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Lollapalooza 2014: Friday Recap

Considering the way things went, you could say that the first day of Lollapalooza 2014 was dominated by the ladies. On the whole, it was a lot of fun. The weather was pretty good, outside of the 30 or so minutes it rained, and the crowds weren’t even that thick until late in the day. Here’s a rundown of all the music that I saw on Friday:

Following a lengthy wait to get into Grant Park due to new stricter bag checking procedures, I made it through the gates in time to see most of Temples’ early afternoon set. The Australian psych-pop band’s debut album Sun Structures sounds like a slightly weaker, less convincing imitation of Tame Impala. They come across that way on stage too, playing their songs verbatim and without any exceptional charm or extra energy. That’s not to say their performance was bad, it was just a little lackluster when the crowd needed something better. I’m sure the people laying down on the grass nearby were probably enjoying it.

Wildewoman, the debut album from Lucius, has a handful of great and fun songs on it, which I was excited to hear during their set at Lollapalooza. Unfortunately the other half isn’t so great and you can’t get one without the other when you’ve got an hour-long time slot to fill. The two main vocalists in Lucius do their best to look and sing exactly the same as one another, and the three guys playing instruments do the same. Altogether they’re a well oiled machine able to crank out exact copies of their songs as they appear on record. But sometimes you want more than just a gimmick. Lucius showed flashes of spontaneity and experimentation during their set, particularly in the way they used percussion, but it didn’t do a whole lot to lift the level of presentation beyond mediocrity.

After a seeing a fair portion of Lucius’ set, I felt that walking the short distance to The Grove Stage to see how Courtney Barnett was doing would be in my best interest. Two days earlier, I saw Barnett deliver an incredible set to a sold out crowd at Schubas, and had high hopes she could keep that streak going. I was only able to see the final 20 minutes, but oh my what a final 20 minutes it was. Barnett plays her shows with a bass player and drummer, and while they’re both excellent she manages to outshine them thanks to a supremely relaxed vocal style not to mention what appears to be sloppy guitar playing. I say appears because its clear she very much does know what she’s doing and not a single note was off. It’s just her particular and unique style, which is clearly something other artists should pay attention to.

As Barnett was finishing up her set, it began to drizzle a little bit. That drizzle would turn into something heavier leading right into Warpaint‘s set. It’s almost like the band requested the change in weather since their music is built on the ideas of darkness and gorgeous atmospherics. They did what they could to use that to their advantage, crafting a slow burning and often beautiful show that sounded great. The interplay between band members is probably what struck me most, like each one had the ability to fill in any sonic gaps as needed. Sure, it may not have been the most high energy set of the day, but the rain and overcast skies for 25 minutes basically suggested that everyone take it easy anyways.

While the rain had stopped about an hour earlier, the skies were still pretty grey, which also helped out Interpol a bit. Not that they particularly needed that assistance. Over the course of a dozen songs, they proven to be as reliable and engaging as ever. Perhaps that had something to do with the set list, which pulled entirely from the Turn on the Bright Lights and Antics records (their two best) plus included two new songs. The band knows what their finest moments are, and did their best to give the fans those highlights. It was really nice, actually, and to hear the new songs fit in so well with the old ones gives great hope for the upcoming El Pintor album.

In my Lolla Preview Guide, I mentioned that the last time I saw CHVRCHES they were pretty good, but still needed to work on their stage presence to deliver something worthy of the larger crowds they were attracting. At Lolla on Friday, they pulled in one of the bigger crowds I encountered, and this time did an admirable job handling the responsibilities that go along with that. Singer Lauren Mayberry was charming in her stage banter, and passionate in her vocals. There was plenty of dancing and sing-alongs in the crowd, and even though it was sunny out, there was something pretty cool about their light show. Of course a cool light show doesn’t replace stage presence, and while that’s still technically a work in progress, they’re absolutely getting better at it.

Probably the biggest crowd I encountered over the entire day was for Lorde, and that was go be expected given the number of awards she’s earned and chart-topping hits she’s had in the last several months. The teen sensation is living up toe the hype surrounding her, and that includes a dynamic and energetic live show. Clips I saw from her shows just a few months ago looked a touch awkward, largely with strange movements and aesthetic choices, but thankfully all of that is gone. Perhaps it was a confidence thing, or somebody has given her coaching, but she took everything in stride, danced around, was humble with the crowd, and sounded absolutely great. It was pretty amazing to see, and made for one of Friday’s best sets.

After Lorde it was dinner time, so I grabbed some food and wandered over to The Grove Stage to see how The Kooks were doing. Turns out, quite well actually. They’ve now got a few records under their belts, and are true showmen in their sets. Basically, they’re all energy, moving and jumping around all over the stage and trying to encourage crowd participation. Even though I only saw a handful of songs and had a sandwich in my hand, it was clear that everyone was having a great time. The music can get a little bland from time to time, but so long as you focus on giving the crowd something they can dance or sing to, that’s all you really need to keep everyone satisfied.

The last time I saw Arctic Monkeys in 2011, they had vastly improved their live show and appeared to be flirting with the notion of headlining a U.S. festival like Lollapalooza. The crowd for their set then was absolutely massive, and on all counts the band delivered. Now that they’ve reached the mountaintop, how was the view? In short, not quite as great. First, the crowd numbers were down a bit, thanks in no small part to Eminem on the other side of the park. Secondly, their show has become extremely polished. For most artists, being polished live performers is a good thing. In Arctic Monkeys’ case, a little bit of sloppiness is almost required. Many of their songs have this grimy, down in the gutter type vibe, and to remove that element from your show takes something away. So yes, we got everything from “Brianstorm” to “Dancing Shoes” to “Crying Lightning” and “Do I Wanna Know?,” and for the most part it sounded great and came off as effortless and charming. This is clearly a band that has fully accepted their massive popularity, it would just be nice if they could find a little better way to stay true to their roots.

As much as I enjoyed Arctic Monkeys (don’t let my above reaction fool you), part of me also wanted to see how Phantogram was doing as the headliner on the nearby small Grove stage. I stopped over there for about 40 minutes (bookended by Arctic Monkeys), and wound up having a pretty great time. Phantogram’s new album Voices is a big step forward for them, and they’ve really become an act ready for the ensuing wave of popularity that comes along with it. Their crowd wasn’t gigantic, seeing as most were at one of the two main stage headliners, but the people who were there might best be described as passionate. There was so much dancing and jumping around it was equal parts impressive and fun. Sarah Barthel has really grown as a performer since the last time I saw the band, and she was all over the stage getting people riled up whenever she wasn’t stuck behind an instrument. The lighting and visuals were spectacular as well, and honestly the whole thing felt like what might happen if Sleigh Bells were a synth pop band. That’s meant as a compliment. So

So that about wraps up all of the music I saw on Friday of Lollapalooza 2014. We’ve got two more days to go, and I’m pretty excited to see how they’re going to go. I’ll have full recaps from Saturday and Sunday coming up soon, but in the meantime you can get (largely) real time updates and reactions from the festival grounds via Twitter.

Album Review: Interpol – Interpol [Matador]

You can never go back. No matter how much we might want to hop in a time machine and return to the best moments of our lives, such talk is impossible. Even if it were possible, would we really want to? All too often when we try to relive the best moments of our lives they end up not meeting our expectations. Those glorious memories we have established in our heads are often partly fiction anyways, covering everything in a dream-like haze that releases endorphins in our brains and we register the purest of pleasures. Undoubtedly then, many people have fond memories associated with Interpol’s debut album “Turn on the Bright Lights”. It was one of those revolutionary records from the last decade, instantly grabbing people’s attention upon release and securing itself a place in rock history as one of the ten best albums of the 00s (according to many including myself). That and the band’s sophmore album “Antics” turned Interpol from Joy Division imitators to contemporary and original rock stars of their own. After two similar-sounding records though, the band looked to mix things up a bit for their third album “Our Love to Admire”, which was given a chilly response from critics and fans alike. Interpol signed to major Capitol Records for that 2007 album and with the diversion from their standard sound along with the extreme polish put on the songs, one couldn’t blame fans for feeling as if they’d been betrayed. It’s been 3 years and you’ll be surprised to learn that times have changed. During that period there were solo albums and side projects. Interpol as a band left Capitol Records and returned home to Matador. They announced their fourth album would be self-titled and have been claiming it sounds like their earlier stuff. It was also revealed bassist Carlos Dengler quit the band after the latest recording sessions. Outside of that Carlos D thing though, all indicators are that Interpol are looking for a “return to form” with the new record, which coincidentally is out this week. But as we’ve already established, no matter how hard you try to go back, things are never the same as they were before.

Whether or not Interpol want to acknowledge that going back to 8 years ago is an impossible task, they sure as hell are going to try their hardest to get there. The opening track on “Interpol” is “Success”, but amusingly enough the band doesn’t seem to have that much of it going for them at the very start. The song is good, but compared to the band’s gripping openers in the past, from “Untitled” to “Next Exit” and even “Pioneer to the Falls”, “Success” doesn’t fully succeed. It has the sound and feel of something off “Antics”, but one of the lesser, deeper cuts. “Memory Serves” does well for itself with a memorable hook, but it does plod along just a little bit, lacking the vigor of some of the band’s best singles.”Summer Well” brings up the tempo and adds piano to good effect with yet another solidly captivating chorus. It may not quite reach the levels of “classic” Interpol. but it is a cut above the band’s most recent material. Undoubtedly though, the song “Lights” will make its way onto Interpol’s inevitable greatest hits record. That’s not just because it’s the first single off this self-titled album, but it also happens to be the best song the band has made since “Turn on the Bright Lights”. The slow-burning, 5.5 minute track accumulates tension and noise until it’s almost completely succumbed by it before abruptly ending. Following that with the energized second single of the “Obstacle 1”-esque “Barricade” is not only right but it makes for a 1-2 punch that’s dizzyingly great to listen to. So after a slower start, by a couple tracks in the band really seems to be making good on their promise to take things back to their early days. Then, as if drunk on their own power, they completely fall off the wagon.

That there’s a problem isn’t immediately apparent when “Always Malaise (The Man I Am)” starts off. Drummer Sam Fogarino plays a big role in keeping the song from completely descending into mediocrity while the piano is also a nice touch. The song goes for the careful and tense build-up but fails to gather any real excitement or memorability along the way. For a song like “Safe Without”, things get off to a promising start but then fail to move anywhere. It’s like taking a plane ride, thrilling at the takeoff but once you’re up in the air the plane just circles in a holding pattern because there’s nowhere to land. After that, the final three tracks descend into outright experimentation. “Try It On” implements a clunky and offbeat piano line at the beginning and then blippy synths towards the end to try and get a little more artsy and diverse. It’s perhaps most reminiscent of something singer Paul Banks’ somewhat bland side project Julian Plenti would do, and the result is about the same here. The song then bleeds into the 5 minute “All of the Ways”, a track that’s pure mood and atmosphere while seeming to skip everything else such as a compelling reason to keep listening. For the record though, this is something of a concept album attempting to chronicle the destruction of a relationship. That things get so desperately slow and depressing towards the end is certainly purposeful in keeping the theme going, but it’s at the cost of hooks and melodies that engage the listener. If “All of the Ways” isn’t enough of a death march for you, “The Undoing” closes out this self-titled effort by continuing to hold the the slow motion depression in check, this time adding strings and horns and for no apparent reason a few lyrics in Spanish. The song oozes with desperation as Banks repeats the word “please” a whole bunch of times, practically begging to be put out of his misery. The song fades into oblivion and it feels like sweet relief more than anything else.

What “Interpol” the album ultimately comes off as is a career retrospective for the band. The first half wraps the style and substance of their first two records into a nice neat package that’s very good but not quite as great as the original source material. The second half sees the band indulging their more experimental impulses that were so derided on 2007’s “Our Love to Admire”. Given how people reacted back then, three years later that blemish still hurts just a little bit and this is like reopening old wounds. There’s little to nothing to hold your interest on that second half of the album save for a sustained dark mood and a variance in style from what has previously defined Interpol’s sound. To the extent those things are what you want from the band, well, they’re clearly aiming to please. For everyone else, this is half of a great album and half of a simply okay one. Lightening up just a touch, there’s little to nothing on this record that’s outright bad, just compared to “Turn on the Bright Lights” and “Antics” there aren’t a flurry of highlights (see: singles). Instead there are just a couple of standout moments that serve just well enough to elevate this album above the last one. There will be those arguing that Interpol has always been a band making mood music rather than songs with big choruses and an urgent pace, but the truth is they’ve been responsible for both. For every “PDA” there is a “The New”, the difference now is that those longer, more plodding songs are equipped with less dynamic twists and more static straightaways. It’s admirable that Interpol are continuing to show some ambition and are looking to reach beyond the same old songs they’ve done before, the issue is that they’ve not yet found the sound that’s going to truly take them to the next level. Parts of “Interpol” give you tinkering but it’s really a lot of fumbling around in the dark looking for a lost contact lens. Where the band will choose to go next remains a mystery, but perhaps with bassist Carlos D now out of the picture it will lead to new and exciting sounds from them once again. There’s plenty of doubt to go along with that statement, but if any band can benefit from it, Interpol can.

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