ever before. They pumped through their classics like a band fresh off their first album and eager to please. They also looked like they were having a blast doing it. The huge smile on Travis Morrison’s face said it all. Naturally, the stage banter was overly witty as well, even at one point having Morrison attempt to do a verse of “You Are Invited” in the same heavy Cuban accent as Al Pacino in “Scarface”. Hilarious? You’d best believe it, even if much of the crowd had puzzled looks on their faces. Reports say that The D Plan also covered Robyn’s “Dancehall Queen”, but I skipped out for a short bit to go see some Twin Shadow. Still, I loved and continue to love The Dismemberment Plan. Their set was one of the top highlights of Saturday for me.

Early on in Twin Shadow‘s set, frontman George Lewis told the crowd that he was amused by his band’s placement in the day, playing opposite “my favorite band from when I was 18 years old”. The D Plan were still playing one hell of a show, but Twin Shadow seemed to both know that and want to equal or best it. The crowd was dancing up a storm, Lewis was pulling all sorts of rock star moves with his guitar in hand, and fun naturally came along with that. The high degree of energy served the whole band well, and the songs from “Forget”, along with a couple new ones sounded nothing short of great. It was technically unfair to put Twin Shadow up against the Dismemberment Plan, because that made it impossible to see two super great full sets. I feel privileged to have caught a majority of both bands.

I hung out at the smaller Blue stage for a bit to wait on Zola Jesus because DJ Shadow is NOT my thing. I wasn’t anticipating sticking around longer than a few songs for Zola Jesus though, lest I waste too much time and wind up in a super bad spot for the evening’s headliner Fleet Foxes. So the few songs I saw Zola and her band perform were solid. Great doesn’t quite define it, but very good and interesting probably do it justice. Zola’s a strong live performer, wearing a lovely ruffled dress sans shoes and dancing around from end to end of the stage. She played a couple new tunes in the time I was there, and they sound like a good continuation of what she’s accomplished on her last two efforts. I’m genuinely excited to hear her upcoming album now. The only fault I really found with her live set was that I’m not a huge fan of her music. As I’ve already stated, seeing her live made me have a greater appreciation for her records, but I didn’t have much of an appreciation in the first place. I was there because I had nothing better to do, and it turned into something more worthwhile. I’m quite happy it worked out that way, and if you saw her set, I hope you walked away liking Zola Jesus more too.

Finally it was Fleet Foxes time. The first thing I noticed when they came out on stage was how the entire band (save for the drummer) was lined up in a straight line across the stage. Yet instead of setting up on the front of the stage like every single other band, they only occupied the back half of the stage. It was like they were trying to distance themselves from the crowd. Don’t ask me why they chose to do it that way. As you may or may not be aware, I’ve said some not-so-nice things about the fact that Fleet Foxes were headlining a night of this festival, in particular because I felt like they were not yet worthy of headliner status. Two albums and 3 years shouldn’t earn you such privileges, even if those two albums were both completely amazing. What still consistently amazes is how they’re able to pull off all those dense harmonies in a live setting. It’s incredible to watch and to hear, even as the guys do nothing but stand in the same place the entire set. They rolled through their requisite great songs, from “Mykonos” to “Grown Ocean” and “White Winter Hymnal”, all the way past the “Blue Ridge Mountains” before finally ending with “Helplessness Blues”. I’d call the set triumphant if only it were just a little more engaging. As it stood, everything was very nice and pleasant, but the band could use just a little more spark in their performance in order to fully justify their headliner status. After a very long day in the hot sun, it was extremely nice to kind of relax and let Fleet Foxes take you away. THAT was the real benefit of their night closing set.

Okay, that wraps up a lengthy Day 2. Day 3 kicks off in another few hours, so if you’re headed out there, best of luck to you. Hot temperatures await, but so does fun. Stay hydrated. I’ll have my recap of Day 3, and one final full festival wrap-up for you once this whole thing draws to a close.

Album Review: Cold Cave – Cherish the Light Years [Matador]

Remember when the 80s received a much-heralded comeback thanks to The Killers and a host of other synth-heavy pop/rock bands? The first year or two it was a great revival of a genre that many in a younger generation had never had the chance to fully experience before. But just like digging around a box filled with the toys your parents had when they were growing up, you’ll dig around and find some great stuff but after a brief while drop those for something newer and cooler. This is the cycle of music we’re living with these days, where trends come and go with the passing of the wind, and your only real responsibility is to try and keep up. So the 80s revival came and went, and the bands that helped to propogate it either changed their sound or died off like the proverbial dinosaurs they were. Still, the argument stands that good music is always good no matter the genre or time period, meaning that some band could well try and pull off a 50s revival and succeed purely on their own volition. Cold Cave isn’t quite going to do that, but instead they’re crushing hard on the 80s in the best and most respectful way possible. Unlike, say, Chromeo, who exploit every 80s cliche imaginable, Cold Cave are looking to actually rival some fo their synth-pop heroes, from New Order to Tears For Fears and The Cure. Their 2009 debut album “Love Comes Close” had a very lo-fi, minimalist 80s vibe to it, perhaps because that was the best they could do with the materials they had. Flush with some money thanks to lending a couple songs out to TV commercials the last couple years, their new record “Cherish the Light Years” shimmers, sparkles and explodes with all of the sheen that the 80s had to offer.

For those not familiar with Cold Cave, it’s the brainchild of Wes Eisold, former frontman for a couple of hardcore punk bands that includes Some Girls and Give Up the Ghost. Originally starting as a solo project a few years ago, he brought in a few people to help him realize his sonic vision, which was to craft synth-heavy pop with dark industrial undertones, much like many of his musical heroes from the 80s UK music scene. A big boost to the project came when former Xiu Xiu member Caralee McElroy got on board, adding a fascinating female vocal counterpoint to Eisold’s deep but emotionally complex croon. She only stuck around for about a year though, long enough to become a formidable presence in the band with her contributions to “Love Comes Close” and the subsequent tour supporting it. Former Mika Miko frontwoman Jennifer Clavin is her non-technical replacement, in that she handles McElroy’s vocal parts but does not sing on any of “Cherish the Light Years”. Instead, Eisold has fully taken the reins back as frontman, boosted by better production values and increased confidence and strength gained while touring in support of the first album. Looking at their situation from afar, there seemed to be good reason to worry that Cold Cave might not have that same magic once again with the lineup change. The lesson to learn here is to never count Wes Eisold out, because when life gives you oranges instead of lemons, you shut down your lemonade stand and start an orange juice one.

The very instant that “Cherish the Light Years” starts with “The Great Pan Is Dead”, you are completely bombarded with noise. The guitars are already turned up to 11 and raging as if you’re walking in on them mid-stride. It’s an auditory shock to the system not unlike the feeling you get when jumping into an ice cold swimming pool. As hard and harsh as that noise might be initially, once your ears become acclimated to it, the synths come soaring in mixed with a sprinkling of bells that are the sonic equivalent of stars strewn across the night sky. This is Cold Cave the stadium conqueror, a far cry from the meeker, more traditional approach the last record had. Eisold is clearly sold on that pattern of thinking too, as his vocals hit with that same vigor and ferocity needed to compete against all that’s going on around him. It’s an exciting start to an album that doesn’t get much less thrilling as you go, scoring body blow after body blow through sheer bombast and walls of noise. Cold Cave becomes New Order at the height of their popularity. They channel Suede one moment, The Cure the next and The Walker Brothers after that. All at once it preys on your nostalgia while simultaneously wowing you that a contemporary band can pull off that sound with equal parts conviction and perfection. The small tragedy is that for such expansive and addictive synth pop, it’s not going to get the popular support it needs to actually be played in stadiums and other massive venues around the world. Tracks like “Pacing Around the Church”, “Catacombs” and “Icons of Summer” have the gusto and hooks to be radio hits but sadly will never be because they’re not “contemporary”. It functions on a lot of the same principles that M83’s “Saturdays=Youth” exposed with its John Hughes-inspired manifesto, and will likely be treated the same way – respected only by those that can truly appreciate a classic for a classic.

“Cherish the Light Years” is not quite a perfect record, but by that same token it’s nice to know there’s some real humanity in Cold Cave. The pepper spray of horns on “Alchemy Around You” makes it stand out from the rest of the record just a little bit, and while the dash of variety is appreciated, it pulls you out of the singular track everything else is on. You wanted to take a straight shot down the highway, but construction has shut down part of it, so there’s a brief detour that adds 5 minutes to your trip. Despite the track being a small distraction though, it’s no less fascinating than anything else on the album and is yet another cut with “potential single” written all over it. One of the other issues this record has is the sheer force of it all. Nine tracks and 40 minutes really takes it out of you when there’s barely any slowing down. The race to the finish line leaves you exhausted before quite reaching the excellent closer “Villains of the Moon”, something that becomes all the more noticeable if you listen to these songs separately away from the contextual whole of the record. The mixing, too, has some issues because everything is thrust at such a high level competing for your attention. Sometimes it comes across like staring at a wall of TVs set to different channels but at the same volume. There’s only so much you can absorb and while one part of a particular song might appeal to you more than another, everything is whitewashed so any subtleties or nuances fail to exist. Those little bits are often what make the best songs continually rewarding, with the discovery of new elements that have been quietly buried beneath the main melody. So yes, “Cherish the Light Years” is a gothic new wave sledgehammer, forcibly spraying the guts of the 80s all over you whether you like it or not. The great news is there’s a whole lot to like, and even love. If this were 1984, Cold Cave would have just made a name for themselves. In our current musical landscape, they just earned themselves a load of stock as the question looms large as to if anyone else will buy it and drive that price upwards.

Cold Cave – The Great Pan Is Dead
Cold Cave – Villains of the Moon

Buy “Cherish the Light Years” from Matador Records

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