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Snapshot Review: Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance [Kranky]

Bradford Cox is often seen as the brilliant mastermind behind Deerhunter and Atlas Sound. The amount of music he’s released in the last few years has been astounding, with seven full length records and a couple EPs since 2007. Worst of all, nearly every single bit of it has been very, very good. You could say he’s been putting his Deerhunter bandmates to shame. Most people couldn’t even tell you the names of the other three guys in Deerhunter. Yet that band very much remains a collaborative effort, and it’s likely the loss of one of them would be felt in subsequent records. One person that isn’t taking his role in Deerhunter lying down is guitarist Lockett Pundt, who has done a nice job establishing the fuzzier and more psychedelic elements of Deerhunter’s sound. He maintains his own solo project Lotus Plaza. The Floodlight Collective was the first Lotus Plaza full length, released in 2009 to what could best be described as polite applause. To put it another way, the album struggled to break free from the ambient, shoegaze-laden haze it maintained, drifting by in a nice but unremarkable fashion. Lotus Plaza’s second long player Spooky Action at a Distance seeks to change how the project is perceived a bit by moving away from amorphous blobs of ambient noise and placing an emphasis on more traditional songwriting and arrangements. That’s not to call the album conventional or an easy listen, but it has more easily definable boundaries and a few stand out moments. Virtually every song is propulsive and swirling in that good, psych-pop sort of way that Deerhunter has been doing with relative ease for years now. Lotus Plaza is denser and more shoegaze-inspired, though it’s difficult to describe the album as buried in guitar fuzz in a My Bloody Valentine sort of way. Pundt’s vocals are strikingly up-front and clear, and the melodies maintain strict, often looped patterns that really stick with you after awhile. After the drifting and out of place “Untitled” intro, the drum roll of “Strangers” sucks you in and the guitar gymnastics keeps you there. The percussion base on “Out of Touch” has quite the Animal Collective vibe to it in the best sort of way, and “Remember Our Days” holds this jangly slacker element to it reminiscent of Pavement filtered through psychedelic glasses. It’s good to hear some acoustic guitars used on “Dusty Rhodes” and closer “Black Buzz”, both of which provide necessary moments of calm amid the fray. Even a long number like the 6.5 minute “Jet Out of the Tundra” skates by and feels much shorter than it is as Pundt keeps adding more elements to the mix without disturbing the overall melody. The entire record actually does a nice job of cruising along without any detours into the staid and boring. You may not fully grasp the subtle nature of Spooky Action at a Distance the first or second time around listening through it, but a closer focus on each song reveals gems you probably didn’t notice originally. Sometimes the best albums are ones that sneak up on you. This is one of those.

Buy Spooky Action at a Distance from Amazon

Album Review: Atlas Sound – Parallax [4AD]

And so the trend continues. Between his main band Deerhunter and his solo side project under the moniker Atlas Sound, Bradford Cox has released at least one album per year since 2007. That’s not even counting various EPs or the 4 collections of Atlas Sound bedroom demos he released for free last year. The guy’s brain must be a songwriting factory, churning out lyrics and new ideas for songs every few hours. He also appears to know quite well what works and what doesn’t, as evidenced by how increasingly impeccable both projects have gotten over time. Each Deerhunter and Atlas Sound record has been an improvement on the one before it, even though neither project has been around quite long enough to earn “veteran” status. Not only has Cox become a better songwriter through it all, but sonically the arrangements have gotten more complex while largely playing with minimalism and ambient noises. In other words, he proves there’s a way to do more with less. That’s the case more than ever with Atlas Sound’s third record “Parallax”, a lonely and adrift record that carefully treads the line between psychedelia and somber pop.

The cover of “Parallax” tells you so much about what the record itself is like, both sonically as well as emotionally. Cox’s face is halfway hidden in shadow as his hand gently caresses a vintage microphone nearby. First and foremost, this is the first time Cox has appeared unobscured on an album cover. The last Atlas Sound record “Logos” featured a shirtless Cox with a blinding white light in place of his head on the cover. That he’s in clear focus here says volumes, even if it that wasn’t the point. See, the earliest days of both Deerhunter and Atlas Sound featured a far more timid and introverted Cox. Guitars and vocal effects often buried Cox’s singing which was pretty restrained in the first place. Listen to Deerhunter’s “Cryptograms” from 2007 and then last year’s “Halcyon Digest” and you’ll notice a world of difference in the vocals. As Cox’s confidence in his voice has grown, so has his presence in the mix. He’s clearer than ever on “Parallax”, keeping the vocal effects to a minimum and putting more of a range on display. Placing your face on your album cover also is a strong display of confidence, as more than ever people know the exact person responsible for the music they’re hearing. He’s no longer a frail body with a glowing head. It also indicates that perhaps this is the most personal of all the records he’s done, the one he feels best represents his own headspace or personality.

In recent interviews, Cox has admitted that lasting happiness continues to elude him, and that dark cloud that constantly hangs over him partly manifests itself in the shadowy cover, but also in the music itself. Quiet acoustic numbers like “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs” and “Terra Incognita” drift along with a certain listlessness, but it’s songs like “Doldrums” and “Flagstaff” that truly revel in ambient and downtrodden textures. It may not be the happiest stuff in the world, but it is exceptionally beautiful and maintains a consistency that “Logos” never fully achieved. Balancing that darkness out are a few brighter moments, such as opening track “The Shakes”, which is a gorgeous pop song about the ugly topic of being bored with fame and fortune. Album centerpiece “Mona Lisa” is a work of super catchy art and in many ways an opposing emotional force to that of “The Shakes”. It is in many ways the best moment on the entire album, certainly the one that will stick with you in the end, but lyrically speaking it leaves something to be desired. While most of the other songs are remarkably descriptive and specific in nature, “Mona Lisa” skates by on vagaries and gets away with it, largely thanks to how exceptional everything else about it is. Other louder and in many ways brighter moments on the record come via “Angel Is Broken” and the closing “Lightworks”, both of which feel like sonic slaps in the face following much quieter cuts. Those jarring transitions would typically take away from an otherwise coherent mood or feeling established by most records, but in this particular case the elements are similar enough that the impact is softened even as the energy and noise might suggest otherwise.

If we’re keeping Bradford Cox’s two bands separate from one another in the idea that they each hold their own distinct identities and sonic palettes, it’s relatively easy to say “Parallax” is the best Atlas Sound record so far. It is also in many ways the best thing that Cox has ever released on the whole, at least from a songwriting and vocal standpoint. His ever-increasing confidence as an artist has only led to growth in every aspect of his music-making, though viewing things from a wide perspective might yield fewer noticeable changes. The moves he’s made have largely been subtle and small ones, but progress is still being made the way it needs to for any artist. Compared to his last Atlas Sound record “Logos”, “Parallax” is not only a more solid listen from front to back, but Cox is also far less reliant on guests than he used to be. Panda Bear brought a lot of his style to the song “Walkabout” on the last album, and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier collaboration with Cox on “Quick Canal” yielded Stereolab-like results. The only noteworthy guest on “Parallax” is MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden, and he just played piano on “Mona Lisa”. It doesn’t REALLY sound like a MGMT song, in spite of its psych-pop greatness. To put it another way, this is the first Atlas Sound album that genuinely feels like an Atlas Sound album. Now we’re left wondering – if he can pull off something this great on his own, what can we expect from the next Deerhunter record, especially if you think “Halcyon Digest” was one of the best records of 2010? If the pattern of Cox unleashing at least one new record a year continues, we’ll probably find out in 2012.

Atlas Sound – Terra Incognita

Buy “Parallax” from Amazon

Pitchfork Music Festival 2011: Day 3 Recap

It seems we have come to the end of the road for this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. It was a supremely fun 3 days filled with dozens of interesting artists that ranged from incredible to incredibly disappointing. My overall ruminations on the weekend will be handled in a different post. In the meantime I want to continue in the same tradition of the last two days, in which I keep up with the day-by-day recaps. Here’s what I bore witness to on Sunday (Day 3):

The goal was to make it to Union Park by 1:45pm to see Yuck‘s set. That was at the latest. I got stuck writing my recap of Saturday night on Sunday morning, so that caused a bit of a delay. Then traffic on the highways continued to pile additional delays on top of that. I was a mere couple blocks away from the festival and the time read 1:40pm. A band I thought may have been The Fresh & Onlys was playing off in the distance. Turns out Yuck started their set just a tiny bit earlier than scheduled. So I missed about a song. They put on a very good and energetic set, or at least crafted accurate representations of studio tracks. Smiling isn’t exactly Yuck’s thing, but they also appeared to be having a good time despite the blistering heat. The crowd pretty much did the same.

Seeing Kurt Vile & the Violators was by no means my genuine intention. It was more a matter of convenience and the safety of knowing that How to Dress Well was likely not doing so…well on the smaller Blue stage. Really it turned into a way to pass the time while waiting on Twin Sister about 20 minutes later. Quieter acoustic folk music hasn’t done so well this weekend, particularly with the sun feverishly beating down on everyone, which is why I felt like Vile was going to nosedive. To my pleasant surprise, he did not nosedive, but rather pretty much the exact opposite. Whether it was the fans blowing his amazing mane of hair around or just a very well put together backing band, there was energy and plenty of other compelling reasons to watch that set. Even a slower, more difficult song like “On Tour” was smartly played with the larger crowd in mind. I was so entranced, I forgot about Twin Sister and finally jogged my memory about it 10 minutes into their set.

In terms of Twin Sister, it was at that point, around 90 minutes into my day, that I felt like the heat was just starting to get to me. Loading up on water and shade became essential, and Twin Sister on the Blue stage was a good location to do both. I found a spot in the back corner of that area and downed a couple bottles of water with friends while trying to cool off. Twin Sister absolutely helped with that, providing a fun and energetic set of songs that made you want to get up and keep going with your day. Calling their set prolific or revolutionary is definitely too excessive, but remarkably pleasant bordering on excellent might be how I best describe it. Part of me wishes I was motivated enough to get up off the ground and actually watch what was happening on stage, but there was a certain sense of contentment just turning off that mode for a small period of time.

The set clearly most people wanted to see on Sunday was Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All aka OFWGKTA. Women’s rights groups and anti-abuse organizations were up in arms about the hip hop collective’s booking, and were threatening to do an all-out protest of it as a result. The festival organizers instead cut a deal with them, providing them with their own tent to raise awareness. They also were handing out plenty of paper fans that mentioned domestic violence and provided contact information for those in need of help. This was all to provide counter-programming to the inane ramblings of OFWGKTA, given that so many of their tracks appear to advocate rape and abuse and other unseemly things. Just prior to their set, the Odd Future boys went out to the abuse awareness tent and brought the women there cupcakes. This was all in an effort to show there were “no hard feelings”. Then they did their thing, often complete with catchy choruses that included lyrics like “smack that bitch” and “suck my dick”. The crowd appeared to be eating it up, throwing hands (or middle fingers) in the air as instructed, while the boys on stage took turns interacting with the crowd/crowd surfing. One of the more amusing things about their set was how they’d finish a horribly abusive or angry song against women, and would follow it up by telling everyone to go by and visit with the women’s advocacy group. “We hope they’re listening to our set right now,” one of them said seconds before launching into an extremely vulgar track about rape. In other words, the whole thing was counter-intuitive and just a bit confusing. But it was still fun, and those guys are talented even if they’re not the cleanest or friendliest hip hop group around. Mostly I’m just glad there wasn’t a riot.

After getting about 45 minutes into Odd Future’s set, I thought I’d go for a change of pace and see how Shabazz Palaces were doing. It was definitely a quieter vibe on that side of the park, and the lighter crowd made it nicer as well. They had some sound issues that delayed their start time, but once things got going it was definitely strong hip hop that was very much the anti-OFWGKTA. More minimalistic and subdued in nature, the duo made the most of what they had brought with them, including a number of live instruments (as opposed to the DJ sample-fest that was Odd Future). There was something about that set that had all the class and dignity you could ever want. The 20 or so minutes I heard were a good palate cleanser before I allowed my curiosity to pull me in the direction of another stage.

That other stage was the Green stage, where Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti were playing. The past show reviews I’ve read from people who’ve seen Ariel Pink before appeared to describe him as moderately pensive, often with an attitude that suggested he’d much rather be someplace else doing something else. That was NOT the Ariel Pink we met at the Pitchfork Music Festival. This version was completely nuts. Like, serious screw loose in the head sort of nuts. Depending on how that dynamic works on stage, it can lead to rousing success or total meltdown. It actually turned out to be a mixture of both. The great parts came in the early going, with Pink singing/manipulating his vocals through a headset connected to a small soundboard. The headset was needed because of all the jumping around, head banging, and wacky gestures he tended to make. The guy had more energy than he knew what to do with, and channeled as much of it as he could into his performance. The crowd ate it up. But as time went on, he kept leaving the band and retreating back stage for one reason or another, always to re-emerge and crank out another song. Yet simultaneously you could watch his mood go from crazy happy to crazy pissed, and it eventually erupted into a meltdown that had him walking off the stage for good, once again leaving the rest of the band there to politely end the set about 20 minutes early. Sound issues were to blame, apparently, as Ariel was reportedly not happy with what was going on with his vocals. For the 40 or so minutes that the set lasted, almost all of it was of an exceptionally high quality, vocal problems be damned.

Compare Ariel Pink to Baths, the 1 man DJ band. The words “DJ band” are probably used incorrectly here, but Will Wiesenfield uses a laptop and a sampler on stage. No actual instruments there, but he does do a fair amount of singing via the tracks he composes. That was one of those legitimately fun dance sets where despite the temperatures you can just let your hair down and have a blast. What makes Baths so engaging outside of the music is how Wiesenfield runs his show. He legitimately seems excited about playing these songs, and rather than just carefully mix together that might appear to be a lot more beat than melody, he dances, head bangs (sorta), makes wild flailing motions with his arms, sticks his tongue out Michael Jordan style, and overall turns boring and normal on its head. It was a lot more entertaining than I thought it would be.

Then there’s Superchunk. Here’s a veteran band that’s been around for ages, but there have been significant breaks due to a number of different factors. Somehow though, Mac McCaughan and the rest of the band don’t seem to have aged much. I think I spotted a grey hair or two, but otherwise they’re still on the right side of youth. They played like it too, seamlessly blending a lot of their classic catalogue with a bunch of material off their latest record “Majesty Shredding”. The crowd totally ate it up, and there was much singing and jumping around. Superchunk has always been one of those bands that delivers each and every show they play, and this one was no different. They put themselves out there and got enduring love and respect in return, as they should.

Deerhunter is an interesting sort of fish. The sun was beginning to set when Bradford Cox, Lockett Pundt and Co. took the stage, and immediately something felt a little weird. That is to say, the guys in the band appeared to be a little stand-offish and difficult. It didn’t help that the first thing they did was dive into a huge squall of white noise. They looked like they were sweltering in the still overly hot temperatures, but the great news is that once they’d finally gotten some legs underneath them, they were solid as ever. Deerhunter hit all the hallmarks they’re pretty much required to at this point in their careers, making an epic spectacle out of “Nothing Ever Happened” or settling into the grooves of a “Revival”. And hey, they even threw in a little bit of amusing banter to continue to charm us. For a band that, in my opinion, got off to a rocky start, they really kicked into high gear and things turned out as good, if not better than hoped.

My most anticipated set of Sunday was Cut Copy, and that’s almost entirely because of how much I love their music yet have never seen them perform it live. Apparently a lot of people were also looking forward to Cut Copy, as it wound up being one of the most heavily attended non-headliner sets I saw all weekend. They had an interesting lighting set up behind them which is likely more effective in a pitch black venue but worked well enough as the sun was beginning to drift below the horizon, casting a large shade over much of the park. With the cooler temperatures too, things became ideal for a dance party. A dance party is exactly what Cut Copy gave us, cranking out one hot cut after another. Leading early on with “Where I’m Going”, the highlights were spread smartly across the duration of the set. There was a point about halfway through the set in which they “announced” that the show was over and that they were saying goodnight, something that would have been a lot more effective had they legitimately left the stage instead of immediately confessing it was a joke. But from “Hearts on Fire” to “Lights and Music” through “Need You Now” and “Take Me Over”, there wasn’t a single key moment they missed, and I had a blast. It was a cathartic release, a celebration of everything the festival had been and done up until that point, and a very nice warm-up for TV on the Radio.

Let’s do a brief recap of the headliners at this year’s festival. Animal Collective on Friday night was good, if not great, but their extremely experimental psychedelic bent makes them a bit difficult to truly get into and enjoy (from a very mainstream perspective). Fleet Foxes are far more pleasant and easy to love, but they’re also much quieter and still new enough to where they might not yet be ready to headline a festival. But when you talk about TV on the Radio, that is a band with enough time in existence and an impeccable/energetic/appealing catalogue of music. In other words, they’re the real deal. They also wound up being the purveyors of the best headlining set of the festival. Naturally, there was a bit of an emphasis on their newer material, so “Nine Types of Light” got a fair amount of play across their 75 minute set, but there was plenty of time for highlights galore. Starting with “Dear Science”‘s opening energy burst “Halfway Home”, things jumped off right from the start. There was the 1-2 punch of “Young Liars” moving into “Staring at the Sun” that was simply excellent if you love the band’s older stuff. The way that songs like “Will Do” and “Caffeinated Consciousness” fit in amongst “Wolf Like Me” and “A Method” was pretty seamless too. The one song I personally missed hearing was “Golden Age”, but I’d like to think in place of that they chose to cover Fugazi’s “Waiting Room”. When they hit the first notes of the song, I thought it would just be a tease before launching into something else. They were not kidding around, and it turned out to be a remarkably great cover. I love that song, and while it may not have the same ferocity from which Fugazi would have performed it, the sheer force and technical accuracy was all it needed and was given. That provided the perfect cap on a weekend-long journey that was more fun than I’ve had in quite awhile. Thanks, TV on the Radio.

This wraps up my day-by-day recap of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival. My coverage is not yet complete though. I’ve got several hundred photos to weed through and edit for your consumption, along with a look back at the full weekend that was, complete with a bunch of “superlatives” directed at many bands that I bore witness to. So keep your eyes peeled, I’m hoping to have everything taken care of within the next day or two.

Album Review: Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest [4AD]

It has gotten to the point where a year without new material from the brains of Bradford Cox or Lockett Pundt feels genuinely out of place. The boys of Deerhunter have been consistently hammering away with more new music than most bands compose across their lifetimes, and they’ve really been pushing hard for only the past four years or so. That was when “Cryptograms” caught the attention of many an ear and brought Deerhunter to the forefront of psychedelic indie rock. Since then, there’s been the single-but-unofficially-double album known as “Microcastle” with its companion piece “Weird Era Cont.” in 2008. Last year saw Pundt’s side project Lotus Plaza release a record, while Cox’s solo project Atlas Sound put out a great sophmore record as well. During that time, Deerhunter was “taking a break”, which for most bands means a couple years off. Yet here we are, 2010 and with all the touring they’ve done Deerhunter has been on break for well under a year. Now comes the new record “Halcyon Digest” and this sort of progress makes you wonder what other bands are wasting their time doing. Not that an album a year is a problem, especially when the music is so great, but there is always the risk of oversaturation aka too much of a good thing. Of course the band also isn’t quite at the pinnacle of what The Beatles did, releasing multiple records filled to the brim with hit singles over the course of a single year. Still, the band’s prolific streak has been impressive, and this new record only continues it further.

Album opener “Earthquake” is a remarkably steady and subdued way to start the record, piecing together a looped guitar, slowly flowing electronic elements, and Bradford Cox’s calming, echoed vocals. The track draws you in with gorgeously psychedelic fever dream and holds your interest without ever feeling the need to expand into something overtly catchy. Accessible has never been Deerhunter’s forte, but mood and atmosphere are their specialty. “Halcyon Digest” keeps that theme going, but there are moments of pure throwback pop goodness. “Don’t Cry” feels like a 50’s ballad filtered through a plume of smoke and gentle fuzz. Chosen as a first single, “Revival” hits all the right notes in that department, with a nice bit of jangly acoustics that stick with you long after the song is over. The purpose of “Memory Boy” seems to be exactly what the title suggests, an energetic 60’s pop tune that holds your brain hostage. “Desire Lines” fills the void needed in a 7-minute electric guitar psych-out that feels most like “old school” (three years ago) Deerhunter, for those that aren’t the biggest fans of some of the stylistic advances the band has made recently. Almost as if purposely trying to echo The Everly Brothers classic “All I Have To Do Is Dream”, Bradford Cox’s extended plea of “dreeeam” throughout the track is almost an update, but with some modern technology and paranoia thrown into the mix. That dream turns from something sweet into what more closely resembles a nightmare. The guitars on “Helicopter” shimmer like the sun reflecting off a wind-swept lake and the plinks of synths mixed with watery electronics make for one of “Halcyon Digest”‘s most gorgeous and memorable compositions. If there’s one track that’s perfect evidence of how Deerhunter has evolved over the last couple years, “Coronado” is it, taking what would otherwise be a simple piano and guitar song and throwing some blaring saxophone in like spice in an already good sauce. The sax is most definitely a good thing, and it was smart of the band to save it for something close to the end of the record as an almost last minute curveball. Provided they don’t overdo it in the future, a little saxophone now and then could really make for a strong addition to the tools already in Deerhunter’s toolchest. Closing out the record is “He Would Have Laughed”, a 7.5 minute tribute song to Jay Reatard. Not only are the lyrics odd and mysterious, but there’s also humor in the idea that the band has put together this epic song for a guy who seemed to prefer plainspoken 2 minute hard rock songs.

If there’s a singular dud on “Halcyon Digest”, it comes from “Sailing”, which is about as boring as doing the actual activity on the most placid lake without a single breeze. It drifts but mostly aimlessly and without purpose, which is pretty much why you might be left questioning its placement on the record. Really though, it fits in for the most part with Deerhunter’s sonic palette, but not necessarily well with everything that comes before and after it. Even without subtracting that song, “Halcyon Digest” remains a drool-inducing amazing record. While it won’t really work if played at a party, giving it a handful of studied listens in your bedroom with headphones will reveal the amazing depths it travels to. This band continues to evolve at an alarming pace, and with the addition of throwing a couple new instruments into the mix and an increased sense of pop accessibility, Deerhunter show they’re not content with simply staying the course. Should they continue the pace they’re on with the same exploratory sensibilities, there could be another handful of brilliant records in their future. Because of their more psychedelic and decidedly un-pop-like tendencies, Deerhunter seems to have avoided the insane level of respect and love that some of the most popular indie artists today are getting. Hey, if Animal Collective can reach that pinnacle with a record like “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, Deerhunter should be able to do the same with “Halcyon Digest”. It might not quite hit that fever pitch where people get diarrhea of the mouth and proclaim things like “album of the year”, but honestly it’s pretty damn close. One of the ten best of 2010 so far? You can put money on it (and you should).

Deerhunter – Revival (ZIP)

Buy “Halcyon Digest” from Amazon

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