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Lollapalooza 2013: Saturday Recap

After what was a pleasant and somewhat inspiring first day of Lollapalooza, Saturday was supposed to be the “big one.” When single day tickets went on sale a few months ago, Saturday was the first to sell out, and almost immediately. What was its biggest selling point? Mumford & Sons, probably. And maybe a little help from The Lumineers. I had a feeling the crowds were going to be huge for both bands, and I only moderately like them, so naturally I avoided going anywhere near that stage. I felt almost rewarded as a result. Of course the entire day was rewarding, even though I got a later start than I was hoping for or anticipated. The extra time I took to sleep in really helped me make it through the day, I think. As a reminder, though service is all but nonexistent in Grant Park this weekend, I am doing my best to live tweet about every act that I see. If I don’t do it during the day, I catch up at the end of the night. Just so you know for reference purposes. Anyways, here’s a short bit about the things I saw on Saturday.

My day started with Charles Bradley. He’s widely regarded as a soul legend, and his set showed that in spades. I could hear the horns blaring and his powerful wail well outside the walls of Grant Park, and for a minute I thought I’d accidentally stumbled into Chicago’s world famous Blues Fest instead. Even though he’s getting up there in age, Bradley commanded the crowd with his strong presence and even broke out a dance move or two. It may be a long way from his early days as a James Brown impersonator, but at some point in time there will hopefully be a Charles Bradley impersonator just making his way up the ladder to legendary status as well.

As I started to walk across the field to the stage just behind me for Matt & Kim, I ran into problems. Specifically, I hit a wall of people. The crowd stretched back extremely far at the Petrillo stage, so far that I couldn’t see the stage from my vantage point and couldn’t hear the band too well either. Whenever I run into that situation, as I did with Imagine Dragons on Friday, I figure there’s no point in watching or listening if I can’t watch and can barely listen. So I wandered over to Ellie Goulding’s stage about 30 minutes before her set was scheduled to start. I could kind of hear Matt & Kim from there, and enjoyed renditions of “Cameras” and “Let’s Go”, mixed with bits and pieces of some interesting and odd covers.

I think Ellie Goulding is one of the most talented mainstream pop acts today, and her energetic set had the huge crowd going totally nuts. I was packed in tighter than any other spot I’ve been in all weekend, and everyone around me was jumping up and down, singing along, clapping, and other things you do at an overly enthusiastic pop show. For her part, Goulding kept the mood light and upbeat, and she certainly sounded great. She covered Elton John’s “Your Song” at one point, and it actually felt both earnest and earned.

I’ve seen Unknown Mortal Orchestra one time before, and it was an okay set. At a certain point last time I thought it started to wear thin and get a little boring, so my expectations were lower when venturing in for a second round. The crowd turned out to be one of the lighter ones of the day, primarily because there was a lot going on at all the other stages. But the band made the most of their time and actually impressed me with a bouncy, pleasant and rather psychedelic set that was really strong on technical chops. Maybe it’s the fact that they released their second album and the new songs are working better for me, or playing a lot more live shows has made them a much stronger band overall, but whatever it is it’s working. The extended outro to “Ffunny Ffrends” featured a rather great guitar solo from frontman Ruban Nielson, and left the crowd in a great mood.

A few records and a few hundred live performances under their belts, Foals know exactly what they’re doing, and how to achieve results with a crowd. Their set builds slowly and steadily, an energetic instrumental one minute, a ballad with a soaring chorus the next, and a heavy rock cut after that. They covered all their bases, and though they dispatched one of their best songs “My Number” early on in their set (which drew a great dance party in the crowd), it was “Inhaler” that finally was the knockout punch. It was the perfect introduction to Foals if you’re not very familiar with their music, or had never seen them live before. The list of new converts at that show has to be pretty huge.

This was the fifth or sixth time I’ve seen The National perform live, and with each new experience I’m treated to what feels like an improved version of the band I saw the previous time. At this point I think they’ve been around long enough and know each other well enough to truly click on stage, even in a festival setting that doesn’t work as well with their particular brand of nuance. Frontman Matt Berninger is certainly working the stage a lot more, breaking away from his perpetual stance behind a mic stand to hang out on the sides for a few minutes. Some tricks, like Berninger running into the crowd during “Mr. November,” are long-time band staples, but they’re highlights that continue to thrill, so why stop? The new material sounds great, and the crowd was very receptive through it all. Certainly one of the day’s highlights.

After all the turmoil that hit the scheduling at The Grove stage on Saturday, what with Azealia Banks being forced to cancel due to vocal chord problems and Death Grips refusing to show up for whatever reason, the band Haim got either a really good or a really bad deal depending on how you look at it. The printed version of the schedule has them going on stage around 3:30 up against Matt & Kim, Court Yard Hounds and Local Natives. Not exactly bad bands to be up against. Their actual set time wound up being at 7:15, which was more prime time, but up against Kendrick Lamar and The Lumineers. So it wasn’t too surprising that the crowd for Haim wasn’t massive, though it was pretty decent sized overall. The three sisters played material off their EP and some new songs from their forthcoming debut album. Overall their set was a whole lot of fun, that includes the highly amusing sisterly stage banter. All of them also proved to be incredibly talented musicians, and a couple of small jam sessions they had included some face-melting guitar solos and wild bass work. I saw the band perform again at an aftershow a few hours later, and they were even better. I’ll have a report on that later. Be on the lookout, Haim is going to be huge.

With the sea of people over at Mumford & Sons, it was nice to simply stroll up to a close spot for The Postal Service. As Ben Gibbard had said in a tweet earlier in the day, their Lollapalooza set and their subsequent Sunday night aftershow would be their final two shows ever, so in my logic, why would you miss that. It helps I love their one record Give Up to the point where I’ve got every lyric memorized. A lot of people do, apparently, because the entire set was like one massive sing-along. The only time the crowd stopped singing was when they played some of the b-sides and previously unreleased material that appeared on the deluxe 10th anniversary reissue of the album. Overall the arrangements were very similar to what they sounded like on record, though they were made a little more buoyant and full at times which was nice. There were extended versions of some hits, particularly “Such Great Heights” and the closer “Brand New Colony.” A cover of Beat Happening’s “Our Secret” was a nice additional treat. Jenny Lewis was in many ways a jack of all trades during the show, playing a number of different instruments in addition to her supporting vocals role. Gibbard was his typical self, upbeat and honest, and he seemed to really appreciate how much this band and their one record means to so many people. This might be the official end to The Postal Service, but I can’t express how happy it made me to finally see it performed live. I’ll take them over Mumford & Sons any day of the week.

Album Review: Foals – Holy Fire [Warner Bros/Transgressive]

The evolution of Foals has been a fascinating one. On their 2008 debut album Antidotes, they no doubt attracted the attention of tastemakers because of their somewhat unique take on the dance rock genre, which was at a high point during that time period. While some critics would argue that their songs were poor imitations of leading bands at the time such as Bloc Party and Maximo Park, others felt the math rock guitars were crucial to setting them apart from their peers and bringing a fresh twist to an increasingly stale sound. It’s not hard to say that at the time Foals lacked a certain emotional maturity which in turn froze a lot of listeners out and prevented them from engaging with the songs in a deeper way. Big changes and improvements arrived on 2010’s Total Life Forever, which was more plainspoken and heartfelt, and frontman Yannis Philippakis proved he could actually carry a melody beyond uttering short, declarative phrases. The melodies also got larger in scope, moving slightly away from the intricacies of their debut and into a widescreen, power chord territory with hooks that grabbed hold of you like never before. It represented the exact right steps the band needed to make at the time, and their continued evolution earned them a newfound respect among fans and critics alike. They hadn’t so much sacrificed anything as they added to what was already there.

On what’s now their third official full length Holy Fire, Foals once again push forward and work hard to grow in sound and stature. They take the best parts of their previous work and appear to commit to try and fix their previous flaws. Philippakis continues to grow as both a singer and a songwriter. He stretches himself vocally on this album more than ever before, and the payoffs are pretty exhilarating. The opening instrumental, appropriately dubbed “Prelude,” provides some nice ebbs and flows but still doesn’t quite prepare you for the track that immediately follows it. “Inhaler” has a late-90s alternative rock vibe going for it, which means there’s a certain amount of malice and bad intentions running like an undercurrent through the duration of the track. Sooner or later, the dark, masked feelings build up and require release, leading to the explosive chorus you don’t necessarily anticipate arriving until it lands. “I can’t get enough SPACE!” Philippakis yells into a seemingly endless void as the fuzz pedals and power chords drive his point home with all the force of a battering ram. It’s a cathartic, exciting and memorable moment early on in a record that winds up having a bunch of them. None quite operate on the same level as “Inhaler” when it comes to overall aggression, however most are equally as fun and addictive.

Chief among the many catchy songs on Holy Fire is the single “My Number,” a track that finds Foals in the purest of pop modes with a chorus that stays with you like it’s etched inside your brain. It’s easy to envision the song becoming a monstrosity of a hit in their live shows, and the video for it doesn’t do anything to dispel that notion. That’s really just the start of a great run of smart and effective tracks that include “Everytime” and “Bad Habit,” both serving as great reminders that while the song structures are very familiar and the hooks are intensely strong, there’s enough distinction in the intricate guitar work and vocals to set Foals apart from any similar-sounding peers. On Total Life Forever there were hints of this very broad yet indistinct stadium-sized band bubbling underneath the surface of some songs trying to wrestle control away from some of the more charming quirks that have earned them a decent amount of respect over the years. That they chose to avoid giving in to those impulses and occasionally push some experimental buttons is heartening and a great sign for their future.

Such experiments enter into play during much of the second half of Holy Fire, which is a little slower and less pop-driven yet compelling in its own unique way. On their previous albums, Foals have proven themselves relatively adept at the slow build in songs, turning otherwise innocuous ballads or mid-tempo numbers into hot-blooded explosions of noise or genuine rave-ups. When done properly, it can leave the listener exhilarated. In that sense, tracks like “Late Night” and “Milk & Black Spiders” are two of the best slow build tracks the band have ever put together, and that is a great sign of their growth and maturity these last few years. “Providence” plays off a similar template, though instead of moving from slow to fast it evolves from a dance track to a muscular rock song. You could well call it the Side B cousin of “Inhaler” from Side A. The band’s energy peters out in the final two cuts “Stepson” and “Moon,” coming across like the overcast sky beginning to show signs of daylight after a long night partying. The smile fades from your face as suddenly it’s time to come back to earth after the dizzying highs you’ve been experiencing the last few hours. This bout of sincerity and sadness feels earned and rightly placed at the end of the record, holding Foals in formation as a well-rounded band instead of a lopsided one. Perhaps the biggest fault with Total Life Forever was how its attempt at true balance led to a front-loaded bipolarity that sank like a stone halfway through. Thanks to a couple late album injections of energy though, this new album feels balanced in a much smarter fashion and makes the replay value that much higher. It’s fantastic to hear that Foals have learned this and many other lessons for Holy Fire, and with any luck they won’t forget them ever again.

Buy Holy Fire from Amazon

Album Review: Foals – Total Life Forever [Sub Pop/Warner Bros/Transgressive]

For those living in Europe, the new Foals album “Total Life Forever” has been out for at least a month now. On U.S. shores, it arrived last week with surprisingly little attention paid to it. This after Foals built up a small storm of hype before the release of their 2008 debut album “Antidotes” and didn’t quite make good on the initial promise their couple singles seemed to display. When they did get it right, they did so with sheer energy and math rock-infused guitar work, punching up more hooks than you knew what to do with. Songs like “Mathletics”, “Balloons” and “Hummer” all hit as hard as they needed to and got people’s attention, but as with so many bands these days, that attention was quickly diverted. As suddenly as they had appeared, Foals again disappeared.

Though it should be, “Total Life Forever” is not the kick in the crotch that Foals so richly deserve. In this metaphor, “kick in the crotch” is intended to imply a good thing, insomuch that your full and undivided attention is given to anyone who does so (despite the pain it might cause). The root cause of this apparent lack of hype surrounding Foals these days might have something to do with the adjustment they’ve made to their sound compared to two years ago. Whether or not the public’s own tastes have changed (in two years? probably.) is up for debate as well. The highly energetic, almost danceable approach that the band took on their first album, complete with vocals that were more yelps than actual singing, have been all but eliminated on “Total Life Forever”. Instead of that, the record has primarily mid-tempo, occasionally spacey songs with tuneful singing. It’s a legitimate step forwards for a band that initially came off as fun and simplistic rather than smart and complicated. To put it another way, Foals have come a long way in two years to prove that they’re able-bodied and up to the challenge of holding down a long and hopefully lucrative career making music.

You notice things are different right from the very start of the album’s opening track “Blue Blood”. The tempo is slower than the quick speed punches that peppered the band’s debut, and frontman Yannis Philippakis proves he can do more with a vocal track than just shout random phrases. By the time the song crosses the 5 minute mark there’s an even fuller sense of surprise given that much of the first album featured songs that rarely ventured longer than 4 minutes. In fact, nearly half of the 11 songs on “Total Life Forever” actually make it beyond 5 minutes, and 3 of those songs even go 6 minutes or longer. Despite these surprisingly exorbitant track lengths, very little of the album feels stretched or boring. Plus, there’s a fair share of songs that maintain a normal length, and many of them could function as singles. “The Orient” and “Miami” are already two tracks that have been released as individual singles in Europe, but so has the brilliant “Spanish Sahara”, the longest song on the album which clocks in at around 7 minutes long. In all, these songs have a much looser and relaxed feel compared to the almost vacuum-packed tightness that dominated their earlier stuff. Whereas the “Antidotes” material attempted to ensure that not a second of music was wasted, by allowing the new songs to breathe a little bit more, we get a new side of the band and everything feels much more organic and natural. There are moments, in particular on the second half of the record, where some of the songs get a little too spaced out or lack a wholly compelling hook. If you are looking for hooks though, there are plenty to be found, though none grab you quite as firmly as they did on the last album. Considering the trade-off is a more mature album with legitimate singing and a strong emotional core, the end justifies the means.

Without a doubt, Foals could have made another energized math rock record in their sleep. It probably would have been enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable, similar to how their debut “Antidotes” failed to keep the spotlight focused on the band for more than a few months after its release. “Total Life Forever”, by contrast, is the smart move they needed to make to survive. Of course that’s likely to turn off fans of that first album who might be upset by the more languid pacing and decreased use of the staccato guitars that math rock is typically defined by. Hopefully you stick with Foals though, because the new record is the best thing they’ve done to date. It’s just a shame this album isn’t getting more attention, at least from what I’ve seen and heard these last couple months. While it doesn’t quite rank among the absolute best things 2010 has had to offer so far, it’s definitely close. Where Foals will head next with their sound is anybody’s guess, but for the moment they’re right where they need to be.

Foals – Spanish Sahara (Deadboy Remix)

Buy “Total Life Forever” from Amazon

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