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Lollapalooza 2017: Reflections

In my 13 years of attending Lollapalooza, I’ve had a number of people ask me why I go when “it’s so terrible.” While calling the festival “terrible” is absolutely a matter of opinion, it’s one that’s held by a wide range of people. To most, the idea of spending multiple days in the vast wasteland of Grant Park with 100,000 (per day) of your closest friends is nearly the equivalent of torture. It’s hot and sweaty with lines everywhere and access is tiered by how much money you’re willing to pay and nothing sounds great in the park and a whole host of other complaints. I’ve heard them all, and none of them have deterred me from continuing to go year after year. I understand too, and those grievances are not entirely unjustified. But in my view those issues are also a bit short-sighted.

Lollapalooza may be, as Jim DeRogatis puts it, the music equivalent of “Walmart on the lake,” but I’d argue that the damage it causes every summer is pretty much worth it if you’re going for the right reasons. Specifically I’m talking about the music. If you LOVE live music, Grant Park is not the ideal venue to see it in. Neither is a space where tens of thousands of people (many drunk or on drugs) are all crammed together trying to find the best sight lines. Some are even content to simply talk the entire time and ignore what’s taking place on stage. But where else are you going to have the chance to see 170+ artists over a four day period at a cost that falls somewhere around $350? Economically speaking, you won’t find a better deal than that. Were you to choose 10 artists each day that you’d be interested in seeing perform live and add up the costs of tickets to individual venue shows from each, the total price would be at least double. Hell, I spent nearly the cost of a full weekend Lolla ticket to see Paul McCartney this year, when his prior Chicago show was at Lollapalooza. Also, festivals can serve as a music discovery engine. You can easily wander from stage to stage and stop when you hear something good. I’ve found more than a few new artists at Lolla over the years by stumbling past during their sets.

My grand point is that if you’re there solely for the music, the atmosphere doesn’t matter nearly as much. Unfortunately, most Lolla attendees aren’t there for the music, or at least don’t make it a huge priority outside of a handful of bands they truly love. That’s part of the problem, and one the fest feeds into by creating plenty of distractions for those less musically inclined. Have some food! Wander into the merch store! Check out some tents devoted to various causes! Hang out in some hammocks or check out the wine bar! And new for 2017, strap on some roller skates or play an arcade game! Hey, if it keeps randos who don’t care about the music away from the stage, then more power to you. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself at Lolla if I wasn’t there to watch as many artists perform as possible.

Which finally brings me to Lollapalooza 2017, aka the year things got better but also worse. Let’s start with the good. They improved the restrooms considerably. Entire sections were devoted to urinals, while the traditional plastic port-o-potties were replaced with slightly nicer ones that actually had porcelain toilet bowls that flushed. For once, I didn’t dread using the restroom. At least not at first. Because we can’t have nice things, the very clean and very easily accessible restroom areas slowly descended into chaos as the weekend progressed, until finally on Sunday night I used a urinal that had “Fuck the Police” written in giant letters across it, while a large turd sat below – clearly the result of someone who didn’t have the time or foresight to wait in line to use an actual toilet. This is why we can’t have nice things. In a less disgusting change for the better, this year Lollapalooza also upgraded their video screens. These new gigantic HD displays surrounded the two biggest stages, and made viewing performances from a distance much, much easier. No complaints about those, and I hope they continue to invest in them for the future. Lastly, I’ll say nice things about the roller rink and arcade that were added this year, not because I skated or played any video games, but because I found them to be fun distractions that fit well with the overall aesthetic vibe of the festival.

On the negative side, I’ve only got one complaint, but it’s a major one. It seemed that this year Lollapalooza was struggling with lineup flop sweat. The festival celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016 and because they had “50% more artists than usual” requesting to perform, the decision was made to expand from three days to four. When it was announced organizers said it was a “one time only” thing, but they also weren’t about to turn down that extra money, so the change became permanent. And in all honesty, last year’s lineup wound up being pretty great – enough to justify the extra day. Not so much for 2017. Maybe it was how they scheduled it, but there were multiple periods this year where music lovers were left with artist choices that went from bad to worse. Obviously there are fan bases for SUICIDEBOYS and The Drums, but neither are exactly critically acclaimed nor particularly dynamic live performers. Yet they were on two of the main stages at the same time on Thursday. The same can be said for Vance Joy and Royal Blood on Saturday. Not meaning to be too insulting, but there’s very little original or novel about either artist. Sunday forced the choice of Milky Chance vs. London Grammar on you, and it was a little tough to get excited about either.

Call me a snob if you must, but just because an artist has some radio hits doesn’t automatically make them good or worth your time. To a degree, they make music for casual fans – those that don’t listen to much music in the first place, who automatically accept and embrace whatever band is pumping out of nearby speakers under the assumption that it must be good. If you can live your life that way, taking what’s being given to you without questioning, exploring and coming to your own decisions on what’s good, I feel a little sorry for you. There’s joy to be found in the fringes, but if a festival like Lollapalooza doesn’t give you those fringes then you can wind up trapped in a sea of mediocrity. Hence my criticism of their booking/scheduling for 2017. There were still plenty of great moments (that I’ll highlight in a minute), but fewer than usual with more duds and dead spots that almost make one want to take some time away from the stages and explore some of those aforementioned other options and activities happening in Grant Park. My advice, which organizers absolutely will not take, is to revert back to the three day format. With one less day for bookers to worry about, the quality vs. quantity will be more even-handed and they can ensure that music fans of all types can be satisfied better. It worked quite well for a decade before they added that fourth day, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t work in their favor again.

Lastly, I want to take note of some fantastic performances from Lollapalooza 2017. While I’m a little disappointed I didn’t stumble upon some incredible new artist this year as I often have in the past, there were still a few surprises that caught me off guard in a very good way.

White Reaper put on a better than good performance on Thursday, which was a wonderful way to kick off the festival.

But it was Cage the Elephant’s day, and arguably entire weekend, as their wildly unhinged set was so fun that it was just about all anybody could talk about. I still can’t stop thinking about it, and am under the firm belief they’ll be headlining Lollapalooza sooner rather than later.

As for headliners, while we only got 3 songs from Muse, they managed to make the most of it as everyone went completely nuts in the pouring rain to massive jams like “Psycho” and “Hysteria”. Had they been able to continue their performance in the rain, it likely would have gone down as one of the greatest in Lolla history.

I remain firm in my conviction that The Lemon Twigs are a band to watch, and they delivered yet again on Friday with another stunning set that hopefully won them many new fans.

Then there’s the always reliable Run the Jewels, who continue to assert their dominance with every performance. While they didn’t bring any special guests with them, they did pull some random guy up from the crowd with a sign asking if he could rap “Legend Has It”. The whole thing was a blast, really.

Saturday saw a very accomplished set from Highly Suspect, a band that on record might seem like your typical alt-rock fare these days but who are secretly hiding guitar skills so impressive that even some of the greats would probably approve.

And I have to compliment Mac DeMarco for a typically bizarre and hilarious set that ended with a couple of covers for which he didn’t know the lyrics (Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” and The Champs’ “Tequila”), and the obtuse noise pollution that is “Chamber of Reflection”.

Overall though, it felt like Lollapalooza saved the best for last, since Sunday was packed with remarkable performances. Lo Moon managed to impress and give me chills with their ambitious and ambient epics.

Joseph seemed to be having a blast as their incredible vocal harmonies sounded even better in person and gave life to tired bodies.

Car Seat Headrest continues to evolve as a live band, often switching things up on the recorded versions of tracks to take them down interesting detours.

The Shins have also grown significantly since I last saw them a few years back, seeming more at home in their own skins, having fun and running through a set list that includes almost all of their best songs.

Finally, Arcade Fire put a nice little bow on the entire four days with a strong performance and set list that pulled from across their entire catalog. Let’s just say they were wise to minimize the number of songs played from their unfocused new album Everything Now.

So that about wraps up my thoughts on Lollapalooza 2017. It was a pretty good time this year, as it is just about every year, even when the music wasn’t quite up to par. Let’s hope they literally get their acts together and do a better job with booking for 2018, tough as that has to be in the current 4-day structure. At least everything else ran smoothly and resulted in few to no inconveniences for those who knew what they were doing. Will I be back again next year? Probably, out of tradition mostly, but it’s my sincere hope that maybe one of these days they’ll finally manage to assemble one of the greatest festivals of all time.

Album Review: The Shins – Port of Morrow [Columbia/Aural Apothecary]

Hard to believe it’s been eight years since Natalie Portman told Zach Braff that The Shins would “change your life” during a key scene in the little indie film that could Garden State. Since then, so much has happened. Braff’s career has flamed out, Natalie Portman’s has not, and The Shins all but disappeared for awhile courtesy of Danger Mouse. Yes, after their early 2007 album Wincing the Night Away became Sub Pop’s biggest selling record ever, James Mercer stepped away from the project to focus on collaborating with Danger Mouse on a side project known as Broken Bells. Obsessive Shins devotees would follow Mercer anywhere of course, and the 60s-styled psych-pop jams that populated the self-titled LP and Meyrin Fields EP made it pretty easy to pick up new fans as well. After the first couple years some began to wonder whether The Shins would ever return, and Mercer didn’t exactly make any promises. Adding fuel to the fire was Mercer’s announcement that keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval had left the band, with Sandoval later claiming he was flat out fired. Whatever actually happened there, the loss of those two amicable and talented musicians would appear to not bode well for whatever The Shins might choose to do in the future. Yet Mercer has always been the man behind the name, writing and piecing together most of the songs on his own anyways.

The return of The Shins finally became imminent last summer, when it was announced the band would be releasing new music and touring “soon”. The new lineup was also revealed, which included Richard Swift, Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer, former Crystal Skulls member Yuuki Matthews and guitarist Jessica Dobson. After five years away, The Shins are finally back with a new album called Port of Morrow. Listening to it, somehow it feels like they never left. This is a record entirely ignorant of time and trends, simply seeking to do exactly what The Shins do best – provide straightforward and catchy indie pop. It makes perfect sense that the album’s first single is called “Simple Song”, because it comes as advertised. The ease at which the song draws you close and plants its hooks firmly within your ears is impressive. Mercer doesn’t need any flash or innovation to come up with something excellent, instead preying on our innate love of easily digestible melodies. It helps that the album is produced by Greg Kurstin, a guy known for taking overblown songs and turning them into something warm and friendly to listen to. Instead of “The Rifle’s Spiral” crushing you with its sheer size, keyboards plink and sparkle, handclaps pepper the background, and Mercer plays the gooey and calm center of it all with his vocals. That balance between grandiose and intimate is not an easy thing to achieve, and Kurstin does an exceptional job with it.

Of course no great record is based solely on the work of a talented producer, and Port of Morrow is no exception. Mercer has always been a dynamo in his own right, and previous Shins outings like Oh, Inverted World! and Chutes Too Narrow prove that without question. Listen closely to past gems like “New Slang” and “Kissing the Lipless” to truly get a grasp on the man’s penchant for clever wordplay that sometimes lacks common sense. “When they’re parking the cars on your chest, you’ve still got a view of the summer sky,” is one such confusing gem from “Know Your Onion!”. Wincing the Night Away had plenty of things in common with the band’s previous two albums, but it was a far darker and more personal record that felt less lyrically adventurous on the whole. A few years and middle age appear to have brought Mercer back to writing about characters again, and though they may not always be the most positive songs, the tempo and pacing are far better than they were the last time around. Even a relatively plain-sounding folk song like “September” gets a huge boost thanks to lines like, “Love is the ink in the well/when her body writes.” The Billy Joel-esque “Fall of ’82” might be considered a little too adult contemporary for some, but its message about friends helping you through troubled times is very well handled and softens the somewhat piddling melody. Sometimes the opposite is true though, as on “For A Fool”, where a Beach House-styled slow waltz only loses a slight bit of its potency due to the clunky hook of, “Taken for a fool/yes I was/because I was a fool.” Perhaps the most fascinating song on the entire record is the title track, which is one part psychedelic experiment and another part torch song. The mixture of the two styles is very well done, as are the lyrics which while obtuse are visually stimulating.

There’s a certain point in an artist’s career where you know they’ve officially gone from indie superstars to mainstream darlings. For The Shins, that moment fully arrived with the release of Wincing the Night Away. It was a steady but strong rise to the occasion, and one that was peppered with disappointment for those that gave a careful listen to the record. They may have still been signed to Sub Pop at the time, but the popularity of that album despite its many faults really suggested the band was headed towards the fate of relatively bland pop-rock a la Death Cab for Cutie. The five year break James Mercer took from the project and the comparatively difficult music Broken Bells made during that time apparently did great things for The Shins. The change in lineup and producers may have been a smart move too, because Port of Morrow is the best record Mercer has put out since 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow. To do it, they didn’t even have to get weird or make significant adjustments to their sound. A great record doesn’t require innovation provided it’s well structured and well written, and The Shins have done both in this case. If they keep this up, they may actually change a lot more lives in the near future, including their own.

Buy Port of Morrow from Amazon

Click past the jump to stream the entire album (for a limited time only):

Album Review: Mister Heavenly – Out of Love [Sub Pop]

Joe Plummer is a busy man. For a drummer, that’s not typically the case. Unless you’re a Josh Freese or a Matt Cameron, typically drumming jobs don’t just land on your doorstep. That’s probably more due to drummers being viewed as “outcasts” in most bands, aka the person that groupies least want to sleep with. Here are some fun drummer jokes you can use in your every day life. What’s the last thing a drummer says in a band? Hey guys, why don’t we try one of my songs. What do you call a drummer with half a brain? Gifted. How many drummers does it take to change a light bulb? None, they have a machine to do that now. Okay, enough with the drummer jokes. The point being, brilliant and in-demand drummers are moderately hard to come by, so if you can find one, hang on to him or her even if it means sharing with another band. Such is the situation Joe Plummer now finds himself in. Up until this point, you know him as the drummer for Modest Mouse. Last week, it was announced that he was also the drummer for James Mercer’s revived edition of The Shins, recruited after Mercer fired all the other guys in the band. Last but certainly not least comes Mister Heavenly. A bonified indie supergroup side project, Plummer teams up with Honus Honus (Ryan Kattner) of Man Man as well as Nick Thorburn of Islands/The Unicorns. After announcing their existence and recording a debut album late last fall, they went on a short winter tour that attracted a lot of attention due to actor Michael Cera consistently showing up to play bass. Cera is not an official member of the band, nor does he appear on the Mister Heavenly record “Out of Love”. It’s taken several months to fully work out the details and such, but that full length is finally available in stores and seeks to establish a whole new genre of music that the trio have dubbed “doom wop”.

Technically speaking, “doom wop” is more a state of mind than it is an actual sound. But really you can get away with calling it a little musical subgenre of its own, melding the sounds of 50s R&B music with a touch of grunge here and even a light bit of pop there. The doom part comes in terms of thematics, as the lyrics tend to lean on the darker side of life and tackling topics from mass murder through failed relationships. Upbeat and cheery is not what Mister Heavenly is all about. Similarly, if you closely examine the back catalogues of each of the members of the band, from Island and The Unicorns through Man Man and Modest Mouse, you can definitely hear bits and pieces of all those stretched across “Out of Love”. Despite these familiarities, there’s definitely something about Mister Heavenly that remains distinctive and difficult to put your finger on. Perhaps that’s because in spite of the sonic fusion this trio tries to put together, establishing a genuine consistency across 12 tracks becomes a problem. To move from the driving guitar-heavy stomp of opening track “Bronx Sniper” into the feathery barroom piano of “I Am A Hologram” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense sonically, nor does the distinct 50s throwback song “Mister Heavenly” moving into the 80s-synth-and-surf-rock blend of “Harm You”. 50s R&B may have been the original template these guys were working from, but they divert from it a handful of times on the album and it breaks up the cohesion just enough to be noticeable.

The lack of uniformity across “Out of Love” doesn’t automatically make it a bad record though. Taken as individual tracks, most of these songs are catchy and interesting and often weird. A song like “Pineapple Girl”, so fun and delightful on its instrumental surface, is about the correspondence between Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and a 10-year-old girl from Michigan. “Diddy Eyes” was inspired by NBA basketball player Rolando Blackman and how his eyes resemble Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ distinctive eyes. Retro sci-fi strikes hard on “I Am A Hologram”, partly about what the title suggests, but also using the technology to suggest a lack of being physically or emotionally present in a relationship. As they are in so many songs, relationships are the topic du jour, though they’re typically not reflected in a positive light. “Hold My Hand” is basically about a deranged guy that holds a woman captive in the hopes that she’ll fall in love with him. Meanwhile “Your Girl” involves a guy trying to steal his friend’s girlfriend, deviously plotting ways to win her over. It’s loosely charming in spite of its sheer disregard for convention, and that in effect applies to the entire record.

The entire Mister Heavenly project has been in the works for years now, with plans hatched but never any real time to devote to it. Things were so loosely put together anyways, the guys originally planning to record a couple songs for a 7 inch single or something and going from there, but over a brief period of time between Thorburn and Honus they realized there was enough material for a full album. That’s now become “Out of Love”, and the results are merely okay. Yet this trio seems like they wouldn’t have a problem with their record being called mediocre. Okay, they likely would, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have allowed it to be released. The point is, don’t take this record too seriously. Think of it as three friends messing around in the studio, coming up with something enjoyable they can release and tour around, and nothing more. All these guys do much better work in their main bands/day jobs. This may be a supergroup, but it’s also a side project and pretty much demands to be treated as such. The closer you listen, the more faults you’re likely to find. Take it with a grain of salt and you’ll have a great time listening to this album.

Mister Heavenly – Bronx Sniper
Mister Heavenly – Pineapple Girl

Buy “Out of Love” from Amazon

Live Friday: 8-13-10

Live Friday this week features a session from Broken Bells. If you’re not in the know, Broken Bells is the duo of James Mercer of The Shins and Danger Mouse. Their self-titled debut album was released this past March to what might be classified as moderately great reviews. There’s an exceptionally smooth 60’s-ish vibe to the whole thing, and while it is somewhat unexpected for the pair, it does work well. Almost as proof positive of that, in addition to playing a bunch of songs from their album, they also do a cover of the 60s hit “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells. It fits in to the point where you’d think it was a Broken Bells original. So that’s good, the rest of the songs are as well, recorded live in Philadelphia. There’s a little bit of an interview as well, and if you want to hear it the link to stream it is available below.

Broken Bells, Live in Philadelphia 6-6-10:
Broken Bells – The Ghost Inside (Live in Philadelphia)
Broken Bells – Crimson and Clover (Live in Philadelphia)
Broken Bells – The High Road (Live in Philadelphia)
Broken Bells – Vaporize (Live in Philadelphia)
Broken Bells – Mongrel Heart (Live in Philadelphia)

Stream the entire interview/performance

Buy “Broken Bells” from Amazon

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