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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: Matt & Kim – Sidewalks [FADER Label]

Matt & Kim have a reputation to maintain, that of an insanely happy duo making indie pop that’s sugary sweet. They’re both well beyond the days of misfit childhood where diets mainly consisted of Pixy Stix and you ran around the neighborhood with water guns and stray dogs, yet their music echoes those moments in the best possible way. It’s working on that basic of a sound that has gotten them a solid following over the course of two albums and a relentless amount of touring. They’ll charm the pants off of anyone who will listen, and their third record “Sidewalks” continues in that exact same trend.

Even if you’re not familiar with Matt & Kim, chances are you’re at least lightly aquainted with them. Their song “Daylight” has permeated a number of mediums, airing as backing music for a handful of commercials, TV shows and video games soundtracks. That’s not even counting the copious amounts of radio airplay they got for the track. They’re probably hoping for a similar buzz surrounding the first single “Cameras” from the new album “Sidewalks”. It’s only slightly unconventional for Matt & Kim, with their trademark synths/guitar/drums sound accented with some tuba and a fascinating time signature. It may not be the best song they’ve ever made, but it works in its own way. So does most of the record, with at least 8 out of the 10 tracks coming off like highly marketable singles. The real question will be what on this blissful yet brief album will they choose to focus on.

For those long-term fans of Matt & Kim though, “Sidewalks” will largely serve as a disappointment. On their last record “Grand”, the duo had real problems with both overproduction and the forcing of Kim into a severely diminished role. If those were issues for you last time, they’ll be issues for you once again. The production remains fairly pristine, thereby not properly recreating what you get in a live setting. That’s something their self-titled debut did so well, and it’s what initially earned them the right kind of attention. The lack of those little imperfections and off-kilter drum hits are missed, and with a guitar or a chime coming in at exactly the right spot there’s a certain coldness that betrays the warm pop emerging from the speakers. Again it seems that Kim is given the backseat role on this record, providing very little in the way of backing vocals and even skipping out on drums altogether for a few songs. Instead of drums there are tambourines and chimes and xylophones and drum machines/electronic beats, some or all of which Kim might be playing. So much of it feels programmed in though that it’s tough to tell if a human being is even playing these extra instruments or not. These are problems that can really diminish your liking of the album if they’re important to you.

What with the popularity of “Daylight” and a new fans gained through all the touring and festival shows, “Sidewalks” is just about the perfect album for the casual Matt & Kim lover. If you’ve only heard their last album “Grand” or even just a song or two, you have no idea what you’re missing. Close listeners and fans of the duo’s debut might notice the small, glossed over problems that pepper the album’s otherwise sweet disposition. “Sidewalks” is a delight to listen to from start to finish, but only if you treat it like a really entertaining blockbuster movie. The broad appeal is certainly there, it just lacks depth and humanity. The sad thing is that in person Matt & Kim can be some of the deepest and warmest people on Earth. Outside of the studio polish applied on this record, these songs probably move from pretty good to absolutely excellent, which is enough of a reason to go see Matt & Kim live. Since you’re unlikely to see them perform more than maybe once or twice a year, this album serves as a reasonable facsimile of that experience. Is it worth a purchase? Maybe if you’ve got the spare cash and need a fun little distraction. Other than that, you’re better off spending your time and money on something a little less disposable.

Buy “Sidewalks” from Amazon

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