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Pitchfork Music Festival 2011: Day 1 Recap

Ugh. It has been a long day for yours truly. Didn’t anticipate my day/evening going so late, so this initial recap of Day 1 of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival is going to be a little shorter and more to the point than much of everything else I plan on writing about over the course of the weekend. But fun was the name of the game today, and to call it a great day would not be an incorrect statement. Let me tell you a brief bit about the music I bore witness to, as well as maybe a couple other quick notes about things that went down on Day 1.

Due to an unfortunate vehicular mishap, in which my car broke down and refused to start, I wound up arriving at the Pitchfork Music Festival about 45 minutes later than I had originally planned. Still, it left me just enough time to see the last couple songs from EMA. Erika M. Anderson is her full name when not being referenced in acronym format, and she had a couple friends backing her up to handle much of the instrumental work. The two songs I saw her perform were solid renditions, in particular her single “California”, in which she did a lot of the same hand gestures that can be found in the video for said song. Fun isn’t the best word to describe what I saw, but very capable and strong are probably two solid descriptors. A few hours after her set, I was being taken on a brief tour of the backstage area and stumbled upon EMA. She was sitting in the grass by herself with a guitar and was making notes on some pieces of paper. In all likelihood she was writing a song, and hopefully something at the festival inspired her to do so.

My most hotly anticipated act of the day (and essentially the weekend) was tUnE-yArDs. After the massive number of raves I heard about Merrill Garbus and her intense performances, there was a little chill that went down my spine on the quite hot day when she began to belt her vocals into the microphone. Creating all sorts of vocal and instrumental loops, watching her put together songs like “Gangsta” and “Powa” was thrilling enough even if you threw away the actual songs. She didn’t do much to actually improve upon the recorded versions of the stuff on “w h o k i l l”, but then again she didn’t need to. That record is still amazing, and just seeing the songs come together live was the treat. Hopefully many were won over by her stellar performance. While I skipped seeing Battles in favor of tUnE-yArDs, all my friends chose to abandon me, claiming I made the wrong choice. They came away with nothing but raves for Battles’ set, and given to how they are dynamite live, the reaction felt sensible.

Thurston Moore was next, as I was intrigued to see what he would do. His backing band consisted of one guitar, one drummer, one violinist and one harpist. Yep, he had a harp with him and its lilting melodies were built into a lot of the songs. Moore also had a music stand with plenty of sheet music on it, which begged the question of how well he knew the songs he was playing. And virtually the entire thing wound up being a flop. Standing out in the hot sun and watching Thurston play slow acoustic numbers was not a good time. Early on in his set, he jokingly asked if everyone was ready to hear some songs about rape and other dark things, clearly trying to make light of the fact that OFWGKTA would be performing on that very stage in a couple days. There will be protesters for that, and come to think of it, people should have protested Moore’s set as well for being rather pedestrian and boring. Everything was capably performed, and much of the material came via his latest solo effort “Demolished Thoughts”. No Sonic Youth was played, but to close out his set, Moore told the crowd, “my band is saying that we should play a rock song”, a statement that was met with applause. The spark that ignited within the last few minutes of that set was what the entire thing should have been made out of. There’s always next time. If you went and saw Curren$y, consider yourself lucky.

The great news is that Guided By Voices were up next, and the very first thing that Robert Pollard asked the crowd was whether or not they were ready to see a real professional rock show. Hell yes, the crowd was ready. And GBV gave everyone exactly what they were looking for. Chain smoking on stage, wielding a bottle of alcohol, windmill guitar work, Neko Case on tambourine, jumping around like a madman, salutes, the hoisting of guitars high into the sky, the pointing of the necks of the guitars out at the crowd in a threatening and stabbing motions – all these things happened during that set. To call it awesome would be putting it lightly. These guys are all music veterans, and instead of slowing down their set was filled with visceral energy – the sort of which is missing in so many rock bands these days. Not only that, but they did all this while running through “hit” after “hit” (the quotation marks are used because despite a long career the band never achieved massive success to justify anything of theirs being a hit according to today’s standards). They hit up “Hot Freaks” “Tractor Rape Chain”, “Kicker of Elves” and “I Am A Scientist” (among many others) from their seminal album “Bee Thousand”. Their other big record was “Alien Lanes”, and tracks like “Game of Pricks” and “They’re Not Witches” sounded even better now than they did back in the day. So to recap: Guided By Voices put on one hell of a great show. And in that same way it’s sad, because there’s only a couple shows left with their “classic” lineup in place. They’re probably never going to do this again, so if you saw them at Pitchfork consider yourself lucky.

Neko Case is such an effortless charmer of a woman. There’s a certain sweetness to her, and maybe the down-home alt-country bits of her music are big contributors to that. One of the more interesting things about her is the backing band she surrounds herself with. The guys in the band were all older gentlemen complete with beards and a few extra pounds, and that alone was enough to make you think they belonged in a country band you’d stumble in and catch one night at some random bar. Who knows, maybe that’s where she met them. In spite of their appearances, they’re also excellent musicians, which is likely the reason why Case picked them in the first place. But that syrupy sweet voice of hers is in as good of shape as ever these days, and the set list mixing old songs, newer songs, and the newest of the new gave it plenty of workout. Case is currently hard at work on new material, so she did play a couple new ones during her set which were on par with everything else she’s done to date, if not better. The biggest crowd responses were for “Hold On, Hold On” and “People Got A Lotta Nerve”, and given their radio single status it’s no wonder why. There was no real reason for me to leave Neko Case, but after awhile I chose to wander over and at least check out James Blake‘s set for a few minutes. My concern initially was that his very quiet and minimalist self-titled debut would not translate well in an outdoor park. Outside of some seriously heavy bass, I’m pretty sure I was correct on that one.

Last but certainly not least, Animal Collective closed out the night in the headliner slot. It seems they got the love note I left them criticizing the very fluid and ever-changing dynamic of their live shows. The last time I saw the boys, they spent their festival time slot noodling around with psychedelic textures rather than playing most of the songs that appear on their albums. Think of it like one long acid trip in which many songs are teased but little to none are actually performed. They were on their best behavior at Pitchfork 2011 though, actually playing songs all the way through and even adding a few brief moments of silence from when one song ends and another begins. Call it common courtesy, and it made the set very bearable and remarkably fun. There was plenty of dancing going on, not to mention the glowsticks and an inflatable Spider-Man that became a part of the party. There were a handful of new songs sprinkled into the set as well, all of which sounded more than fine but with fewer harmonies than their last album “Merriweather Post Pavilion”. Between those elements and the neat stage setup complete with light-up rock-like structures and hanging shapes attached overhead by strings of lights. Animal Collective took their headlining job seriously and left the crowd in a better place compared to how they found them.

In case you couldn’t gather already, the entire day was nothing short of great. I’m very much looking forward to Day 2 tomorrow, but at this very moment sleep beckons. I’ll have photos for you as soon as I’m able. Check back for my Day 2 Recap overnight tomorrow night.

Album Review: EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints [Souterrain Transmissions]

EMA is better known as Erika M. Anderson, a native South Dakotan who has called California home for the last several years. Depending on how much you know about music and how many bands you can keep track of, you may have heard Anderson before, most notably with the band Gowns. Gowns broke up in early 2010, leaving behind five years of strong progress that included a couple albums and a whole bunch of mindblowing live shows. As with many bands where members are dating one another, if those relationships dissolve then so does the project. That’s not to say one breakup resulted in another in this particular case, but somewhere along the line the creative energy ran out. So Anderson has been working on her solo stuff for the last year or so, reviving a number of songs she wrote before and during Gowns’ tenure that never made it onto record, along with a handful of new ones as well. The final product is “Past Life Martyred Saints”, a sonically diverse, dark and angry 9-track album that’s markedly different from anything she’s done before.

The style is one we’ve heard before, and EMA is making her presence felt by unleashing “Past Life Martyred Saints” at the right time, just when the zeitgeist is craving for some 90s rock. Of course the sound is nowhere near as simple as that, and things get immensely complicated when you start taking the lyrics under consideration. You’ll notice something’s up straight from opening track “The Grey Ship”, which not only spans 7 minutes but goes through several evolutionary changes over the course of it. You’re misled at first into thinking it’s a wholly lo-fi effort, with Anderson’s voice and an acoustic guitar being the only elements present at the beginning, and sounding like they’ve both been recorded in an empty room with a shoddy microphone. As the track approaches the halfway point however, the vocals and guitar drop out as a fully plugged in and clear bass guitar takes over the main melody. A synth also works its way into the mix, and by the time Anderson’s vocals return, everything is crystal clear and in full fidelity. To its credit, “The Grey Ship” never stops tweaking itself until it’s officially over, incorporating everything from violins to loud electric guitars and overdubbed vocal harmonies. It’s an ambitious start to an ambitious record, even if nothing else that follows it ever quite displays the same potential.

Yet “California” enters and brings a whole new perspective to a record that was purposefully challenging to begin with. “Fuck California/You made me boring”, are the first words out of her mouth on a song that’s less about singing or structure or choruses and more just a sing-speak rant where you let out all your frustrations in an unfocused diatribe, come hell or high water. It’s an angry, sad, vengeful and homesick track with a dischordant backing instrumental that might as well be the soundtrack to the West Coast breaking off and sinking in a doomsday scenario. It’s about love “so fucked it’s 5150” and reciting lines from “Camptown Races” just to keep the random shit spewing and where a post-mortem examination leaves little clues as to how serious, sarcastic or true any of it is supposed to be. That’s exactly the point, because nothing in life is as cut and dry as we tend to see and hear through the glamourized versions of it on the big screen or through our stereo speakers. The messiness, the disorder, the sheer drama and how all of these things affect us and help or harm (mostly harm) our personal hopes and dreams is not only what “California” is about, but to an extent the entire record. You examine a song like “Marked”, in which a sparse and gritty melody backs lyrics like “I wish that every time he touched me he left a mark”, and likely the first thing that comes to mind is physical abuse. The hope that we might attain affection through being beaten may be disturbing, but the brutal honesty and masochistic tendencies are lurking in the darkest recesses of everyone’s subconscious and EMA is just prodding them. The same goes for “Butterfly Knife”, which appears to be a song about cutting and general bodily harm. At times “Past Life Martyred Saints” can feel like the auditory equivalent of a David Lynch, David Croneneberg or Lars Von Trier film, in which you have no real idea what the plotline or endgame might be, just that it’s confusing and disturbing and exciting all at the same time.

As dark and generally gruesome portions of this record might appear to be, the real lesson to be learned is that nothing is spelled out explicitly or with severe malice. Anderson has carefully thought these songs through and put them together with just enough vagaries to keep the listener guessing as to her true intentions. All great art is open to interpretation, and the multitude of viewpoints only furthers the idea that there’s much more depth and complexity to a piece than any of us can logically comprehend. So take “Past Life Martyred Saints” however you like, or don’t take it at all. The confrontational and ominous attitudes most certainly are not for everyone, but this record feels cut very much from the same cloth as classic 90s albums from artists like Hole (pre-crazy Courtney Love), Cat Power and early PJ Harvey or Liz Phair. The lyrics reveal much of the story, but the sounds that range from incendiary rock and roll (“Milkman”) to rusty folk (“Marked”) to grinding slowcore (“Red Star”) are all worth writing home about too. These varied textures help hold the mood in place while continuing to push on some boundaries as established right from the start. “Past Life Martyred Saints” may not be the most uplifting listen in the world, but it’s so well crafted and so reflective of the times we live in that there’s bound to be an audience for it. We’re all gluttons for punishment in our own different ways, and rarely has a record so full of melancholy and dismay felt so great to listen to.

EMA – The Grey Ship

Buy “Past Life Martyred Saints” from Amazon

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